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虚拟股东大会可能成为常态,但小股东急了

虚拟股东大会可能成为常态,但小股东急了

Maria Aspan 2021年06月05日
虽然美国各地正在加快复工复产,但有企业治理专家坚信,许多年度股东大会未来将继续采取虚拟形式。
伯克希尔-哈撒韦CEO兼董事长沃伦·巴菲特在公司2020年年度股东大会上发言。此次大会为虚拟形式。盖蒂图片社

沃伦·巴菲特热情的粉丝们以往每年春天都会聚集到奥马哈,参加伯克希尔-哈撒韦的年度股东大会。约有40,000名投资者会前往参加这场被誉为“资本家的伍德斯托克音乐节”的盛会。但自2020年3月以来,与许多大型聚会一样,该公司过去两届股东大会均采取了冷清的虚拟形式。

股东大会采取视频形式,并没有阻止这次活动在五月初成为媒体关注的焦点:该公司90岁的CEO兼副董事长查理·芒格在洛杉矶,在网络直播之前或者直播过程中用大约三个半小时的时间,回答股东们书面提出的问题。随着后疫情时代美国迅速复工复产,巴菲特在结束今年的股东大会时告诉投资者“我们明年极有可能可以在奥马哈召开股东大会。”

但大部分上市公司无论是活动策划能力还是股价都无法与伯克希尔-哈撒韦相媲美。美国州级法律要求公司每年召开股东大会,以选举董事会成员;大部分公司的股东大会在4至6月期间召开。大部分年度股东大会从热闹非凡变得无聊透顶,这种情况被企业治理专家道格拉斯·奇亚称为“形式主义”。

自2020年3月以来,新冠疫情迫使许多活动改为线上举行。据数据提供商MyLogIQ统计,2020年,78%的标普500公司举办了虚拟年度股东大会,2021年这一比例增加到86%。对于Broadridge Financial Solutions和Mediant Communications等技术提供商而言,与前几年相比形势突然转变,对此他们可能期待已久。2019年,通过Broadridge召开的虚拟年度股东大会只有326场。该公司的客户包括52%的《财富》500强公司。2020年达到1,957场,并且2021年有望超过2,257场。

现在,虽然美国各地正在加快复工复产,但有企业治理专家坚信,许多年度股东大会未来将继续采取虚拟形式。

奇亚表示:“有许多公司可以恢复面对面会议,但他们不会选择这样做。因为他们亲身体会到了虚拟年度股东大会的好处和便利。”奇亚现任Soundboard Governance咨询公司总裁,并在罗格斯法学院(Rutgers Law School)公司法与公司治理中心(Center for Corporate Law and Governance)任教。

未来的活动策划将取决于各州政府是否要求公司必须召开现场年度股东大会;加州和纽约州等多个州在疫情期间临时取消了一些限制,但尚未制定永久性的调整方案。但从公司的角度,虚拟会议的好处包括节约组织现场活动的成本,因为面对面会议的参会人数可能没有保证,另外公司还可以控制投资者的问题、公众的批评甚至抗议活动。

这也是许多股东代表抨击虚拟会议形式的原因。8月发表的一篇学术论文显示,去年春季,随着疫情在美国各地爆发,公司只能将股东大会改为线上举行,两位激进投资者和研究参与者提交的问题只有36%在虚拟会议期间得到了解答。研究发现,在32%的虚拟会议中,股东们遇到了大量技术问题,导致他们根本无法提交问题。

该论文的作者、耶路撒冷希伯来大学(Hebrew University of Jerusalem)工商管理学院的高级讲师米里亚姆·施瓦茨-齐夫表示:“去年,公司的做法导致股东很难提交问题。”她还表示:“这种做法产生了影响。公司选择不解答股东的问题,确实影响了股东大会上为股东答疑解惑的时间。”

将小股东禁言?

