On November 16, 2009, the Arthur and Toni Rembe Rock Center for Corporate Governance at Stanford University presented a lunch-time lecture with Mark Latham, Director of VoterMedia.org and ProxyDemocracy.org. Latham is also a member of the SEC’s Investor Advisory Committee, as a representative of individual investors. He has written extensively on how the internet can be used to allocate resources to facilitate voter education using a democratic marketplace model. Previously, Latham was a professor at UC Berkeley and a money manager with Salomon Brothers and Merrill Lynch.
Mark Latham has spent the last seven years developing new tools for voters (investors and citizens) to hold elected leaders accountable in corporations and democracies. The financial crisis, changes at the SEC and the decline of mainstream media are opening doors for implementing these ideas. Latham’s lunch-time talk at Stanford’s law school attracted mostly a young crowd of students to a presentation that was much more discussion than lecture.
Latham briefly discussed his role on the SEC Investor Advisory Committee and some of the recent developments that have laid fertile ground for his ideas, including:
- the financial crisis and our poor systems of accountability,
- 25% of the stock market is held directly by individuals but the other 75% held through institutions is also held for our benefits. We should have more input into how proxies are voted
- broker voting no longer applies to director nominees
- most large companies have instituted majority voting requirements for electing directors and that is now filtering down to medium and small companies, and
- proxy access will bring more focus on proxy voting and the need to facilitate more intelligent voting with minimal effort.
He described something of the developing battle for the hearts and minds of investors as proxy "plumbing" or "mechanics" issues are explored by the SEC and interested parties. The Business Roundtable is lobbying hard for a system that allows management to communicate directly with shareowners. One component they have been pushing is client directed voting, CDV. Various proposals by Stephen Norman, the corporate secretary of American Express, have outlined that under CDV, investors would give their brokers general instructions on how they wanted their shares cast on all matters, routine and not routine. One frequently cited variant involves five options, including:
- always voting as management recommends;
- always voting against management recommendations;
- abstaining on all matters;
- voting according to the brokerage firm’s voting policies; or,
- voting shares in proportion to the way the brokerage’s other clients have voted their shares.
If investors did not declare a preference, the default choice would be proportional voting, and investors could always override these choices with their own. Latham noted the need to expand the concept of CDV to include options provided by ProxyDemocracy.org, TransparentDemocracy.org, MoxyVote.com and others as they develop.
A lively discussion ensued on issues such as:
- Why should we think recommendations by these groups, or indeed the current advisors to institutional investors are any good?
- How important is making money and what part would other values play in CDV options?
- Would these organizations not only lead to greater participation by retail shareowners but also greater financial literacy?
- Are there various legal issues that need to be addressed around free speech, fiduciary duties, and/or proxy solicitation? (download, for example, a request to the SEC re guidance)
- How will these sites drive the selection of mutual funds and the limited options available to most workers through 401(k) type plans?
I spotted Kim Cranston, President of TransparentDemocracy.org, in the back of the room and had a few minutes to chat with him after the event. Their site covers both civil and corporate elections and is designed to will help you…
- Learn more about the contests on your ballot,
- See how organizations and individuals recommend that you vote,
- Create a printed ballot based on your opinions that you can use to mark your real ballot,
- Share your opinions with friends.
A video recording of the session with Mark Latham will be posted on the Arthur and Toni Rembe Rock Center site by early December. The next stop for Latham was the Institute of Governmental Studies at the University of California at Berkeley.
"We can support public interest journalism with our tax funds, by letting voters allocate the funding to competing media organizations. This would prevent the government from controlling the publicly funded media and their messages. Such a system has been implemented for three years at the University of British Columbia’s student union, and tested in Vancouver’s 2008 civic election. Each voter community can fund its own media: each municipality, state, country, student union, labor union, corporation etc. The city of Berkeley may be a good fit for the next implementation."