WHEN: Today, Tuesday, October 16, 2018
WHERE: CNBC's "Squawk Box"
The following is the unofficial transcript of a CNBC EXCLUSIVE interview with BlackRock Chairman and CEO Larry Fink on CNBC's "Squawk Box" (M-F 6AM – 9AM) today, Tuesday, October 16th. The following is a link to video of the interview on CNBC.com: https://www.cnbc.com/video/2018/10/16/watch-cnbcs-full-interview-with-blackrocks-larry-fink.html.
All references must be sourced to CNBC.
ANDREW ROSS SORKIN: Meantime, want to introduce Larry Fink who is here. News breaking literally just minutes ago, the world's largest money manager, BlackRock, out with its earnings this morning. We are joined now by Larry Fink, BlackRock Chairman and CEO in a "Squawk Box" exclusive interview. Good morning to you.
LARRY FINK: GOOD MORNING, EVERYONE.
SORKIN: Lots to talk to you about. Company earnings per share of $7.52. That did come in above estimates. Total, by the way, and, tell me if I'm wrong about this, but in terms of the estimate, though, for assets under management, falling slightly short of estimates. And so I think investors are going to be trying to grapple with both sides of this. How are you thinking about it?
FINK: Well, it was a tough quarter for the whole entire industry. The industry saw over $100 billion of outflows in equity -- in equity mutual funds.
SORKIN: You had 24.8 billion in outflows.
FINK: We had -- we saw some real large de-risking in our index equity positions. We saw investors go from equities into low duration fixed income. We saw people ran to cash. But overall we had $34 billion of inflows into ETFs. We had -- we had positive mutual fund inflows at BlackRock, so it was more institutional. So it was -- we saw huge movement from clients, a lot of churn. And it was just – I think the markets are showing that, that investors are confused. But overall, because of expense discipline, because of how we've navigated, our revenues were up 18% in our Aladdin business, in our technology business. So overall it was a good quarter. But I was disappointed in our net flows. But very explainable by some large de-risking.
BECKY QUICK: But Larry, just to dig into that a little. I mean, you're talking about moves that happened before this most recent market chaos, because it was the end of the quarter.
FINK: No, but we saw huge outflows before the fall.
QUICK: So people are much more nervous.
FINK: Oh, absolutely. I think people are -- there's a huge commentary that we're at peak earnings, that earnings can only get worse, which we could all debate that. You know, we believe we have a couple more good quarters in earnings. But there's that view – there's the view that there's -- and I think we're hearing that in Europe more than in the united states -- companies are having margin pressures because of rising wages, which may be a good thing for the overall economy, but not as good for corporate profitability. And you're seeing modest inflation increases in certain finished goods. Some of it in the United States because of our tariffs, in terms of steel and things like that. And so overall you're just -- you're seeing more consternation, more fear.
SORKIN: That consternation – is that being felt -- do you look at the institutional side? You were talking about the institutional before -- or is that a retail issue?
FINK: It's both. We did not see it in retail, we had net inflows, but the industry has had outflows. Institutionally there were two or three of our –
SORKIN: But when you look at this quarter, from what you can already see –
FINK: We're not seeing -- we're not seeing much change in attitude. We didn't see any wholesale changes. I think this is more -- I actually believe the last two weeks was more of a hedge fund phenomenon. We had a couple of big announcements of hedge fund closing down. I think there was a lot of de-risking going on from the hedge fund community. In the last two weeks we did not see big outflows from any our large --
SORKIN: So when you look at what's happened -- this roller coaster ride of the last week or so, maybe two weeks now, what is that? And do you expect – I mean, we saw a note from Morgan Stanley just last night, they think we're moving into bear territory here.
FINK: Well almost 80% of the stocks are in correction phase today. So I don't think that's something unique. You can look at most of the stocks, that they're in correction phase right now, so I don't think --
SORKIN: Correction is not bad.
JOE KERNEN: Correction's not a bad phase to be in.
FINK: We had a marvelous ten years.
KERNEN: No but you sound like you were talking about maybe a bear phase or a secular bear phase.
