We Three Kings: Disintermediating Voting at the Index Fund Giants (download at SSRN) by Caleb N. Griffin provides insight as to how investors could influence the Big Three index funds — BlackRock, Vanguard and State Street, as those funds exercise increasing power over the economy. Like me, Griffin is interested in extending democracy to corporate governance, ensuring that index funds and the companies they influence are “controlled by the individual human investors who make up its (their) constituents.” (p. 3) Continue Reading →
Tag Archives | BlackRock
CSR 5.0. I must have missed 2.0 through 4.9… focused on corporate governance and ESG. This was my first Skytop Strategies conference (agenda) or one specifically on the topic of CSR. It was billed as presenting “the evolution of corporate social responsibility from its initial shared value paradigm to its current form. The program will track the growth of CSR as a sector, examine the multi-dimensional ways that CSR programs are implemented in corporations today, and present cutting-edge ideas that will shape the future of CSR as an industry.” CSR 5.0 lived up to its billing. Continue Reading →
Morningstar Direct is planning to offer its clients important voting data. The firm recently published a preview of what I impolitely term ESG hypocrites – funds that advertise themselves as allowing us to invest in our values but then vote proxies against our values.
For example, last week, students around the world participated in a massive #ClimateStrike. Some have called it a tipping point. With BlackRock, Fidelity, TIAA-CREF and Vanguard all offering ESG funds to invest in our values, we must be heading for a low-carbon economy, right? That assessment may be premature. Not all ESG funds are alike.
New Morningstar research – published for Morningstar Direct users – uses Morningstar’s Fund Votes database to examine how ESG funds voted during the 2018 proxy season on climate-related shareholder resolutions. The research reveals a striking difference in voting patterns from funds sponsors by ESG-specialists vs. ESG funds from more traditional, non-ESG fund companies.
Morningstar Direct Findings
A huge positive is that more funds are starting to “get” the importance of ESG, not only as a screening tool for investing but also in casting proxy votes. Morningstar research found votes cast by the largest asset managers across all funds shows a year-on-year increase in support for all climate resolutions voted since 2016. That is certainly good news. Morningstar surveyed 14 resolutions with a positive vote of 40% or higher. Notice the two largest funds, BlackRock and Vanguard, with combined assets under management of $11.5 trillion, are laggards. Changing how they vote would make a significant difference.
ESG funds from BlackRock, Vanguard, Fidelity Investments, and TIAA- CREF, among others, cast a number of votes that appear to conflict with an ESG mandate, especially for funds specifically aimed at the environment.
By way of contrast, among nine fund companies with an long-term ESG focus, not a single vote was cast against climate-change resolutions that garnered more than 40% of the shareholder vote. Asset managers with an ESG orientation unanimously voted for the 14 climate-related resolutions that garnered more than 40% of the shareholder vote across all funds managed.
It also might be useful to look at underlying assets. For example, compare holdings of the Trillium P21 Global Equity Fund with BlackRock’s Impact US Equity Fund. BlackRock’s Impact fund contains investments in coal, oil and gas, fossil-fired utilities, etc. They constitute only a small portion of the portfolio but that is enough to get them 0 out of 5 “badges” from Fossil Free Funds. In contrast, Trillium P21 Global Equity Fund wins 5 out of 5 badges.
Research based on Morningstar’s Fund Votes database will help Morningstar Direct clients differentiate ESG hype from ESG reality. The service is likely to increase demand for mainstream fund families to be more consistent in voting and investing within a transparent ESG framework. Traditional SRI funds have been investing and voting ESG concerns for decades. Some, like Calvert, Domini, Pax World, Praxis, and Trillium even announce their votes to the public before annual meetings. Do not expect that from mainstream ESG funds any time soon.
Prison Labor concerns raised again by NorthStar Asset Management won nearly 29% of shareholder votes at Costco Wholesale meeting on January 24, up from almost 5% last year. The proposal asked for enhanced analysis and disclosure on risks related to prison labor in the company’s supply chain. Yes, if you just read that old link from a Change.org survey you saw the Thirteenth Amendment to our Constitution (to abolish slavery) includes the following:
Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction. Continue Reading →
American values were recognized as at risk in 1932 when Adolf Berle and Gardiner Means argued that with dispersed shareholders, ownership has been separated from their control. (The Modern Corporation and Private Property) Ironically, concentration of equities under the umbrella of three or four indexed funds presents an opportunity to end that divide and make companies better reflect American values by being more accountable to their beneficial owners. Accomplishing that goal depends on transparent governance, such as proxy voting, and fostering real dialogue on the issues faced by corporations and investors. As I have argued, real-time disclosure of proxy votes could drive these huge funds to compete with each other based on not only profits and costs but their governance efforts, as reflected in proxy voting records. Continue Reading →
Say.com goes live to help small shareholders have a greater voice in how the companies they’re invested in are run. Say facilitates proxy voting for shareholders who invest at the broker-dealers it is partnered with and also is creating new products for all shareholders to engage with companies, regardless of where they invest. Continue Reading →
NAM Board Targeted
Investors led by Walden Asset Management, New York Common and the California State Teachers’ Retirement System (CalSTRS) called on 45 companies sitting on the Executive Committee and Board of the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) to end the trade association’s attacks on shareholders.
