Opinion

The Great Debate

The dark side of shareholder activism

Shareholder activism sounds so respectable, even noble. The phrase conjures images of good-corporate-governance folk fighting greedy or dysfunctional management in the company’s best interest. While shareholders can be disciplinarians who right the wrongs of abusive directors, many boardroom activists advance some of the most destructive short-term thinking in business today.

Sparring with management is popular sport for short-termists seeking to maximize the value of their assets. The game ranges from venal to honorable. “Don’t let the Elliott Hedge Fund pursue its self-serving short-term agenda and destroy the long term [sic] value of your investment,” Hess Chief Executive Officer John Hess wrote in a letter to shareholders last week. T-Mobile CEO John Legere blamed “greedy hedge funds” after proxy advisors to MetroPCS investors advised shareholders to block a merger with the wireless giant. In February 2012, Apple’s board agreed to majority voting, a once-fringe officer election process that can have unintended consequences and has become more common at large-cap firms. Coincidentally or not, since the resolution was adopted, Apple announced that it will distribute $45 billion in dividends from its $137-plus billion in cash reserves.

In a way, it makes sense that shareholders have become so active in corporate gamesmanship. Tussles between directors and equity holders have traditionally favored internal stakeholders; legal protections for shareholders are relatively weak. Aside from voting out management, alleging a breach in duty of care is virtually the only legal standard for holding officers accountable for wrongdoing. An alternative is litigation, and the number of securities class actions has fallen, though settlements reached $2.9 billion in 2012, around double the $1.45 billion awarded in 2011, according to a report by Cornerstone Research and Stanford Law School professor Robert Daines.

Still, short-termers have many reasons to be ebullient, as shareholders with relatively weak protections can end-run corporate governance law. These days, companies are at the mercy of a small group of highly engaged investors who want quick results. Blocked mergers and ousters are common. Moreover, spring is proxy season. Corporate lawyers are armed and ready for the “ambush,” a way for a small subset of activists to force a particular action by asking shareholders to vote on proposals that merely require written consent by the board to facilitate shareholders to act.

Proxy season this year is no different. Shareholder resolutions are as plentiful as new buds. According to the Harvard Law School Forum on Corporate Governance and Financial Regulation, about 600 already have been filed this season. They range from proposals for mandated disclosures of political spending to proxy access, majority voting, independent board chairmen, gender diversity, even compensation protocols. It’s not that these proposals aren’t worthy. It’s just that many are designed to boost shareholder value and few address the problem of short-termism.

Toxic asset profits, public liability

Hedge funds sponsored by the U.S. Treasury are reporting eye-popping returns, but the costs to taxpayers and households could end up being massive.

Funds created under the Public-Private Investment Program reported annualized net internal rates of return averaging 36 percent through Sept. 30, the Treasury announced on Friday, a figure that could encourage the belief that the banking bailout was a shrewd investment rather than a transfer of wealth.

The PPIP was created in 2009 to allow private investors to partner with the public purse to purchase distressed assets from the banking system, using cheap loans from the government for leverage.

Carried interest and the big lie

As an investment strategy, making private equity and hedge fund managers rich is a probable loser. As a tax policy, it is a guaranteed one.

The U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill last week that would raise the taxes that private equity and other investment managers pay on “carried interest,” their share of the takings when a holding such as a startup or turnaround is sold at a profit.

Carried interest is currently taxed at the lower capital gains rate, meaning that many private equity barons can pay less in tax than the people who clean their swimming pools or mind their children. This is patently unjust. Carried interest is compensation for labor, earned income in other words, rather than gains on capital that might be lost.

from Commentaries:

Obama loves hedge funds

Matthew GoldsteinThe big winner in the Obama administration's financial regulatory reform package is the beaten-up hedge fund industry.

Hedge funds get a particularly "light touch'' when it comes to government oversight in the Obama plan. Essentially, the administration is calling for a reinstatment of a Securities and Exchange Commisison rules that requires managers to register with the agency as investment advisors.  The rule was overturned by the federal courts, but many large hedge funds remained registered with the SEC--even though they weren't required to do so.

The registration requirement would give the SEC the authority to conduct periodic inspections and require hedge funds to report information on trading positions. But the information reported by the hedge fund would remain confidential and not shared with the general public.

from The Great Debate UK:

The EU and Hedge Funds: silencing the dog that didn’t bark

Laurence Copeland

- Laurence Copeland is a professor of finance at Cardiff University Business School and a co-author of "Verdict on the Crash" published by the Institute of Economic Affairs. The opinions expressed are his own. -

We could see it coming, couldn't we? Those gigantic over-leveraged hedge funds were bound to come crashing down, as their massive bets turned sour, forcing them to default on their bank loans and bringing the banking system to its knees.

