May 07, 2008
Proxy Voting Made Painless
by Anne Moore Odell
A new website helps individual investors better understand proxy voting.
For many people who own mutual funds and stocks, the proxy voting season seems like a party they
were politely invited to, held on the moon and conducted in the Klingon language. In other words,
proxy voting can seem confusing, hard to understand, and not worth the drive. The newly launched
website www.ProxyDemocracy.org was
created to let people quickly and easily learn about proposals and people in front of companies
they own shares in so they cast their proxy votes.
Large institutional investors
have the resources to pay for proxy voting services and/or have staff members to research the
proposals and directors to be voted on at annual shareholder meetings. However, most individual
investors don't have the time or money to learn about all the proposals at the companies they own
ProxyDemocracy creator and president Andy Eggers-a current PhD candidate in
political science at Harvard University-saw a way shareholders could benefit from the research done
for institutional investors. Some of these institutional investors like the California Public
Employees' Retirement System (CalPERS)
publish online how they plan to vote before the annual meetings, in a move to increase their own
transparency and accountability.
"ProxyDemocracy helps individual shareowners see how to
vote their shares in ways consistent with their goals, and which mutual funds and pension funds
vote in ways consistent with the goals of the individuals who invest through them," said Mark
Latham, founder of VoterMedia.org and on
the board of directors at ProxyDemocracy.
Latham continued, "The ProxyDemocracy.org
website's new Focus List capability lets you compare funds' voting records on any chosen proxy
issue (environmental, social, governance, etc.). You can then choose to receive (by email before
the voting deadline) future voting decisions of funds you respect, and use that as a guide to
voting your own shares."
"Over 50 million households in the US own stocks or mutual funds,
and in the great majority the proxy statements go straight to the trash (or recycling, let's
hope)," said Eggers. "Our tools are designed to make it easy as possible for people to be
represented in this process, whether it's by quickly figuring out whether there's anything worth
paying attention to at an upcoming meeting or by buying a mutual fund that has a voting record they
can get behind."
Beyond individual investors, Eggers also sees the site as destination for
money managers, particularly those catering to SRI-inclined clients, and for some small
institutions without a big budget for proxy voting analysis.
The site uses the agendas and
votes found on the websites of CalPERS, Christian Brothers Investment Services (CBIS),
Domini Social Investments, and Calvert
Socially Responsible Mutual Funds for all meetings after July 1, 2007. The agendas and votes
for all meetings before July 1, 2007 were collected from SEC filings submitted by mutual funds.
Since 2004, the SEC has required investment companies to report all of their proxy votes in an
Eggers wrote the computer programs to extract the votes from the SEC
filings and from the institutions' websites, and created a single unified database on which
ProxyDemocracy.com is built.
A 2006 survey released by Automatic Data Processing (ADP) found that fewer than half of investors
reported voting their proxies some or most of the time, and actual voting results suggest that less
than half shareholders vote.
Eggers told SocialFunds.com, "I see the site helping
investors navigate this process with minimal hassle. It is not worth your time to read the proxy
materials or look up mutual fund voting records on the SEC website. We're trying to spare
individuals the trouble of going through that, with the hope that broader and more informed
participation will not only help investors safeguard their own investments, but also bring about
economically and socially beneficial change."
Investors in mutual funds will also find the
new site useful to examine how mutual funds vote on the companies they own in their portfolios.
Because of the relative ease that some people can change their 401(k) funds, Eggers believes that
there is no reason for people to have their money with a fund that doesn't vote the way they want.
"Many funds have very similar portfolios and risk profiles but very different voting
records," said Eggers. "For example, Vanguard and Schwab both offer low-cost S&P 500 Index Funds
(i.e., their portfolio and investment strategy is identical), but Schwab's fund is much more active
on both social and corporate governance issues."
Although most proposals and shareholder
annual meetings support a status quo at companies, shareholder activists are finding that
proposals-even when they don't receive a majority vote-can be vehicles for change:
added, "In recent years, shareholder revolts at Disney, Home Depot, and Yahoo were immediately
followed by changes in corporate management. Proxy campaigns in the last few years have brought
about increased disclosure of corporate political donations at dozens of firms. And behind the
scenes, shareholder activists rely on the threat of an embarrassing vote result to extract
concessions from recalcitrant executives on a variety of environmental, social, and governance