On Toppling Those Up Top
- The King is Dead. Well, he’s not dead exactly. But he’s been deposed. Bill Gross – the long-reigning “Bond King” – was forced to resign in acrimony from Pimco, the company he had helped to found over four decades ago. Though in retrospect perhaps predictable, Gross’s departure was nevertheless experienced as sudden, a precipitous fall from grace by a legendary investor whose performance in recent years, both personal and professional was, shall we say, other than legendary. Gross’s abrupt exit was a big deal. It was such a big deal it actually rattled global debt markets, notably U. S. treasury prices which, after the announcement of his departure, fell.
- Woman Under Seige. Yahoo’s CEO Marissa Mayer joined the ranks of corporate leaders inhibited from leading because activist investors are breathing down their necks. Since Mayer took over Yahoo’s performance has been less than stellar. So she is being pushed to, among other things, cut costs, spell out plans for Asian assets, and decide on how exactly the company will deploy the large chunk of change it received from selling shares of Alibaba. No question about it: Mayer is being challenged, which is precisely why she has no choice but somehow to respond to this significant threat to her authority.
On Eastern Ukraine, Scotland, Catalonia – and Hong Kong
- The Rain in Spain. Let me put it this way: The likelihood is strong that you had a better week than did Spain’s Prime Minister, Mariano Rajoy. Because of widespread public protests and clear public preferences, Rajoy was obliged to scuttle proposed changes in the abortion law, which would have made Spain about the most difficult country in Europe in which to terminate a pregnancy. It’s not clear why the law was proposed in the first place, given public opinion which was always strongly against. Still, it was a humiliating setback for Spain’s putative leader – though not quite as humiliating, or threatening, as being forced to face a show down with the president of Catalonia, who has now formally scheduled an independence referendum for November 9.
- Chaos in Hong Kong. This weekend tens of thousands of ordinary citizens joined pro-democracy students protesting China’s political interventions in Hong Kong’s affairs. Tensions between the protesters on the one hand, now threatening a “new era” of civil disobedience, and the authorities on the other, now resorting to tear gas to tamp down the demonstrations, were high as the battle lines between autocracy and autonomy hardened. This is a drama that has yet to be played out, for it is increasingly clear that China will not get its way with Hong Kong without the use of force. How much force will have to be expended in order to quell the unrest remains to be seen. The stakes in any case are huge.
President Barack Obama’s speech to the United Nations on Wednesday signaled a shift: America leading from behind was being ditched in favor of America leading from up front.
For obvious reasons the press focused on what he said about fighting ISIS – it is the issue of the day, the one that grabs us by throat because it strikes fear into our heart. But it was on another subject entirely that Obama’s hardened tone was the more striking. The subject was Russia, it was what the president of the United States finally said about Russia.
For many months America’s response to Russian aggression has been muted. In comparison for example with someone like Anders Fogh Rasmussen – the outgoing Secretary General of NATO – Obama’s posture vis-à-vis Putin has been positively puny. It has been Rasmussen who has been insisting, certainly since Russia seized Crimea, that Putin has a “master plan” to “establish a zone of Russian influence … covering the former Soviet space.” Obama meanwhile was slow to get on board, slow to take seriously the threat posed by Putin to the European order.
But, on Wednesday the president’s temper was different. On Wednesday he listed hard facts, among them that “Russia poured arms into Eastern Ukraine, fueling violent separatists and a conflict that has killed thousands.” On Wednesday he cited the differences in world view, Russia’s vision is one in which “might makes right” and America’s is one in which “right makes might.” And on Wednesday he put forth in no uncertain terms what America was determined now to do: it would support the people of Ukraine; it would reinforce its NATO allies and uphold its commitment to collective defense; and it would impose a cost on Russia for aggression.
At the United Nations the president could have chosen to focus nearly exclusively on ISIS – but he did not. He seized the moment to send a clear, more global message. Whatever he was in the past, he no longer was in the present. While he was slow to change, reluctant to change, Obama has changed. Of the president it may now safely be said that he is prepared to see the world as it is, not as he would prefer it to be.
The conventional wisdom is that while political leaders are being batted about the head, business leaders are resting easy. The conventional wisdom is that while public sector leaders are vulnerable to attack from all sides, private sector leaders are immune from harm. The conventional wisdom is that while government leaders are flailing about, corporate leaders are fat and happy. Well, guess what. The conventional wisdom is wrong!
Activist investors are threatening even successful CEOs to a degree that historically is unprecedented. Activist investors are taking on companies big and small, coming out of seemingly nowhere to challenge top managers, and even to replace them as they deem necessary. Activist investors are building up their war chests, so that what we have had in the recent past is certain to be precursor to the imminent future. In fact, some of the largest, richest activists now raise billions of dollars to gain increasing clout among increasingly weakened board members in order to agitate for change – strategic, financial, and, or, managerial. It’s not that activist investors are an entirely new phenomenon. It’s that big players particularly – such as Nelson Peltz’s Trian Fund Management and Daniel Loeb’s Third Point – have become even bigger, and more numerous, and more active and aggressive.
