Mr. Buffett has built enormous good will through his convocations, but despite the high level of distrust fostered by corporate scandals of late, few other companies have tried using their meetings to restore faith. Most large corporations continue to treat them as a necessary evil, doing or saying little more than required by law, shareholder-rights advocates say.
The current meeting season, which generally runs from March to June, may be the most contentious in recent years, with shareholder proposals to limit executive pay getting more support than ever. But the rising tide of resentment has only widened the gulf in how investors and corporate officials view the events.
Indeed, some people who monitor these meetings say more companies are taking the approach of Morgan Stanley and Johnson Controls by leaving out independent directors when shareholders meet, eliminating the only opportunity for investors to question the people who are supposed to be their representatives.
“You would think, in the post- Enron, post-scandal environment, that directors would be stepping up and attending more meetings to show their high level of interest,” said Patrick McGurn, vice president and director of corporate programs at Institutional Shareholder Services, which advises investors on corporate votes. “If you can’t make yourself available to shareholders at least one day a year, something is wrong with that picture.”
Andrew S. Grove, the chairman of Intel, said the absence of directors at meetings “is incomprehensible to me.” Still, he said it did not surprise him. “I don’t sense an enthusiastic pursuit of the fundamental principles of corporate governance even today,” he said. “I see a reluctant, minimalist approach, staying one step ahead of the regulators more than anything else.”