Sunday, November 22, 2009

Cadbury and Shareholder Democracy

The argument in favor of shareholder democracy (and the argument in favor of making the expression of this democracy ever more direct) has long been that the owners of equity are the residual risk-holders of the company, and that as such they ought to be making the decisions on which those risks turn.

Why is it so much easier, so much more common, to be nervous as a passenger on an airplane than to be nervous driving one's own car? The latter is more dangerous, but while driving the car you feel that you are in control of your fate, whereas while a passenger on a plane (or a bus for that matter) a perfect stranger has control of your fate. Owners of equity naturally want to drive the car.

One of the counter-arguments to shareholder democracy, or any very direct expression thereof, is that many of the shareholders have a very short-term perspective. They don't intend to maintain the car properly, so to speak, because they plan to sell their interest in it after one quick trip. Managers and directors with a more long-term perspective are to be trusted. As are the institutional investors typically in for the long haul, like pension fund managers.

These theories and arguments collide directly in the emerging bidding war for Cadbury. Look for example, at a story Andrew Ross Sorkin of The New York Times recently published, "Do Stockholders Really Know What's Best?".

The money quote from Sorkin, "Indeed, one parlor game in London has been to guess how much of Cadbury’s long-term shareholder base has already sold out to arbitrageurs, whose goal is to see the company sold as quickly as possible and then move on to another deal .... People involved in the deal estimate that about a third of the shares have already changed hands, moving from long-term shareholders to hedge funds. Those funds, said Joseph Grundfest, a professor at Stanford Law School, 'have a long-term time horizon of about 12 minutes.'"

Frankly, such an appeal leaves me cold. After all, every completed transaction has two parties. These short-termers have bought up a lot of stock from the institutions with longer-term horizons that used to hold it, you say? Why have those institutions sold it? Because, in whatever temporal horizon interests them, some other investment looked better, right? They sold to get the cash to put that cash somewhere else.

When and why did Cadbury cease to be an attractive place to have their assets for those long-termers? We can hardly blame that on the short termers who (this is inherent in this diagramming of the situation) hadn't bought yet.

I don't know what Cadbury's fate is going to be. But it seems to me that arguing that it ought to remain an independent company forever because that is the long-term best thing to do, because only short-termers buy stock is just ... well, silly. People who 'reason' that way should put the chocolate down and try some brain food.

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