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Marty Lipton: Shareholder champion, stakeholder protector or management tool?

12 March, 2013

I do not personally know Marty Lipton, nor have I met him. Based on what I have read about him and by him (he is a prolific writer), he strikes me as an extremely competent lawyer and he is certainly a good friend and champion of New York University (the institution that I teach at), chairing the board of the trustees for the university. I have never, though, thought of him as a champion of long term shareholders in publicly traded companies, which is the role he plays in a recent article by Andrew Sorkin in the New York Times.

The article itself was precipitated by a post, titled “Bite the Apple, Poison the Apple”, by Mr. Lipton in the Harvard Law School Forum on Corporate Governance and Financial Regulation, where he argued that the threat to the company from activist shareholders (and David Einhorn, in particular) should serve as a clarion call for action to deal with the misuse of shareholder power. I am not sure what powers Mr. Einhorn misused in making his case that Apple should do something with its cash, but knowing Mr. Lipton’s views on corporate governance (which is to side with incumbent managers, no matter what), I was not surprised by the article, but I was that it was picked up in the New York Times by Sorkin. In his article, Sorkin implicitly accepts Lipton’s view that activist investors are short term, that they do damage to companies by being vocal and that long term shareholders are not served by activism. I think he is wrong on all three counts.

1. Activist Investors are no more short term than any other investor group

To address the question of whether activist investors are interested in the long term, Sorkin quotes Leo Strine, the Chief Judge of the Delaware Court of Chancery, who seems to have seen evidence to conclude that “the answer is usually no”. I consider myself to be a long term shareholder: I do my homework before buying the shares and I have a median holding period of eight years. I don’t operate under any illusions about what drives activist investors to do what they do, which is the desire to make money on their investments (and who does not?). However, I have not seen any evidence that would lead me to believe that activist investors are any more short term than any other group of investors, and there is, in fact, evidence to the contrary.

  • Holding period: The studies that I have seen of both (holding period of about 20 months, on average) and individual activists provide evidence that they hold their investments for longer than their passive counterparts. In fact, Sorkin undercuts his argument that stockholders are short term by noting that Nelson Peltz has been a stockholder in Heinz for more than six years, Bill Ackman is a long term investor and director at JC Penney and David Einhorn has held Apple stock for many years.
  • Cash focus: It is true that activist investors often push for companies to return more cash to stockholders, either as dividends or in stock buybacks, but why is this evidence that they are short term? Assuming that companies that reinvest money back into their own businesses are more long term than companies that return cash makes no sense, if these companies operate in bad businesses. The companies that are typically targeted by activists are mature companies that have cash surpluses and relatively few investments and returning cash back to their stockholders strikes me as exactly what investors would want them to do.

It is possible that Judge Strine was misquoted on his claim that activist investors are usually short term, and if so, he should set the record straight. It is also possible that he has evidence to back his claim, and if he does, I would love to see it. There is a third possibility that he was engaging in some casual empiricism, which we are all inclined to do now and then, but is a dangerous practice, if you are the chief judge in one of the most powerful courts (at least when it comes to business law) in the country.

2. Activist investors have every right to be vocal, even if they are wrong

Sorkin is disturbed by the use of the media by activists to make their case for change, and that the change that they are pushing for may not be the “right” change for other shareholders in the long term. I don’t share his trepidation about either one. As a long term investor who is looking for price catalysts, I envy the megaphones that activist investors have to broadcast their views and be their own catalysts. Not also that activist investors are not alone in using the media to make their cases. In fact, the media’s favorite long term investor, Warren Buffet, has never been shy about using the media to good effect to generate returns on his investments.

Do private equity investors push for changes that may not be in sync with long term stockholders? Sure! I have argued that activist investors are often too focused on “financial’ value creation and too little on “operating” value creation. However, it is a leap from there to claim, as Mr. Lipton has, that David Einhorn does not have the right to make his argument or that doing it in public is somehow damaging to Apple. As a shareholder, he has every right to make his case and the rest of the shareholders have the right to decide whether they agree with his proposal or with incumbent managers (who may oppose it). You don’t have to believe that managers are always wrong and activist investors are always right to also believe that it is healthy for everyone concerned for managers to have to explain what they are doing to stockholders. If managers are credible (and their track record will play a role in this) and can make a good case that they are right (and activist investors are wrong), they stand a good chance of winning over stockholders to their side. If managers are not credible and/or refuse to make a case for their actions, I think that stockholders will and should be more receptive to activist investors’ suggestions.

3. Long term shareholders are well served by activism

As a shareholder in any company, I welcome the appearance of an activist investor (or two) into the shareholder ranks. The game, as it is structured, is tilted in favor on incumbent managers. Activist investors, motivated as they are by self interest, help to shift the balance back (even if it is only a little bit). In fact, in the absence of activism, you can rest assured that boards of directors will continue to be rubber stamps for CEOs pushing through their own agendas, aided and abetted by an ecosystem of lawyers, bankers and consultants who make money of the status quo. And the status quo stinks at many companies, with about third of all publicly traded companies actively destroying value for their owners. (I will back this up in a future post) It is these companies that are disproportionately targeted by activist investors and deservedly so, and long term stockholders welcome them, for the most part. In fact, the evidence suggests that stock prices at companies targeted by activist investors go up on the announcement of the targeting, and stay up for the long term.

As for Mr. Lipton, he has either created or had a hand in creating some of the worst abominations in corporate governance. From fathering the “poison pill” to arguing that stockholders should have no say on CEO pay, he has been on the management’s side of every corporate governance issue over the last three decades. In fact, reviewing his briefs over the years, it is clear that his problem is not with activist investors but with any investors who deign to question management motives or actions. To Mr. Lipton, the only good stockholders are masochists, who takes the punishment that is meted out silently, raise no protests and vote with their feet. As a stockholder, I would rather have David Einhorn, at his worst, on my side than Mr. Lipton at his most magnanimous. To argue, as Mr. Lipton does in his brief on Apple, that his entreaties on part of management are in the best interests of long term stockholders is analogous to making a case that Marie Antoinette was really championing the cause of French bakers when she supposedly asked her starving populace to eat cake.

What about the other stakeholders in the firm? When apologists for management use the interests of other stakeholders as their shield against accountability, I, for one, take it for it is, a smokescreen. I don’t believe that managers who insulate themselves against stockholder pressures care about protecting the interests of employees, customers or society. In fact, I will wager that these managers will use the same “other stakeholder interests have to be served” excuse with each of these groups, while the only interest group that is finally served is their own.

In fact, I think that the company that Mr. Lipton focused on, in his post, Apple, illustrates my point. I love the company and its products but as a stockholder, I have become increasingly frustrated with its managers, in general, and Tim Cook, in particular. In fact, I am not alone, since a third of the stockholders at the annual meeting a short while ago voted against his pay package. As I see Mr. Cook go from forum to forum, saying nothing of substance and wreaking havoc on the stock price almost every time he talks, I want more activism, not less.

Bottom line

Managers at public companies are human, make mistakes, and are often unwilling to change their minds (or ways) without pressure from stockholders. The boards of directors at these companies, in spite of all of the corporate governance legislation passed in the last few decades (or perhaps because of the legislation) tend to go along with incumbent management, unless pushed to act. That push will not come from traditional institutional investors, who are too timid or lazy to challenge the status quo, and the small shareholders (long term or short term) have little chance of being heard. Without activist investors rocking the boat, who is left to challenge managers to explain their actions?

(Aswath Damodaran is a professor of finance at the Stern School of Business at NYU.)

To become a guest contributor with VCCircle, write to shrija@vccircle.com.


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Marty Lipton: Shareholder champion, stakeholder protector or management tool?

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