Making the best of shareholder activism

Navigating the shareholder spring.

Imagine the scene. You’re ready to sleepwalk your way through the yearly AGM ritual, you’re expecting a few shareholders to show up purely for the sarnies and the most exciting part of your day will be deciding what to wear. All of a sudden, reality breaks in and remuneration is in the cross hairs. The Association of British Insurers (ABI) issues a red top alert, ISS (Institutional Shareholder Services) issues a "vote against" recommendation, your shareholders are emboldened by the shareholder spring and vote against the remuneration report. Press coverage is destructive, you face public humiliation and although the vote isn’t binding, there’s so much pressure on you that you become yet another victim of anger about boardroom pay, another name in the hall of shame.

Sound familiar? Ask Sly Bailey of Trinity Mirror or Andrew Moss of Aviva, who are now seeking employment. Or Sir Martin Sorrell of WPP or Ralph Topping of William Hill, both of whom had their pay packets pummelled by shareholder anger.

Smaller companies have also been engulfed by this fury and are, in many respects, even more vulnerable. Cairn Energy took a roasting with 67 per cent votes against and 10 per cent abstentions on its pay report. AIM company Central Rand Gold was rocked by a 75 per cent revolt against its pay policy. Small cap Pendragon faced an ABI red top alert and an embarrassing climb down after a "no" vote.

That was the Shareholder Spring of 2012.

Shareholder votes on pay may only be advisory but directors who don’t listen to the message risk the ultimate sanction of being voted out. And it’s not just votes against which matter. Abstentions are often used to show a yellow card which directors should read as a clear signal to get round the table and talk to investors.

Remuneration consultants may be having a feeding frenzy advising on pay policy but the key area under the spotlight right now is the communication disconnect between companies and their shareholders.

Help is at hand

Investor activism is a way of shareholders flexing their muscles and demanding that you engage. Companies large and small should take to heart the need to talk to and listen to their shareholders so that they don’t end up with battle lines drawn, leadership resignations or picking up the pieces afterwards. Nobody wants to be hauled over the coals in public.

It can be tough being a CEO or an FD. You have to run the company, make hard decisions in a difficult economic climate, get your teams to implement them, deal with multiple claims on your time and somehow still find time to keep your investors happy. There are only 24 hours in a day and if you’re a smaller quoted company, it’s likely that your investor relations team is CEO and FD, both of you running at full stretch with no investor relations officer to support you.

The good news is that help is at hand. CEOs and FDs who want to avoid the sapping skirmishes of the shareholder spring can use a five-piece investor communications kitbag to put themselves on the front foot, selecting tools based on the amount of time available. Forward-planning helps smooth the way and reduces the risk of a public drubbing. And, it gives you a fabulous opportunity to bring your shareholders on side as cheerleaders for your company.

Tool #1 - Shareholder engagement

Dialogue matters. Planned, long term engagement puts companies in the driving seat. Regular dialogue with shareholders creates an atmosphere of understanding and builds trust; it enables directors to inspire confidence in the company and in the integrity of the executive team as you set expectations and educate investors about the value drivers of your business.

ABI director general Otto Thoresen told a recent Treasury Select Committee that company engagement with shareholders is “beginning to change but it’s not uniform and not fast enough”. Companies who only communicate when they have to are missing out on a great opportunity. Let’s face it, if you bump into someone you hardly know each year at an AGM and they ask you to lend them £1,000 for a business you know nothing about, you wouldn’t do it. If you meet a contact on a regular basis who tells you about their business in a way that excites and interests you, explains its strategy, prospects and progress against plan, then if that person asks you to lend them £1,000, there’s a higher chance that you’ll do it.

The reporting calendar provides the perfect framework for shareholder engagement. Quarterly results and interim management statements are part of a regular reporting cycle, giving you the opportunity to showcase your company to the market and helping reduce share price volatility.

Tool #2 - Perception study

Everybody wants to know what other people think of them and companies are no different. If directors want to manage their company’s profile and valuation, it’s essential to understand shareholders’ opinions about the company, the leadership team and the strategy so that you can ensure no nasty surprises at a vote.

John McFarlane, chairman of Aviva, lights the way. As he picks up the pieces in the wake of his former CEO’s resignation, his message to shareholders of 5 July recognises how important it is to find out what investors think about a company. McFarlane emphasises the importance of communicating and of listening when he says “over the past few weeks, I have met with our major shareholders and, in addition to their disappointment over our share performance, I believe there are legitimate concerns”.

Companies must communicate with buy side shareholders, listen to them and understand them, preferably before things get sticky. Even for companies with a good record of active shareholder engagement, a perception study is a powerful tool because it enables the board to take stock of the company’s current positioning in the eyes of the investment audience and it drives out those areas which need to be focused on in their IR strategy. It comes into its own when a board is unsure of where shareholder sentiment lies in the months ahead of a vote and wants to test shareholder mood, with time to act on the findings.

