Proxy Voting in the Digital Age

The following commentary is from an investment professional with Clear Harbor Asset Management who is a participant in TheStreet's expert contributor program.

NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- Do you own stock in a company that is holding its annual shareholders' meeting this spring at a place or time that doesn't fit your schedule? Visit the investor relations page of the company's Web site and see if it will be webcasting the event. If not, fire off an email complaint to the firm's investor relations contact or take to your favorite social media network to demand a webcast.

The Securities and Exchange Commission currently doesn't require companies to webcast their annual meetings, but many public companies are doing this, and all of them should. In the digital age, there is no reason why shareholders should have to be physically present at their company's annual meetings to monitor what goes on and participate.

Last week, I wrote about the importance of the annual shareholders' meeting for investors trying to make intelligent decisions about where to allocate their capital. Now, let's look at how the rise of the Internet is making these meetings more accessible, and why that's a good thing.

The proliferation of the webcast is the obvious place to start, but this development has a long way to go. Some companies are still not webcasting their annual shareholders' meetings, and many that are only make a live stream available when they should be archiving the recording on their Web site so people can listen whenever and wherever they want.

As digital technology progresses, videos of corporate shareholders' meetings will be made available on the Web, and people will be able to watch the proceedings, vote their proxies and even ask questions from remote locations on devices and sites provided by tech companies like Apple ( AAPL) and Google ( GOOG). Voting results will be posted online in real-time, and proxy access will be more widely available. Won't such developments make these meetings less efficient and more chaotic? Yes, they will, but the changes I'm describing are inevitable, and I expect the resulting positives to far outweigh the negatives.

Major corporations have become some of the most powerful institutions in the world, but along with that power comes criticism, and shareholders' meetings are clearly an opportune time for people to voice their criticisms. Annual meetings have always attracted activists pursuing agendas that have little relevance to the interests of shareholders, and the digitization of shareholders' meetings will exacerbate that.

However, the neglect of genuine shareholder interests in the boardrooms of corporate America is a far greater problem than a few digressions at annual shareholders' meetings. Shareholders themselves are largely to blame for this due to their lack of participation, but digital advancements that make the proxy process more accessible and transparent could remedy that.

New York Times columnist Gretchen Morgenson recently presented early evidence that "say on pay" votes -- non-binding votes on executive compensation policies that are now required of public companies by federal law -- are having a positive impact at companies like Stanley Black & Decker ( SWU) and Johnson & Johnson ( JNJ). She noted, though, that "for every active shareholder who votes for change, thousands of passive ones remain disengaged. Votes that abstain, are never cast or that are delegated to brokerage firms to vote, typically in support of management, still make up a lot of the proxy counts."

Shareholders have to assert themselves more as owners of public companies. Paragons of American capitalism, like Vanguard Group founder John Bogle and oil tycoon T. Boone Pickens, have long called for this, but the Internet and social media promise to turn the vision into reality.

Professional shareholder activists are already using the Web as a new weapon in their arsenal. Daniel Loeb, manager of the hedge fund Third Point, has set up a Web site at ValueYahoo.com as part of his high-profile campaign against Yahoo!'s ( YHOO) board of directors. Likewise, Bill Ackman's Pershing Square has launched CP Rising in its effort to replace board members at Canadian Pacific Railway ( CP).

Meanwhile, smaller investors are also harnessing the Web to achieve greater scale and more influence. Kenneth Steiner, an activist investor who has put forth hundreds of governance reforms over the years, recently used the site proxyexchange.org to submit proposals at Bank of America ( BAC) and Sprint ( S) among others.

Launched in 2009, the shareholder activist site MoxyVote now has 165,000 users, and according to Jessica Clarke, a company representative, it's growing by 15,000 to 20,000 users per month.

Shareholders can join MoxyVote for free and vote their proxies electronically, and they can link MoxyVote to their brokerage account to vote proxies online more conveniently. Also, through the site's relationship with Broadridge, an investor communications firm that many companies use to deliver and receive proxies, MoxyVote can show its users how different influential advocacy organizations voted their shares. Users can choose to automatically align their votes with organizations like the Unitarian Universalist Association, the Nathan Cummings Foundation, Trillium Asset Management and others.

In a sign of its early success, JNJ recently agreed to compensate MoxyVote in order to use the site as a conduit for communicating with shareholders. Don't be surprised to see more companies embracing social media as part of the proxy process.

They have no choice.

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