Shareholder’s meeting – From Personal Get-Together to Dynamic Decision-Making

Prof. Dr. Michael Beurs­kens (Uni­ver­sity of Bonn)
Prof. Dr. Ulrich Noack (Uni­ver­sity of Düs­sel­dorf)

Shareholder’s mee­ting – From Per­so­nal Get-Tog­e­ther to Dyna­mic Decision-Making

1. Infor­ma­tion – Dis­cus­sion- Decision (by Vote)

In the early 20th cen­tury it was self-evi­dent and uni­ver­sally ack­now­led­ged that a face-to-face meet-ing was the essen­tial basis for any rea­son­able decision. Respon­si­ble share­hol­ders were depen­dent on suf­fi­ci­ent infor­ma­tion, com­pe­tent dis­cus­sion to achieve the necessary mutual under­stan­ding of a company’s goals. Howe­ver, share­hol­der-activism in this tra­di­tio­nal sense is also rela­ted to geo-gra­phic pro­xi­mity: Having the fac­to­ries‘ chim­neys in view cer­tainly indu­ces an inves­tor to get per-sonally invol­ved. The stock­hol­ders invol­ved in such tra­di­tio­nal cor­po­ra­ti­ons were the­re­fore neit­her widespread nor dis­in­te­rested – ins­tead, highly invol­ved pro­fes­sio­nal entre­pre­neurs were infor­med about and voted on the future of their major invest­ments. The legal frame­work in most mem­ber sta­tes, espe­ci­ally in Ger­many, is still based on this ori­gi­nal under­stan­ding.

The share­hol­ders‘ mee­ting deri­ved from the afo­re­men­tio­ned princi­ples is based on three funda-men­tal, inter­con­nec­ted pil­lars: First of all the cor­po­rate agents must pro­vide share­hol­ders with suf­fi­ci­ent infor­ma­tion to under­stand the issues faced by the com­pany and review the manage-ment’s per­for­mance. Secondly the share­hol­ders must be able to com­mu­ni­cate with each other to coor­di­nate their inte­rests and express their opi­ni­ons direc­tly towards cor­po­rate manage­ment. Fi-nally (and most import­antly) share­hol­ders get to decide on important ques­ti­ons by majo­rity vote and elect their agents. The­re­fore the share­hol­ders‘ mee­ting mer­ges three sepa­rate steps into a sin­gle event: Infor­ma­tion – Dis­cus­sion and Decision (by Vote).

The respon­si­bi­lity vested in cor­po­rate mee­tings should neit­her be unde­re­sti­ma­ted nor can it be con­si­de­red was­te­ful. As reci­tal 3 of Direc­tive 2007/36/EC sum­ma­ri­zes effec­tive share­hol­der con­trol is a pre­re­qui­site to sound cor­po­rate gover­nance”. Who but the people, whose invest­ment (and poten­tial reve­nue) is at stake should be able eva­luate the per­for­mance of their elec­ted agents? Who but them should decide on chan­ges to cor­po­rate struc­ture or finan­ces or even mer­gers, divi-sions, move­ments of seat or a change of legal form? A cor­po­ra­tion wit­hout a share­hol­ders mee­ting might not be com­ple­tely uni­ma­gin­able, but it would be a com­ple­tely dif­fe­rent entity.

2. The modern share­hol­der and the annual mee­ting

The tra­di­tio­nal under­stan­ding of a share­hol­der mee­ting” is not a fun­da­men­tal rule built to last for-ever. The shift to diverse and disper­sed invest­ment cau­sed by ope­ned capi­tal mar­kets as well as cross-bor­der invest­ment nur­tu­red a new kind of share­hol­der, for whom par­ti­ci­pa­tion in a cor­pora-tion was only a side-effect to a cer­tain type of invest­ment. These share­hol­der-inves­tors are likely to seek a reduc­tion in costs as a means to opti­mize their indi­vi­dual gains. Tra­vel­ling across Europe (or the world) is not worth the time and money spent, unless they have a signi­fi­cant indi­vi­dual in-terest and/​or rele­vant power in decision making. The incen­tive to visit a distant town (maybe in ano­t­her coun­try) might be inte­res­ting to pen­sio­ners (who will use par­ti­ci­pa­tion in the mee­ting as an excuse for tou­rism), but not to busy inves­tors who diver­si­fied their risk and are invol­ved in a signifi-cant num­ber of rele­vant enter­pri­ses.

Modern legis­la­tion tried to reduce the indi­vi­dual costs invol­ved with par­ti­ci­pa­ting in a shareholder’s mee­ting, by les­se­ning the for­ma­li­ties impo­sed on the cor­po­ra­ti­ons: Nowa­days com­pa­nies must accept pro­xies (Art. 10 Direc­tive 2007/36/EC) and are able to allow for elec­tro­nic par­ti­ci­pa­tion (Art. 8 Direc­tive 2007/36/EC Direc­tive 2007/36/EC) and voting in advance of the mee­ting („by cor­re­spond-ence”, Art. 12 Direc­tive 2007/36/EC). Howe­ver, this is only a par­tial remedy. Annual mee­tings are still cum­ber­some to orga­nize (for the cor­po­ra­tion) as well as to attend (for the share­hol­ders) and the­re­fore highly inef­fi­ci­ent means to super­vise the activi­ties of cor­po­rate agents.

