Activists are going after the best of the best these days. They don't want to lose money, so they pick targets that are successful, and they put heat on them to do even more. They are going after people who have built a straight, and they try to get a full house out of them. It's not easy, and for many it's just ridiculously difficult. But the activists know they have a winning hand each way, so they are in a no-lose situation.
It's too bad, because there are plenty of situations that are begging for activists to strike. Let me give you two classic situations: United Technologies (UTX) and McDonald's (MCD).
For many years United Technologies was the cream of the crop, a technological marvel that dominated in heating ventilation and air conditioning; in defense -- mostly helicopter; and in elevators and aerospace. The company performed well at a time when General Electric (GE), a competitor, was on the ropes, because of excellent balance-sheet management.
But the stock has been very listless of late, and on Friday we learned that now-former CEO Louis Chenevert may or may not have been spending too much time fine-tuning his yacht. I say "may or may not" because the company didn't even make it clear if that's why Louis Chenevert was gone well before his time was up.
Judging by the tenor of the Wall Street Journal story, it was an open secret that this gentlemen spent a ton of time augmenting the size of his boats, and the story pretty much read as if he had an obsession with boats, and not with the company. When other companies were trying to figure out whether to shrink or to grow, this man seemed to have been figuring out whether it might be more fun to have a 100-foot yacht than a 60-foot one.
I don't know about you, but I found this kind of story downright embarrassing. I have been taking heat of late from certain quarters about how I spend my time. But, believe me, the heat I care about is from home, because the people who love me think I work too hard.
This guy obviously had time to burn. He made an excellent target. But, then again, United Tech shares were down with a losing hand. Therefore, no activists went after him. That's just crazy.
Then there's McDonald's. I am hearing a lot of talk about how there's nothing can be done with McDonald's -- that it is just selling the wrong kind of food. But with that balance sheet and that reach, believe me, you can do something to turn around the fortunes of this company. Yet no one seems to want to take on CEO Don Thompson, even after the recent numbers, which I admit were horrendous. I say, Burger King (BKW) turned around, and so did Wendy's (WEN). McDonald's is stronger, and it has a better brand than both of those. It is ripe for activism. Again, though, it doesn't fit the bill because it is a loser -- not a winner.
I would love to see a return to the old days, when CEOs of typically well-performing companies would take heat when the companies faltered and the stock prices lagged. That would be fair, and it would be a positive -- not rapacious form of capitalism.
But that's not how it works anymore. Go ask Andrew Liveris, CEO of Dow Chemical (DOW), or Indra Nooyi of Pepsico (PEP), or David Pyott of Allergan (AGN), all of whom have been subjected to attacks that should have been reserved for the likes of Thompson and Chenevert. It's not too late for the former. But the latter? He's got his yacht and his huge pay package, and he alone is the winner in the sad United Tech saga.