Mutual Funds: What, Me Worry?

Mutual Funds: What, Me Worry?

The mutual fund industry, which has long resisted any attempts at shareholder activism, may be the missing link in the push for corporate action on climate change.

There are many things to dislike about the mutual fund industry -- high fees, subpar returns, marketing that encourages investors to chase performance -- but one of the most infuriating is the way that funds fail to use the power of the proxy.

A striking example: Not one of the nation's 100 largest mutual funds voted its shares in 2006 to support shareholder resolutions calling for more disclosure on the financial impact of climate change.

That's the finding of a study released by Ceres, a coalition of institutional investors and environmental groups, which asked Institutional Shareholder Services (ISS) to compile proxy voting data on the big mutual fund families. The funds that opposed all the shareholder resolutions on global warming include Fidelity (no surprise, since the fund giant tends to vote with corporate management more than most), American Funds and Vanguard.

By contrast, many other institutional investors, including TIAA-CREF, and California's two largest pension funds, CalPERS and CalSTRS, have backed global warming resolutions in growing numbers - with voting support levels reaching a record high of 39 percent at some 2006 annual meetings. I haven’t checked but I’d bet that the socially-responsible funds backed the resolutions.

"Mutual funds are a critical missing link in the push for better corporate disclosure about climate risks and opportunities," said Mindy Lubber, the president of Ceres, in a news release. Climate change, she said, will have a substantial impact on many business sectors, "whether from rising insurance losses from natural disasters, compliance costs from new carbon-reducing regulations or growing global demand for climate-friendly technologies." It seems reasonable to ask corporate managers to tell their owners how they are planning for such eventualities.

A total of 30 climate-related resolutions were filed last year with U.S. companies, including insurance companies, utilities, oil producers, automakers, homebuilders and retailers. Some were withdrawn, but others that went to a vote received support levels as high as 39 percent at Standard Pacific, a California-based home builder, and 22.6 percent at Dominion Resources, a Virginia-based energy company. The average support level of resolutions going to a vote in 2006 was 17 percent.

Co-op America, a nonprofit group that promotes corporate responsibility, is encouraging mutual fund investors to contact American Funds, Fidelity and Vanguard, and ask the funds to vote responsibly on climate-related resolutions. Co-op America says it has generated more than 10,000 emails and letters already from its website.

Part of the problem is that fund families like Fidelity and American compete to manage the 401(k) programs of big corporations. (My plan at Time Warner is managed by Fidelity.) They are therefore inclined to support management and oppose resolutions from independent shareholders. This is not, needless to say, the way corporate governance is supposed to work.