Exclusive: Goldman escalates diversity push at portfolio companies; activists want more

0
12
FILE PHOTO: A sign is displayed in the reception of Goldman Sachs in Sydney

By Ross Kerber and Simon Jessop

BOSTON/LONDON (Reuters) – Goldman Sachs Group’s asset-management arm will pressure U.S. companies to appoint more women and members of under-represented groups to their boards, an executive said, but will stop short of setting specific numerical targets for racial and ethnic diversity as some activists urge.

While the bank is not alone on Wall Street in developing such a policy, Goldman carries outsized influence with institutional shareholders as one of the oldest and biggest Wall Street firms. The move also shows the tension between the growing importance of racial justice to investors and the difficulty of effecting social change in the corporate arena.

After pushing companies in its investment portfolio to include at least one woman director since 2019, Goldman Sachs next year wants boards to have a second director from an under-represented background, Catherine Winner, head of stewardship efforts for the $1.8 trillion unit, said in an interview.

For that second spot, Goldman’s definition of diversity includes gender identity, sexual orientation and under-represented race and ethnic groups, and a board with two white women would meet the standard.

Goldman Sachs itself meets the standard based on details in its proxy.

Winner said the change will lead more companies to meet investor expectations. “Escalation draws attention,” she said on Wednesday.

The asset-management arm can exert leverage at companies where it is an important shareholder. The firm casts proxy votes at more than 9,000 corporate annual meetings a year, and last year 25% of its votes against directors were due to a lack of a woman on the board.

Winner said Goldman stopped short of urging companies to add a racially or ethnically diverse director outright because of challenges around obtaining this information. Many companies do not disclose directors’ racial and ethnic make-up, and investors are wrestling with how to judge companies’ progress on diversity without such data.

Some activists want asset managers to set targets. “You can find the data, the data is out there,” said Roel Campos, a former member of the U.S. Securities & Exchange Commission who is now chair of the Latino Corporate Directors Association.

The relative ease of knowing which candidates are female is one reason women have made faster gains in the boardroom. Among the Russell 3000, women hold 23% of board seats, up from 15% in 2016, according to researcher Equilar.

Among top U.S. companies 8% of directors are Black and 5% are Hispanic or Latino, well below the groups’ share of the U.S. population, 13% and 19% respectively.

In an interview this week BlackRock Inc stewardship chief Sandy Boss also cited a lack of data as a reason the largest asset manager will avoid a specific racial or ethnic target in its policy. Nasdaq Inc recently outlined a future listing requirement of one director who self-identifies as female and one who self-identifies as LGBTQ+ or a member of a racial or ethnic minority.

(Reporting by Ross Kerber in Boston and by Simon Jessop in London; Additional reporting by Jessica DiNapoli in New York; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)

tagreuters.com2020binary_LYNXMPEGB907Q-VIEWIMAGE