Wednesday, February 28, 2007
Shareholder Activists Scrutinize CEOs
Shareholder activism is growing rapidly, partly due to recent SEC rules and Sarbanes-Oxley regulations that require greater public disclosure of executive compensation and other expenses. But it is also growing because the public is more aware, not just of corporate fiscal abuse, but of the expanding power of corporations and their role in the world. One shareholder activist, cited by the article at the link below, is a college undergraduate who wants his alma mater to use its influence as a major shareholder of Chevron to help end pollution in Ecuador. Many other shareholder activists are trying to influence corporations in which they hold stock to promote similar social aims, but one of the largest motivations right now is to restrict CEO pay. Such concerns have generated 239 shareholder proposals this year, up from 175 last year. As CEO pay continues to rise, the number of such initiatives will no doubt increase.
Although both large and small shareholders have a say in corporate governance, influence is weighted and small shareholders have, individually, very little power. As the article says, "corporate America is no democracy." Nonetheless, individual shareholders can effect change indirectly, "by having an association with an institution and influencing them to take action."
Many organizations are willing and eager to show shareholder activists the ropes. Labor unions, the Sierra Club, and Amnesty International are teaching shareholders tactics and strategies for influencing powerful institutions to act on their behalf. The vast power of corporations can be a tool for good even beyond the narrow realm of keeping costs down and increasing stock prices. By globalizing their operations, American corporations have unwittingly made themselves accountable to what happens all over the world, and can use their international clout to improve millions of lives both abroad and at home. The director of the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility, Rev. Michael Hoolahan, says, "We see a burgeoning movement [in shareholder activism]... There are many, many new voices [over] what there were 10 years ago. It's really blossomed."
The cardinal rule for all budding shareholder activists is never to throw away their proxy ballots. These can be the seed of power. "It remains disappointing to me how much the average guy remains oblivious to the fact that the major force shaping public policy in America is the corporation," says a Washington area consultant. "And the one time that the average guy has something to say about that, he is throwing that chance into the trash."
"Activists put CEOs in a fishbowl" from The Christian Science Monitor