Why Shareholders Have Little Influence

There was an article in The Times newspaper this morning by Mark Atherton which covers the subject of shareholder voting and the nominee system. I am quoted as saying “The nominee system needs a total rewrite to reflect modern reality and restore shareholder democracy”.

As is pointed out in the article, only 6% of private shareholders vote the shares they own. This is mainly because of the obstruction of the nominee system. The US system is not perfect but they get 31% of shares voted. Everyone agrees that ensuring shareholders in public companies return votes for General Meetings is important. This ensures good corporate governance and “shareholder engagement”. But very few people, and hardly any institutional investors, actually attend such meetings in person. So most votes are submitted via proxies.

Fifty years ago most shares were held in the form of paper share certificates which meant two things: 1) All shareholders were on the register of the company with a name and address recorded and 2) All shareholders would be issued with a copy of the Annual Report and a paper proxy voting form. This ensured a high turnout of votes.

Due to the growth of on-line trading via “platforms” and the “dematerialisation” of shares in Crest, most shares held by “direct investors” (see below for indirect holdings) are now held in electronic form. For retail investors this means a very high proportion are held in pooled nominee accounts. This has resulted in very low numbers of investors actually voting the shares that they “nominally” own. The problem is that the nominee system obstructs both the information flow to investors and their ability to vote easily and quickly.

For institutional investors the turn-out is higher – typically above 60% but such investors often have a low interest in the outcome so tend to vote in support of all the resolutions. Institutions suffer from the “agency problem”, i.e. they are commonly not owners in their own right and thus may have other motives. For example, they may not have the same interest in controlling the pay of directors in companies which has got out of hand of late for that reason. They are keen to retain access to management which can be made difficult if they oppose management proposals or pay.

The nominee system as operated in the UK also undermines the rights of shareholders, creates major problems when stockbrokers go bust (as they regularly do) simply because of the legal uncertainty of who owns the shares. The “pooled” nominee system is particularly dangerous because it means that it is impossible to know who owns which shares in a company.

The nominee system also undermines shareholder democracy (i.e. the influence of shareholders on companies). When every direct investor was on the share register of a company, under the Companies Act one has the right to obtain the register so as to write to all shareholders to raise your concerns or invite support or resolutions (e.g. if a requisition to remove or add directors has been submitted). This is now almost impossible to do as the register simply contains mainly a list of nominee names and the nominee operator will not pass on communications to their clients. The other problem associated with the current system is that it makes it very difficult for even the companies themselves to communicate with their own shareholders.

The high cost of postage also now frustrates communication with shareholders except for very wealthy organisations or individuals. The Companies Act has really not been updated to reflect the modern digital world and the reality of how markets operate and how shares are now held and traded via electronic platforms. It needs a total rewrite to reflect modern reality and restore shareholder democracy.

Many investors and savers now hold shares indirectly via their interest in pension funds, insurance funds or mutual funds of various kinds (OEICS etc).

At the end of 2014, and based on “beneficial” ownership, the Office of National Statistics indicated that individuals held 11.9% by value of shares listed on the LSE. That compares with 16.0% held by pension funds, insurance companies and other financial institutions. But 53.8% of shares were held by foreign investors, which presumably would also be mainly held by institutions. Direct ownership had been falling for many years but seems to have increased somewhat lately perhaps due to more interest in “self-select” ISAs.

Institutions do suffer from the “agency” problem mentioned above and the underlying investors have little influence over the actions of the investment managers. Indeed one problem with funds is that investors often know little about what the fund is invested in – see the recent problems at the Woodford Equity Income Fund for example which most holders of the fund simply did not know about until it was too late. Pension funds are even less “transparent”. This results in perverse outcomes. For example a trade union pension fund might have no influence on the affairs of companies in which the fund is invested even though that might be of very direct interest to the union members.

Mark Atherton suggests investors in funds should have the right to influence how fund managers vote the shares in the fund. But how to enable underlying investors in funds to influence how the fund manager votes their shares, or otherwise influences a company, is an exceedingly complex and difficult problem. Funds can own interests in hundreds of companies and have hundreds of thousands of underlying investors. The latter are never likely to understand or take a close interest in the affairs of individual companies held by a fund. One reason they are investing in funds is so they can ignore the details and rely on the fund manager to look after corporate governance issues.

Even direct investors often don’t bother to vote because they don’t wish to spend time considering the issues or filling out the forms. Making it easier to do the latter by providing on-line voting systems would help but would only be a partial solution. Some collective representation of private investors (such as by organisations such as ShareSoc) might be one answer. Investors would simply give ShareSoc a standing mandate to represent them. But that is currently impossible because of the nominee system as the investors cannot appoint proxies themselves – only the nominee operator can do so.

Clearly it would help to encourage direct investment rather than reliance on funds. This would reduce investors costs (intermediation costs take a very high proportion of investment returns in public companies). Note that the risk of amateur investors underperforming the professionals should be discounted. Professional fund managers mostly perform no better than a monkey with a pin and many funds are now “tracker” funds that simply follow an index. Tracker funds are particularly problematic regarding shareholder democracy as they have no interest in influencing management whatsoever. Their share trading is solely influenced by the market, not by their views on the merits of the company or its management.

The UK, although we have one of the largest stock markets in the world, has very poor legal and operational systems for recording and representing shareholder interests. This probably has arisen from our tendency to stick with Victorian traditions when we were the leader in such matters. The Companies Act, which was last revised in 2006, still primarily assumes paper processes with rather half-baked additions to support digital systems. Stockbrokers have avoided regulation and as a result have implemented electronic nominee systems that protect their own interests rather than that of their clients in ensuring shareholder rights and democracy.

Major reform is needed!

Roger Lawson (Twitter: https://twitter.com/RogerWLawson )

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