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?

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.