Peanuts, monkeys and why the idea of investing for the longer term is a no brainer

As part of my multi-disciplinary Master’s degree, I did one unit in the Business School about business strategy. There I sat in a lecture room full of keen-eyed, shiny business students and me, the curious arts student whose entire career has been in the private sector, a large chunk working in investment.

As with many clichés that were trotted out during that course, the one that just made my heart sink due to its sheer lack of critical thinking, was the old chestnut “if you pay peanuts, you get monkeys”. I countered that actually, sometimes if your incentive packages have large sums of money tied to short-term performance at its centre, you create the perfect environment for monkeying around. Sub-prime mortgages and the GFC anyone?

So imagine my reaction when I read last month that some of the gorillas of the investment world were holding secret summit meetings to “encourage longer-term investment and reduce friction with shareholders”. The Financial Times’ supplement FTfm reported that meetings were held with Warren Buffet, the chief executive of JPMorgan Chase Jamie Dimon and the heads of heavyweight investment houses Fidelity, Vanguard, BlackRock and Capital Group.

The investment industry were obviously concerned that they were not aligned with the requirements of listed companies looking to grow their business; or their actual end-customers, you and me, who invest for long-term wealth development. At the top of the companies’ complaint list was the institutional shareholders focus on short-term returns, compared to long-term growth goals of companies.

The problem is that the investment industry markets its short-term performance to get more of the real capital owners, you and me, in the door and boost their funds under management. It then also creates incentives for its investment staff based on their short-term performance. They are not all like that, the best active fund managers do take long-term views and engage with companies and their trading volumes tend to be less. But many others churn through trades in passive or shadow-passive funds just trying to replicate an index to make their performance targets, which are very often tied to their performance versus the index. It would be more useful for the investment industry to tie incentives to longer term performance, in line with us, the customers, many of whom are saving over the long-term for retirement.

The Association of Superannuation Funds of Australia estimates there is $AUD2 trillion invested in superannuation, of which $AU317 billion is invested in Australian equities with a further $AU183 in Australian fixed interest. Australia is the fourth largest superannuation market in the world, behind the United States, Japan and the United Kingdom.

The United States had an estimated $US23.5 trillion in retirement savings as at 30 September 2015, according to the Investment Company Institute inside a variety of retirement savings vehicles. This does not include other investment savings, just the money in vehicles designed for long-term investing. According to Goldman Sachs, 69% of the US stock market is owned by US households, mutual funds and government and pension funds. The remaining 31% is made up of predominantly international investors (16%) with the much-talked-about hedge funds holding only 4%.

The British Investment Association stated that 38% of the £5.5 trillion of funds under management are British pension funds in 2013. According to Towers Watson, the Japanese pensions funds had $US2.8 trillion under management.

That is a lot of people looking for long-term investments to give them financial security at retirement. Surely the stewards of their money should align their activities with their end-customers.

Tax avoidance is rewarded by the financial markets

This weekend the leaders of the G20 nations met in Brisbane and corporate tax avoidance, or ‘minimisation’ was on the agenda. There has been outrage in recent months as it was revealed that large companies have routed money through complex structures in countries such as Luxembourg in order to minimise the tax. The objective is to maximise profits for shareholders and minimise a company’s contribution to the community benefits derived from tax payments.

Some of the companies are global household names such as Ikea, Pepsi, Deutsche Bank and use these methods. Apple and Amazon have been at centre of similar controversies in the recent past. While many commentators are focused on the impact on the public purse of those countries where revenue is generated, very few are asking why the dominant value of profit maximisation is allowed to continue to reign. It is just assumed that is what companies will do and markets will accept it.

Why is profit maximisation more important than paying reasonable tax to help develop the countries from which corporations derive their revenue? Why does short-term earnings results designed for the investment markets get more senior management attention than long-term investment in the future of societies for hospitals and health care, schools, roads, public transport and the like? This community investment through tax payments also benefits the very same companies which use the infrastructure networks such as roads, rail, airlines and ports, and whose employees and their families go to the schools and use the hospitals.

