Monday, October 06, 2008

Follow Up: Idle Shareholders

Way back in July when the financial crisis was just a dull, irritating hum, I wrote a blog to explain the biggest reason why big corporations go afoul. In short, I argued that CEO foxes are left to guard the corporate hen house by absentee owners (shareholders) and their surrogates (fund managers).

I promised to be back with some suggested cures for this corporate cancer. So here I am ... with a new buddy.

Governance Guru Nell Minow talked to Congress about Lehman today. After watching the proceedings, I'm certain they brought her in to lend a sliver of credibility to their populist attack on executive compensation, but she slyly took the opportunity to point the finger a different direction:

the board was too old, had served too long, was too out of touch with massive changes in the industry, had too little of their own net worth at risk, and was too compromised for rigorous independent oversight
I couldn't have told the story better myself. Therein lies the problem and the cure for the cancer. The Board are the ultimate representatives of shareholders, and they are just as guilty of negligence as absentee shareholders. If leverage over CEOs can be had, the Board is the vehicle. The trick is to fix their incentives in order to align with shareholders at large.

A Board seat is a position of honor and prestige. Unfortunately, some members are after these alone, and only grudgingly accept the duties of representing shareholders. Some don't even bother to pretend they care. They usually get nominated because they are famous or connected, not because they are qualified. To align the Board's interests with the interests of us shareholders, we must flex our public opinion muscle by pressuring ALL corporations to implement some game rules.
  • Corporations must finally figure out what Governance really means. I'll devote an upcoming blog to this one soon. As an amuse-bouche, I offer the Washington Post's 2006 corporate governance primer.
  • Boards must meet monthly. Each committee must meet twice monthly or more. Repeated truancy must be rewarded with expulsion. If this is too burdensome to fit into one's social calendar ... well, board seats are not for everyone.
  • Executives must not sit on their own boards. Period. They can submit proposals. They can submit reports. They can visit when invited.
  • In the interest of combatting boardroom ADHD, board members should focus on one organization in most cases.
  • Board members must "buy in" just like a poker table. And the stakes must be enough to make it interesting to them. Explicitly, shareholders must invest a significant share (25% might be a good guideline) of their net worth in the company's common stock or unsecured debt. Furthermore, they must agree to sell deeply underwater puts with expiry at least 5 years out. These must be rolled each year they are on the board, such that they continue to be in force for 5 years after departure from the board. Again, if this sounds too harsh ... NEXT. I can already hear people calling me elitist, "if seats are bought, only the rich will have them." To that I counter that anyone should be able to get on the board if enough shareholders are willing to "sponsor" them. But then it's up to those shareholders to actively police their representative.
  • Board members must be able to demonstrate a germane area of expertise. For some it might be accounting, for others economics, for others management, for others past experience in the industry. If their only claims to fame are money and ... well ... fame ... NEXT. This should be policed by the owners. Here's a million dollar idea for someone: set up a board member rating agency. Nell's group The Company Library is a good start, but focuses on the enterprise as a whole, not specific board members. Additionally, their soup-to-nuts prosaic appoach is a bit much. My advice (to them or their start-up challengers): keep it simple: A through F based on pre-determined and public criteria.

This is just a starter kit. I'm sure Nell and the other Governance-ators have their own hats to throw in the ring. Go ahead, new buddies-o-mine!

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