The investors’ letter asks the companies to distance themselves from NAM’s recent attempts to discredit shareholder engagement, particularly on climate change. These efforts have been undertaken primarily through NAM’s membership in the Main Street Investors Coalition (MSIC) and through a report NAM funded and distributed that wrongly asserts that shareholder resolutions diminish company value. MSIC represents no investors. In my opinion, it is a front group for corporate managers attempting to generate fake news, stirring public opinion against investor rights. I originally posted in September. A January 2019 Addendum has now been added below.
Quotables on NAM
“The irony is that many companies on the NAM board are active business leaders on climate change,” said Timothy Smith, Director of ESG Shareowner Engagement at Walden Asset Management.
They understand the very real risk to our environment and have active forward-looking policies and programs on climate. Yet their dues to NAM are funding an aggressive attack against the very investors they meet with regularly to address climate change. We are appealing to these companies to clearly state their opposition to these positions taken by NAM and Main Street Investors Coalition. It is important to do so to protect their company reputations and integrity.
“Environmental risk consideration is part of the evolution of investing. Whether a retail or institutional investor, assessing the risks of investments is a standard practice,” said CalSTRS Portfolio Manager in Corporate Governance Aeisha Mastagni.
NAM appears out of touch with its own constituents. Over the last decade more than 75 percent of the environmental-related proposals CalSTRS filed were withdrawn because the companies were willing to negotiate a mutually agreeable outcome.
The Letter’s Key Paragraph
The MSIC perpetuates the myth that incorporating environmental, social and governance (“ESG”) factors inherently conflicts with protecting and advancing shareholder value. However, the 1,200 members of the United Nations-backed Principles for Responsible Investment – including Fidelity, BlackRock, Vanguard and State Street – with over $70 trillion in assets under management, have committed to consider ESG issues in the investment decision-making process since these factors may affect shareholder value. There is ample evidence that incorporating ESG issues into investment decisions is part of responsible management as a fiduciary. Moreover, hundreds of global companies demonstrate leadership and transparency on sustainability issues. These companies’ action are not guided by “political and social interests” but by what is good for their investors and stakeholders over the long term.
NAM is a trade organization that represents and advocates for manufacturers across industrial sectors. Many NAM members are taking active steps on climate issues as a result of shareholder engagement. Nevertheless, NAM has established significant ties to MSIC, which purports to speak for investors, but which instead appears to be engaged in an attempt to undermine shareholders’ rights by denouncing ESG-related shareholder proposals and by suggesting shareholders’ concerns are politically motivated.
Why NAM is Attacking Shareholders Now
The investor letter noted that, “The emergence of MSIC and the release of this report come at a time when investor support for shareholder proposals is growing” because the “business case behind them is clear and convincing.” The signatories requested that the companies explain their views on MSIC’s public attempts to discredit investor engagement and shareholder proposals.
Over 80 institutional investors, including state and city pension funds, investor trade associations, investment firms and mutual funds, foundations and religious investors added their organization’s names in support of the letter.
Investors are actively engaging companies in their portfolios as concerns over climate risk grow. Most recently, investors representing approximately $30 trillion urged some 150 companies to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions, disclose their assessment of climate risks, and explain what actions they plan in response to climate risk.
Investors like BlackRock, Vanguard and State Street have made it clear that they want the companies in which they own shares to address climate risk.
“It is extremely bad timing for NAM and by implication the members of its board to be attacking investors addressing climate change at a moment when we desperately need to work together,” said Smith.
Since I am older than most of my readers, I offer the following historical perspective. The investor letter sent to the Executive Committee and Board NAM is correct in assuming that shareholder rights are under attack because their proposals are winning. The current fight on climate change and social issues reminds me of an older one on proxy access. In 1977 the SEC held a number of hearings to address corporate scandals. At that time, the Business Roundtable (BRT) recommended amendments to Rule 14a-8 that would allow access proposals, noting such amendments
… would do no more than allow the establishment of machinery to enable shareholders to exercise rights acknowledged to exist under state law.
The right to pursue proxy access at any given company was uncontroversial. In 1980 Unicare Services included a proposal to allow any three shareowners to nominate and place candidates on the proxy. Shareowners at Mobil proposed a “reasonable number,” while those at Union Oil proposed a threshold of “500 or more shareholders” to place nominees on corporate proxies.
