While activist activity was down a bit in the first quarter of 2020, compared with last year’s first quarter, according to Activist Insight’s “Shareholder Activism in Q1 2020” report, there were still plenty of shareholder demands made of public companies.
By sector, industrials was the largest group impacted by activism, followed by financial services and consumer cyclicals. Large cap companies were the most affected, with U.S.-based companies making up 70 percent of those subjected to activist demands.
Lazard’s 1Q 2020 activism review shows that the number of targeted companies in the first quarter of this year was roughly the same as in last year’s first quarter. On the other hand, Reuters, reporting on the Lazard review, noted that while 2020 began on a strong note, with activist firms pushing for change at 42 companies in the first two months of the year, new activist campaign launches fell by 38 percent in March, when the global economic shut-down began in earnest. Further, Reuters reported that new activist campaigns were, “launched at the slowest pace since 2013 and corporate agitators put the smallest amount of money to work since 2016.”
Even so, there are several high-profile campaigns looming. One getting some buzz, according to Bloomberg, is Standard General’s proxy fight with Tenga, Inc., a $2 billion media company. This contest will be the first-ever all-digital board fight. With Standard General seeking four board seats, Tenga’s virtual annual meeting on April 30 will be a test for activism, both digitally and in the world of COVID-19.
While virtual annual meetings are nothing new, counting contested votes remotely is. Bloomberg noted that Broadridge Financial Solutions Inc., which prepares, ships and counts most of the proxies for U.S. companies, doesn’t currently have a specific platform to allow for remote voting in a contested situation. According to a Broadridge representative, the company, “lacks the technology” to count virtual votes when there are competing director slates.
Bob Marese, president at MacKenzie Partners Inc., a proxy solicitation firm, said that it could, “be more difficult for proxy solicitors get investors to switch their votes in the lead up to the meeting because many are not in the office, nor are the bankers or brokers they may need to change their vote.” Other potential pitfalls include the inability for shareholders to ask tough questions in a virtual meeting setting. According to the Financial Times (as reported by IR Magazine), investors have become concerned that virtual annual meetings could “shift the balance of power” away from shareholders, as companies have greater control over managing Q&A sessions virtually.
What does the future hold for activist activity? Since many companies have curtailed stock buyback activity in light of the COVID-19 crisis, Lazard believes that activists pressing for return of capital through buybacks will not be a focus.
Jim Rossman, the head of shareholder advisory at Lazard, believes that, “lower M&A activity and companies focused on conserving cash will mean that activists are likely to increase their focus on operational performance and how management teams react to the crisis as the basis for new campaigns.” He went on to say that activists will likely want to avoid looking overly aggressive during the pandemic as to not offend other investors, “whose help they might need in pushing their case later.”
Chris Young, managing director and global head of contested situations at Jefferies, also believes overly aggressive activists could face media backlash for seemingly profiting off the pandemic. Young further believes that, “having lived through the prior period of sky-high market volatility, we expect there will be a decline in activist campaigns in the near-term. Once volatility subsides and corporate valuations reset at new normal levels, however, we expect activists could have enough time to initiate new campaigns, including submitting director nominations for proxy season 2021.”
While COVID-19 may be changing the activist landscape in the near-term, the same best practices apply to help make sure your company is ready in the event of aggressive shareholder demands. Analyze your shareholder base and stay in-the-know about changes in ownership, especially during a period of extreme volatility when activists can build positions more cheaply; be open to proactively engaging with investors, even while you hunker down to focus on the impact of the current health crisis and economic downturn; and, think about adopting a “poison pill,” or at least having one at the ready.
Laurie Berman, firstname.lastname@example.org