The Agency Costs of Activism: Information Leakage, Thwarted Majorities, and the Public Morality

Award Winner: 
Winner of the 2018 Allen & Overy Law Prize (Best paper in the Law Working Paper series)

The Agency Costs of Activism: Information Leakage, Thwarted Majorities, and the Public Morality

John Coffee

Series number :

Serial Number: 

Date posted :

November 22 2017

Last revised :

November 22 2017
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  • Activism • 
  • agency costs • 
  • Bid/Ask Spread • 
  • Corporate governance • 
  • hedge fund • 
  • Hedge Fund Activism • 
  • Information Leakage • 
  • Informed Trading • 
  • insider trading • 
  • Principal Costs • 
  • private benefits • 
  • Private Settlements

Few doubt that hedge fund activism has radically changed corporate governance in the United States -- for better or for worse. Proponents see activists as desirable agents of change who intentionally invest in underperforming

companies to organize more passive shareholders to support their proposals to change the target’s business model and/or management. So viewed, the process is fundamentally democratic, with institutional shareholders determining whether or not to support the activist’s proposals. Skeptics respond that things do not work this simply. Actual proxy contests are few, and most activist engagements are resolved through private settlement negotiations between the activists, who rarely hold 10% or more of the stock, and corporate management. Driving this process of private resolution is management’s fear of ouster if they allow the matter to go to a proxy contest. But as a result, activists holding often only a small percentage of the stock are imposing their agenda on other shareholders who hold much more. Increasingly, large indexed investors -- BlackRock, State Street and Vanguard in particular -- are objecting that this pattern of private settlements excludes them. Against this backdrop, this article attempts to map the “agency costs” of contemporary activism on the premise that any new structure of governance will have its own unique agency costs. Basically, it identifies four areas in which activists have interests that can conflict with those of the other shareholders:
1. Private Benefits. Activists do receive private benefits (most notably in the form of expense reimbursement), but to date these benefits have been fairly modest (probably for a variety of reasons).
2. Information Leakage. The appointment of hedge fund nominees to a corporate board is followed by a shortterm increase in information leakage in the target firm’s stock price. That is, the target firm’s stock price regularly moves in the direction of a subsequent public disclosure -- and does so significantly more often and more emphatically than in the case of a control group of firms. This can most plausibly be explained as a consequence of informed trading by persons apprised of the material information that is to be released in the subsequent public disclosure. Moreover, this phenomenon of information leakage is significantly greater when the hedge fund’s nominees include a hedge fund employee (as opposed to nominees who are simply independent directors).
Further, once hedge fund nominees are appointed to the board, bid/ask spreads widen in comparison to the spreads on stocks in a control group.
3. Thwarted Majorities. Activists often have a short-term agenda, to which indexed investors object. Given these disagreements, it is undemocratic (even if predictable) that an organized minority can dominate a larger, more dispersed “silent majority.” This is a “horizontal” agency cost in contrast to more traditional “vertical” agency costs.
4. Public Morality. Although most institutional investors favor public goals, such as greater gender diversity on the board and a shift from “dirty” to “clean” energy, activists have opposed both and are constraining the ability of public companies to behave in a manner consistent with the public morality.
Finally, this article will discuss proposed reforms intended to minimize these agency costs, without materially chilling shareholder activism.