Archive | December, 2007

Corpocracy and How to Get Our Democracy Back

One book on corporate governance made Ralph Nader’s list of Nine Books That Make a Difference: A Reading List for the Holidays. Here’s his brief review:

Corpocracy by Robert A.G. Monks (Wiley Publishers) summarizes its main theme on the book’s cover-”How CEOs and the Business Roundtable Hijacked the World’s Greatest Wealth Machine-and How to Get it Back.” Corporate lawyer, venture capitalist and bold shareholder activist, Monks gives us his inside knowledge about how corporations seized control from any adequate government regulations and especially from their owners, their shareholders, and institutional shareholders like mutual funds and pension trusts. This is a very readable journey through the pits and peaks of corporate greed and power that shows the light at the end of the tunnel.

From a review of the same book, Philip L. Levine writes “Robert A.G. Monks has pulled away the covers, revealing who is in bed with whom, and very clearly articulating how we got to the unbalanced and unhealthy state we find ourselves in.” Nell Minow also sings the book’s praises:

Robert Monks is a true visionary, and this assessment of corporate control of every institution set up to provide oversight or assure accountability will provoke a series of “aha” moments from anyone who has wondered why we permit corporations to determine everything from pollution levels to the outcome of elections. With mastery of the languages of finance, economics, business, politics, culture, and values (in all senses of the word), Monks ties together the Babel of vocabularies with analysis that is utterly clear-eyed and recommendations that are creative but utterly rational.

Sir Adrian Cadbury, most noted for the Cadbury Code, a code of best practice which served as a basis for reform of corporate governance around the world, wrote a lengthily review posted at Amazon.com. (Or course, it wasn’t nearly as long as my rambling review.) Below are a few bits:

The balance of power between boards and CEOs in the United States remains a paradox, given the country’s regulatory history of preventing accretions of power in relation to trusts and to banking. Nowhere else would it be possible to elect a director on a single vote, nowhere else could shareholder votes be invalidated by “ballot stuffing”, nowhere else are shareholders so limited in their ability to raise issues at AGMs, which some directors may not even bother to attend. The prevailing concept of CEO/chairmen selecting their outside board members, thus compromising their independence, strengthens the hand of the CEO at the expense of that of the board.

In spite of setbacks, he believes that this essential accountability can be restored. He sees no cause for new laws, agencies or fiscal measures, though the existing statutory and regulatory framework should be effectively enforced. He argues that it is the major investing institutions that carry the obligation to themselves and to society to restore trust in the capitalistic system… The obligation, however, of the great foundations, among the investing institutions, to play their part in bringing about reform goes beyond the calculus of financial gain. It lies at the heart of their creation. They directly assist their chosen causes, but that is within the wider context of a market system which provides them with the ability to do this. They have a responsibility to maintain the means by which they fulfil the aims for which they were founded.

I was lucky enough to get a pre-print, which I read in a couple of sittings within a few days of its arrival. Corpocracy: How CEOs and the Business Roundtable Hijacked the World’s Greatest Wealth Machine — And How to Get It Back both delights and informs in a way only Bob Monks can, because he has been at the center of so many of the important battles to make corporations more accountable. His lifework has been delineating the underlying dynamics of corporate power to devise a system that combines wealth creation with societal interest. No one else can write as well about “How CEOs and the Business Roundtable Hijacked the World’s Greatest Wealth Machine” because no one else has been as engaged as Bob Monks from so many angles.

His insights into pivotal points of view and decisions are enlightening. For example, he points to the role of Douglas Ginsburg, a leader in the field of law and economics, in instilling a belief that it is okay for corporations to violate environmental laws, as long as they account for possible sanctions in their budget. Under Ginsburg’s view, according to Monks, people aren’t motivated by moral or social obligation but by simple desire and cost-benefit analysis. Then there is Bob analysis of Lewis Powell’s court decisions. His finding of a constitutionally protected right to “corporate speech” provided the judicial framework for management “to commit untold corporate resources to influence public opinion and public votes – resources so huge and unmatchable that individual contributions are now all but meaningless in state and nationals elections.” And, of course, the Business Roundtable hold a special place in Bob’s heart. The “BRT has come to function in significant part as an agent for the CEOs…who have established themselves as a new and separate class in the governance of American corporations, answerable to virtually no one, accountable only to themselves.”

