NY Times: “Investors to Directors: ‘Can We Talk?7”

(From the article) What if lawmakers never spoke to their constituents?

Oddly enough, that’s exactly how corporate America operates. Shareholders vote for directors, but the directors rarely, if ever, communicate with them.

Within the clubby world of directors, communicating with shareholders, big or small, is overtly frowned upon: “We endorse the principle that direct engagement involving directors should not be a routine method of engagement for most U.S. companies and for most investors,” according to the Conference Board Governance Center Task Force on Corporate/Investor Engagement.

That’s why it was so unusual for the chairmen of at least 1,000 large United States public companies to receive a letter this month from a group of shareholders representing more than $10 trillion in assets with a demand: Talk to us. The letter, signed by representatives of some of the biggest investment groups, including BlackRock, Vanguard and Calstrs, insisted that boards open up.

“Engagement between public company directors and their company’s shareholders is an idea whose time has come,” wrote the group, known as the Shareholder-Director Exchange. “We believe that U.S. public companies, in consultation with management, should consider formally adopting a policy providing for shareholder-director engagement.”

What was uncommon about the letter was that it came not from activist investors like Carl C. Icahn or William A. Ackman, but from institutional investors that until recently had traditionally always supported whatever a company’s board recommended. Now, those investors want a dialogue.

The reason boards have long shunned speaking with investors is multifaceted. Management — the chief executive, chief financial officer and so on — usually have meetings with the company’s biggest shareholders. Some directors avoid meetings. worried about speaking with one voice. Most don’t consider it their responsibility. Some are anxious about accidentally disclosing sensitive information. A memo to directors on this topic from the law firm Latham & Watkins was explicitly titled “Dangerous Talk?” ….

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