I think we may be at a watershed moment in terms of the acceptability of the corporate behavior of tech/internet-related companies.
Up until now, it has been enough for investors that Silicon Valley produce increasing profits. Institutionalized poor behavior on the part of the firms’ managements–whether that be violation of some employees’ civil rights or less-than-ethical treatment of customers or shareholders–has made little difference to their stocks’ performance.
Uber is perhaps the poster child for this phenomenon, which has also been, aptly, I think, characterized as “fratboy” behavior. But now Uber appears to be losing its license to operate in London, which holds 5% of the worldwide active users of the taxi service, because of its not being a “fit and proper” operator.
The case of Facebook (FB) is just as interesting. Founder Mark Zuckerberg announced plans last year to give a large amount of his stock in FB to a charitable trust that he and his wife would run. In order to preserve his majority control of FB despite divesting a large chunk of his shares, he proposed that each A share, the ones with super voting power that insiders like him hold, be “split” into one A + two C shares, the ones with no voting rights. Zuckerberg could then give away the C shares, representing about 2/3 of his wealth, without any decrease in his 53% voting control of FB.
The board of FB appointed one of its members, Marc Andreessen, a developer of the Mosaic and Netscape browsers, to represent third-party shareholders in this matter–to ensure that this restructuring would be fair to them.
Institutional investors sued. During discovery, they found among other things, emails between Andreessen and Zuckerberg in which, far from defending third-party holders, Andreessen appears to be coaching Zuckerberg on how to present his proposal to the board in the most favorable light for him.
Today, FB announced it’s dropping the restructuring plan.
If I’m correct about a fundamental change in investor sentiment, what does this mean for us as investors?
At the very least, I think it means that the business-is-what-you-can-get-away-with attitude (borrowing from Andy Warhol) of many tech companies will be penalized with a discount valuation. It may also prevent some early stage firms from being able to list–preventing employees from cashing in on what they’ve built. On tech/internet’s notorious anti-woman bias, I’m not sure. After all, the investment business isn’t that far ahead of tech in eliminating this form of prejudice.