ASK conspiracy theorists who they think really runs the world, and they will probably point to global banks, such as Citigroup, Bank of America and JPMorgan Chase. Oil giants such as Exxon Mobil and Shell may also earn a mention. Or perhaps they would focus on the consumer-goods firms that hold billions in their thrall: Apple, McDonald’s or NestlÃ©.
One firm unlikely to feature on their list is BlackRock, an investment manager whose name rings few bells outside financial circles. Yet it is the single biggest shareholder in all the companies listed above. It owns a stake in almost every listed company not just in America but globally. (Indeed, it is the biggest shareholder in Pearson, in turn the biggest shareholder in The Economist.) Its reach extends further: to corporate bonds, sovereign debt, commodities, hedge funds and beyond. It is easily the biggest investor in the world, with $4.1 trillion of directly controlled assets (almost as much as all private-equity and hedge funds put together) and another $11 trillion it oversees through its trading platform, Aladdin (see “BlackRock: The monolith and the markets”).
Established in 1988 by a group of Wall Streeters led by Larry Fink, BlackRock succeeded in part by offering “passive” investment products, such as exchange-traded funds, which aim to track indices such as the S&P 500. These are cheap alternatives to traditional mutual funds, which often do more to enrich money managers than clients (though BlackRock offers plenty of those, too). The sector continues to grow fast, and BlackRock, partly through its iShares brand, is the largest competitor in an industry where scale brings benefits. Its clients, ranging from Arab sovereign-wealth funds to mom-and-pop investors, save billions in fees as a result.