James Coney  

Shareholding must remain democratic

James Coney

James Coney

One of the things we must make sure is that, once the clouds begin to clear on this crisis, we do not find ourselves having given up stacks of our rights or liberties.

That is why the intervention of FTSE-listed company bosses, such as Martin Gilbert, Peter Hargreaves and Andy Bell, among others, could prove very important.

These City grandees have written to the bosses of plc, investment platforms and fund managers to express deep concern that private investors are being disadvantaged and short-changed in the current wave of listed companies seeking equity capital.

This is happening firstly because existing rules that allow current shareholders first refusal on new shares have been suspended until September, and secondly because the new shares are, in some cases, being offered at huge discounts and largely to institutional investors.

And of course what happens is that the moment the shares place, the stock price bounces and the investors get a big bump – in the case of Asos recently, by as much as 50 per cent.

This means that professional investors are essentially being allowed to have bigger stakes in listed companies.

This cannot be allowed to happen.

Small shareholders may not be the majority holders in many companies, but they represent a strong, powerful and non-partisan voice in the equity ownership of a company.

The hindrance to allowing them to be able to participate seems to be technology – which is an interesting issue, because where companies want to encourage small shareholders, technological change does not seem a challenge.

And yet where they may represent a threat, then suddenly implementing technology can move at a very slow pace.

It is not beyond the wit of any investment platform or interested company to come up with a technology platform that would allow nominee account holders to vote in annual general meetings or to distribute documents to them as well.

But what would the platform get out of this?

Nothing, and so the pace of change has been slow.

Platforms also argue that shareholders just are not interested in voting, though I would argue the same was once said about charges.

And so with equity raising, the companies argue that there is no means with which smaller shareholders can be engaged in the process.

Issuing stock worth a few thousand quid would be onerous. Again, the technology is there to be trialled, but no one wants to.

Frankly, the decision seems to be that it is too annoying to have too many small shareholders on your register.

That though, should be beside the point. Share ownership is a great democratic issue, allowing anyone to take a stake in big companies and hold boards accountable.

We cannot have the need to raise urgent capital create something that puts smaller shareholders at a disadvantage forever.

It is time we took the rights of shareholders more seriously, if only to promote the future of investing.