Meeting ritual seems quaint for Weyerhaeuser

contributing writerApril 22, 2012 

So placid was last week’s annual meeting at Weyerhaeuser Co. that when it came time for shareholder questions, there weren’t any.

Weren’t any questions, that is.

The shareholders were there in sufficient number, but the audience participation segment was in stark contrast to some Weyerhaeuser annual meetings of years past of a more rambunctious nature. This year, the lack of questions, pronouncements and indoor street-theater performances prompted management to offer its own discussion of company matters beyond the formal scripted presentation, before one shareholder posed a query about exports.

Also striking was the absence on Weyerhaeuser’s proxy statement of any shareholder resolution (shareholders did vote on a management-proposed advisory item concerning executive pay).

It’s not that there isn’t a lot to talk about with Weyerhaeuser, from the prognosis on the housing market (somewhat better but still struggling; said CEO Dan Fulton, “The purchase of a home requires confidence in the future, which has been in short supply.”) to the company’s divestitures and restructuring, to the log market in China.

Nor does the lack of issues on Weyerhaeuser’s proxy ballot mean there are no controversies to be found in corporate America this annual-meeting season. Big banks, especially those in the thick of the foreclosure mess, are likely to hear a few unkind words at their gatherings. But the comparative calm at Weyerhaeuser does provide some insight into the mood of investors in annual meeting season – and the future of the season itself.

Annual meeting season isn’t what it used to be just in sheer number of publicly traded companies. Between those that have been bought or went private (such as Puget Sound Energy) and those that are no longer with us (WaMu, among others), the ranks have been thinned, and the once-gushing pipeline of companies going public to replace them has been, until very recently, closed off to an intermittent drip.

Then there’s the economic misery companies and shareholders have been through. For some shareholders, the fact that the company is still around, still making money, still paying dividend (all true for Weyerhaeuser) puts them well ahead of many less-fortunate investors.

As for shareholder resolutions as an indicator of investor restiveness, some of the steam has gone out of that movement. True, Institutional Shareholder Services Inc. says the number of shareholder-submitted resolutions on environmental, social and political issues is about the same as last year (within the overall total, the number of measures involving political contributions is increasing while the number on climate change is dropping).

But ardor for such measures has cooled a bit. Starbucks had just one on its proxy earlier this year; Amazon, whose meeting is in May, has just two. One reason is that companies themselves have adopted many of the corporate-governance measures (dropping poison pills, annual election of all directors, etc.), which tended to perform far better in shareholder votes than the various cause-related issues.

The longer-term trend is the changing nature of the relationship between company and shareholder, one that has been evolving since the rise of mutual funds, which act as an intermediary between companies and investors. For those who do buy individual stocks, the shareholder base is likely to be geographically dispersed and transactions are handled electronically. Fewer get any physical evidence of their investment. When was the last time you saw an actual, active stock certificate? Companies and brokerages are pushing quarterly and annual reports in digital form.

The annual meeting is one of the remaining vestiges of the old way of operating and it too may fade. The questions and concerns that shareholders have about how their investment is being managed are eternal, but the forums in which those are voiced may not be.

Bill Virgin is editor and publisher of Washington Manufacturing Alert and Pacific Northwest Rail News. He can be reached at bill.virgin@yahoo.com.

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