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Thursday, March 30, 2006

Undermining the Ownership Society

Away from the cameras covering the Enron trial and largely hidden from view on the evening news, a war is being waged over the most basic rights of ownership that undergird our economy.
 
Most economic conflicts arise between those who own property and those who do not. Management versus labor. Landlords versus tenants. Rich versus poor. But now, the persecution is being directed at owners from those who manage what is owned. It is corporate executives versus stockholders.
 
Today, trillions of shares of stock are owned by pension funds and 401(k) plans -- that is, owned by millions of workers. Politicians say we need to move toward an "ownership society" -- but, we, the citizens, already own a pretty big share of Corporate America. For years, much of that ownership was passive -- many investors made gains, and didn't ask questions. But since Enron and other corporate scandals damaged the economy, many citizen investors, primarily through their pension and union funds, have tried to exercise their rights to demand reforms at the companies they own -- reforms that would increase companies' bottom line by cracking down on executive abuses.
 
For instance, the Coca-Cola Company recently agreed to obtain stockholder permission before approving large executive severance packages. Since 2000, three departing Coke executives were given $180 million in severance pay. Though opposed to the new policy, management was forced to accept it, thanks to a shareholder resolution by the International Brotherhood of Teamsters. The union owns shares of the company, and thus has a fiduciary responsibility to help make the company as efficient and profitable as possible. Reining in exorbitant executive pay packages that are draining resources is one way to do that.
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