FINK: No. I actually believe the economy is going to remain strong.
KERNEN: Inflation doves say that we are not seeing the wage inflation where it's risen to a level to start worry being it. You just said margins are being affected -- are we seeing margins negatively affected by wage pressures in corporate America at this point?
FINK: Well I said more European companies.
KERNEN: Oh, European. European. So there's wage increases -- we don't care if they -- we don't care what happens over there.
FINK: You are saying margin pressures, it could be wages. I have not dissected.
KERNEN: Are there margin pressures domestically?
FINK: There is worry. I didn't say the market is correct. There is worry that we're at peak earnings and that we are going to see more margin pressure, we are going to see some wage increases. Now, let's be clear, the index that we see related to wages is very skewed by when elderly workers who are the highest paying people retire, they're replacing them with younger workers who are getting less wages. Much of that is masking the big wage increases in technology and other areas. So we're not –
KERNEN: Automation, too?
FINK: Yeah. So we're not – there are big wage pressures in, I would say, some of the big professional areas that a lot of firms have to hire. So if you're in technology or a technology firm, you have wage increases going on there. But it is being masked by this mixture of retirees --
KERNEN: Do you get the feeling we're underestimating the inflationary –
FINK: No, not really. I'm not that worried about inflation.
KERNEN: That's the only thing that really gets out of hand, which causes the fed to go higher than they thought it would have to go, which sort of chokes the – I mean, as we said a million times, you don't die of old age, economic cycles.
FINK: We are seeing the economy grow at 3 plus percent. We're seeing areas where there's hard -- difficulties hiring people. So I see what the fed's seeing and I just – I understand what the fed's doing.
KERNEN: But is it possible that all those things are actually, just take them at face value as positive? Because if they don't cause inflation, then they don't turn into that cycle where we have to cool things off.
FINK: Sure. But the biggest risk that no one wants to talk about is how the tax laws changed housing affordability for so many.
QUICK: You mean in the Northeast and in the blue states?
FINK: No, no, no, no. Even places that have -- beyond high income tax states, we have a $10,000 cap on deductibility. So obviously -- most of the people in blue states are already impacted by that already. But it's now the states -- in other states – when you have -- if you live in a city like a Miami or a Dallas, probably the average house there is $600,000, $700,000 – I don't know what to the degree, most Americans still have floating rate mortgages, 50 odd percent. So now we've witnessed about 100 basis point increase in interest rates. So that's going to add $1,000 of interest costs. More people will be hitting this cap, that's going to impact the desirability of housing. So I think we have actually a little more -- bigger issues to focus on related to how the economy can perform in a rising rate environment.
KERNEN: That might explain the weakness in housing, it's not just supply, maybe it's what you're talking about also.
FINK: I think it is now, housing affordability -- the lack of affordability kicked in faster than any other time, because of this new phenomena.
SORKIN: And you think therefore it's going to affect the market?
KERNEN: Can it? I mean there are places where you're not allowed to deduct –
FINK: No, but we're not -- it will take time to adjust to that. But let me just get back to my earnings for one thing. The one thing we haven't focused on is we raised -- we're going at a record rate of raising assets and alternatives. We've raised now $16 billion over the last 12 months in the liquids so we're raising record amounts for us money in alternatives. We still see very large interests from our clients. We're in the midst of some big asset raises going on in the fourth quarter and the first quarter of next year. So --
QUICK: What are alternatives? Describe that.
FINK: It could be from real estate to infrastructure, where we're seeing very large demand, especially in renewables, and ESG related infrastructure investments. And so obviously Hedge Funds, it's Fund to Funds, it's Private Equities.
SORKIN: Let me ask you: on the alternatives subject, you folks started investing in a number of private start-ups, sort of the technology start-ups, I'm thinking the Ubers of the world and others. Does that, do you think, ultimately been a successful effort?
FINK: Overall it has been, but it's not a major effort for us. We have a couple big funds that have the ability to have a small portion of their funds in illiquid privates. And so that's what we're investing it. It's not a large component of what we do, but we have done, let's say maybe 5 to 10 different very public ones.
