Pushing Uncle Sam to Be an Activist Investor

May 27th, 2009 by Phil Mattera

unclesam4Now that it’s becoming clear  that the federal government will end up owning nearly three-quarters of the shares in General Motors, the question is: What kind of owner will Uncle Sam be?

In certain respects, the Obama Administration has been acting like a private-equity firm that imposes conditions on a company it is taking over. It already booted out GM’s chief executive, restructured its debt, pressured its union to make contract concessions and bullied its main minority shareholder — which in this case is the autoworkers’ healthcare trust — and is wiping out other investors.

Yet, despite maneuvering to gain an expected stake of some 70 percent in the automaker, the feds don’t want to manage the company. According to the Wall Street Journal, the Treasury regards itself as “a player that has no intentions of directly guiding the company once it emerges from bankruptcy.” Unnamed sources in the federal government told Reuters: “We want to be shareholders for as short a period of time and almost in as inactive a way as we can responsibly be.”

One is tempted to ask: why? The Obama Administration has already taken some bold steps with regard to the rescue of GM. It is disingenuous to now act as if it is improper for the government to exercise any influence.

No one is suggesting that Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner or the Secretary of Transportation take over day-to-day control of the company, but there is still the question of broad policymaking exercised through the board of directors and annual shareholder meetings.  This will not be a situation in which government has a small interest whose voting power is far outnumbered by private investors. GM is heading for a situation in which it is nearly a wholly owned subsidiary of the United States of America.

There are encouraging reports that the federal government will name a substantial number of GM’s board members. But who will these appointees be — and will they be expected to pursue certain policies? It is easy to imagine Geithner installing business types with the mindset of conventional directors who are free to act as they please.

And then there’s the question of whether the federal government will vote its shares at annual meetings. If the government does not make its will known through the board or vote its shares, then who will control GM? Will the UAW healthcare trust end up calling the shots — or perhaps the governments of Canada and  Ontario, which will reportedly end up with a small holding in exchange for the financial assistance they are giving the company.

As the federal government uses its large investment in GM to help steer the company back to some semblance of financial health, why can’t it also use its influence to turn the automaker into a paradigm of the most enlightened corporate governance and accountability practices?

Keep in mind that GM’s track record is not only one of bad business judgments. It also has a long history of acting irresponsibly toward its critics (Ralph Nader et al.), its workers (the speedups that led to the Lordstown revolt in 1972), communities (destruction of streetcar lines in the 1930s and 1940s), the environment (pushing SUVs long after it was clear they were disastrous for the climate), etc. etc.

For years, activist investor groups have tried to promote better practices through proxy resolutions. GM has not yet issued the proxy statement for this year’s annual meeting, which is scheduled for August (two months later than usual), so we don’t know what issues will be voted on by the shareholders. Last year, the resolutions were on issues such as the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, support for healthcare reform, full disclosure of political contributions and shareholder advisory voting on executive compensation — all of which were opposed by management.

Abstaining from voting on such matters would in effect mean preserving the status quo and giving implicit support to the backward policies adopted by the company for decades. As long as the federal government (and by extension the taxpayers) owns the overwhelming majority of the shares, it should use its influence to clean up not only GM’s financial accounts but its social ledger as well.

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