Here we go again -- more things to worry about when you invest your hard-earned money. Remember when we were wringing our hands over conflicts of interest plaguing stock analysts? We didn't like the fact that many analysts often were reluctant to say negative things about companies, as each company was either a current or potential customer of the investment banks that employed the analysts.
You may not have realized it, but a similar conflict exists in the world of mutual funds. Some mutual fund companies simply run mutual funds. They're exempt from this conflict. Others, though, such as privately held Fidelity Investments, Vanguard, and Putnam not only run mutual funds, but also manage 401(k) plans and pensions for many companies. In such cases, the fund managers may not want to vote against management's wishes for companies in which the managers are invested, lest they lose business.
I'm talking here about proxy voting -- that little ballot that we receive from each of our holdings once a year or so, where we get the chance to vote yea or nay on issues such as authorizing the issuance of more shares. You and I may think that our 75 or 100 shares don't give us much of a vote. We'd be right. (Note, though, that small investors banded together have waged some successful campaigns at firms such as Verizon
In an article at SocialFunds.com, William Baue noted that a recent study has shown little bias from funds based on whether a given company was or wasn't a client. But it did reveal a greater tendency among fund companies with many corporate clients to vote with management and against shareholder proposals.
Baue said: "According to the authors, all mutual fund firms must adopt proxy-voting policies that appear aligned with shareowner interests. Fund firms with significant income from offering their portfolios through corporate pension plans, however, tend to craft proxy voting policies that minimize the incidence of voting against management. Conversely, fund companies with fewer contracts for corporate pension plans are freer to flaunt management interests by adopting policies more singularly focused on enhancing shareowner value."
The bottom line if you're interested in seeing shareholder proposals pass at companies in which you've invested is to check out the proxy-voting policies at the funds that own big chunks of the companies.
Meanwhile, if you're a mutual fund investor, pay attention to how your fund family votes. For pointers on outstanding and promising mutual funds, grab a free trial of our MotleyFoolChampion Funds newsletter, and see which funds our analyst Shannon Zimmerman has recommended. Together, his picks have roughly doubled the market's return, with nearly half racking up double-digit gains in the last year.
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- The Case for Mutual Funds
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Longtime Fool contributor Selena Maranjian does not own shares of any companies mentioned in this article.