Despite what is heralded as a banner year for proxy resolutions submitted by religious shareholder activists As You Sow and the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility, 2014 was anything but. Even the left-leaning Center for Political Accountability reports most so-called shareholder victories for political spending disclosure were performed on companies’ own initiative rather than prompted by resolutions authored by CPA and submitted by activist shareholders under the guise of religious principles.
The AYS and ICCR narrative collapses further under scrutiny from the New York-based Manhattan Institute for Policy Research. In the MIPR Proxy Monitor 2014, authors James R. Copland and Margaret M. O’Keefe report:
Shareholder support for shareholder proposals is down. In 2014, only 4 percent of shareholder proposals were supported by a majority of voting shareholders, down from 7 percent in 2013. The percentage of shareholder proposals to win majority support in 2014 was below that of any previous year in the ProxyMonitor.org database, which dates back to 2006. Among Fortune 250 companies, only ten proposals have won majority support to date this year, and only seven over opposition from the company’s board of directors.
The Proxy Monitor notes 62 shareholder resolutions were submitted in 2014 related to corporate disclosure of political and lobbying expenditures. All 62 proposals were rejected. Likewise, all 50 environmental proxy resolutions submitted by activist shareholders were rejected.
Copland and O’Keefe write: “Twenty-eight percent of all 2014 shareholder proposals were sponsored by investors with an express social, religious, or public-policy orientation, a majority of which were ‘social investing’ funds organized around various principles beyond share-price maximization” (emphasis added). They continue:
Almost half of all shareholder proposals in 2014 involved social or policy concerns, though shareholders continued to reject these proposals. Forty-eight percent of 2014 shareholder involved social or policy concerns. One hundred and thirty-five of 136 shareholder proposals involving social or policy concerns in 2014 failed to win the support of a majority of shareholders, the exception being a proposal for a corporate resolution on animal welfare that the company’s board supported.
And the kicker:
From 2006 through 2014, among 1,141 shareholder proposals at Fortune 250 companies that involved social or policy concerns, not a single proposal [emphasis in the original] has won the support of a majority of shareholders over board opposition.
Shareholder proposals involving corporate political spending or lobbying were again the most regularly introduced class of proposal in 2014, but they continue to be rejected by most shareholders. Twenty-two percent of all 2014 shareholder proposals involved these topics, but 80 percent of shareholders, on average, voted against them, in line with earlier years. Among 329 such proposals introduced at Fortune 250 companies from 2006 to 2014, not a single one has received the support of a majority of voting shareholders over board opposition.
Copland and O’Keefe also track an unsurprising correlation between the proposals submitted by the group containing religious activists and unions:
Labor-affiliated investors’ shareholder activism in 2014 has centered on corporate political spending or lobbying and may be related to support for Republicans among company executives and PACs. The 43 Fortune 250 companies facing shareholder proposals sponsored by labor-affiliated investors in 2014 were twice as likely to orient their political efforts to support Republicans than was the average Fortune 250 company. A majority of shareholder proposals sponsored by labor-affiliated investors in 2014 have involved corporate political spending or lobbying, and only one company targeted by these proposals gave more money to Democrats than Republicans. On average, executives and PACs [political action committees] at companies facing at least one politics-related shareholder proposal sponsored by a labor-affiliated investor sent 67 percent of their dollars to support the GOP, versus 59 percent for all companies in the Fortune 250.
Copland and O’Keefe conclude their Executive Summary: “Even more so than in recent years, the 2014 proxy season suggests that the shareholder-proposal process may not be serving the ordinary investor’s interests.” You could knock me over with a feather. When so-called religious shareholders advocate for “principles beyond share-price maximization,” there exists a tremendous disconnect. AYS and ICCR – and other, smaller religious investor groups – quite simply are placing secular temporal goals well ahead of their spiritual vocation.