The folks running the Oppenheimer funds don't know my father-in-law. If they did, they never would have sent him a 91-page proxy statement...
The folks running the Oppenheimer funds don’t know my father-in-law.
If they did, they never would have sent him a 91-page proxy statement asking him to vote on 13 issues, all for two funds that “we don’t have very much of our money in.” “It’s not that I couldn’t figure it out,” the 79-year-old retired lawyer and judge told me, “it’s that I don’t want to work that hard.
“I’d bet that 95 percent of the people who got this just threw it right away and that most of the people who sent it back just voted with the board without actually knowing if that was the right thing to do or not.”
The judge — that’s what I call him — did neither. He sent the booklets to me along with one basic question: “Do these things change my fund to where I might want to get rid of it?”
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For any investor faced with a mutual fund’s proxy ballot, that is the critical question to answer. Fund companies don’t send proxies often, but when they do, the industrywide trend has been toward bigger, tougher-to-read booklets covering more issues than ever.
That’s borne more out of expediency and a concern for costs than from an effort to conceal something nefarious. Because regular proxies aren’t required and because shareholders pay the freight for all costs when votes are necessary, management lets little issues build up until some unavoidable vote comes along.
The firm then loads every minor issue requiring a vote into one mailing, minimizing costs but maximizing confusion.
That’s how Oppenheimer’s booklet became 91 pages and how firms such as Vanguard, Fidelity, Janus and others have issued proxy booklets of more than 50 pages on some funds in recent years.
Most of the issues being voted on concern investment rules and policies, where the real issue is equal footing for all funds within a family.
At Oppenheimer, for example, some of the 11 funds covered by the proxy started in other families — the Rochester funds and Quest for Value funds. As such, they were built on a different prospectus framework than funds that began life in the Oppenheimer family.
Operating all of a firm’s funds with the same rules structure makes the complex easier to run and govern.
Management companies know that proxies are a pain. Because they are so dense, my father-in-law’s logic holds. Investors frequently toss the ballot without voting, forcing the fund company to spend more shareholder money to hire a solicitor to bring out the vote.
Investors also ignore proxies because they figure their vote doesn’t count for much. With the exception of the extremely rare big deal — of which there have been maybe three cases in the past 15 years — the votes go through as the fund board recommends.
Management doesn’t ask for your opinion as a shareholder every day. When it does, it’s a wake-up call.
Make sure you can live with the proposed changes and put the funds on your “watch list” until you feel certain that they will live up to the standard proxy-ballot promise that nothing bad will happen when you vote yes.
Chuck Jaffe is senior columnist at CBS Marketwatch. He can be reached at email@example.com or Box 70, Cohasset, MA 02025-0070.