Lucian A. Bebchuk (with Alon Brav, Wei Jiang & Thomas Keusch), Dancing with Activists, 137 J. Fin. Econ. 1 (2020).
Abstract: An important milestone often reached in the life of an activist engagement is the entering into a “settlement” agreement between the activist and the target’s board. Using a comprehensive hand-collected data set, we provide the first systematic analysis of the drivers, nature, and consequences of such settlement agreements. We identify the determinants of settlements, showing that settlements are more likely when the activist has a credible threat to win board seats in a proxy fight. We argue that, due to incomplete contracting, settlements can be expected to contract not directly on the operational or leadership changes that activists seek but rather on board composition changes that can facilitate operational and leadership changes down the road. Consistent with the incomplete contracting hypothesis, we document that settlements focus on boardroom changes and that such changes are subsequently followed by increases in CEO turnover, increased payout to shareholders, and higher likelihood of a sale or a going-private transaction. We find no evidence to support concerns that settlements enable activists to extract significant rents at the expense of other investors by introducing directors not supported by other investors or by facilitating “greenmail.” Finally, we document that stock price reactions to settlement agreements are positive and that the positive reaction is higher for “high-impact” settlements. Our analysis provides a look into the “black box” of activist engagements and contributes to understanding how activism brings about changes in its targets.