It is because those in senior management at these companies and those that control the investment decisions at large institutional investment groups, prioritise a very narrow set of short-term profit-driven values over the longer term goals of a rise in living standards for all. We know that they share the same values because investment funds participate in the same tax minimisation schemes. Public investment funds from Canada, Australia, as well as investment giants like Citigroup, Credit Suisse, ABN Amro, AIG, Dexia, Fidelity, Schroders, State Street and UBS were also on the list of tax offenders released by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists.

These investment houses manage billions of dollars of citizen’s retirement and other savings through a variety of mutual funds. And because they have the power to make the investment decision, they impose a narrow set of profit-driven values on their decision. They do very little to gather the views of the citizen investors or reflect them in the investment decisions.

As those who provide the money for these funds to invest, we have a responsibility to make it clear that we are not only the ultimate shareholders of these funds who want a long-term return from our savings but we are also the people who use the infrastructure, the schools and the hospitals that improve our societies’ standards of living, as opposed to wanting our investments to produce a short-term return to boost the bonus payments of our professional money managers.

The fruit of SPC Ardmona’s labour should not be closure

And so it has come to this. The Liberal government has washed its hands of supporting the last fruit and vegetable processor in Australia as part of its ‘age of responsibility’. But let’s be honest, this is more about their ideological stance about unions and a chance to make their point while attacking some of the lowest earners in Australia for having generous working conditions. I look forward to their attack on investment bankers…

Coca-Cola Amatil now has a decision to make about the future of SPC Ardmona, and the final decision will need to be seen as ‘investor friendly’. To its credit, unlike the car manufacturers, the company’s plan was to completely re-tool the plant to make it profitable into the future, with some federal government support. The question now is can they gain the support of institutional investors to make the entire investment themselves?

SPC Ardmona is a major employer in a region that has an unemployment rate that has been at least two per cent higher than the Australian average for at least four years.

The preservation of local food production is a personal passion of mine, not just in Australia but around the world. We have to eat every day and how we eat and what we eat really matters. Beyond that, the case of SPC Ardmona is a litmus test of the dominant values in our society. Is finding a way to preserve the Shepparton community and make money from our fabulous fruit and vegetables in the long term, more important than propping up the short-term market returns of a listed entity?

It is evident that the processor needs support to weather the perfect storm of circumstances in which it has found itself during the past few years, but it also needs a long-term sustainable business plan. Much time and energy is spent on the CC Amatil Sustainability Report, which also includes a section on workplace commitment. Perhaps the company could consider that making this investment would fit into that workplace commitment and create a real legacy which would have positive repercussions for generations.

According to its 2012 annual report, the Coca-Cola Company owned 29% of CC Amatil as at 31 December 2012, followed by a range of institutional investors.  All of these groups need to consider their role in this situation. Of course, it is hard to know who these institutional investors are because most of them use nominee companies, thus obscuring their investment from public view. But at 31 December 2012 the investors in HSBC Custody Nominees (17.65%), JP Morgan Nominees (13.32%) and National Nominees (9.69%), would all have significant influence over the board. The board and the investors need to understand that corporate social responsibility is more than ‘nice-to-have’ reputational insurance. Taking a financial hit now to save SPC Ardmona, and the community it supports, will make CC Amatil a leader of business reinvigoration and a true corporate citizen. It may even make it some money.

Well done Aldi for committing to use only SPC Ardmona for its 825g fruit product in Australia.

Only a reassessment of our values will avert another crisis

Most financial service professionals believe tighter regulation of financial markets will not stop another financial crisis, according to a recent survey.

Perhaps a reminder of what happens when greed overtakes reason might help. Today the ratings agency Standard and Poor’s said it estimates that the biggest US banks may still have to pay out more than $US100 billion to settle legal issues surrounding the rush for sub-prime mortgage products that started the global financial crisis in the first place. Not a great long-term return for the banks’ investors.

Or maybe a reality check about what their rampaging greed has meant for the rest of the citizens of the world. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) is warning that the fallout of the financial crisis, is starting to affect the elderly with lower and delayed pension payments and the gap between the highest and lowest income households in developed countries widened in the three years since the crisis.

