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Source: Barron's, October 22, 2021, article


Robinhood’s New Proxy Platform Battles Investor Apathy.

By Lewis Braham Oct. 22, 2021 10:26 am ET

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

During the 1950s’ Red Scare, Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s followers tried to ban Robin Hood in schoolbooks for being a “Communist” hero. The student activists who protested this censorship were known as Green Feathers.

The new Green Feathers may be budding investor activists at broker Robinhood Markets (ticker: HOOD). With the acquisition of Say Technologies in August, Robinhood has created an online platform to allow individual investors, and potentially activists, to engage with company executives directly in ways they couldn’t before. It could also serve as a rallying point for environmental, social, and governance shareholder proposals.

A Robinhood representative declined to comment about the acquisition, but explained some of the Say platform’s technical features.

Previously, corporate engagement was almost exclusively the domain of institutional investors such as New York’s and California’s pension funds, which, for example, filed shareholder resolutions to get companies to publish climate-risk reports. But such engagement has been gradually moving downstream toward individual investors and the financial advisors who represent them.

Robinhood’s Say platform allows individual shareholders to ask companies questions during quarterly earnings calls with executives. Investors write questions on Say and then collectively vote before the meeting on which ones to ask. The questions with the most votes are answered. At recent earnings calls, the questions asked were based on tallies of the number of investors voting for them—not the number of shares they control, as is standard on Wall Street. That puts investors with as little as one share on the same footing with larger ones.

At Tesla ’s (TSLA) second-quarter earnings call in June, for instance, there were 607 Say questions, and the three most popular were answered by CEO Elon Musk and other executives. The top question asked by shareholder “Robert M.”—which received 2,700 Say votes representing 392,800 shares—was one a professional analyst might ask: “Can Tesla share more details on the current status of the Cybertruck and confirm if production is still expected in 2021?”

More interesting, though, was a less popular and thus unanswered question from Zoe M., which received just 44 votes: “What do you plan on doing in response to allegations of using child labor to mine cobalt?” This question, raised before in the press about labor problems in Congo cobalt mines that Tesla relies on, isn’t the sort that a typical Wall Street analyst would ask. Yet one can easily imagine the Robinhood community also collaborating to ask once-unpopular questions. The median age of its investors is 31—that is, millennials—some 95% of whom care about sustainable investing, according to a Morgan Stanley survey.

Some prickly questions about corporate governance made it through the Say vote transom at Robinhood’s own second-quarter earnings call, including ones on whether the company was doing anything to prevent stock-price manipulation and on problems with regulators regarding Robinhood receiving payment for order flow.

“This could become another avenue for investor influence,” says Jackie Cook, Morningstar’s director of investment stewardship research. “We’ve got proxy voting [on shareholder proposals]. But shareholder meetings are so choreographed currently. Perhaps earnings calls could evolve into a more meaningful interchange where uncomfortable questions are asked.”

Combining such Q&A sessions with Say’s proxy-voting phone app, which helps investors understand and vote on shareholder resolutions, could prove powerful.. But overcoming investor apathy remains challenging. According to one Harvard University study, only 12% of the average brokerage firm’s retail accounts vote; institutional investors almost always do as part of their fiduciary duty.

One way to avoid this indifference, which often stems from ignorance of proxy issues, is for investors to instruct their financial advisors how to vote for them. Unlike Robinhood’s Say, other new engagement platforms such as YourStake and OpenInvest, which was recently acquired by JPMorgan Chase (JPM), work through advisors.

“What people are looking for right now is just understanding what’s going on in their portfolios,” says YourStake’s co-founder Gabe Rissman. YourStake provides customized portfolio impact reports for advisors that explain all of their clients’ various exposures—such as fossil fuels, gender diversity, human-rights violations, and air pollution. It also shows the various shareholder resolutions at specific holdings.

“When people have the data, that’s when they want to either change their portfolios or dive into shareholder engagement, or both,” Rissman says.

Such information can help investors with advisor-run direct-indexed portfolios. These private accounts often hold hundreds of stocks with thousands of proxy issues to vote on every year. Because of this proxy deluge, “a lot of times direct indexing actually leads to less voting,” Rissman says. Both YourStake and OpenInvest are working on solutions that integrate investors’ ESG goals with proxy voting for direct-indexed accounts. YourStake has joined with direct-indexing firm First Affirmative Financial Network to offer a product that can automate ESG voting for accounts.

ETFs Often Vote “No” On ESG Proxies

The three largest ETF managers typically do not support proposals that would increase corporate responsibility.

ETF Manager

2015 - 2020 ESG Shareholder Proposal Support

2015 - 2020 Climate Shareholder Proposal Support

Total Assets (tril)





State Street








Source: As You Sow, BlackRock, StateStreet, Vanguard

The fund world presents even greater challenges for shareholder engagement: Fund managers, not individual investors, decide their proxy votes. BlackRock (BLK) , the largest exchange-traded fund manager, recently said that it would allow its largest institutional clients customized control over their proxy votes. But offering that to ETF shareholders would be difficult: There are millions of them worldwide with brokerage accounts largely anonymous to BlackRock.

The Index Funds S&P 500 Equal Weight No Load Shares (INDEX) wants to address this roadblock. It started polling its investors last December as to how it should vote on proxies. In the first quarter of 2021, only about 100 shareholders responded.

The corporate sheriffs of Nottingham needn’t worry just yet.



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