MSCI Starts Long War With News Corp.

 |  Includes: MSCI, NWS
by: Dana Blankenhorn

MSCI Inc.'s (MSCI) ISS corporate governance unit has sent out a note urging that big shareholders fire Rupert Murdoch, his kids, and his cronies from News Corp. (NWS).

In doing so it joined a move by Glass Lewis and two other proxy advisers who also oppose the Murdochs, in large part over the News of the World scandal.

It's the first big proxy move by ISS since it named MSCI corporate secretary Gary Retilny as its head last month. When he took over he bragged about close relationships with his own board and urged “transparency and dialogue” to address corporate governance issues.

How seriously should investors take the call?

It's unlikely the Murdochs face a serious coup attempt. As Stephen Choi of NYU wrote in a recent paper, mutual funds don't usually take the advice of groups like ISS as gospel.

As Broc Romanek wrote in a recent blog post on Choi's study ISS is not without sin itself. The study noted the company often fails to explain why it wants directors ousted, which is just as much a “trust us” move as what management may claim in opposing ISS.

And if the goal is increasing shareholder value, shareholders have been much better served the last five years holding NWS stock than that of MSCI.

But while ISS has not succeeded in ousting many directors, it does have a good record at picking losers. Long-term target Hewlett-Packard (NYSE:HPQ) has hardly covered itself in glory. And the company has been criticized sometimes for being too timid in attacking bad management, as with Yahoo.

What drives ISS crazy is not bad management per se, but overpaid and opaque management. ISS calls can be seen as signs of trouble ahead, as with its 2010 call against absolving UBS' board for past misdeeds,

It's not a threat, in other words, but a long-term sell signal.

Disclosure: I have no positions in any stocks mentioned, and no plans to initiate any positions within the next 72 hours.