Reassessing Engine No. 1’s Fight Against Exxon Mobil

At Exxon Mobil’s annual shareholder meeting on Wednesday, activist investors and big shareholders, including Legal & General Investment Management, will take on the company with a series of proxy measures aiming to push it to cut emissions and speed its decarbonization efforts.

Climate investors aren’t expecting a triumphant repeat of what happened two years ago, when Engine No. 1, a San Francisco-based activist hedge fund, stunned the corporate world by landing three of its eco-conscious nominees on Exxon’s board.

Climate activists and others told DealBook that Engine No. 1’s efforts have achieved negligible results, Vivienne Walt writes. Here’s what they say:

  • “Exxon has continued to invest aggressively in expanding its oil and gas production,” said Mark Kramer, senior lecturer at Harvard Business School, who wrote a case study last year on Engine No. 1.

  • Engine No. 1 “has not made a discernible difference in the way Exxon is addressing climate change,” said Danielle Fugere, president and chief counsel of As You Sow, an investor advocacy group in Berkeley, Calif., that leads shareholder campaigns and has submitted resolutions for Wednesday’s meeting.

  • Mark van Baal, founder of the activist shareholder group Follow This, was more blunt. The hedge fund, he said, was “the biggest disappointment in the fight against climate change.”

Engine No. 1 rejected that assessment. In an email to DealBook, it highlighted a string of changes at Exxon, including the introduction of net-zero targets for its Permian Basin operations in Texas and New Mexico, early-stage carbon-capture and hydrogen projects, and investments in lithium mining. “None of those initiatives were in the company’s plans before Engine No. 1’s engagement,” a spokesman said.

But critics say that green investments are still a tiny percentage of Exxon’s spending, and that the company remains committed to fossil fuels. They also wonder if the green-energy push has more to do with Inflation Reduction Act subsidies and tax incentives than a genuine transition.

Legal & General, for one, thinks the hedge fund’s proxy fight “changed the narrative.”

Engine No. 1 has not waged a similar campaign since. Charlie Penner, who led the fund’s proxy fight, left his position soon after. The hedge fund has focused on corporate research, working with oil companies to cut methane emissions and supporting other groups’ shareholder resolutions against the likes of Tesla (work-force diversification), Amazon (improve warehouse working conditions) and Home Depot (eliminate deforestation).

Through its exchange-traded funds, it has invested in high-polluting energy, transportation and agriculture companies, saying that this enables it to keep pressure on them to decarbonize.

Two years ago, Exxon was particularly vulnerable. Big investors grew impatient with leadership as the stock languished: BlackRock, State Street, Vanguard and the New York and California public pension funds all backed Engine No. 1’s proxy battle. Since then, Exxon shares have soared, adding roughly $160 billion in market capitalization, and earnings hit nearly $56 billion last year on the back of a surge in prices for traditional fossil fuels.

That did not power a green transition. Instead, the company doubled down on oil and gas, significantly increasing drilling in the Permian Basin, and expanding offshore drilling in Guyana.

The debt ceiling deal heads to a House vote despite a Republican uprising. The House Rules Committee voted to send the bill to a floor debate, despite opposition from two G.O.P. members. President Biden and top lawmakers are hoping to secure congressional approval by Monday to avert a U.S. default — but some are worried about potential obstructions in the Senate.

A top Goldman Sachs executive is departing. Dina Powell McCormick, one of the Wall Street firm’s highest-profile officials, is leaving to join BDT & MSD Partners, a merchant bank run by former Goldman colleagues; she’ll work with the firm’s clients and drum up new business. Meanwhile, one of Goldman’s youngest-ever partner, Fred Baba, is also leaving, and the bank is preparing for more job cuts, according to The Wall Street Journal.

The Sackler family is given immunity from opioid liability. An appeals court ruled that the billionaire owners of Purdue Pharma, the maker of OxyContin, can be shielded from current and future legal claims over their role in the company’s prescription opioids business. The decision will allow more than $6 billion of the family’s money to flow to states and communities ravaged by the opioid crisis.

Fidelity further marks down its stake in Twitter. In a securities filing, the investment giant valued its holdings in the social network’s parent company, X Holdings, at about $6.55 million as of April 28, down from nearly $8.63 million in late November. It’s the latest sign of financial troubles at Twitter; Musk himself said the company was now worth less than half of the $44 billion he paid for it.

JPMorgan Chase kicked off a star-studded business conference in Shanghai on Wednesday the U.S. bank’s chief, Jamie Dimon, returning to mainland China for the first time since the onset of the pandemic.

Both Mr. Dimon and Tesla’s chief, Elon Musk, who made a separate trip to the country, asserted that their companies remain committed to doing business in the world’s second-largest economy. But those pledges came amid heightened tensions between Washington and Beijing that won’t ease anytime soon.

Dimon doesn’t think there will be a “decoupling” of the U.S. and Chinese economies, he told Bloomberg Television on Wednesday. Meanwhile, a Chinese government statement about Mr. Musk’s meeting with the country’s foreign minister, Qin Gang, said the Tesla chief opposed efforts to break the two countries’ trading relationship.

Corporate America shares those sentiments, judging by the size and star power of the attendee list for the JPMorgan conference: C.E.O.s including Albert Bourla of Pfizer and Laxman Narasimhan of Starbucks were among the 2,500 expected to attend. Leaders of top Chinese companies including the carmakers BYD and Geely and the tech giant Baidu were also listed as speakers.

To emphasize the importance of maintaining the trade bonds, JPMorgan enlisted Henry Kissinger, who as secretary of state helped open the U.S.-China relationship, as a speaker.

It’s all a reminder of the delicate balance business is trying to strike. Tim Cook, Apple’s C.E.O., used his first trip to the country since the start of the pandemic to praise the “symbiotic” relationship between the company and China.

Mr. Dimon acknowledged that matters are “far more complex now,” given efforts by Washington to limit chip exports to China’s tech industry, Beijing’s crackdown on foreign consulting firms operating in the country and more. “Over time, there will be less trade,” Mr. Dimon told Bloomberg, and he called himself an American patriot who would ultimately follow Washington’s direction.

Beijing has its own economic issues to sort out as well. Recent data suggests that a boom following the lifting of pandemic restrictions is running out of steam. Industrial production, real estate sales, investment and consumer spending have all been falling, stoking worries about China’s near-term growth prospects. Mr. Dimon also pointed to what he called “scary” youth unemployment levels of 20 percent.

What’s happening now is starting to sap the confidence of the Chinese people, he said, “and confidence is very important for growth.”


— The stock market capitalizon Tuesdayched on Tuesday by Nvidia, which became the seventh U.S. company and first chipmaker to hit that mark. (Its value retreated to about $991 billion at the close of trading.) The yearlong rally has been fueled by booming demand for chips that run artificial intelligence programs.


Generative A.I. is starting to transform the business of law, but the transition is proving a little bumpy. One case made waves last week when a judge discovered that a lawyer had cited a number of cases that did not exist after his firm used ChatGPT to prepare. Yet lawyers experimenting with A.I. tools designed for the profession envision a future in which machines do much of the heavy lifting — and venture capitalists are betting on it.

The race to invest in legal A.I. is on. Thomson Reuters, owner of the legal research behemoth Westlaw, was part of a group that invested in Spellbook, an A.I. assistant, last week. That followed a fund-raising round last month for Harvey, a start-up building custom large language models for law firms, that was led by Sequoia Capital, the Silicon Valley venture capital firm. (Harvey was launched last year with backing from OpenAI and Google’s head of A.I.)

Should we fear robot representation? Platforms like ChatGPT are often trained on large datasets from the web, which is full of misinformation. That can cause “hallucinations,” information confidently relayed by the platform that is wrong. The key to reliable legal A.I. is limiting the inputs to “a database of real knowledge” to reduce the risk of errors, said Laura Safdie, chief operating officer at Casetext, creator of the A.I. legal assistant CoCounsel.

A.I. is already proving a boon for some lawyers. “We have limited resources to go through insane amounts of information,” said Michael Semanchik, managing attorney at the California Innocence Project, a nonprofit organization that works to exonerate wrongly convicted prisoners. He is using A.I. to quickly identify issues in massive case files and said he could imagine every law office using the tools.

Greg Siskind, an immigration lawyer, told DealBook that when it comes to research, legal A.I. “does in hours what would once take a week” and “does a pretty good job most of the time.”

Lawyers say robots will not replace humans because someone will always have to check the work. Ultimately, this revolution may just reduce drudge work and the number of billable hours spent on relatively simple tasks, freeing people to focus more on lawyering.

Deals

Policy

  • Relatives of people who died in a 2019 crash involving a Boeing 737 Max jet can sue the company for compensation tied to the victims’ pain and suffering, a federal judge ruled. (WSJ)

  • A former employee of Coinbase settled insider-trading charges by the S.E.C. — without resolving a key question of whether the digital assets involved in the case are securities. (Axios)

Best of the rest

  • Writers Guild officials are urging shareholders to vote against “say on pay” compensation proposals at Comcast and Netflix, amid the union’s fight with studios. (Hollywood Reporter)

  • Riot Games delayed the start of its North American League of Legends summer season after players voted in favor of a walkout. (The Verge)

  • William O’Neil, the stockbroker and author best known for founding Investor’s Business Daily, the stocks-focused news publisher, has died at 90, his firm announced. (William O’Neil + Co)

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