One company argued that placing a minimum threshold on access would discriminate “in favor of large stockholders and to the detriment of small stockholders,” violating equal treatment principles. CalPERS participated in the movement, submitting a proposal in 1988 but withdrawing it when Texaco agreed to include their nominee.
Early attempts to win proxy access through shareowner resolutions met with the same fate as most resolutions in those days – they failed. But the tides of change turned. A 1987 proposal by Lewis Gilbert to allow shareowners to ratify the choice of auditors won a majority vote at Chock Full of O’Nuts Corporation and in 1988 Richard Foley’s proposal to redeem a poison pill won a majority vote at the Santa Fe Southern Pacific Corporation.
In 1990, without public discussion or a rule change, the SEC began issuing a series of no-action letters on proxy access proposals. The SEC’s about-face was prompted by fear that “private ordering,” through shareowner proposals was about to begin in earnest. It took more than 20 years of struggle to win back the right to file proxy access proposals.
Let’s hope the current attack on shareholder rights by NAM and the fake Main Street Investors Coalition does not set investor rights back by another 20 years.
Addendum: John Hale of Morningstar (Responses to CalSTRS/Walden letter)
In August of 2018, investors led by the California State Teachers’ Retirement System (CalSTRS) and Walden Asset Management called on the 45 companies sitting on the Executive Committee and Board of the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) to distance themselves from the Main Street Investors Coalition project and its objectives.
Of the companies contacted, Microsoft and Intel quickly said they would distance themselves from NAM on this issue. According to an August 14, 2018 letter from Fred Humphries, Corporate Vice President, U.S. Government Affairs at Microsoft:
“I’ve written to the CEO of NAM Jay Timmons to share our long experience with the positive value of shareholder engagement and to encourage NAM to consider this perspective.”
“[W]e do understand your concerns with aspects of recent MSIC statements and the NAM sponsored report ‘Political, environmental, and social shareholder proposals: do they create or destroy value?’, including language that frames issues addressed by ESG-related shareholder proposals as ‘politically charged’ instead of within the context of how these issues can impact shareholder value. We intend to share our perspective on the value of constructive ongoing investor-company engagement.
“We will continue to take action to advance corporate responsibility practices, improved transparency and climate change strategies, and engage with our stockholders as a key part of Intel’s and our Board’s corporate governance commitment.”
Good for Microsoft and Intel.
The other responses were less supportive. ConocoPhillips’ letter noted that it does have issues with the current shareholder-resolution process, but added this is not a “priority issue,” It doesn’t necessarily support every position taken by a trade association of which it is a member.
“ConocoPhillips recognizes the value of stockholder proposals, as well as the costs and burden of responding to formal stockholder resolutions. The Company wants to preserve stockholders’ access, but that does not imply that the current system for filing stockholder proposals could not be improved. While not currently a priority issue for the company, we are interested in an open dialogue on the topic, including ideas on criteria for reintroduction of stockholder resolutions which had previously been voted upon without passing.
“Our participation with a trade association does not imply that we are aligned on all issues; however, it does provide a seat at the table… . Our association membership should not be interpreted as a direct endorsement of the entire range of activities or positions undertaken by such trade associations.”
Cummins, Lockheed Martin, and Pfizer responded with general statements touting their shareholder engagement policies and activities, prompting this reply (to Pfizer) from Walden Asset Management:
“In our letter we raised a specific governance issue, specifically Pfizer’s role as a Board member of NAM. We also understand that Pfizer is a member of the Business Roundtable. Both organizations have chosen to lead aggressive attacks against shareholder rights and the ability to file resolutions.
“We are concerned that your dues and good reputation are being used in this campaign. We therefore appealed to Pfizer to state your own company position and agreement or disagreement with the NAM initiative. We are not asking Pfizer to disengage from the Buisness Roundtable or NAM, but to use your role as a responsible board member to address this issue and state that you do not believe these campaigns are in the best interests of companies that serve on their Board.
“We are aware that Pfizer has a long history of communication with trade associations, whether it be the U.S. Chamber of Commerce or ALEC. Thus, as our letter articulates, we are asking Pfizer to urge NAM to end their attacks on shareholder rights.”
The silence from most companies speaks volumes. Despite their stated support for shareholder engagement, they actually are supporting efforts to curtail shareholder rights. It is easier to hide behind NAM of the Main Street Investors Coalition than to be on the front lines as an individual company. Even if a company does not support NAM’s position in this case, NAM’s influence could come in handy on any number of other issues in the future. Hence, companies want to be members in good standing.
The third possibility is that a lot of member companies simply may not have been paying much attention to NAM’s attacks on shareholder rights. Groups like NAM operate with considerable autonomy from their membership, except during times when a major issue galvanizes the membership to demand action. At other times, a trade group may conjure up issues on its own that it believes its membership supports as part of an ongoing agenda that conveys to members that the group is actually doing the work that justifies its membership fees.
