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Lumi: we’ve democratised retail investment, but what about the voice of retail shareholders at AGMs?

Last year’s move by Arbrdn to buy Interactive Investor in a huge £1.5 billion deal, highlighted how the FTSE 100 asset manager is turning to the fast-growing area of retail investment and looking at ways to capture a new breed of shareholders.

Yet as she explains in this blog for IFA Magazine, Kerry Leighton-Bailey(pictured), director of shareholder engagement at Lumi argues that as the shareholder demographic continues to change, the big challenge for businesses and investors is ensuring that everyone who owns shares is able to access AGMs and have their voice heard. She argues that while there was progress in 2021, such as allowing shareholders to vote by proxy, there is still significant work that needs to be done to simplify the interaction between the shareholder and the holding company in 2022.

2021 could be called the year of the retail shareholder; we’ve seen a surge in investment apps like Robinhood opening up investing to a wider audience.

That means this year and beyond, companies will be facing a changing shareholder demographic, who are taking control of their financial futures and more actively participating in AGM business. As a result, organisations need to be prepared for greater participation and scrutiny. Half of all shareholders in the UK and US are now aged between 18 and 40, and 18% are between 18 and 24 (Gen Z). By 2030 they will account for over a quarter of global income and their earnings will eclipse those of millennials.

Today’s retail shareholders also have different motivations. While growing wealth and saving for retirement are two key reasons for buying shares, they also want to influence a company to behave differently, or support an organisation they’re passionate about and aligns with their own beliefs. The explosion of ESG investing is evidence of this – 77% of investors already plan to stop buying non-ESG funds completely by 2022.

Research also shows Gen-Z is investing to get ‘rich quick’ by investing for the short term, looking to play the market rather than building a balanced and well thought out portfolio. As this trend and ESG motivated investment work in tandem, issuers need to up their ESG credentials whilst also ensuring they remain profitable.

This means listening to shareholders and ensuring they have equal and fair access to AGM, arguably the most important shareholder event of the year, is more important than ever. Yet for a multitude of reasons, this isn’t always a reality.

Why aren’t shareholders attending meetings?

When we surveyed UK-based retail shareholders, 80% of them said they had never attended an AGM. The reasons were varied, such as the time and location of the meeting was inconvenient or that they lacked information about when and how to attend.

Yet this doesn’t always mean that there’s a lack of interest in attending. Shareholders also said they want a more direct dialogue with the companies they invest in including the option to attend an AGM online, or even attend a pre-AGM engagement event, where they could find out more information and ask questions before choosing how to vote at the AGM itself.

Another barrier to attending AGMs is that many shareholders simply aren’t permitted to. This is most common if shareholders own shares through an intermediary investment platform rather than having a direct relationship with the company they invested in. Many don’t realise this until they try and attend an AGM and find that it’s impossible for them to participate.

Some investment platforms are making it easier for shareholders to vote by proxy, but it can still be incredibly difficult to navigate this. I have tried myself and despite understanding the system, couldn’t find a way through to the meeting. In 2022, increasing numbers of shareholders will find this blockade intolerable, and will almost certainly look to organizations to find a more equitable solution. Whilst this will require huge structural upheaval and innovation, there are several steps individual organizations can take to make their meeting more accessible to both institutional and retail shareholders.

How can individual companies make AGMs more accessible?

Managing the principles of your Articles of Association with good corporate governance is a constant balancing act – however, better accessibility and opportunities for engagement should always be priority. A hybrid meeting format will give greater flexibility for attendees wherever they are in the world and make sure they can have their voices heard.

To make sure those attending the meeting virtually get the same experience as those in the room, there are two major factors to consider. One, is the importance of shareholders having their questions asked and answered. A basic solution may be an instant messaging Q&A where shareholders can type questions and send them to the meeting for moderation to be discussed in the body of the meeting, or answered after the fact.

Alternatively, your organisation may opt for a platform which facilitates in-chat Q&A. This is where the broadcast of the meeting can continue uninterrupted, but shareholders can also have their questions responded to directly in the chat portal, alongside your Chair addressing some questions in the broadcast.

A final option, if your organisation intends to host a legal meeting using digital participants to count towards quorum, integrating telephony, or a virtual microphone, into your meeting planning is essential.

If your organisation intends to conduct a shareholder meeting that purports to offer the same experience as a physical shareholder meeting, shareholders must be able to attend the meeting legally, which means that they must also be able to ask questions verbally. If you are a publicly listed company, a virtual microphone is an increasingly important consideration, not only to ensure shareholder voice is heard but guarantee the legitimacy of your meeting.

However, one key barrier that still remains is making sure all shareholders can attend AGMs, regardless of how they purchased their shares. While we’ll see strides being made next year to make it easier for proxy shareholders to attend AGMs, such as providing a single sign-on that gives access to meetings, there is still significant work needed to simplify the chains of complexity that stand between the underlying owner and the holding company.

This will require a huge amount of effort on the part of the intermediaries. While it’s good corporate governance from an issuer perspective to allow more people to attend meetings, the reality is that we’ll only see this happen unless there’s a huge groundswell from retail shareholders – or organisations find a legal workaround.

High profile deals such as Robinhood purchasing Say for $140m to connect retail investors to the companies they own, and more recently the acquisition of Interactive Investor by Abrdn to allow individual “retail” investors the opportunity to exercise control, are clear indicators that the industry is moving in the right direction. But we still have a long way to go.

Kerry Leighton-Bailey is director of shareholder engagement at Lumi

 

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