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Has the shine worn off activist investment?

Graham Paul

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A few recent cases suggest that the tide may finally be turning on activist investment, which until recently seemed as if it was becoming an entrenched part of the business world. Although the value of activist investor-held assets may have been climbing in recent years (in the UK, this figure grew 43% between 2017 and 2019 to reach $5.8 billion), the number of campaigns fell by 30% in the year leading up to September 2020. Of course, that drop-off can partly be explained by the fallout from the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, but the fact that more and more plays appear to be falling on deaf ears could signal a bleaker long-term outlook for activist agitators going forwards.

The latest case in point comes from England, where wealth management fund St James’s Place (SJP) were the subject of an attempted activist intervention on the part of PrimeStone Capital last month. After purchasing a 1.2% stake in the company, the fund sent an open letter to the SJP board of directors challenging their recent track record and calling for targeted improvements. However, the lack of incision or originality in the PrimeStone manifesto meant that it was brushed off with relative ease by SJP, with little impact being felt on its share price. The underwhelming nature and outcome of the campaign is indicative of a growing trend in recent years – and one that could be set to become more pronounced in a post-Covid-19 society.

PrimeStone unable to inspire

The PrimeStone play took the traditional form favoured by activist investors; after acquiring a minority stake in SJP, the fund tried to flex its muscles by highlighting the perceived shortcomings of the current board in an 11-page missive. Among other issues, the letter identified the company’s bloated corporate structure (over 120 head of department on the payroll), flagging Asian interests and tumbling share price (stocks have fallen 7% since 2016). They also identified a “high-cost culture” in SJP’s backroom and made unfavorable comparisons with other prosperous platform businesses like AJ Bell and Integrafin.

While some of the criticisms had elements of validity, none of them were especially novel—and they didn’t paint a complete picture. In fact, several third parties have come to the defence of SJP’s board, pointing out that equating the company’s downturn with the rise of interests such as AJ Bell is unfair and overly simplistic, and that when set against more reasonable touchstones such as Brewin Dolphin or Rathbones, SJP holds its own remarkably well.

PrimeStone’s admonishments over SJP’s high spending may hold some water, but they fail to recognize that much of that outlay was unavoidable, since the firm was forced to comply with regulatory changes and succumb to revenue headwinds beyond its control. Its impressive performance against its competitors confirms that the company has been dealing with sector-wide issues exacerbated by the pandemic, something which PrimeStone singularly failed to fully acknowledge or address.

Momentous vote imminent for URW

It’s a similar story across the Channel, where French billionaire Xavier Niel & businessman Léon Bressler have collected a 5% stake in international shopping mall operator Unibail-Rodamco-Westfield (URW) and are adopting Anglo-Saxon activist investor tactics to try and secure URW board seats for themselves and push URW into a risky strategy to drive up its share price in the short term.

It’s clear that, like most companies in the retail sector, URW needs a fresh strategy to help weather the pandemic-induced recession, particularly given its relatively high level of debt (more than €27 billion). To that end, URW’s board of directors are hopeful of launching project RESET, which targets a capital raise of €3.5 billion in order to maintain the company’s good investment-grade credit rating and ensure continued access to all important credit markets, while gradually deleveraging the shopping mall business.

Niel and Bressler, however, want to forego the €3.5bn capital increase in favour of selling off the firm’s US portfolio—a collection of prestigious shopping centres which have by and large proven resistant to the changing retail environment—to pay down debt. The activist investors’ plan is being opposed by a number of third party advisory firms such as Proxinvest and Glass Lewis, with the latter calling it “an excessively risky gambit”. Given that credit rating agency Moody’s have predicted an 18-month slump in rental income that is likely to hit shopping centres – and have even gone as far as to warn that failure to implement the capital raise underpinning RESET could result in a downgrading of URW’s rating – it seems likely that Niel and Bressler’s ambitions will be rebuffed at the November 10th shareholder meeting, in the same way that PrimeStone’s have been.

Long-term growth over short-term gains

Elsewhere, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey appears to have also overcome an attempt by high-profile activist investor Elliott Management to oust him from his role. Although a recent committee meeting did cede to some of Elliott’s demands, such as reducing board terms from three years to one, it chose to declare its allegiance to a chief executive who had overseen total shareholder returns of 19% prior to Elliott’s involvement with the social media behemoth earlier this year.

Alongside the atypically uninspiring campaigns conducted elsewhere in the market, and the retrogression of the sector as a whole, could it be that activist investors are losing their clout? For a long time, they have drawn attention to their ventures through flashy antics and bold prognoses, but it seems that companies and shareholders alike are catching on to the fact that behind their bluster, their approaches often contain fatal flaws. Namely, a focus on short-term inflation of the share price to the detriment of long-term stability is being exposed as the irresponsible gamble that it is – and in a shaky post-Covid economy, judicious prudence is likely to be prized above immediate profit with increasing regularity.