Monks appears to be a believer in the forces of markets but regulated to ensure a level playing field. Without that, the overall effect has been to turn the stock market into “a gigantic, round-the-clock casino that runs the biggest game the world has ever seen.” Market values and goals have become national goals. Corpocracy is another top-notch effort from the individual who continues to have greater lasting impact on the field than anyone else. Still, I would have placed a different emphasis in the “How to Get it Back” portion of the book..

Monks may be A Traitor to His Class, but he is also a gentleman, reluctant to force change. Through many books, Monks repeated what became almost a mantra that “no new laws” are necessary. I don’t recall seeing that in Corpocracy, although Cadbury repeats the phrase in his review. I think Bob is weakening on this point. However, he still seems too confident in the power of persuading elite leaders of the need for change. I’m with John Edwards, when he said recently, “It is unrealistic to think that you can sit at a table with drug companies, insurance companies and oil companies and they are going to negotiate their power away.”

When Les Greenberg, of the Committee of Concerned Shareholders, and I started preparing our petition on proxy access in July of 2002, I remember e-mailing Bob, asking if he would sign on with us. It was late in the week when Bob e-mailed back that he had a meeting scheduled with then SEC chairman Harvey Pitt on Monday. If we could get him the proposal over the weekend, he might be able to discuss it at his meeting. We did. My impression is that Bob’s primary focus was on Pitt’s 2/12/02 response to a letter Ram Trust Services had sent 13 years earlier where Pitt clarified the SEC’s stance that proxy voting is in fact an investment adviser’s fiduciary responsibility, generally governed by state law. I think Monks was asking Pitt for regulations to enforce that duty through required disclosures. Pitt was apparently won over by Monks, Amy Domini, and others.

My little story has two points. First, most of us don’t routinely meet with SEC chairmen. Bob’s history of involvement in corporate governance has been as one member of the elite meeting with other members of the elite. Like the fictional character, Forrest Gump, Monks met with many historical figures and has influenced important development. Unlike Gump, Monks has done so with candid intelligence and a deep awareness of the significance of his actions. Second, like the earlier Avon letter, the Ram Trust letter and follow-up eventually led to regulations. Monks may espouse “no new laws or regulations are needed” but several of his most important actions have led down that path.

Perhaps Monks is correct, as Cadbury points out in his review, that foundations have a special obligation to reform the market system which sustains their existence. That’s where Monks places much of his emphasis in the “How to Get it Back” portion of the book. In his flights of fantasy, Bob dreams of a president who will use his/her powers to end conflicts of interest and compel good governance in contractors. “The framework is in place. The laws exist,” he insists.

Yet, two pages later he notes the need for legal changes. He reminds us the First Amendment “was not meant to protect the Church from government intrusion, but rather to protect the government… We need similar protection today from the dominant institution of our own time, the corporation.” He defines corpocracy as “government by the corporations; that form of government in which the sovereign power resides in corporations, and is exercised either directly by them or by elected and appointed officials acting on their behalf.” I can’t help but believe that the tide won’t turn until the rabble of individual investors demands change. Individual investors have a vote in electing government representatives — the sovereign power; institutional investors don’t.

Lucian Bebchuk and Zvika Neeman, in a recent paper entitled Investor Protection and Interest Group Politics, also proceed on the assumption “that individual investors, who invest in publicly traded firms either directly or indirectly through institutional investors, are too dispersed to become part of an effective organized interest group with respect to investor protection.” Yet, their own model contains the following hypotheses.

Therefore, educated individual investors are critical if we have any hope of electing public officials who will protect politics from corporate influence and who will revise the legal framework so that it better combines wealth creation with societal interest. Roger Headrick’s “win” last year at CVS/Caremark, based on a margin decided by broker votes, lead to additional calls for the SEC to approve NYSE’s proposal to bar brokers from casting uninstructed investor votes in board elections.

