Shareholder Activism in 2020: New Risks and Opportunities for Boards

The Harvard Law School Forum on Corporate Governance and Financial Regulation 2020-01-24

Posted by James E. Langston, Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton LLP, on Friday, January 24, 2020
Editor's Note: James E. Langston is partner at Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton LLP. This post is based on his Cleary memorandum. Related research from the Program on Corporate Governance includes The Long-Term Effects of Hedge Fund Activism by Lucian Bebchuk, Alon Brav, and Wei Jiang (discussed on the Forum here); Who Bleeds When the Wolves Bite? A Flesh-and-Blood Perspective on Hedge Fund Activism and Our Strange Corporate Governance System by Leo E. Strine, Jr. (discussed on the Forum here); Dancing with Activists by Lucian Bebchuk, Alon Brav, Wei Jiang, and Thomas Keusch (discussed on the Forum here); and Social Responsibility Resolutions by Scott Hirst (discussed on the Forum here).

The era of stakeholder governance and corporations with a purpose beyond profits is taking hold, with corporate directors expected to answer to more constituencies and shoulder a greater burden than ever before. At the same time, investors—both in the US and abroad—continue to expect corporations to deliver superior financial performance over both the short and long term.

This convergence of purpose and performance will not only shape discussions in the boardroom, but also the complexion of shareholder activism. As the nature of the activist threat has evolved it has created additional obstacles for directors to navigate. But at the same time, this environment has created additional opportunities for boards to level the activist playing field and lead investors and other stakeholders into this new era.

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