Digital economy

Digital transformation: Importance, benefits and EU policy

EU Reporter Correspondent

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Learn how the EU is helping to shape a digital transformation in Europe to benefit people, companies and the environment.

The digital transformation is one of the EU's priorities. The European Parliament is helping to shape the policies that will strengthen Europe's capacities in new digital technologies, open new opportunities for businesses and consumers, support the EU's green transition and help it to reach climate neutrality by 2050, support people's digital skills and training for workers, and help digitalise public services, while ensuring the respect of basic rights and values.

MEPs are preparing to vote on a report on shaping the digital future of Europe, calling on the Europea Commission to further tackle challenges posed by the digital transition, especially to take advantage of the opportunities of the digital single market and to improve the use of artificial intelligence. What is digital transformation? 

  • Digital transformation is the integration of digital technologies by companies and the impact of the technologies on society.  
  • Digital platforms, the Internet of Things, cloud computing and artificial intelligence are among the technologies affecting ... 
  • ... sectors from transport to energy, agri-food, telecommunications, financial services, factory production and health care, and transforming people's lives. 
  • Technologies could help to optimise production, reduce emissions and waste, boost companies' competitive advantages and bring new services and products to consumers. 

Funding of the EU's digital priorities

Digital plays an essential role in all EU policies. The Covid crisis accentuated the need for a response that will benefit society and competitiveness in the long run. Digital solutions present important opportunities and are essential to ensuring Europe's recovery and competitive position in the global economy.

The EU's plan for economic recovery demands that member states allocate at least 20% of the €672.5 billion Recovery and Resilience Facility to digital transition. Investment programmes such as the research and innovation-centred Horizon Europe and infrastructure-centred Connecting Europe Facility allocate substantial amounts for digital advancements as well.

While the general EU policy is to endorse digital goals through all programmes, some investment programmes and new rules specifically aim to achieve them.

Digital Europe programme

MEPs are set to vote in April on the Digital Europe programme, the EU’s first financial instrument focused specifically on bringing technology to businesses and people. It aims to invest in digital infrastructure so that strategic technologies can help boost Europe’s competitiveness and green transition, as well as ensure technological sovereignty. It will invest €7.5 billion in five areas: supercomputing (€2.2 billion), artificial intelligence (€2 billion), cybersecurity (€1.6 billion), advanced digital skills (€577 million), and ensuring a wide use of digital technologies across the economy and society (€1 billion).

Online safety and platform economy

Online platforms are an important part of the economy and people's lives. They present significant opportunities as marketplaces and are important communication channels. However, there also pose significant challenges.

The EU is working on new digital services legislation, aiming to foster competitiveness, innovation and growth, while boosting online security, tackling illegal content, and ensuring the protection of free speech, press freedom and democracy.

Read more on why and how the EU wants to regulate the platform economy.

Among measures to ensure safety online, the Parliament is voting on new rules to prevent the dissemination of terrorist content online in April. MEPs are also considering rules on a new European cybersecurity centre.

Artificial intelligence and data strategy

Artificial intelligence (AI) could benefit people by imroving health care, making cars safer and  enabling tailored services. It can improve production processes and bring a competitive advantage to European businesses, including in sectors where EU companies already enjoy strong positions, such as the green and circular economy, machinery, farming and tourism.

To ensure Europe makes the most of AI's potential, MEPs have accentuated the need for human-centric AI legislation, aimed at establishing a framework that will be trustworthy, can implement ethical standards, support jobs, help build competitive “AI made in Europe” and influence global standards. The Commission presented its proposal for AI regulation on 21 April 2021.

Read more on how MEPs want to regulate artificial intelligence.

The success of AI development in Europe ilargely depends on a successful European data strategy. Parliament has stressed the potential of industrial and public data for EU companies and researchers and called for European data spaces, big data infrastructure and legislation that will contribute to trustworthiness.

More on what Parliament wants for the European data strategy.

Digital skills and education

The Covid-19 pandemic has demonstrated how important digital skills are for work and interactions, but has also accentuated the digital skills gap and the need to increase digital education. The Parliament wants the European skills agenda to ensure people and businesses can take full advantage of technological advancements.

42% of EU citizens lack basic digital skill

Other interesting articles to check out

More on Europe's digital policies 

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Computer technology

Vega: Launch of the first world-class supercomputer in the EU

EU Reporter Correspondent

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The European Commission, together with the European High-Performance Computing Joint Undertaking and the government of Slovenia has inaugurated the operation of the Vega Supercomputer at a high-level ceremony in Maribor, Slovenia. This marks the launch of a first EU supercomputer procured jointly with EU and member state funds, with a joint investment of €17.2 million.

