,More than 50 households attended USJ 11/4 RA's first online AGM held on May 29 2021.
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A mass corporate switch in Europe to holding virtual annual shareholder meetings (AGMs) has picked up pace this year, raising concern among investors that some companies will try to ditch the physical version permanently.
The pandemic prompted an overhaul of the way companies meet investors, with those in Britain relying on emergency laws to allow them to hold online AGMs in the 2020 season.
But in the second year of the pandemic, there are concerns that permanently virtual meetings could limit investors’ ability to hold executives to account.
From January through July, 40% of AGMs globally were fully virtual, compared with 27% in the whole of 2020, data from Computershare showed.
In continental Europe the jump was particularly high, with 753 of 878 going fully virtual in the first seven months of 2021, compared with 548 of 918 in 2020.
The United States did not see the same shift – around half of the 2021 meetings up to July were virtual, a similar proportion to all of 2020.
Several companies including British Airways owner International Airlines Group this year sought permission to go fully virtual in future and mostly faced shareholder rebellions of between 10% and 20%, although all such motions passed.ACCCIM AGM Zoom Meeting on July 24 2021
While many companies allowed a live discussion with management during virtual meetings, others shielded bosses from tough questions, said Kalina Lazarova, director and analyst in the Responsible Investment team at BMO Global Asset Management.
Tactics included requiring questions to be submitted in advance, cherrypicking which were answered, stopping follow-up questions, and limiting the time for questions.
“We have recently heard from companies in Germany that the lack of live questions and answers removes a degree of scrutiny and pressure from directors at the AGM,” said Lazarova.
“We worry that if these practices become widespread... shareholder democracy, particularly retail investors’ access to boards, will be eroded.”
In Britain, Thomson Reuters Practical Law “What’s Market” data showed that, so far in 2021, 85 FTSE 350 companies had proposed amending their articles of association’s rules about the format of shareholder meetings in 2021, up from 41 in 2020.
Among them, three sought to allow fully-virtual meetings: IAG, Sanne Group, an asset management service provider, and Diversified Energy Co (DEC).
At its June AGM, IAG’s resolution to allow virtual meetings to the extent there are reasons that make it advisable passed with 81% of the vote.
Advisory group ISS opposed the change, saying that while virtual meetings are warranted in the current environment, they were concerned the company did not commit to returning to physical or hybrid meetings when it becomes possible again.