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EU lobbying by fund groups fuels fears over vested interest

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When BlackRock was awarded prestigious consulting work by the US Federal Reserve and the European Commission last year, the win represented much more than a financial coup for the world’s largest asset manager.

Its appointment to run the Fed’s coronavirus-induced bond-buying programme and its contract to produce a report on EU sustainability rules helped cement the $7.8tn fund group’s close ties with global policymakers.

BlackRock’s growing influence on the public stage is a sign of the times. After long being overshadowed by banks, asset managers are increasingly in the spotlight due to the sector’s huge growth since the 2008 financial crisis. This has prompted them to forge closer links with important decision makers and ramp up lobbying.

“The prestige and respect that Goldman Sachs used to enjoy has been taken over by BlackRock, which is now given the red carpet treatment and shown into the corridors of powers,” said Kenneth Haar, a researcher at Brussels-based campaign group Corporate Europe Observatory. “This comes on the back of asset managers increasing their presence on the lobbying front.”

BlackRock met 31 European Commission officials between 2014 and the end of 2020, according to EU figures that capture both private meetings and roundtables organised on Brussels’ initiative. In addition, over the six-year period to the end of 2019, its estimated EU lobbying spend increased more than 300 per cent, filings analysed by EU LobbyFacts show.

Vanguard, the world’s second-largest investment manager, boosted its lobbying spend by 400 per cent over the period, according to its maximum estimate, while Capital Group and Fidelity International have also increased their resources.

Stepped up lobbying is explained by a desire to provide input into the wave of new rules that have come the sector’s way over the past decade on everything from systemic risk to environmental, social and governance investing.

“In the past the sellside was more dominant in policy debates,” said Victor van Hoorn, a Brussels-based lobbyist. “But now asset managers recognise that they are the best ones to defend their interests.”

Tanguy van de Werve, director-general of the European Fund and Asset Management Association, the sector’s European lobby group, said being part of the policy conversation helped shape good rulemaking. “[Our role] is to raise questions around the practicability and market impacts of some of the detailed rules being proposed,” he said.

However, the growing presence of fund groups in Brussels is fuelling concerns that a handful of powerful companies may be exerting outsized influence on rulemaking.

These concerns came to the surface when politicians and green campaigners decried BlackRock’s appointment to advise on EU sustainability rules in light of its holdings in European banks and fossil fuel companies. The EU’s independent ombudsman subsequently instructed Brussels to review its conflicts of interest rules.

BlackRock’s work for the commission was carried out by its Financial Markets Advisory arm, a distinct consultancy unit within the company that advises central banks and governments. BlackRock says its public policy activity, housed in a separate part of its business, is aimed at “publishing and sharing data to support well-functioning capital markets”.

The commission says it applied EU procurement rules “fully and fairly”, adding that it selected BlackRock due to the technical quality of its offer. It published the first part of BlackRock’s work in December to ensure transparency.

Mr Haar, who was part of the coalition that asked the EU ombudsman to investigate the BlackRock contract, says the case highlights the danger of policymakers basing their decisions on the views of private companies that have their own financial interests at heart.

“Technical expertise is not always neutral,” he said. “It’s risky for the commission to rely on expertise from a sector they are supposed to regulate.”

Adrienne Buller of think-tank Common Wealth says the increasingly concentrated nature of the asset management industry is another reason for vigilance around the sector’s sway over policymakers. “When there are a few extremely dominant players that have a loud voice in terms of lobbying, it becomes problematic,” she said.

The BlackRock controversy also underlines the sensitivity around asset managers’ influence over ESG rulemaking. The EU has sought to position itself as a leader in this area and is rolling out a swath of new regulations aimed at tackling climate change and transitioning to a more sustainable economy.

While most asset managers have voiced support for the initiative, which includes a classification system for green investments and rules on fund groups’ disclosure of ESG risks, recent research by environmental non-profit group InfluenceMap paints a different picture.

InfluenceMap found that groups including UBS, BlackRock, Invesco and BNY Mellon had either responded cautiously to elements of the proposed rules or sought to weaken them. It cited attempts to water down the application of the rules or block proposals such as extending asset managers’ fiduciary duty to cover ESG.