According to Broadridge Financial, broker votes on average account for about 19% of the votes cast at US corporate meetings. However, the elimination of broker voting, if the SEC ever gets around to approving it, just takes 60-70% of retail shareowners out of the picture. It doesn’t address the more fundamental issues. How can we get shareowners to think of themselves as long-term owners rather than as betters at what Bob calls the biggest casino the world has ever seen? If they know they are owners, what tools can we make available so that voting is not only easier but also more intelligent? There are dozens of possible reforms. Here are seven worthy of further attention:

1. Proxy Assignment

Drawing from the other six, this may be the easiest to implement with a relatively large possible impact. That’s why I’m working on it. We need system(s) or perhaps just instructions, so that lazy but somewhat conscientious shareowners can assign their votes to others based on reputation, rather than tossing their proxies in the shredder. I surveyed brokers and determined that making such assignments will not be a problem at most. Now I simply need to find an institution or two willing to take the proxies. Of course there are lots of technical and legal details but they don’t appear insurmountable.

2. My Proxy Advisor

That’s the working name for a project Andy Eggers started. Andy is working on a PhD in political science at Harvard. The project is now housed within a nonprofit, Proxy Democracy, which Andy also founded. Here’s part of what he has posted as a brief description:

Before each voting deadline, we find out how respected institutional investors with a variety of voting philosophies have chosen to vote their shares. We’ll help you figure out which funds have similar voting philosophies to yours. When a fund you agree with makes a decision on a stock you own, we’ll send you a free alert. You’ll have a week or two to look at their decisions and cast your own ballot.

The system appears to depend on funds posting how they voted or intend to vote prior to the shareholder’s meeting…with Andy’s software crawling the internet to gather the information. This may work well in high profile cases. However, we’ll need more institutions to routinely post votes in advance.

3. Proxy Exchange

Glyn Holton outlined how a “proxy exchange” could allow shareowners to transfer voting rights among themselves or to trusted institutions to increase voter effectiveness (see Investor Suffrage Movement). His proposal lays out a fairly complex system involving four classes of participants:

4. A US Shareholder’s Association

Shareholders in Europe “are gaining the upper hand, nudging up share prices and sometimes forcing out an executive or forcing the sale of the company. Most recently, the Children’s Investment Fund turned dissatisfaction into deal-making at ABN Amro, leading to rival bids for the bank, the largest in the Netherlands, reports the New York Times. (Boards Feel the Heat as Investor Activists Speak Up, 5/23/07)

The Times goes on to discuss the costs of such activist campaigns that appeal to shareholders through newspaper ads. Antonio Borges, chairman of the European Corporate Governance Institute and a vice chairman at Goldman Sachs in London, says sacrifices for short-term gain would remain exceptions because short-term investors could only sell their shares at a profit if they find new investors who believe in the long-term potential of the revamped company.

In reading the article, what struck me is the growing assemblage of activist funds and shareholder associations in Europe. Where is the US equivalent of the VEB (Vereniging van Effectenbezitters or Dutch Investors’ Association) or the UK Shareholders’ Association? In the US, BetterInvesting is the largest nonprofit organization dedicated to investment education.

Although their goals include helping their members to “learn, share, grow and more fully experience the rewards of investing success,” I find no mention on their site equivalent to the UK Shareholders’ Association’s vow to “protect your rights as a shareholder in public companies and promote improved standards of corporate governance.” It might make for more interesting investment clubs in the US if members acted as owners, instead of just stock pickers at the casino.

The US hasn’t had an effective advocate for retail shareholders since United Shareholders Association. Deon Strickland , Kenneth Wiles and Marc Zenner documented that USA’s 53 negotiated agreements are associated with a mean abnormal return of 0.9 percent, a $54 million shareholder wealth gain. Although Peter Kinder, President, KLD Research & Analytics, Inc., tells me USA “was a significant factor in turning ‘good governance’ into a checklist of factors that made easy or easier ‘maximizing shareholder value’, i.e., flipping or extorting the corporation” — something we obviously have to guard against in any new iteration.  I’ve repeatedly contacted the National Association of Investors Corporation (NAIC) but they do not appear interested in governance issues. As I recall, USA was originally funded by a shareholder’s lawsuit. Maybe we need another.

