Three years after mutual funds first started disclosing how they vote on proposals at company meetings, investors are still struggling to get a clear picture on where their funds stand on key corporate issues.
Fidelity Investments, Vanguard Group, Franklin Resources and others in the $11.3 trillion mutual fund industry now annually disclose in Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) filings by August 31 how each fund voted on proposals from every holding in the 12 months to the end of June.
While that is better than three years ago, the huge volumes of data are not in a standard format, making it hard to tease out trends. Also, only a few fund firms provide a company-wide breakdown of voting patterns.
We are in the age of feast or famine, said Tom Roseen, senior research analyst at Lipper Inc, a unit of Reuters Group Plc. At one point we weren't getting anything and now we are getting so much it's hard to discern what's important.
The Investment Company Institute said there were more than 4,700 stock mutual funds in the United States in July, and some can vote on proxies for thousands of companies every year.
The Corporate Library, a governance research group that crunches proxy voting numbers, expects to tackle more than 2 million proposals in producing its report this year, said Jackie Cook, a senior researcher.
It's not easy for the average investor to get a snapshot view of what's going on, Cook said.
Analysts said both the SEC and funds were to blame for reducing the effectiveness of a rule that, despite opposition from leading fund groups Fidelity and Vanguard, was introduced in 2004 after an industry-wide trading scandal broke in 2003.
The SEC did not want to mandate a format and a structure and (there are) different types of technological issues of one sort or another, said Jeff Keil, principal of Keil Fiduciary Strategies in Denver.
While the information is out there, it takes an enormous amount of time and it's very cumbersome for most shareholders to get to the desired information, Keil said, adding that he did not see the situation improving soon.
SEC Commissioner Paul Atkins, who is campaigning for easier-to-understand financial documents from mutual funds and has opposed the proxy voting disclosure rule, said the disclosures have not helped investors.
That has really been a bad rule because it has turned the whole proxy voting process into a compliance function, he told Reuters.
For their part, funds could do more to inform investors, experts say. While they do post their voting guidelines online, Vanguard is one of the few to give a summary of its actual votes on its Web site. Fidelity sent an email to Reuters giving a few highlights of its voting.
Each fund family could easily provide summaries of its voting across the whole fund family. It's just not in their interests, given that originally they were opposed to the disclosure regime, said Cook of The Corporate Library.
But Chuck Freadhoff, director of media relations at American Funds, which manages some $1 trillion in mutual funds, said the firm does not compile a summary of how its funds voted as a group because each voting proposal is different.
We do not track and say we voted with or against management for this type and against that type of resolution, X percentage of the time, he said. That would say that all proxy votes and all issues are the same, and indeed they are not.
(Additional reporting by Svea Herbst-Bayliss)