Cases in point in recent weeks include Hertz and Walgreen. The CEO of Hertz Global Holdings, Mark Frissora, was, in effect, forced to step down by restive shareholders. (Though the company said he was resigning for “personal reasons.”) And over at Walgreen, Jana Partners was able to secure for itself two board seats, “considered an important development as activist hedge funds push the envelope and try to shake things up at bigger companies.” (Wall Street Journal, 9/8/14.)
What’s going on over at Dupont is even more remarkable. The above-mentioned Trian Fund Management is seeking to force the venerable chemical giant to dismantle itself. Trian’s statement of intent seems on the surface surprising, if only because CEO Ellen Kullman has turned in a strong performance. She is credited with helping the company recover from the financial crisis. And, during her five years at the helm, Dupont’s stock has climbed fully 160%. Still, her critics charge that the company is stuck, and that to maximize profits it needs to be split.
Many would argue it’s high time for activist investors to be cut to size. Many others would argue that they’re at least something of a corrective – an antidote to the arrogance of chief executive officers. All I’m doing is pointing out the obvious: activist investors are growing in power and influence. This means is that no corporate leader – however successful and self-satisfied – is sitting so very pretty.
The impulse is not new. People have always longed to determine their destinies. But, the recent spate of fractiousness over who controls whom is a sign of the times. It’s no accident that far flung countries such as Ukraine, United Kingdom, Spain and China all are experiencing at much the same moment public protests that reflect nothing so much as plain people insisting on their right to be free.
To those of us outside the affected areas some of these protests make no sense. As one observer wrote in the Financial Times about the Scottish thrust for independence, “I have not heard a single soul from Washington or Delhi, Brussels or Beijing suggest separation could be good for Scotland or Britain.” Similarly, there is outrage in Madrid at the mere thought that Catalan leaders would actually go ahead with a proposed vote on November 9, intended as a (nonbinding) referendum on Catalonian independence. In fact, Spain’s Foreign Minister, not wanting, obviously, to repeat Britain’s cliffhanger, said on Tuesday that his government would bring “the full force of the law” to block such a vote.
While the situation in Ukraine is in many ways different from that of Britain and Spain, and while Hong Kong is yet another case entirely, the similarities among them are striking. Some have argued that this is all about globalization, about open markets threatening people’s well-being, prompting them to seek refuge in atavistic identities. I would argue though that this is at least as much about politics as it is about economics – about a time in which the world over the old order is breaking down at least somewhat, and in which new ways of governing, that take into account 21st century public recalcitrance, have yet to be revealed.
The people’s struggle for autonomy in Hong Kong is likely to be especially difficult. Chinese authorities are laboring to find a way between what they want – a high level of control similar to what they have in China – and what Hong Kong democrats what, a low level of control similar to what they had during the last years of British rule. Moreover Hong Kong democrats feel that they have been betrayed. When Hong Kong first was transferred to China in 1997 it was promised a “high degree of autonomy” – a promise that seems to political activists to be, in effect, empty.
The Scots finally decided against independence. However, the relationship between Scotland and England inevitably will change. If the now restive Scots are to be gratified and satisfied, it will require that England bestow on them some of what they want – greater autonomy. We see this trend already in evidence in Ukraine, and it is highly likely that someday Spain and China will be obliged to follow suit. To do otherwise – to refuse to acknowledge the temper of the times – is to risk a level unrest in the interest of none of the interested parties.
I have no way of proving this. But to me at least it’s clear that the president of the United States finally decided to take up arms against ISIS because of recent videos showing the beheadings of two American journalists. We know about Barack Obama that both his campaign for the presidency and his more than six years in the White House were predicated on getting us out of foreign conflicts, not in. We also know that earlier this year he dismissed ISIS as insignificant, not a threat, certainly not to the security interests of the U. S. Similarly we know that the majority of the American people and the majority of the Congress more or less supported the administration’s foreign policy, specifically its aversion to foreign entanglements. In fact for years now, while the brutal and miserably costly civil war in Syria has dragged on, the U. S. has been content to stay on the sidelines, a bystander, not a participant. But once James Foley and Steven Sotloff were decapitated, and once their decapitations were posted on line, things changed.
If these same two journalists had been shot – even in cold blood in a public square – America’s foreign policy would not have turned on a dime as it did. The American people would not have gone from being near-isolationists to near-interventionists, and the American Congress would not have supported the strategy of getting directly involved. Most importantly, the American president would not have delivered a televised speech from the White House in prime time (a rarity for this president) to announce to the world that he was assembling a coalition to “degrade and ultimately destroy” the militants from the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.
So what is it about a beheading that is so gut-wrenching? What was it about these two beheadings in particular that was so overwhelming they turned a ship of state? Two things: first the barbarism of the deed itself, a knife wielded by one to sever the head of another, close by, bound and kneeling in abject subjugation. Second, the videos. As David Carr pointed out in the New York Times, these videos are by no means crude or one-dimensional. Instead they make evident a “sophisticated production unit, with good cameras, technically proficient operators and editors who have access to all the best tools.” Of course the irony is this 21st century technology is being used to 12th century ends. YouTube is being used to depict the ultimate regression: an atrocious even sadistic murder committed in a public square.
Exactly what ISIS hoped to gain by filming its defilements is not clear. What is clear is that its action triggered America’s reaction – which is another way of saying that its tail wagged our dog.
*Invitation to a Beheading is the title of a novel by Vladimir Nabokov