The weapon institutions are currently discussing to combat the potentially negative influence of activists on company management plans is called “tenure voting.”
Under a tenure voting scheme, a shareholder accrues more voting power the longer he holds a given stock. On day one, for example, the shareholder might have one vote to cast on proposals at a shareholder meeting. This might rise to three votes after three years of continuous ownership and peak, say, at five after five years.
This heavier voting power given to long-term shareholders would, in theory at least, make it much more difficult for an activist investor with a hit-and-run strategy to coerce favorable action from a timid CEO.
the arithmetic of influence
An activist can have leverage over company management at present by buying, say, 3% of the outstanding shares to obtain 3% voting power. If the typical institutional holder bought his core position five years ago and if institutions overall hold 60% of the outstanding stock, then with tenure voting in place the activist wouldn’t achieve the same amount of clout until he had accumulated at least 10% of the target firm’s stock. Of course, the activist could also wait for a half-decade for his stake to achieve maximum voting power, but none strike me as having that much patience.
an effective deterrent
So tenure voting would likely insulate many of the large firms potentially under activist attack from such predation.
–there’s a practical issue of implementation. Instituting tenure voting at a firm would presumably require rewriting corporate bylaws.
–it doesn’t stop activist action. It just changes the game. Activists would have to adopt a two-step strategy, the first of which would be to court one or more big long-term institutional holders of a target firm’s stock. Of course, this is arguably the intent of proponents of tenure voting–the presumption being that professional portfolio investors would rebuff the activists. Maybe so. But maybe not. However, the obvious place to start would be index funds. It’s not really clear what unintended consequences this might produce.
–tenure voting has been a traditional practice in places in Continental Europe like France. In my view, it has been a disaster there, cementing in place an elitist old boy network of corporate managements that have had little regard for ordinary shareholders. More than that, the French government’s move last year to make tenure voting mandatory for all publicly traded firms met with violent opposition from investors who know this system the best.
All in all, although I’m not necessarily a fan of activists, I think in this case the cure is worse than the disease.