WASHINGTON, D.C. — U.S. Senator Tammy Baldwin (D-WI) led a group of senators in sending a letter to Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) Chair Gary Gensler to express support for proposed rules that would increase transparency and strengthen oversight of predatory activist hedge funds. The two rules advance provisions of legislation Senator Baldwin introduced, the Brokaw Act, that would bring more transparency to financial markets, and activist hedge funds in particular.
“By limiting the ability of activist hedge funds to generate financial returns by running their shortsighted investment playbook, these rules will improve outcomes for workers at would be target companies,” said the senators.
The letter comes after reporting shows that hedge funds are trying to create the impression of labor opposition to the rules, despite major organizations like the AFL-CIO leading a letter clarifying labor’s strong support for the rules as well.
Along with Baldwin, Senators Sherrod Brown (D-OH), Bernie Sanders (I-VT), Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Tammy Duckworth (D-IL), and Jeff Merkley (D-OR) signed the letter.
In February, when the proposed rules were announced, Baldwin applauded the action to bring more transparency to financial markets and activist hedge funds with short-sighted investment strategies. Senator Baldwin introduced the Brokaw Act in 2017 to fight against increasing short-termism in our economy by promoting transparency and strengthening oversight of activist hedge funds. The legislation proposed putting in place the following reforms; restore transparency to the marketplace by shortening the 10-day 13(d) disclosure window; require derivative disclosure to ensure activist investors do not hold secret positions in a company’s stock; and protect businesses from hedge fund “wolf packs” by identifying these coordinated groups of hedge funds as a single group to require disclosure.
Baldwin’s legislation was named for a small Wisconsin village that faced insolvency after the actions of an out-of-state activist hedge fund led to the closure of a paper mill that had provided good jobs to the town for over 100 years. The activist hedge fund bought up the legendary Wausau Paper Company, forced out its executives and demanded short-term returns like buybacks at the expense of investments in workers, R&D, and the company’s long-term future. In 2017, Senator Baldwin put a hold on two SEC nominees before receiving assurances from them that they were committed to reining in activist hedge funds.
Full text of the letter can be found here and below:
Dear Chair Gensler,
We write to you today to express support for two rules proposed by the Securities and Exchange Commission (“SEC” or “Commission”): “Modernization of Beneficial Ownership Reporting” and “Position Reporting of Large Security-Based Swap Positions.”
If adopted, these rules would improve market transparency, close a number of critical loopholes being exploited by certain investors, and reduce systemic risk. They would achieve this by: 1) reducing the number of days investors have to disclose a 5 percent stake in a public company from 10 days to 5 days; 2) requiring disclosure of derivative positions to ensure that they are not used to hide a stake in public company or a large position that could destabilize financial markets; and 3) clarifying the circumstances under which two or more investors have formed a “group,” with a combined ownership stake would need to be disclosed if it exceeds 5 percent.
Additionally, by limiting the ability of market participants (primarily activist hedge funds with short-term investing strategies) to abuse outdated reporting requirements, these rules will also benefit workers and retirement savers—while preserving the ability of shareholders to engage with corporate management regarding environmental, social, and governance (ESG) matters, if they so choose. For these reasons, we support the proposed rules and encourage you to finalize them swiftly.
Ending the Abuse of Beneficial Ownership Disclosure Rules
Upon acquiring 5 percent of a public company’s stock, current SEC rules give investors 10 days to disclose their plans to the public in a Schedule 13D filing. During the 10-day period, investors are permitted to continue acquiring additional shares. Also during this period, investors may strategically share information about their impending Schedule 13D filing with allies, who are then able to acquire shares at a discount before other market participants learn about the filing. Derivative instruments, most of which do not count against the 5 percent threshold, may also be used to boost an investor’s economic exposure to the company’s stock.
The activist hedge fund business model is dependent on the return generated by the short lived stock price increase that often accompanies a 13D filing. Supporters of hedge fund activism argue that the immediate price increase (before anything at the company has changed) is due to the reputation of the investor and its anticipated changes, making the activist entitled to the increase. This argument becomes muddled when considered against research that shows thestock price increase is temporary and in fact the company is often in a weaker economic position post-activist intervention.