对于小股东而言,大部分年度股东大会都是一次重要的活动。如贝莱德(BlackRock)、道富银行(State Street)或者先锋集团(Vanguard)这些规模庞大、实力雄厚的机构投资者有足够的财力,可以随时与董事会沟通。但散户和小型基金却只能通过公司年度股东大会发出自己的声音。

机构投资者委员会(Council of Institutional Investors)的执行董事埃米·博拉斯表示:“大小股东都可以利用这个一年一度的场合,与公司高层对话。”机构投资者委员会代表养老基金和其他大型资产管理机构。

她补充道:“虚拟会议应该作为传统会议的补充,而不是取而代之,更不能用于让股东沉默。”

其实早在Zoom兴起之前,已经有一些公司试图阻止投资者发声。在年度股东大会转变为虚拟活动之前,有些公司会选择在偏远的地方召开会议,这样做通常是为了尽量减少股东、客户或员工出席(以及公众的批评)。

2011年,反银行的抗议活动愈演愈烈导致“占领华尔街”运动爆发,当时位于纽约的高盛和摩根大通分别将年度股东大会移师新泽西州和俄亥俄州举行。2019年,麦当劳的工资水平以及处理性骚扰指控的方式遭到员工和时任总统候选人伯尼·桑德斯参议员的批评。面对这种情况,该快餐连锁将年度股东大会的举办地点从芝加哥总部搬到了达拉斯机场酒店。

今年,其工资、职场文化和前任CEO糟糕的言论再次引发公众批评,因此麦当劳年度股东大会选择了虚拟形式。投资者可以书面提交问题,但不能通过摄像头或者手机提问。整场股东大会用时约45分钟。(麦当劳发言人拒绝对两次会议置评。)

还有许多公司都像麦当劳一样,采取了这种低调、低技术含量的方式:Broadridge表示,2020年95%的虚拟股东大会允许投资者提交书面问题,只有1%的股东大会允许通过视频和音频提问。所以,有些虚拟股东大会更加精彩,尤其是股东向公司施压要求公司履行种族、社会和环境正义方面的承诺,这种情况很耐人寻味。(上周,埃克森美孚(Exxon Mobile)与投资者因为其应对气候变化的举措发生激烈对决,结果该石油公司败北,失去了两个董事会席位。)

但奇亚表示,疫情期间的大部分虚拟股东大会“非常无聊”。奇亚曾担任强生的总法律顾问助理和公司秘书。 “根据我的经验,这些公司是故意让虚拟会议变得无聊。这正是他们所希望的。”

因此,股东代表敦促公司未来规划“混合形式”的股东大会,而不是只有虚拟会议,使投资者可以选择亲自到场(和提问)。机构投资者委员会的博拉斯表示:“许多公司之所以坚持召开虚拟股东大会,是因为这种形式成本更低,而且还可以听到更多小股东的意见。但这样一来,公司有责任确保股东可以以有意义的方式参加会议。”

奇亚也承认“混合”会议形式的优势。他是罗格斯虚拟会议最佳实践工作组的负责人,在12月发布了相关建议。但未来是否会有很多公司愿意付出时间和成本,同时组织虚拟和实体会议?奇亚对此表示怀疑。

他说道:“我认为采用混合会议形式的公司不会太多,但召开虚拟年度股东大会不见得会让公司错失良机。公司可以通过很多方式,方便公司与股东之间就许多问题开诚布公地展开对话,”比如允许股东在视频中提出问题。

他表示:“技术早就不成问题,只是公司选择不使用这些技术。但这种民主化效应有很大的潜力。”

事实上,2021年许多公司召开的虚拟股东大会都有所改进,而且Broadridge为客户召开虚拟会议提供了“类似于Zoom”的视频技术。

与此同时,虚拟会议对于投资者而言有一个好处是不可否认的,那就是参加会议变得更容易。据机构股东服务公司(Institutional Shareholder Services)的咨询部门ISS Corporate Solutions(ICS)的数据显示,2019年至2020年期间,虚拟会议参会人数增加了超过一倍。

该部门咨询与客户服务业务负责人彼得·金博尔表示,虚拟会议“是在人们需要保持安全距离时的一种慎重选择,但对于公司而言,这种形式更方便,而且会鼓励股东参与。人们真心期待虚拟会议能够成为常态。”

即使最激进的股东也认为虚拟会议有一定的好处。例如来自CorpGov.net的詹姆斯·麦克里奇是一名激进的独立投资者,因为经常提出股东提案而闻名,他曾与施瓦茨-齐夫合作研究了去年公司召开虚拟股东大会的情况。