Great work by Walden Asset Management and CalSTRS in raising this issue with NAM members and pressing them to take action.
*I get the distinction between an actual lobbyist specifically hired by a corporation to pursue its unique interests in Washington and “trade associations”, which are pressure groups that advocate more generally, but all are part of the swamp.
Main Street Investors: Conclusion
The Main Street Investors Coalition fights a rear-guard battle. Yes, they can fund surveys that find most people invest primarily to earn money, not to have a social impact. However, people often invest with multiple objectives in mind. Not all their reasons are financial.
The Coalition tries to convince the public the only legitimate reason to own equities is for the highest financial gain, regardless of social or environmental consequences. They encourage investors to take a purely instrumental view of others and the natural world. What’s in it for me? Take, take, take without reciprocity.
Economics and politics suffer not from too much moral argument, but too little. Both fail to engage the big questions people care about. Winning in life is NOT dying with the most toys. We can neither empathize with others nor persuade them by sweeping our values or theirs under the rug. Finding shared norms requires moral imagination, exploration and dialogue, both as economic agents and citizens.
As Jessie Norman concludes in his book, Adam Smith: Father of Economics,
Economics itself needs to own up to its limitations… it has long been overly preoccupied with its own models rather than with the real-world phenomena they are supposed to represent… It encourages politicians to persist in the responsibility-abrogating technocratic fantasy that economics trumps politics and can itself solve issues of justice, fairness and social welfare… There can be no such thing as value-free economics.
There can also be no such thing as value-free investing. Both the modern democratic state and the modern evolving corporation depend on mutual moral obligation. For the center to hold, common values must be created through open dialogue and democratic elections, not by a few unaccountable individuals hidden in the shadows controlling companies like Wal-Mart, Koch Industries, Alphabet, or Facebook. See Recommendation of the Investor Advisory Committee: Dual Class and Other Entrenching Governance Structures in Public Companies. Both the purpose of the state and corporations must be discussed openly to create shared cultural values.
Like the Trump administration, the Main Street Investors Coalition seeks to win over public opinion, not through moral argument but largely through fake news and bluster. Hopefully, the Coalition’s campaign itself will open eyes to the need for wider participation in corporate governance by real Main Street investors, or as SEC Chairman Clayton calls them, Mr. and Ms. 401(k).
Jill Fisch, et al. addresses a central myth around index funds and investors in Passive Investors (June 29, 2018). Her research has implications applicable to recent analysis and recommendations by Delaware Supreme Court Chief Justice Leo E. Strine Jr., Professor Lucian Bebchuk and others. The following is the central highlight:
Our key insight is that although index funds are locked into their investments, their investors are not. Like all mutual fund shareholders, investors in index funds can exit at any time by selling their shares and receiving the net asset value of their ownership interest. This exit option causes mutual funds – active and passive – to compete for investors both on price and performance. While the conventional view focuses on the competition between passive funds tracking the same index, our analysis suggests that passive funds also compete against active funds. Passive fund sponsors therefore have an incentive to take measures to neutralize the comparative advantage enjoyed by active funds, that is, their ability to use their investment discretion to generate alpha. Because they cannot compete by exiting underperforming companies, passive investors must compete by using “voice” to prevent asset outflow.
In the case of Strine’s concerns with political contributions, use of “voice” would be voting in favor of measures requiring shareholder approval or at least transparency of political contributions. While Strine’s paper was based on actual behavior, Fisch points to potential, if funds operate logically. The potential for “voice” to ensure competitiveness with active investors also addresses, at least in part, some of Bebchuk’s concerns.
Fisch also points out in another paper (Shareholder Collaboration) that passive investors are increasingly engaged in information production of their own, not “just as ‘reticent’ supporters of initiatives undertaken by activist hedge funds.” Because of their size, huge passive index funds often cast deciding votes. Because of their market-wide focus, they often have information the firm insiders do not have. In many cases the potential rewards for index funds can be disproportionately high, compared to their investment in time, since they typically hold a significant portion of the outstanding stock at most large firms.
Fiduciary obligations are complicated. “Mutual funds’ fiduciary duties require them to vote in a manner that benefits their investors, not each company that they hold in their portfolio.” (Passive Investors) For example, holding both target and bidder might lead to a different vote than holding only one.
Most troubling was the following:
Delaware law provides shareholders with the right to vote their shares as they see fit and does not impose any obligation on shareholders to vote unselfishly or to further the economic interests of the corporation. [See, e.g., Ringling Bros.-Barnum & Bailey Combined Shows, Inc. v. Ringling, 53 A.2d 441, 447 (Del. 1947) (“Generally speaking, a shareholder may exercise wide liberality of judgment in the matter of voting, and it is not objectionable that his motives may be for personal profit, or determined by whims or caprice, so long as he violates no duty owed his fellow shareholders.”).]