In response to the report, UBS, BlackRock, Invesco and BNY Mellon said they welcomed policy action on sustainable finance. UBS added that the research “[did] not reflect the full breadth” of its activities, while Invesco said it believed sustainable finance rules should balance ambition and reality in order to “crowd in investors rather than crowding them out of the market”.

“In many cases it seems that the financial sector is taking less ambitious positions,” said Rebecca Vaughan, analyst at InfluenceMap. “By attempting to weaken the regulations in little bits, [asset managers] are playing into the hands of the energy sector, which has a much more oppositional stance.”

InfluenceMap also identified asset managers that are using their voice to push for more progressive ESG rules. It singled out BNP Paribas Asset Management, Aviva Investors and French co-operative bank BPCE — which owns Natixis Asset Management and Mirova — as being positively engaged on the issues.

Mr van de Werve said asset managers’ contribution to the debate on ESG rules did not diminish the industry’s commitment to sustainability. “Being on the receiving end of many new sustainable finance regulations and having to implement them, it is legitimate to make our views known.”

Environmental campaign groups also exert influence over policymakers and are represented on the expert group established by the commission to advise on the next stage of its sustainable finance strategy.

The commission says it makes policy choices independently, taking into account exchanges with and feedback from all relevant stakeholders. “[We] always seek to ensure a balance between different stakeholder groups” when bringing together expert panels, it said.

However, Mr Haar said that how the EU approaches the next batch of ESG rules would be a test of its commitment to fair rulemaking. “We can either end up with a set of rules everyone has to follow or have a voluntary approach with standards developed by the financial sector itself,” he said.

Given the growing influence of asset managers in Brussels, he is concerned that the EU may be about to go down the second route. “The jury is still out on whether the regulatory process is captured. [But] in the past investment fund managers have been extremely successful in setting the agenda.”



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Berlin under fire over attempt to interfere with Wirecard inquiry

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Germany’s finance ministry has come under fire over an attempt to secretly interfere with the questioning of a key witness during a parliamentary inquiry into Wirecard, a potential breach of parliamentary etiquette.

The collapse of the German payments company last summer sent shockwaves through Germany’s financial and political elite. A parliamentary inquiry has exposed multiple regulatory failures and led to the departure of the heads of three supervisory agencies.

Days ahead of Friday’s final parliamentary debate on the committee’s final report, the finance ministry disclosed that one of its senior officials tried to intervene in the inquiry’s work in the run-up to the questioning of Munich chief prosecutor Hildegard Bäumler-Hösl, a key witness.

The government revealed this in a written answer to a question raised by Fabio De Masi, an MP for the hard-left Die Linke party, which was seen by the Financial Times.

The ministerial official was not named, but can be identified by the description of his role, as Reinhard Wolpers, the head of the subdivision financial market stability. Wolpers is one of three finance ministry employees who are members of BaFin’s administrative council. The finance ministry declined to comment on his identity.

In the run-up to the questioning of Bäumler-Hösl in January, Wolpers approached BaFin’s then-vice president, Elisabeth Roegele, and asked her to provide questions for Bäumler-Hösl which he then would pass on to MPs.

The government has no constitutional role in the inquiry, which is being pursued by parliament and has powers akin to a court. Moreover, Roegele was also nominated as a witness and had not yet been questioned by MPs at that point. She was forced out of her job by the government alongside President Felix Hufeld in late January.

“Wolpers’ behaviour is a clear violation of rules,” De Masi told the Financial Times, adding that the government official showed a “lack of respect for the Bundestag”.

BaFin and Munich prosecutors are embroiled in a blame game over the controversial 2019 short selling ban which investors regarded as a vote of confidence in the disgraced company. BaFin imposed the ban after receiving information from Munich prosecutors about an allegedly imminent short selling attack against Wirecard.

Several BaFin employees told MPs that Munich prosecutors had stated that the information was highly credible. Bäumler-Hösl denied that and said she just passed it on to BaFin without commenting about its validity.

The short-selling ban is potentially toxic for German finance minister Olaf Scholz, who is the Social Democrats’ candidate for chancellor in September’s federal election.

The finance ministry scolded the watchdog publicly for the short selling ban, saying it was based on poor and insufficient analysis.

