Saturday, December 04, 2010

LAPFF Conference 2010: Stewardship Code: Putting it into practice

Tom Powdrill (PIRC) led a panel discussion about putting the Code into practice. David Murphy (NILGOSC), Tony Little (Gartmore) and Iain Richards (AVIVA). The Code came out of the Walker Report and is a response to the financial crisis. Not a fluffy “feel good” report but an attempt to try and prevent a future financial crisis. Can shareholders control companies? If shareholders cannot then look at Ireland were due to voluntary failure there is now a regulatory approach to governance.

David spoke first about his scheme. There are 204 employers, over 80,000 members and £3.6 billion assets. They support the idea that they are asset owners; they are the ultimate owners and should take responsibility for what has gone on in the past. They believe in co-operation and the importance of disclosure. They vote in all markets and report back on investment policy. Be open and transparent.

Tony explained that Gartmore are mainstream investors in 2,500 equities around the world. He was struck by the difference between this report and the UK governance report Cadbury which said this is what good practice looks like and others should aspire to it. The Stewardship Code “horse trades”. This is what you should be doing. Will see what good practice eventually looks like. The EU intervention has been negative rather than positive. They have forced the pace. They want to regulate. His role often is to be candid friend.

Ian said there may be over blown expectations of the Code. It was to resolve the “absentee landlord” problem in the run up to crisis. But there is an issue of resources. They have 7 in his team but this is still limited. Conflicts still exist; there are still misaligned incentives, short term structural problems. There are differences of objectives in engagement. In the UK 13% of shares are owned by pension funds and 13% by insurance funds. But it is only 26% of market. 40% of UK now owned by overseas investors. Concern around the role of the ISS.  An unaccountable organisation who admits looking after its primary audience - US investors. An awkward question is what do fund managers do? They have already signed up to the Stewardship principles. Is it transparent to have such long policy statements? Principle 7 (reporting on what they do) is the most important. There is a poisonous view that all you have to do is delegate everything to fund managers – and job done. This leads to apathy.

Next Q&A. I asked a question about how the new Code will not last be last word on governance and will evolve and change. Panel members have hinted at things that could be done better. What one significant improvement would each of the panel members want to see in any future review?

Tony: it needs to be redrafted and made clearer. The FRC next time should engage more about what is good practice. Iain: that it should be extended across to Europe. Especially with Funds tied to banks. David: he is against further regulation. He is happy with “comply or explain” approach. But it does need to be fleshed out. It’s a bit vague. Not only would he like it extended to Europe but wouldn’t it be nice to have in the US although that is “pie in sky”.

Tom asked does the Code make a RBS (Royal Bank of Scotland) less likely. Tony: No but... Ian – more cynical. Nothing much changed. No evidence that in 5 years time the world will have changed. David: We don’t know what will happen next.

The largely negative response to this question supports my own view that the Code (although an welcome improvement) is just sticking plaster and not the root and branch reform that is needed to stop another Fred the Shred.

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