Given that funds operate within such a weak standard, it is important that individuals, the real Main Street investors in index funds, have ready access to voting records in an easily compared format. Keith L. Johnson, et al., point out the importance of fiduciaries conducting “congruity analyses of proxy votes” with public statements statements by delegated fund managers.
As an example of how such potential inconsistencies might present, BlackRock states in its Investment Stewardship 2018 Annual Report, “During our direct engagements with companies, we address the issues covered by any shareholder proposals that we believe to be material to the long-term value of that company. Where management demonstrates a willingness to address the material issues raised, and we believe progress is being made, we will generally support the company and vote against the shareholder proposal.” (Emphasis added.)
On the surface, this stated practice of voting against shareholder resolutions that have been determined to be in the best interests of the company suggests there is a preference for supporting management over the interests of clients in improving company performance as soon as practical. The resulting disconnect between value creation and proxy voting sends mixed signals to clients, the company and the marketplace. It could have the practical effect of giving companies more room to ignore or delay value enhancing actions.
Fisch argues that index fund investors can switch and some can. However, many employer sponsored 401(k) and other plans provide few choices. Main Street investors are often, as Strine notes, “forced capitalists.” If their 401(k) plan administrators take little or no initiative to investigate potential conflicts or breaches of fiduciary duty, how would they know? Like index funds themselves, the only tool “forced capitalists” might have is “voice.” However, like index funds, they need information before they can voice concerns.
Under the current system, proxy votes only need to be disclosed once a year and can be in a format that makes sorting and analysis difficult. More frequent, transparent and user friendly proxy voting records would make it easier for employees to argue for investment options better aligned with value creation. Such information would also make it more difficult for employers to ignore their fiduciary duties.
Real-time, or close to real-time, proxy voting disclosures using an internet window into each fund’s existing proxy voting platform would facilitate the ability of Main Street investors, the beneficial owners, to hold companies accountable through the complex chain of ownership. Several public pension and “socially responsibe” mutual funds have made such disclosures for many years. (See an incomplete list in our Shareowner Action Handbook.)
I will address more of the rationale and benefits of “real-time” disclosure in an upcoming post. Check back or subscribe to email notifications.
Lucian Bebchuk has given more thought to the issues surrounding the Big Three Index Funds than other researchers. He and Scott Hirst recently provide a “comprehensive theoretical, empirical, and policy analysis of index fund stewardship.” Reference also Strine: Big 4 Responsible to “Forced Capitalists,” as well as The Untenable Case for Keeping Investors in the Dark by Bebchuk, et al. as we examine further strategies to make large investors work more effectively for those who use their services. Continue Reading →
In a recent paper, Delaware Supreme Court Chief Justice Leo E. Strine Jr. excoriates the Big 4 mutual fund families for voting against shareholder proposals seeking transparency for political contributions. His recommended action is radical. I offer a more moderate strategy. Continue Reading →
Do the Opposite was funny in the sitcom Seinfeld but not so funny when Franklin Resources does the opposite of shareholder proposals. In fact, doing the opposite threatens the existence of even the facade of democratic corporate governance, alive since 1947 with the legal right of shareholders to file and vote on proposals. Continue Reading →
Thanks to Scott Hirst‘s articles and papers on the subject, I can borrow his catchy label for one of biggest current problems in corporate governance. Frozen charters are supermajority provisions that are impossible to repeal. He appears to attribute that to the 2012 change by the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE), which changed its policies to prohibit brokers from voting uninstructed shares on corporate governance proposals. I would lay a larger share of the blame on founders who wrote the frozen charters to forever retain a large degree of control. Regardless of who is to blame, frozen charters are a problem that needs fixed. Managers, boards, shareholders, Republicans and Democrats should all be able agree on a solution. Continue Reading →
Support for corporate political disclosure sponsored by the Center for Political Accountability’s resolution jumped among the largest mutual funds in 2018. An analysis by Fund Votes found support moved to 53%, up from 45% in 2017. This 8% increase was the largest since CPA began tracking institutional investor votes on its resolution in 2008. Continue Reading →
Listing standards change sought by the Council of Institutional Investors (CII). CII filed petitions with the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) and the NASDAQ, asking both to limit listings of companies with dual-class share structures. They have taken the right approach to address a growing problem. I hope it ends a worldwide race to the bottom for listing standards. Alternatively, adoption of the suggested listing standards could reestablish that US based companies are more democratic and accountable than counterparts based elsewhere. Continue Reading →
