Tag Archives | voting

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.

   

Continue Reading ·

Walgreens Boots Alliance, Inc.: Proxy Score 33

Image result for walgreens boots alliance wbaWalgreens Boots Alliance, Inc. (WBA) operates as a pharmacy-led health and wellbeing company. It operates through three segments: Retail Pharmacy USA, Retail Pharmacy International, and Pharmaceutical Wholesale.

Their annual meeting is coming up on January 26th, 2017. ProxyDemocracy.org had collected the votes of 3 fund families when I checked. I voted FOR proxy access and a report on sustainability and pay practices; AGAINST pay, compensation committee, auditor and financial expert. I voted with the Board’s recommendations 33% of the time. View Proxy Statement. See 1/25/2017 update. Continue Reading →

Continue Reading ·

Recent Research in Corporate Governance: Part 3

Recent Research 3Now that proxy season is finally winding down, I had a few minutes to take a quick glance at recent research reported on SSRN. Below I am simply including a few citations and abstracts of studies I might find useful in my own activities as a shareholder advocate in the US. I’m sure I included some that are strictly academic and missed many more that would be useful. I would welcome  guest posts on such research from authors, critics or other interested parties. Please contact me via e-mail for by leaving comments below. I would welcome  guest posts on such research from authors, critics or other interested parties. Please contact me via e-mail or by leaving comments below. Part 1; Part 2. Continue Reading →

Continue Reading ·

Take Action: SEC-IAC Report on Impartiality Stops Short

Seal of SECThe Investor as Owner Subcommittee of the SEC’s Investor Advisory Committee (SEC-IAC) established pursuant to Section 911 of the Dodd-Frank Act issued a report on Impartiality in the Disclosure of Preliminary Voting Results. The recommendations will be discussed at a meeting on October 9, 2014.

When:Thursday, October 9, 10:00 am – 4:00 pm
Who:Investor Advisory Committee
What:Investor Advisory Committee Quarterly Meeting
Where:Multipurpose Room, SEC Headquarters, 100 F Street, NE, Washington, DC
Contact:Frankie White, Office of the Investor Advocate, (202) 551 – 4310

The members of the subcommittee are listed here. After I discuss the SEC-IAC’s two recommendations briefly below, which I support, I then urge readers to write to the SEC-IAC requesting they address additional issues of impartiality. Continue Reading →

Continue Reading ·

California’s Savings Plus: Better Proxy Voting Disclosure Needed Part II

CalHR Savings Plus

This is the second of a two part series. Part I discussed proxy voting at Savings Plus, as compared with at CalPERS. 

CalHR’s Current RFP for Savings Plus

CalHR recently released a Request for Proposal (RFP 700-14-01) seeking bids for investment management services for Savings Plus. Unfortunately, the RFP fails to require Savings Plus participants be informed of proxy voting policies or decisions.   Continue Reading →

Continue Reading ·

California’s Savings Plus: Better Proxy Voting Disclosure Needed, Part I

CalHR

Most California State employees and retirees have their retirement funds invested largely through two vehicles. CalPERS is the nation’s largest public pension, with almost $300B in assets. Many employees also have smaller amounts invested in CalHR‘s Savings Plus program, with assets of $10B. Both vehicles invest a large proportion of their funds in corporate stock, which carries voting power that can not only impact the value of the companies and potentially our retirement income but also the quality of our environment and our political framework.

Over the course of several decades the Department Labor and the SEC have ruled that proxy voting rights are assets. Fiduciaries of funds, such as CalPERS and Savings Plus, must ensure the underlying shares are voted for the benefit of the employees and retires whose funds they hold in trust. Continue Reading →

Continue Reading ·

India Proxy Season 2013 Analysis From InGovern

InGovernA recent report by InGovern Research Services analyzes patterns in the resolutions proposed by Indian listed companies in the just concluded 2013 proxy voting season. The data has been collated and analyzed from a coverage universe of 585 companies forming part of the S&P 500 and BSE 500 indices, which represent over 95% of the market capitalization of Indian listed companies. Management and shareholder resolutions passed in the Annual General Meetings (AGMs) held in 2013 for these companies have been analyzed. Continue Reading →
Continue Reading ·

