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Chris MacKenzie,
U.S. PIRG

59,000 petitions urge Vanguard to support political spending disclosure

Largest mutual fund has chance to sway shareholder votes in favor of transparency
For Immediate Release

Washington, D.C. – Current and prospective investment customers have flooded Vanguard, the nation’s largest manager of retirement savings, with over 59,000 emails urging the company to change its policy on corporate political spending disclosure.

Over the last decade, shareholders who are rightfully concerned about a lack of corporate transparency around political spending and the impact on their investments have filed shareholder resolutions calling for companies to disclose this information.  This issue has become the most frequently filed resolution in the ESG (Environmental, Social, Governance) space. Political disclosure resolutions were filed at more than 100 shareholder meetings last spring, however opposition and abstention from major mutual funds, who hold a large share of the stock market, presents a serious challenge to winning majority votes despite robust retail and institutional investor support.

Mutual funds own a quarter of the U.S. stock market, and while major mutual funds could have a huge influence on the outcome of political spending disclosure votes at annual shareholder meetings, they tend to stay away from the topic of political spending transparency, (despite the call for the information). According to a new study by the Center for Political Accountability, Vanguard has voted against or abstained from disclosure votes every time they came up in 2015.

“The secret spending that’s flooded our democracy is political, but when it’s funded by our retirement savings, it gets personal,” said Emma Boorboor, Election Reform Campaign Director with U.S. PIRG. “For millions of American families, retirement savings with Vanguard mean hard work, a smart investment, and the promise of a secure future, but, post Citizens United, it also means corporate political spending without shareholders’ knowledge. As a mutual fund known for challenging the status quo, Vanguard can and should lead the way to protect investors and support corporate political spending disclosure.”

In November,  the Corporate Reform Coalition, a group of advocacy organizations and investors, launched a campaign urging Vanguard to change their stance on shareholder resolutions related to political spending disclosure. Since the campaign’s launch current and prospective investing customers have delivered over 59,000 emails to Vanguard urging the company to amend its proxy voting guidelines to vote in favor of political spending disclosure. If the company responds favorably, shareholders could win many more resolution votes at corporations, creating greater transparency in corporate political spending on a company-by-company basis.

In fact, as a recent signatory to the Principles for Responsible Investment (PRI) Vanguard has a responsibility to “seek appropriate disclosure on Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) issues" by the entities they invest in. Political spending undoubtedly falls under the umbrella of Governance, and has clear impacts on both Environmental and Social issues.

The Vanguard campaign is part of a larger effort to require all publicly traded companies to disclose their political spending. As more companies move towards transparency, the need for the SEC to create a uniform structure for these disclosures grows. The SEC has received a record number of comments in support of a rule that would require political disclosure, and supportive  action by major mutual will only bolster the case for SEC Chair Mary Jo White to move forward with a national rule.

“Transparency is the first step to accountability and shareholders need this basic information to determine if the company is acting in the best interest of long-term shareholder value,” says Leslie Samuelrich, President of Green Century Capital Management, a financial advisory firm that offers socially responsible mutual funds. “Vanguard should be leaders not laggards in asking for the information that investors are coming to expect,” said Samuelrich.

“Vanguard manages some of the nation’s biggest index funds, and as such a huge chunk of the investing public trusts them to represent their interests, said Lisa Gilbert Director of Public Citizen’s Congress Watch division. “Unfortunately, they have not yet met the market’s demands when it comes to political spending disclosure. Vanguard should move swiftly towards the common sense position of voting their shares to support transparency to protect their investors,” she added.

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