SB 826 requires specified California-based public corporations to include women directors on their board. Sidley Austin LLP put out a bulletin on the topic. To ensure it receives widespread circulation, I am reproducing its main text below, with one minor change to break up an absurdly long sentence. Continue Reading →
The battle over Main Street Investors could determine the future of the American economy for decades to come. According to Cydney Posner of Cooley PubCo, on one side are those who believe investors must focus on maximizing financial return and management knows best. On the other side are those who want to broaden the focus of investors to include environmental, social and governance (ESG) issues, with everyone participating in the debate. Continue Reading →
Shareholder Collaboration is a new ECGI working paper by Jill Fisch and Simone M. Sepe. Fisch is one of my favorite researchers, being insightful and less predictable than many of those in the primary academic hubs of corporate governance (Harvard, Stanford, and Delaware). In Shareholder Collaboration, the authors discuss the growing importance of a collaborative model, in contrast to models based on management power or shareholder power. (download paper in pdf) Continue Reading →
Tesla Proxy Access, item #4
Tesla shareholders meet Tuesday, June 5, 2018, at 2:30 p.m. Pacific Time, at the Computer History Museum located at 1401 N. Shoreline Blvd., Mountain View, CA 94043. In the interest of more accurate press coverage of Tesla Proxy Access, item #4, I (James McRitchie) am posting the text of my draft presentation on Tesla Proxy Access in advance. Continue Reading →
The Culture Impact: Values, Attitudes & Strategic Directions
Culture impact in corporate governance got a big boost with NACD Blue Ribbon Commission report Culture as a Corporate Asset. A brave panel tackled the topic, The Culture Impact: Values, Attitudes & Strategic Directions, at the Corporate Directors Forums I attended in San Diego. Like all Corporate Directors Forums, this one operated under the Chatham House Rule, so you will not find any direct quotes below. These are my notes on The Culture Impact. As such, they include my opinions as well observations made by speakers, panelists and others in attendance at the Forum. This is certainly not a transcript. However, I hope even those who attended the Forum will find the post useful, especially my attempt to provide additional context through links and commentary.
To learn more about the 13th annual Directors Forum: Directors, Management & Shareholders in Dialogue conference, click on the following: @corpdirforum on Twitter, tweets from
#CorpDirForum2018 that often link to other posts, #corpgov #boards website, and Linkedin.
The Culture Impact: Panelists
- Moderator: Michael Berthelot, Director, Fresh Del Monte Produce Company, CEO, Cito Capital Corp; and Managing Principal, Corporate Governance Advisors, Inc.
- Stephen L. Brown, Senior Advisor, KPMG Board Leadership Center
- Joann Lublin, Pulitzer-Prize Winning Journalist & Management News Editor, The Wall Street Journal; Author, Earning It
- Bryan Cornwall, Founder & Principal, Cornwall Bioengineering & Communications
- Hanna Grene, Policy Director, Center for Sustainable Energy
The Culture Impact: My Notes
Paper forthcoming on Wells Fargo and Uber by Hanna Grene and Bryan Cornwall to be published on Equilar website. I will be waiting with anticipation. How would we react? What tools do we have available? It seems to me, the problems were an open “secret,” not unlike Harvey Weinstein. The basics of the Wells Fargo scandal were reported in the LA Times in 2013. Los Angeles sued in 2015. The Board didn’t issue their own internal study until April 2017. Too little, too late with Federal Reserve placing the first firmwide limit on a bank as Chair Janet Yellen stepped down. Wells Fargo announced concurrently that it would replace 4 board members, three by April. Wells Fargo will be included in case studies on culture impact for years to come.
Similarly, Uber’s “hard charging” workplace environment was hardly a secret and had adverse corporate culture. Culture was key. Uber was (is?) aggressive and overbearing. Whereas founder Travis Kalanick’s motto might have been something like, “get it done,” the new CEO Dara Khosrowshahi has adopted ‘We do the right thing. Period.’ Media impact was huge reason for change. We see the influence of media, especially social media, even more after the latest mass shooting. (Mass shootings have made gun stocks toxic assets on Wall Street)
The Culture Impact: Public Opinion Sidebar
Renee Aggarwal, Isil Erel and Laura T. Starks, Influence of Public Opinion on Investor Voting and Proxy Advisors (August 6, 2014, Georgetown McDonough School of Business Research Paper No. 2447012; available at SSRN) found that investors have been “voting less with the recommendations of management or proxy advisors.” In contrast,
public opinion on corporate governance issues, as reflected in media coverage and surveys, is strongly associated with investor voting, particularly mutual fund voting. In addition, even proxy advisor’s recommendations are associated with public opinion… media coverage captures the attention of proxy advisors, institutional investors and individual investors, and is thus reflected in recommendations and votes.
