Published by Breaking Views.

By Antony Currie.
The author is a Reuters Breakingviews columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.

NEW YORK: Are JPMorgan’s shareholders a bunch of genocidal maniacs? Of course not. But 93 percent of them voted against a fellow investor’s motion to adopt a genocide-free investing policy, taking the bank’s line that it has sufficient fail-safes in place already. The proposal presented at the firm’s annual shareholders meeting had heart, at least. But that’s not always the case.

These yearly pow-wows are usually the only chance smaller shareholders get to put their views across. Most institutional investors prefer to make their views known in private — in part because their own rules may limit their ability to buy or sell stock once they take a public stance.

As a result, annual meetings can sometimes get bogged down by spurious proposals. Goldman Sachs , for example, is routinely hounded by a set of shareholders who use the process to bring up environmental issues — this year, they wanted the bank to issue a report on the risk to its business from climate change. It got the support of 2.3 percent of shareholders.

The meetings can also become a focal point for disgruntled customers to air their grievances, as long as they’re shareholders of record. JPMorgan chief Jamie Dimon , for example, was harangued by people the bank had foreclosed on, in some cases wrongly, they said. That might be uncomfortable for executives — but they’re fair game.

At times, though, smaller investors do help keep genuine corporate governance issues front and center. Feisty octogenarian investor Evelyn Davis, for example, might digress into reminiscences about her four husbands, but her call for cumulative voting at Goldman garnered 25 percent of the vote. And every year it’s a smaller investor who calls for Ford to scrap the B-shares that allow the Ford family to retain control and replace them with a one share, one vote structure.

These are the nuts and bolts of shareholder activism. Sure, the wackier ideas waste a bit of time. But democracy, even of the shareholder variety, can be a messy affair.