August 9, 2019 / 5:26 PM / 4 months ago

Investors embrace ESG investing but don't target gun stocks

BOSTON (Reuters) - Two new BlackRock Inc funds that exclude gun makers are off to slow starts as socially-minded investors embrace other products addressing a wide range of issues like environmental and governance concerns, according to flow data at the world’s largest asset manager.

FILE PHOTO: A woman holds a sign during a rally against guns and white supremacy in the wake of mass shootings in Dayton and El Paso in front of the White House in Washington, U.S., August 6, 2019. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque/File Photo

Investor scrutiny of gun makers picked up after last year’s mass shooting at a Florida high school and has continued through more recent attacks, including in Texas and Ohio last weekend. Some activists have urged asset managers to drop holdings like Sturm Ruger & Co and American Outdoor Brands Corp.

Rather than divest, BlackRock in the spring of 2018 took steps like introducing a pair of gun-free funds to give investors alternatives to traditional products such as the iShares Russell 2000 ETF, which holds 2% of both Sturm Ruger and American Outdoor.

The two new funds have not taken off. The iShares ESG MSCI USA Small-Cap ETF held $52 million as of July 31, dwarfed by the iShares Russell 2000 ETF, with $44 billion. The other, the iShares ESG US Aggregate Bond ETF, had about $69 million.

Both fund totals are “extremely modest,” said Todd Rosenbluth, senior director at research firm CFRA.

At the same time, he said flows to so-called ESG funds have spiked overall as investors focus on subjects like the impact of climate change at energy companies or gender pay disparities at technology firms.

Lipper data shows that together, all iShares ESG funds had net deposits of $3.2 billion during the 12 months ended July 31, with the bulk of that, $2.4 billion, coming during 2019. To be sure, the ESG inflow was a small slice of the $143 billion in net deposits to all iShares funds during the 12-month period.

“Unfortunately, although there have been horrific events of gun violence, it doesn’t seem investors are keeping it top-of-mind,” Rosenbluth said. The overall interest in ESG funds, he said, shows “the investment appeal is broader than any subject that’s being excluded,” he noted.

A BlackRock spokesman did not comment or give details about other steps it has taken, like new gun-free products for pension plans.

Several large banks last year limited financing for gun makers and retailers, but the move had little impact on an industry whose many small manufacturers are able to tap other sources of credit. At gun maker annual meetings last year, top asset managers voted in favor of shareholder calls for safety reports, but also backed directors.

At its annual shareholder meeting this fall, American Outdoor, parent of Smith & Wesson, will face a shareholder call for the company to adopt a “human rights” policy the company says is vague and could expose it to liability.

Morningstar director Jon Hale said worried investors could relax about gun makers that make up tiny fractions of big index funds, which account for most of the gun makers’ top investors. More important is the pressure fund firms can bring on gun makers, he said.

The outcome of owning gun stocks in a diversified index fund, Hale said, “is a de minimis impact on your portfolio.”

Reporting by Ross Kerber; Editing by Dan Grebler

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