虽然麦克里奇批评许多公司的虚拟策略,但他承认数字化转型有一些好处,有一部分原因是他参加更多股东大会变得更容易,不再需要在全国四处奔波。

他说道:“由于许多原因,我一直坚决反对虚拟股东大会,而且我依旧认为虚拟会议有许多问题。但这种形式确实能节省大量时间。”(财富中文网)

翻译:刘进龙

审校:汪皓

伯克希尔-哈撒韦CEO兼董事长沃伦·巴菲特在公司2020年年度股东大会上发言。此次大会为虚拟形式。盖蒂图片社

沃伦·巴菲特热情的粉丝们以往每年春天都会聚集到奥马哈,参加伯克希尔-哈撒韦的年度股东大会。约有40,000名投资者会前往参加这场被誉为“资本家的伍德斯托克音乐节”的盛会。但自2020年3月以来,与许多大型聚会一样,该公司过去两届股东大会均采取了冷清的虚拟形式。

股东大会采取视频形式,并没有阻止这次活动在五月初成为媒体关注的焦点:该公司90岁的CEO兼副董事长查理·芒格在洛杉矶,在网络直播之前或者直播过程中用大约三个半小时的时间,回答股东们书面提出的问题。随着后疫情时代美国迅速复工复产,巴菲特在结束今年的股东大会时告诉投资者“我们明年极有可能可以在奥马哈召开股东大会。”

但大部分上市公司无论是活动策划能力还是股价都无法与伯克希尔-哈撒韦相媲美。美国州级法律要求公司每年召开股东大会,以选举董事会成员;大部分公司的股东大会在4至6月期间召开。大部分年度股东大会从热闹非凡变得无聊透顶,这种情况被企业治理专家道格拉斯·奇亚称为“形式主义”。

自2020年3月以来,新冠疫情迫使许多活动改为线上举行。据数据提供商MyLogIQ统计,2020年,78%的标普500公司举办了虚拟年度股东大会,2021年这一比例增加到86%。对于Broadridge Financial Solutions和Mediant Communications等技术提供商而言,与前几年相比形势突然转变,对此他们可能期待已久。2019年,通过Broadridge召开的虚拟年度股东大会只有326场。该公司的客户包括52%的《财富》500强公司。2020年达到1,957场,并且2021年有望超过2,257场。

现在,虽然美国各地正在加快复工复产,但有企业治理专家坚信,许多年度股东大会未来将继续采取虚拟形式。

奇亚表示:“有许多公司可以恢复面对面会议,但他们不会选择这样做。因为他们亲身体会到了虚拟年度股东大会的好处和便利。”奇亚现任Soundboard Governance咨询公司总裁,并在罗格斯法学院(Rutgers Law School)公司法与公司治理中心(Center for Corporate Law and Governance)任教。

未来的活动策划将取决于各州政府是否要求公司必须召开现场年度股东大会;加州和纽约州等多个州在疫情期间临时取消了一些限制,但尚未制定永久性的调整方案。但从公司的角度,虚拟会议的好处包括节约组织现场活动的成本,因为面对面会议的参会人数可能没有保证,另外公司还可以控制投资者的问题、公众的批评甚至抗议活动。

这也是许多股东代表抨击虚拟会议形式的原因。8月发表的一篇学术论文显示,去年春季,随着疫情在美国各地爆发,公司只能将股东大会改为线上举行,两位激进投资者和研究参与者提交的问题只有36%在虚拟会议期间得到了解答。研究发现,在32%的虚拟会议中,股东们遇到了大量技术问题,导致他们根本无法提交问题。

该论文的作者、耶路撒冷希伯来大学(Hebrew University of Jerusalem)工商管理学院的高级讲师米里亚姆·施瓦茨-齐夫表示:“去年,公司的做法导致股东很难提交问题。”她还表示:“这种做法产生了影响。公司选择不解答股东的问题,确实影响了股东大会上为股东答疑解惑的时间。”

将小股东禁言?