Addressing CEO Pay

Regarding CEO pay, Nell Minow recently wrote, “there is a little flicker of light at the end of the long, dark tunnel of outrageous pay.” Her signs of hope:

  • Required advisory “say on pay” (SOP) vote. Last year after a “no” vote,  Occidental Petroleum’s board reduced the pay package for CEO Ray Irani and announced his retirement. Shareowners have voted down pay plans at several companies already. Additionally, “Some companies are adjusting their pay plans in anticipation of a new level of scrutiny by shareholders, tightening pay-performance links and getting rid of especially unpopular compensation components like “gross-ups” (paying the executive’s taxes).”
  • Shareowners at four of seven companies proposing a triennial say when on pay (SWOP) vote instead voted for an annual vote.
  • The UK may soon require new additional disclosures.
  • “Groups like Public Citizen are working to remove further legislative and regulatory obstacles to shareholder oversight on pay and disseminating information on the bonuses of bailout-company executives.”
  • The FDIC is moving forward with rules to requiring pay-performance links in bank executive compensation as part of insurance risk assessment.

“These are all welcome signs that compensation is finally being seen as an essential element of securities analysis and risk management, and that’s what markets are all about.” (The Days of Outrageous CEO Pay May Be Ending | BNET, 2/14/2011).

High CEO pay is symptomatic of a host of issues. An important one for me is income inequality. It seems to me that a disappearing middle class is not good for America. This seems to be a concern of many, but we still seem to be heading in the wrong direction. For some interesting research on American opinion in this area, see The Return of Dan Ariely: The Survey Results Are In (ChrisMartenson.com, 2/7/2011). His conclusion:

Taken as a whole, the results suggest to us that there is much more agreement than disagreement about wealth inequality. Across differences in wealth, income, education, political affiliation and fiscal conservatism, the vast majority of people (89%) preferred distributions of wealth significantly more equal than the current wealth spread in the United States. In fact, only 12 people out of 849 favored the US distribution. The media portrays huge policy divisions about redistribution and inequality – no doubt differences in ideology exist, but we think there may be more of a consensus on what’s fair than people realize.

From Eagle Rock Proxy Advisors, most companies are generally recommending that shareholders vote for say-on-pay votes once every three years. Here is a snapshot of overall board recommendations/ intentions for recommendation at the beginning of the season:

AnnualBiennialTriennialNone
All Companies32%8%52.7%7.3%
S&P 50021.7%8.7%65.2%4.3%

As we previously reported, shareowners are pushing for the annual option, so I expect many more rejections of triennial proposals. See “Say on Pay” to be Annual.  Timothy Smith, Senior Vice President, Director of ESG Shareower Engagement at Walden Asset Management recently sent out an e-mail noting he is among many strongly opposed to the triennial proposals by management and is “frustrated that we even had to have a frequency vote (thanks to Idaho Senator Crapo’s midnight amendment).” But the surge of votes for annual say when on pay SWOP is “helping investors pay more attention to the value and use of SOP votes. In the end this frequency vote may help solidify the importance of SOP to investors vindicating the initiative AFSCME, Walden and others started 6 years ago.”

Yes, with SOP and SWOP votes this year and companies reporting the ratio of executive pay to the average of all employees for the first time, the topic of CEO pay may come into focus more this year than in the past and shareowners will now at least have the power to voice their opinion.

However, I see little evidence that any of the current measures address the “Lake Woebegone” effect documented by Rachel M. Hayes and Scott Schaefer. According to those researchers, “no firm wants to admit to having a CEO who is below average, and so no firm allows its CEO’s pay package to lag market expectations.” (CEO Pay and the Lake Wobegon Effect, December 11, 2008, Journal of Financial Economics (JFE) Their analysis suggests SOP votes might be counterproductive. Before SOP was required by Dodd-Frank, many voices warned it would simply provide boards and managements with cover for a continued upward spiral.  Hayes and Schaefer offer up a “potential solution to the problem of shareholder myopia.”  Delegate pay decisions to directors and motivate them through contracts “to take a longer-term view.” But isn’t that what we’ve been trying all along? Clearly, something more is needed.

