Anthony Hilton: Shareholders and firms need to talk

Specialists in investor relations tell me it is not unusual for the chief executive and the finance director of a major international company to devote 70 days a year to communicating with shareholders.

Anthony Hilton
Anthony Hilton

This is commonplace for businesses whose share register has a large overseas element, as servicing this requires extensive road shows at results time right across the United States as well as the major European capitals. Given that in aggregate foreign investors hold about a third of the shares in the FTSE 100 companies, this catches most of them.

It is also commonplace these days to hear people say the banking collapse is the most monumental failure of corporate governance any of us is likely ever to see. Leading the attack the City minister Lord Myners, himself a former fund manager, recently accused institutional investors of not putting sufficient pressure on banking boards to slow down when things began to get out of hand.

Put those two things together and one wonders what executives and shareholders find to talk about for 70 days of the year. Not the right things, it would seem.

Investor relations is geared to executives telling shareholders how they see things, so in the nicest possible way is part of the share price hype machine.

This observation will no doubt wind up investor relations practitioners but while their programmes may be a form of communication, they are much less often a form of conversation.

There are now proposals for new ways to improve communication. One of these suggests the institutional shareholders within the Association of British Insurers should set up a standing committee of investors who would discuss big generic issues with a similar number of business leaders from the FTSE 100.

Another recognises that it is difficult for non-executives to break ranks inside the boardroom, and suggests the answer might be to help them communicate concerns to shareholders. This will be difficult, but at the very least it looks like an interesting business opportunity for the communications experts.

Anthony Hilton is City commentator on London's Evening Standard

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