对于小股东而言,大部分年度股东大会都是一次重要的活动。如贝莱德(BlackRock)、道富银行(State Street)或者先锋集团(Vanguard)这些规模庞大、实力雄厚的机构投资者有足够的财力,可以随时与董事会沟通。但散户和小型基金却只能通过公司年度股东大会发出自己的声音。

机构投资者委员会(Council of Institutional Investors)的执行董事埃米·博拉斯表示:“大小股东都可以利用这个一年一度的场合,与公司高层对话。”机构投资者委员会代表养老基金和其他大型资产管理机构。

她补充道:“虚拟会议应该作为传统会议的补充,而不是取而代之,更不能用于让股东沉默。”

其实早在Zoom兴起之前,已经有一些公司试图阻止投资者发声。在年度股东大会转变为虚拟活动之前,有些公司会选择在偏远的地方召开会议,这样做通常是为了尽量减少股东、客户或员工出席(以及公众的批评)。

2011年,反银行的抗议活动愈演愈烈导致“占领华尔街”运动爆发,当时位于纽约的高盛和摩根大通分别将年度股东大会移师新泽西州和俄亥俄州举行。2019年,麦当劳的工资水平以及处理性骚扰指控的方式遭到员工和时任总统候选人伯尼·桑德斯参议员的批评。面对这种情况,该快餐连锁将年度股东大会的举办地点从芝加哥总部搬到了达拉斯机场酒店。

今年,其工资、职场文化和前任CEO糟糕的言论再次引发公众批评,因此麦当劳年度股东大会选择了虚拟形式。投资者可以书面提交问题,但不能通过摄像头或者手机提问。整场股东大会用时约45分钟。(麦当劳发言人拒绝对两次会议置评。)

还有许多公司都像麦当劳一样,采取了这种低调、低技术含量的方式:Broadridge表示,2020年95%的虚拟股东大会允许投资者提交书面问题,只有1%的股东大会允许通过视频和音频提问。所以,有些虚拟股东大会更加精彩,尤其是股东向公司施压要求公司履行种族、社会和环境正义方面的承诺,这种情况很耐人寻味。(上周,埃克森美孚(Exxon Mobile)与投资者因为其应对气候变化的举措发生激烈对决,结果该石油公司败北,失去了两个董事会席位。)

但奇亚表示,疫情期间的大部分虚拟股东大会“非常无聊”。奇亚曾担任强生的总法律顾问助理和公司秘书。 “根据我的经验,这些公司是故意让虚拟会议变得无聊。这正是他们所希望的。”

因此,股东代表敦促公司未来规划“混合形式”的股东大会,而不是只有虚拟会议,使投资者可以选择亲自到场(和提问)。机构投资者委员会的博拉斯表示:“许多公司之所以坚持召开虚拟股东大会,是因为这种形式成本更低,而且还可以听到更多小股东的意见。但这样一来,公司有责任确保股东可以以有意义的方式参加会议。”

奇亚也承认“混合”会议形式的优势。他是罗格斯虚拟会议最佳实践工作组的负责人,在12月发布了相关建议。但未来是否会有很多公司愿意付出时间和成本,同时组织虚拟和实体会议?奇亚对此表示怀疑。

他说道:“我认为采用混合会议形式的公司不会太多,但召开虚拟年度股东大会不见得会让公司错失良机。公司可以通过很多方式,方便公司与股东之间就许多问题开诚布公地展开对话,”比如允许股东在视频中提出问题。

他表示:“技术早就不成问题,只是公司选择不使用这些技术。但这种民主化效应有很大的潜力。”

事实上,2021年许多公司召开的虚拟股东大会都有所改进,而且Broadridge为客户召开虚拟会议提供了“类似于Zoom”的视频技术。

与此同时,虚拟会议对于投资者而言有一个好处是不可否认的,那就是参加会议变得更容易。据机构股东服务公司(Institutional Shareholder Services)的咨询部门ISS Corporate Solutions(ICS)的数据显示,2019年至2020年期间,虚拟会议参会人数增加了超过一倍。

该部门咨询与客户服务业务负责人彼得·金博尔表示,虚拟会议“是在人们需要保持安全距离时的一种慎重选择,但对于公司而言,这种形式更方便,而且会鼓励股东参与。人们真心期待虚拟会议能够成为常态。”

