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Recent Reports from Broc

Broc Romanek posted the results of one of his recent surveys of upcoming proxy issues in their blog. About 33% of his mostly corporate respondents are worried or very worried about the impact of elimination of broker nonvotes. About 12% appear to be more likely to use a proxy solicitor during the 2010 season. Almost 55% have a majority vote standard and the movement still appears to be in that direction, although at a reduced pace.

Broc also posted the transcript for a webcast: “Pat McGurn’s Forecast for 2010 Proxy Season: Wild and Woolly.” One major point is that McGurn sees more focus  on making sure that true majority voting rules are in place at more companies going forward in order to be able to have a real say over directors.

Also posted at theCorporateCounsel.net is Inside Track with Broc: Mark Schlegel on Moxy Vote (1/11/10). Another good reason to subscribe. Speaking of MoxyVote, I got an e-mail from them notifying me that one of my brokers had agreed to direct future proxy ballots to MoxyVote.com, so I will soon be able to receive and vote them on that platform, as well as to get voting advice. Good one-stop shop.

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Advocacy websites offer hope

Nice article by that title appeared in Canada’s Financial Post. “Imagine a democracy where those who don’t vote have their ballots automatically cast in favour of the incumbents… Enter an idea whose time has come: websites such as corpgov.net, shareowners.org (corrected), proxydemocracy.org and moxyvote.com. These are just four offerings on the Internet designed to help disgruntled shareholders organize and register their displeasure or lobby for change.” (1/26/2010) Prior article was entitled Shareholder democracy oxymoron (FP, 1/25/2010)

Reporter, Diane Francis, goes on to compare our sites to the Politics 2.0 social movement that elected Obama. She concludes with a quote from former New York governor Eliot Spitzer from an article in the Wall Street Journal. “Virtually every thoughtful discussion of corporate governance concludes that unless shareholders act like the true owners they are, all the proposed corporate reforms will fail. While there are some who claim shareholders are simply too ill-informed to participate meaningfully, this argument should carry no more weight in the corporate context than it does in the traditional political arena.”

I certainly hope the sites mentioned by Ms. Francis, and others such as isuffrage.org, Lemonjuice.biz and theRacetotheBottom.org, can foster the type of movement that changed politics… and I hope we can do it sustainably.

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Can We Change Voting Behavior?

We Own You!: How technology can help stockholders take control of the corporations they own, Slate.com, 1/12/10.  Eliot Spitzer writes,  “Twitter, text messages, YouTube, and other technology transformed politics in 2008. This success raises a compelling question: Can the same technology awaken the more dormant world of corporate democracy?… Could proxy voting in 2011 generate the same enthusiasm as actual voting did in 2008?” It just might if we can get a few people with Spitzer’s star power to focus attention.

Good to see Eliot Spitzer talking up use of ProxyDemocracy.org, MoxyVote.com and Shareowners.org. He gets his facts slightly wrong, Both ProxyDemocracy.org AND MoxyVote.com intend to be neutral information providers. MoxyVote.com labels its information sources as “advocates” but that doesn’t mean MoxyVote.com agrees with them.

Both work on the concept of trusted brands to help shareowners vote more easily and more intelligently. In the case of ProxyDemocracy.org, their “respected institutional investors” spend considerable resources investigating not only resolutions but also director nominees. By announcing their votes in advance, they allow retail shareowners to benefit from their research and they create brands with a larger following than they would have voting alone.

Spitzer says there are at least two critical hurdles that still have to be overcome:

  1. “First, most shareholders don’t vote because they assume their votes don’t matter; shareholder votes are almost never close.” However, this year that is changing. With most of the Fortune 500 using majority vote requirements to elect directors and with “broker votes” no longer allowed when retail shareowners fail to vote within 10 days of the annual meeting, your vote counts more than ever. We are sure to see several directors turned out of office. That doesn’t stop them from replacing tweedle dee with tweedle dum, but its a good start.
  2. “There is no water cooler for corporate democracy. A presidential or mayoral race prompts conversations among friends and colleagues and generates daily press coverage. A corporate proxy vote doesn’t. We don’t all own the same shares, and even if we did, we probably wouldn’t talk about it.” That’s where sites like Shareowners.org and my own blog come in. People should be talking about how they are voting. It would be great to have TV shows like the Nightly Business Report actually providing analysis of the issues facing owners, rather than tips for the next bet. If PBS doesn’t do it, Spitzer could do it through Slate.com.

Of the two problems, the second is more important. When shareowners start talking to each other about how they’re voting, more will vote… and, more will vote intelligently. We will also start taking on more of the issues that currently send the system off balance.

For example, this morning I received a copy of a letter from Goldman Sachs to the SEC referencing my resolution to allow shareowners to ask the board to amend the bylaws, allowing owners of 10% of the company’s stock to call a special meeting. Management at Goldman Sachs wants to omit the resolution from the proxy on the basis that they intend to submit a proposal to the 2010 annual meeting to allow shareowners of 25% to hold a special meeting.

They argue that Rule 14a-8(i)(9) allows them to exclude the proposal from its proxy, since the proposal directly conflicts with their proposal. In the past, the SEC has allowed such exclusion based on confusion that would reign if shareowners passed both resolutions. That is nonsense. If both pass, the lower threshold applies. If we can ever get the “water cooler” discussions going around corporate democracy, shareowners won’t stand for a system that tips the balance of power to management at every turn. We will see if the SEC under Mary Schapiro acts to protect shareowners by allowing the resolution, or if they protect management by issuing a “no action” letter.