Tool #3 - Engagement with voting agencies

As the time of a vote draws near, companies may be blindsided by proxy voting recommendations. Proxy voting agencies are a section of the market many directors are not aware of and which require a nuanced understanding. They exist in the middle ground between a buy side shareholder and that shareholder’s vote.

Take the case of William Hill, which faced a difficult vote on its CEO’s retention package. Chairman Gareth Davis commented, "We consulted with the majority of our major shareholders and most recognised the importance of what was being put in place for William Hill's future. Whilst many of our largest shareholders supported the Remuneration Report resolution, one of the most influential vote advisory bodies recommended a vote against. It appears that a large number of shareholders across our share register voted in line with this recommendation.”

Savvy directors do not have to sit back and wait for a vote recommendation to happen to them: they can take the initiative and interact direct to ensure that the voting agency is in full possession of accurate information about the company and any areas of concern.

Tool #4 - Take it to the market

When a company has exhausted all other routes and still has concerns about shareholder understanding, then a board which is confident of its position can take it to the market. It can develop a tactical plan to proactively put information into the public domain to ensure full disclosure and transparency amongst all shareholders about any areas which may otherwise prove contentious. A recent example is easyJet, which earlier this year published and explained its remuneration policy and provided justifiable reasons for poor NED attendance at board meetings.

Tool #5 –Be ready for the future proposals on directors’ pay

The final tool in your kitbag is ensuring that your fellow board members are fully up to speed with Vince Cable’s proposals on directors pay. They are intended to address the disconnect between pay and performance and unsurprisingly they move the UK towards the US system of Say-On-Pay. Boards should proactively address the implications of these proposals as they start to firm up.

Conclusion

CEOs and FDs have some great weapons in their kitbag which they can organise like a military campaign to create winning strategies without hostilities. The messages emerging from the current levels of shareholder activism are that investor communication is all. Proactive, high levels of engagement and understanding are essential. Alignment of board strategy and shareholder interest is the guiding principle.

Rachel Maguire is the Investor Communications Director at Arko Iris. This article first appeared in economia.

Photograph: Getty Images

Rachel Maguire is the Investor Communications Director at Arko Iris

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We're racing towards another private debt crisis - so why did no one see it coming?

The Office for Budget Responsibility failed to foresee the rise in household debt. 

This is a call for a public inquiry on the current situation regarding private debt.

For almost a decade now, since 2007, we have been living a lie. And that lie is preparing to wreak havoc on our economy. If we do not create some kind of impartial forum to discuss what is actually happening, the results might well prove disastrous. 

The lie I am referring to is the idea that the financial crisis of 2008, and subsequent “Great Recession,” were caused by profligate government spending and subsequent public debt. The exact opposite is in fact the case. The crash happened because of dangerously high levels of private debt (a mortgage crisis specifically). And - this is the part we are not supposed to talk about—there is an inverse relation between public and private debt levels.

If the public sector reduces its debt, overall private sector debt goes up. That's what happened in the years leading up to 2008. Now austerity is making it happening again. And if we don't do something about it, the results will, inevitably, be another catastrophe.

The winners and losers of debt

These graphs show the relationship between public and private debt. They are both forecasts from the Office for Budget Responsibility, produced in 2015 and 2017. 

This is what the OBR was projecting what would happen around now back in 2015:

This year the OBR completely changed its forecast. This is how it now projects things are likely to turn out:

First, notice how both diagrams are symmetrical. What happens on top (that part of the economy that is in surplus) precisely mirrors what happens in the bottom (that part of the economy that is in deficit). This is called an “accounting identity.”

As in any ledger sheet, credits and debits have to match. The easiest way to understand this is to imagine there are just two actors, government, and the private sector. If the government borrows £100, and spends it, then the government has a debt of £100. But by spending, it has injected £100 more pounds into the private economy. In other words, -£100 for the government, +£100 for everyone else in the diagram. 

Similarly, if the government taxes someone for £100 , then the government is £100 richer but there’s £100 subtracted from the private economy (+£100 for government, -£100 for everybody else on the diagram).

So what implications does this kind of bookkeeping have for the overall economy? It means that if the government goes into surplus, then everyone else has to go into debt.

We tend to think of money as if it is a bunch of poker chips already lying around, but that’s not how it really works. Money has to be created. And money is created when banks make loans. Either the government borrows money and injects it into the economy, or private citizens borrow money from banks. Those banks don’t take the money from people’s savings or anywhere else, they just make it up. Anyone can write an IOU. But only banks are allowed to issue IOUs that the government will accept in payment for taxes. (In other words, there actually is a magic money tree. But only banks are allowed to use it.)

