It's time to purge the stock market's noticeboard of PR puff and let activist investors report on what really matters

 
Mark Kleinman
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Inside The London Stock Exchange
Should activist investors be able to post more freely about companies on the stock exchange? (Source: Getty)

It's not exactly needle-in-a-haystack stuff: trawl through the reams of regulatory news announcements on most days and you will spot numerous examples of public relations puff masquerading as crucial investor information.

So it’s disappointing that this week has thrown into sharp focus yet another of the perversities of London’s listings regime – and one which acts to the detriment of transparent disclosure.

Exhibit A: a letter from Toscafund to the executive chairman of Speedy Hire, the tool-hire company, containing material information which could determine the success of its campaign to oust chairman Jan Astrand.

Market sources say Toscafund was not allowed to distribute its statement through official channels, despite it being of obvious relevance to other Speedy Hire investors.

Read more: Toscafund urges Speedy Hire chairman to resign ahead of general meeting

Take, for instance, the £20m cost synergy figure identified by Toscafund from a merger with rival HSS. That should command attention from the board of a company projected to make just £10m of pre-tax profit this year.

Yet other Speedy Hire shareholders were denied the opportunity to hear the activist’s argument other than through the media – because of an obscure ruling restricting activists’ use of regulatory channels.

If boards are to be held to account by their owners, that’s a nonsensical approach, and one which needs to be overturned.

Today, Speedy Hire will post its circular to shareholders ahead of next month’s EGM on Astrand’s future. Expect it to push back hard against Toscafund – but its response should be delivered on a firmly level playing field.

Practicing what you preach

For a company which regularly opines on the governance failings of others, Standard Life is remarkably prickly when challenged about aspects of its own conduct.

Earlier this year, a revolt over the pay package of Keith Skeoch, its chief executive, embarrassed its board, hindering the ability of its fund management arm to hold more egregious transgressors to account.

Next came its truculent approach to a recommendation from a working group on executive pay about the longevity of remuneration committee chairs.

Read more: PM’s takeover test may do more Arm than good

Now, during a week in which it reported an upbeat set of results, it insists there are no plans to recruit a successor to Sir Gerry Grimstone, the respected former Whitehall mandarin who looks a racing certainty to be the next chairman of Barclays.

Grimstone has chaired Standard Life for just over nine years, was deputy chairman for 14 months before that, and joined the company’s board in 2003.

A spokesman hails the “outstanding contribution” that Grimstone continues to make. And it’s true that the nine-year rule which applies to the independence of non-executive directors does not encompass chairmen.

It may also be right that Grimstone is doing an effective job. With a vacancy at the top of Barclays likely to emerge in the next 18 months, though, allied to the challenge of recruiting financial services chairs, Standard Life’s approach contains a hint of complacency.

And 13 years feels like an excessive board stint for the chairman of a company so dependent upon the respect of other boardrooms when governance matters go awry. It’s time to mandate the headhunters.

Managing the mandarins

Spare a thought for Alex Chisholm, who only arrived at the Department for Energy and Climate Change as its new permanent secretary on 4 July. Ten days later, the ministry was abolished.

Greg Clark, the new secretary of state for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, faces a dilemma over whether to retain Chisholm or the Department’s other perm sec, the long-serving Martin Donnelly.

It makes little sense to lose Chisholm altogether, when his blend of competition and private sector experience ought to serve Whitehall well. Better to instal Donnelly permanently in the equivalent role at the new Department for International Trade – as important a civil service role as there’s likely to be in the years ahead.

City A.M.'s opinion pages are a place for thought-provoking views and debate. These views are not necessarily shared by City A.M.

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