Stocks in the Hot Seat

Some public companies are definitely on the hot seat as shareholders turn up the heat. Retail behemoth Wal-Mart (NYS: WMT) makes one heck of a massive example.

Wal-Mart's recent bribery scandal has pushed the retailer from one that many ethics-minded investors have traditionally found distasteful to one that's being perceived as downright reprehensible. Some major institutional shareholders like CalSTRS have announced their plans to vote against several members of Wal-Mart's board of directors in light of the recent events.

Corporate governance ratings provider GMI Ratings' Paul Hodgson pointed out that it's very rare for institutions like these to disclose their voting plans ahead of time, so the CalSTRS announcement is significant in itself. Meanwhile, major proxy advisory firms ISS and Glass Lewis both recommended that Wal-Mart shareholders vote against several board members in light of the Mexican bribery scandal. Current CEO Mike Duke and former CEO Lee Scott are both directors in the crosshairs.

Wal-Mart's annual meeting doesn't occur until next week, but it should be interesting to see how things play out. A majority of shareholders can't win a vote against these directors; half of Wal-Mart's shares are owned by the Walton family. However, a significant amount of dissent from other shareholders could send a message if Wal-Mart is willing to heed it.

Some other interesting shareholder vote results are floating around, too. Urban Outfitters (NAS: URBN) has been piling up some frustrating factors, but sizable numbers of its shareholders fought back on corporate governance principles with their recent proxy ballots. Although a shareholder proposal on board diversity lost the vote, a majority of shareholders demanded that Urban Outfitters both declassify the board and allow for majority voting for directors.

The demand for board declassification (a shareholder-friendly measure that means directors are elected every year instead of on a staggered basis) is gaining momentum. A whopping 98% of Baxter International (NYS: BAX) shareholders voted for board declassification.

Recent vote results at Apache (NYS: APA) are interesting as well; 89.5% of shareholders voted for Apache's board to be declassified. Given the fact that shareholder activist John Chevedden was sued by Apache to block his majority voting proposal in 2010, one can wonder whether his proposal could have gotten similar support had the company allowed it to be heard.

Results from Wal-Mart's meeting should be interesting indeed. However, the fact that many companies have found themselves on the hot seat as shareholders vote their opinions reveals hope for capitalism after all. Shareholders have remembered their ownership, and they're increasingly demanding proper stewardship from corporate managements and boards of directors.

At the time thisarticle was published Alyce Lomax owns shares of Urban Outfitters. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended creating a diagonal call position in Wal-Mart. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days.

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