Donald Trump’s continuing failure to place his assets in a blind trust creates an opportunity for him to abuse the public office of the Presidency for private gain—his own and his family’s. The Trumps have shown themselves willing to work with blatantly corrupt business partners in the past; now, with the awesome power of the Presidency, Trump is in a unique position to do significant damage to the anticorruption agenda. People who, like me, are bothered by the conflicts of interest have sought ways to fight back. While my last post discussed the viability of the Trump anticorruption boycotts, here I discuss a different but potentially complementary approach: shareholder proposals.
What is a shareholder proposal? Every year, each shareholder receives a long booklet of information, called a proxy statement, from every company in which he or she holds stock. These proxy statements are compiled by corporate leadership and distributed to shareholders, who are asked to vote on certain matters: electing directors to the board, hiring the corporate accounting firm, and approving executive compensation. At the end of the proxy statement come the shareholder proposals, short recommendations for the board of directors. Shareholders are asked to vote for or against those proposals.
Under SEC Rule 14a-8, any shareholder (or group of shareholders) who holds $2,000 or 1% (whichever is less) of the company for at least one year may submit a proposal. (There are a few other procedural requirements as well, but they are not too onerous.) Although shareholder proposals are merely advisory—the directors and management retain their power to make decisions on behalf of the corporation—shareholder proposals in the past have been used to advance social and political goals. For example, social activists used shareholder proposals to urge divesting from South Africa during the apartheid era. Last year Exxon Mobile included shareholder proposals to place a climate expert on the Board and to report on compensation for women. A shareholder proposal for Coca-Cola asked the company to report on its operations in high-risk regions with poor human rights records.
In this vein, anticorruption activists who hold stock in corporations that do business with the Trump family brands (such as Amazon, Macy’s, or Zappos) could submit shareholder proposals urging those companies to report on or cease all such business. To be sure, shareholder proposals are merely recommendations to the board. But shareholder proposals are nonetheless a low-cost tool in the anticorruption advocate’s toolbox that can help keep public attention on the issue and prevent the normalization of Trump’s conflicts.
An anti-Trumpian-conflicts-of-interest shareholder proposal, cast in the formalistic style typical of such proposals, might look something like the following: