Volkswagen faces shareholder wrath at AGM

20th June 2016, Comments 0 comments

Embattled German auto giant Volkswagen will face the wrath of its shareholders at its annual meeting on Wednesday as it struggles to steer itself out of an unprecedented engine-rigging scandal.

Nine months after the "Dieselgate" affair, when it emerged VW had installed emissions-cheating software into 11 million diesel engines worldwide, the former paragon of German industry is still nowhere near drawing a line under its deepest ever crisis.

The costs of the affair are still incalculable and it is not yet known whether VW's own internal investigation will pinpoint the major culprits behind the scam.

But small shareholders are likely to use the upcoming AGM in the northern city of Hanover to let off steam at the way management has handled the affair.

On the eve of the meeting, prosecutors provided more fodder to the irate shareholders, as they said they were investigating former VW boss Martin Winterkorn for having allegedly manipulated the market by holding back information about emissions cheating at the automobile giant.

A second unnamed former member of the board was also under probe, but investigators said the suspect was not the group's current chairman Hans Dieter Poetsch, who was financial director when the scandal erupted in September.

Listed companies are required to disclose information that could affect market prices immediately.

But VW complied with its disclosure obligation only on September 22, 2015, prosecutors said, four days after US regulators went public that they were charging the company for emissions cheating.

Shareholders have accused management of dragging their feet in informing them about the scam, which led to a reeling 40-percent drop in the company's share price last autumn.

The stock has since recovered somewhat, but is still 26 percent below the levels before the scandal broke last September.

VW, which owns 12 brands ranging from Volkswagen and Porsche to Audi and SEAT, is facing regulatory fines, as well as a myriad of lawsuits from shareholders and car owners.

Ulrich Hocker, head of the DSW association of small shareholders, told AFP he has been attending the company's AGMs for the past 20 years and he expects this one to be "very different, very contentious".

"There will be very little discussion about the group's operating performance. It will focus almost solely on the diesel engine scandal and claims for compensation," he predicted.

Nevertheless, the power those shareholders wield remains limited.

They hold just 11 percent of the voting rights in VW, while the founding families Porsche and Piech hold 52 percent, the regional state of Lower Saxony 20 percent and the Emirate of Qatar 17 percent.

- List of grievances -

Shareholder meetings in Germany tend to be long and drawn out as mom-and-pop investors stand up to have their say, but this one could stretch late into the evening.

A number of shareholder lobby groups, such as DSW and SdK, are demanding special enquiries into who should be held responsible for the affair, arguing that an investigation being carried out by US consultants Jones Day is not sufficiently independent.

Shareholders can also voice their discontent by withholding their formal "approval" of management actions over the course of the past year, normally only a formality at German AGMs.

But any such vote in the case will remain symbolic as VW's biggest shareholders are likely to give their support to the management.

The issue of the management board's pay is also likely to rile many, since the shareholders are seeing their annual dividend slashed to just 0.17 euro per share from 4.86 euros a year earlier, while board members are likely to still pocket generous bonuses.

The dividend proposal "will come under heavy fire," said Metzler bank analyst Juergen Pieper, while DSW's Ulrich Hocker slammed it as "ridiculous".

VW was compelled to set aside 16 billion euros in provisions to cover the costs of the affair so far, pushing it into a net loss of 1.6 billion euros, the carmaker's first loss in 20 years.

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© 2016 AFP

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