Meet $VOTE: Channeling Our Values Through Shareholder Engagement

Today, we are excited to announce that we will begin integrating the $VOTE ETF, recently launched by Engine No. 1, into all of Betterment’s Socially Responsible Investing portfolios.

This new ETF invests in 500 of the largest U.S. companies, weighted according to their size, with a management fee of only .05%. You might think that this sounds a lot like a garden variety index fund tracking the S&P 500—a commodity for many years now.

So, why the excitement?

In short, $VOTE represents a highly innovative approach to pushing the economy towards sustainability via index fund investing. It may be “passive” in the traditional sense—buying shares in companies purely based on an index—but it is “active” when it comes to engaging with those companies as a shareholder.

Beyond Divestment: What’s Shareholder Engagement?

Historically, values-aligned investing has often been synonymous with avoiding the purchase of certain stocks—a practice often referred to as “divestment.” The alternative to divestment is “engagement.” By owning a stock, and using your rights to vote on shareholder resolutions, you can attempt to change the company’s activities from the inside.

Vanguard, BlackRock, and State Street—the “Big Three” largest fund managers—are collectively the biggest shareholders in most companies, but have historically been reluctant to rock the boat and aggressively challenge management. As a result, when it comes to investing through index funds, the full potential of shareholder engagement to drive change hasn’t been tapped.

Engine No. 1’s new $VOTE ETF promises to change that. To understand why, it helps to understand the mechanics of how shareholders can push for change.

Proxy Voting

Purchasing stock in a company grants you not just a share of its profits, but also the right to influence its decision-making. This process is called “proxy voting,” which can be a powerful tool with the potential to transform the entire economy, company by company.

Publicly traded companies operate like quasi-democracies, accountable to their shareholders. They hold annual meetings, where shareholders can vote on a number of topics. Shareholders who disagree with some aspect of how a company’s business is conducted can engage with management, and if they feel they aren’t being heard, can present an alternate course of action by making a “shareholder proposal.”

If they can persuade a majority of all shareholders to vote in support of the proposal, they can overrule management. When more drastic change is warranted, such “activist” shareholders can seek to replace management entirely, by nominating their own candidates for the company’s board of directors.

Shareholder Activism: Social Change Through Engagement

Social change via shareholder activism has a storied history. As early as 1951, in a seminal case, civil rights leader James Peck took the fight to the proxy arena, by filing a shareholder proposal with the Greyhound Corporation, recommending that the bus operator abolish segregated seating in the South.

Seventy years later, on May 26, 2021, activist hedge fund Engine No. 1 stunned the corporate world by winning a proxy battle against the current leadership of ExxonMobil, persuading a coalition of shareholders to elect three of its own candidates to the board—the first ever climate-centered case for change.

Engine No. 1 argued that Exxon’s share price was underperforming that of its peers because the company was unprepared for the transition away from fossil fuels. It nominated candidates for the board that would push the oil giant to embrace renewable energy. Against all odds, holding just .02% of Exxon’s stock, Engine No. 1 prevailed.

Corporate boardrooms across the entire S&P 500 are buzzing, asking what the Exxon coup means for them. Where will environmentally and socially conscious investors strike next? These questions are warranted: The Exxon campaign was a first, but it surely won’t be the last.

“Index Activism”: Bringing Power To The People

Individual investors are increasingly aware of proxy voting as a domain by which their portfolios can channel their values. In a recent Morningstar report, 61% of those surveyed said that sustainability should be factored into how votes attributable to their 401(k)s are cast.

However, most Americans, including Betterment customers, don’t buy stock of companies like Greyhound or Exxon directly, but through index funds.

When you buy a share of an index fund, the index fund manager uses your money to buy stocks of companies on your behalf. As a shareholder of the fund, you benefit financially when these underlying stocks rise in value, but the index fund is technically the shareholder of each individual company, and holds the right to participate in each company’s proxy voting process.

As more investors tell the industry that they want their dollars to advance sustainable business practices, the Big Three have been feeling the pressure to work these preferences into their proxy voting practices.

This year, they are showing some signs of change. Notably, the Big Three ultimately joined Engine No. 1’s coalition, which could not have prevailed against Exxon without their support. However, even if the Big Three, who manage trillions on behalf of individual investors, continue to side with the activists, what’s missing is a way for individuals to invest their dollars not just to support these campaigns, but to spearhead them as well.

What Makes $VOTE Special

Activist shareholder campaigns are generally led by hedge funds, and what happened with Exxon was no exception. However, by launching an ETF that anyone can invest in, Engine No. 1 is looking to break that mold.

In 2020, investors poured $50 billion into sustainable index funds—double that of 2019, and ten times that of 2018. The $VOTE ETF should bring even more investors off the sidelines, and into sustainable investing, for two reasons.

First, rather than dilute its efforts, $VOTE intends to spearhead a handful of campaigns, pushing companies to improve their environmental and social practices. A focus on the highest impact, and most powerful narratives, will continue to raise awareness for the power of shareholder activism.

Second, $VOTE is designed for mass adoption, not as a niche strategy. With a management fee of only .05%, and tracking a market cap weighted index, $VOTE is designed to ensure no trade-off to long-term returns. It is also well-suited for those investing for retirement—and as of today, it will make its way into its first ever 401(k) plan, via Betterment for Business.

What Does $VOTE Mean For Investors?

We know that many of our customers want to invest for real impact, especially if they can do so without sacrificing their long-term financial goals. If you’re investing through any of Betterment’s three Socially Responsible Investing portfolios, $VOTE will have a target weight equal to 10% of your exposure to the U.S. stocks.

With $VOTE in your portfolio, you’ll know that your dollars are directly supporting whatever engagements Engine No. 1 launches next. As their subsequent work unfolds, we will be monitoring their efforts, and updating our customers on the impact their investments are driving.

Now that $VOTE exists, anyone—not just Betterment customers—can invest in it, which is a great thing. The bigger it gets, the more it can drive change, and you, as an investor, get to help write the next chapter.

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