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Key Findings

For the better part of a decade, the performance drag of fossil fuel investments has been substantial.

Vanguard lags its peers on climate.

Vanguard could champion investors' best long-term interests by applying a coal exit policy to all of its funds.

Executive Summary

Vanguard Group Inc. (“Vanguard”), the mutual fund giant with over US$7.2 trillion in assets under management (AuM) has committed to the Net Zero Asset Managers Initiative, publicly pledging to slash its emissions by 2030 and achieve net zero emissions across all of its investment products by 2050.

Considering Vanguard’s significant share and bond holdings in fossil fuel exposed companies, and its corporate governance record to date, Vanguard has historically demonstrated a passive attitude towards climate change.

Without any formal coal exit policy and no proactive plans to address environmental issues, the group also appears to be significantly trailing its peers on the road to net zero.

The group appears to be significantly trailing its peers on the road to net zero

As the largest shareholder of almost every listed company in the United States (Vanguard averages a 9.6% stake across companies in the S&P 500), the group holds enormous power to shape management decisions which reduce climate impact and enforce accountability against these goals. By and large however, studies have demonstrated that Vanguard has sided with management on the vast majority of shareholder propositions, and last year, the group opposed all of the Climate Action 100+ climate-critical votes which were proposed.

Defending Vanguard’s climate record and reluctance to take a more active governance role, representatives for the group have insisted that climate change is a priority for the company… however “they preferred to engage with companies rather than telling them what to do.” Yet over 2020, Vanguard only reported engaging with 655 of the ~13,000 companies it owns (5%). State Street, who holds less than half Vanguard’s assets under management, engaged with over 2,400 and BlackRock engaged with over 3,000 (~24%).

With a portfolio of funds containing an estimated US$300 billion in fossil fuel exposure, with US$90 billion in thermal coal, this passive approach to governance and climate is coming at a rising cost to investors in Vanguard products.

The performance drag of fossil fuel investments has been substantial

For the better part of a decade, the performance drag of fossil fuel investments has been substantial. Take for example Vanguard’s largest fund, the Total Market Index Fund (VTI) which has over US$1.2 trillion in AuM (>15% of Vanguard’s total assets, and coincidentally the world’s largest fund). Since January 2020, the VTI underperformed by ~5.6% versus a comparable benchmark which excludes fossil fuels. A significant amount of value has already been destroyed in the >US$1.2 trillion in investments in the fund. This may only be the beginning of profound wealth destruction, as financial losses (for instance, related to damages and insurance) are only expected to escalate as more extreme weather events more frequently occur.

Vanguard Can Be a Laggard or a Climate Leader

Public opinion polls conducted by Gallup have demonstrated that the majority (60%) of the U.S. population is in favor of policies and proposals which dramatically reduce the use of fossil fuels. Passive fund managers have a choice of products they offer investors and removing fossil fuel exposure in Vanguard’s funds would not be as difficult as it would appear.

Removing fossil fuel exposure in Vanguard’s funds would not be as difficult as it would appear

In the Prospectus for Vanguard’s U.S. Index Large Capitalization funds, a change of investment strategy is provided for, requiring only approval by the board. In the case of Vanguard’s Total Stock Market Fund (VTI) which holds over US$1.2 trillion in AuM, removal of fossil fuel exposure would be even easier. The fund invests by sampling the index. Therefore, removing the ~6% fossil fuel exposure (almost immediately) would be reasonably straightforward.

Despite a slow start on environmental, social and governance (ESG) offerings, Vanguard could adopt a more innovative strategy and make ESG-compliant index products a default offering. Vanguard could also champion investor’s best longterm interests by applying a coal exit policy to all of its funds.

This report reviews both Vanguard’s active and passive portfolio products and details the impact which has resulted from holding fossil fuels. The report reviews Vanguard’s attitude and policies toward corporate governance and its overall transparency to date, and suggests that better corporate governance has a positive correlation with shareholder risk adjusted returns.

As an alternative to investment in open-ended stewardship and engagement strategies, the report reviews how relatively easy it would be for Vanguard to progressively exit fossil fuels and demonstrates that the structure of the group allows changes to more easily occur as compared with its peers.

Finally, the report benchmarks the Big 3 global indexers – BlackRock, State Street and Vanguard - and suggests that on climate and ESG commitments, Vanguard appears to be under-performing its peers. Vanguard has no coal exit policy, and its voting record and investor stewardship efforts indicate climate is not a priority. In contrast with BlackRock and State Street, Vanguard appears to lack any core competency in analyzing or addressing the dramatic impact of physical and transition climate risks on financial assets, or even in engagement. To date, Vanguard’s policies, which are presented in their engagement and Investment Stewardship reports, suggest the company has yet to understand the financial case outlined by the May 2021 IEA Roadmap to Net Zero that outlines in full the urgent steps needed, and which are now being taken by their global peers.

As recent signatories to the Net Zero Asset Manager initiative, Vanguard has committed to “implement a stewardship and engagement strategy that is consistent with ambitions for all assets under management to achieve net zero emissions by 2050 or sooner.”


IEEFA suggests the following as recommendations for meeting Vanguard’s commitments to the Net Zero Asset Managers initiative:

  • Commit to a coal exit policy which phases out thermal coal and coal power from all portfolios, with a particular focus on any firm building new capacity.
  • Adopt index benchmarks for all funds to progressively reduce exposure to fossil fuels.
  • Adopt investment stewardship guidelines which prioritize addressing climate risk. This means not just disclosing climate risk, but supporting activities which address climate-related business risks.
  • Provide transparency around company engagements, particularly those concerning climate with time-limits and consequences.

Please view full report PDF for references and sources.

Trista Rose

Former Analyst Trista Rose has worked for investment banks in London, New York and Sydney and was part of the proprietary trading team at Macquarie bank. Trista has degrees from the University of Queensland, University of Oxford and is now pursuing a Master’s in Sustainability at University of Sydney.

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Tim Buckley

Tim Buckley, Director, Climate Energy Finance (CEF) has 30 years of financial market experience covering the Australian, Asian and global equity markets from both a buy and sell side perspective. Tim was formerly Director Energy Finance Studies, Australia/South Asia, IEEFA, and was a Managing Director, Head of Equity Research at Citigroup for 17 years until 2008.

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