Friday, May 22, 2009

Stockholder democracy...

Today's New York Times carries an article on shareholder democracy that illustrates why there are shades of gray even with proposals that seem absolutely cut and dry at the outset. This one has to do with the proposal from the SEC, allowing institutional investors to propose board members who would then be listed in the proxies that companies send out to stockholders. (Only investors who are not interested in doing an acquisition and have held the stock for more than a year can propose new directors, and even then, only 25% of the directors can be challenged) The idea seems unexceptional. Until now, shareholders have had to vote for those directors proposed by the company or write in their own alternates; only in a proxy fight do shareholders get choices. This rule change would presumably give them more choices even in the absence of a proxy fight.

The fear voiced in this article is that some shareholders may have other interests in the company that overwhelm their interests in seeing stock prices improve. The example given is of a shareholder who has taken a large position on the credit default swap market, betting that the company will fail. Such a shareholder may gain more from seeing the company default than continue as a going concern; consequently he or she may nominate directors who will drive the company into the ground.

I think that the article has a point, though I think it is also a little over the top in terms of hysteria. There are two phenomena muddying the waters of shareholder democracy. The first is investors who own hybrids - convertible bonds, debt with equity options etc., who do have multiple and sometimes conflicting interests in the firm. This is not new but it is a much bigger factor now than two decades ago. The second is that increasing presence of investors who bet not on the direction of the stock price but on its volatility. Many option based strategies are directionless - investors don't care whether the stock goes up or down - but make or lose money depending upon how volatile the stock is. The SEC's implicit assumption that all stockholders have a shared interest in the stock price going up is coming into conflict with the consequences of a more diverse set of interests in stockholders: some want the stock price to increase but some do not.

I do not have an easy solution. We could try restricting shareholder voting only to those investors who have no conflicting interests, but I don't think that proposal can be easily policed and it would not be fair. A bondholder who has an equity position is just as much an equity investor as one who does not, even though the former's interests may diverge from the remaining stockholders. I am also not comfortable with any rule that tries to define "good" shareholders and "bad" shareholders. Good and bad are in the eyes of the beholder... Ultimately, as in any democracy, we have to trust the voters to make the right judgments, even though they may bring in very different interests into the voting booth.


Uiucfinance said...

I think the biggest conflict is in shareholders with positions that directly benefit from the decline in the stock price. Bond holders and equity holders do have different interests, but those interests probably only really come to light in distress situations. During normal times, a happy stock holder probably means a happy bond holder.

I wonder if there could be a "net exposure rule". Again, it would be a logistical nightmare, but you can only vote what your net long position is in the company. This would have to include derivatives, as well. So if you own 25% of a company, and have put options equivalent to 20% the company, your net exposure to the company would be 5%, your voteable share.

dharma said...

There should be disclosure of promoters hedging their holdings through derivates which might well be happening in most companies.