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The Activist Investor: A True Ally of Corporate Governance

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Activist investors: Publicly listed companies fear them. Corporate governance pundits generally do not trust them. Retail investors quietly applaud them, and most laymen do not understand them. However, it is clear that in today’s complex corporate world, we need them. Activist investors may be the only players in the game that can effectively “Occupy Wall Street”.

We have entered the twilight zone when it comes to corporate governance. The zone where many Boards bury their head in the sand when it comes to breaches in compliance, as in the case of HSBC and the tax evasion scandal of February 2015. Certain Boards passively bow to the dictates of executive management, throwing all accountability on the corporation-as-entity, with no individual responsibility. All other stakeholders, from shareholders, to suppliers, to workers, to humble taxpayers are left to peck at what is left of net worth after the share price dives, and are left to fork out money for regulation and reconstruction.

To be fair, in the recent past activist investors have been noted for short-termism. Short-termism is the process by which an activist fund may coerce target companies to conduct strategies that may yield high profit in the short term, but that may be detrimental to company performance in the long term. For instance, it is common practice for activist funds to demand significant reduction in Research & Development activities; yet, R&D is needed for long term competitive and innovative advancement. Most activist fund activity increases the stock market price of the target company. However, best practice professionals argue that the temporary increase in share price is misleading and cannot offset long term business hazards that occur if the activist investors short the target company’s stock. There is truth in this belief. However, we need to take a closer look at activist investors’ strengths when it comes to financial strategies and business growth.

Bernard S. Sharfman in his Columbia Business Law Review article Activist Hedge Funds in a World of Board Independence: Creators or Destroyers of Long-Term Value does an excellent job of delineating the benefits of shareholder activism and Board governance. The author’s main premise calls for an integral approach to investor activism in Board decision making, as opposed to the present “Authority Model” that exists within Board and executive management’s line of communication, a model that excludes shareholder participation and creates a passive acceptance of managerial decision making as ultimate, without proper analysis and foresight. Poignant highlights from Sharfman are as follows:

  • Shareholder activism can be defined as “any action(s) of any shareholder or shareholder group with the purpose of bringing about change within a public company without trying to gain control.” – In its essence, shareholder activism is more inclined to correct core business discrepancies before the market reads any sign of trouble via share volatility.
  • Value investors such as Warren Buffett are lauded in the industry while activist investors such as Carl Icahn and the Vanguard Group are called out for short-termism. However, Sharfman clarifies that while value investors cannot practice activism based on their own long holding period strategies. In reverse, activist funds impede their own shareholder wealth creation if they have long holding periods, since their strategies are based on intervention.
  • Since most activist fund strategies are based on intervention, activist investors can be viewed as financial engineers that can offer very timely and effective financial restructuring advice to a Board. Such advice may not come from executive management caught in day to day operations and so may not have an adequate view of the broad financial picture. It sounds humbling, but in reality it may work to a company’s advantage to have a short-termism in financial engineering from an actual shareholder.
  • The threat of a proxy contest may be the most important weapon the activist hedge fund has in its arsenal to effect change. While activist investors have become notorious for proxy contests, the authors found that only 13% of hedge fund activism resulted in proxy contests. Thus, the simple idea of a proxy contest may be enough to spark strategy change at the Board level.
  • The Board of Directors must have a strong outside director composition to allow investor activism to work in a positive fashion for long term company performance. A non-executive director stronghold on a public board gives the Board more authority to listen to both the dictates of activist investors and executive management, and so allows broader decision making for company strategic direction.

Consider activist investors as the best devil’s advocate. A company can hire an independent consultant to assist the Board in setting strategic direction; however, an activist investor literally has more to lose with company profit at stake! And these investors are the savviest investors in the industry – as bullying as their tactics may seem, they are top financial engineers that can truly structure profitable companies. Many companies are embracing the activist investor style of C-Suite leadership. The Vanguard CEO William McNabb has advocated forming a “Shareholder-Director Exchange” to have clearer communication between activist investors and Boards, to facilitate such financial engineering and prevent negative market reads in a proactive manner. Former Texaco CEO and Director of Abbot Laboratories Glenn Tilton further encourages public boards to be one step ahead of shareholder activists in terms of strategy and risk management expertise. Prevention is better than cure.

Carl Icahn has defended his position as activist investor, saying “I look at companies as businesses, while Wall Street analysts look for quarterly earnings performance. I buy assets and potential productivity. Wall Street buys earnings, so they miss a lot of things that I see in certain situations.” Activist investors challenge companies’ core competencies. However, they challenge Wall Street’s investing myopia as well. Devil’s advocates they may be, yet the activist investor may well be the true change catalyst for practical, no frills, efficient corporate governance.

Bebchuk et al. 2015. “The Long Term Effects of Hedge Fund Activism.” Harvard Business Law Discussion Paper. Columbia Law Review. Pages 1064 – 1154.

Harvard Business Review. 2015. “Your Board Should Think Like Activists.”

Sharfman, Bernard S. 2015 “Activist Hedge Funds in a World of Board Independence: Creators or Destroyers of Long-Term Value.” Columbia Business Law Review. Pages 103-139.

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