India’s Sonia Jaspal does a good job of citing some of the more more relevant papers and issues that have received too little attention to date. (The Negative Impact of CEO Pay & Power on Corporate Culture and Governance, 2/15/2011) Jaspal’s concern was apparently set off by a recent study conducted by Economic Times of India, which showed that in 2009-2010 CEOs of top companies earned 68 times the average pay of employees, up from 59 times their prior year. To Americans facing a pay disparity of 264 (with a high point of 558 in the year 2000), the differences in India may seem paltry. (Mind the Compensation Gap, Portfolio.com, 1/26/2011)

Many of us “feel” an injustice when CEOs earn so much more than average workers, but Jaspal points to academic studies that show the potential impacts are more harmful to society than simply hurt feelings.

When Executives Rake in Millions: Meanness in Organizations.  “Higher income inequality between executives and ordinary workers results in executives perceiving themselves as being all-powerful and this perception of power leads them to maltreat rank and file workers.” Some powerful executives perceive those with lesser power as sub-human. They demonstrate reduced empathy, being inclined to objectify and dehumanize others through behaviors such as sexual harassment and an increase likelihood of  unethical and corrupt behavior.

Jaspal also points to another real impact of this dehumanization, “the fact that CEOs who fired the maximum number of employees during recession in US, received the biggest pay packets.”  They apparently felt little remorse in benefitting from the tragedy they impose on others. “The social and psychological consequences of income disparity are borne by the society” and the consequences may be greater in the United States than it is in India because of the much larger average disparities.

An article published by The Economist titled The psychology of power: Absolutely looks at experiments that appear to confirm Lord Acton’s dictum that “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” According to the studies, “The powerful do indeed behave hypocritically, condemning the transgressions of others more than they condemn their own… It is not just that they abuse the system; they also seem to feel entitled to abuse it.” Researchers conclude that “people with power that they think is justified break rules not only because they can get away with it, but also because they feel at some intuitive level that they are entitled to take what they want.”

Of course The Economist comes to a different conclusion than many of us would: “Perhaps the lesson, then, is that corruption and hypocrisy are the price that societies pay for being led by alpha males (and, in some cases, alpha females). The alternative, though cleaner, is leadership by wimps.” I’d say the lesson, instead, highlights the need to ensure leaders remain accountable, knowing corruption and hypocrisy will not be tolerated.

We keep Searching for a Corporate Savior in our CEOs but ending up with charismatic narcissists, with too many focused on short-term profits when we know we should be promoting CEOs from within to move from Good to Great.

Fraudulent Financial Reporting 1998-2007- An Analysis of U.S. Public Companies by  the Committee of Sponsoring Organizations of the Treadway Commission found that CEOs were involved in 72% of the 347 alleged cases of fraudulent financial reporting listed with SEC during 1998-2007 period. The average period of fraud was 31.4 months. Why Do CFOs Become Involved in Material Accounting Manipulations? shows that 46.15% of CEOs involved in fraudulent activity benefitted financially from accounting manipulations. “CFOs are involved in material accounting manipulations because they succumb to pressure from CEOs, rather than because they seek immediate personal financial benefit from their equity incentives.” Since CEO performance and benefits are measured by financial numbers submitted to the stock market, CEOs rationalize the need to report fraudulent financial numbers to protect their own positions.

Based on this analysis, Jaspal makes the following recommendations (I’ve taken liberty to reword some slightly.):

  • The law should place a limit on the number of times CEO pay can excede the pay of average workers. This will ensure some balance is maintained.
  • Because studies show that some powerful people tend to dehumanize their underlings and studies on emotional intelligence indicate that emotionally intelligent people are aware of their own and others emotions and drivers, we should explore methods to keep CEOs emotionally connected.
  • Since research found that women are less likely to feel a sense of entitlement or power we should appoint more women  CEOs to maintain a balance and keep senior management grounded.
  • Independent board members should be included on compensation committees. “This will ensure that a realistic view is taken of CEO and other top executives’ salary. Basing salary structures on performance rather than favorable circumstances is required.” (This is already the norm in the United States; unfortunately, it doesn’t appear to “ensure a realistic view.”
  • Employees may be empowered by forming trade unions and using whistle blowing lines inside and outside the organization. (Again, we have this in the United States and the whistle blowing tools are improved under Dodd-Frank.)
  • Last but not the least, the public should play an active role in curtailing income disparities. The issues should be brought to government and media attention. (Name and shame seems to have little impact but perhaps heightened awareness of the issues will lead to real sanctions.)

