Corporate America is sticking it to the little guy.
That's the message I'm getting in this warmer-than-usual political season. Rabble-rousers such as Bill Maher are talking as if there ought to be an anarchist movement to overthrow the so-called military industrial complex and replace it with ... well, something else.
How can UAL's top executives -- the same guys who spiked the pensions of retirees and mainline employees -- get away with cashing in tens of millions of dollars in an all-but-certain merger with Continental?
And how can anyone think it was OK for JPMorgan Chase (NYSE: JPM ) to transfer the risk of absorbing Bear Stearns (NYSE: BSC ) from itself to taxpayers? Joe and Jane Public were due the refund Bear's shareholders got when the House of Morgan upped its bid from $2 to $10 a share. They, of course, got bupkus.
Such shenanigans are worthy of righteous outrage. And still Maher and others have it wrong. This isn't Washington's problem to fix. It's yours.
The most important shareholder initiative in a decade
I'm serious. More than 90 million individuals own stocks via brokerage accounts and mutual funds. Collectively, this group (which probably includes you if you're reading this) has the authority -- nay, the responsibility -- to be the checks and balances on corporate greed, as it were.
And you've got the tools to do so, thanks to regulators. The Securities and Exchange Commission's EDGAR database already contains information on thousands of public companies.
When insiders buy or sell shares, they have to file a Form 4. When companies report information that could affect revenue, profits, or investors' view of their prospects, they file an 8-K. And with each succeeding quarter, companies file a comprehensive 10-Q report on the state of their business.
That's not all. Thanks to a new initiative called XBRL, which is receiving broad support from the likes of Microsoft (Nasdaq: MSFT ) , R.R. Donnelley, and EDGAR Online, it's becoming possible to know everything there is to know about a business with just a few clicks.
Rock your proxy
So, thanks to the Feds, financial information is more democratically distributed today than it ever has been. Can you, the common Fool, act on it?
Of course! It's called the proxy process. Just as voters receive a guide to ballot initiatives in local, state, and national elections, corporations are, each year, required to put major proposals to a vote by shareholders. These proposals are described in detail in form Def 14A, otherwise known as the proxy statement. Go here to get a list of the latest proxies filed in EDGAR.
Leading activists have used proxy voting to effect change ever since the days of master investor Benjamin Graham. Today's top activists include Carl Icahn and CalPERS, which is the acronym for the public employees union for the state of California. Icahn in particular is famous for stirring controversy. Motorola (NYSE: MOT ) is just his latest target.
But shareholder activists are everywhere. Ask Warren Buffett. Last year, Berkshire Hathaway (NYSE: BRK-A ) (NYSE: BRK-B ) attracted the ire of those who wanted the firm to sell its stake in PetroChina for its alleged connection to the Sudanese region of Darfur. Buffett and partner Charlie Munger have since sold, but for different reasons. They believed the stock had become overvalued.
Nevertheless, the point remains: In business as in politics, activism works. So, go ahead, rock the vote. But don't forget to rock your proxy, too.