Except that it never happened. Instead, the system was destroyed by the greed and incompetence of the insiders, including some of the most blue-blooded investment and commercial banks in the world. Highly regulated as they were said to be, they were allowed in every country except Spain simply to move their riskiest investments off balance sheet, where they were free to bet the bank on investments in the notoriously toxic mortgage-backed securities.

When hedge funds lose their mojo, humble pie is in order

pie– Matthew Goldstein is a Reuters columnist. The views expressed are his own –

We’re not quite there yet, but hedge fund managers may soon need to start giving away toasters – or perhaps plasma TVs — to woo new investors. Forcing the funds to eat a little humble pie now would benefit hedge fund investors in the long run.

Most hedge funds are off to a decent start this year — the average return to date is 9.43 percent, says Hedge Fund Research. Yet it’s a particularly tough time for launching a new fund. In the first five months of 2009, just 40 new funds have begun reporting performance figures, BarclayHedge reports.

from DealZone:

Pay-to-play funds scandal: Time for a change

primackDan Primack is the editor of peHUB, a Thomson Reuters publication.

The New York State Pension Fund kickback scandal is making new headlines. The Wall Street Journal reported that Steven Rattner, the head of the Obama administratino's auto task force, was one of the executives involved with payments that are under scrutiny, citing a person familiar with the matter.

On Thursday, New York State Attorney General Andrew Cuomo filed a criminal complaint against Raymond Harding, former chair of New York’s Liberal Party, for scheming with the already-indicted David Loglisci and Hank Morris. Cuomo also coaxed a guilty plea and financial remuneration out of Barrett Wissman, a crooked former hedge fund manager.

All of this got me to thinking more about the issue of raising fund capital from public pension systems, a process that often is just begging to be corrupted. Inexperienced and smaller general partners (GPs) can have real difficulty getting in front of a pension system’s investment staff, because there is rarely a transparent or streamlined process.

Beware Goldman’s “dutiful” TARP repayment

(Republished to clarify time period of data in fifth paragraph)

Trading specialists work on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange trading shares of Goldman Sachs, in New York, April 14, 2009. REUTERS/Chip East Patriotism, as Dr Johnson once observed, is the last refuge of a scoundrel. So when you hear words like “duty” drip from the lips of a senior executive at Goldman Sachs, you instinctively count the spoons.

You’d be right to do so too. Chief financial officer David Viniar’s observation that Goldman has a duty to repay the money it received last autumn from the U.S. government as part of the Troubled Asset Relief Program may be marginally less cynical than the apercu flung out recently by his boss, Lloyd Blankfein, that investment bankers should be paid less and shouldn’t be rewarded for failure.

But not much less.

And my, do Blankfein’s comments seem cynical in light of the bank’s first quarter results. After all, Goldman accrued 50 percent of its quarterly revenues (yes, that’s revenues) against payments it plans to make to its employees. That is broadly the same proportion that it paid out to them throughout the boom. No question, then, that Goldman’s bankers should do without to pay back the TARP money. With breathtaking cheek, Goldman has also used taxpayers’ cash to bail out Jon Winkelried, one of its wealthiest and most senior executives, after he lost too much money in its own hedge funds. And as for clawing back past rewards that turned out to be excessive — well what about that $70 million you got in 2007, Blankfein?

One rule for banks, another for autos

jimsaftcolumn6– James Saft is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own –

There is one law, it appears, for failing U.S. automakers but sadly quite another for similarly failing banks.

The Obama administration has decided to play hardball with auto firms; rejecting recovery plans from General Motors and Chrysler LLC (GM.N) and warning they could be thrown into bankruptcy. Chrysler, which is controlled by Cerberus Capital Management CBS.UL, has 30 days to complete an alliance with Italy’s Fiat SpA (FIA.MI) or face losing its government funding. GM chief executive Rick Wagoner is out at government request, as will be most of his board of directors in coming months.

New rules won’t end London’s golden lure

– Alexander Smith is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own –

alex-smithNew regulations may be cooked up to curb the excesses of its bankers but London will always attract those who believe its streets are paved with gold.

Some predict that the financial crisis spells the end for London as a major global financial centre, arguing it has thrived on lax regulation and a quasi-tax haven status and that the regulatory backlash which inevitably follows such a catastrophic economic debacle will suffocate the innovation and the financial incentives which have driven the growth of services in the British capital.

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