The long disclosure period is an international anomaly, which in part explains why the aggressive short-term investment strategies of activist hedge funds that come at the expense of investments needed for long-term, equitable and sustainable growth are more successful in American financial markets than they are abroad. In fact, the Commission itself acknowledges that this 10-day period is an outdated relic that was premised on paper filings back in 1968 when Section 13(d) was originally passed. The drafters of the Williams Act in fact emphasized the speed of disclosure was of utmost importance and that investors should be providing disclosures of their positions as soon as “reasonably practicable.” It is only by taking advantage of outdated regulations and loopholes (10-day reporting delay, exclusion of derivatives, and undisclosed coordination with other investors) that activist hedge funds are able to build stakes large enough to center their strategy around the short-term, temporary price spike of their targets without concern for longer-term value creation and growth.
The voting power that comes with the stock is also crucial to the business model. Securing the votes to credibly threaten the board with removal gives the activist that ability to force through its agenda. By the time the 13D is filed, the activist may have secured enough voting power—without having to engage longer-term shareholders—to threaten the board of directors with a proxy battle if they don’t adopt the activist’s strategy.
Benefitting Workers and Retirement Savers
By limiting the ability of activist hedge funds to generate financial returns by running their shortsighted investment playbook, these rules will improve outcomes for workers at would be target companies. A comprehensive study of over 1,300 such campaigns conducted between 2000 and 2016 found that they were associated with:
“(a) an immediate but short-lived increase in market value and profitability, and an= immediate and long-lived decline in operating cash flow;
(b) decreases in number of employees, operating expenses, R&D spending, and capital expenditures; and
(c) the suppression of corporate social performance.”
The effect on workers was particularly significant, as the study found that after such activist hedge funds acquire ownership, the company’s workforce experiences a steady decline—4.57 percent in the first year and 7.66 percent by the fifth year. For an average company, this means a loss of 383 to 642 jobs.
Another detailed study of companies targeted by a specific hedge fund found that target companies performed worse than comparable non-targeted companies over a three-year period, and that this underperformance was tied to a reduction in employment, wages, and overall investment, and an increase in debt and stock buybacks. Therefore, not only is the hedge fund’s activism detrimental for workers and their communities, but also for longer-term investors, who lose money if they hold on to their shares for three years after the beginning of a campaign. Notably, the most significant losses occur after 24 months, a few months after the hedge fund sells their shares of the target company.
Preserving Shareholder Engagement and ESG Strategies
Nothing in either proposed rule would limit the ability of investors to engage with company management. Some investors have argued that preventing them from covertly building large stakes in public companies could chill their ability to engage with management. The truth is that these investors are not looking for fair engagement, but rather they seek to build enough economic and voting power that they are able to dictate terms to management.
Take for example, the cases provided by the very investors calling for the rules to be withdrawn in the name of ESG activism.10 Even the ESG wins purportedly under threat, modest though they are, were achieved through engagement by investors with less than one percent of the public company’s stock. It is clear that changing the disclosure threshold would pose no threat to bona fide ESG activism.
Not only will these rules not chill ESG activism, they may facilitate corporate social responsibility by limiting the ability of activist hedge funds to target socially responsible firms. Recent research found that activist hedge funds were more likely to target firms with high levels of corporate social responsibility—perhaps because hedge funds consider spending associated with benefits to society at large wasteful.
It is further illuminating that some of the most impactful ESG investing to date campaigns that have led to tangible social benefits like the actual closure of coal plants and reductions min carbon emissions—has been done in Australia, where an acquisition of 5 percent must disclosed within m2 business days, far shorter than the 5 days proposed in this rule.12 This provides further evidence that a 10 day window is not needed to use shareholder activism to meaningfully change corporate behavior.
In closing, we applaud the Commission for proposing rules that will improve market transparency and reduce systemic risk. Further, by ending the abuse of outdated disclosure requirements, these rules will benefit workers and retirement savers while preserving the ability of shareholders to meaningfully engage with corporate management. For these reasons, we support the proposed rules and encourage you to finalize them swiftly.
An online version of this release is available here.