The Post-Covid Activist Puzzle

By DirectorCorps

May 26, 2020 All Industries Activism

As companies struggle to recover from Covid-19, there’s a threat lying in waiting, with plenty of resources at its disposal.

Activist investors could leverage the significant drops in stock valuations within certain sectors, like retail or oil, to force changes to management teams or the board. If stock prices remain depressed as companies seek a return to normalcy, then it’s important to have a plan in place, in case an activist takes interest in the business.

It’s easy to refer to the 2008 recession as a gauge of how activists may react this time around. But experts warn that it’s a dangerous comparison. While there were a record number of proxy contests in 2008 and 2009, the number of activist campaigns launched prior to the start of the Covid-19 had already swung upwards, according to Keith Gottfried and Sean Donahue at Morgan, Lewis & Bockius. This could limit the ability and interest among dissidents.

Although activists may want to use the opportunity to buy undervalued companies at a time when companies need capital, they’re hindered by the significant uncertainty in how long the current economic pain could last.

“While many activists are extremely talented and often reluctant to show any fear, activists are not immune from the same fears and concerns that are currently impacting the rest of society,” adds Gottfried and Donahue.

Companies do have the benefit of timing on their side. By the time Covid hit, the window to submit shareholder proposals for 2020 had passed, according to a memo from Sullivan & Cromwell. This can give companies some time to put up a defense, if their post-Covid outlook could leave them susceptible to activism.

In such an odd time to operate, boards should remain transparent about how the company has approached Covid, proving to investors that there’s a plan in place. Conversations with investors will help bridge this gap, which boards can help lead.

Activists also tend to approach companies when there’s a glaring fix that management seems unaware or unwilling to address. As the old adage goes, don’t waste a good crisis. While Covid has caused major business disruptions, it can also provide companies with a chance to rid itself of poor strategies or investments.

Addressing these issues will strengthen the company once the economy picks up again. It’ll also give an activist less ability to build the consensus they need to agitate for change and achieve their aims, if a board has already shown a willingness to pivot its tactics.