Researching Shareholders

What is a shareholder?

Shareholders are investors that buy partial ownership stakes in a company. These ownership stakes are called shares. Companies sell shares to raise money for their operations. If the company is successful, shareholders make a profit on their investment over time. If the company performs poorly, shareholders may see the value of their investment decrease. Shareholders can be people, companies, investment firms (of which there are many types) and even governments.

What do companies get from shareholders?

In a word: money. When a company sells shares, either directly to investors or through a stock exchange, it uses the money to fund new projects, pay off debts, or cover operating expenses like employee salaries. Sometimes shareholders provide more than just money, though. A shareholder known for being environmentally and socially responsible may help improve the reputation of a company in a controversial industry. Other shareholders may offer advice on running the company or hold a seat on its board of directors.

What do shareholders get out of their investments?

Shareholders make money in two basic ways. First, if a company performs well, it distributes a portion of its profits to shareholders in the form of payments called dividends. Second, if the value of a company’s shares increases over time, shareholders can sell them at a profit.

Shareholders also have certain rights. They get to vote on important company decisions — including electing members of the board of directors — at shareholder gatherings called annual or extraordinary general meetings. Shareholders are also entitled to certain information about a company that may not be public, such as a full register of the other shareholders. If a company goes out of business, shareholders can recoup some of their investment, but only after lenders and other debt investors have done so.

What makes a shareholder a pressure point for advocacy?

The following factors make a shareholder a pressure point for advocacy (the more the better):
  • If it has a significant shareholding stake or it is relatively high in the list of shareholders, which gives it influence over the company.
  • If it makes environmental and social commitments or is a member of voluntary frameworks like the U.N. Principles for Responsible Investment.
  • If it has an independent accountability mechanism where people can file complaints.
  • If it is based in a member country of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, meaning people can file a complaint with a National Contact Point.
  • If it has a reputation to protect or is a well-known brand.
  • If, like many pension funds, it invests the retirement savings of workers or is affiliated with values-based organizations like labor unions or religious groups.
For more information on assessing pressure points, see:

How do you identify a company’s shareholders?

Generally speaking, it is easier to identify the shareholders of publicly traded companies (ones that are listed on stock exchanges) than privately held companies. But even with publicly traded companies, identifying all of a company’s shareholders can be difficult, as many will remain hidden. Remember, the goal is to identify strong pressure points for advocacy, so don’t worry too much if you don’t identify every single shareholder.

The following types of sources can help identify a company’s shareholders. Note that one tool alone is unlikely to be sufficient. We recommend using a combination of these tools.

  • Inclusive Development International’s Follow the Money Data Tools, which are free to access:
  • Our Shareholder Tracker searches the investment holdings of the top 80 members of the U.N. Principles for Responsible Investment, along with some additional key pension funds that tend to be strong pressure points.
  • Our Development Bank Investment Tracker searches the investments of 17 development finance institutions, which make strong pressure points. Note that not all of these investments are in shares; be sure to verify the type of investment being described.
  • Our ESG Database (coming here soon!) will track the shareholdings of so-called Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) funds, which claim to invest only in responsible companies.
  • Market websites: Free websites like Yahoo Finance, Market Screener, FT Markets and Reuters aggregate data from public sources to create lists of top shareholders. Generally, these websites show a company’s largest shareholders, so they should not be considered complete. The data collected by each website may be different, so it may be necessary to combine or aggregate information.
  • Other sources: Use Google or other search engines to search for references to shareholders in sources such as news articles, industry analyst reports or social media sites like LinkedIn. Searching for the company name along with key terms such as “private equity,” “venture capital,” “pension fund,” “family office,” “sovereign wealth fund,” or simply “shareholders” can yield results. Note, though, that not all online sources are reliable. If possible, you should seek to corroborate information found online from unofficial sources with official company disclosures to stock exchanges and regulatory bodies (see next bullet point).
  • Company regulatory disclosures: If a company is publicly traded, it must regularly disclose important information about itself to the public, sometimes including the identity of shareholders. Filings such as annual reports, offering prospectuses, and Statements of Changes in Beneficial Ownership can shed light on a company’s shareholders. These documents can be found on the websites of the relevant stock exchange, the relevant financial regulatory body, or the company itself.
  • Investor disclosures: Many investors publicly disclose the shares they hold. In some countries, investors are required to disclose their holdings to the national financial regulatory body. The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, for instance, requires investors over a certain size to disclose their holdings on a quarterly basis on 13F forms, which can be found on the commission’s website. Some investors also disclose their holdings on their own websites, including in press releases or regular holdings updates. Note that our Shareholder Tracker collects information from many of these sources.
  • Corporate registries: Many countries require companies to register with a central government agency. (In the United States, companies register with state governments.) These agencies often maintain websites where company registration documents can be accessed by the public, sometimes for a fee. Companies may disclose the identities of their shareholders on such corporate registries. And in some cases, investors may disclose their shareholdings in companies. OpenCorporates is a great starting point for these searches, because it aggregates data from many corporate registries from around the world. However, it does not have access to data in every country, so not all companies will be listed there.
  • Public records requests: Many countries have freedom of information laws that allow you to request certain government documents. If you suspect that a government entity holds shares in a company, either directly or indirectly, you can file a records request with that entity. For instance, it is becoming increasingly common in the United States for pension funds connected with universities and state governments to invest in private equity funds that then buy shares in companies operating internationally. Submitting a public records request can reveal which companies these pension funds have invested in — and can potentially reveal other investors in the company of interest.
  • Buy a share: In many countries, companies are required to record all of their shareholders on a shareholder register. If you buy a share in that company, you may be entitled to request this register. In addition, in some countries, companies send shareholder registers to shareholders in advance of annual general meetings. Depending on where you’re based, online brokerage accounts such as E*TRADE and TD Ameritrade allow you to buy shares online. Buying a share also gives you access to other information that may not be publicly available. It also entitles you to attend annual and extraordinary general meetings, which can be useful in advocacy.

For a step-by-step example of how Inclusive Development International uncovered the shareholders behind one harmful project, see:

USEFUL RESOURCES

Shareholder Tracker

Yahoo Finance companies search

Market Screener companies search

FT Markets companies search

Reuters companies search

U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission search page

OpenCorporates company registration aggregator

Overview of national freedom of information laws

E*TRADE brokerage service

TD Ameritrade brokerage service