You watched the debates. You're carefully weighing the issues. You're one of those prized "swing voters" they talk about in the papers. And you're happy about it. You're swimming in pride over the power democracy has bestowed upon you. That's great; congratulations. But before you do a celebratory touchdown dance, a question: Will you bring this same level of enthusiasm in voting on the issues involving the companies in which you own stock?
At the end of each fiscal year, every public company is required to update its owners -- that is, its shareholders -- on its progress and bring to a vote various issues that require outside approval. This can be anything from a new compensation package for executives to a stock options plan for employees to ratifying the board's choice of accountant. All this business takes place at the annual meeting, shorthand for the yearly meeting of all shareholders. Since most stockholders won't travel to such an event, voting materials are mailed in a packet known as a proxy. Think of it as an absentee ballot for owners.
You're not alone if you don't vote. As fellow Fool Selena Maranjian pointed out recently, it's typical to leave the fiduciary responsibilities to the institutions that own most of the shares, such as mutual funds. Sometimes, too, management controls most of the voting shares, making the mailing of proxies nothing more than an empty gesture. But that doesn't mean shareholders can't create meaningful change. Just look at what has happened already during 2004:
- Shareholders of Apple Computer (Nasdaq: AAPL ) , Hewlett-Packard (NYSE: HPQ ) , IBM, Intel (Nasdaq: INTC ) , and PeopleSoft (Nasdaq: PSFT ) all voted to expense options, defying the wishes of management.
- A massive vote of no confidence in Disney (NYSE: DIS ) CEO Michael Eisner by shareholders may have led him to say he'll step down when his contract expires in two years.
And these are just the big stories. Other notable issues from this year include a proposal from pilots that forces Delta to seek permission from shareholders for extraordinary changes to its normally bankrupt-proof executive pensions. That nonbinding resolution passed with 53% of the vote.
Also, next year, if an acquisition doesn't proceed as hoped by management, Oracle (Nasdaq: ORCL ) could seek to take over PeopleSoft's board by nominating its own directors. Voters could install them through the proxy process, effectively giving Oracle CEO Larry Ellison control and making OracleSoft inevitable.
Fortunately, many annual meetings remain, including gatherings for shareholders of Procter & Gamble (NYSE: PG ) and News Corp. (NYSE: NWS ) this month. The News Corp. meeting is likely to generate the biggest headlines, for among the considerations is a proposed move from Australia to the U.S. The stakes don't get much bigger than that in business. If you own shares, you can help cement, or defeat, the decision. If you bother to get involved, that is. Take the time. Don't waste your vote.