The acquisition by investment managers BlackRock and Vanguard of ever-increasing shares in America’s public utility companies is setting off alarm bells from conservatives and progressives alike.
In April, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) approved a request from BlackRock to increase its ownership up to 20 percent of a public utility’s voting shares without being deemed an “affiliate” and incurring the regulatory scrutiny and disclosures that come with that. To gain FERC approval, BlackRock and Vanguard promised they would be “passive” investors and not use their share ownership to influence management.
Because utilities are often monopolies in the regions they serve and because electricity and heating are essential in people’s lives, any investment of more than $10 million in a public utility must be approved by FERC, according to the Federal Power Act (FPA). BlackRock and Vanguard received blanket approval in 2019 to surpass this limit for three years, and BlackRock was just given blanket approval for another three years. Now Vanguard is seeking FERC approval on similar terms, but their request is sparking protests.