Engagement and Judgment Matter

Why we think bottom-up active managers are better positioned to hold companies accountable.

Much has been said about active and passive management in the past few years—and we have weighed in on that issue. That debate has almost solely focused on relative performance and the factors driving it. One important aspect of this debate that doesn’t come up so often is shareholder engagement. In my mind, that’s a big hole in the debate, because we believe that engagement is one of the core value-added propositions of active management and is critical in driving long-term value for investors.

Engagement matters. And because genuine engagement requires informed judgment, experience in making judgments about companies is vital.

Depth and Quality

Passive investors argue that, because they cannot sell, they are long-term investors. They often point out that active managers who do not like the direction a company is going in can simply sell the stock.

While that may be true with some investors, it is not true for many others. At Neuberger Berman, our portfolio managers invest in a company because they recognize the quality and value-add of the products or services it has developed, and they want our clients and other shareholders to benefit from them. Unlike a passive investor who has to hold a company, for us there was always the intention to hold a company, from day one—and that entails an ongoing history of continual evaluation of that company. In other words, experience matters, but so does the experience of working with specific companies over a long period of time. We don’t start scrutinizing things only when we become aware that something might be amiss, and if we do see a management team wavering from delivering long-term value, we engage with them. In our view, selling is potentially leaving unrealized value on the table, and our portfolio managers don’t like to do that.

Moreover, in reality, we think passive investors are along for the ride. The big passive investment managers lack the experienced resources to engage genuinely with a company or make judgments about the quality and success of its management team. They employ relatively small teams of people in “stewardship” roles, most often focused on the proxy-voting process. While necessary, that event generally only happens once a year and is often focused on relatively immaterial issues that are nowhere near what is required to truly understand how effectively a company is governed.

Compare that small number of proxy-voting roles with the hundreds of portfolio managers and research analysts, many with decades of experience in analyzing companies and industries, that a firm like Neuberger Berman deploys.

Don’t get me wrong. We focus on the proxy process, particularly the election of board members. My point is, while necessary, that’s not enough.

Holding Boards and Management Accountable

Who will hold company management teams accountable if not for active managers?

Passive investors, given the flows of the past few years, now hold quite substantial positions in most public companies, often in the 15–20% range. Combine that with quantitative equity strategies, which also show little interest in direct company engagement, and you can see the problem.

For example, is there a more important topic for shareholders than the decision making around a company’s capital allocation process? That almost never shows up in a proxy statement. What about the makeup of the board? While this does show up in the proxy, who is assessing the experience and expertise of the individuals who most directly represent shareholders’ interests?

What about other issues such as a company’s environmental or social responsibilities? Recently, for example, we have seen a debate over investor ownership of the listed gun manufacturers: Olin Corp; American Outdoor Brands; Sturm, Ruger & Co; and Vista Outdoor. Neuberger Berman’s mutual and UCITS funds do not hold any long positions in these gun manufacturers. Passive investors do own shares in those companies—they have to. But they have only recently started “engaging” with them—which usually means sending questionnaires. I guess that’s the passive investor’s version of “engagement.”

Assessing whether a company is well governed—and holding management accountable when it is not—requires judgment, not box-checking. We think that bottom-up fundamental active managers harness decades of experience and sector expertise, and are among the few financial market participants that are genuinely informed about those aspects of a company.

When it comes to holding company management accountable, on both shareholder value and environmental and social sustainability, engagement and judgment matter—and we believe you get what you pay for.

Joseph V. Amato is President of Neuberger Berman Group LLC and Chief Investment Officer—Equities at Neuberger Berman. He is also a member of the firm’s Board of Directors and its Audit Committee. To learn more, see Mr. Amato's bio or visit www.nb.com.

In Case You Missed It

  • U.S. ISM Non-Manufacturing Index:  -0.4 to 59.5 in February
  • Euro Zone Purchasing Managers Index:  -0.4 to 57.1 in February
  • Euro Zone 4Q17 GDP:  +2.7% annualized rate
  • Japan 4Q17 GDP:  +1.6% annualized rate
  • Euro Zone Central Bank Policy Meeting:  The Governing Council made no changes to its policy stance
  • U.S. Employment Report:  Nonfarm payrolls increased 313,000 and the unemployment rate was unchanged at 4.1% in February
  • Bank of Japan Policy Meeting:  Board members maintained the yield curve control policy leaving rates unchanged.

What to Watch For

  • Tuesday, 3/13:
    • U.S. Consumer Price Index
  • Wednesday, 3/14:
    • U.S. Retail Sales
  • Thursday, 3/15:
    • NAHB Housing Market Index
  • Friday, 3/16:
    • U.S. Housing Starts & Building Permits
    • Euro Zone Consumer Price Index

– Andrew White, Investment Strategy Group

Statistics on the Current State of the Market – as of March 9, 2018

Market Index WTD MTD YTD
S&P 500 Index 3.6% 2.7% 4.6%
Russell 1000 Index 3.6% 2.9% 4.5%
Russell 1000 Growth Index 3.9% 3.1% 7.5%
Russell 1000 Value Index 3.2% 2.6% 1.5%
Russell 2000 Index 4.2% 5.6% 4.2%
MSCI World Index 2.9% 1.6% 2.6%
MSCI EAFE Index 1.9% -0.4% -0.1%
MSCI Emerging Markets Index 2.2% 1.1% 4.5%
STOXX Europe 600 3.2% 0.8% 0.1%
FTSE 100 Index 2.3% 0.1% -5.2%
TOPIX 0.4% -3.0% -5.6%
CSI 300 Index 2.3% 2.1% 2.0%
Fixed Income & Currency      
Citigroup 2-Year Treasury Index 0.0% 0.0% -0.3%
Citigroup 10-Year Treasury Index -0.3% -0.2% -3.8%
Bloomberg Barclays Municipal Bond Index -0.1% 0.0% -1.5%
Bloomberg Barclays US Aggregate Bond Index -0.1% -0.1% -2.2%
Bloomberg Barclays Global Aggregate Index -0.2% 0.3% 0.5%
S&P/LSTA U.S. Leveraged Loan 100 Index 0.2% 0.1% 1.2%
ICE BofA Merrill Lynch U.S. High Yield Index 0.4% -0.2% -0.4%
ICE BofA Merrill Lynch Global High Yield Index 0.3% 0.1% 0.2%
JP Morgan EMBI Global Diversified Index 0.1% -0.1% -2.1%
JP Morgan GBI-EM Global Diversified Index 0.6% 0.3% 3.7%
U.S. Dollar per British Pounds 0.7% 0.6% 2.5%
U.S. Dollar per Euro 0.1% 1.0% 2.6%
U.S. Dollar per Japanese Yen -1.4% -0.2% 5.3%
Real & Alternative Assets      
Alerian MLP Index 0.8% 1.0% -3.6%
FTSE EPRA/NAREIT North America Index 2.7% 3.0% -8.1%
FTSE EPRA/NAREIT Global Index 2.0% 1.9% -3.7%
Bloomberg Commodity Index -0.2% -0.2% 0.1%
Gold (NYM $/ozt) Continuous Future 0.0% 0.5% 1.1%
Crude Oil (NYM $/bbl) Continuous Future 1.3% 0.6% 2.7%

Source: FactSet, Neuberger Berman.

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