AGMs' value goes beyond a free lunch

Shareholders can glean valuable insights into 'their' firms and the state of the market and economy from CEOs

Mr Gupta at an event in Mumbai last month. The DBS chief executive gave shareholders some interesting insights at the bank's AGM last week.
Mr Gupta at an event in Mumbai last month. The DBS chief executive gave shareholders some interesting insights at the bank's AGM last week. PHOTO: REUTERS

As annual general meetings (AGMs) go, DBS' gathering last week was an eye-opener, a primer on how a modern banking business operates.

There was the usual shareholder pressing for an increase in dividends, but surprisingly there were none of the pesky questions on remuneration or the perks enjoyed by the board and top management, a perennial issue that surfaced at the AGMs of a few other large firms.

But what held shareholders' attention were the insights chief executive Piyush Gupta shared on how DBS had latched on to an opportunity six years ago to build its China business using trade finance to open the doors to mainland firms because these companies could borrow more cheaply in Singapore and Hong Kong than in China.

Because the bank has been able to establish close ties with many of these firms since then, it can now do other businesses with them, this despite trade finance being no longer viable because the situation has reversed, with costs of borrowing in China falling below those in Singapore and Hong Kong.

Mr Gupta said: "I don't need the trade finance to keep the relationship warm. They can pay me back in trade finance but now we can do fixed income for them, equities for them, a lot of other businesses with them. Trade finance has already served its purpose. And the fact that they pay us back is not such a headache anymore."

Mr Gupta at an event in Mumbai last month. The DBS chief executive gave shareholders some interesting insights at the bank's AGM last week. PHOTO: REUTERS

There was a further insight shared by Mr Gupta that is worth recounting: his response to a question about whether there was any credence to a warning by Swiss hedge fund manager Felix Zulauf that Singapore might be headed for a banking crisis because of China's economic woes.

True, he agreed that Singapore's loan books had grown sharply in the past five years, but the biggest growth had come from offshore lending because of the trade finance deals booked in Singapore.

But these deals were not funded by Singapore money but financed by the sale of commercial papers and by raising money offshore, so they posed no risks to the Singapore banking system.

And to laughter from the audience, he said that where the hedge fund manager is concerned, "if you want to be polite, he is misinformed, but if you don't want to be polite, he obviously has an agenda".

Now, these insights may not make it to the news, but they shed light on how he runs DBS and offer assurance which a nervous investor badly needs to calm his nerves, as he confronts the barrage of bad news from all fronts this year, with stock market conditions turning more and more bearish.

I related what Mr Gupta had said at the AGM to make a point - that unless shareholders make an effort to show up at these gatherings to get such nuggets of information for themselves, they would not know what they were missing.

Reading the annual report or getting information third hand from an analyst report will not offer similar insights into DBS or the banking business in Singapore.

For too long there has been a belief that small-time investors turn up at AGMs only because of the lavish buffet spread laid out by the firms to tempt them.

Yet, from the lively exchange between Mr Gupta and shareholders - even after the formal meeting had ended - it was obvious that these mum and dad investors were relishing what was possibly their only opportunity, at least until the next AGM, to get up close to talk to him.

Of course, some will argue that Mr Gupta is a notable exception among company bosses as he is a great communicator with an uncanny ability to explain very difficult banking concepts in a clear and simple manner.

This made the attendees eager to listen to him, to the extent of neglecting the almost parsimonious offering DBS had laid on for their attendance - a modest bag containing a bottle of water, a muffin, some biscuits and nuts - which was in stark contrast to the goodies offered at other companies' AGMs.

Having said that, less articulate bosses should still attempt to polish up their act and reach out to their shareholders instead of trying to keep the meeting as short as possible and beating a hasty retreat to the nearest exit once it ends.

In fact, some company bosses compensate for a lack of eloquence by giving shareholders plenty of time to ask questions. Genting Singapore's recent AGM stretched to almost three hours, for example.

And either serving a sumptuous buffet or offering a bento box to try and whip up goodwill among retail investors may no longer be a viable option.

This is because bigger crowds have been showing up at AGMs this year as the number of shareholders has risen on the share registers of blue chip firms after the lot size was cut from 1,000 shares to 100.

Then there are the investors who used money from their Central Provident Fund account and Supplementary Retirement Scheme account to invest in shares. They essentially enjoy the same footing as direct investors should they attend AGMs, following changes to the Companies Act.

Throw in the uncertainty of not knowing how many of these shareholders will turn up for the meeting and the costs of laying on a sumptuous spread may escalate out of control - a fact not lost on AGM organisers as they try to help their companies to cut down on unnecessary expenses, given the deepening economic gloom.

Still, to allow as many investors as possible to benefit from the wisdom they may gain at AGMs, the scramble by companies to hold such meetings in the days leading up to the April 30 deadline needs to be tackled.

This sort of bunching makes it difficult for investors holding shares in more than one company to turn up at AGMs if they are all held on the same day. For instance, DBS' AGM clashed with that of palm oil giant Wilmar International whose chairman Kuok Khoon Hong is another great communicator.

Yet, despite the feedback given on this issue year after year, no remedy is forthcoming.

From the recent attendance at AGMs, it is obvious that many investors no longer treat their shares as a financial wager or a ticket to a meal. That is what makes AGMs so important since they give investors the opportunity to size up the companies in which they have become part-owners by virtue of holding the shares.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 02, 2016, with the headline 'AGMs' value goes beyond a free lunch'. Subscribe