Article | Corporate Law
Too Big to Be Activist
by John D. Morley*
From Vol. 92, No. 6 (September 2019)
92 S. Cal. L. Rev. 1407 (2019)
Big investment managers, such as Vanguard and Fidelity, have accumulated an astonishing amount of common stock in America’s public companies—so much that they now have enough corporate votes to control entire industries. What, then, will these big managers do with their potential power?
This Article argues that they will do less than we might think. And the reason is paradoxical: the biggest managers are too big to be activists. Their great size creates intense internal conflicts of interest that make aggressive activism extremely difficult or even impossible.
The largest managers operate hundreds of different investment funds, including mutual funds, hedge funds, and other vehicles that all invest in the same companies at the same times. This structure inhibits activism, because it turns activism into a source of internal conflict. Activism by one of a manager’s funds can damage the interests of the manager’s other funds. If a BlackRock hedge fund invests in a company’s equity, for instance, at the same time a BlackRock mutual fund invests in the company’s debt, then any attempt by either fund to turn the company in its favor will harm the interests of the other fund. The hedge fund and mutual fund might similarly come into conflict over the political and branding risks of activism and the allocation of costs and profits. Federal securities regulation and poison pills can create even more conflicts, often turning activism by a hedge fund into serious legal problems for its manager’s entirely passive mutual funds. A big manager, in other words, is like a lawyer with many clients: its advocacy for one client can harm the interests of another.
The debate about horizontal shareholding and index fund activism has ignored this truth. Research on horizontal ownership tends to treat a manager and its funds as though they were a single unit with no differences among them. Traditional analyses of institutional shareholder activism tend to go the opposite direction, treating mutual funds as though they were totally independent with no connection to other funds under the same management.
By introducing a subtler understanding of big managers’ structures, I can make sense of shareholder activism more clearly. Among other things, I show why aggressive activism tends to come entirely from small managers—that is, from the managers whose potential for activism is actually the weakest.
*. Professor of Law, Yale Law School. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. I thank Mark Andriola, Aslihan Asil, Eli Jacobs, John Jo, and Alex Resar for excellent research assistance. For helpful conversations and comments, I thank Vince Buccola, Florian Ederer, Marcel Kahan, Roy Katzovicz, Chuck Nathan, Roberta Romano, Dorothy Shapiro, Robert Zack, and workshop participants at the American Law and Economics Association Annual Meeting, Northwestern University Law and Economics Workshop, NYU Institute for Corporate Governance and Finance Corporate Governance Roundtable, UCLA Law School, and the Wharton School Department of Legal Studies and Business Ethics.