Please note that tax, investment, pension and ISA rules can change and the information and any views contained in this article may now be inaccurate.
Becoming an active shareholder
Becoming a shareholder of a company gives ordinary people the opportunity to take large corporates to task on issues ranging from executive pay to the environment.
Publicly-listed companies (those whose stock is bought and sold by investors) are required to hold an annual general meeting (AGM) within six months of the end of the financial year– so between April and October.
VOTING RIGHTS AND ASKING QUESTIONS
At the AGM, company directors present their reports and accounts and important aspects of company policy, such as the re-election and pay of directors, are voted on by shareholders.
All shareholders, no matter how small their shareholding, have the right to attend and vote at an AGM. Crucially, shareholders also have the right to ask questions, which the board are obliged to answer. For individual shareholders, this could be their best opportunity to make their voices heard.
Activist shareholders can go it alone or join forces with other shareholders to influence large companies.
ShareAction is a charity which brings together investors and gives them the tools and training to make their collective voice heard. ShareAction’s ‘AGM Army’ project supports individuals attending company AGMs and raising issues directly with the board.
ShareAction spokesperson Beau O’Sullivan says shareholders should plan ahead before attending an AGM. ‘Research the issue you’d like to raise. If your question requires a detailed answer, write to the chairman prior to the AGM,’ he suggests.
‘You should also research the company. Have a look at its website and the sections of its annual reports and accounts that are relevant to your question, and see whether the company has been mentioned by the media recently.’
It’s a good idea to write out your question in advance of the meeting, keeping it short and concise. The process for asking a question will vary from company to company; some organisations require you to register your question in advance of the AGM, or on arrival. At other AGMs, shareholders can simply raise their hand during the question session.
PUTTING FORWARD A RESOLUTION
Keen activist shareholders might want to take things one step further and put forward a ‘shareholder resolution’ at the AGM. These are different to ‘company resolutions’ put forward by the company, and could relate to any issue of concern to shareholders.
‘Under UK law (the Companies Act 2006), shareholders have the right to file a resolution at a publicly listed company if they represent at least 5% of the total voting rights, or the concerned members number at least 100, holding shares on which there has been paid up an average sum per shareholder of not less than £100,’ says O’Sullivan.
‘Resolutions have to be framed to further the interests of the company and its shareholders. To become legally binding, the resolutions need to gain the support of 75% of the vote at the ballot on the AGM.
‘Without the support of management, it is extremely rare for special resolutions filed to be passed at an AGM.’
In 2015 shareholder resolutions at both BP (BP.) and Royal Dutch Shell (RDSB) on climate risk disclosures became historic events by gaining the support of the boards of management, and passing at the AGMs with nearly 99% of the vote.
‘AGM activism has helped us secure significant wins that changed lives all over the world,’ says O’Sullivan, ‘For example, our AGM question at AstraZeneca (AZN) helped to galvanise its commitment to using 100% renewable electricity and joining the RE100 initiative.
‘Last year, ShareAction teamed up with other organisations to convince BP to abandon its plan to drill for oil in the pristine waters of the Great Australian Bight.’
TACKLING THE PAY QUESTION
Alongside the environment, pay is a key subject for activists; not just executive compensation but at the other end of the pay scale too.
ShareAction is campaigning for FTSE 100 companies to pay the Living Wage (£9.75/hour in London and £8.45/hour for the rest of the UK) to all employees. It claims companies including Barclays, Aviva (AV.), Burberry (BRBY) and Centrica (CNA) have all become accredited as Living Wage employers following Share Action campaigns.
You only need to own one share in a company to earn the right to attend, ask questions, and vote at its AGM. The voting process will depend on whether you own the shares in your name or in a nominee account.
ShareSoc is another organisation which encourages individual investors to make their voices heard and encourages them to vote at AGMs.
‘If you hold a paper share certificate or are a Personal Crest Member then it is easy. You will be sent a paper voting form or can opt in for electronic notification. You can then vote by post or electronically,’ says ShareSoc deputy chairman Roger Lawson.
‘If your shares are held in a nominee account, as most are nowadays, then it gets a bit more complicated. In essence you will have to get your nominee operator (stockbroker) to submit your votes on your behalf because they technically own the shares not you (i.e. their name is on the share register). You just have a “beneficial interest” in them. But the voting rights are still yours.’ (EL)