Intel Corp. recently announced they will no longer hold annual shareholder meetings. Instead, they plan to host shareholder forums, or “virtual shareholder meetings.” In 2000, Delaware enacted legislation allowing corporations to do exactly this. Arrogantly, that state’s legislators granted shareholders no say in the matter, leaving the decision solely to the discretion of corporation’s entrenched boards.
There is every reason to believe that, with strong safeguards, virtual shareholder meetings could enhance shareholder participation in meetings while protecting—even restoring—shareholder rights that have atrophied over the decades. However, no such safeguards are in place. Intel and other smaller corporations are taking a go-it-alone approach, forcing virtual shareholder meetings on unhappy shareholders. After Delaware changed its laws, the Council of Institutional Investors wrote the CEOs of all Delaware corporations asking them not to conduct virtual meetings. Unions have expressed concerns. Walden Asset Management has encouraged shareholders to write letters to Intel.
Here are just a few scenarios illustrating how virtual meetings will deprive shareholders:
- A well known shareholder activist plans to ask some pointed questions at the shareholder meeting, but his connection to the meeting somehow fails. He is left wondering if he was targeted or if there truly was an honest technical problem.
- A shareholder wants to challenge the chair’s conduct of the meeting with a point of order. She is within her rights to do so and may interrupt the chair for this purpose, but she finds that the electronic forum software won’t allow her to do so ….. one more shareholder right lost.
- A shareholder wants to make a floor amendment, but the software doesn’t allow that either.
- The meeting software provides no means of group communication, such as applause of booing, so shareholders come away from meetings with no sense of how other shareholders felt.
- Corporate executives decide to pre-record their comments for a virtual shareholder meeting, including answers to pre-selected “shareholder questions.” The executives then don’t bother logging in during the actual “meeting.”
Most annual meetings are heavily scripted. The chance for real interaction often comes in informal encounters before and after the formal meeting. Those opportunities will also be gone with virtual meetings.
Shareholders have been discussing what might be an appropriate response to Intel’s move, but there are few attractive options. The SEC will not intervene to preempt a Delaware law. We could launch a withhold vote campaign against the directors of Intel and other corporations that host electronic-only meetings. That would entail participating in—and thereby accepting as legitimate—the virtual meetings.
We reject Delaware’s law in the same way abolitionists rejected the Supreme Court’s Dred Scott decision in 1857. A corporation that doesn’t hold shareholder meetings is dead in the same way that a human being that doesn’t breathe is dead. Putting up a website and calling it a “meeting” doesn’t change that.
This is a crisis because the problem is going to spread. Working with Jim McRitchie of CorpGov.netand other interested parties, the United States Proxy Exchange (USPX) is exploring whether to launch a withhold proxy campaign against Intel and other corporations that adopt electronic-only meetings. Under such a campaign, shareholders would refuse to participate in those “meetings” on the grounds that they are illegitimate. Shareholders would withhold their proxies. If enough did so, offending corporations would fail to achieve quorum. Because retail brokers will vote “routine” matters, such as management sponsored resolutions, it won’t be enough for investors to not return their proxy materials. They will have to explicitly ask their broker to withhold a proxy on their behalf.
If we decide to proceed with a withhold proxy campaign, we will implement a web portal through which institutional and retail shareholders may join the campaign and coordinate their activities. At this early stage, please e-mail Glyn Holton to express support or ask questions. We will then keep you informed of developments.
Note from CorpGov.net publisher: See also virtual meetings Virtual Shareholder Meetings by Elizabeth Boros. The USPX aims to be a chamber of commerce, representing the legitimate interests of shareholders and is in the process of getting 501(c)(6) status with the Internal Revenue Code. The board set dues at $9 a month. Membership benefits include advocacy, web-based resources, and a magazine to be launched this Spring. Step up to the plate and e-mail Glyn Holton to become a member.