Tag Archives | Jill Fisch

Jill Fisch: Index Funds Investors Can Switch

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.

   

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Shareholder Collaboration

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 →

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Standing Voting Instructions: Reviewed

Standing Voting Instructions: Empowering the Excluded Retail Investor by Jill E Fisch just could be the most important article on corporate governance this year… if it is widely read and acted on. Download at ecgiPenn Law or SSRN. The above photo is from Small Investors Support the Boards. But Few of Them Vote, The New York Times. Unfortunately, most will not bother to read the article. What follows is both and summary of main points and my commentary. Hopefully, this post will lead to reading the research and adding your voice to those petitioning the SEC to facilitate standing voting instructions. Continue Reading →

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Best Practices Spread from Well-Governed Companies

Well-Governed CompaniesAs I have advised companies where I have submitted proxy access proposals,  I am not singling out your company with the aim of implementing proxy access. In fact, I would rather first target well-governed companies, which are more likely to adopt best practices as outlined by the Council of Institutional Investors. Best practices generally spread from well-governed companies to companies that are not well-governed, not the other way around.  We can’t portray a company as having bad corporate governance, as an outlier, until most companies have adopted best practices. Continue Reading →

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Recent Research on SSRN

Abstracts from a few papers posted this month to the Social Science Research Newtork.

Hall, Thomas W. and Jörgensen, Fredrik A., Ownership and Performance in Europe (2012). Forthcoming, Review of Business. The authors consider the relationship between performance and ownership concentration in a large number of publicly traded and privately held companies located in smaller European economies (Austria, Belgium, Finland, Ireland, and Ukraine). Continue Reading →

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Leave it to Delaware: Why Congress Should Stay out of Corporate Governance

The Delaware Journal of Corporate Law recently announced their hosting of the 27th Annual Francis G. Pileggi Distinguished Lecture in Law with the above topic by Professor Jill E. Fisch. The lecturer is a leading voice in the field of corporation law, and the lecture provides the Delaware Bar, particularly the members of the bench on both the Court of Chancery and the Supreme Court, an opportunity to challenge academia with practical concerns. The notice is available here. Registration information is available here. September 23, 2011 in Wilmington.

Jill E. Fisch is a nationally known scholar, whose work focuses on the intersection of business and law, including the role of regulation and litigation in addressing limitations in the disciplinary power of the capital markets. Her 1997 paper, Retroactivity and Legal Change: An Equilibrium Approach (Harvard Law Review), introduced a new framework for retroactivity analysis that could apply to both adjudication and legislation. Her 2003 paper (with Stephen Choi), How to Fix Wall Street: A Voucher Financing Proposal for Securities Intermediaries (Yale Law Journal), proposed a voucher financing mechanism to increase accountability for securities intermediaries such as research analysts, proxy advisors and credit rating agencies.

The Destructive Ambiguity of Federal Proxy Access posits that private ordering, within the framework of existing state regulation, offers a more flexible mechanism for maintaining equilibrium in the allocation of power between shareholder and managers. The article concludes by outlining the federal regulatory changes necessary to enable effective private ordering.

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