5. Shareholder Advocacy Trust

Richard Macary’s AVI Shareholder Advocacy Trust presents an innovative mechanism to combine small shareowners to advocate changes in corporate governance. The Trust sets out its goals, makes its case to shareholders, and then is dependent on contributions. The Trust depends on a monitoring/activist agent who is so compelling that shareholders freely pony up contributions to support work that might pay off. Free rider issues abound.

The Trust is not a “for profit” vehicle nor can any contributor expect to get any kind of return on their contribution. In a way, it’s similar to contributing to a campaign or political action committee where you agree with their platform or want to see a specific candidate elected, so you contribute. Your only upside in that scenario is that if your candidate wins, you believe it will be good for you or your position, be it lower taxes, a cleaner environment, less regulation, etc. The trust is also set up to compensate the managing trustee, who is essentially the coordinator, director and general contractor of the effort. The trustee is very much like a general contractor in that he, she or they will essentially hire and direct all of the professional and advisors needed to execute upon the trust’s goals.

6. Collectively Paid Proxy Research

Because of the expense and free rider issues, the only reason most institutions vote are the federal regulations Bob Monks helped to create that require pension and mutual funds to vote stock in their beneficiaries’ interests. Of course another of Bob’s important contributions was founding Institutional Shareholder Services, increasing the research done on proxy issues and its availability. The biggest obstacle to voting now is not the time it takes to vote but the research needed to make an informed vote. Most people realize that just going along with the board of directors for lack of an easy alternative is not a meaningful vote. But understanding the proxy issues requires too much time and expertise, especially for individuals.

On that front, the Corporate Monitoring Project and VoterMedia.org, both initiated by Mark Latham, have shown the way to empower voters with better information. Latham’s system allows shareholders to allocate collective corporate funds to hire a monitoring firm to advise them on the issues and how to vote. Latham’s system would eliminated free rider issues and creates an incentive to pay for much more research.

“Comprehensive analyses of proxy issues and complete vote recommendations for more than 10,000 U.S. companies are delivered by ISS’s seasoned U.S. research team consisting of more than 20 analysts.” We can thus estimate about four hours of analysis per proxy, costing perhaps $2000 including ISS infrastructure costs. Considering the amount of money we shareowners pay CEOs and boards of directors who are elected and compensated based on our voting, and the amount of capital at stake in the typical company they manage for us, we should be spending more than $2000 to guide our voting.

Mark proposes use of shareowner resolutions to choose an advisor from among competitors. Any proxy advisor could offer its services, specify its fee, and have its name and fee appear in the ballot. The winner would give proxy advice to all shareowners in that company for the coming year. The advice would be published on a website and in the next year’s proxy. The company would pay the specified fee to that advisor. The voting could even be designed to hire more than one advisor, with a separate yes/no vote on each candidate. Advisor name brand reputation can make these voting decisions feasible without another level of paid voting advice. (see Proxy Voting Brand Competition, Journal of Investment Management, Vol. 5, No. 1, (2007).

7. Provide Full Public Disclosure of Votes as Tabulated

This is more of a technical fix, rather than a monumental reform that will bring in more individual investors but I thought I’d just stick it in here at the end of “how to’s” Bob might have discussed. Yair Listokin’s Management Always Wins the Close Ones highlights the need for open ballot counting.

Informational asymmetries between management and potential opponents should be mitigated by allowing anyone to obtain a real-time update of the voting. The status quo allows management to obtain frequent vote updates, while shareholder opponents of management often have no comparable knowledge. This allows management to win votes when underlying shareholder preferences are against a proposal because management can tailor its expenditures as needed; if management sees that it is well behind, it can undertake an extraordinary effort, while its opponents have no obvious way of responding. If all parties had the same knowledge about the likely outcome of the vote, then managerial opponents could respond and potentially neutralize management’s efforts to push the vote in a particular direction.

Obviously, anything we can do to make corporate elections less rigged will also help to bring shareowners out to vote. Why bother if the fix is in? My hope is that once shareowners get used to voting in their best interests in corporate elections, that behavior will also carry over to civic elections. Activists in either social institution will likely carry over to the other.

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