In recent days Fiona Balzer from the Australian Shareholders Association and Vas Kolesnikoff from proxy advisory ISS have been quoted in a one-sided article claiming that Shareholders fume over plans to make virtual AGMs permanent. The article in question did not bother to seek out any of the many investors who are actually in favour of virtual meetings. And yet these views are not hard to find.
That’s because while professionals like Balzer and Kolesnikoff can always have someone from their organisation attend an AGM, if they wish, it is much harder for retail investors to physically transport themselves to wherever an AGM is located.
Those of us who do regularly attend AGMs in person know that it is common to see a representative the Australian Shareholders Association present a series of entirely niche questions that have little relevance to the business and pertain entirely to issues of governance. That’s fine — and it has its place — but their right to question management is not more important than our right to observe the meeting.
I would happily miss hearing ASA questions if all AGMs were streamed online. To quote one fund manager, “the shift to video meetings has multiplied our research productivity.” Of course, I also support the obligation to have meetings held in person. I just think the real win for shareholders would be if the Corporations Act made it compulsory for listed companies to stream all AGMs, which should also be held in-person (subject to health considerations).
For many retail shareholders, virtual AGMs provide an opportunity to participate where previously there was none. It is purely an absurdity to argue that retail shareholders are better off not being able to attend an AGM (because it is not streamed over the internet) as long as those few who can attend are allowed to ask questions. It is simply not true. The value of being able to participate — and ask questions, even if they are not answered — is far greater than having someone else ask a question that you never hear because you are not at the AGM.
Indeed, while you wouldn’t get it from the article, I queried Vas Kolesnikoff about his views on having an AGM both streamed and held in person. He said: “Our industry knowledge is that shareholders are overwhelmingly supportive of hybrid AGMs which involve a physical presence and virtual technology. We are concerned that if AGMs go to virtual technology only, shareholders’ right to question boards will be diminished.”
If the Australian Shareholders Association want to stand up for the interests of retail shareholders, they should therefore stop lobbying against virtual meetings and start lobbying for hybrid meetings that allow shareholders to question boards in person, and observe the meeting via the internet. Anything less is to the detriment of the retail shareholders they claim to represent.
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