Poll: Little Support for Buffett’s Abstention from Coca-Cola Vote
Thomas Piketty’s popular new book, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, has struck a chord with the public in part because of a growing disenchantment with the generous compensation packages lavished on corporate executives, so it was not without irony that last week 83% of Coca-Cola’s (KO) shareholders approved a controversial equity compensation plan for approximately 6,500 employees that has been widely panned as excessive. The plan, when combined with previous equity award plans, could result in shareholder dilution of up to 16.8%.
Prior to the vote, several prominent institutional investors, including Wintergreen Advisers, the Florida State Board of Administration, and the Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan, publicly opposed the plan or actively lobbied against it. Coke’s biggest shareholder, Berkshire Hathaway, abstained from the vote, and its longtime chairman and CEO Warren Buffett afterwards expressed his opposition to the plan, calling it “excessive,” but explaining that he “didn’t want to express any disapproval of management” by voting against it. He also maintained that his abstention sent a clear message of disapproval of the plan. Perhaps, but a “no” vote would have removed any ambiguity.
Buffett’s rationale for his abstention prompted us to ask readers of the CFA Institute Financial NewsBrief for their opinion of Buffett’s decision not to back up his disapproval with a “No” vote.
Not surprisingly, nearly two-thirds of 725 respondents, 64%, disagreed with Buffett’s abstention vote, while 22% presumably saw no contradiction between Buffett’s words and actions.
Importantly, Buffett used to sit on Coke’s board and his son Howard Buffett has been a board member since 2010, prompting some critics to suggest that Buffett’s vote was unduly influenced by his personal relationships. Buffett himself has been a frequent critic of excessive executive compensation over the years. In his 2005 letter to Berkshire Hathaway shareholders, he said, “Too often, executive compensation in the U.S. is ridiculously out of line with performance. That won’t change, moreover, because the deck is stacked against investors when it comes to the CEO’s pay.” Indeed, when it comes to over the top compensation packages, meaningful reform is unlikely to come as long as major shareholders and directors act as rubber stamps.
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