It is a nice list. I certainly agree with the idea of keeping CEOs emotionally connected, appointing more women CEOs, and getting the government involved in reducing income gaps. However, for the most part Jaspal’s recommendations don’t provide much guidance for shareowners entering the proxy voting booth. The one exception is placing a limit on the number of times CEO pay can exceed the pay of average workers.

Institutional investors have developed a plethora of guidelines and scorecards for voting down CEO pay. For example, section 3 of the CalPERS Global Principles of Accountable Corporate Governance, which contains too much to cover in this brief post but here are a few examples:

  • To ensure the alignment of interest with long-term shareowners, executive compensation programs are to be designed, implemented, and disclosed to shareowners by the board, through an independent compensation committee.
  • Executive contracts be fully disclosed, with adequate information to judge the “drivers” of incentive components of compensation packages.
  • A significant portion of executive compensation should be comprised of “at risk” pay linked to optimizing the company’s operating performance and profitability that results in sustainable long-term shareowner value creation.
  • Companies should recapture incentive payments that were made to executives on the basis of having met or exceeded performance targets during a period of fraudulent activity or a material negative restatement of financial results for which executives are found personally responsible.
  • Executive equity ownership should be required through the attainment and continuous ownership of a significant equity investment in the company.
  • Equity grant repricing without shareowner approval should be prohibited.
  • “Evergreen” or “Reload” provisions for grants of stocks and options should be prohibited.

We can find many more lists, but again they don’t seen to be too helpful for the average investor who isn’t going to hire a proxy advisor or put a lot of time into analyzing the proxy. Last year, the Council of Institutional Investors issued a brief paper, Top 10 Red Flags to Watch for When Casting an Advisory Vote on Executive Pay aimed at addressing this issue. “Many investors, however, lack the time and resources to do deep dives on compensation at each of the hundreds of companies in their portfolios. They need rules of thumb to identify executive pay programs that are ticking time bombs.” That statement might even ring truer for retail investors holding a dozen or fewer companies. Again, even CII’s “top 10” are too extensive to list here because many items are broken into multiple items. Here are the top 10 with much of that elaboration stripped away:

  1. Do top executives have paltry holdings in the company’s common stock and can they sell most of their company stock before they leave?
  2. Does the company lack provisions for recapturing unearned bonus and incentive payments to senior executives?
  3. Is only a small portion of the CEO’s pay performance-based or is the basis a single metric?
  4. Are executive perks excessive or unrelated to legitimate business purposes?
  5. Is there a wide pay chasm between the CEO and those just below?
  6. Stock options should be indexed to a peer group or should have an exercise price higher than the market price of common stock on the grant date.
  7. Did the CEO get a bonus even though the company’s performance was below that of peers?
  8. Does the company guarantee severance or change-in-control payments not in the best interest of shareowners?
  9. Does the disclosure fail to explain how the overall pay program ties compensation to strategic goals and the creation of long term shareowner value?
  10. Does the firm advising the compensation committee earn much more from services provided to the company’s management than from work done for the committee?

Key to the the usefulness of CII’s advice is how easily answers can be obtained by individual retail shareowners. A second major concern is even if all this advice is followed, how will we ratchet down the Lake Woebegone effect and decrease the growing disparity between the rich and the rest of us? That seems important if we are to move from a culture of narcism, where many of the rich feel entitled to break the law and treat underlings with disrespect.

Members of the United States Proxy Exchange will soon begin working on a paper to address the issue of CEO pay. I think it is likely to revolve around the issue of what pay packages to vote down. Most retail shareowners don’t subscribe to ISS, Glass Lewis or other services that can rapidly assess pay packages. We need simple metrics so that we can gather all the information we need to vote in just a few minutes. Three possible examples:

  • Pay that is over 100 times average pay.
  • Pay that takes more than 5% of a company’s net profit.
  • Majority of those disclosing votes in advance on ProxyDemocracy.org recommend against.

For less than $4 a month, your voice can be heard by joining in this important effort.

Continue Reading ·

Don’t Toss that Proxy

During the next several months, most corporations will be sending out their proxies (ballots) and holding their annual meetings. Individual shareholders own about 30% of the stock in US markets but few bother to participate, even though we often feel corporate managers have too much power and too little accountability.

