As she has done every year since the financial crisis, Judy Koenick traveled from her home in Maryland to Bank of America’s annual shareholder meeting in Charlotte, N.C., last week, a drive of more than six hours.
Using a wheelchair to help her get around the meeting room, Ms. Koenick told the bank’s chief executive, Brian T. Moynihan, “You got a bonus and the stock price is terrible.” But some of her ire was saved for what she said was the lack of handicapped parking at her local bank branch.
Normally, the chieftains of Wall Street spend their days talking with the heads of global corporations, government leaders and wealthy investors. But once a year, they listen to the grievances of even their smallest shareholders.
Since the financial crisis, the annual meetings of Wall Street banks have become focal points for shareholder anger about foreclosures, taxpayer bailouts and income inequality. While gadflies and social activists have flocked to shareholder meetings across corporate America for decades, banks’ annual meetings — with shouting matches and even a rabbi singing about the environment — can be quite contentious.
The price of admission is ownership of a single share, which make attending annual meetings of some banks relatively cheap. A Bank of America share is worth about $15. A share of Morgan Stanley, which holds its annual meeting on Tuesday in Purchase, N.Y., is about $30.
Banking executives grumble privately about how a small number of shareholders often spoil these gatherings, airing personal complaints and rudely talking over executives and board members.
Such behavior, the bankers say, discourages a serious discussion about the issues facing the company. Many large investors like mutual funds and pensions do not attend the meetings and cast their votes remotely.
Small shareholders say they are there to ask tough questions. And some banks go to great lengths trying to accommodate them.
Richard Davet has been coming to the Bank of America meeting nearly every year since 2000. The reception he receives can vary. In 2007, he was barred briefly from the meeting because he was deemed a security threat, he said. But this year, the semiretired jewelry manufacturer from Cleveland was granted the kind of access some Wall Street analysts would envy.
The day before the annual meeting, Mr. Davet, 69, sat down privately with Bank of America’s global general counsel, Gary G. Lynch, and another top bank lawyer at the Ritz Carlton in Charlotte, where Bank of America is based.
Mr. Davet said Mr. Lynch, who directs the bank’s legal department, discussed the $4 billion accounting error that last month forced Bank of America to scuttle its planned dividend increase. When the meeting took place last Tuesday, bank executives had not yet spoken publicly about the error.
“It is not something they can get away from,” Mr. Davet said in an interview.
A source at the bank confirmed that meeting occurred.
Other banks appear to some to be running away from their shareholders.
On Friday, Goldman Sachs, based in New York, will hold its annual meeting in Texas, after meeting last year in Salt Lake City. Shareholders of Citigroup, also in New York, met in St. Louis this year, while Wells Fargo shareholders convened in San Antonio, roughly 1,700 miles from its San Francisco headquarters.
Some of the banks say they are holding their meetings in cities where they have operations and have large pockets of shareholders.
But critics say these far-flung meetings are the banking world’s version of destination weddings — meant to keep the attendance low because they often require shareholders to travel long distances to attend.
“These are destination annual meetings,” said Michael Mayo, a banking industry analyst with CLSA. “It’s in direct response to the protests.”
Missing from annual meetings on Wall Street this year is Evelyn Y. Davis, who had a history of haranguing corporate executives. At Goldman’s annual meeting in 2000, Ms. Davis yelled, “Which idiot in this company is responsible for hiring a temp to work on mergers?”
Ms. Davis was not able to attend this year’s Bank of America meeting, though she submitted a proposal for other shareholders to consider.
Both Mr. Davet and Ms. Koenick have been involved in litigation against Bank of America.
Mr. Davet’s case gained notoriety because he challenged the bank’s ability to foreclose on his house in 1996, arguing that it did not actually own the mortgage — an issue that was raised widely by other homeowners during the mortgage crisis.
At the meeting last week, Mr. Davet raised concerns that banks still depended on the government-sponsored entities to guarantee many mortgages — a practice that fueled loose lending practices in the run-up to the financial crisis.
“It’s kind of like running a business, like a house of ill repute,” said Mr. Davet, who hopes to attend JPMorgan Chase’s annual meeting later this month.
Ms. Koenick wears a T-shirt to annual meetings with her name and docket number of her legal case involving Merrill Lynch, which Bank of America acquired in 2009.
She says she has owned shares of Bank of America, or shares of the banks it acquired, since the 1950s.
“The stock is up to $15, well, whoop-de-do, it used to be at $55,” she said in an interview.
At this year’s meeting, the bank said it assigned an employee to help Ms. Koenick, who has trouble walking long distances, get around the meeting space.
During the meeting, Mr. Moynihan, the chief executive, referred to Ms. Koenick by her first name as he attempted to answer some of her many questions; among them: What steps was the bank taking to reduce carbon emissions?
“What type of light bulbs do you use?” she asked the chief executive.
“Sit down and shut up,” yelled another shareholder from the audience. “Don’t attack this fine gentleman.”
Peggy McMahon, of the Bronx, rose from her seat to defend Mr. Moynihan, calling him a credit to the Irish.
She then offered to marry the chief executive, if the stock price increased. Wearing a straw hat adorned with a large yellow flower, Ms. McMahon took a seat next to the Rev. Jesse Jackson near the front of the room.
“I love you, Mr. Moynihan,” she said.
“You and my mother,” said the bank’s chief executive. “I’ve got two now.”
Other shareholders applauded and laughed.
“Brits out of Ireland,” she added.
Bank of America officials said there were fewer people protesting outside the meeting this year than in the past and that there were fewer questions from shareholders about the bank’s mortgage problems.
It is not clear, though, how much work actually gets done at annual meetings.
Votes on executive pay and the hiring of an independent auditor at Bank of America were largely advisory, which means the bank can choose whether it wants to follow the will of its shareholders.
For Ms. Koenick, it was another year of disappointment. Shareholders cast their votes to re-elect all of the bank’s current board members and defeated all shareholder-sponsored resolutions. Ms. Koenick hurried out of the meeting room, pushing her own wheelchair. She said making the drive from Maryland got more difficult each year, but she was not giving up.
“Next year I am going to come back with a few other things,” she said.
© The New York Times 2014