The ministry’s response to De Masi disclosed that Wolpers approached Roegele via email and text messages days ahead of Bäumler-Hösl’s testimony. The ministry said Wolpers “acted upon his own, personal initiative and did not co-ordinate with other employees of the finance ministry”. It added that the executive level “at no point” was informed about the behaviour but only became aware of the matter because of De Masi’s inquiry.

“The communication of [our] employee with Ms Roegele was eventually without a result, as Ms Roegele did not submit such suggestions for questions,” the ministry said, adding that “no information” was passed on to members of the inquiry committee from the ministry.

Lisa Paus, a Green MP, said that the “authority of the finance ministry” was misused for the political interest of the Social Democrats. “That’s an absolute no-go.”

Florian Toncar, an MP for the pro-business Free Democrats, said that it would be “very surprising” if Wolpers’ actions were “not approved or even requested by the ministry’s senior level”.

Jens Zimmermann, SPD representative on the inquiry, said he was unable to comment on internal procedures at the ministry “as I don’t have any insights [into them]”, adding that his only contact was with the ministry’s official representatives in the committee. “I did not receive any suggestions for potential questions to Ms Bäumler-Hösl,” Zimmermann said.

Wolpers and Roegele did not respond to FT requests for comment. Munich prosecutors declined to comment.



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UK exporters get more than £12bn in government financial aid

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UK exporters have been given more than £12bn in state financial support to keep Britain trading with the rest of the world through Brexit and the pandemic.

UK Export Finance, the government’s export credit agency, provided British businesses with the highest level of financial support in 30 years in the 12 months to the end of March, according to its annual report published on Wednesday. This is almost treble the amount from the previous financial year, to help exports to 77 countries.

The agency aims to support viable UK exports with loan guarantees, insurance and direct lending to help them win, fulfil and get paid for international business where there are gaps in private sector provision. 

UKEF provided more than £7bn in support to companies disrupted by the pandemic, such as Rolls-Royce, Ford, easyJet and British Airways, with a mixture of trade guarantees and insurance to encourage private sector lending to exporters.

It also helped exporters facing Brexit risks, for example providing a £480m guarantee on a £600m commercial loan in March 2021 after a carmaker committed operations to the UK. 

UK exporters, especially smaller businesses, have complained about extensive red tape and costs arising from trading with the EU after Brexit.

Many have also warned that the trade deals struck by the government have yielded little benefit so far, instead causing them to rejig operations and move production and distribution overseas.

“We are opening up the world’s fastest-growing markets through the trade deals we are negotiating so that the UK can recover as quickly as possible from the pandemic,” said minister for exports Graham Stuart.

Support through finance and guarantees was given to 549 companies, more than double the number helped over the previous two years.

The agency also underwrote its largest ever civil infrastructure project, with £1.7bn in guarantees to build two monorail lines in Cairo and provide the trains, the first such exports in more than 12 years.

The export agency is now planning to increase its coverage of businesses focused on zero carbon initiatives. 

Stuart will say on Wednesday that UKEF will create a renewables, energy and carbon management team to underwrite activity across sectors such as wind power, solar, green hydrogen, grid resilience and decommissioning. UKEF has also committed to ending support for new fossil fuel projects overseas. 

Last year, UKEF launched a new scheme to encourage trade after Brexit and for small businesses to take advantage of new trade agreements.

Under this, exporters could apply for larger loans from the UK’s five high street banks backed by an 80 per cent guarantee that can be used both to cover costs linked to exports and also to scale up business operations.

Marcus Dolman, co-chairman of the British Exporters’ Association, said that such new products were “already proving their value to UK exporters and to supporting UK jobs”.



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What unites and divides Germany’s potential coalition partners

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Guten Morgen and welcome to Europe Express.

Germany’s election season is kicking into gear and both Angela Merkel’s centre-right CDU/CSU and the up-and-coming Greens have published their election manifestos. With polls indicating the two parties could end up bedfellows in the first post-Merkel government, we compare their Europe-related policies.

The Uefa Euro 2020 football championship is in full swing and gripping fans across the continent. But we explore a darker reality that has spilled out in stadiums and pitches: culture wars.

