Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Good money for good governance

By Adeline Paul Raj
Published: 2011/08/31
Kuala Lumpur: Institutional investors are keen on companies with good corporate governance (CG) and are willing to pay top dollar to invest in them but sadly, few fit the criterion in Malaysia, says Aberdeen Asset Management, one of the country's top investment firms.

"We care about things like GCG because a company with sound governance policies will outperform over the longer term. We don't mind paying a premium for CG because we know there'll be a board that will always be watching our backs," said Abdul Jalil Rasheed, its head of equities, who helps manage US$2.5 billion (RM7.5 billion) of assets at the firm.

He said CG is a key criterion for Aberdeen when analysing companies to invest in.

"If it fails our CG test, we won't invest in the company," he remarked.

Jalil, who has been with Aberdeen for eight years, said the firm visits at least 100 companies a year in each key country in its quest to find undervalued stocks with good fundamentals to invest in.

"It's not as easy as you'd think," he shared. "We're long-term, fundamental, bottom-up investors ... so investing in the right company is key."

In Malaysia, Aberdeen's major investments include AEON Co (M) Bhd (15 per cent stake), Public Bank Bhd (5 per cent), CIMB Group Holdings Bhd (5 per cent), British American Tobacco Malaysia Bhd (5 per cent), Guinness Anchor Bhd (about 7 per cent) and Pos Malaysia Bhd (6 per cent).

Aberdeen has some RM11 billion invested in 29 companies here, Jalil said.

At a recent accounting-related conference held here, he shared his views on what institutional investors like Aberdeeen want to see in companies, especially on the matter of CG.

"We ask if a company will still be in the same business in 20 years' time. And if it's got a good track record, is it run fairly for all shareholders, and are they transparent? How independent are the board of directors?

"What we want are directors that are knowledgeable of the industry. We want experienced and really independent people. There are some companies out there where the independent directors are former employees of the company - it's not wrong, but it's not right in the spirit of corporate governance," he remarked.

Jalil noted that boards play a key role in setting the CG tone for the company, and so directors shouldn't be sitting on boards for too long as investors would then find it difficult to see them as being truly independent.

"Changing board members is a good thing ... it brings a rejuvenation of the board. Younger board members would bring in new perspective," he voiced.

Another problem commonly seen by investors is companies providing sparse information in their quarterly financial reports.

"They should at least have a performance commentary on how the company has done in the past quarter. We see similar words being used in almost every quarter," he lamented.

Jalil said institutional inves-tors like Aberdeen would also like to see a more transparent voting process at shareholder meetings, like a poll voting system.

He noted that Singapore has made it mandatory to vote by poll and have the results audited by an independent auditor. "I hope this is something we can move to," he said.

Jalil said it would also be good for independent directors to be given a few minutes to explain the operations of the company to shareholders at annual general meetings. "We have seen this in Thailand, and to a certain extent in Singapore.

"In Malaysia, they are rather quiet ... it would be nice if they were given a bit of airtime," he suggested.

Jalil opined that in Malaysia, companies do the bare minimum when it comes to CG. "It's more about form than substance, a mere box-ticking exercise, and I think that's wrong. If you want to adopt CG, you've got to do it in the right spirit," he said.