Published in: 2015
Dear Chairman is about shareholder activism in the United States over the past century. The book is written by Columbia professor and fund manager Jeff Gramm and consists of eight studies based on investor letters, newspaper clippings and interviews. According to Gramm, the starting point for shareholder activism was Benjamin Graham’s collision with the Northern Pipeline in 1926. As America then became richer and shareholding more widespread, more and more disputes over corporate control broke out.
STARTS OUT IN THE 1920S. In 1926, Benjamin Graham discovered that the profitable Northern Pipeline (NP) had $90/share in bonds while the stock price was $65. NP held its AGM in Oil City, Pennsylvania, far from the company’s headquarters – probably so that the board and management would get work undisturbed. Graham went there but had forgotten to pre-register his case and had to go home unheard. After working with major shareholders and after several rounds with the board, Graham got hold of two of five board positions. He then got the company to distribute the excess capital to the shareholders.
THE SALAD-OIL SCANDAL IN THE 1960S. Buffett started his partnership in 1956, and experimented in the beginning with everything from activism to short selling and pair trades. A classic story is that of American Express’s (AE) salad-oil scandal that erupted in 1963. The share price fell sharply and Buffett realized that the scandal did not damage AE’s highly profitable core business and invested 40% of the partnership’s capital in the company. He then began to persuade management and the board not to fight against the compensation of the swindlers. Legally, AE did not have to pay any compensation and shareholders loudly began to complain that a payment would still take place. Buffett realized that a lack of compensation could damage AE’s good brand and customer confidence and in the long run overthrow the company. If they took a big “one off”, AE would quickly be on the track again – which got to be the case.
THE RANSOM LETTERS OF THE 1980S. The 1980s were the decade of “corporate raiders” and the big names on Wall Street were Carl Icahn, Michael Milken and T. Boone Pickens. “Bear hug letters” (an unwelcome but generous takeover bid), greenmail (targeted buyouts by individual shareholders), hostile takeovers (takeover attempts without board / management approval) and poison pills (a protection against hostile takeovers – often via the articles of association) were new words used extensively in the financial press. The activist investments of the decade were to a large degree made possible by cheap capital from Michael Milken. He was the “father of junk bonds” (high-yield bonds with little security) and through this built up a fortune. After a too long time in the grey zone, the happy 1980s resulted in 10 years in prison and a $600m fine for Milken. In the end, however, he came out after only two years.
THE TOWN-HANGINGS OF THE 2000S. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, hedge fund manager Daniel Loeb introduced a new type of activism – public shaming. Loeb’s approach was to take a position of power in problem companies and replace inefficient management to reverse the negative development. To get the attention of key people, he sent out open letters in which he clearly expressed how management exploited the shareholders through passivity, dishonesty, or laziness. The open letters contained everything from personal attacks to curse words and proved to be highly effective. Loeb had found the key point of key people – if there is one thing CEOs and board members care about, it is their reputation.
”Sometimes a town hanging is useful to establish my reputation for future dealings with unscrupulous CEOs”
– Daniel Loeb
ACTIVISM IS NOT ALWAYS A GOOD THING. Studies have shown that activism is generally value-creating. However, not all outcomes will be good. Gramm takes up the example of BKF Capital, where activists ran a marginally profitable fund company into non-existence. The activists felt that earnings were burdened by unusually high staff costs and saw potential for quick gains if wage levels were trimmed. But when wages were reduced, the staff disappeared and with the staff, the investors disappeared. The fund company’s AUM fell rapidly and after only a few years the business was wound up.
ACTIVISM AS AN ASSET CLASS. According to Gramm, activism entered the institutional world in the late 1980s after GM, through greenmail, bought out major owner Ross Perot. The purchase took place at a large premium and Perot’s billion profit was financed at the expense of other shareholders. Thereafter, the major institutional shareholders increasingly began to side with the activists. It was also in connection with this that greenmail was banned. Nowadays, even normally passive institutions are open to follow successful activists.