Global Investing

Big Beasts

This week might just have seen a marked shift in how British investors think about their role as owners of companies.

First up we had three of our largest unions teaming up behind a set of governance guidelines which they will wave noisily in the air at AGMs, but more significantly, Tuesday morning saw the first steps towards building the kind of collaborative architecture for investors envisioned by the Kay Review.

As first steps go, it’s fairly tentative (as was the first, first step). In a sparse announcement, the Association of British Insurers, the National Association of Pension Funds and Investment Management Association said they will set up a working group to report back on how collective engagement “might be enhanced to make a positive difference.” It is a response to Economist John Kay’s government-backed report from last July, which argued funds could improve returns to savers by presenting a united front to company boards.

We’ve looked before at how difficult this will be given the diversity of outlook and motivation among investors. Significantly, Tuesday’s statement makes explicit reference to drawing in “overseas investors” who at the last count were heading towards ownership of half the UK stock market, though quite how that might work is hard to see. IMA chief executive Daniel Godfrey told Reuters he has already spent some time sounding out some of those foreign share owners, and encountered a “range of views and a range of enthusiasms.” The next step, he says, is to work out whether there’s a way to navigate past the obstacles.

The members of the working group tasked with this will be named by the end of next month and will be expected to deliver an answer in the autumn. The hope will be that they can avoid some of the issues which have hampered the ABI, NAPF and IMA’s last effort to join forces.

Investors investigated

We’ve wondered before about the validity of the British ‘shareholder spring’ narrative. A few high-profile casualties gave the story drama, but as we showed back in the summer, evidence of a widespread change in thinking was hard to find. KPMG has arrived at a similar conclusion this week.

This morning, FairPensions, a British charity which aims to promote responsible investment, has dug deeper into the behaviour of major institutional investors during that supposedly febrile period, and among the nuggets it has produced is the chart below of voting on contentious pay reports at annual meetings.

There are some questions which crop up straight away. What did BlackRock and Standard Life like so much about the Barclays pay deal that no other investor could spot; why did BlackRock think Martin Sorrell’s potential 500% bonus was a goer; and given that, why did almost everyone think a maximum bonus award of 923% of BP CEO Bob Dudley’s salary was just dandy?

Making the most of the shareholder spring

We’ve had a fair while to ponder the implications of a British AGM season which saw investors oust a few CEOs and deal bloody noses to a few others. We’ve also had some data which implies the revolt wasn’t as widespread as advertised, but Sacha Sadan at Legal and General Investment Management thinks we have seen something important, and something that must be exploited.

His take is that austerity is at the heart of the matter. While the public suffers in a faltering economy, and investors stomach dwindling returns, it was never going to fly that pay deals for bosses should survive unchallenged. Add to that government and media pressure on remuneration, plus a new era of investor collaboration thanks to the stewardship code, and you get an ideal set of factors to drive the ‘shareholder spring’.

Of course, austerity won’t (let’s hope) last forever; governments are unlikely to sustain a narrative around ‘fat cat’ bosses; and the media always moves on. For Sadan that makes it crucial for investors to strike while the iron is hot.

GUEST BLOG: The missing reform in the Kay Review

Simon Wong is partner at investment firm Governance for Owners, adjunct professor of law at Northwestern University School of Law, and visiting fellow at the London School of Economics. He can be found on Twitter at @SimonCYWong. The opinions expressed reflect his personal views only.

There is much to commend in the Kay Review final report. It contains a rigorous analysis of the causes of short-termism in the UK equity markets and wide-ranging, thoughtful recommendations on the way forward.  Yet, it is surprising that John Kay omitted one crucial reform that would materially affect of the achievability of several of his key recommendations – shortening the chain of intermediaries, eliminating the use of short-term performance metrics for asset managers, and adopting more concentrated portfolios.  What’s missing?  Reconfiguring the structure and governance of pension funds.

A major challenge facing pension funds in the UK and elsewhere is the lack of relevant expertise and knowledge at board and management levels.  Consequently, many rely heavily – some would argue excessively – on external advisers.  I have been told by one UK pensions expert that inadequate knowledge and skills within retirement funds means that  investment consultants are effectively running most small- to medium-sized pension schemes in Britain. Another admits that trustees, many of whom are ordinary lay people with limited investment experience, are often intimidated by asset managers.

The other WPP protest

So, the CEO of the world’s biggest advertising firm failed to pitch his own pay deal to WPP’s investors.

Wednesday’s vote against the remuneration report which grants Martin Sorrell a 6.8 million pound pay award means shareholders can claim another victory in their (non-binding) efforts to wean executives off pay deals they consider excessive.

Sorrell has resigned himself to some horse-trading between the Board and shareholders in the wake of a vote which was notable for his robust defence of his worth. But of course, it isn’t Sorrell that’s the problem; it’s the possibility of his absence that really worries investors.

Discovering the pleasure of dividends in Russia

American financier J.D. Rockefeller said watching dividends rolling in was the only thing that gave him pleasure. But it is a pleasure which until now has largely bypassed shareholders in most big Russian companies. That might be about to change.

Russian firms,  especially the big commodity producers, are generally seen as poor dividend payers. So dividend yields, the ratio of dividends to the share price,  have been unattractive.

On a trailing 5-year period, the average dividend yield in Russia was 1.8 percent compared to 2.5 percent for emerging markets, notes Soren Beck-Petersen, investment director for emerging markets at HSBC Global Asset Management. That absence of positive cash flow from companies is one reason why Russia has always traded so cheap relative to other emerging markets, he says.

from Funds Hub:

Got those zombie company covenant lite blues

Zombies 2One of the big drivers of the debt balloon that imploded so spectacularly was the trend for covenant "lite", which has allowed zombie companies to stumble on long past the point at which it would have been useful for creditors to intervene. This has sharpened the appetite for stronger corporate governance around covenants and persuaded investors that they need to take more of an active interest in what companies are actually doing with their money.

Enter the engaged bond investor - for a long time the domain of equity investors with a social conscience, socially responsible investing (SRI) is now being applied to bond portfolios by asset managers Aviva Investors and F&C.

Paul Abberley, CEO of Aviva Investors UK, told Reuters that Aviva is adding a specialist bond fund manager in its SRI group, with scope to increase the headcount depending on how client interest develops. "Historically SRI has been viewed as an equity activity but we think there is a strong case for fixed income to be considered as well," he said. Initially any offering would be mandate based, he said, with a fund launch dependent on client interest.