Asset managers are failing in their duty to asset owners if they do not engage with companies using their proxy votes, the co-founder of Generation Investment Management has said.
David Blood argued that it was important to remember governance failures led to the collapse of investment bank Lehman Brothers, a fact he said underlined the importance of board composition.
Speaking at a National Association of Pension Funds conference on stewardship, he noted that governance issues ranged from the composition of a board to the role of the chairperson versus the chief executive and the diversity of a board.
All of these aspects matter, he said.
Of the collapse of Lehman Brothers, he said: “The board failed. The CEO should have raised equity – it was well known the CEO should have raised equity – but he didn’t because the board didn’t say it.”
Blood said he could give “hundreds” of examples where governance failures were ultimately responsible and questioned why some investors and asset owners failed to recognise its importance.
He added that he found it “shocking” when asset managers argued that they did not possess the capability to engage or vote on behalf of asset owners, as the actions were part of the manager’s fiduciary duty.
“If you are an asset manager – whether you’re an index manager, or you’re a concentrated manager – you’re taking on governance responsibilities, you must vote your proxies,” he told delegates.
“To do otherwise, to say ‘Well, this just doesn’t fit my revenue model’, is irresponsible and inconsistent with what is in the best interests of clients.
“Those who are confused about whether we should consider sustainability or not, or whether it’s a fiduciary issue or not, I’m not confused. It’s very clear to me that it allows you to make better investment decisions.”
However, Melanie McLaren, executive director for codes and standards at the Financial Reporting Council – responsible for monitoring the UK Stewardship Code – warned against equating good engagement with constantly voting.
“From an FRC point of view, we are a bit nervous about a world that suggests engagement equals a vote on anything,” she said.
“We’d actually like to see engagement as genuinely that, as communication and dialogue – but it doesn’t always need to be on an ultimatum-type basis that you would get there for votes.”