April 24, 2019

Dual Class Structures: Are Institutions Growing a Spine?

I’ve always been very skeptical about whether most institutional investors really care about “corporate governance” when it comes to decisions to part with their investment dollars – and the continued willingness of non-index funds to buy into IPOs for dual class companies is a big reason for that skepticism. But this article from suggests that institutional investors may finally be pushing back:

Much has been written about the advantages and pitfalls of the multi-class system, which grants founders who own relatively small stakes in the company disproportionate control of votes. On one hand, founders can drive growth unencumbered by squabbling activists; on the other, it can be extremely difficult to remove founders who underperform.

In the case of Uber, it took the dramatic ouster of founder and ex-CEO Travis Kalanick by the company’s board in August 2017 to ditch the dual-class structure it favored in its earlier days. Once the founder-knows-best mentality collides with institutional money, companies are increasingly facing pushback from institutional investors or would-be activists whose authority to push for changes is kneecapped.

Once dual-class stocks are traded publicly, unicorns can find themselves “instantly unpopular” among those constituencies, said Wei Jiang, a Chazen Senior Scholar at Columbia Business School. “I certainly think they will need to get used to it,” Jiang said of the growing pushback, some of which was codified in a 2018 letter co-signed by Blackrock, pension plans and other long-term investors, which condemned the dual-class model as poor corporate governance.

So, that’s it?  Dual class companies will be “unpopular” & won’t be able to sit at the cool kids table during lunch at investor conferences?  If that’s the sanction, my guess is that most of these companies will tough it out & see how much more popular they become if they beat their growth forecasts. (Spoiler alert: they will become very popular).

Do you know what makes me dubious about claims that dual class companies are  “increasingly facing pushback” from institutions? wrote the exact same story a year and a half ago.  And yet, here we are. .  .

Activism: A Watershed Moment for Active Fund Managers?

According to this Barron’s article, active fund managers are becoming. . . well. . . more “active” – and Wellington Management’s recent decision to publicly oppose Bristol-Myers Squibb’s acquisition of Celgene may represent a watershed moment for them:

In the past, fund managers simply sold a stock if they didn’t like what a company was doing. Today, more and more are nudging companies whose shares are trading far less than they should be to make changes that will close the valuation gap. Why ghost a company when you can help it become the investment you need it to be? These new voices are being heard: Whether they shout or they whisper, the market listens.

Consider Wellington Management, the venerated, press-shy $1 trillion firm that, for the first time ever, has publicly opposed management. In late February, Wellington, which runs $359 billion for Vanguard, announced it would oppose Bristol-Myers Squibb ’s plan to acquire Celgene. Celgene shares fell 8% in a matter of hours. Wellington’s protest coincided with a behind-the-scenes critique by Dodge & Cox, another old-school money-management firm with $300 billion in assets. In every story about the Celgene deal, Dodge & Cox was described as a detractor.

“If I were asked to rank the most important moments of this era and name the one event that figures to have the most lasting impact, I would save the top spot for Wellington and its decision to become a public shareholder activist,” says Don Bilson, head of event-driven research at Gordon Haskett. “Corporate America had better take note, because the folks who actually pick stocks have finally decided to flex their muscles.”

I’m a lot less skeptical about institutions speaking up when it comes to opposing deals they don’t like than putting their money where their mouths are when it comes to dual class structures. As I’ve previously blogged over on, there’s some pretty good evidence that this kind of buy-side M&A activism pays tangible dividends for investors.

Wells Fargo Annual Meeting: “That Went Well . . .”

According to this Dallas Morning News report, it sounds like yesterday’s Wells Fargo annual meeting was kind of a train wreck. Here’s an excerpt:

C. Allen Parker was interrupted more than a dozen times during Wells Fargo & Co.’s annual meeting by activists who called executives “frauds” and “criminals” and demanded the interim chief executive officer turn the scandal-plagued bank around. “Frauds, all of you,” one heckler shouted as Parker tried to deliver his opening remarks in Dallas on Tuesday. “Wells Fargo, you cannot be trusted,” yelled another.

In what will likely turn out to be 2019’s least sincere CEO statement, Parker responded to the heckling by saying, “One of the wonderful things about shareholder democracy in this country is that we have meetings like this. . .”

In the “all’s well that ends well” department, Wells Fargo announced that the board was reelected, say-on-pay was approved & a new comp plan passed.

John Jenkins