I’ve written about activism before, but a recent blog by Bloomberg Business caught my attention and spurred me to write again.
Though probably not a surprise to anyone, activism is on the rise, at least according to a survey conducted by law firm Gibson Dunn. Halfway through 2015, there were nearly as many activist campaigns afoot than for all of 2014. Further, the number of funds engaging in activist activities was higher for the first six month of 2015 than for the full year last year … 42 versus 35, respectively. According to the study, the most common reason for activist involvement so far this year has been board representation, followed by M&A, with return of capital a distant third. The New York Times recently noted that activist hedge funds now manage more than $129 billion in assets, compared with $29 billion just 10 years ago.
What does all of this activity mean? Is activism good for companies? Does it bring about positive change? A recent Wall Street Journal article asked the question: “Are Activist Investors Helping or Undermining American Companies?” After a comprehensive look at how activism has impacted large U.S. companies (greater than $5 billion in market cap), the resounding answer was maybe. According to the Journal, “Activism often improves a company’s operational results—and nearly as often doesn’t.” So, what’s the point?
As Wendell Willkie, II, visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and of counsel at Steptoe, wrote for Fortune, activism has gone overboard, stating, “In their quest for quick returns, activists make the mistake of forgetting that it takes time and patience to position any company for success.”
A survey conducted by the National Association of Corporate Directors (NACD) reported in Accounting Today, showed that more than 20 percent of corporate board directors said their boards have been approached by activist investors during the past year. However, 46 percent of those polled do not have a plan in place for responding to activist challenges.
What should companies do when faced with activism? Or perhaps the better question is what should companies do before being faced with activism? Warren Buffet believes that “The best way to keep activists away is to perform reasonably well in your business and also to communicate well with your shareholders,” as noted during a speech at Fortune’s Most Powerful Women Summit in Washington.
Willkie says companies should plan for the emergence of an activist by taking proactive steps to increase shareholder value including share repurchases and cost reductions. But what if you can’t head them off at the pass? The Wall Street Journal recommends the growing popular belief that companies should not shun an activist or completely agree to all demands. The NACD survey pointed out that most frequently, boards have expanded compensation explanations in their proxy statements, revised executive compensation plans or implemented (or changed) their dividend and/or stock buyback policies in response to shareholder demands.
In my experience, when an activist comes knocking, most CEOs take it personally and dig their heels in to mount a defense. While that may be the proper response in certain cases, there is no one-size-fits-all solution. Know your shareholder base, treat each investor with respect (activist or not) and carefully evaluate any proposals that are sent to the board to ensure that whatever route you take will ultimately result in a win for the company’s shareholders.
— Laurie Berman, firstname.lastname@example.org