SORKIN: Since you spend your time on an airplane, we have a handful of geopolitical questions, all of which, by the way, are going to affect the market including oil and China. But we do, given the headlines, and we've been talking about it this morning, on Saudi Arabia, you were one of the executives yesterday with Jamie Dimon and Larry Fink – you are Larry Fink – with Stephen Schwarzman, who decided to pull out of this conference. Can you tell us about that decision? Because you've had business with Saudi for a long time.
FINK: I've been going to Saudi for years and years and years, as much as three to four times a year. But, you know, we have an incident now that we have to be mindful of. You know, there's an unexplainable death or murder. It could impact relationships worldwide. We have to be sympathetic to this. This was a big issue with BlackRock's employees. This was a big issue with many clients who reached out and called. So we received a lot of incoming about participation. And this is -- these are the issues around being a big, public company, that you have so many constituents -- I write about this in my corporate letter. We needed to be thoughtful and mindful of how to navigate this. And so as a friend of the countries I wanted to do this in a way that I was trying to preserve the relationship with -- that we have and that we've worked so long for, and yet we needed to be mindful of this investigation. What I wanted to do was to find a way to possibly have this conference delayed until the investigation is completed. We have better information, and we could do this in a non-emotional way. I did not achieve that objective. And so I had to make a decision related to -- ok my relationship with the kingdom and my relationship with all my constituents. It was clear I had only one choice and that was to withdraw from the conference. It does not mean we are going to run away from this kingdom. We do business in 80 different countries. There are many countries where we may disagree with policies. But this one event became such a lightning rod because it's so public in nature. There are many things that you can do and build a commonalty, build a bridge in which you can try to build, and you know, I've been a life-long globalist. I'm still proud to be a globalist being a globalist in this day and age. We're going to continue to do business with them.
KERNEN: Larry, if it becomes clear without a scintilla of doubt, that either King Salman or MBS ordered this, are you going to cut off all business ties with Saudi Arabia?
KERNEN: And the United States is in a similar position, 200 billion in arms sales – and a – you know, to thwart Iran to Gemini in the Middle East --
FINK: Are there are many business that do business worldwide, American/Non- American. Look at: our job is to build bridges, our job is to try to find commonalty. There are many things I disagree with, in my own country and there are many things I disagree with in other countries.
KERNEN: It's gonna be a tough -- people that see things in black and white, Marco Rubio, whomever, that look at things like this, this should be disqualifying for any relationship whatsoever. And that's just not the real world, I don't think.
FINK: It is – you know, no one likes to make black or white decisions. Sometimes you need to. I don't know if at this time I need to make a black or white decision.
QUICK: So what was the Saudi reaction to just you pulling out of the conference?
FINK: They understood. I mean, look -- keep in mind, Saudi has some very -- the Oil Minister is very commercial minded, the Oil Minister ran Saudi Aramco. We're talking about, you know, the Economy Minister who was the Chairman of one of the big banks in Saudi Arabia. We're talking very commercially-minded leaders. And I had conversations with many of the different leaders, and they understood. They understood that – they did not -- preferred we were not withdrawing. They would have preferred we stayed, which I understand. But they understand that we have many different constituents that we have to balance out. At this time, it does not mean that we are withdrawing from the Kingdom.
SORKIN: We've talked about what this could do to the price of oil. Not necessarily your decision but the relationship between the U.S. And Saudi. And frankly Pompeo – Secretary of State Pompeo is over there right now. What do you think the right role of government is? Because I do know also in the conversations you and Steve Schwarzman and Jamie were having was really the hope that Washington could take the lead on this in a way so you wouldn't have to. And the question is though if they are to take the lead, what does that lead look like?
FINK: It's always convenient to have a government to stand up first. You know, I'm not -- I don't know the inter-relationships that the governments are having with Saudi. I assume they're very strong, and consistent.
KERNEN: I don't think you would want that for the U.S. to take -- do we think that Putin has never pushed a button on someone? Is that possible?
FINK: I'm not going to talk about that.
KERNEN: I know. How about in China? How about -- we know Kim Jong-Un has pushed buttons. These things, in the real world --
FINK: These are delicate issues.
