James Coney  

Corporate responsibility is on trend

James Coney

James Coney

I was at lunch with an investment group the other day and was put next to its head of corporate responsibility.

There was a time that I would have rolled my eyes in disappointment at this seating arrangement, but not any more.

You see, being in charge of corporate responsibility is suddenly in vogue.

It has never been so sexy, particularly after investment companies seem to have found their voice.

“Tell me about it,” complained my companion, “I thought this would be a quiet job and now everyone wants to talk to me.”

It brings me great delight that fund managers suddenly find it onerous to take their responsibility for our savings seriously and publicly.

From GKN, to Unilever, Royal Mail, Lloyds and Provident Financial, shareholders in these big companies are shaping boardroom policy, particularly on takeovers and remuneration. The tragedy is that it was never always thus.

This is not a shift shaped by #MeToo, mental health and climate change – the hot topics of the day – but more a push towards transparency and accountability, particularly on remuneration, that is creeping through the industry.

Perhaps the outrage over Jeff Fairburn’s £75m bonus at housebuilder Persimmon has focused minds. The end goal is making the performance of our investments better.

Of course, what most investors have at the top of their priority list is growth and income, but they should care about governance too because ultimately profit depends on having well-run companies.

Take Metro Bank: investors may not have predicted its accounting troubles, but the warning signs of a company that was struggling were there in the general governance questions surrounding its founder.

The corresponding share price plunge became inevitable.

It is beholden on fund managers to ensure that boards are properly held accountable for the sake of all investors, who most likely do not know what is happening from one day to the next.

But at the same time, fund managers have to realise that the same standard applies to them – and in particular to being transparent on stock holdings and costs.

On this latter point, we are getting there. It started with fund management charges – where a decade ago it was argued that no investor cared, we now have a push downwards in costs and greater transparency coming with Mifid II, for all its flaws.

But on stock holdings, it is fine being able to see the limited information in fund fact sheets.

It is simply unacceptable that it is so difficult for ordinary investors to see where all their money is held, or that when they can see it the holdings are embarrassingly out of date.

It is wonderful that investment companies have started showing a keener interest in the good practices of the companies they invest in.

But if they are to be the policemen of the City, they need to uphold a higher standard of transparency too.