When we fail to vote, we essentially turn our assets over to management.  Most of us feel we should vote but we also think voting is too complicated and time consuming. Since we only hold a few shares, we often think that failing to vote won’t have any consequences.

Recent changes allowing corporations to e-mail and post proxy materials on the internet have dramatically reduced the proportion of shareholders voting to as little as 5%. (Apparently, it is easier to ignore a stack of e-mails on your computer than a stack of paper on the dining room table.) However, the internet also makes it much easier to vote in corporate elections and to vote intelligently.

There are literally thousands of sites for investors (here’s a few), ranging from brokers to associations to scam artists. Mostly, they focus on

  • stock picking,
  • allocating your investments, and
  • when to sell.

While these are important issues, what’s new are sites on how to be an owner. Voting is how we hold corporate directors and managers accountable.  Obviously, shareholders haven’t done a great job, especially at the banks. Voting is the cornerstone of good corporate governance. All the rules of Washington can’t save us from future Enrons and stock bubbles if shareholders don’t start acting like shareowners instead of gamblers.

Some say shareowners should leave everything to trusted financial advisors. What, like Bernie Madoff? Or we could just trust in the management of the companies we invest in… but their interests are often different from ours. We may not approve of the $6,000 shower curtain at Tyco or the unprotected derivative bets at AIG.

Institutional investors own about 2/3 of the market. Should we just leave voting up to them? After all, they have a fiduciary duty to vote and they have the resources to investigate the issues. Unfortunately, many also have potential conflicts of interests. For example, mutual funds don’t want to vote against corporate managers who may decide who will run the company’s 401(k) plan. That’s potential business a mutual fund doesn’t want to lose.

Additionally, the average turnover of stock, mostly by institutional investors, is huge. For NYSE listings it was 130% in 2008 and 250% in 2009, meaning the average stock was bought and sold 2 ½ times in 2009. Owning Intel 30 times in 10 years isn’t really being what I’d call a long-term owner. Most of us hold our stocks longer.

We’re usually in for the long term but since we generally only hold a small portion of the stock in any one company, we lack the economic incentive to buy expert advice or spend the time ourselves analyzing complicated proxy issues like shareowner proposals, board elections, executive compensation, mergers etc.

Until recently, being an actively involved shareowner was impractical for most of us but just like social media sites like Facebook are bringing people together, several new internet sites are making proxy advice obtainable for free. Here are five sites worth exploring:

1. Corpgov.net is my blog. For over 15 years I’ve discussed major trends and have provided links to dozens of activist or aggregator sites so that investors can join forces or research what other shareowners are doing.

2. ProxyDemocracy.org aggregates, displays and automatically e-mails to subscribers proxy votes announced in advance by respected activist funds like CalPERS, CalSTRS, Calvert, CBIS, Domini, Florida SBA, AFSCME, Trillium and others. Using ProxyDemocracy.org, you can copy the voting behavior of these trusted “brands.” The site also rates funds on how they vote on issues involving: director elections, executive compensation, corporate governance and corporate impact. So, if you know what issues concern you, you can use that information to help you decide whose votes to copy and which mutual funds to buy.

Another feature of ProxyDemocracy.org is that they will tell you when they have collected votes for upcoming proxies on the stocks in your portfolio (if you give them your e-mail address and name the stocks). Because of the breath and depth of the activists funds it follows, you’ll almost always be able to see how at least some funds are voting.  Unfortunately, you can’t vote your shares directly on ProxyDemocracy.

3. Moxyvote.com has dozens of “advisors,” mostly socially responsible mutual funds, unions, environmental groups and public interests groups who take a stand on various proxy issues. At Moxy Vote you can actually get voting advice and vote on the same site, using the pin number you get from your broker. Easier yet, you can also have your broker deliver your proxies directly to Moxy Vote.

If you choose that route, you can even set up voting defaults based on the recommendations of your chosen advocates. That way if you don’t vote your proxy or override your defaults, the system will automatically vote with your advocates. For example, mine are set up to look first to the Investor Environmental Health Network, if they haven’t taken a position on the proxy item, my vote will be cast per the Center for Political Accountability. If they don’t have a position it moves to my third choice and on down the line. Unfortunately, many of the advisors on Moxy Vote are focused narrowly and hold few stocks. They won’t give you advice on every stock you hold or on every issue at the companies where advocates have taken positions.

