L'attivismo societario: minaccia o opportunità?
Tommaso Caciolli, Avvocato in Milano.
Il presente contributo esamina i possibili effetti dell’attivismo societario in Italia. Con il supporto empirico di recenti “campagne” attiviste aventi ad oggetto note società italiane sostengo che l’attivismo societario possa svolgere un ruolo significativo nella riduzione dei costi di agenzia tipici del capitalismo “relazionale” italiano. Gli investitori attivisti, con l’obiettivo primario di massimizzare il proprio investimento, possono insinuarsi tra soci di controllo dominanti e soci di minoranza deboli e ridurre l’intrinseco conflitto di interessi tra gli stessi, sfruttando abilmente diritti di minoranza, sofisticate strategie legali e finanziarie, ed enormi capacità economiche. Tali abilità si sono dimostrate particolarmente efficaci nell’ambito di operazioni con parti correlate e offerte pubbliche d’acquisto di soci di controllo finalizzate alla revoca dalla quotazione delle azioni dell’emittente (c.d. freezeouts o squeeze-outs), e dunque in circostanze nelle quali il rischio di espropriazione dei soci di minoranza è particolarmente elevato. In tali contesti gli investitori attivisti hanno gli incentivi e le caratteristiche adatte a vigilare e, se del caso, contestare scorrettezze e abusi delle maggioranze. La tesi sviluppata nel presente lavoro si estende sino a ipotizzare che la “minaccia” dell’attivismo societario possa fungere da deterrente alle condotte dei soci di controllo meramente finalizzate a estrarre i c.d. benefici privati del controllo, e aumentare i costi di espropriazione delle minoranze. Le esperienze passate e la natura del fenomeno suggeriscono che l’attivismo societario è destinato a persistere, anche in Italia, sino a quando ci saranno profittevoli opportunità di arbitraggio dei diritti di governance.
This paper examines the causes and possible effects of shareholder activism in Italy. With the support of anecdotal evidence of recent and notable campaigns, this paper claims that activism can play a key role in reducing the agency costs of Italian “relational” capitalism. Activists, by leveraging the minority rights provided by the Italian framework, their sophistication and financial power, and in the pursuit of their primary profit objectives, could fill the gap between strong controllers and dominated boards, on one hand, and weak minority shareholders, on the other. Such disciplinary role has been demonstrated in the context of opaque related party transactions and freezeouts, where the risk of minority expropriation is particularly significant. In those circumstances, activists are simply better positioned than other shareholders to police bad deals. This paper also hypothesizes that the very threat of activism could serve as a deterrent to Italian controllers seeking to extract private benefits and increase the costs of minority expropriation. Activism is here to stay as long as there are opportunities to arbitrage governance rights and make profits.
KEYWORDS: corporate governance – shareholder activism – concentrated ownership – controlling shareholders – agency costs – private benefits of control – freezeouts –minority rights – hedge funds – institutional investors.
1. Introduction. – 2. Families and State: Italy’s Corporate Ownership Structure. – 2.1 Brief Historical Background. – 2.2.An Evolving Scenario. – 3. Favorable Regulation and Growing Influence of Foreign Investors. – 3.1.Minority Rights. – 3.2. The Slate Voting System. – 3.3. The Growing Influence of Foreign Institutional Investors. – 4. Activism in Controlled Companies: the United States Experience. – 5. Activism in Italy. – 5.1. A Monitor to Controlling Shareholders. – 5.1.1. Parmalat (2012 and 2016). – 5.1.2. Fondiaria SAI (2011). – 5.2. Policing Freezeouts. – 5.2.1. Ansaldo STS (2015-2018). – 5.2.2. Caltagirone Editore (2017). – 5.3. Activism as a Deterrent. – 6. The “Dark Side” of Italian Activism. – 7. Could the “Anti-Raids” Rule and the SRD Curb Activism? – 8. Conclusion.
Shareholder activism is expanding and intensifying. Despite the below-market returns reported by many activist hedge funds, the number of campaigns, amount of capital deployed, number of activists involved, and number of board seats obtained have soared over recent years . Italy has not been immune to the phenomenon and has registered more activists campaigns than other European countries with larger and more mature markets.
In the recent past, Italian national champions, iconic family owned companies and regulated industries featured prominently among targeted companies, with ENI, Assicurazioni Generali, Ansaldo STS, Parmalat, Telecom Italia, Credito Valtellinese and Caltagirone Editore being some of the more notable.
This papers aims to describe the reasons why a country dominated by “relational”  capitalism has become a fertile ground for activists and to outline the role that shareholders activism may play in the Italian corporate governance context.
Italy has always been considered an “insider” financial system, characterized by concentrated ownership, strong connections among companies, inadequate legal protection for minorities and a weak role for the market. A system structurally unfavorable to shareholder activism and, more generally, to those interested in effecting change. However, activists have been investing consistently in Italy since 2000 and the number of activist engagements, relative to the market size, is significant .
There appears to be three main drivers that may explain such counterintuitive evidence. First, despite ownership of Italian listed companies being highly concentrated (almost 9 out of 10 firms remain controlled either by a single shareholder or through voting agreements), the public available data shows a positive evolution trend with a significant reduction of enhancing control mechanisms (in particular pyramids) and a comprehensive dismantling of company cross-shareholdings that have weakened traditional company controllers. Second, the Italian legal environment has changed in the last two decades with a number of corporate governance reforms that have strengthened investor protection and given minorities substantial rights. The most important of these is the right, attributed to minority shareholders with substantial equity, to present a slate of nominees for both the board of directors and the board of auditors and to obtain minimum representation. This mechanism is known as slate voting (voto di lista) . Third, is the growing influence of foreign institutional investors in the Italian market, in particular in the largest corporations.
Having identified the possible drivers of shareholder activism in Italy, and supported by the evidence of activism campaigns at controlled companies experienced in the United States, this paper discusses if Gordon and Gilson’s (2013) theory on activist investors is applicable to the agency cost of Italian capitalism, i.e. as an antidote to strong controlling shareholders pursuing private benefits to the detriment of weak minority shareholders. Anticipating the conclusion, a number of cases indicate that activists have played a major role in reducing agency costs in controlled companies and served as a monitor of the behaviors of directors and controlling shareholders. In particular, activists, with the primary objective of maximizing their investment, have been significantly effective in policing freezeouts  that grossly undervalued target companies and other self dealing transactions, to the benefit of all minority shareholders. Furthermore, this paper hypothesizes that the very threat of activist raids, and the ..