Jeff Ubben & Paul Hilal: Future of Shareholder Activism Panel at Reuters Live ~ market folly

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Jeff Ubben & Paul Hilal: Future of Shareholder Activism Panel at Reuters Live

At the Reuters Live Newsmaker Event, a panel on The Future of Shareholder Activism featured Jeff Ubben of ValueAct Capital and Paul Hilal of Mantle Ridge and they were later joined also by Zach Oleksiuk of BlackRock and Richard Brand of law firm Cadwalader

Jeff Ubben (ValueAct Capital)

He said "The last fat pitch was financials in summer of 2016.  We're very late cycle."  He's seen some activity that's concerning to him where companies are just doing silly deals or allocating tons of money to stupid things.  He says the markets are loving it, but he's not.  He says he's had to be "Mr. No" in board rooms which is the kind of thing he has to do at tops, whereas at bottoms he needs to tell people to buy.  Ubben's got $3 billion in cash right now (manages $16 billion) and is clearly cautious.

Thinks Morgan Stanley's (MS) earnings will go from $2.50 to $4.50.  They've sold some shares but still own it.  Sounds like he only sold because shares have gone up so far so fast.

"One of the hardest things to do is refresh a board."  "The hedge fund activist is putting us on a very awful path.  These are guys with 1 year money and want 1 year returns.  The hedge fund activist is a big problem."

Thinks activist investing should be its own asset class.  You've got private equity with 10 year lockups, hedge funds mainly with 1 year lockups, so perhaps activist investors could slide in at 4-5 years.

Ubben also noted that he thinks large cap activist plays are 'treacherous' with high PEs and then not a lot of growth.  Argues that so much money flowing into alternatives has inflated things.  "Everything about Trump I think is inflationary."

"It's uncomfortable for directors to talk to shareholders" due to regulations (Reg FD).  "Boards are just ... ugh." Thinks this is a 'young' business (i.e. younger people have the energy to do the legwork) and doesn't think he'll be the portfolio manager of ValueAct in five years.  For more on this fund, we've highlighted recent ValueAct portfolio activity here.

Paul Hilal (Mantle Ridge)

Prior to founding Mantle Ridge, Hilal worked at Bill Ackman's Pershing Square.  Has a 5-year lockup at his fund with over $1 billion with a vehicle designed to hold 1 company.  Purposefully moved away from an annual payment structure and he gets paid at the end of the lockup if he's done his job and created value.

Argues longer lock-up helps when dealing with management as he's not just in for a quick hit.  He's been working with railroad CSX (CSX).  Hilal notes that "(Trump) likes the thought of a manufacturing renaissance here."  If a railroad can be a facilitator then that will be welcome by the administration.  Thinks it's very useful for companies to hear from various types of shareholders: hedge funds, institutional investors, etc. 

Talked about the rules around disclosing activist positions (i.e. 13D filings etc).  Thinks there's a decent balance now.  Seemed to think potentially moving disclosure requirements down to a 1% threshold would be difficult as shares can move against you.

Thinks it's useful for Directors of companies to go on a 'listening tour' to hear what people think about the company first.  It's in the company's interest to attract smart investors to give input. 

Zach Oleksiuk (BlackRock)

"We are skeptical of directors who are focused on a single issue or a single thesis."  Notes there's a lot of different types of activists in terms of style and quality.  Thinks there will be more investor focus on environmental and social issues going forward, especially if the issues impact the business.

Richard Brand (Cadwalader) 

Settlement outcomes should be driven by two things: what's right for the company (shareholder value) and the relative leverage of the parties.  The opinions of large institutional shareholders matters a lot.  Thinks there will be a convergence of private equity style and activist style investing in the future.  Also argued hedge funds could start to buy companies (cites Elliott Management, Carl Icahn).  And then private equity investors could start behaving more like activists. 

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