While young South Africans may know how to hold companies to account on social media, they may not be fully aware of the power wielded by their pockets.

South Africa recently celebrated Human Rights Day on 21 March and April is another significant month in SA calendar, the legacy of anti-apartheid activists is a reminder of our responsibility to future generations and our collective power to bring about social change with our actions, including our investment decisions.

This is according to Melissa Moore, an Investment Analyst at Futuregrowth — Old Mutual’s fixed-interest asset manager, who says we should all be thinking about what types of entities we are supporting when we invest.

“In the same way you might support or boycott brands or companies based on what you’ve seen in the media or what you know about their corporate behaviour, investor activism is about being conscious about which companies you support with your investments.”

Moore explains that investor activism refers to the actions taken by investors to engage with their investee companies on both financial and non-financial matters. They can do this through public campaigns, attending company Annual General Meetings, being vocal and voting on key matters, and presenting shareholder resolutions to deal with key issues.

“When you buy shares, you become a part owner of that company,” explains Moore. “When the company does well, you benefit from the dividends or the capital appreciation of the shares. But as a part owner, you’re also responsible for ensuring that this company is a good corporate citizen, which includes how they impact society and the environment.

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Tag My School Magazine decided to have a chat with Melissa Moore with regards to the impact investor activism has in education.

Investor activism
Melissa Moore

What is the role of Investor Activism in the education sector?

As fund managers for the Old Mutual Unit Trusts income and fixed interest funds and institutional investors, we act on behalf of our clients; unit trust holders (directly) and retirement funds (through companies). We have a duty to be good stewards of our clients’ investments. Investor activism has a role to play in all sectors that we invest in. For some context, our investor activism duties in the education sector includes the following:
• Unlisted equity exposure: This refers to ownership of shares in private companies where, dependent on our percentage exposure, we might have a board seat. Our role as activists is to ensure oversight regarding governance (board oversight, remuneration), social (wages and employee practices, etc.) or environmental (compliance) is applied.
• Listed equity exposure: This refers to ownership of shares in public companies listed on the stock exchanges such as the Johannesburg Stock Exchange. We vote on behalf of our clients on environmental (influence companies on managing their environmental impact), social (how the company deals with the immediate community where they operate, and governance (practices not aligned to King Code and the Companies Act) issues to express our view on these matters.
• Listed and unlisted bonds: This refers to loans advanced to companies, government and/or state-owned enterprises, to fund their operations or to finance specific projects. At Futuregrowth, we have a long history of bondholder activism e.g. SOEs, microlending, etc. to promote improved industry standards, transparency, disclosure and reporting.

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With students on the street right now fighting for their right to access education in order to invest in their future, what is your opinion on this form of activism?

South Africa has a deep history of inequality and unequal access to opportunity that needs to be redressed, which is evident in the recent student protest action. Activism at all levels – and engagement between students, education institutions and government – can play a role. Students, the man in the street or retail/institutional investors can hold entities accountable by engaging them on their practices. Activism across the board is a mechanism to voice opinions, engage, and try to influence positive change.

We’ve seen very little investment towards education; great education programs both private and public education sectors; are investors concerned more about money over any other aspect of investment and if so, how much of activists does that make to be?

Education is the key to unlocking a successful future for South Africa. This is one of the goals we work towards as Futuregrowth and from our holding company, Old Mutual. Old Mutual has invested over R2.3 billion to enable access to quality education in SA. Old Mutual is actively involved in ensuring access to quality education through working with projects such as the Schools and Education Impact Investment Fund of South Africa (SEIIFSA) and the Imfundo Trust. In addition, as Futuregrowth we currently have approximately R174million invested in the education sector.

Futuregrowth invests on behalf of pension fund and unit trust clients to whom we have a fiduciary duty. As such, when considering investment opportunities, we must assess both the financial returns and non-financial (ESG) issues in our investment process. Our duty is towards our pension fund clients to ensure that we allocate investments into the education sector that will provide a commercial return.

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Investors tend to be passive on social issues which makes their voices seem limited! Will investor activism change this, if so how?

From a Futuregrowth perspective, we have always actively engaged companies on ESG issues on behalf of our clients with the purpose of making a positive change. Certainly, more can be done from the investor community, both on the equity and bond side, to promote sustainable and ethical business practices.

As part of that community, we endeavour to inform and educate investors so that they know their extent of influence they hold. We do this through the media in publications https://www.futuregrowth.co.za/newsroom/, social and general media https://www.oldmutualinvest.com/news-and-insights. This was also one of the topics we covered in our recent campaign – 8 Steps to Financial Fitness with Old Mutual https://www.oldmutualinvest.com/individual/our-solutions/financial-fitness/.