Shareholder voting, once given up for dead as a vestige or ritual of little practical importance, has come roaring back as a key part of American corporate governance. Where once voting was limited to uncontested annual election of directors, it is now common to see short slate proxy contests, board declassification proposals, and “Say on Pay” votes occurring at public companies. The surge in the importance of shareholder voting has caused increased conflict between shareholders and directors, a tension well-illustrated in recent high profile voting fights in takeovers (e.g. Dell) and in the growing role for Say on Pay votes. Yet, despite the obvious importance of shareholder voting, none of the existing corporate law theories coherently justify it.
Posts Tagged ‘Hedge funds’
We published this post last August. Since then there have been several developments that prompt us to revisit it; adding the first three paragraphs below.
First, Delaware Supreme Court Chief Justice Leo E. Strine, Jr. published a brilliant article in the Columbia Law Review, Can We Do Better by Ordinary Investors? A Pragmatic Reaction to the Dueling Ideological Mythologists of Corporate Law in which he points out the serious defects in allowing short-term investors to override carefully considered judgments of the boards of directors of public corporations. Chief Justice Strine rejects the argument of the academic activists and activist hedge funds that shareholders should have the unfettered right to force corporations to maximize shareholder value in the short run. We embrace Chief Justice Strine’s reasoning and conclusions.
Three years ago we petitioned the SEC to modernize the beneficial ownership reporting rules under Section 13(d) of the Securities Exchange Act of 1934 (see our rulemaking petition, our memos of March 7, 2011, April 15, 2011, March 3, 2008 and our article in the Harvard Business Law Review). Since we filed our petition, activist hedge funds have grown more brazen in exploiting the existing reporting rules to the disadvantage of ordinary investors.
With M&A activity expected to increase in 2014, shareholder activism is an important factor to be considered in the planning, negotiation, and consummation of corporate transactions. In 2013, a year of relatively low deal activity, it became clear that activism in the M&A context was growing in scope and ambition. Last year activists were often successful in obtaining board seats and forcing increases in deal consideration, results that may fuel increased efforts going forward. A recent survey of M&A professionals and corporate executives found that the current environment is viewed as favorable for deal-making, with executives citing an improved economy, decreased economic uncertainty, and a backlogged appetite for transactions. There is no doubt that companies pursuing deals in 2014—whether as a buyer or as a seller—will have to contend with activism on a variety of fronts, and advance preparation will be important.
High-water mark (HWM) contracts are the predominant compensation structure for managers in the hedge fund industry. In the paper, Risk Choice under High-Water Marks, forthcoming in the Review of Financial Studies, I seek to understand the optimal dynamic risk-taking strategy of a hedge fund manager who is compensated under such a contract. This is both an interesting portfolio-choice question, and one with potentially important ramifications for the willingness of hedge funds to bear risk in their role as arbitrageurs and liquidity providers, especially in times of crises. High-water mark mechanisms are also implicit in other types of compensation structures, so insights from this question extend beyond hedge funds. An example is a corporate manager who is paid performance bonuses based on record earnings or stock price and whose choice of projects influences the firm’s level of risk.
Many corporate executives and board members view activist investors as little more than bullies with calculators: they seem to hunt in packs, force disruptive and risky changes, and use simplistic benchmarks as their call to action.
Yet their ranks have grown rapidly, and activist investors now attack even the largest and most successful companies. Worldwide, the assets managed by activist investors have increased sevenfold over the past decade, from $12 billion to $85 billion. Since 2005, the number of activist campaigns in the U.S. has increased 15 percent per year, reaching a total of 144 in 2012. These investors have pushed for the return of excess cash to shareholders at Apple; urged restructuring through spinoffs and divestitures at PepsiCo, Sony, Timken, and McGraw-Hill; and called for the replacement of senior management or board members at Abercrombie & Fitch, Yahoo, and Sotheby’s.
In a 17-page memorandum issued by the law firm of Wachtell Lipton (Wachtell), Empiricism and Experience; Activism and Short-Termism; the Real World of Business, the firm’s founder Martin Lipton put forward new criticism of our empirical study, The Long-Term Effects of Hedge Fund Activism. Lipton’s critique is based on a review of a large number of works which, he asserts, back up empirically the view that our study questions. Following our examination of each of the studies noted by Lipton, this post responds to Lipton’s empirical review. We show that Lipton’s review fails to identify any empirical evidence that is inconsistent with our findings or backs the claim of Wachtell that our study questions.
Our study shows that the myopic activisms claim that Lipton and his firm have long asserted—the claim that that interventions by activist hedge funds are in the long term detrimental to the involved companies and their long-term shareholders—is not supported by the data. Seeking to cast doubt on the validity of our finding, Lipton’s memorandum cites twenty-seven works by academics or policymakers, and asserts that these studies demonstrate that our conclusion—that the myopic activism claims is not supported by the data—is “patently false.” In this post, we explain that this assertion is not supported by the cited studies; most of the studies are not even related to the subject of the consequences of hedge fund activism, and those that are related to it do not provide evidence contradicting our findings.
Below we begin with discussing the relevant background and then review the cited studies and explain why, in contrast to the impression Lipton’s memo seeks to make, they do not provide an empirical basis for the myopic activists view. Instead of running away from the empirical evidence, while constantly shooting back, Wachtell Lipton should accept that its myopic activists claim is not supported by the data. Indeed, as one of us plans to discuss in a separate post, despite its repeated attacks on our study, Wachtell is shifting its position toward avoiding reliance on the myopic activism claim in its opposition to hedge fun activism, and this shift should lead Wachtell and its clients to rethink their attitude to hedge funds activists.
Shareholder activism, which has increasingly occupied headlines in recent years, continued along its sharp growth trajectory in 2013. The number of activists, as well as the amount of capital backing them, has increased substantially, as has the sophistication and effectiveness of their tactics.
In addition, last year was particularly noteworthy for the role shareholder activism played in the M&A sector, including a number of high-profile attacks on announced business combination transactions. In November 2013, we hosted a conference to discuss the rise of shareholder activism as it relates to M&A activity. We gathered a number of industry-leading experts to discuss significant recent developments and emerging trends and to explore tactics and responses from a company and an activist perspective. The panel discussions at this conference provided a number of interesting insights, observations and data points, and several of the key themes and highlights are outlined below.
Schulte Roth & Zabel’s Shareholder Activism practice was at the forefront of the industry in 2013, advising our clients in a number of proxy contests. These are our observations from a busy year.
Rapid growth with many new entrants
By almost any measure, shareholder activism became more popular in 2013 than ever. With assets under management quickly growing and returns consistently outperforming the average hedge fund, the activist sector has seen an influx of new activist-oriented funds. As activist investors have appeared on the cover of Time magazine and filled the pages of Vanity Fair throughout the year, it is clear that investors and boards are not the only ones interested in learning more about shareholder activism.
U.S. financial regulators found themselves on the receiving end of an outpouring of concern from law makers last Wednesday about the risks to the banking sector and debt markets from the treatment of collateralized loan obligations (“CLOs”) in the Volcker Rule final regulations. Regulators and others have come to realize that treating CLOs as if they were hedge funds is a problem and we now understand from Governor Tarullo’s testimony that the treatment of CLOs is at the top of the list for the new interagency Volcker task force. But what, if any, solutions regulators will offer—and whether they will be enough to allow the banking sector to continue to hold CLOs and reduce the risks facing debt markets—remains to be seen.