With regards to infor­ma­tion, the orga­ni­za­tion of the gene­ral mee­ting as a final show-down” be-tween inves­tors and their agents might have been rea­son­able when annual repor­ting was suffi-cient. Howe­ver, modern capi­tal mar­kets rely on con­stant input. To ful­fill that need, the European Union has crea­ted a detailed frame­work of lar­gely man­datory rules. In addi­tion, ana­lyst con­fer-ences and other non for­ma­li­zed public infor­ma­tion fills signi­fi­cant gaps. Inso­far the annual mee­ting has become less rele­vant for listed cor­po­ra­ti­ons regar­ding infor­ma­tion. Indeed, due to their im-por­t­ance for the gene­ral eco­nomy and poten­tial inves­tors, limi­t­ing rele­vant infor­ma­tion to the cur-rent share­hol­ders would be highly detri­men­tal to the capi­tal mar­ket.

The con­ti­nuing need for a mee­ting regar­ding infor­ma­tion is the­re­fore limi­ted to the share­hol­ders right to ask ques­ti­ons and poten­ti­ally force the board to ans­wer them as har­mo­ni­zed by Arti­cle 9 of Direc­tive 2007/36/EC. Yet the direc­tive its­elf men­ti­ons the poten­tial pro­blems with regards to the good order of gene­ral mee­tings and their pre­pa­ra­tion” and the­re­fore grants mem­ber sta­tes broad powers to take mea­su­res or allow cor­po­ra­ti­ons to take such mea­su­res: In mee­tings limi­ted by time and space it would be unrea­son­able to allow for unli­mi­ted and/​or unre­la­ted ques­ti­ons. Fur­ther-more the direc­tive stays silent on the con­se­quen­ces of wrong­fully rejec­ted or even false ans­wers. In fact, the board might be unable to pro­vide ans­wers to any poten­ti­ally rele­vant ques­ti­ons in time –signi­fi­cant effort is spent in crea­ting expan­sive back-offices to ensure com­pe­tent ans­wers.

In a simi­lar vein, com­mu­ni­ca­tion in a mee­ting is not what it used to be. By gran­ting cor­po­ra­ti­ons the right to allow votes by cor­re­spon­dence (Art. 12 Direc­tive 2007/36/EC) the debate taking place in the mee­ting room might not have any effect on the even­tual decision pro­cess. Simi­lar argu­ments might be rai­sed with regards to decision making by pro­xies in light of sur­pri­sing new reve­la­ti­ons and ar-guments made in the debate. Fur­ther­more, the limits in time and space as well as in par­ti­ci­pant struc­ture limit the use­ful­ness of debate: Gran­ting every share­hol­der (wit­hout regards to amount of sha­res held) iden­ti­cal rights to pre­sent their opi­ni­ons and argu­ments crea­tes signi­fi­cant costs for those requi­red to spend their time lis­ten­ing.

Finally, decision making by vote is not limi­ted to the mee­ting as such. Even though European law does not allow for a writ­ten vote in lieu of a mee­ting, the man­datory right to appoint a proxy hol­der (Art. 10 Direc­tive 2007/36/EC) effec­tively sepa­ra­tes the right to vote from both debate and infor-mation given solely at the mee­ting its­elf.

In sum, while share­hol­ders as an insti­tu­tion or as part of the cor­po­rate struc­ture are important, a phy­si­cal mee­ting is a was­te­ful means to make use of that resource. In the long run share­hol­der invol­ve­ment is likely to decrease fur­ther, ther­eby put­ting the value of the shareholder’s voice in ques­tion and pos­si­bly limi­t­ing share­hol­der rights to signi­fi­cant” or pro­fes­sio­nal” par­ti­ci­pants and ther­eby redu­cing the poten­tial for super­vi­sion by a diverse gre­mium.

3. The future: From event to pro­cess

The cur­rent sys­tem of the share­hol­ders mee­ting a sin­gle jour fixe” where mana­gers and inves­tors meet is neit­her a necessary nor an effi­ci­ent means to ensure share­hol­der activism and good corpo-rate gover­nance. Indeed the term mee­ting” its­elf might be over­esti­ma­ted in light of the tra­di­tio­nal under­stan­ding.

