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 →
Tag Archives | Main Street Investors Coalition
Real-time proxy voting disclosure by big funds could drive competition for investments from individual investors and smaller institutional investors with few resources for proxy analysis. Such disclosures would also go a long way in solving problems raised by Delaware Supreme Court Chief Justice Leo E. Strine, Lucian Bebchuk, and the Main Street Investors Coalition regarding potential conflicts of interest and/or under/over investment in ESG analysis and advocacy. The cost of real-time proxy voting disclosure would be minimal and may actually save funds money currently spent converting voting files to pdfs.
Real-time disclosure would help customers compare voting records and could drive competition among big funds to vote the predominant values of their customers. For ease of use, Compare CalSTRS’ sortable real-time disclosures with those of State Street Institutional Investment Trust. [Graphic above from Pensions & Investments article, No excuse for fiduciary ignorance, 2/19/2018] 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).
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 →
US SIF study documents environmental, social, and governance — ESG assets — under management surging. ESG assets now account for one in every four investment dollars. Demand for ESG asset focus is coming from real people.
In contrast, the Main Street Investors Coalition [funded by the National Association of Manufacturing (NAM)], insists on “maximizing performance ahead of pursuing social and political objectives.” If NAM gets its way, ESG assets will be cut to a trickle.
In a letter to the SEC ahead of an upcoming Staff Roundtable on the Proxy Process NAM writes,
Investment advisers should have policies and procedures in place that require the identification of a clear link to shareholder value creation before voting in favor of any proxy proposal, including those focused on ESG topics.
However, as you will read below, the public wants to move in a different direction. The public wants to invest in ESG assets – those geared toward not only making money but creating a better world.
The US SIF Foundation’s 2018 biennial Report on US Sustainable, Responsible and Impact Investing Trends, found that sustainable, responsible and impact investing, SRI assets, now account for $12.0 trillion—or one in four dollars—of the $46.6 trillion in total assets under professional management in the United States. This represents a 38 percent increase over 2016.
The Trends Report—first compiled in 1995—is the most comprehensive study of sustainable and impact investing in the United States. From the first report when assets totaled just $639 billion to today, the sustainable and responsible investing industry has grown 18-fold and has matured and expanded across numerous asset classes.
The 2018 report identified $11.6 trillion in ESG incorporation assets under management at the outset of 2018 held by 496 institutional investors, 365 money managers and 1,145 community investing financial institutions. The largest percentage of money managers cited client demand as their top motivation for pursuing ESG incorporation, while the largest number of institutional investors cited fulfilling mission and pursuing social benefit as their top motivations.
In addition, 165 institutional investors and 54 investment managers collectively controlling nearly $1.8 trillion in assets filed or co-filed shareholder resolutions on ESG issues between 2016 and the first half of 2018.
Eliminating double counting for assets involved in both ESG incorporation and filing shareholder resolutions produces the net total of $12.0 trillion in SRI strategies at the start of 2018.
Money managers and institutions are utilizing ESG criteria and shareholder engagement to address a plethora of issues including climate change, diversity, human rights, weapons and political spending,
said Lisa Woll, US SIF Foundation CEO. Additionally, retail and high net worth individuals are increasingly utilizing this investment approach with $3 trillion in sustainable assets.
Ellen Dorsey, Executive Director of the Wallace Global Fund, a leading foundation endowment that has embraced sustainable investing and supported the Trends Report since 2010, noted,
We support this research as a critical tool to track crucial trends in the industry and benchmark our own goal of 100% mission alignment, as we promote an informed and engaged citizenry, help fight injustice and protect the diversity of nature.
According to Amy O’Brien, Global Head of Responsible Investing at Nuveen, the investment management division of TIAA:
What the US SIF Trends Report shows incontrovertibly, is that investors are truly beginning to understand the value of ESG considerations as an effective means of managing risk and improving investment performance. With an intensified focus on important issues such as climate change and corporate board gender diversity, we hope to see creative solutions that will help address these challenges, and in turn, drive shareholder value in the years ahead.
Top ESG Asset Criteria
The relative prominence of specific ESG criteria differed between money managers (firms that manage assets on behalf of others) and institutional asset owners (entities like pension funds, foundations and educational endowments that own and invest assets, often via money managers).
The report breaks out the top ESG issues by types of investment vehicles, including registered investment companies, such as mutual funds and exchange traded funds (ETFs), private equity and venture capital funds, community investing institutions and others.
The report also provides detail on the top ESG criteria by each of nine types of institutions: public funds, insurance companies, educational institutions, philanthropic foundations, labor funds, hospitals and healthcare plans, faith-based institutions, other nonprofits and family offices.
Asset managers: Climate change was the most important specific ESG issue considered by money managers in asset-weighted terms; the assets to which this criterion applies more than doubled from 2016 to 2018 to $3.0 trillion. Other top ESG categories included tobacco, conflict risk, human rights, and transparency/anti-corruption. Concern among money managers and their clients about civilian firearms was also on the rise.