KERNEN: You have to deal with the hand that you're given. You can't change – so I don't think you would want the United States government just to –
FINK: I don't want a black and white decision, you're right. Because we have been really strong allies, the United States and Saudi. Let's be clear, to execute the sanctions against Iran we need Saudi to ramp up oil production. They have done that. They're almost at peak capacity now. And they're trying to -- I don't know to the ultimate degree can they ramp it up more, but, you know, we are now witnessing worldwide at a time when the American dollar is very strong and we're witnessing very strong energy prices. This is one of the reasons why we're having market volatility, why the emerging markets are doing poorly, this is one of the reasons why -- getting back to BlackRock's earnings -- we had such large divergent beta. You know, outflows in emerging markets, down drafts in emerging markets. I mean, one great statistic that stunned me, and we haven't talked about it enough, since the beginning of the second quarter, emerging market equities are down 10% and yet the S&P 500 is up 10%. A 20% divergence.
FINK: And so having a strong dollar in front of having rising energy prices is really destabilizing for the world. And so we need to have proper diplomacy with Saudi. Our hope is that energy prices drift back lower, especially if the dollar continues to be a strong currency.
SORKIN: In the other category of diplomacy, the other country we have not talked about, you spent a lot of time going there, is China.
FINK: Yes. I went there –
SORKIN: And where this trade war and tariff war starts and where you think it ends, and who has the upper hand at this point?
FINK: I think both countries can put a lot of -- place damage on each other. Hopefully it doesn't go there. Hopefully this is contained to a trade negotiation. The last thing anybody wants is a financial war. We will both be harmed by a financial war. And a financial war meaning they sell their treasuries.
SORKIN: Do you think that's a possibility?
FINK: Sure. If their economy becomes unglued, if – and I'm not saying it will. If -- there's rumors about $7 trillion of debt that could explode. If they have to do a massive fiscal stimulus, they have no choice but to bring down the reserves, that's what countries do. Could they -- would they sell U.S. assets as a defensive action against us? I would think that's going to be their last resort. I don't -- I think China is just as dependent on Southeast Asia, they're just as dependent on global trade away from United States. If – i mean, think about the actions of selling U.S. Treasuries. It means their currency rises quite a bit. That would hurt them.
KERNEN: You remember that -- you remember the – that expression. If you owe the bank 100 grand – you know, if you owe the bank a million, you own the bank. It's almost the same thing with China.
FINK: I think they are trying to act reasonably. I was there last week. I think they're trying to find a way to resolve this.
KERNEN: In the last five years, Larry, have you seen – this was -- we talked about this this week, too. Have you seen China sort of take a tougher statist, communist role? That's what the "Journal" in a piece was saying – that Xi has definitely back tracked on some of the reforms that maybe were made in previous –
FINK: Some of the claims that reforms are going to be made. There has been a slowdown to some of the reforms. I believe they still will continue to do the reforms in financial services --
KERNEN: But are we justified in taking a harder line and –
FINK: Well, we don't –
KERNEN: You got a lot of -- he's all over. You got to walk so tenderly on all these things.
FINK: I do. I do. But we all do. I'm not --
KERNEN: Right. But business interests are –
FINK: But, getting back to my corporate letter, why it's getting – why corporations need to talk about their purpose and what the values they stand for. I believe in this really incredibly transparent world that we're witnessing, in a world that is so connected because of social media, it is more incumbent on corporations to really talk about who they are and what they stand for.
SORKIN: Can I ask you a separate question just about the investing world? What do you make of just the rise in roboadvisers and what that's going to ultimately do to your business one way or the other?
FINK: Well, wait -- we have one of the leading roboadvisers in Europe and we have one of the leading ones here in the United States.
SORKIN: Right, but is that going to change – I mean, this idea that people are going to be buying iShares and that you're going to be actually playing the markets? Do you think that's going to go away?