4. Shareowners.org is an advocacy site aimed at getting shareownrs to lobby Congress on various issues. Advice on voting at specific companies is limited but like Facebook, it is a great place to share announcements and commentaries with others.

5. The United States Proxy Exchange (proxyexchange.org or USPX), like Shareowners.org, is an advocacy site. However, USPX not only involves members in lobbying efforts, it also involves them in analyzing developing policies. Want to learn how to file resolutions? Present resolutions at local companies? Put your expert skills to good use? USPX provides training and multiple points of entry to baby-boomers and young people alike who would like to see their ideals put into action.

Continue Reading ·

Parallel Universes Undercuts its Own Arguments

In his article The Parallel Universes of Institutional Investing and Institutional Voting, Charles M. Nathan appears to pine for the days when institutional investors took the “Wall Street Walk” if they disagreed with management on governance issues. T. Boone Pickens Jr’s response to that perspective:

That’s like the gardener telling the estate owner, “If you don’t like the way I take care of your property, sell it and move out.” That’s not the way the real world works.

Nathan’s major point is that institutional voting, for the most part, is no longer done by money managers, and is, instead, often handled by a separate internal voting function or is essentially outsourced to third-party proxy advisory firms. Because of the economies of scale, most resort to largely one-size-fits-all voting policies based on perceived corporate governance best practices, without reference to the particulars of each company’s situation. Therefore, firms should develop parallel systems to communicate with the two very different constituencies.

On the other hand, he also advises corporate governance specialists on the investor side to move to a more nuanced approach, recognizing the legitimate need for variation in corporate governance specifics in the context of more than 10,000 public companies in the US that exist in different sectors and different stages of development. That’s constructive advice. Unfortunately, Nathan also includes some very bad advice, such as the following:

The corporate governance community should recognize that it does not need and should not want to talk to the operating and financial management of a company because the voting decision makers are, by design, not involved with measuring the company’s operating and financial performance.

That advice is absurd. Many in the “parallel universe” of corporate governance are actually housed within the investment framework of their organizations. This is certainly true of CalSTRS and CalPERS. The CalPERS Corporate Governance team executes an annual process that identifies approximately 15 to 20 companies in the domestic internal equity portfolio that exhibit poor economic performance and corporate governance.

Nathan grasps the drive by shareowners to move the board from a “trustee model of a effectively self-perpetuating board” to “an assembly of annually elected representatives who are directly accountable to their electorate.” Yet, he believes “proxy access doesn’t involve investment decision makers but rather is the province of voting decision makers.”

While it may be helpful to recognize these functions governance and investment functions are often somewhat specialized, there certainly is frequent communication between the two functions on the investment side. Proxy access isn’t just “good governance.” For many, like myself, proxy access is one more mechanism to correct the “self-perpetuating board” that Nathan mentions. Many object to the ever increasing share of profits doled out to executives, up from 5% to 10% of the total.  Directors that are directly accountable to shareowners may work harder for investors than the CEO. That would be a plus.

Nathan cries that any attempt at accommodation to the demands of the corporate governance community becomes “merely a prelude to another round of demands.” Yet, he must recognize how far we are from that goal of “directly accountable” directors. Even if the SEC’s proxy access rule is finalized, it only facilitates direct accountability for 25% of the directors at companies; the other 75% can remain “self-perpetuating.”

He also loses credibility with retail investors when, in a footnote, he describes the “groundswell” to develop “client directed voting” as one that would allow a default voting pattern of “for or against management’s recommendations or to vote in proportion to all other shareowners.” Any client directed voting that doesn’t include allowing investors to build their own systems of default, based on the votes of institutional investors announced on sites like ProxyDemocracy.org or by advocates on sites like MoxyVote.com, should be flatly rejected.

Although the thrust of the article is to encourage companies to constructively engage in dialogue with what Nathan sees as separate corporate governance constituency, he frequently undermines his own arguments. That’s too bad because flexibility and dialogue are certainly needed on both sides.

Continue Reading ·

Powered by WordPress. Designed by WooThemes