If you’re an activist investor your job is to (1) think of an idea for how to make a company’s stock go up, (2) buy stock in the company, (3) convince them to do your idea, and (4) sell high. Step 3 tends to involve lots of attention-seeking – it’s easier to wear a company down into doing your idea if they’re constantly hearing about it from other shareholders and reporters and stuff – but steps 1 and 2, importantly, don’t.1 If you tell everyone about your great idea for Apple to issue GO-UPS,2 then they’ll all realize that Apple will certainly do it and unlock tens of billions of dollars of value, so they’ll bid up the stock before you can buy it and you’ll lose the opportunity to benefit from all those gains. That may be a bad example but just work with me here.
There’s another way of putting that, which is: if you secretly conceive of an idea to make Apple a better company, and then secretly buy up a bunch of Apple stock, and then announce to the world “surprise! I have 12% of Apple’s stock, and a brilliant idea that starts with a thematically appropriate lowercase i!,” and the stock goes up, and you make a lot of money – isn’t that unfair? You got to buy stock at the low, pre-publication-of-your-idea price; the people who sold to you were bamboozled into selling out too low because they didn’t know about your great idea. It almost “smacks of insider trading.”
Or something. I may not be doing this theory justice because I think it’s silly: that great idea is your idea; why shouldn’t you be able to make money off of it? (And why should anyone else?) The money is your incentive to come up with the idea in the first place, and do the hard ego-stroking work of pitching it to CNBC and the target company; if you had to share it with free-riders why would you take on the responsibility? We talked about this a little last year when there were vague rumors that the SEC was buying into it, and that they might require investors to disclose 5% stakes within 1 day of acquiring them (instead of the current 10 days), and include synthetic share ownership in computing the 5%, in order to make it harder for activists to secretly accumulate shares. I have not heard much about that proposal since, though I hesitate to assign any causality.
But last week in another, colder part of town, someone proposed the same thing. Canada, I mean. Canadian securities regulators proposed: Read more »
If you own stock in a company that announces it’s being acquired, and you think the acquisition price undervalues the company, there are three things you can do about it: you can vote down the deal, you can find or propose an alternate deal, or you can sue. No I’m kidding of course you can’t do any of those things: you don’t have enough shares to vote down anything, you don’t have the money to propose something else, and you aren’t a plaintiff’s lawyer (are you?) so you aren’t in the business of suing companies, which turns out to be the sort of specialized skill you can’t just acquire in a fit of pique. Those are the tools, but they can only be wielded by specific people.
Steven Davidoff has a delightful piece in DealBook today about the state of the M&A lawsuit market and it is sobering reading:
[L]ast year, 92 percent of all transactions with a value greater than $100 million experienced litigation. The average deal brought five different lawsuits. In addition, half of all transactions experienced multi-jurisdictional litigation, typically litigation in Delaware and another state.
Left out of that description is what percentage of last year’s mergers were agreed to by lazy corrupt self-dealing boards of directors who were putting their own interests above those of shareholders. I submit that it’s strictly between 0 and 92%.
Take the recently announced buyout of Dell. There are already 21 lawsuits pending in Delaware Court of Chancery, and three more pending in Texas state court.
Meanwhile, in another part of town, someone else thinks that the Dell buyout is bullshit, and is actually doing something about it. Davidoff goes on: Read more »
A surprising percentage of conversations at Dealbreaker HQ go like this:
Bess: Can you really sue someone for [thing someone is suing someone else over]?
Matt: Anyone can sue anyone for anything.
Bess: Did you even go to law school?1
What you don’t learn in law school, though, is that “what the law says” and “what you can settle a case for” are two different things. One thing people love to sue about is “doing stupid shit with shareholder money.” Weirdly, though, the state law that governs who can do what with shareholder money not only allows but actively encourages doing stupid shit with shareholder money; if you go to Delaware state court and say “hey the CEO of my company did stupid shit with my money and now it’s gone” they will LAUGH AND LAUGH AND LAUGH at you and then make you go away.2
If you go to federal court and say “the CEO did stupid shit with my money” you will also be kicked out of court, but for purely technical reasons: that is not technically a thing federal courts care about. But you can fix it easily; all you have to do is say “the CEO did stupid shit with my money and then didn’t tell me about it.” This is called “securities fraud,” and it is something federal courts care deeply about. And a moment’s reflection should tell you that those sentences are essentially equivalent: how many companies have you seen issue press releases that say “hey, FYI, we did some stupid shit this quarter, but no one’s noticed yet”?