The researchers looked at each proxy proposal for each firm in the Russell 3000 Index for the period January 2004 through November 2010. They looked not only at voting records and ISS recommendations but also media coverage of executive compensation, as well as Gallup surveys of public opinion.
A few highlights from their research are as follows:
- Mean support for shareholder proposals increased from 23.6% in 2004 to 31.8% in 2010, after peaking at 37% in 2009.
- Institutions voted with management on shareholder proposals 74% of the time in 2004 but only 54% of the time by 2010.
- Investor agreement with ISS advice went from 78.4% in 2004 to 57.5% in 2010.
- In 2004, 60% of investors followed ISS opposition to proposals but only 20% did so by 2010.
- The proportion of shareholder proposals opposed by ISS declined from 156.4% in 2010 to 30.5% by 2010.
- Support for shareholder proposals increases by 3.15%-2.69% if there is a one standard deviation increase in media coverage.
Our results suggest that public opinion, as measure through either Gallop Poll survey or media coverage at the aggregate and firm level, influences shareholder voting. The implications of these results are that financial intermediaries, such as mutual funds, pay attention to the shareholders’ preferences regarding corporate governance. These results hold even after controlling for the recommendations of the proxy advisor.
The Culture Impact: Back to Conference Notes
Executives sometimes make it known they did not want negative feedback. How do directors make changes before a negative story appears on the upper fold of a major newspaper?
If you are a high performer, culture impact may be nonexistent for a while; you can do anything you want. But the buck stops at the board, not the CEO. The board needs to be willing to second guess. The board needs to wonder about what you do not know. The board should insure it has independent sources of information. Some argue they have their own independent staff. Activists often do, and they often turn out to be good board members in part because of those additional resources. Every board member should have a responsibility to visit branches, have many experiences as a customer or user. Uber board members seem to have been blind-sided with rapid growth. They waited to long to go after the CEO. Mandatory unconscious bias training might have helped.
The NACD Blue Ribbon report has many tools. Regulatory or the courts; markets or self-reflection. Unfortunately, too often boards seem to be wearing blinders. We are unlikely to see regulatory reform on culture impact. Pressure seems more likely from major shareholders like BlackRock’ announcement to gunmakers. Shareholders have the ability to push back. They have the right to vote boards off the island. Larry Fink’s letter this year said companies must have “a sense of purpose.” Companies have culture impact.
Furthermore, the board is essential to helping a company articulate and pursue its purpose, as well as respond to the questions that are increasingly important to its investors, its consumers, and the communities in which it operates. In the current environment, these stakeholders are demanding that companies exercise leadership on a broader range of issues. And they are right to: a company’s ability to manage environmental, social, and governance matters demonstrates the leadership and good governance that is so essential to sustainable growth, which is why we are increasingly integrating these issues into our investment process.
Your vote is really important. At Wells Fargo and Uber we saw a failures of courage. Uber had frat boy culture. Culture, character and courage… that is what it takes. Wells Fargo seems to have had a culture of, ‘cheat and you can stay; don’t cheat and you are fired.’ Boards need to be more transparent around reports and actions taken, not just to reduce potential liabilities but also to help your company live up to its purpose.
Investigations must be reported up. HR should number and track complaints so they do not get lost. Boards should get routine reports to assess culture impact — to see trends and outliers. Boards should seek the right answers. Non-financial measures should be to be tied to compensation. In an M&A, which culture will prevail? Which culture to keep.
The role of HR. Is it to protect the company or to protect and develop employees? Heads of HR should address boards more frequently. Directors have to spot the data anomalies. Culture is important and is part of their fiduciary duty.
The Culture Impact: Recent Related Posts
- Culture as a Corporate Asset
- General Counsel: Corporate Culture Influencer
- Director Liability: Boards are on the hot seat over data breaches, illegal sales practices and more
Shifting Investor Perspectives on Climate Risk & Board Climate Competency
These notes on climate competency are my last post from the Council of Institutional Investors Fall 2017 conference. Find more at
#CIIFall2017. As a member of the press, I was excluded from the policy-making meetings. Still, it was a great opportunity to touch base with members of CII and to learn of recent developments and where we may be headed.
Walden Moves BlackRock: Background
A number of investors, led by Walden moves BlackRock on climate Risk. Walden Asset Management and the Center for Community Change, along with the City of Seattle Employees’ Retirement System and First Affirmative Financial Network, filed a shareholder resolution requesting a review of BlackRock’s proxy voting process and record on climate change.
Following extensive engagement and constructive dialogue between BlackRock, Walden and a number of investors, the shareholder resolution was withdrawn. As a result of the dialogue, BlackRock has updated its website to provide fresh insights into the ways it believes climate change creates risks and opportunities for companies. BlackRock also noted that climate risk will be a priority for their engagement with companies and boards throughout 2017 and 2018. Continue Reading →
The Investor Stewardship Group (link), a collective of some of the largest U.S.-based institutional investors and global asset managers, along with several of their international counterparts, announced the launch of the Framework for U.S. Stewardship and Governance, a historic, sustained initiative to establish a framework of basic standards of investment stewardship and corporate governance for U.S. institutional investor and boardroom conduct.
