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Profits over politics: the case for anti-ESG ETFs

Shareholder activism making inroads into ETF space remains a contentious topic for companies. Proponents of environmental, social and governance (ESG) products say investors are pushing corporations to pay more attention to broader social issues. Others, such as Strive Asset Management, say companies should stick solely to earning profits.

“Our perspective is that U.S. energy companies should be focused on drilling on fracking, on doing whatever allows them to be most successful over the long run,” Vivek Ramaswamy, executive chair of Strive Asset Management, told Bob Pisani on CNBC’s ‘ETF Edge‘ on Monday.

“Without regard to any other political, social or environmental agenda,” he added. “Leaving politics to the politicians.”

Strive has launched two ETFs to push back against “woke capitalism” in the industry. The Strive 500 ETF (STRV) tracks 500 of the largest U.S. publicly traded companies. The U.S. Energy ETF (DRLL) tracks the XLE energy ETF, with Exxon Mobil (XOM), Chevron (CVX) and Conoco Phillips (COP) comprising the top holdings.

“We’ve already engaged with 10 publicly traded energy companies,” Ramaswamy said. “And that’s what I think we need more of in the boardroom: more open debate representing a more diverse set of perspectives than we heard in the boardrooms of these companies over the last several years.”

Starting in 2018, a wave of social agendas began packing into boardrooms, he said, and those issues were recharacterized as long-run corporate interests when in fact they are not.

“I think that honest debate is going to be good,” he explained. “Both for capital markets and for corporate boardrooms.”

For investors, the ETFs come with a range of fees. The DRLL has an expense ratio of 41 basis point, while STRV come in on the lower end at around 5 basis points.

“In both of the cases we looked to other large firms like BlackRock that we’re aiming to compete against to set a fee benchmark,” Ramaswamy said.

Fees for the iShares U.S. Energy Fund (IYE), which is distributed by BlackRock, comes with an expense ratio of 39 basis points.

“The key differentiation that Strive wanted to bring to the market was not stock selection,” Ramaswamy explained. “But bringing an actively engaged voice and vote to the table, both through proxy voting as well as through shareholder engagement.”

Ramaswamy recently sent shareholder letters to the boards of Chevron, Apple and Disney questioning their reasoning in embracing ESG initiatives that don’t necessarily advance business goals. It was a move that, he said, might be something you’d see from a historically activist funds.

The added value of active engagement is a selling point in Strive’s products, although it’s remains premature to gauge their long-term growth potential in the “anti-woke” ETF space.  

“I would note that the iShares U.S. Energy ETF saw significant inflows within the past month even though this product has come to market,” Todd Rosenbluth, head of research at VettaFi, said on CNBC’s ‘ETF Edge’ on Monday. “Investors have choices, but IYE is outgaining DRLL.”

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