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As investors, it’s easy to roll our eyes at corporate missteps and transgressions while forgetting our own role in the system of public ownership. As partial stakeholders in these companies, we, too, share some of the blame for their misbehavior.
It’s like when a dog bites a stranger, and people debate whether the dog is at fault. Was it a bad dog, anyway? Possibly. Should the owner have had it on a leash in the first place? Probably.
Lots to correct
Any quick glance across the investing universe reveals plenty of bad behavior in need of correction.
Over at Green Mountain Coffee Roasters (Nasdaq: GMCR ) , CFO Frances Rathke misrepresented her CPA credentials for at least eight years. Yet, she remains the trusted financial architect of the company.
At Chesapeake Energy (NYSE: CHK ) , we’ve seen Aubrey McClendon redefine "conflict of interest" through various jaw-dropping stunts, like borrowing $1.1 billion against his personal stake in company wells, and running a commodities hedge fund as an independent pet project.
Netflix’s (Nasdaq: NFLX ) Reed Hastings made a comical series of head fakes and PR disasters when trying to navigate Netflix away from their DVD rental business, yet still remains both the chairman and CEO, while the company trades for 20% of its value from just one year ago.
JP Morgan (NYSE: JPM ) lost a crazy $5.8 billion in a trading loss; meanwhile, Jamie Dimon called for less financial regulation. Shareholders still overwhelmingly voted him as both their CEO and chairman after the loss.
Yet little is done.
As shareholders, it’s our duty to demand action against these shenanigans, but we rarely do. Raise your hand if you’ve ever attended a shareholder meeting. Yeah, me neither. What about if you spend more time filling out your proxy votes than reading the latest magazine you picked up? I’m guilty there, too.
There are a lot of signs that indicate our shareholder apathy is only getting worse. According to NYSE Factbook, the average holding period for a stock has declined from eight years in 1960, down to just six months in 2010. According to Michael Hudson, if you consider the impact of high frequency trading, the average ownership period falls to a depressing 22 seconds. Hey, at least it’s up from 20 seconds a few years ago, right?
The problem here has been accurately compared to the difference between renters and owners. Investors used to act like we genuinely owned a part of these companies, and were therefore motivated to keep things in line. Now we’re acting like renters, moving through one company after another, with little regard for the condition they’re in for the short time that we’re there.
Let the pros handle it
We can always try relying on those few professional rabble-rousers among us -- activist investor -- to reprimand our companies on our behalf.
There is something to be said for this group of outspoken owners. It was Carl Icahn’s disapproving glare that pushed Chesapeake’s board to strip Aubrey McClendon of his role as chairman. Though the division should really have existed all along, it’s a start, at least.
But if we just relied on this group of investors, most of us would still be left wanting. In 2010, there were only 69 proxy fights, and even then, they can go bad. Bill Ackman’s attempt at revitalizing JC Penney (NYSE: JCP ) began that same year, and shares are still down 23% from where they opened in 2010.
If we want something done right, we’ve got to do it ourselves. That means speaking up, and keeping our own businesses in line. One way is to call for a greater division of the chairman and CEO roles. In 2010, Businessweek reported that only 37% of S&P 500 companies had split roles, and the ones that did typically had the former CEO in the chairman role.
Calling for a separation between these two positions not only introduces much needed accountability to our executives, but also produces better returns. According to GovernanceMetrics International, five-year shareholders returns are as much as 28% higher for those companies that separate the two.
You can start positively impacting your companies by voting to separate the roles whenever you can, and casting "no" votes for failing management. Wal-Mart shareholders recently made waves and voiced their largest opposition ever against the current board members. Unfortunately, since nearly half of Wal-Mart shares are owned by the founding Walton family, no changes were made, but a powerful message was sent nonetheless.
We’ve also got to stop impatient and irreverent ownership. Hopping in and out of positions just dilutes the responsibility, and makes it easier to absolve blame. Investing should be a mutually beneficial relationship between companies and shareholders, where investors both commit and oversee their capital for the long-run, and are rewarded with healthy returns.
So, investors, let’s take an active role in managing our companies. Let’s read our crucial reports and cast our tiny votes. If you’re a Green Mountain Coffee Roasters or Netflix shareholder, you can read up on your management team in our newest premium report for each company. We’ve dedicated a special section in each to inform you about who, exactly, is driving your ship. Click here for the Green Mountain report, or click here for the Netflix report.
If you’re a Chesapeake, JC Penney, or JP Morgan shareholder, you can head over to your company’s investor relations page and access important information both from, and about, your executives using the links below.