There are two big pieces of federal securities class action news today. The bigger one is that BofA settled a lawsuit over its acquisition of Merrill Lynch for $2.43 billion. There are many things worth saying about this, including: Read more »
One aspect of good salesmanship is that you have to offer an attractive proposition not merely to the abstract entity that is your nominal client – El Paso, Italy, Greece – but also to the specific human being who is your contact at that client. Telling a corporate treasurer who is five years from retirement that a trade will have a significantly positive NPV due to huge cash flows in years 11-15 is not always as effective a sales technique as buying him a nice steak and an evening of unclothed entertainment. I suspect, though, that the latter strategy is more highly correlated with whatever you’re selling ending up on the front page/op-ed page/sec.gov.
Anyway, I definitely admire these guys for this particular con*:
The SEC alleges that Argyll Investments LLC’s purported stock-collateralized loan business is merely a fraud perpetrated by James T. Miceli and Douglas A. McClain, Jr. to acquire publicly traded stock from corporate officers and directors at a discounted price from market value, separately sell the shares for full market value in order to fund the loan, and use the remaining proceeds from the sale of the collateral for their own personal benefit. Miceli, McClain, and Argyll typically lied to borrowers by explicitly telling them that their collateral would not be sold unless a default occurred. However, since Argyll had no independent source of funds other than the borrowers’ collateral, Argyll often sold the collateral prior to closing the loan and then used the proceeds to fund it.
Got it? Argyll gave corporate executives margin loans at 50-70% loan-to-value based on the market price of their stock (based on the volume weighted average price over five days leading up to the closing of the loan). They took the stock as “collateral.” They then trousered the stock and sold it for, y’know, 100% of the market value, with 50-70% of that funding the loan and the remaining 30-50% funding miscellaneous expenses that presumably included unclothed entertainment for themselves. The loans had three-year terms and were not prepayable for 12-18 months, so the expected life of the scam was at least 12 months (but see below). Read more »
Possibly the best thing about the Wynn-Okada saga is the payment to Okada in exchange for poofing his shares away. Recall that Wynn’s charter lets the board disappear the shares. But they can’t just disappear them for free – that would be unfair. They have to pay a fair price for them:
“Redemption Price” shall mean the price to be paid by the Corporation for the Securities to be redeemed pursuant to this Article VII, which shall be that price (if any) required to be paid by the Gaming Authority making the finding of unsuitability, or if such Gaming Authority does not require a certain price to be paid, that amount determined by the board of directors to be the fair value of the Securities to be redeemed; provided, however, that the price per share represented by the Redemption Price shall in no event be in excess of the closing sales price per share of shares on the principal national securities exchange on which such shares are then listed on the trading date on the day before the Redemption Notice is deemed given by the Corporation to the Unsuitable Person …. The Redemption Price may be paid in cash, by promissory note, or both, as required by the applicable Gaming Authority and, if not so required, as the board of directors determines. … [T]he principal amount of the promissory note together with any unpaid interest shall be due and payable no later than the tenth anniversary of delivery of the note and interest on the unpaid principal thereof shall be payable annually in arrears at the rate of 2% per annum.
As it happens, Okada is now the proud owner of a $1.9bn 10-year subordinated note at 2% interest. Wynn has 2020 first mortgage bonds trading at 4.4%. Let’s generously say that a 10-year parent company subordinated note should trade at 7%; that makes a 2% note worth about 65 cents on the dollar, making that Wynn note worth about $1.26bn. That’s call it $1.5bn less than the $2.77bn value of Okada’s shares on the day before the February 18 redemption notice (24.55mm shares at $112.69), or about a 55% discount.
So … fair … then. The board thinks so: Read more »
There’s a possibly true anecdote about Greek uncompetitiveness that goes like this:
“An online store is more complicated than a regular store basically because of the way payments are carried out,” explained Fotis Antonopoulos, one of the co-founders of www.oliveshop.com, which sells olive oil-based products such as cosmetics, mostly to foreign markets. …
Antonopoulos and his partners spent hours collecting papers from tax offices, the Athens Chamber of Commerce and Industry, the municipal service where the company is based, the health inspector’s office, the fire department and banks. At the health department, they were told that all the shareholders of the company would have to provide chest X-rays, and, in the most surreal demand of all, stool samples.
This is contrasted with the US system, where Antonopoulos says “I contacted the FDA and they sent us an e-mail with directions immediately. I filled in an online form and was done in five minutes. We received the approval 24 hours after making our application.”
Now, I’m sure you’re as horrified as I am that the people in charge of protecting our health and safety will let us smear olive-derived creams on ourselves without so much as examining the poop of the people providing the funding to the people selling those creams. Fortunately, though, US regulators keep watch over some aspects of our lives to make sure they’re not affected by shareholder irregularities. Specifically, they keep watch over our slot machines.