Asset owners: For institutional asset owners, conflict risk was the top specific ESG criteria, up 8 percent from 2016 to $3.0 trillion followed by tobacco, carbon/climate change, board issues, and executive pay.
Investor Advocacy for ESG Issues
From 2016 through the first half of 2018, 165 institutional investors and 54 investment managers collectively controlling nearly $1.8 trillion in assets at the start of 2018 filed or co-filed shareholder resolutions on ESG issues. “Proxy access” was the leading issue raised in shareholder proposals, followed by disclosure and management of corporate political spending and lobbying.
The proportion of shareholder proposals on social and environmental issues that receive high levels of support has been trending upward. During the proxy seasons of 2012-2015, only three shareholder proposals on environmental and social issues that were opposed by management received majority support, while 18 such proposals received majority support in 2016 through 2018.
In addition, the number of survey respondents that reported engaging in dialogue with companies on ESG issues increased notably since 2016.
Both the number and assets under management of registered investment companies incorporating ESG continued to grow at a strong pace. Assets in mutual funds reached $2.6 trillion, up 34 percent over 2016, and the number of ETFs more than doubled from 25 to 69.
ESG assets under management in 780 alternative investment vehicles, including private equity and venture capital funds, hedge funds, and real estate investment trusts (REITs) or other property funds, totaled $588 billion at the start of 2018. This is nearly triple the assets identified in 2016, and an 89 percent increase in the number of funds.
With assets of $185.4 billion, the community investing sector, which includes community development banks, credit unions, loan and venture funds, has experienced rapid growth over the last decade, nearly doubling in assets between 2014 and 2016, and growing more than 50 percent from 2016 to 2018.
The National Association of Manufacturing claims to have formed the Main Street Investors Coalition to ensure the individual investor’s interests are considered. Yet, money is pouring into ESG assets because more and more individuals are investing their values.
That letter from NAM to the SEC also asks that proxy proposal resubmission levels be raised from 3% of the vote in year one, 6% after two years and 10% after three to new thresholds of 6%, 15% and 30% respectively. Additionally, “NAM supports increasing the existing $2,000 threshold to a level that more appropriately reflects true ‘skin in the game’ for a shareholder sponsoring a proposal.” At least one bill in Congress aims at setting that level at 1% of the total value of the company
In summary, at a time when the public is clamoring for ESG assets and shareholder proposals to address ESG issues, NAM is calling on the SEC to:
- double or triple resubmission thresholds on proxy proposals,
- eliminate most proposals through high thresholds required for initial submissions,
- prohibit investor advisors from voting for shareholder proposal unless they have identified the proposal is clearly linked to “shareholder value creation.”
Can NAM stem the flood of ESG assets? The SEC was created to protect investors. NAM seems to be asking the SEC to protect corporate managers from investors.
The November 15 SEC Roundtable on the Proxy Process will include me on the SEC Shareholder Proposal Panel. Public announcement with instructions for submitting comments. I will only have a few minutes at the Roundtable. What should I emphasize? Where should I stay in DC?
Take Action: Readers of CorpGov.net know far more than I do. Please email your suggestions and supporting evidence. Without your help, I will ramble off topic to connected tangents, difficult to explain in a few seconds. This post is sure to be an example. 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 →
“Impact investing” – financial investments designed to generate a measurable, positive impact on society, while also providing potential returns – is growing in popularity, according to new research conducted by American Century Investments. The “appeal” of impact investing reached 49% among 2018 survey participants, compared to 38% in 2016. At 56%, Millennials find impact investing most appealing, followed by Gen Xers and Baby Boomers at 52% and 44%, respectively. Continue Reading →
The deceptive title of a recent op-ed in the Wall Street Journal would not keep politics out of the boardroom. Instead, the recommendations would deny shareholders the right to request boards disclose those politics, in addition to denying many other long-standing rights. Read the op-ed and weep that such trash gets published in the Journal.
This is my response to the 7/18/2018 op-ed “Keep Politics Out of the Boardroom” by Phil Gramm and Mike Solon. I waited before publishing this, in case WSJ chose to publish my rebuttal. They did not. Continue Reading →
A Nation of Small Shareholders: Marketing Wall Street after World War II (Studies in Industry and Society) by Janice M. Traflet (link to buy) explains how an ad campaign began to transform American finance. With all the current focus on Main Street investors, A Nation of Small Shareholders could be revisited and transformed to include more Americans in a dynamic capitalism that embraces the values of American citizens. Continue Reading →
SEC Strategic Plan
SEC Strategic Plan focuses on helping “Main Street“make “informed investment decisions.” Little or no attention is paid in the draft Plan to helping us make informed governance decisions. Continue Reading →