Sadly, the only way to affect real change in behaviour is to change the values of those in power, because it is those in power that set the agenda. Kinetic Partners, the same group that conducted the survey mentioned above also did research that found that most believed it was the culture set by the CEO that influenced whether good decisions were made and another financial crisis could be averted. This is backed by a whole swathe of academic research pointing to the powerful elite prioritising the values of our society.

So what are the most prominent values? Academics Bruno Dyck and David Schroeder suggest materialism and individualism are the twin hallmarks of the moral point of view that underpins management thought. The Protestant focus on work and individual struggle for salvation and emphasis on material success has become normalised in western management and is the ‘incontestable, objective, morally neutral reality’ adopted as the natural facts of life, rather than the moral facts of life. This translates into modern management’s focus on efficiency, productivity, profitability relative to other comparable companies and the expectations of the market.

The central criterion for managerial rhetoric is concerned with economic growth, organisational survival, profit and productivity. In academic texts on corporate finance this belief is reinforced.  According to the Principles of Corporate Finance, ‘the goal of maximising shareholder value is widely accepted in both theory and practice’ because, the authors argue that shareholders want three things, the first of which is ‘to be as rich as possible’. Another perspective on this is offered by Jill McMillan who argues that companies are held captive by ‘the tyranny of the bottom line’ and profits are for the benefit of the ‘privileged class of organisational shareholders who possess the dominant right to maximise return on their investment and the commitment of management to pursue that goal.’

But if much of the money is invested with ‘organisational shareholders’ (meaning institutional investors) comes from citizens investing for their retirement, then it should be us that guides which values dominate investment, and given a chance to have a say, I believe many people would have not ‘profit at all cost’ as their number one value.

Below is a simplified version of my suggested model for a two-way communication system with their members.Model for engagement

Greed unfettered by conscience reigns again

Five years ago, the US government and regulators allowed investment bank Lehman Brothers to collapse.  The bank was to be the example to the industry of what happens when greed and the pursuit of profit at all costs prevails.

Sadly, it appears they didn’t learn a thing. Greed unfettered by conscience remains the order of the day.

Investment banks exist to grease the wheels of the economic machine, bringing investors and businesses together. These servants of company development and economic growth, however, appear to have transformed themselves into the masters of the corporate universe.

Investment banks’ role is to arrange companies’ borrowing, issues of shares and conduct a lot of the share trading and broker merger and takeover activity. They put people with money together with people who want that money to invest in their business. This means they have a vested interest in promoting lots of activity, which is what generates their revenue. So it doesn’t matter whether a deal creates long-term social and economic problems or not, their only interest is deals being created. How else will they hit the targets that pay their gigantic bonuses?

Now the UK Chancellor of the Exchequer is going into bat for the financial services sector to protect their ‘right’ to receive uncapped bonuses. There is grave concern that the bonus cap may led to an increase in base pay and that top ‘talent’ may go to non-European competitors who don’t have to comply with the cap. To be clear, the bonus cap will only apply to those who earn more than €500,000 (~$AUD720,000) a year….so they are hardly on struggle street. But a pay packet of this size is not about being paid what someone is worth, it is a way of gaining status through a comparison with peers.

Perhaps a walk along struggle street might help the investment bankers reassess their views about the reward they need to carry on their work. It may also give them some perspective about the devastating impact of their sector’s behaviour and how long it takes to recover. Right now, More than 46 million Americans are living in poverty and the median household slipped, all thanks the hangover created by the global financial crisis. While job growth may by recovering in the richest country in the world, the jobs are in low paying sectors of retail and restaurants. Meanwhile, the stock markets are recovering and the bankers are getting their bonuses again.

Earlier this year, the investment banking industry was asked to explain why they charge institutional investors for access to the chief executives of their client companies, often without the companies even knowing. The investment banks don’t provide the money for anything, institutional investors on our behalf do. Institutional investors need to exercise their financial muscles to wrestle the investment bankers back into their role as servants.

Fat profits from empty calories

Is a rapid rise in obesity levels in poor countries an acceptable side effect of multi-national companies and their investors pushing hard into these markets to create new profits?

