• Reuters

California, New York Pension Funds Vote against Toyota Chairman

REUTERS/Issei Kato
Toyota Motor Corp President Akio Toyoda speaks during their joint news conference with SoftBank Group Corp Chairman and CEO Masayoshi Son (not pictured) in Tokyo, Japan October 4, 2018.

TOKYO (Reuters) – Two of the largest U.S. public pension funds have voted against the re-election of Toyota Motor Corp 7203.T Chairman Akio Toyoda, shareholder voting records showed, sharpening the focus on the automaker’s annual meeting later this month.

The California Public Employees’ Retirement System (CalPERS) and the Office of the New York City Comptroller also voted for a resolution urging Toyota to improve disclosure of its lobbying on climate change, according to postings by the funds.

Two leading proxy advisory firms last week raised issues about governance at the automaker. One, Glass Lewis, recommended shareholders vote against re-electing Toyoda, citing what it said was his responsibility for the lack of a sufficiently independent board.

The disclosures by the public pension funds, both of which have records for activism, underscore the pressure Toyota faces at its annual meeting on June 14 over board oversight and its strategy of pushing electric vehicle (EV) alternatives, including hybrids like the Prius.

Toyota said on Friday it actively engages in dialog with shareholders and investors, and considers an optimal board structure while taking opinions and advice.

The world’s largest automaker has been a target for climate activists and green investors in recent years who say it has been too slow to roll out battery-electric vehicles.

Japanese companies have faced increasing scrutiny from shareholders on governance. However, such shareholder proposals have struggled to gain traction, given that domestic investors are usually more willing to back boards and because of the cross-shareholdings by affiliated companies.

Toyota has previously said its board meets governance standards set by the Tokyo Stock Exchange for independent oversight and said it would act with “objectivity, independence and an ability to conduct appropriate supervision.”

It said Toyoda, the grandson of the company’s founder, had been re-nominated to the board because he would push Toyota’s transformation from auto manufacturing to a company that also provides a range of “mobility” services.

Toyota’s board has recommended shareholders vote against the climate lobbying disclosure proposal. It said Toyota was committed to carbon neutrality by 2050 but the company needed the flexibility to make quick adjustments, including in how it makes disclosures.

CalPERS, the largest U.S. public pension fund with some $450 billion in assets under management, said it voted against Toyoda and other non-independent directors due to board independence levels’ being below 50%.

CalPERS said it backed the lobbying resolution because “shareholders would benefit from improved disclosure of lobbying activities.” The votes were consistent with its governance and sustainability principles, it said.

CalPERS said it had voted about 20 million shares on the Toyota resolutions, less than 0.2% of the stock on issue, but it is an influential voice among global investors.

Toyota said it has been in talks with CalPERS and heard its opinion that outside directors should account for more than half of the company’s board.

Toyota shares closed up 3.4%, outperforming the 1.2% gain in the Nikkei index .N225.

The company’s shares have returned 13% including dividends this year, underperforming the broader index, which returned 21%.

BOARD INDEPENDENCE

New York City Comptroller Brad Lander said in a statement the Toyota board was not adequately independent.

“A board that is genuinely independent of management and appropriately focused on maximizing long-term shareholder value, can strengthen and affirm Toyota’s commitment to electric vehicles,” he said.

The New York comptroller’s office oversees a pension system with $243 billion in assets under management. Those funds held 6.7 million shares in Toyota Group companies, including Toyota Boshoku 3116.T and Toyota Tsusho 8015.T as of end March. It was not clear what share of that was Toyota Motor Corp.

The New York pension system has also urged both Ford F.N and General Motors GM.N to move rapidly toward electrification and to disclose more about their lobbying on vehicle standards.

Toyota has said its approach to rolling out a range of alternatives to gasoline-engine cars – including hybrids, plug-in hybrids, hydrogen and electric vehicles – is better overall for reducing carbon emissions and more practical than switching to EVs alone.

In April, the automaker sold 8,584 EVs worldwide, including its Lexus brand, accounting for more than 1% of its global sales in a single month for the first time. It seeks to sell 1.5 million EVs annually by 2026.