Sens. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis. and Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., conduct a rally on the east lawn of the Capitol on March 9, 2016.
Photograph by Tom Williams—CQ via Getty Images

As shareholder activism reaches unprecedented levels

By Claire Groden
March 18, 2016

Democrats are taking aim at a new Wall Street target—activist investors.

A new bill sponsored by two Senate Democrats, which would tighten disclosure rules for activists, comes at a time when shareholder activism is at an all-time high. The proposed legislation, sponsored by Wisconsin Sen. Tammy Baldwin and Oregon Sen. Jeff Merkley, criticizes the growing trend for prioritizing short-term gains for shareholders over other stakeholders, like employees and communities.

According to Reuters, activist shareholders mounted 507 campaigns to intervene in companies’ operations in 2015—a 74% increase from the previous year.

Currently, shareholders are given a window of ten days to disclose when their stake in a company reaches 5%. The bill would reduce that window to 2 days.

The bill, called the Brokaw Act, is named after a Wisconsin town that felt the brunt of an activist campaign by New York-based activist fund Starboard Value. A battle between Wasau Paper Company and the fund resulted in the closing of a factory in Brokaw and the financial collapse of the town.

“We cannot allow our economy to be hijacked by a small group of investors who seek only to enrich themselves at the expense of workers, taxpayers and communities,” Sen. Baldwin said in a statement. “These reforms will help ensure that no other small towns in America will fall victim to activist hedge funds on Wall Street.”

As shareholder activism has gained momentum in the past few years, so has criticism of the strategy for potentially deleterious effects on the long-term health of companies. Democratic presidential candidate hopeful Sen. Bernie Sanders and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren are also co-sponsoring the bill.

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