Clearhouse
Nasdaq Talks to. . . T. Rowe Price about Their Investment Philosophy on Shareholder Activism
Publication Date: June 20, 2018

Corporate management teams and boards are under intense pressure to adapt to a business environment that is rapidly and continuously changing on multiple fronts. This rapid rate of change is also driving shifts in investor priorities and tactics: Investors are protecting the long-term value of their portfolios by becoming more assertive and actively engaged with the companies they invest in, particularly in the ESG realm.

As shareholder activism becomes more prevalent in the capital markets, and activist campaigns are more often debated in the public domain, it is increasingly important for companies to understand how their institutional investors manage and respond to these situations. However, ESG issues are not universally prioritized or consistently defined within the investment community, which cultivates fear and uncertainty around activist activity.

T. Rowe Price, a global investment management firm with over $1 trillion in assets under management, proactively addressed this issue by publicly clarifying their investment policies related to shareholder activism. Key message points from T. Rowe Price's Investment Philosophy on Shareholder Activism include the following:

  • Each activism campaign represents a unique set of conditions and should be assessed on its own merits.
  • T. Rowe Price takes a multi-year view when making decisions related to activist campaigns with an objective of sustainable, long-term performance by the company.
  • Proxy voting decisions rest with individual portfolio managers.
  • Proxy contest voting decisions will be shared with both parties in the campaign in advance of the vote, upon their request.
  • Companies are asked to remain open to serious, well-supported ideas for value creation, even if they originate outside the company.
  • T. Rowe Price has adopted internal policies prohibiting investment personnel from attempting to initiate activism campaigns by indirect means, such as pitching ideas to activist investors.
  • Portfolio companies should contact T. Rowe Price directly for the firm's view on any investment or voting matter related to them; activists have no authority to speak on behalf of T. Rowe Price.
By shining a light on the firm's potential actions in managing activist agendas and campaigns, T. Rowe Price has given their portfolio companies—and the activists who may target them—a clear roadmap in dealing with the firm under those circumstances. Public companies, and the capital markets as a whole, could stand to benefit if other major investment firms and asset managers provide a similar level of consistency and transparency in their approach to managing shareholder activism.

We spoke with Donna Anderson, Vice President and Head of Corporate Governance at T. Rowe Price, about the company's investment philosophy on shareholder activism and how clarifying their stance will help their portfolio companies navigate activist investor situations.

Q: What was the impetus behind T. Rowe Price's Investment Philosophy on Shareholder Activism?

A: As T. Rowe Price has grown, and as U.S. style activism has spread to Europe, we kept finding ourselves in situations where it was clear there was confusion—either on the company's part, on the activists' part or within the firm—as to our philosophy on navigating activist campaigns. Our policies haven't changed, but we decided it was time to write them down and share them with the public. We wanted to clearly communicate to our portfolio companies what we believe our roles and responsibilities are, and what they can expect from us, if they find themselves in an activist situation.

We have also increased our disclosure around broad ESG issues in general, to make them more transparent to our clients. We updated our baseline ESG policy and published two other pieces related to ESG this year: an engagement policy and a set of responsible investment guidelines.

Q: The document states emphatically that other shareholders do not have the right to speak on behalf of T. Rowe Price. Does this happen often in activist campaigns?

A: No, I wouldn't say it happens often, but when there's a campaign of some kind there are a lot of voices chiming in, including shareholders, advisors and other investors. Communication can get chaotic and emotional.

At T. Rowe Price, we often speak with both sides in a campaign or proxy contest because understanding investor plans is part of our due diligence in those situations. We want to make it very clear that we are available to our portfolio companies during that time, and that if they hear another party make a statement on our behalf they should confirm it directly with us. We also want to make clear our instructions to other investors: While we may ask a few questions or express a particular viewpoint in meetings with activists, we don't want those conversations to be misconstrued or used out of context.

Q: What is the benefit of sharing voting decisions with companies and investors in advance?

A: T. Rowe Price has always shared voting decisions with the direct parties (the companies and the activists sponsoring proxy contests) in advance of the vote, if they ask us to. There's a message in every vote; we think it benefits management of our portfolio companies to share with them directly how we are voting and what message we are sending with that vote.

Q: Is T. Rowe Price trying to discourage short-term activism by stating the company applies a multi-year timeframe in decision-making related to activist campaigns?

A: These days, it's rare to find an activism campaign that's strictly about financial engineering, at least in our portfolios. Super short-term oriented activism campaigns can't get any traction because they are not going to get the support of long-term shareholders.

We confirmed our timeframe to clarify our decision-making process: We're not looking at the next 50 years, we're not just looking at the next three quarters. We're looking at the next several years, the next business cycle—that's the framework we use generally for our investment research. When presented with two choices, we apply that timeframe in our analysis of which path is likely to create more shareholder value.

Q: Voting independence is a tenet of the T. Rowe Price investment policy. Do proxy advisory firms play a role in contested proxy votes at T. Rowe Price?

A: Our statement about voting independence is not meant as a knock against proxy advisory firms, but to illuminate a unique aspect of T. Rowe Price's investment process: our portfolio managers have autonomy to vote individually.

We value and utilize the research we receive from ISS on our portfolio companies. However, we don't have a standing blanket policy for how we vote in proxy contests. Each contest is analyzed and voted independently in our shop.

We believe that the vote is an asset of the fund, not of the fund company. When one of our portfolio companies is the subject of a campaign of some kind, the multiple owners of the stock within T. Rowe Price—along with appropriate internal advisors and analysts—all attend meetings together to jointly discuss the situation. If multiple T. Rowe Price portfolio managers own a stock and find they ultimately disagree on how to vote, they each have autonomy to represent the interests of their own fund shareholders.

Q: Do you expect other large investment firms to follow your lead on this?

A: No one should be surprised to see an increase in transparency throughout the industry with regards to how and why investors undertake the decision-making processes that they do. It is a growing trend for investors to disclose more, particularly related to ESG issues. I can't speak for the motivations of other firms, but at T. Rowe Price we are experiencing heavy demand from our own clients for case studies, examples, and engagement stories.

Q: What is the most important takeaway for companies that may be concerned about becoming a target of an activist campaign?

A: Again, it's about direct engagement with shareholders. Companies are better off getting shareholder sentiment directly from their shareholders, rather than listening to advisors who may have a vested interest in scaring boards.

The advisory community has grown tremendously in recent years to the point that there is now an unhealthy balance of voices warning boards. Law firms, governance consultants, and others are injecting a level of fear in companies that is sometimes out of proportion to the probability they will be targeted. We meet with companies that surprise us when we hear how nervous they are about shareholder activism, because their risk of being targeted is so low they shouldn't spend much time worrying about it.

Don't assume anyone else can accurately tell you what your shareholders are thinking. Let us speak on our own behalf.

For more information, read:
T. Rowe Price's Investment Philosophy on Shareholder Activism >>
T. Rowe Price ESG Integration: Guidelines for Incorporating Environment and Social Factors >>
T. Rowe Price Engagement Policy >>

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Ms. Donna F. Anderson, CFA serves as Vice President and Head of Global Corporate Governance at T. Rowe Price Group, Inc. Ms. Anderson leads the policy-formation process for proxy voting and T. Rowe Price's engagement efforts with portfolio companies. She also serves as a specialist for incorporating ESG considerations into T. Rowe Price's investment research process.


The views and opinions expressed herein are the views and opinions of the contributor at the time of publication and may not be updated. They do not necessarily reflect those of Nasdaq, Inc. The content does not attempt to examine all the facts and circumstances which may be relevant to any particular company, industry or security mentioned herein and nothing contained herein should be construed as legal or investment advice.