A Europe Fit for the Digital Age Executive Vice President Margrethe Vestager said:“We are celebrating today the launch of the Vega supercomputer – the first of several. Supercomputing will open new doors for European SMEs to compete in tomorrow's high tech economy. Even more importantly, by supporting artificial intelligence to identify the molecules for breakthrough drug treatments, by tracking infections for COVID and other diseases, European supercomputing can help save lives.”

Executive Vice President Vestager participated in the launch ceremony on 20 April together with the Prime Minister of Slovenia, Janez Janša. The new Vega supercomputer is capable of 6.9 Petaflops of computer power and will support the development of applications in many domains, such as machine learning, artificial intelligence, and high-performance data analytics. It will help European researchers and industry to make significant advances in bio-engineering, weather forecasting, the fight against climate change, personalised medicine, as well as in the discovery of new materials and drugs that will benefit EU citizens. The EuroHPC Joint Undertaking pools European and national resources to procure and deploy world-class supercomputers and technologies.

In addition to Vega in Slovenia, EuroHPC supercomputers have been acquired and are being installed in the following centres: Sofia Tech Park in Bulgaria, IT4Innovations National Supercomputing Center in Czechia, CINECA in Italy, LuxProvide in Luxembourg, Minho Advanced Computing Center in Portugal, and CSC – IT Center for Science in Finland. Moreover, a Commission proposal for a new Regulation for the EuroHPC Joint Undertaking, presented in September 2020, aims to enable a further investment of €8 billion in the next generation of supercomputers, including emerging technologies such as quantum computers. More information will be available in this press release by the EuroHPC Joint Undertaking.

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European Commission

Commission approves acquisition of certain Suez waste management companies by the Schwarz Group, subject to conditions

EU Reporter Correspondent

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The European Commission has approved, under the EU Merger Regulation, the acquisition of certain Suez waste management companies in Germany, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and Poland, by the Schwarz Group. The approval is conditional on the divestiture of Suez's lightweight packaging (LWP) sorting business in the Netherlands.

Executive Vice President Margrethe Vestager, in charge of competition policy, said: “Competitive markets at every level of the recycling chain are a crucial contribution to a more circular economy and essential to achieve the objectives of the Green Deal. With the divestment of Suez' sorting plant in the Netherlands, the acquisition can go ahead while preserving effective competition in the sorting of plastic waste market in the Netherlands.”

Both the Schwarz Group and the Suez waste management companies concerned are active across the waste management chain in several countries. In particular, the two companies are leaders in the sorting of lightweight packaging originating in the Netherlands.

The Commission's investigation

The Commission had concerns that the proposed acquisition, as originally notified, would have significantly reduced the level of competition in the market for the sorting of LWP in the Netherlands.

In particular, the Commission's investigation found that the merged entity would become by far the largest market player, owning more than half of the capacity for LWP sorting in the Netherlands, and an unavoidable trading partner to Dutch customers.

The Commission found that competitors located outside of the Netherlands exert a weaker competitive constraint, as customers prefer for waste to be sorted as close to the collection point as possible in order to minimise the financial cost and CO2 emissions associated with road transport.

The proposed remedies

To address the Commission's competition concerns, the Schwarz Group offered to divest the entirety of Suez's LWP sorting business in the Netherlands, including Suez's LWP sorting plant in Rotterdam and all assets necessary for its operation.

These commitments fully remove the overlap between the Schwarz Group and the Suez waste management companies concerned for the sorting of LWP in the Netherlands.

The Commission therefore concluded that the proposed transaction, as modified by the commitments, would no longer raise competition concerns. The decision is conditional upon full compliance with the commitments.

Companies and products

The Schwarz Group, based in Germany, is active in food retailing in over 30 countries through its retail chains Lidl and Kaufland. It also operates as an integrated service provider in the field of waste management through its PreZero business division.

The Suez waste management companies concerned, subsidiaries of the French Suez group, are active in the collection, sorting, treatment, recycling and disposal of household and commercial waste in Germany, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and Poland.

Merger control rules and procedures

The transaction was notified to the Commission on 19 February 2021.

The Commission has the duty to assess mergers and acquisitions involving companies with a turnover above certain thresholds (see Article 1 of the Merger Regulation) and to prevent concentrations that would significantly impede effective competition in the EEA or any substantial part of it.

The vast majority of notified mergers do not pose competition problems and are cleared after a routine review. From the moment a transaction is notified, the Commission generally has a total of 25 working days to decide whether to grant approval (Phase I) or to start an in-depth investigation (Phase II). This deadline is extended to 35 working days in cases where remedies are submitted by the parties, such as in this case.

More information will be available on the Commission's competition website, in the Commission's public case register under the case number M.10047.

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