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Shareholder activism: Salvation or death knell?

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  • Shareholder activism: Salvation or death knell?

As F&C Asset Management continues to fight attempts to replace its chairman, Jonathan Williams asks if anything can ever be achieved with shareholder activism.

Opinions on activist shareholders are likely to split a room - you either support their cause wholeheartedly and see it as the only way to achieve a goal, or view it as the best way to undermine a company and sabotage its attempts to keep its share price afloat. Even if you are able to fend off one such attack, who is to say the shareholder will not return a second time?

Discussions such as these are probably rife in F&C Asset Management's boardroom at the moment, following the news that Institutional Shareholder Services has backed some of the changes suggested by Sherborne Investors Management.

However, not all activist shareholders are immediately angling for the dismissal of one or several board members, as is the case with those opposing F&C. In the past, pension funds have sought to use their combined power to influence a corporate's decision when it contradicted its own ethical or environmental view. 

FairPensions, a UK-based pressure group, last year tabled a motion at oil giant Shell's annual general meeting. The UK pension scheme collective demanded Shell disclose more information about tar sands projects undertaken in Canada, with around 5% of shareholders declaring an interest in further documents, the same amount abstaining and 89% opposing any further disclosure.

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Extracting oil from tar sands is one of the many ways the oil industry looks to combat falling global production. However, critics claim it is both invasive and environmentally damaging.

Other pension funds, such as Sweden's AP funds, regularly engage with companies in which they hold even small stakes. They are given a chance to explain any action contrary to the buffer funds' ESG strategy, and the schemes have been known to deinvest if the problems are notresolved.

UK schemes, with some exceptions, take a different approach, usually attempting to suitably change a company and its ways, but rarely going so far as to deinvest in any company that does not comply - let alone oppose - board appointments or attempt to deselect them.

Can shareholder rebellion, or deinvestment, ever truly hope to change a company from the ground up? In most cases, you have to assume activities are pursued with profit in mind and that the majority of shareholders will only look at that when it comes to the end of the year.

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