In Luxembourg, EU affairs ministers meet today to prepare for a summit, hear the latest on EU-Swiss relations and discuss the rule of law in Hungary and Poland.

This article is an on-site version of our Europe Express newsletter. Sign up here to get the newsletter sent straight to your inbox every weekday morning

Berlin calling

Germany’s ruling Christian Democratic Union and its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union, have laid out their joint election manifesto after the Greens published theirs in past weeks. It is well worth looking at what unites and divides the potential government allies in the post-Merkel era.

In brief, the CDU/CSU wants to return to how things were before the coronavirus pandemic, especially on fiscal rules and the sacrosanct schwarze Null (a balanced budget). They seem lukewarm on disruptive digital and green policies and made a libertarian push for a retreat of the state from many areas of society under the motto: “throwing money at problems isn’t always the best way to solve them”.

Meanwhile, the Greens have put forward a transformational plan. Their ambition is to turn Germany into a carbon-neutral economy in the next 20 years. Here are three areas to watch closely:

Debt and spending 

  • The CDU/CSU have insisted that once the pandemic is over, so should be any relaxation of fiscal rules. They support the EU’s unprecedented, mutual-debt-fuelled €800bn recovery plan, but say it should be a one-off. They oppose consistent debt mutualisation across the bloc. (Here is Armin Laschet’s take in an interview with the FT)

  • The Greens are less dogmatic about what other EU nations should do in terms of borrowing. They even suggest a relaxation of Germany’s debt brake to allow public investment in schools and infrastructure, to be financed with more debt. 

Climate goals

  • The CDU/CSU have embraced the goal of CO2 neutrality by 2045 and a 65 per cent cut in carbon emissions by 2030. But there are caveats for some industries and climate activists have pointed to inconsistencies and omissions in the conservative parties’ manifesto — notably their vague commitments on a “stable, fair and transparent” price for carbon.

  • The Greens are seeking to raise the carbon price to up to €60 per tonne in 2023, along with subsidies and incentives to cushion the social impact of a greener economy. 

Europe and foreign policy

  • The CDU/CSU were more dovish on China and Russia and they failed to mention the controversial Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline. The Greens were more hawkish and maintained their opposition to the pipeline for environmental and geopolitical reasons (they worry about circumventing Ukraine, depriving it of transit revenues, and increasing energy dependence on Russia).

  • Both the CDU/CSU and the Greens favour majority voting in EU foreign policy, replacing the current model of unanimity. The Greens would also abolish the need for unanimous EU decision-making on taxation.

The September 26 election result will determine how much of these manifestos get translated into actual policy — and how much one or both political groups will have to compromise.

Chart du jour: Europe’s Covid bill

Bar chart of Government debt as GDP (%) showing National debt in Eurozone countries spiked in 2020

Public debt in the eurozone rose 14.1 per cent in 2020 compared with the previous year, the biggest leap in two decades, driven by the pandemic. Greece and Spain have recorded the biggest single increase in debt loads, while Ireland only recorded a marginal increase.

Beautiful game, uglier realities

International football’s biennial jamborees usually offer a few weeks of summer escapism for avid fans and newbies alike, writes Mehreen Khan in Brussels.

But this year’s European championships have become an extension of the psychodramas and culture wars that dominate political life on the continent.

The list of controversies runs long (and we are only 11 days in). Last month, France’s far-right kicked off a movement to boycott Les Bleus over a rap song. In England, the national team has defied criticism in the tabloid press by continuing to take the knee in support of Black Lives Matter, despite jeering from some of their own fans. 

Further east, Ukraine’s football association was ordered by governing body Uefa to partly modify its kit design. Russia had complained that the jersey included a map of Crimea, which Moscow annexed in 2014.

Greece has also complained to Uefa about neighbouring North Macedonia using the acronym “MKD”. The Greeks (who didn’t qualify for the tournament) say the abbreviation violates the terms of the 2018 agreement under which Macedonia changed its name to North Macedonia.

The latest conflagration came this weekend, when German captain and goalkeeper Manuel Neuer became the subject of an investigation by Uefa for wearing a rainbow armband in support of LGBT+ rights. News of the probe prompted senior EU officials to express support for the player.

