Taking back corporate America

There was a time when companies were owned by people, and they existed not just to make money but to represent the values of their owners. Today, companies are still owned by people, but with so much indirection that they end up being faceless profit-making machines.

Most corporations are owned largely by mutual funds, which in turn are owned by most Americans as part of their retirement funds. Although these individuals have strong opinions about corporate America, this indirection causes these opinions to be summarized as “make as much money as possible.” Especially with index funds, which are managed essentially by an algorithm, there is no mechanism to get the real opinions of the shareholders to the corporations.

If you own stocks individually, on the other hand, you can get the attention of corporate management through shareholder proposals which are voted on at the company’s annual meeting. (By and large, they are non-binding. But electing a board of directors is binding, so the Board ignores these proposals at their peril.)

If you can’t attend the annual meeting in person, you send in a proxy vote. That is, an absentee ballot. It is called a proxy vote, because the ballot is given to a person, a proxy for you, who is instructed to vote with your shares according to your preferences. (I’m not sure that it actually works this way in this age of computer tallies, but that’s the theory.)

Here’s my idea: everyone who buys a mutual fund should be allowed to designate a proxy. Since the fund may include hundreds or thousands of companies, it would be unwieldy to actually fill out all those ballots for your proxy (much less read about what you’re voting for and try to understand all the issues.) However, if you tend to agree with Warren Buffett, or your union, or GreenPeace, or Bill O’Reilly, and if they agreed to vote your shares for lots of companies, it would be better that they get the vote than the mutual fund manager.

More specifically, people or organizations could register as designated proxy voters and list the companies they plan to vote for. You could then supply your mutual fund with the list of designated proxy voters. This is the sort of thing which was unweildy before computers, but should be easy these days.

The reason the proxy voters should be registered is both to make it easy for computers to track which votes go where, and so that the regulators and companies would know in advance if, for example, the ACLU has enough votes to stage a coup.