“Street name registration” undermines our culture, turning investors into gamblers by providing them “security entitlements,” instead of real ownership rights. Just as poker chips allow us to play under rules which often favor the house, those holding “security entitlements” do not acquire the rights of share owners. For example, one right sharowners have is to receive a proxy, whereas those of us registered in street name receive a voter instruction form (VIF). SEC rules guarantee certain rights to proxy holders but not, it is argued, to those voting through VIFs. (see
Investors Against Genocide Fighting American Funds, Broadridge and Vague SEC Requirements: More Problems Solved Using Direct Registration.

On January 13th I will post a draft petition to the SEC that I have been working on with Glyn Holton, of the United States Proxy Exchange, and others to convert from “street name” to a system of direct registration. I hope you will consider signing on as a co-filer. Can we change voting behavior? Yes, we can! Just give us the rights of ownership and see how democracy transforms the world of corporations.

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Handbook of Social Capital

When Tocqueville visited the United States in the 1830s, it was our propensity for civic association that impressed him as the key to making democracy work. "Americans of all ages, all stations in life, and all types of disposition:’ he observed, "are forever
forming associations. There are not only commercial and industrial associations in which all take part, but others of a thousand different types–religious, moral, serious, futile, very general and very limited, immensely large and very minute…. Nothing, in my view, deserves more attention than the intellectual and moral associations in America." Robert D. Putnam’s famous 1995 essay, Bowling Alone, introduced many to the concept of social capital.

Gert Tinggaard Svendsen and Gunnar Lind Haase Svendsen have edited an informative and greatly expanded update. The "Handbook Of Social Capital: The Troika of Sociology, Political Science and Economics" examines how three disciplines work together in developing and shaping networks. Economics primarily focuses on transaction costs. Political science focuses on institutions and sociology focuses on the norms that regulate behavior.

Life is easier in communities with high social capital. Networks of civic engagement foster generalized reciprocity and trust. Communication and coordination amplify the growth of reputations, facilitating collective action. Well worn templates and success lead to future collaboration and broaden our sense of empowerment. I read the essay’s mainly thinking of how these concepts might be applied to internet sites, such as the Investor Suffrage Movement, Proxy Democracy.org, Shareowners.org, TransparentDemocracy.org, MoxyVote.com, and VoterMedia.org.

One concept discussed by the editors was that of bridging vs. bonding. Bridging implies open networks across social cleavages, inclusion, and generalized trust. Bonding implies closed, inward looking networks based on particularized trust. Bridging seems more important for organizations attempting to facilitate shareowner action.

According to Elinor Ostrom and T.K. Ahn, "trust is the core link between social capital and collective action. Trust is enhanced when individuals are trustworthy, are networked with one another and are within institutions that reward honest behavior." One interesting study found that reciprocal agents using conditionally cooperative strategies have a higher chance to interact with one another and the surrounding population than agents who defect. "Information regarding a potential transaction partner’s trustworthiness is crucial when trustworthy individuals try to initiate cooperation."

Reputation is everything. "Self-governing systems in any arena of social interaction tend to be more efficient and stable not because of any magical effects of grassroots participation itself but because of the social capital in the form of effective working rules those systems are more likely to develop and preserve, the networks that the participants have created and the norms they have adopted." For example in in development projects, even "primitive" irrigation systems developed with the involvement of farmers often outperform those using more modern concrete and steel headworks. Investment by participants makes the difference.

In other words, in project planning we need to focus as much on the incentives of participants as we do on the physical or virtual technical infrastructure. Simply agreeing on a set of rules put in place with by others may get something up and running but doesn’t engender participation or long-term success.

Poulsen discusses research on cooperation, such as the "Prisoner’s Dilemma." Cooperation often falls over time because reciprocally minded subjects give up contributing if they feel like they are the only ones doing so. Punishing or expelling nonparticipants can generate higher and more stable cooperation but only if group members have information about each other’s contributions.

The chapter, "Corruption," by Uslaner found unequal distribution of resources in a society to be at the heart of the problem. Inequality leads to low generalized trust and high in-group trust, which leads to corruption, which leads to more inequality. Corruption thrives on particularized trust, where people only have faith in their own kind or small circle. "The policies that work best to reduce inequality and promote trust – universalistic social welfare policies – also depend upon honest governments to deliver the good and upon a social compact to provide benefits such as universal education and health care to the rich and poor alike."

Rothstein carries the theme forward by noting the services for the poor tend to become "poor services," whereas if all are included, middle and upper classes will demand higher quality. Popular movements of protest and self-help stand in contrast with charities dominated by middle and upper classes. "Needs testing and bureaucratic discretionary power are often more difficult to reconcile with principles of procedural justice, compared with universal public services. Since selective welfare institutions must test each case individually, they are to a greater extent subject to the suspicion of cheating, arbitrariness and discrimination, compared with universal public agencies."

That should give potential readers a rough idea of some key discussions. While the Handbook is geared toward an academic audience, especially those concerned with economic, political and social development, the more general reader will also find important insights in the cross-disciplinary approach.

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