That is I suppose the genesis of this awesome Wynn thing. Quick recap (based largely on this report from former FBI director Louis Freeh because why not have a former FBI director involved): Steve Wynn had a friend, a Japanese engineer named Kazuo Okada, who runs a company named Aruze that was a 24.55% investor in Wynn Resorts when it IPOed in 2002 and a 19.66% shareholder as of … last week. Okada tried to open his own casino in the Philippines, maybe doing some shady stuff with Wynn resources including the “city ledger” account set up by Wynn to, as far as I can tell, allow Okada to gamble more efficiently. Also maybe doing some shady stuff like kind-of bribing Philippines regulators, which is a violation of US law and also a serious no-no in the casino world. Things got unpleasant and Okada accused Wynn of doing some bribing himself, which was followed by that Freeh investigation by Wynn finding conflicts of interest and bribery by Okada.
Then things got amazing: Read more »
It’s clear that I am a terrible person because I continue to be unable to get all that excited about banks that commit fraud. And the big thing today is that the SEC doesn’t put banks out of business just for committing fraud, which I think is rather sporting of them but lots of people disagree.
Here’s the issue:
By granting exemptions to laws and regulations that act as a deterrent to securities fraud, the S.E.C. has let financial giants like JPMorganChase, Goldman Sachs and Bank of America continue to have advantages reserved for the most dependable companies, making it easier for them to raise money from investors, for example, and to avoid liability from lawsuits if their financial forecasts turn out to be wrong.
An analysis by The New York Times of S.E.C. investigations over the last decade found nearly 350 instances where the agency has given big Wall Street institutions and other financial companies a pass on those or other sanctions. Those instances also include waivers permitting firms to underwrite certain stock and bond sales and manage mutual fund portfolios.
JPMorganChase, for example, has settled six fraud cases in the last 13 years, including one with a $228 million settlement last summer, but it has obtained at least 22 waivers, in part by arguing that it has “a strong record of compliance with securities laws.”
Ha ha ha strong record of compliance with a fraud case every two years or so! What a sham! Except that JPMorgan actually does have a strong record of compliance, and is generally viewed as being pretty conservative and law-abiding.
This stuff stirs emotions because it’s hard to think about who is being punished here. Corporations are people, my friend (still), but in the way Mitt Romney meant it, not in the way everyone pretended to take it. Like: JPMorgan employs a lot of people, and some of them are maniacs and crooks and liars and most of them aren’t and that’s true of … the SEC, for instance, and The New York Times,* and anyone else who wants to give them shit for their fraudulosity. But JPMorgan isn’t an individual human, not any more anyway. So saying “JPMorgan is crooks” is sort of nonsensical. Read more »
I try to be honest when telling you that a court complaint or SEC filing or research paper is a fun read, just in case you might go read it, though of course there’s no accounting for tastes and I may enjoy many things that you don’t.* And that’s okay. In any case I doubt anyone will find the SEC’s fraud complaints against Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac filed today all that fun to read. “Very, very boring” would be more like it. The only bits that I enjoyed were the names of some of the loan programs, including Freddie’s “Touch More Loans” and the Fannie/Countrywide joint effort “Fast and Easy” which, boy, different times.
But there are some fascinating things about the case. A small one: I was kidding when I said “complaints against Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.” They’re complaints against former Fannie CEO Daniel Mudd, former Freddie CEO Richard Syron, and a handful of their executives. The SEC signed weird neither-admit nonprosecution agreements with Fannie and Freddie themselves, in which the GSEs agree to help the SEC make its case against their former bosses.
This all seems like very good PR. You are learning, SEC. The neither-admit-nor-deny thing might be awkies, but slapping a big fine on the taxpayer-funded GSEs wouldn’t make a whole lot of sense. And the people who are upset that the SEC are not going after big names connected to the financial crisis have to be happy about the fact that the SEC here is going after the CEOs of big entities that in most people’s minds are intimately connected to the cause of the financial crisis. Suing them is not quite as good as throwing them in jail, but the SEC can’t do that, and this is a start anyway.
The bad news is that the SEC’s case sounds just absolutely terrible. Here it is: Read more »
It’s difficult to keep track of all the things that all the people are suing all the banks for regarding mortgages. A place to start is by remembering that banks stood in the middle of originating loans to people who didn’t pay them and selling them to people who are now sad that they didn’t get paid. So the flow of money was kind of Investor -> Bank -> Homeowner -> Incinerator. If you think of that flow of money, it makes sense that the people are are doing the most suing are the investors and GSEs who bought mortgages, and regulators who sort of kind of represent the investors, and so in fact there are a lot of big numbers sloshing around in pretty normal securities-fraud-y lawsuits of exactly that sort.
But there are also lawsuits, with quite large dollar numbers attached to them, that go the other way. In these, homeowners, and regulators who sort of kind of purport to speak on behalf of the homeowners, are suing the banks for really quite stonking amounts of money.
It’s analytically helpful for me to separate those suits into two further buckets: Read more »