For the socially responsible investor
Received mail today from an organization known as Investors Against Genocide. Apparently they, too, are organizing a call to arms to vote proxies but for different reasons.
Below is some background on the organization and what it is aiming to do, provided by the PR person that wrote to me earlier:
Investors Against Genocide (IAG), a Boson-based non-profit organization, is leading a national campaign to make sure mutual fund companies do not invest our savings in companies that help fund genocide. Through this effort, a shareholder proposal has been submitted to more than 50 mutual funds asking them to institute oversight procedures to screen out investments in companies that, in the judgment of the board, substantially contribute to genocide.
Shareholders of 15 Fidelity funds including the widely held Contra, Magellan and Puritan funds are now voting on this important social issue in advance of meetings on May 14. Fidelity has advised its shareholders to vote against making their funds genocide-free.
Fidelity shareholders can vote their shares by returning their proxy or attending the shareholder meeting. If they have already discarded their proxy materials (as many do), or have already voted and wish to change their vote, they can do so right up until the meeting on May 14.
It is clear that individual investors do not want their family savings used to help support genocide. However, many of the votes on this proposal will be cast by large institutional shareholders and other industry insiders who tend to vote with management. Therefore, each vote cast by an individual investor is very important.
A persuasive argument, to be sure. But I can also sympathize with Fido for the same reasons Buffett and Munger were hesitant to sell PetroChina. I'll let Buffett speak for himself on this. Quoting from last year's proxy:
The proposal objects to Berkshire’s investment in PetroChina because of the atrocities that are occurring in Sudan. Berkshire agrees that conditions in that country are deplorable and sympathizes with the proposer’s desire to remedy them. We believe, however, that she is wrong in both her analysis of PetroChina’s connection to these conditions and her belief that our divesting our PetroChina holdings would in any way have a beneficial effect on Sudanese behavior.
To begin with, we have seen no records, including the various materials we have received from pro-divestment groups, that indicate PetroChina has operations in Sudan. The controlling shareholder of PetroChina, CNPC, does do business in Sudan. CNPC is 100% owned by the Chinese government, and its activities may logically be attributed to the government of China itself. But the Chinese government’s activities can neither be attributed to PetroChina nor the other major Chinese companies the government controls (also through 100%-owned entities), such as China Mobile, China Life and China Telecom. Subsidiaries have no ability to control the policies of their parent.
To understand that truth, simply look at Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Both are creations of the U.S. Government and indeed are commonly labeled Government Sponsored Enterprises (GSE). Five directors of each company are appointed by the President, and both are overseen by a special governmental entity, OFHEO.
Does the United States government shape and in certain matters control the activities of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac? Unquestionably. Are Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae responsible for the activities of the U.S. government? Absolutely not.
Furthermore, if a shareholder such as Berkshire disagrees with the activities of an investee — and we emphasize again that PetroChina, to our knowledge, has no operations in Sudan — is divesting the proper course for Berkshire? We note that the proposer of this resolution — who strongly disagrees with Berkshire’s decision to hold shares of PetroChina — has elected to retain her shares in Berkshire rather than to divest them. We agree with her decision not to divest. Neither do we believe that Berkshire should automatically divest shares of an investee because it disagrees with a specific activity of that investee.
Finally, in the proposition that China should “withdraw” its investment from Sudan, there is the “be careful what you wish for” problem. As we understand the matter, the Chinese government, through its 100% ownership of CNPC, owns a 40% interest in a Sudan venture whose primary assets consist of oil in the ground as well as fixed assets that transport and refine the oil. These are not assets that can be taken out of Sudan. In other words, China cannot take its share of the oil, the refinery or the pipeline and go home.
Rather, the only feasible divestment plan for CNPC would be to sell its 40% interest in the venture, almost certainly at a bargain price and almost certainly to the Sudanese government. After such a transaction, the Sudanese government would be better off financially, with its oil revenue substantially increased. Since oil is a fungible product, Sudanese output would be sold in world markets just as oil from Iraq was sold under Saddam Hussein, and just as oil is now sold by Iran. Proponents of the Chinese government’s divesting should ask the most important question in economics, “And then what?”
We admire the motives of the proposer, but we do not agree with the logic of her proposal. For that reason we recommend you vote “no.”
Berkshire has since sold its stake in PetroChina but for different reasons. I'm perfectly happy with the decision as a shareholder. To me, Berkshire acted both logically and responsibly.
Yet there's no escaping the truth that some genocide is real and ttragic. I leave it to you to decide if shareholder activism as expressed by the obviously well-intended and good people at IAG can be a force in the fight against it.
FWIW and Foolish best,