The inquiry has since been dropped by the governing body, which concluded that the armband did not constitute a breach of its rules prohibiting the display of “political symbols”. 

Neuer’s Germany faces off tomorrow against Hungary, where LGBT+ rights have come under political assault from Viktor Orban’s ultranationalist government. Munich’s Allianz arena is preparing to welcome the visitors by lighting up the stadium in rainbow colours.

Separately, Uefa on Sunday said it was investigating “potential discriminatory incidents” during Hungary’s two opening matches in Budapest, where TV images captured homophobic banners among the 55,000-strong crowd. Monkey chants were also reportedly directed at French players on Saturday. 

Brussels risks getting ensnared in the politicisation of the world’s most popular game. EU diplomats have told Europe Express that the incoming Slovenian presidency, led by rightwing prime minister Janez Jansa, wants leaders to sign off on summit conclusions this week on the governance of sport. 

Under the banner of the European Way of Life, Jansa is pushing for leaders to agree language “reaffirming the uniqueness of the organisation of sport in Europe”. The request has baffled diplomats, particularly as the EU has little legal authority over sport.

Slovenian diplomats said the push was needed to prevent schisms such as the scuppered European Super League that rocked world football earlier this year. Jansa also has a long-running grudge against his compatriot and president of Uefa Aleksander Ceferin, often taking to Twitter to send pointed jibes at football’s governing chief.

Between all the spats and controversies, viewers could be forgiven for forgetting that some football is also going on.

In the dock

Poland and Hungary will be in the spotlight during ministerial meetings in Luxembourg today as member state ministers discuss Article 7 procedures against the two countries, writes Sam Fleming in Brussels.

These procedures allow the European Commission, European parliament or member states to take action against countries for serious breaches of the rule of law under threat of punishments such as the suspension of EU voting rights.

The commission triggered the process against Poland in 2017, while the parliament launched it against Hungary the following year.

In Poland, incursions into judicial independence have continued, as have apparent threats to the primacy of EU law. In Hungary, there are mounting concerns about the judiciary, anti-corruption frameworks, media pluralism and human rights. Last week, Hungary passed an anti-LGBT+ law that sparked criticism from rights groups. The commission said it would look into whether the legislation breached EU laws.

Nevertheless, the two countries can shield each other from punishments under the Article 7 regime by wielding their vetoes. The question ahead is whether the commission can obtain better results by deploying powers agreed last year to withhold EU funds over breaches of vital principles.

Commission vice-president Vera Jourova is due to address the ministers in the General Affairs Council, setting out the state of play in both countries.

“The last hearing on Poland took place in December 2018 and on Hungary in December 2019, and many things happened since then,” she told Europe Express. “Unfortunately most of them continued to raise our concerns.”

What to watch today

  1. EU affairs ministers meet in Luxembourg

  2. Germany’s chancellor Angela Merkel receives European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen in Berlin

Notable, Quotable

  • United front: French politicians from left to right have persuaded a Green candidate to withdraw from the second round of regional elections on Sunday. The move is aimed at ensuring that Marine Le Pen’s far-right Rassemblement National does not take control of the southern Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur region.

  • Belarus sanctions: EU foreign ministers approved sanctions against a further 86 individuals and organisations in Belarus and set their sights on industries including finance, potash and petroleum products to put pressure on President Alexander Lukashenko’s regime.

  • Government collapse: In a first for Sweden, the country’s prime minister Stefan Lofven has lost a no-confidence vote in his government. The vote, engineered by rightwing opposition party Sweden Democrats, means Lofven has a week to call an election or build a new ruling coalition.

  • German tech offensive: Germany’s Federal Cartel Office added Apple to the Big Tech companies in its crosshairs, launching a probe into whether the iPhone maker has established market dominance through its “digital ecosystem”.

  • St Schuman: “Founding father” of the EU Robert Schuman may soon become a saint. The former French prime minister was given the title of “venerable” in a decree by Pope Francis over the weekend, which is one of the steps that could lead to sainthood.

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Today’s Europe Express team: sam.fleming@ft.com, mehreen.khan@ft.com, david.hindley@ft.com, valentina.pop@ft.com. Follow us on Twitter: @Sam1Fleming, @MehreenKhn, @valentinapop.





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