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 | State Street
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).
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 →
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 →
Part 4 28th Annual SRI Conference in San Diego. Search #AllinForImpact on Twitter to see more posts. See Parts 1, 2, and 3. Yes, I know, this conference was held months ago but I’m still digesting… maybe until the next one. I could spend a productive year just exploring links to the work of the speakers. Mark your calendar for November 1-3, 2018. The SRI Conference returns to the Broadmoor in Colorado Springs. Get on the mailing list. Continue Reading →
Ron O’Hanley, President and CEO of State Street Global Advisors (SSGA), was recently hosted at the John L. Weinberg Center for Corporate Governance at the University of Delaware.
According to the Weinberg Center, SSGA is a recognized leader in corporate governance. Ron O’Hanley gave an inspiring talk as part of the Center’s 2017 Corporate Governance Symposium. Mr. O’Hanley discussed SSGA’s focus on effective, independent board leadership and his recent call on boards to consider ESG impacts on long-term value creation. Continue Reading →
I believe ISS/Risk Metrics created a policy on the Frequency of Advisory Vote on Executive Compensation (Management “Say on Pay”), a new proxy item required under The Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act.
Their Recommendation: Vote FOR annual advisory votes on compensation, which provide the most consistent and clear communication channel for shareholder concerns about companies’ executive pay programs.
Rationale for Update: The Dodd-Frank Act, in addition to requiring advisory votes on compensation (aka management “say on pay” or MSOP), requires that each proxy for the first annual or other meeting of the shareholders (that includes required SEC compensation disclosures) occurring after Jan. 21, 2011, include an advisory voting item to determine whether, going forward, the “say on pay” vote by shareholders to approve compensation should occur every one, two, or three years.
In line with overall client feedback, ISS is adopting a new policy to recommend a vote FOR annual advisory votes on compensation. The MSOP is at its essence a communication vehicle, and communication is most useful when it is received in a consistent and timely manner. ISS supports an annual MSOP vote for many of the same reasons it supports annual director elections rather than a classified board structure: because this provides the highest level of accountability and direct communication by enabling the MSOP vote to correspond to the majority of the information presented in the accompanying proxy statement for the applicable shareholders’ meeting. Having MSOP votes every two or three years, covering all actions occurring between the votes, would make it difficult to create the meaningful and coherent communication that the votes are intended to provide. Under triennial elections, for example, a company would not know whether the shareholder vote references the compensation year being discussed or a previous year, making it more difficult to understand the implications of the vote.
From my understanding, ISS held a conference call on the new policy. I wasn’t on the call but I understand 250 were. I also understand that during the call it came out that CalSTRS, State Street and Vanguard all support annual votes. CalSTRS was expected but State Street and Vanguard supporting annual votes is likely to mean greater success. Annual vote seems headed for the default position.
Last year Walden Asset Management filed a resolution at State Street Global Advisors (SSgA) seeking a proxy review. While SSgA successfully obtained a “no-action” letter from the SEC, their voting practices were still the subject of a debate at the annual meeting. This year United for a Fair Economy picked up the torch and filed a similar appeal. This time, SSgA responded positively and UFE has withdrawn its resolution.
Previously, SSgA voted automatically Against ALL shareholder resolutions on environmental and social issues, whether the issue affected shareholder value or not. Over the years this record had become increasingly controversial and was challenged by a number of SSgA clients including pension funds in Europe as well as investors and environmental groups here in the USA. An internal review found SSgA found its voting in stark contrast to State Street’s own forward looking record on the environment and other CSR issues.
State Street’s review included a comparison to other mainstream investment firms which are competitors. It found that the SSgA proxy voting was an “outlier” in comparison to these firms records. According to Timothy Smith of Walden Assets, SSgA will now abstain if the resolution’s economic impact case is not clear, but will vote FOR resolutions where a strong case regarding how this affects shareholder value is made. This is very similar to Risk Metrics position. SSgA notes it is understaffed to do robust proxy voting so may add staff and of course will look seriously at recommendations of proxy advisory firms they use.
Our congratulations to Walden’s Timothy Smith and to Mike Lapham of Responsible Wealth. This is a significant shift in proxy voting by a major firm. It is great to see SSgA now more fully addressing its proxy voting responsibilities.