In June this year, the World Health Organisation (WHO) said the increasing number of people in low and middle income countries being overweight and obese was creating major long-term public health problems. WHO identified that more than 75% of the world’s overweight children lived in those countries that also suffered issues associated with under-nutrition.

One of the key problems was the rising availability of cheap, highly calorific, or energy dense, foods and drinks that had little nutritional value. Driving this increase of consumption was intensive marketing, by multinational food and drink companies, particularly to children, according to another WHO study. Marketing about unprocessed foods in these countries did not exist.

There is so much money to be made in these low and middle income countries from selling soft drinks and the junk food that companies are targeting these markets as their future. Indeed, Coca Cola was very excited about the profit-making potential of the poor. In a presentation to a Barclays Capital conference in September this year, Coca Cola’s  senior executive Ahmet Bozer talked about ‘seizing the moment’ in sub-Saharan Africa with their ‘sparkling drinks’ (read the calorific Coke and the like) leading their charge into the market.

Bozer identified that there was a target consumer base of 6.1 billion people in Coca Cola’s International business and 37% of these were under 21. A core strategy was to drive sales growth through the flagship ‘sparkling’ market. Coca Cola was in the market for young drinkers to become loyal buyers of their product throughout their life, not as an occasional treat drink but as an everyday choice.

Some of the biggest American institutional investors in the world have major stake in Coca Cola. As at 30 June 2013, Berkshire Hathaway held 9% of the company, followed by Vanguard at 4.8%, State Street at 3.8%, Fidelity at 3.4% and BlackRock at 2.6%. Vanguard, State Street and BlackRock also have large stakes in PepsiCo.

Imagine if these institutional giants, who manage the money of the citizens of the US and others, actually told Coca Cola to revise their strategy.

What would happen if these investors told Coca Cola they would not sell their stock if Coca Cola took responsibility for the impact of their products on the health of their consumers (many of them without the benefit of the same level of health education as those of us in high income countries)? What would happen if Coca Cola focused on pushing their bottled water and healthier choice drinks into these markets instead? What impact would that have on this impending major health issue?

It doesn’t mean Coca Cola can’t make money, but rather make money out of products that don’t leave a trail of long-term health issues for its customers, the very people that will keep the company in business.

It doesn’t mean that investors can’t make returns on their investment in Coca Cola, but if nothing changes, what it does mean is that we, as the people that ultimately provide the money for institutional investors, value wealth over our health and the health of others less fortunate than us.

Who owns what is as clear as mud

One of the great transparency furphies in the corporate world is that you can find out who are the top shareholders by looking in their annual reports. The problem is a flick through the annual reports of most of Australia’s largest companies you may think you are reading the same list over and over again.

Most of the names on the list are nominee companies. The biggest ones in Australia are HSBC Custody Nominees (Australia) Ltd, JP Morgan Nominees Australia Ltd and National Nominees Ltd.

Nominee companies are custodian services that allow investments from a number of investors to be aggregated into one entity. According to the Australian Securities and Investments Commission (ASIC) they typically hold securities, arrange the banking of dividends and some form of consolidated reporting. They don’t engage with senior management or boards about how companies are run on behalf of their clients.

In fact, large listed companies raised the use of nominee companies as a key barrier to engaging  institutional investors in submissions to the 2008 Parliamentary Joint Committee on Corporations and Financial Services inquiry into barriers to the effective engagement of shareholders on corporate governance. The companies said the use of nominee entities also made finding the ultimate owners of shares difficult. This makes it very hard to align the long-term investment goals of superannuation funds and the short-term remuneration and performance goals of senior management and professional investors.

The parliamentary committee also found that institutional investors, such as superannuation funds, made decisions about whether to engage with companies’ management and boards based primarily on the economic cost to them. Some found engagement to be a distraction from their stated primary role of generating investment returns. The use of nominee companies would provide a useful way of distancing themselves from the companies and, therefore, actual engagement.

So it appears institutional investors not only don’t canvas the opinions of the people that provide them the money to invest, they are not that interested in engaging with the companies they invest in either. If they do, they certainly don’t share it with their clients.