Archive for the ‘shareholder communication’ Tag

Developing a shareholder strategy

A survey of shareholder communications in more than 400 companies listed on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange (HKSE) was published recently by the Hong Kong Institute of Chartered Secretaries (HKICS).   Since the HKSE ranks third equal with the Singapore Stock Exchange in world rankings (behind London and New York), it is likely that the findings have a wider significance.

The report, which I drafted, suggested that effective shareholder communications rest on an understanding of the shareholder base and their information needs. A key conclusion was that whilst some listed companies recognize that shareholder communications are vital, the majority do not and have some way to go to be effective.

Some of the key findings in the study were that:

  • A sizeable proportion of listed companies did not know much about their shareholders – the survey results showed that a third of respondent companies did not know who their shareholders were. They did not regularly or routinely monitor their shareholder base.
  • Some listed companies were not even bothered to find out – 5% of respondents said that they felt that they should be routinely monitoring who their shareholders were but did not: and a further 15.5% said they should be monitoring them on an ad hoc basis but did not.
  • The majority of listed companies lack a shareholder communication strategy

–  58.3% of respondents recognized that their communications with their shareholders were inadequate or ‘somewhat inadequate’.  Most saw the need for improvement.  But 8.6%, although they recognized that their communications were inadequate, saw no need for change. Only 33.1%% thought that their shareholder communications were adequate.

  • The vast majority did not think that all shareholders should be treated equally – Whilst respondents strongly believed that shareholders should be engaged more effectively, only a few (92) felt that all shareholders should be involved, whilst the majority (269) felt that engagement should only be with institutional investors and long-term shareholders. However, respondents believed that these investors had a stewardship role to proactively engage with the company.
  • There is little accountability for shareholder communications at the CEO or board levels – Many companies (172) report information on their shareholder profile to senior management, the board, or board committees. But more companies (241) did not report the data or did not know how it was used.
  • The company secretary is a source of help on investor relations profiling the shareholder base in 52.5% of the companies responding, followed by the Head of Investor Relations (21.0%). Companies reported devoting more resources to investor relations activities including shareholder communication and engagement, with increasing significance for an investor relations function.

Five ‘imperatives’ were developed to give practical and effective guidance to the board of directors and senior management to enhance shareholder communications and investor relations for listed companies, namely to:

  1. Develop an investor relations strategy within the corporate strategy
  2. Know and regularly review the shareholder base
  3. Formulate and regularly review shareholder communication policies
  4. Formulate and regularly review shareholder engagement policies
  5. Review the responsibility and accountability for investor relations

‘The full report can be read at: https://www.hkics.org.hk/index.php?_room=10&_action=detail&_page=3

(Click for the English or Chinese versions)

-Bob Tricker, 2017

 

Shareholder communication

Some ongoing corporate governance concerns

It has been a while since I contributed to OUP’s corporate governance blog, which I share with Professor Chris Mallin. So I thought that, rather than focusing on a single theme, I would comment on issues that are currently concerning directors and their professional advisers around the world.

In particular I will address shareholder communication, shareholder engagement, executive compensation, cyber security, and the challenges of cronyism and corruption.

Shareholder communication

Listed companies need to communicate with their shareholders. Market analysts, potential investors, regulators, and others in the market also need ongoing knowledge about the company.  Formal requirements for such information are found in company law and stock exchange rules.  But companies need to go beyond these regulatory, financially-orientated demands.

In the original model of the joint-stock, limited-liability company shareholders were individuals, their numbers small, and their needs for information tended to be similar. Directors could communicate quite easily with them; indeed in many cases they knew them personally. But that was 150 years ago!

Today, shareholders are no longer homogeneous. The shareholders of a listed company could include institutional investors actively involved in the company’s corporate governance issues, passive institutional investors, such as index-tracking funds with little interest in corporate information, dominant investors, perhaps the company’s founders or their family trusts, hedge funds, private equity investors, state owned corporations, sovereign funds, and of course retail shareholders – individuals, usually with relatively small holdings.

Clearly, the expectations of such investors, their levels of business sophistication, and their need for information differ. However, company law and stock exchange rules seldom recognize such differences.

Moreover, some listed companies may not be sure who some of their shareholders actually are. In the old days, details of a new investor were duly recorded in the share register and a hand-written share certificate provided. But in today’s scripless system, holdings are recorded centrally and may be deposited with brokers. So the shares may be held in the name of the broker or custodian participant, with the actual investor not registered as the shareholder. Ownership information can also get buried in the string of intermediaries.

So what information should a company provide?

In many jurisdictions today, the call is for narrative information to supplement the classical, financial reports. For example, the Hong Kong Companies’ Ordinance, which came into effect in March 2014, calls for the publication of a directors’ report for the financial year containing a business review including:

  • a review of the company’s business;
  • a description of the principal risks and uncertainties facing the company;
  • particulars of important events affecting the company that have occurred since the end of the financial year;
  • an indication of likely future development in the company’s business.

Further, to assist the understanding of the development, performance, and position of the company, a business review must also include:

  • an analysis using financial key performance indicators, which are factors that effectively measure the development, performance or position of the company’s business;
  • a discussion of:
    • the company’s environmental policies and performance;
    • the company’s compliance with the relevant laws and regulations that have a significant impact on the company;
    • an account of the company’s key relationships with its employees, customers and suppliers and others that have a significant impact on the company and on which the company’s success depends.

In the United States and the UK, calls are also continuing for more information on companies’ environmental, social, and governance policies and performance (frequently referred to as ‘ESG issues’).

However, the decision on exactly what information to provide and in what detail is challenging. Too little and commentators might register disapproval; too much and the company’s competitive position could be eroded or ongoing negotiations, for example over an acquisition, could be jeopardized. The danger is that, in meeting the regulatory and other expectations, companies’ statements contain more public relations commentary than hard fact.

The Hong Kong Institute of Chartered Secretaries (HKICS) is currently undertaking a survey (in which I am involved) exploring shareholder communications in companies listed on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange. The results are due to be published later this year, and will be linked to this blog in due course.

The HKICS published guidance notes in 2009, emphasizing the discretionary opportunities available to companies to communicate with their investors and the market. They cited press releases, corporate websites with dedicated investor relations pages, company presentations, group briefings, and meetings ‘one-on-one’ with individuals. Such opportunities could be used, the notes suggested, to ‘provide background to support the already publicly disclosed information, as well as to articulate:

  • long-term strategy;
  • organization history, vision, and goals;
  • management philosophy and the strength and depth of management;
  • competitive advantages and risks;
  • industry trends and issues;
  • key profit drivers in the business’

But there is an inevitable dilemma in discretionary communication. One-on-one communication is fraught with difficulty. To protect the integrity of their market, stock exchanges require information which might affect share prices to be given to the entire investment community at the same time. So, can meaningful information be given to one, or a few, shareholders without giving them undue advantage by disclosing price-sensitive information?

Companies need policies on the conduct of meetings with analysts and how to respond to questions about future earnings, if necessary correcting forecasts they might have made about the company and its prospects. Companies could consider publishing their formal disclosure policy, which needs to be in line with their overall corporate governance strategy.

Bob Tricker, May 2016
(for more on Professor Tricker’s publications and videoed lectures see www.BobTricker.com)