Why you should join the shareholder spring

Shareholders are finally starting to make themselves heard. But don't get comfortable, says Merryn Somerset Webb - there's still a lot of work to be done.

The papers are full of the joys of the shareholder spring'. We are too. We are thrilled to see the nation's institutional investors finally getting a grip on the issue of excessive executive pay after years of irresponsible passivity. It brings us some satisfaction to see corporate governance making its way to the top of fund manager priority lists.

But the fact that institutional investors have interrupted their usual habits to intervene shouldn't make anyone feel complacent. They might keep it up. But if returns pick up again or attention is diverted to other issues, they may not. That means ordinary investors need to keep the pressure up too.

How? First by nagging managers, making sure your representatives vote and that they vote as you want them to. Research from Pensions Investment Research Consultants shows that a mere 15% of fund managers tell their investors how they use their vote (they have no obligation to reveal their voting record). Keep writing to your managers and asking, and maybe that number will rise.

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You may want to buy shares in your fund management group and visit their annual general meeting (AGM) to ask about it. Keep transparency in mind when you invest and only buy funds run by firms you know to be active and transparent. You can up the pressure by visiting Yoursayonpay.org.uk. This is a website set up by FairPensions, a charity that aims to "promote responsible investment by fund managers". This will generate an automatic draft email that you can send to your managers, asking them to vote against excessive pay.

However, if you invest directly in shares (via a self-select individual savings account, or self-invested personal pension, for example), the best thing you can do is to use your vote. Not many of us hold our shares ourselves anymore mostly we hold them via a nominee account at our broker (something that makes the broker the one with the voting rights). But while that has for some time meant that we haven't been sent annual reports or even been reminded of when our AGMs are, it doesn't mean we can't vote.

According to the Financial Times, several brokers Killik & Co, Brewin Dolphin and TD Direct offer a shareholding voting and information service that allows you to get all the relevant papers and vote on decisions affecting any of the shares in your account. But most other brokers also offer some way for individual shareholders to engage.

Take Hargreaves Lansdown. It will, on request, send you a letter of proxy you can take with you to an AGM and use as proof of ownership to vote I called for one myself last week and it arrived the next day. If you don't want to go to the AGM but you do want to vote, you can also just send a voting instruction in and leave it to them.

This isn't perfect. It would be better if all shareholders were properly enfranchised if brokers notified all clients of the dates of all AGMs relevant to them and if they got all the information on a company's affairs that those who hold shares directly get.

But even so, the fact is that all shareholders have the right and the ability either to vote or to influence a vote. We need to use those rights. Just as you can't sit around complaining about the government if you never vote in elections, you can't really complain about overpaid executives and bad corporate governance if you never vote at AGMs.

Merryn Somerset Webb

Merryn Somerset Webb started her career in Tokyo at public broadcaster NHK before becoming a Japanese equity broker at what was then Warburgs. She went on to work at SBC and UBS without moving from her desk in Kamiyacho (it was the age of mergers).

After five years in Japan she returned to work in the UK at Paribas. This soon became BNP Paribas. Again, no desk move was required. On leaving the City, Merryn helped The Week magazine with its City pages before becoming the launch editor of MoneyWeek in 2000 and taking on columns first in the Sunday Times and then in 2009 in the Financial Times

Twenty years on, MoneyWeek is the best-selling financial magazine in the UK. Merryn was its Editor in Chief until 2022. She is now a senior columnist at Bloomberg and host of the Merryn Talks Money podcast -  but still writes for Moneyweek monthly. 

Merryn is also is a non executive director of two investment trusts – BlackRock Throgmorton, and the Murray Income Investment Trust.