Share Ownership in Australia: The Emergence of New Tensions?

Article excerpt

Changes in the extent of share ownership in Australia over the last decade have been striking. The number of investors in existing companies rose through the 1990s, and millions of new investors also entered the market through full and partial privatizations, especially those of Telstra and the Commonwealth Bank, and through demutualizations like those of the AMP and the NRMA. Rising from a figure of some 14 percent in 1991, a slight majority of Australian adults are now share owners. Under this neoliberal shift (cf. Dean and Hindess, 1998; Dean, 1999), the interaction between companies and their increasingly numerous small shareholders is gaining sociopolitical salience (e.g. Ethical Investment Association, 2001; Rose, 2001; Shareholders' Project, 2001a, 2001b, 2001c). But the interaction is shrouded in uncertainty. Events at Coles Myer in March 2002 show this. The company's announcement that it was to phase out its shareholder discount cards made headlines around the country. Since their introduction in the early 1990s, these cards had induced a ten-fold increase in the number of Coles Myer's shareholders, with the overwhelming majority owning only small parcels of shares. And now, neither the company nor financial and social analysts knew quite how these new owners would react to the loss of what had quickly become a customary privilege.

Share ownership itself, let alone the interaction between investors and their companies, has been little studied in sociology. This article is a step toward filling that gap. We present longitudinal studies of two aspects of private share ownership: first, a study of shareholders' sociopolitical characteristics that might be expected to inform their expectations of their companies. Second, we examine corporate responsiveness to changes in the composition of their ownership. After showing the trend in share ownership through figures reported by the Australian Stock Exchange (ASX, 2000, 2001), we note first that both the Australian Labor Party (ALP) and the Coalition support private investment, and then that claims that shareholders demand a 'triple bottom line' of financial, social and environmental returns are becoming increasingly common (e.g. Elkington, 1998; Shareholders' Project, 2001a). (1) On that basis, we take 'party identification', 'environmentalism' and 'social concern' as attitudinal variables for the two phases of our analysis.

In the first phase, we compare responses to questions on share ownership in the 1995/96 International Social Science Survey (ISSS; Kelley et al., 1998) with data from the 2001 Australian Electoral Study (AES; Bean et al., 2002), carried out in conjunction with the 2001 federal election. (2) Adding demographic data, we use regression analysis to develop a three-stage predictive model, where we examine the demographic and attitudinal variables separately and then jointly. This gives us a guide to what investors might expect of their companies. We then shift the focus from shareholders to corporations. Here we compare Coles Myer's annual reports with those of another large Australian company, Amcor, which are models of the rhetorical impression management definitive of the genre (White and Hanson, 2000, 2002a). Using content-analysis to track shifts in the two companies' attention to environmental, social and political issues, we find a relatively weak presentation of responsiveness in Coles Myer's reports that matches its uncertainty over how its shareholders would react to the phasing out of their discount cards. We conclude that Coles Myer has contributed to the waking of a sleeping giant by first taking its owners for granted and then letting them down, and that this failure in interaction is a harbinger of continuing sociopolitical disputes. Our first step is to show the scale of changes in share ownership in Australia.

Share ownership in Australia

In a series of surveys on share ownership in Australia the Australian Stock Exchange (ASX) found that in the single decade of the 1990s the number of direct and indirect share owners more than tripled, to a combined level of around 52 percent (ASX, 2000, 2001). …