即使最激进的股东也认为虚拟会议有一定的好处。例如来自CorpGov.net的詹姆斯·麦克里奇是一名激进的独立投资者,因为经常提出股东提案而闻名,他曾与施瓦茨-齐夫合作研究了去年公司召开虚拟股东大会的情况。

虽然麦克里奇批评许多公司的虚拟策略,但他承认数字化转型有一些好处,有一部分原因是他参加更多股东大会变得更容易,不再需要在全国四处奔波。

他说道:“由于许多原因,我一直坚决反对虚拟股东大会,而且我依旧认为虚拟会议有许多问题。但这种形式确实能节省大量时间。”(财富中文网)

翻译:刘进龙

审校:汪皓

Every spring in the beforetimes, fervent Warren Buffett fans converged in Omaha for Berkshire Hathaway’s annual shareholder meeting. Some 40,000 investors would fly in for the carnival known as “Woodstock for capitalists.” But, like so many large gatherings since March 2020, its past two iterations have been deflatingly virtual.

The video remove didn’t stop Buffett’s event from making headlines in early May: Berkshire's 90-year-old CEO and its vice chairman, Charlie Munger, spent about three and a half hours fielding questions that shareholders submitted in writing, ahead of or during a webcast from Los Angeles. And with the United States rapidly reopening for post-pandemic life, Buffett ended this year’s meeting by telling investors that “the odds are very, very good that we get to hold this next year in Omaha.”

But most public companies aren’t Berkshire Hathaway—in either party-planning approach or share price. Companies are required by state law to hold yearly gatherings for shareholders to elect their boards of directors; most do so from April through June. The majority of these annual shareholder meetings range from the contentious to the deliberately boring, in what corporate-governance expert Douglas Chia calls “perfunctory exercises.”

And, like so many other events since March 2020, the pandemic forced most of them online. In 2020, 78% of S&P 500 companies held virtual-only annual meetings, with 86% doing so in 2021, according to data provider MyLogIQ. That was an abrupt—if, to tech vendors like Broadridge Financial Solutions and Mediant Communications, long-awaited—reversal from previous years. In 2019, only 326 virtual annual meetings were held through Broadridge, which counts 52% of the Fortune 500 as clients. In 2020, Broadridge hosted 1,957 virtual annual meetings and says it is on track to host more than 2,257 on its platform in 2021.

Now, even as reopenings accelerate across the country, some corporate-governance experts are betting that many annual meetings will never return to the real world.

“There are a lot of companies that could go back in-person—but won’t. They’ve seen the benefits and convenience of having a virtual annual meeting,” says Chia, president of consultancy Soundboard Governance and a fellow at Rutgers Law School’s Center for Corporate Law and Governance.

Some future event-planning will depend on the state governments that mandate whether annual meetings must be held in person; states including California and New York temporarily lifted some restrictions during the pandemic but have yet to enact permanent change. But from a company perspective, the benefits of virtual meetings include reducing the costs of organizing a physical event that isn’t always well-attended—and potentially exerting more control over investor questions, public criticisms, or even protests.

Which is why many shareholder representatives decry the virtual migration. Last spring, as the pandemic swept over the U.S. and companies scrambled to move their shareholder meetings online, only 36% of questions submitted by two active investors and study participants during virtual meetings were addressed, according to an academic paper first published in August. In 32% of meetings, the shareholders ran into substantial technical problems that prevented them from submitting questions at all, the study found.

“Companies made it incredibly difficult last year to submit questions,” says Miriam Schwartz-Ziv, a senior lecturer at the School of Business Administration at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the study’s author. “There’s an impact to making those choices,” she adds. “It’s a choice not to address questions—and it does affect the time spent on shareholder concerns.”

Silencing small shareholders?

Most annual meetings are big events for small shareholders. The largest and most powerful institutional investors—such as BlackRock, State Street, or Vanguard—have the financial heft to bend a board’s ear at any time. But for retail investors and smaller funds, a company’s annual meeting can be their sole opportunity to make their voices heard.

