Say you just bought stock in Disney. As a part owner of the company does this mean you and the family can hit Disneyland for free this summer? Do Anheuser-Busch shareholders get a case of beer each quarter? These hypothetical perks are highly unlikely, but they do raise a good question: What rights and privileges do shareholders have? While they may not be entitled to free rides and beer, many investors are unaware of their rights as shareowners. Here are several privileges that come with being a shareholder.

Levels of Ownership Rights

The first thing to understand: Every company has a hierarchical structure of rights for the three main classes of securities that companies issue: bonds, preferred stock and common stock. In other words, there’s a pecking order of rights.

The priority of each class of security is best understood by looking at what happens when a company goes bankrupt. You may think that as a common shareholder, with an ownership stake in the company, you’d be first in line for getting a portion of the company’s assets if it went bankrupt. In reality, common shareholders are at the very bottom of the corporate food chain when a company liquidates. You are the corporate equivalent of a hyena that eats only after the lions have eaten. During insolvency proceedings, the creditors get first dibs on the company’s assets to settle their outstanding debts. The bondholders are the next priority, followed by preferred shareholders and finally the common shareholders. This hierarchy is determined by what’s called “absolute priority,” the rules used in bankruptcies to decide which portion of payment will be received by which participants. 

In addition to the rules of absolute priority, there are other rights that differ for each class of security. For example, usually a company’s charter states that only the common stockholders have voting privileges and that preferred stockholders must receive dividends before common stockholders. The rights of bondholders are determined differently because a bond agreement, or indenture, represents a contract between the issuer and the bondholder. The payments and privileges the bondholder receives are governed by the indenture (tenets of the contract).

Risks and Rewards

Common shareholders are still part owners of the business, and if the business is able to turn a profit, then common shareholders gain. The liquidation preference we described above makes logical sense. Shareholders take on a greater risk as they receive next to nothing if the firm goes bankrupt, but they also have a greater reward potential through exposure to share price appreciation when the company succeeds. In contrast, preferred stocks generally experience less price fluctuation.

Common Shareholders’ Six Main Rights

  1. Voting Power on Major Issues. This includes electing directors and proposals for fundamental changes affecting the company such as mergers or liquidation. Voting takes place at the company’s annual meeting. If you can’t attend, you can do so by proxy and mail in your vote. 
  2. Ownership in a Portion of the Company. Previously we discussed the event of a corporate liquidation where bondholders and preferred shareholders are paid first. However, when business thrives, common shareholders own a piece of something that has value. Said another way, they have a claim on a portion of the assets owned by the company. As these assets generate profits, and as the profits are reinvested in additional assets, shareholders see a return in the form of increased share value as stock prices rise.
  3. The Right to Transfer Ownership. Right to transfer ownership means shareholders are allowed to trade their stock on an exchange. The right to transfer ownership might seem mundane, but the liquidity provided by stock exchanges is extremely important. Liquidity – the degree to which an asset or security can be quickly bought or sold in the market without affecting the asset’s price – is one of the key factors that differentiates stocks from an investment like real estate. If you own property, it can take months to convert your investment into cash. Because stocks are so liquid, you can move your money into other places almost instantaneously.
  4. An Entitlement to Dividends. Along with a claim on assets, you also receive a claim on any profits a company pays out in the form of a dividend. Management of a company essentially has two options with profits: They can be reinvested back into the firm (thus, one hopes, increasing the company’s overall value) or paid out in the form of a dividend. You don’t have a say in what percentage of profits should be paid out – this is decided by the board of directors. However, whenever dividends are declared, common shareholders are entitled to receive their share. 
  5. Opportunity to Inspect Corporate Books and Records. This opportunity is provided through a company’s public filings, including its annual report. Nowadays, this isn’t such a big deal, as public companies are required to make their financials public. It can be more important for private companies.
  6. The Right to Sue for Wrongful Acts. Suing a company usually takes the form of a shareholder class-action lawsuit. A good example of this type of suit occurred in the wake of the accounting scandal that rocked WorldCom in 2002, after it was discovered that the company had grossly overstated earnings, giving shareholders and investors an erroneous view of its financial health. The telecom giant faced a firestorm of shareholder class-action suits as a result. More recently, Wells Fargo & Co. has been hit with shareholder class-action suits for misleading investors about its financial performance and fraudulent sales practices.

Shareholder rights vary from state to state and country to country, so it is important to check with your local authorities and public watchdog groups. In North America, however, shareholders rights tend to be standard for the purchase of any common stock. These rights are crucial for the protection of shareholders against poor management.

Corporate Governance

In addition to the six basic rights of common shareholders, it is vital that you thoroughly research the corporate governance policies of a company. These policies are often crucial in determining how a company treats and informs its shareholders.

Shareholder Rights Plan

Despite its name, this plan differs from the standard shareholder rights outlined by the government (the six rights mentioned above). Shareholder rights plans outline the rights of a shareholder in a specific corporation. (It’s usually accessible in the investor relations section of its corporate website or by contacting the company directly.)

In most cases, these plans are designed to give the company’s board of directors the power to protect shareholder interests in the event of an attempt by an outsider to acquire the company. To prevent a hostile takeover, the company will have a shareholder rights plan that can be exercised when another person or firm acquires a certain percentage of outstanding shares.

The way a shareholder rights plan may work can be best demonstrated with an example: Let’s say Cory’s Tequila Co. notices that its competitor, Joe’s Tequila Co., has purchased more than 20% of its common shares. A shareholder rights plan might then stipulate that existing common shareholders have the opportunity to buy shares at a discount to the current market price (usually a 10% to 20% discount). This maneuver is sometimes referred to as a “flip-in poison pill.” By being able to purchase more shares at a lower price, investors get instant profits and, more important, they dilute the shares held by the competitor, whose takeover attempt is now more difficult and expensive. There are numerous techniques like this that companies can put into place to defend themselves against a hostile takeover.

Sometimes There Are Little Extras

Are you still looking for other perks? Although free beer may be a little far-fetched, there are companies that offer shareholders little extras. Carnival Corp. shareholders, for instance, get discounts when traveling on Carnival Cruises. Other companies have been known to give their shareholders small tokens of their appreciation along with their annual reports. For example, AT&T has given shareholders a 10-minute phone card with its annual report, McDonald’s included a voucher for free fries and Starbucks ponied up a free cup of coffee.

The Bottom Line

Buying a stock means ownership in a company, and ownership gives you certain rights. While common shareholders might be at the bottom of the ladder when it comes to liquidation, this is balanced by other opportunities like share-price appreciation. Knowing your rights is an essential part of being an informed investor. Although the Securities and Exchange Commission and other regulatory bodies attempt to enforce a certain degree of shareholder rights, well-informed investors who fully understand their rights are less susceptible to risks.

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