iPrefs

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 »

So David Einhorn won his lawsuit against Apple today, which means that Apple will be forced by a court order to issue $236 billion of “iPref” 4% perpetual preferred stock next week, which I currently see bid at 4.06% in the gray market for $10 million lots.

Hahaha no of course it doesn’t mean that. It means nothing! Except that everyone is kind of peeved. There are some things you could say against Calpers corporate-governance guru Anne Simpson’s position on Apple/Einhorn, but she’s not wrong about this:

“I came off the call deeply puzzled,” Anne Simpson, the pension fund’s director of global governance, told DealBook in an interview after [yesterday’s Einhorn] call [pitching iPrefs]. “He finished off by saying you should vote against Proposal 2 to send a message, but he’s in court trying to prevent Proposal 2 from going ahead.”

Right? Read more »

I used to work on sort of a cats-and-dogs capital markets desk, which occasionally meant that spivvy companies without great access to the equity and bond markets, or industry bankers who were a bit too clever for their own good, came to me and asked “hey, what if we issued preferred stock?”1 I cannot recall that ever working out well. “Preferred stock” is a thing that exists in corporate finance textbooks, and occasionally solves for quirky corporate finance equations (“can we structure this investment as debt only it isn’t debt …”), but its practical uses tend to be limited to:

  • private companies, private investments in public companies, joint ventures, VC investments, and other non-publicly-traded things;
  • convertible preferred stock, which is not really the same thing at all;
  • convertible preferred’s weird Warren-Buffett-and-TARP cousin, “preferred stock with warrants”; and
  • a couple of sectors that are really into leverage, capital-structure engineering, and retail financing – meaning mostly banks, insurance companies and REITs.

So David Einhorn’s too-clever-for-his-own-good “iPrefs” deck brought back fond memories: why not convince a tech company that the next level of financial-engineering innovation is to issue preferred stock? And, since the phrase “preferred stock” does still kind of conjure up turn-of-the-last-century financial markets and/or cheesy cologne, why not rebrand it as “iPrefs”? There is something … something very investment-banker-y about taking an absolutely standard financial product, giving it a different name, and calling it an innovation. Of course I love it.

The only thing I love more than the name is the ambition. Read more »