Shareholder activism is nothing new. Large investors, using their equity stakes in companies, have for years put public pressure on managements to change corporate policy, utilize cost cutting, divest assets, restructure operations and so on. The main goal of course is to increase shareholder value, one way or another. The latest high profile activist in the news is hedge fund manager David Einhorn, whose firm Greenlight Capital owns a stake in Apple exceeding $600 million. What does he want? He wants Apple to quit hoarding cash on its balance sheet, which stands currently at $137 billion and accounts for over 30% of the public company’s market value, and start using it for the benefit of share-owners. Balance sheets of U.S corporations have rarely been in this good of condition; non-financial companies hold more cash relative to total assets than at any point in over a half a century. In an extremely low interest rate environment and with a massive force of baby boomers starting to retire and needing income wherever they can find it, the writing is on the wall for heads of these companies who have the cash and aren’t distributing it in reasonable sums. Though Mr. Einhorn’s proposal in this particular case would have the company issue a form of security paying preferred dividends, this activism is evidence of what has certainly started, and will likely become a significant trend – investors saying ‘give us our cash’.
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