Investors hear good news and bad at annual meetings
In the spring, investors' hearts turn to proxy statements, annual reports, and news from corporate executives that all is well with their investments.
Even as the economy tries to bounce back from recession and the fiscal effects of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, spring is the time that many local corporations hold shareholder meetings to tout renewal of company fortunes, or show that hope does indeed spring eternal.
Annual shareholders meetings present opportunities for individual investors to be reassured about the performance of the company, or, as in many cases this year, to be given the bad news about how the worsening economy caused record losses.
This week, several Pittsburgh corporations open their executives to questions from shareholders about their 2001 performance, and almost all of them will mention Sept. 11 as a factor. The lineup this week is like a who's who among local companies, with Equitable Resources kicking off the week on Tuesday, followed by Mellon Financial on Wednesday, PPG Industries on Thursday and Alcoa Inc. on Friday.
For some, this is their first meeting with shareholders after a restructuring — after selling parts of their business, or buying others. Mellon Financial will meet in Two Mellon Center as a smaller corporate entity, after selling its retail banking business to Connecticut-based Citizen's Bank. This is the first opportunity for Mellon stockholders to hear CEO Martin McGuinn and other Mellon executives explain how that deal will improve for the bottom line.
Likewise, U.S. Steel Corp. will hold its first meeting as solely a steel company since 1982 on April 30, after divesting its profitable but problematic Marathon Oil subsidiary. With the steel industry in a prolonged slump, U.S. Steel Chairman and CEO Thomas Usher is expected to try to put a positive spin on what has not been a good year for the nation's largest steel company and the steel industry.
Attendance at meetings may be up a bit this year, in the wake of the Enron bankruptcy, as shareholders were assured that the giant energy company was in perfect financial health and subsequently sank into the nation's largest bankruptcy. Proxy statements sent to shareholders carry information about the accounting firm each company will hire to audit the company books. That information could see more scrutiny as the accounting industry contemplates stricter standards as embattled accounting Arthur Andersen struggles to survive its complicity in Enron's fall.
"I think that is what has investors nervous in general," said Steven Baumgarten, an equities analyst with Parker/Hunter in Pittsburgh. "They want to know if you can trust the financial statements at face value."
Baumgarten said that investors can question a company's financial statements, but sometimes, the information is not included in the statement.
"I think that at this point in history, more than ever, analysts are going to take a closer look at the annual reports and proxies," he said. "I think shareholders and analysts are going to look at executives' compensation, particularly stock options that are issued. You might hear investors ask, if those costs were included in the income statement, how many cents a share would earnings be less?"
The meetings run from the truly grand, such as Allegheny Energy Inc.'s May 9 bash at the Waldorf Astoria hotel in New York City, to the modest meeting of the shareholders of First Bell Bancorp Inc., which operates several Bell Federal Savings and Loan offices round the Pittsburgh area, at the Bellevue YMCA.
Most of the meetings are pro-forma, with little surprise and no drama. Aside from a few arcane shareholder proposals that are quickly voted down (especially if they are not suggested by the board of directors), the business of these business meetings is the election of board members and rubber-stamping of the board's decisions.
Occasionally, however, the meetings feature real controversy, such as the case involving the Benedictine nuns who have come to the last two Alcoa meetings to protest working conditions at the company's Mexican factories.
But the meetings represent an opportunity for individual shareholders, the ones with thousands of shares, and the investors with only one share, to meet the executives charged with increasing the worth of their investments.
Annual shareholders meetings of publicly held companies in Pittsburgh begin in earnest in April and continue throughout the year. Here is the date and location of these meetings.
Respironics Inc., Union Trust Building
WHX Corp. (Wheeling-Pittsburgh Steel Corp.)
Weirton Steel Corp.
Carbide Graphite Group Inc.
Fidelity Bancorp Inc. - Feb. 12
Matthews International Corp. - February
Pittsburgh Financial Corp. - January
TBA-to be announced
Source: Company proxy statements, Tribune-Review research