“It’s the one occasion of the year where shareholders of any size get to engage with corporate leaders at the highest level,” says Amy Borrus, executive director of the Council of Institutional Investors, which represents pension funds and other large asset managers.

“Virtual meetings should be used to supplement the traditional meeting, not as a substitute,” she adds, “and not to silence shareholders.”

Still, some companies tried to mute investors long before the Zoom era. Before annual meetings went virtual, some were physically remote—often when executives seemed to have incentives to minimize attendance (and public criticism) from shareholders, customers, or employees.

In 2011, amid the mounting anti-bank protests that would culminate in the Occupy Wall Street movement, New York–based Goldman Sachs and JPMorgan Chase moved their annual shareholder gatherings to, respectively, New Jersey and Ohio. In 2019, as workers and then-presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders criticized McDonald’s over wages and its handling of sexual-harassment allegations, the fast-food chain relocated its annual meeting from its Chicago headquarters to a Dallas airport hotel.

This year, facing a new round of public criticism over wages, workplace culture, and the messy firing of its previous CEO, McDonald’s held its annual meeting virtually. Investors were allowed to submit questions in writing but not to ask them on camera or over the phone. The whole thing took about 45 minutes. (A McDonald's spokesperson declined to comment on either meeting.)

McDonald's is hardly alone in this low-key, low-tech approach: Broadridge says that 95% of its 2020 virtual meetings allowed investors to submit questions in writing, and only 1% of the events were conducted over video, in addition to audio. So it's remarkable that some virtual meetings have managed to feature more drama, especially as shareholders pressure companies to fulfill their commitments to racial, social, and environmental justice. (Just last week, Exxon Mobile lost a closely watched battle with investors, and two seats on its board, over the oil company’s approach to climate change.)

But most pandemic-era virtual meetings “have been boring,” says Chia, a former assistant general counsel and corporate secretary for Johnson & Johnson. “And from experience, I know that they are intentionally boring. That is exactly what the companies are going for.”

As a result, shareholder representatives are urging companies to plan “hybrid” rather than purely virtual meetings in the future, so that investors can choose to attend (and ask questions) in person. “Many companies will stick with virtual meetings because for some it’s cheaper, and it’s also a way to hear from potentially more of your smaller shareholders,” CII's Borrus says. “But it also really puts the onus on the company to make sure that shareholders can participate meaningfully.”

Chia, who led a Rutgers working group on virtual-meeting best practices and published its recommendations in December, acknowledges the advantages of “hybrid” meetings. But he’s skeptical that many companies will bother with the time and expense of organizing both in-person and virtual components of future events.

“I don’t think you’re going to see a lot of companies moving to hybrid—but the virtual annual meeting doesn’t have to be a missed opportunity,” he says. “Companies can do a lot of things to facilitate a more open dialogue on a host of issues,” like allowing shareholders to ask their questions on video.

“That tech already exists—companies just choose not to use it,” he says. “But there is potential for this democratizing effect.”

A few companies have indeed made improvements for 2021, and Broadridge is now offering what it calls "Zoom-like" video technology for its virtual meetings.

Meanwhile, virtual meetings do have one undeniable benefit for investors: It’s easier to show up for more of them. Attendance at virtual meetings more than doubled between 2019 and 2020, according to ISS Corporate Solutions (ICS), a consultancy unit of Institutional Shareholder Services.

Virtual meetings “are the prudent course of action when people need a safe distance, but they’re also convenient for the company and they encourage shareholder participation,” says Peter Kimball, head of advisory and client services for ICS. “There is a real expectation that virtual meetings are here to stay.”

Which even some of the most active shareholders see as a silver lining. Take James McRitchie of CorpGov.net, a vocal independent investor known for filing shareholder proposals, who worked with Schwartz-Ziv on her research into how companies handled virtual meetings last year.

Despite criticizing many companies’ virtual tactics, McRitchie acknowledges some benefits from the digital shift—in part because it’s a lot easier to attend more events when he doesn’t have to fly around the country to do so.

“I’ve been vehemently opposed to virtual shareholder meetings for a number of reasons, and I still think there are many problems,” McRitchie says. “But boy, it sure saves a lot of time.”

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