The war between shareholder activists and big corporations got hotter this morning, with Blackrock CEO Laurence Fink leaking the New York Times’ Andrew Ross Sorkin a copy of an unusual letter he’s sending to Fortune 500 CEOs urging them to resist pressure to return money to investors through extra dividends and stock buy-backs – short-term moves that he says “are troubling both to those seeking to save for long-term goals such as retirement and for our broader economy.”
Meanwhile at Fortune, we had a visit yesterday from Dow Chemical CEO Andrew Liveris, who joined the attack on relentless shareholder pressure for short-term returns at the expense of long-term investment. “The owner base is putting incredible pressure on public enterprises because in essence they can get higher returns by forsaking two, three, four, five, and seven year out decisions,” he said. “Very rarely do I now meet shareholders who ask me about three years from now or five years from now.” Liveris blames the trend on low interest rates and an “infinite supply of capital.”
Fortune’s Steve Gandel spent yesterday surrounded by hedge-fund activists at the awkwardly named “Active-Passive Investor Summit” in midtown Manhattan – which ironically was disrupted by a group of 20 activists of a different stripe, protesting sub-$15 wages at Darden Restaurants, whose board was ousted by the activists at Starboard Value. You can read his report of the tumult here.
Claire Zillman breaks down the number of Americans who actually make $15 an hour or less here.
Enjoy the day!
• U.S. shale oil boom hits a wall
Oil output from the most productive U.S. shale fields is expected to report a monthly decline for the first time in four years, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, which sees a drop off next month of 57 million barrels of crude daily from April to May. The shale oil boom had led to sharply higher production, which for quite some time was a tailwind for the U.S. economy. But global prices slumping on concerns of too much supply, and many companies have cut production to protect profits. The jobs market has also been stung, as employers have mainly been cutting oilfield services jobs as demand has weakened. Fortune
• Is a top Fortune 500 CEO planning his exit?
Procter & Gamble Chief Executive A.G. Lafley, who rejoined the company about two years ago, could be planning to step down again and hand over the reins to an internal successor. The change would come at a somewhat turbulent time for P&G, which is in the midst of shedding dozens of brands with the hope that a more narrow focus can result in greater profitability. P&G ranked #31 on the Fortune 500 list last year. WSJ
• Top banking talent fleeing amid healthcare M&A boom
Did you know bankers can often negotiate a 30% to 50% pay raise in their first year of compensation at a new bank if they jump ship? That likely explains why boutique investment banks have been busy poaching talent from U.S. banks, which are under pressure from regulators to preserve more capital in case another crisis hits, rather than spend money on higher bonuses. The pocket of the M&A business that is seeing a lot of turnaround is healthcare, driven by blockbuster deals that have resulted in hefty fees for the banks that work those deals. Reuters
• Etsy vendors weave their way into the IPO
E-commerce operator Etsy is generating a lot of unique headlines as it gears up to trade on the public markets later this week and the latest factoid is pretty fascinating: the company has set aside 5% of shares to sell to vendors and other small investors. That gives the sellers that have spent years selling their handmade wares on Etsy an opportunity to buy into the company’s potential success down the road, if they choose to do so. And while a bulk of Etsy’s shares will still be sold to institutional investors such as mutual funds and hedge funds, the website plans to sell 15% of shares to small investors. WSJ
Around the Water Cooler
• Buying an Apple Watch? Mind your manners
Already used to turning off your phone before entering an important business meeting or practicing yoga? If you buy the Apple Watch, it is another device, another distraction, and another new gadget that comes with some dos and don’ts. Tech reviewer Lauren Goode lays out some simple rules. Our favorites? Don’t hold up lines at retail stores if your Apple Watch isn’t scanning for some reason. And the screen is just too small to show hundreds of photos from your latest vacation. Re/code
• For R&D to succeed, the boss needs to be on board
What’s the best way to determine if your CEO cares about a project your team is working on? Listen to quarterly conference calls, the Harvard Business Review advises, adding those statements can provide clarity about which major projects are the most inspiring to top executives. Grand proclamations about new directions and priorities don’t necessarily marginalize existing research and development efforts, though those statements could flag which projects will get the most resources. Harvard Business Review
• Inside IBM’s digital healthcare play
Here’s an interesting tidbit: IBM estimates that between electronic medical records, digitized diagnostics, and wearable medical devices, the average person will leave a trail of more than 1 million gigabytes of health-related data in their lifetime. The tech giant, which already plays a prominent role in medical research trials, sees an opportunity to also sell to doctors, hospitals, insurers and patients. The company now devotes at least 2,000 employees to medical analytics and other industry solutions. Fortune
• Activist investor weighs in on student debt
There is more than $1.3 trillion in student loans outstanding in the U.S. and while that debt is almost impossible to unload in bankruptcy court there is some hope, at least according to activist investor Bill Ackman. He predicted that one administration or another will forgive student debt, saying there is “no way students are going to pay it back.” Ackman, well known for activism against Herbalife and MBIA, runs $20 billion Pershing Square Capital Management. Bloomberg