NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- Carl Icahn is championing a broad-based uprising of shareholder activism. He wants to get retail investors involved with his missions. While there are many benefits, the hurdles to this type of effort are great.
Icahn's recent shareholder activism efforts have focused on eBay (EBAY - Get Report), where he pushed for new directors on its board, and Apple (AAPL - Get Report), where he pushed the company to use its large cash holdings. In both efforts, he had some level of success.
However, it will be very difficult to get retail investors active because:
- Most retail investors don't invest as their primary source of income. This means that filing proxy forms is competing for limited free time with family time and hobbies. To get anyone's free time, there needs to be a worthwhile reward for the time spent.
- Institutions, such as mutual funds, which own shares indirectly for individuals, are notorious for either not voting or simply going along with what the board recommends. For index funds especially, voting with the company is the cheapest option and is the safe move, so many institutions do that.
- Most retail investors don't research companies enough to find potential changes that would have a positive impact both because of the time involved and also the depth of knowledge on the business model required. If the investing public were left to its own devices to come up with ideas for corporate change, there would be hundreds of strange and probably self-serving ideas generated.
- Lastly, the public is too fractured as a group to rally around one crowd-sourced idea and push for it. To get any of the suggestions to catch on, the idea needs positive publicity and support from well-respected individuals.
Because of the hurdles noted above, this widespread shareholder activism can't get off the ground without a "general" everyone can follow into battle. Ideally, this person will do the hard part and hunt down the opportunities that can produce the biggest positive changes that aren't overly self-serving
Recently, Icahn has been on a publicity tour pushing his site, Shareholders Square Table, and in general trying to engender a positive public image. I think he's working toward being this general, which can point retail investors toward a specific topic and lead the effort in pushing for beneficial change.
There is hope for the effort, though, because retail investors own roughly 44% of all outstanding stock. This means that if even half of those holding shares can get involved in proxy activities, they would be a force with which to be reckoned.
Another problem Icahn will face, as he continues to try to get new members of any corporate board, getting investors excited enough to spend time to vote their shares with him. The effort needs to result in something more concrete and tangible where people can vote their shares with him and then see results of their efforts.
His recent efforts with Apple pushed for things that are considered "financial engineering" -- which does provide the needed short-term gratification to begin to build a following. While a stock split at Apple is a real result from the efforts, these are the easier things to pursue. If he wants this trend to catch on with a broader investor base, he needs to push for changes that positively impact the public from both a shareholder and customer prospective.
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If activist investing can move past the negative stigma associated with the term, a recent study suggests that shareholder activism as a whole produces both short- and long-term benefits for shareholders. Icahn continues to say his main driver in this effort is to make positive changes in the corporate world. This assertion is always greeted with rolling eyes by the investing community.
However, I'll give him the benefit of the doubt to see if he can lead efforts that result in positive changes at companies. I think this is something that could have a real positive impact going forward.
This article represents the opinion of a contributor and not necessarily that of TheStreet or its editorial staff.
At the time of publication, the author held no positions in any of the stocks mentioned, although positions may change at any time.