FINK: Playing the markets, that's going to be -- they're not going to be using BlackRock, they're going to the trading platforms. Look at, I believe the biggest problem we have in the world -- I've talked about this for years – is financial literacy. And I do believe one of the great worries, why we have populism worldwide, is people are frightened of their future, they're frightened of their retirement. We need to use technology to embrace financial literacy. We need to create technology for financial services. we need to create -- maybe we have to gamify investing, using a mobility, and we need to get the next generation up to speed in terms of what it means to invest in their future.
SORKIN: You still think they're not participating in what has been this decade long run.
FINK: Very little. And I think this is one of the fundamental problems. The Central Bank's response to the financial crisis, they only have those tools and those tools are generally tools that will strengthen financial markets, and that's what they did. If you look at where housing is and where housing – you know, housing's up but not nearly as much and this is why you're seeing, those who add equities in financial assets did much better than those who were just having their equity in their home.
QUICK: Larry, just to recap your thoughts about the market, because we have a lot of people who are sitting at home, they want to hear what you're thinking about what's just happened. You said the most recent couple of weeks were hedge funds de-risking and deleveraging.
FINK: And some hedge funds announced they're closing.
QUICK: And so big concerns that went on with that. But when you talk about peak earnings – the theory that's out there, you don't think we've hit it yet? You think there could be several more quarters --
FINK: We believe there's a few more quarters. The U.S. economy is still strong. Can it weaken going into the fourth or first quarter if interest rates continue to rise? Sure.
SORKIN: A few more quarters sounds very dire.
FINK: No. I mean it –
KERNEN: For now a few more. Then we'll re-evaluate.
FINK: But I'm not suggesting we're going to fall off a cliff. I mean, there -- as joe said, there's nothing wrong with a correction. I mean, I know we're frightened of a 10% correction. And we've seen in 80% of the stocks, more than 10% correction. We've seen closer to 15% to 18% correction with most stocks today. PE's are lower today by three multiple points than they were in January. So if you like the equities when everything felt great, you have to like them more today. The market is actually adjusting to this fear. The market is actually adjusting to the uncertainties. Maybe we are in peak earnings. Maybe we're not. But the equity market overall is cheaper today than it was in January.
KERNEN: Larry, is there anything to the notion of, you know, murphy's law or is it ironic that you decided to take the lead on corporate, you know, accountability and being good actors? And then a couple months later two of your biggest areas of the world where you need to operate does these things, putting you in a position where you have to actually live by your words. And it's like "Why did I say that? Now I've got to do the right thing in China, I've got to do the right thing in Saudi Arabia." It's like, "Why did I open my mouth? Maybe I should have waited until next year to do the big corporate --"
FINK: It's like life at home, or life anywhere --
KERNEN: It is ironic though. I'm kind of laughing. Because you're going to be so morally -- you should cut off all business with Saudi Arabia immediately.
FINK: I said I'm not.
KERNEN: I know you're not. Which makes it hard for you -- because to live, to walk the walk, which is what you said corporations should do, you should be doing that.
FINK: I think we are doing that. I think we're trying to walk the walk every day.
KERNEN: It's tough. It's a difficult walk.
FINK: I didn't say it was not tough.
KERNEN: It's like going over a balance beam.
FINK: But if you don't talk about your purpose, I actually believe you wobble, you go back and forth. I do believe more than ever you need to do this so you can withstand stuff like what you're talking about. You know, these are difficult decisions. And I am not going to have everyone agree with my actions.
KERNEN: Right. It just got a lot tougher in the last six months to do.
FINK: I think it's always -- I think it's getting tougher and tougher and tougher. And think this is one of the reasons governments are too focused on short-termism. We're all struggling with this era of social media and --
KERNEN: But you know what? Black and white decisions are very rare. And --
FINK: I think they've always been rare.
KERNEN: It's a gray – so many things are a gray area.
SORKIN: It's a gray world.
KERNEN: And nuanced.
SORKIN: Nuanced. Larry Fink, thank you for coming in.
KERNEN: Yeah, thanks for all your time.
SORKIN: And spending time with us on so many issues.
QUICK: On your earnings today.
KERNEN: You're very honest.
FINK: I try to be.
KERNEN: You're very honest and I like that.
FINK: Thank you, guys.
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