My own impression is that this group has been carefully constructed, probably stemming from many discussions at ICGN and CII. They have certainly started with an impressive group. Although most of the principles are relatively ‘safe,’ I am delighted to see their position that “shareholders should be entitled to voting rights in proportion to their economic interest.” That one recommendation alone is huge. I hope they continue to build on their initial consensus items.
Of course, the internet changes everything. Companies used to go public to raise money for factories, staff, etc. Now, they raise funds from private equity funds and scale all the way because they can build out through the internet with coding and algorithms. They go public only when founders and initial supporters want to cash out a portion of their investment. Continue Reading →
Large institutional investors, concerned about portfolio risks stemming from the effects of global warming, are calling for climate-competent boards and directors as part of their fiduciary responsibility to preserve and enhance the long-term value of their investment assets.
Despite the anticipated rollback of climate related governmental policies such as the Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Power Plan and limits on methane emissions by the Trump administration, investors still need to understand the risks that climate change poses to their portfolios. Unequivocal disclosures and boards equipped to manage and govern climate risk will be more important than ever. Now, however, it appears investors will not able to rely on federal regulatory standards or policy interventions to manage climate risk related to greenhouse gas emissions and the emphasis on fossil fuel production. They will be left to their devices to understand the very real financial impacts that climate issues could have on their portfolios. Continue Reading →
The so-called Commonsense Principles of Corporate Governance are posted here mostly for my future reference, since I don’t know how long others will keep them on the internet. The authors are no radicals, but are a group of 13 executives from the country’s largest public companies and institutional investors… very much mainstream CEOs. Almost half hold both CEO and chair positions, a practice many investors consider bad corporate governance. The Commonsense Principles are supposed to “provide a basic framework for sound, long-term oriented governance” at public companies. Continue Reading →
There it was under my tree, Reeds delivered a corrected proxy for Christmas!
Santa has finally been good to Reeds (REED) shareholders.
I’m tacking notification of the corrected proxy as a sign that Founder/CEO, Christopher Reed might be at the start of a new attitude toward SEC rules and corporate governance, I changed my vote. I voted for Mr. Reed, the auditors, my own proposal to require a majority vote to elect directors and against the rest of the board and the “incentive” stock option plan. The incentive plan lack specificity.
Of course, my proxy didn’t magically appear under my Christmas tree. Reeds Inc. had to pay to have the link to their revised proxy sent out by Broadridge to brokers and banks all over the country. After being reminded several times, Reeds finally did the right thing. Unfortunately, their reluctance and delay necessitated postponing their annual meeting for more than a week but, despite the additional cost to company and shareholders (including me), it is good to see our company now following the law. Continue Reading →
BlackRock, Inc. (NYSE:BLK), one of the stocks in my portfolio, provides investment management, risk management and advisory services for institutional and retail clients worldwide. Their annual meeting is coming up on 5/28/2015. ProxyDemocracy.org had the votes of one fund when I checked on 5/19/2015. I voted with Board recommendations 65% of the time.
BlackRock $BLK is one of the stocks in my portfolio. Their annual meeting is coming up on 5/29/2014. ProxyDemocracy.org had collected the votes of one fund when I checked and voted on 5/21/2014. I voted with management 65% of the time. View Proxy Statement. Read Warnings below. What follows are my proxy voting recommendations for BLK. Continue Reading →
FTSE Group (“FTSE”), the global index provider, announced the launch of the FTSE Developed ex Fossil Fuels Index Series, an innovative set of benchmark indices that excludes companies linked to exploration, ownership or extraction of (carbon reserves) fossil fuels. This ground-breaking launch is leading the way to implementation of a total exclusion model for fossil fuel-linked stocks, so that excluded enterprises are removed entirely from the Index Series. Continue Reading →
BlackRock (NYSE:BLK) and the National Association of Corporate Directors (NACD) have issued a call for papers that address global governance challenges. Academics and governance practitioners are invited to submit original papers focused on emerging issues and opportunities likely to impact boardrooms and/or shareholders over the next decade. Continue Reading →
Let’s just label these notes as “for entertainment purposes only.” Attending the conference was a real pleasure. Unfortunately, I was too busy catching up with people to take more than impressionistic notes at a few of the discussions. Prepare to be frightened about global climate change and our irresponsibly slow pace addressing the catastrophic consequences we are already beginning to see all around us. Save April 30 and May 1 for Ceres Conference 2014 in Boston. Continue Reading →