The road must even­tually lead to a more dyna­mic pro­cess. Infor­ma­tion on the cor­po­ra­tion and state­ments by cor­po­rate offi­cers can (and in many cases must) already be published online. Arti­cle 9, para­graph 2 sub­pa­ra­graph 2 of Direc­tive 2007/36/EC allows mem­ber sta­tes to deem an ans­wer to be given if the rele­vant infor­ma­tion is avail­able on the company’s Inter­net site. In fact, to ensure good cor­po­rate gover­nance, that rule should be made man­datory. Inso­far, a mee­ting would not be the only oppor­tu­nity to ask ques­ti­ons; ins­tead a lon­ger, appro­priate time­frame in advance of the mee­ting (which would only be a dead­line” or tar­get-date”) might be set by the board or the cor-porate char­ter. Thus, infor­ma­tion would be detached from the mee­ting altog­e­ther; a repe­ti­tion in oral form is both unne­cessary and inef­fec­tive (due to the need for trans­la­tion in other lan­guages and pos­si­ble acces­si­bi­lity to dis­ab­led share­hol­ders) in the 21st cen­tury.

Voting is already pos­si­ble by elec­tro­nic means under Art. 8 Direc­tive 2007/36/EC (secu­rity con­cerns not with­stan­ding). The main rea­son cor­po­ra­ti­ons make no or little use of that option are the costs invol­ved and the risk of voida­bi­lity, lia­bi­lity or other nega­tive con­se­quen­ces. Fur­ther­more there is sort of a chi­cken-egg-situa­tion with regards to share­hol­der inte­rest: Major share­hol­ders cur­r­ently appoint pro­xies and the­re­fore have no need for voting in advance or par­ti­ci­pa­ting by elec­tro­nic means. Since mee­tings take several hours, the costs of par­ti­ci­pa­ting are exter­na­li­zed. If a mee­ting went fas­ter and was more fle­xi­ble, pro­xies might be repla­ced by direct elec­tro­nic par­ti­ci­pa­tion. Nevertheless, voting is already not limi­ted to a spe­ci­fic mee­ting date, if voting by cor­re­spon­dence (Art. 12 Direc­tive) is allo­wed for.

What is cur­r­ently mis­sing is a means to com­mu­ni­cate among share­hol­ders bey­ond the mee­ting its­elf or at least coor­di­nate to make use of their mino­rity rights. One poten­tial means was request-ing access to the list of share­hol­ders (at least when the cor­po­ra­tion issued regis­te­red sha­res). Howe­ver, such a request ine­vi­ta­bly rai­ses data pro­tec­tion (or pri­vacy) issues. Thus, Ger­man law pro­hi­bits share­hol­ders from enqui­ring about their co-inves­tors. While the draft for an amend­ment to Direc­tive 2007/36/EC pro­vi­des manage­ment with means to deter­mine at least non-insi­gni­fi­cant share­hol­ders and crea­tes a two-way road for con­tact bet­ween cor­po­ra­tion and share­hol­der, hori-zon­tal com­mu­ni­ca­tion was not an issue. The Ger­man solu­tion of a cen­tral, publicly ope­ra­ted online regis­ter for share­hol­der coope­ra­tion („Aktio­närs­fo­rum”) was and is a fail­ure in prac­tice. Never­the-less, online media seem to be the solu­tion to the con­flict bet­ween pri­vacy and inte­rest in bila­te­ral com­mu­ni­ca­tion. Howe­ver, the cor­po­rate inter­net site might be a pre­fera­ble resource. Howe­ver, the com­pany its­elf has a signi­fi­cant advan­tage due to the option to direc­tly push” infor­ma­tion to its share­hol­ders, whe­reas the share­hol­ders require their co-inves­tors to actively do rese­arch and ther­eby pull” one ano­t­hers‘ opi­ni­ons.

These means (ques­ti­ons ans­we­red in advance, voting by cor­re­spon­dence and a new means for coor­di­na­tion and com­mu­ni­ca­tion) can be com­bi­ned and thus replace the event” of a sin­gle jour fixe (limi­ted in time and space) by a fluid pro­cess covering a time­span and thus allo­wing for signifi-cant fle­xi­bi­lity. Exami­ning the com­pe­ten­ces of the share­hol­ders‘ mee­ting, these rules would bene-fit most decisi­ons and signi­fi­cantly lower costs for both the cor­po­ra­ti­ons as well as for inves­tors. The main hin­dran­ces are legal uncer­tainty, poten­tial costs and lack of inte­rest by both cor­po­ra­ti­ons and cur­rent major inves­tors.

In the long run one must ask, whe­ther the mee­ting its­elf is still a neces­sity. Cer­tainly a dead­line is ine­vi­ta­ble for any decision – but is there a need for a get-tog­e­ther”? See­ing mana­gers face-to-face is already all but impos­si­ble in huge assem­blies of hund­reds of people; a view on a dis­play or pro-jec­tion screen is all most inves­tors get. Even now, Ger­man law allows super­vi­sory board mem­bers to be only avail­able by video con­fe­rence. Finally: The risk of obst­ruc­tion by mino­rity share­hol­ders (and the oppor­tu­nity to at least create a nega­tive impact in the press) is signi­fi­cantly hig­her when all sta­kes rest in a spe­ci­fic, severely limi­ted get-tog­e­ther. By sprea­ding the risk over a lon­ger term, this risk can be signi­fi­cantly redu­ced.

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