There are other factors. The UK has a huge trade deficit (blue), and that means the government (yellow) also has to run a deficit (print money, or more accurately, get banks to do it) to inject into the economy to pay for all those Chinese trainers, American iPads, and German cars. The total amount of money can also fluctuate. But the real point here is, the less the government is in debt, the more everyone else must be. Austerity measures will necessarily lead to rising levels of private debt. And this is exactly what has happened.

Now, if this seems to have very little to do with the way politicians talk about such matters, there's a simple reason: most politicians don’t actually know any of this. A recent survey showed 90 per cent of MPs don't even understand where money comes from (they think it's issued by the Royal Mint). In reality, debt is money. If no one owed anyone anything at all there would be no money and the economy would grind to a halt.

But of course debt has to be owed to someone. These charts show who owes what to whom.

The crisis in private debt

Bearing all this in mind, let's look at those diagrams again - keeping our eye particularly on the dark blue that represents household debt. In the first, 2015 version, the OBR duly noted that there was a substantial build-up of household debt in the years leading up to the crash of 2008. This is significant because it was the first time in British history that total household debts were higher than total household savings, and therefore the household sector itself was in deficit territory. (Corporations, at the same time, were raking in enormous profits.) But it also predicted this wouldn't happen again.

True, the OBR observed, austerity and the reduction of government deficits meant private debt levels would have to go up. However, the OBR economists insisted this wouldn't be a problem because the burden would fall not on households but on corporations. Business-friendly Tory policies would, they insisted, inspire a boom in corporate expansion, which would mean frenzied corporate borrowing (that huge red bulge below the line in the first diagram, which was supposed to eventually replace government deficits entirely). Ordinary households would have little or nothing to worry about.

This was total fantasy. No such frenzied boom took place.

In the second diagram, two years later, the OBR is forced to acknowledge this. Corporations are just raking in the profits and sitting on them. The household sector, on the other hand, is a rolling catastrophe. Austerity has meant falling wages, less government spending on social services (or anything else), and higher de facto taxes. This puts the squeeze on household budgets and people are forced to borrow. As a result, not only are households in overall deficit for the second time in British history, the situation is actually worse than it was in the years leading up to 2008.

And remember: it was a mortgage crisis that set off the 2008 crash, which almost destroyed the world economy and plunged millions into penury. Not a crisis in public debt. A crisis in private debt.

An inquiry

In 2015, around the time the original OBR predictions came out, I wrote an essay in the Guardian predicting that austerity and budget-balancing would create a disastrous crisis in private debt. Now it's so clearly, unmistakably, happening that even the OBR cannot deny it.

I believe the time has come for there be a public investigation - a formal public inquiry, in fact - into how this could be allowed to happen. After the 2008 crash, at least the economists in Treasury and the Bank of England could plausibly claim they hadn't completely understood the relation between private debt and financial instability. Now they simply have no excuse.

What on earth is an institution called the “Office for Budget Responsibility” credulously imagining corporate borrowing binges in order to suggest the government will balance the budget to no ill effects? How responsible is that? Even the second chart is extremely odd. Up to 2017, the top and bottom of the diagram are exact mirrors of one another, as they ought to be. However, in the projected future after 2017, the section below the line is much smaller than the section above, apparently seriously understating the amount both of future government, and future private, debt. In other words, the numbers don't add up.

The OBR told the New Statesman ​that it was not aware of any errors in its 2015 forecast for corporate sector net lending, and that the forecast was based on the available data. It said the forecast for business investment has been revised down because of the uncertainty created by Brexit. 

Still, if the “Office of Budget Responsibility” was true to its name, it should be sounding off the alarm bells right about now. So far all we've got is one mention of private debt and a mild warning about the rise of personal debt from the Bank of England, which did not however connect the problem to austerity, and one fairly strong statement from a maverick columnist in the Daily Mail. Otherwise, silence. 

The only plausible explanation is that institutions like the Treasury, OBR, and to a degree as well the Bank of England can't, by definition, warn against the dangers of austerity, however alarming the situation, because they have been set up the way they have in order to justify austerity. It's important to emphasise that most professional economists have never supported Conservative policies in this regard. The policy was adopted because it was convenient to politicians; institutions were set up in order to support it; economists were hired in order to come up with arguments for austerity, rather than to judge whether it would be a good idea. At present, this situation has led us to the brink of disaster.

The last time there was a financial crash, the Queen famously asked: why was no one able to foresee this? We now have the tools. Perhaps the most important task for a public inquiry will be to finally ask: what is the real purpose of the institutions that are supposed to foresee such matters, to what degree have they been politicised, and what would it take to turn them back into institutions that can at least inform us if we're staring into the lights of an oncoming train?