Activist shareholder campaigns continue to grow in number and prominence. One of the largest private equity deals of 2014—the $8.7 billion buy-out of PetSmart Inc.—came about following comments by a significant shareholder. A merger of the two leading office superstores, Staples and Office Depot, and the breakup of DuPont Co., each are being promoted by activist investors. These are but three examples of recent activist campaigns; with close to $200 billion in available funds, others are sure to follow.  The continued rise of shareholder activism serves as a useful reminder that targets and investors should be mindful of the scope of the investment-only exemption under the Hart-Scott-Rodino Act. Whether and when particular conduct may disqualify a shareholder from the passive investment exemption is a highly fact-specific inquiry and has been the subject of several enforcement actions in recent years.
Posts Tagged ‘Shareholder activism’
The changing business landscape, technological advances, and significant risks such as cybersecurity continue to present opportunities and challenges for companies today. Directors will want to take a fresh and critical look at their boardroom agenda to ensure it is meeting today’s needs.
PwC’s 2014-2015 edition of Key considerations for board and audit committee members, an annual publication from PwC’s Center for Board Governance, can help enhance the quality of board and management discussions in the coming year.
Here are some highlights:
In our paper Wolf Pack Activism, which was recently made publicly available on SSRN, we provide a model analyzing a prominent and controversial governance tactic used by activist hedge funds. The tactic involves multiple hedge funds or other activist investors congregating around a target, with one acting as a “lead” activist and others as peripheral activists. This has been colorfully dubbed the “wolf pack” tactic by market observers. The use of wolf packs has intensified in recent years and has attracted a great deal of attention. Indeed, a recent post on this forum described 2014 as “the year of the wolf pack”.
As the 2015 proxy season approaches, the dominant theme appears to be the interaction between directors and investors. Though, traditionally, there was little to no direct engagement, recent experience indicates that communication between these two groups is now on the rise, in some cases resulting in collaboration. This is potentially a beneficial development, particularly insofar as it may help companies and long-term investors work together to resist pressure from activist shareholders seeking short-term profits. In the current environment where activists and hedge funds appear to wield unprecedented financial and political leverage, and the influence of proxy advisors is as significant as it is controversial, the predominant trend seems to be “toward diplomacy rather than war.” Organizations such as the Shareholder-Director Exchange, which began last year to offer guidance to shareholders and boards on direct engagement, are promoting policies that may reduce the incidence, duration, and severity of contentious public disagreements.
Shareholder activism continues to dominate the corporate landscape and attract daily headlines in the financial press. And, as the pace of activism accelerates in 2015, a number of legal battles over the last two years between companies and activists has put in the spotlight the permissible scope and function of advance notice bylaws—a term that we broadly define for these purposes to cover bylaw provisions establishing timing, procedural and informational requirements for shareholders seeking to present director nominations and other business proposals to a shareholder vote. 
A typical advance notice bylaw requires that shareholders submit to the corporate secretary notice of all director nominations and business to be put to a vote at an annual meeting within a thirty-day window that opens and closes on specified deadlines preceding the anniversary date of the prior year’s annual meeting date (or, less common, related proxy statement). Such a notice often must be accompanied by information about the nominee or business, and the proposing shareholder. This information is generally intended to enhance the board’s ability to advise shareholders regarding the nominee or proposal, as well as potential sources of conflict between the proponent and other shareholders.
The balance of power between shareholders and boards of directors is central to the U.S. public corporation’s success as an engine of economic growth, job creation and innovation. Yet that balance is under significant and increasing strain. In 2015, we expect to see continued growth in shareholder activism and engagement, as well as in the influence of shareholder initiatives, including advisory proposals and votes. Time will tell whether, over the long term, tipping the balance to greater shareholder influence will prove beneficial for corporations, their shareholders and our economy at large. In the near term, there is reason to question whether increased shareholder influence on matters that the law has traditionally apportioned to the board is at the expense of other values that are key to the sustainability of healthy corporations. These concerns underlie the issues that will define the state of governance in 2015 and likely beyond:
Despite recent setbacks, efforts by activist groups to pressure companies to disclose details of their political activities are not going away. As these groups become increasingly sophisticated, 2015 looks to be their most active year to date. In fact, for the first time ever, the Center for Political Accountability plans to issue a report this year ranking the political spending disclosure practices of all 500 companies in the S&P 500 Index. This post highlights recent developments regarding corporate political spending disclosure efforts, looks ahead to what public companies can expect in the near future, and provides strategies and tips for those grappling with disclosure issues.
The year 2014 was marked by accelerating mergers and acquisitions activity in the financial institutions space and by several distinct trends. Institutions continued to adapt to the changed regulatory environment, as several important rule proposals and releases brought the ultimate contours of that environment into clearer focus. Profitability pressures continued for traditional businesses. And, as investors continue to seek yield in a low-rate world, shareholder activism notably proliferated. Continued improvement in the economy brought new opportunities into sight and ramped up private equity activity in the financial services sector. Cutting across all of these trends, technological changes, and associated business challenges, continued to reshape firms’ strategic playbooks.
Early indications suggest the M&A activity trend continuing into 2015. In the opening days of the new year, City National agreed to merge with Royal Bank of Canada. The largest bank holding company merger since the financial crisis, at $5.4 billion, the City National deal signals the continuing recovery of the U.S. market from post-crisis distressed deal terms, transaction motivations and negotiating positions. City National is widely considered to be among the strongest franchises in the U.S. It maintained its position of strength and financial performance throughout the financial crisis—as evidenced by the 2.6x multiple of deal price to tangible book value to be paid to City National shareholders. The merger is also a significant vote of confidence by RBC in the outlook for the U.S. banking market and in particular for the type of clientele served by City National. RBC will be reentering retail and commercial banking in the U.S. with 75 branches and $32 billion in assets, and a franchise that is highly complementary to its existing strong U.S. asset management presence.
Again in 2014, as in the two previous years, there has been an increase in the number and intensity of attacks by activist hedge funds. Indeed, 2014 could well be called the “year of the wolf pack.”
With the increase in activist hedge fund attacks, particularly those aimed at achieving an immediate increase in the market value of the target by dismembering or overleveraging, there is a growing recognition of the adverse effect of these attacks on shareholders, employees, communities and the economy. Noted below are the most significant 2014 developments holding out a promise of turning the tide against activism and its proponents, including those in academia. Already in 2015 there have been several significant developments that are worth adding, which are included in bold at the end.
In a comprehensive report on prosperity and the sharing of prosperity in the industrial democracies, an all-star commission has examined and made recommendations for public and private initiatives to improve GDP growth and fair distribution of prosperity. Among the matters studied are corporate governance and short-termism and activism. The following specially selected quotes (omitting compensation and other matters that the report finds promote short-termism) from the report support the limitations on activism that many of us believe are essential to the American economy and society: