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    86歲激進投資者再次出手:我通過研究人類天生的愚蠢行為賺錢

    86歲激進投資者再次出手:我通過研究人類天生的愚蠢行為賺錢

    SHAWN TULLY 2022-04-08
    卡爾·伊坎準備向西南天然氣控股公司施壓出售旗下企業。

    卡爾·伊坎(Carl Icahn)在大部分時間里都有好心情,但目前他明顯不開心。

    在10月初的一個星期天,伊坎一直在慢慢增加在拉斯維加斯公用事業公司西南天然氣控股(Southwest Gas Holdings)的股份,悄然獲得了該公司約5%的股份。伊坎確信,市場價格沒有體現西南天然氣公司旗下業績出色的能源建筑業務部門Centuri的價值。伊坎沒有發起突然襲擊,但他準備向公司施壓出售Centuri,并大幅改善其核心業務。

    但在10月3日,一則令人震驚的內部消息披露,西南天然氣計劃在另外一家公司進行一筆大規模收購。西南天然氣將以約15.5億美元現金從道明尼能源(Dominion Energy)收購Questar Pipeline,雙方已經達成協議,這一價格比沃倫·巴菲特之前同意支付的價格高20%,但巴菲特在幾個月前放棄了收購。

    在10月3日之前,伊坎從未與西南天然氣公司CEO約翰·赫斯特進行過交流,并且該公司顯然并不知道這位傳奇的激進投資者正在收購其股份。伊坎非常震驚,于是他迅速采取措施,希望在官宣之前阻止該筆交易。伊坎對我表示:“我連續三天給赫斯特的辦公室打電話,但他的助理每次都說:‘他去吃午飯了?!?/p>

    “我對她說:‘你說的真對。他肯定是出去吃午飯了?!?/p>

    當天,伊坎發表了一封措辭嚴厲的公開信,首次披露了他在西南天然氣持有的股份,并且激烈批評了該公司的表現。他在信中指責公司與Questar的交易是另外一個“將由股東承擔代價的極其嚴重的錯誤”,“這比公司以往犯過的所有錯誤都要嚴重?!彼u公司管理層“讓公司的開支失控”,并指責公司通過虛報支出欺瞞監管機構,例如“喝得酩酊大醉的晚餐”、“指甲護理”和“百萬豪宅”等。伊坎指責公司日常管理水平低下,當同行都在剝離資產僅保留核心業務時,該公司卻在收購“不受監管的”資產,導致公司股價被低估了至少40%。

    伊坎在一系列采訪中向《財富》雜志介紹了他最新的收購戰,展示了他之所以成為華爾街最有聲望、最令人恐懼的激進投資者所使用的工具、技巧、策略和手段。作為產業集團伊坎企業(Icahn Enterprises)(市值150億美元)的創始人,伊坎現年86歲。雖然他是激進投資領域的老手,但業內資深人士表示,收購西南天然氣是自大蕭條爆發前至今,第一次針對一家公用事業上市公司的惡意收購。在大蕭條來臨之前,塞繆爾·英薩爾和摩根大通(J.P. Morgan)聯合收購了多家公用事業公司,并將其合并成美國第一批大型控股公司。激進投資者在本世紀有充分的理由避開公用事業公司,因為各州政府對于該行業規定了容許費率和回報率,而惡意收購者很難說服股東他們經營這些公用事業公司,能比現有團隊做得更好。惡意收購者面臨的另外一種風險是,其收購動作無法掃清取得完全控制權所面臨的巨大的監管障礙。

    伊坎與西南天然氣的收購戰讓我們可以從一個獨特的視角了解資本主義頗具爭議的一面,即單槍匹馬的投資者一方面對公司口誅筆伐,另一方面向股東拋出一個更有利可圖的未來愿景。目標公司必須巧妙防御,同時要努力戰勝入侵者。目前,伊坎在西南天然氣持有4.9%的股份,并對剩余股份發出了每股82.50美元的收購要約。到目前為止,投資者已經有意向將約20%的股份出售給伊坎,他在該公司的持股比例有可能達到25%左右。

    但伊坎與公司管理層的較量將在下個月展開,屆時西南天然氣將在5月12日公布代理權投票結果,這顯然不止是關乎金錢或權力。對于伊坎而言,這是一次大膽的舉措,將證明其在六十年間日臻完善的策略依舊行之有效,而對于西南天然氣來說,這是一場公司控制權的爭奪戰,而且還關乎公司高層的工作崗位。

    邁阿密風云

    3月29日,本人與伊坎和伊坎企業的投資組合經理安德魯·特諾進行了一次長時間通話。特諾在伊坎作為大股東的多家公司董事會任職,也是這場代理權爭奪戰中西南天然氣公司的董事候選人。兩人在位于邁阿密北部一棟辦公大樓頂部兩層的伊坎企業總部通過電話接受了采訪。去年12月,我曾在伊坎辦公室里見過這位留著胡子的傳奇人物,下屬們都稱呼他為“長官”。這間辦公室有帶有邊框的玻璃窗,能欣賞到壯麗的海景,還有一座小型美術館,展示了莫奈和雷諾阿的作品。伊坎在電話中指責西南天然氣公司:“西南天然氣公司不存在任何公司治理。它像是一個獨裁政權……所以我們接管董事會至關重要。否則,他們會繼續大肆收購?!?/p>

    尤其令伊坎憤怒的是西南天然氣公司到目前為止最大的反制手段:去年秋天,該公司啟動了“毒丸計劃”,將伊坎的持股比例限制在9.9%。4月22日要約屆滿后,伊坎的持股可增加一倍。但他目前的持股不能超過這一上限。為了否決毒丸計劃,伊坎正在發起一場代理投票權爭奪戰,計劃用2名伊坎的內部人士和8名富有聲望的獨立董事換掉西南天然氣的整個董事會。

    伊坎稱投資者面臨三個選擇。他表示,第一種選擇:“投票支持我們,然后我們接管董事會。董事會放棄毒丸計劃,股東可以以每股82.50美元的價格出售股票?!钡诙N選擇:股東可以投票支持他的董事人選,但不出售股票,等到新董事會和管理層上臺以及董事們放棄毒丸計劃后股價上漲時出售?;蛘叩谌N選擇:支持現有制度。他認為這將是一場災難。他說道:“如果我們失敗,他們會像過去一樣繼續進行糟糕的收購。公司股價將遠低于我們在要約中提出的82.50美元?!币量差A測,如果他的陣營獲勝,西南天然氣公司的股價將高達144美元。

    伊坎鎖定目標

    伊坎早在2021年7月產生了收購西南天然氣公司的想法,開始增加持股。伊坎最喜歡的目標是被嚴重低估的行業老牌企業,西南天然氣公司恰好符合伊坎的偏好。西南天然氣公司是亞利桑那州和內華達州最大的天然氣供應商,同時還參與加州太浩湖地區的天然氣供應,服務210萬客戶。作為一家公用事業公司,該公司還有一個龐大的非公用事業部門Centuri建筑業務,雖然它是該領域的門外漢。過去五年,Centuri通過內部強勢擴張和一系列收購快速增長,目前占公司總收入的50%以上。從2016年初到2019年9月,西南天然氣公司的股價一路高歌上漲82%,輕松跑贏標普公用事業指數。但之后,其股價大幅下跌,到2021年6月初已經下跌22%,比行業平均表現落后超過30%。

    去年夏天,西南天然氣公司的市盈率約為16倍,這個倍數代表公司利潤低迷。雖然該公司在內華達和亞利桑那這兩個美國增長最快的家庭和商業能源市場占據主導地位,其公用事業部門的收益增長卻毫無亮點可言。從2017年到2021年,公司利潤年增長率僅略高于4%。有多位分析師將公司增長停滯歸因于這兩個州極其嚴格的監管環境。投資銀行、交易與研究公司Siebert Williams Shank的克里斯·埃林豪斯表示:“亞利桑那和內華達等州的費率基準正在快速上漲,許多公司目前的支出不斷增加,但他們要想提高費率需要等待很長時間才能獲得許可。尤其是亞利桑那州采取了嚴格控制漲價的措施?!蔽髂咸烊粴夤镜凝堫^業務是基礎設施業務。從2017年到2021年,該業務的收益增長了95%,年增長18%。(Centuri在2021年的收益下降,原因是與8.55億美元收購新澤西州承包商Riggs Distler有關的一次性支出,該筆交易將在未來幾年大幅提升該部門的盈利能力。)

    正如伊坎后來在申報文件中所說,他看到了該公司存在的問題。市場并不喜歡一家公用事業公司和一家建筑公司的結合體。理由很簡單,投資者之所以選擇投資公用事業公司,是因為其費率上漲有保障,可以提供穩定可靠的收益和股息增長。而建筑公司則截然不同。伊坎將特許經營視為未來的一大贏家,他認為美國公用事業公司將用數十年時間升級電網,為向可再生能源轉型做好準備,并將對老化的天然氣管道網絡進行維修,因此特許經營企業會趁勢獲得發展良機。但公用事業投資者不愿意承擔風險,也不喜歡其投資的公用事業公司同時涉足建筑領域所帶來的額外的不確定性。此外,對于低市盈率的投資對象,投資者更愿意選擇企業集團,而不是單一業務公司。

    事實上,在西南天然氣公司持續推動業務多樣化的同時,大多數公用事業公司都在剝離不相關資產,專注于其公用事業特許經營這項核心業務。道明尼、CenterPoint、DTE和ConEd最近宣布出售中游管道業務,PEG和AEP縮小了或計劃縮小不受管制的可再生能源業務的規模。但西南天然氣公司卻依舊在與大多數同行背道而馳。讓分析師和投資者不滿的是,西南天然氣公司的高層一致表示要將Centuri拆分成一家獨立公司,但卻從未付諸實施。在馬里奧·加貝利的GAMCO公司擔任投資組合經理的蒂姆·溫特爾曾建議西南天然氣公司盡早拆分Centuri,而不是繼續擴大其規模。GAMCO持有西南天然氣公司3%的股份,價值約1.5億美元。溫特爾表示:“公司管理層最初表示,當Centuri的銷售額達到10億美元時,其規模將足以成為一家獨立公司。問題是,當建筑業務發展到一定規模后,其面臨的風險組合與公用事業公司的風險組合截然不同?!?/p>

    去年7月,西南天然氣公司宣布收購Riggs Distler之后,管理層在電話會議上曾強烈暗示西南天然氣公司不會退出建筑業務。溫特爾表示:“事實證明等待并非壞事,因為Centuri表現出色,但最終讓它變成一家獨立公司才是明智的決定?!?/p>

    引起伊坎關注

    在去年10月的那個星期天,最令伊坎不滿的是赫斯特收購Questar的計劃。但伊坎將該計劃視為徹底擊敗對手的一次機會。Questar收購計劃的演示報告披露,西南天然氣公司計劃進行9至10億美元股權融資,用于支持該筆交易。10月5日之后,伊坎曾多次與西南天然氣公司CEO赫斯特通話,稱以約65美元的超低價出售目前價值100美元甚至更高的股票,這個主意糟糕透頂。伊坎在接受采訪時說道:“我告訴他:‘這是個瘋狂的決定!這會嚴重稀釋股票收益。你怎么能一邊跟股東們說:‘不要把股票以75美元的價格賣給伊坎,因為這個價格低估了公司的價值’,一邊卻以60多美元的價格大量出售給你的朋友!’”

    伊坎做出犀利的反擊措施。他首先建議向現有股東進行10億美元配股發行,他將收購未被認購的所有股份以“制止”公司的計劃。他表示,這樣做可以確保一大批股份不會流入“白衣護衛”投資者手中。這類投資者會支持公司管理層,作為回報其將以極低價格獲得公司股份。伊坎表示,赫斯特只是說他會與董事會討論這份提案。

    后來伊坎擔心西南天然氣公司會尋找“白衣護衛”投資者,于是他提出愿意提供整整10億美元資金以每股75美元的價格收購股份,遠遠高于當時的市場交易價格。伊坎將是該計劃的一大贏家,因為他將以較低的價格,額外獲得西南天然氣25%的股份。

    但董事會拒絕了伊坎的提議,理由是該價格嚴重低估了公司股票的價值。伊坎反駁稱公司拒絕他提出的每股75美元的價格,卻打算以65美元的價格出售公司股份,這種做法“不可理喻”。10月10日,西南天然氣公司董事會啟動了“毒丸計劃”,將伊坎的持股比例限制在9.9%。兩周后,伊坎做出反擊,提出以每股75美元收購所有西南天然氣公司股份的要約。但他還需要獲得董事會多數同意終止毒丸計劃。于是,伊坎發起了代理投票權爭奪,計劃以他自己提名的候選人取代西南天然氣公司現有的10名董事,并譴責毒丸計劃是“管理層和董事會的工作保護計劃”。除此之外,他還需要應對繁瑣的規章制度。這些規定增加了惡意收購公用事業公司的難度。伊坎若想將在西南天然氣公司的持股比例提高到24.9%以上,需要獲得州監管部門批準。他提出了一種創新解決方案:通過一家信托持有超過該比例的股份,他不會在該信托行使任何表決權,直到他收購西南天然氣公司所有權的計劃獲得批準為止。

    伊坎在Twitter上公開了自己的收購計劃,其中一句個人簡介似乎總結了他如何看待西南天然氣公司阻止他的策略:“有人通過研究人工智能獲得財富。而我則通過研究人類天生的愚蠢行為賺錢?!?/p>

    加大籌碼

    3月初,西南天然氣公司公布了期待已久的Centuri拆分計劃。公司股價上漲至略高于70美元。顯然伊坎需要提高要約獲得更多股份。3月14日,他將要約價格提高到82.50美元,之后公司股價持續上漲。到3月底,西南天然氣公司又有新舉措,完善了Questar融資條款,這可能也是得益于伊坎的施壓策略。公司管理層將用于支持收購Questar的股權融資規模從9至10億美元下降到4億美元,并且發行股票的價格并不是之前宣布該計劃時所說的65美元,而是74美元。

    伊坎隨后在4月4日的一封公開信中批評了這項舉措,指責公司不接受他所提出的82.50美元的價格,卻選擇向局外人發行股份以支持該筆交易,只是為了提高其贏得代理投票權爭奪的概率。伊坎寫道:“應該有某項法律規定,你不能只是為了提高贏得選舉的概率,就燒掉6,000萬美元?!?/p>

    伊坎依舊認為,如果他不能完全掌控西南天然氣公司,其現有管理層不會充分挖掘出公司資產的全部價值,也無法使公司股價達到他所提出的遠高于100美元的目標。自從伊坎在10月5日公開自己的收購計劃以來,西南天然氣公司的股價已經上漲了25%,領先標普500公用事業指數10個百分點。GAMCO的溫特爾表示:“西南天然氣公司是否應該有更優化的經營模式?或許吧。伊坎可能是促使公司拆分服務業務的催化劑?!盨iebert Williams Shank的埃林豪斯表示:“業務拆分不可避免,但伊坎可能加快了這個過程?!?/p>

    但伊坎希望將西南天然氣公司完全解體,將Questar出售后變成一家單一業務公用事業公司。他認為,在投資者眼中,這種模式最有價值。當然,除非伊坎贏得代理投票權爭奪戰,然后新董事會取消毒丸計劃。伊坎表示,如果他的陣營失敗,赫斯特會繼續用糟糕的方式運營這家公用事業公司,甚至進行更多與公用事業毫無關聯的收購。伊坎堅持認為,這種合并會使公司股價遠低于他的出價82.50美元。

    西南天然氣公司將在5月12日的年度大會上公布代理權投票結果。伊坎成功還是失敗,將取決于多個至關重要的因素,這些因素不可預測,例如代理投票權咨詢公司ISS和Glass Lewis的建議、伊坎是否會提高出價以及將價格提高到什么水平等。

    來自西南天然氣的“知情人士”透露,公司曾計劃在完成Questar收購之后徹底拆分Centuri,伊坎的施壓與公司的決定沒有任何關系。知情人士稱:“當伊坎說公司股份價值遠超過100美元時,股東除非失去理智才會以82.50美元的價格出售股份?!敝槿耸窟€表示,聲稱赫斯特計劃將向“關系友好的”投資者發行股份的說法“完全是錯誤的”。西南天然氣公司還向《財富》雜志提供了下列聲明:“在剝離Centuri之后,西南天然氣公司的股東可以在Centuri的成長過程中繼續保持對其的所有權,并從中獲益,而西南天然氣公司作為一家完全接受監管的、市場領先的單一業務公司,將顯著提高融資和經營效率,也將令股東受益……伊坎先生的計劃可能讓股東錯過這兩方面[的好處]?!?

    即使伊坎在代理投票權之爭中敗北,他也沒有損失,因為他獲利數千萬美元。但如果伊坎獲勝,他的收益會成倍增長。為了勝利,他可能需要大幅提高出價。但如果他對于西南天然氣公司的最終價值預測是準確的,即使是略高于90美元的出價也有很大的上漲空間。我曾詢問伊坎他是否因為西南天然氣公司來自能源領域,而他預測到這個領域將變得異?;鸨?,所以才會特意選擇這家公司。他說:“不。我認為經濟存在許多問題,而要從中獲利最好的方式就是收購被低估的公司?!?/p>

    無論如何,西南天然氣公司的收購戰再次確認了美國企業界近半個世紀以來一個不變的事實:沒有CEO希望在外出吃午飯的時候接到卡爾·伊坎的電話。(財富中文網)

    譯者:劉進龍

    審校:汪皓

    卡爾·伊坎(Carl Icahn)在大部分時間里都有好心情,但目前他明顯不開心。

    在10月初的一個星期天,伊坎一直在慢慢增加在拉斯維加斯公用事業公司西南天然氣控股(Southwest Gas Holdings)的股份,悄然獲得了該公司約5%的股份。伊坎確信,市場價格沒有體現西南天然氣公司旗下業績出色的能源建筑業務部門Centuri的價值。伊坎沒有發起突然襲擊,但他準備向公司施壓出售Centuri,并大幅改善其核心業務。

    但在10月3日,一則令人震驚的內部消息披露,西南天然氣計劃在另外一家公司進行一筆大規模收購。西南天然氣將以約15.5億美元現金從道明尼能源(Dominion Energy)收購Questar Pipeline,雙方已經達成協議,這一價格比沃倫·巴菲特之前同意支付的價格高20%,但巴菲特在幾個月前放棄了收購。

    在10月3日之前,伊坎從未與西南天然氣公司CEO約翰·赫斯特進行過交流,并且該公司顯然并不知道這位傳奇的激進投資者正在收購其股份。伊坎非常震驚,于是他迅速采取措施,希望在官宣之前阻止該筆交易。伊坎對我表示:“我連續三天給赫斯特的辦公室打電話,但他的助理每次都說:‘他去吃午飯了?!?/p>

    “我對她說:‘你說的真對。他肯定是出去吃午飯了?!?/p>

    當天,伊坎發表了一封措辭嚴厲的公開信,首次披露了他在西南天然氣持有的股份,并且激烈批評了該公司的表現。他在信中指責公司與Questar的交易是另外一個“將由股東承擔代價的極其嚴重的錯誤”,“這比公司以往犯過的所有錯誤都要嚴重?!彼u公司管理層“讓公司的開支失控”,并指責公司通過虛報支出欺瞞監管機構,例如“喝得酩酊大醉的晚餐”、“指甲護理”和“百萬豪宅”等。伊坎指責公司日常管理水平低下,當同行都在剝離資產僅保留核心業務時,該公司卻在收購“不受監管的”資產,導致公司股價被低估了至少40%。

    伊坎在一系列采訪中向《財富》雜志介紹了他最新的收購戰,展示了他之所以成為華爾街最有聲望、最令人恐懼的激進投資者所使用的工具、技巧、策略和手段。作為產業集團伊坎企業(Icahn Enterprises)(市值150億美元)的創始人,伊坎現年86歲。雖然他是激進投資領域的老手,但業內資深人士表示,收購西南天然氣是自大蕭條爆發前至今,第一次針對一家公用事業上市公司的惡意收購。在大蕭條來臨之前,塞繆爾·英薩爾和摩根大通(J.P. Morgan)聯合收購了多家公用事業公司,并將其合并成美國第一批大型控股公司。激進投資者在本世紀有充分的理由避開公用事業公司,因為各州政府對于該行業規定了容許費率和回報率,而惡意收購者很難說服股東他們經營這些公用事業公司,能比現有團隊做得更好。惡意收購者面臨的另外一種風險是,其收購動作無法掃清取得完全控制權所面臨的巨大的監管障礙。

    伊坎與西南天然氣的收購戰讓我們可以從一個獨特的視角了解資本主義頗具爭議的一面,即單槍匹馬的投資者一方面對公司口誅筆伐,另一方面向股東拋出一個更有利可圖的未來愿景。目標公司必須巧妙防御,同時要努力戰勝入侵者。目前,伊坎在西南天然氣持有4.9%的股份,并對剩余股份發出了每股82.50美元的收購要約。到目前為止,投資者已經有意向將約20%的股份出售給伊坎,他在該公司的持股比例有可能達到25%左右。

    但伊坎與公司管理層的較量將在下個月展開,屆時西南天然氣將在5月12日公布代理權投票結果,這顯然不止是關乎金錢或權力。對于伊坎而言,這是一次大膽的舉措,將證明其在六十年間日臻完善的策略依舊行之有效,而對于西南天然氣來說,這是一場公司控制權的爭奪戰,而且還關乎公司高層的工作崗位。

    邁阿密風云

    3月29日,本人與伊坎和伊坎企業的投資組合經理安德魯·特諾進行了一次長時間通話。特諾在伊坎作為大股東的多家公司董事會任職,也是這場代理權爭奪戰中西南天然氣公司的董事候選人。兩人在位于邁阿密北部一棟辦公大樓頂部兩層的伊坎企業總部通過電話接受了采訪。去年12月,我曾在伊坎辦公室里見過這位留著胡子的傳奇人物,下屬們都稱呼他為“長官”。這間辦公室有帶有邊框的玻璃窗,能欣賞到壯麗的海景,還有一座小型美術館,展示了莫奈和雷諾阿的作品。伊坎在電話中指責西南天然氣公司:“西南天然氣公司不存在任何公司治理。它像是一個獨裁政權……所以我們接管董事會至關重要。否則,他們會繼續大肆收購?!?/p>

    尤其令伊坎憤怒的是西南天然氣公司到目前為止最大的反制手段:去年秋天,該公司啟動了“毒丸計劃”,將伊坎的持股比例限制在9.9%。4月22日要約屆滿后,伊坎的持股可增加一倍。但他目前的持股不能超過這一上限。為了否決毒丸計劃,伊坎正在發起一場代理投票權爭奪戰,計劃用2名伊坎的內部人士和8名富有聲望的獨立董事換掉西南天然氣的整個董事會。

    伊坎稱投資者面臨三個選擇。他表示,第一種選擇:“投票支持我們,然后我們接管董事會。董事會放棄毒丸計劃,股東可以以每股82.50美元的價格出售股票?!钡诙N選擇:股東可以投票支持他的董事人選,但不出售股票,等到新董事會和管理層上臺以及董事們放棄毒丸計劃后股價上漲時出售?;蛘叩谌N選擇:支持現有制度。他認為這將是一場災難。他說道:“如果我們失敗,他們會像過去一樣繼續進行糟糕的收購。公司股價將遠低于我們在要約中提出的82.50美元?!币量差A測,如果他的陣營獲勝,西南天然氣公司的股價將高達144美元。

    伊坎鎖定目標

    伊坎早在2021年7月產生了收購西南天然氣公司的想法,開始增加持股。伊坎最喜歡的目標是被嚴重低估的行業老牌企業,西南天然氣公司恰好符合伊坎的偏好。西南天然氣公司是亞利桑那州和內華達州最大的天然氣供應商,同時還參與加州太浩湖地區的天然氣供應,服務210萬客戶。作為一家公用事業公司,該公司還有一個龐大的非公用事業部門Centuri建筑業務,雖然它是該領域的門外漢。過去五年,Centuri通過內部強勢擴張和一系列收購快速增長,目前占公司總收入的50%以上。從2016年初到2019年9月,西南天然氣公司的股價一路高歌上漲82%,輕松跑贏標普公用事業指數。但之后,其股價大幅下跌,到2021年6月初已經下跌22%,比行業平均表現落后超過30%。

    去年夏天,西南天然氣公司的市盈率約為16倍,這個倍數代表公司利潤低迷。雖然該公司在內華達和亞利桑那這兩個美國增長最快的家庭和商業能源市場占據主導地位,其公用事業部門的收益增長卻毫無亮點可言。從2017年到2021年,公司利潤年增長率僅略高于4%。有多位分析師將公司增長停滯歸因于這兩個州極其嚴格的監管環境。投資銀行、交易與研究公司Siebert Williams Shank的克里斯·埃林豪斯表示:“亞利桑那和內華達等州的費率基準正在快速上漲,許多公司目前的支出不斷增加,但他們要想提高費率需要等待很長時間才能獲得許可。尤其是亞利桑那州采取了嚴格控制漲價的措施?!蔽髂咸烊粴夤镜凝堫^業務是基礎設施業務。從2017年到2021年,該業務的收益增長了95%,年增長18%。(Centuri在2021年的收益下降,原因是與8.55億美元收購新澤西州承包商Riggs Distler有關的一次性支出,該筆交易將在未來幾年大幅提升該部門的盈利能力。)

    正如伊坎后來在申報文件中所說,他看到了該公司存在的問題。市場并不喜歡一家公用事業公司和一家建筑公司的結合體。理由很簡單,投資者之所以選擇投資公用事業公司,是因為其費率上漲有保障,可以提供穩定可靠的收益和股息增長。而建筑公司則截然不同。伊坎將特許經營視為未來的一大贏家,他認為美國公用事業公司將用數十年時間升級電網,為向可再生能源轉型做好準備,并將對老化的天然氣管道網絡進行維修,因此特許經營企業會趁勢獲得發展良機。但公用事業投資者不愿意承擔風險,也不喜歡其投資的公用事業公司同時涉足建筑領域所帶來的額外的不確定性。此外,對于低市盈率的投資對象,投資者更愿意選擇企業集團,而不是單一業務公司。

    事實上,在西南天然氣公司持續推動業務多樣化的同時,大多數公用事業公司都在剝離不相關資產,專注于其公用事業特許經營這項核心業務。道明尼、CenterPoint、DTE和ConEd最近宣布出售中游管道業務,PEG和AEP縮小了或計劃縮小不受管制的可再生能源業務的規模。但西南天然氣公司卻依舊在與大多數同行背道而馳。讓分析師和投資者不滿的是,西南天然氣公司的高層一致表示要將Centuri拆分成一家獨立公司,但卻從未付諸實施。在馬里奧·加貝利的GAMCO公司擔任投資組合經理的蒂姆·溫特爾曾建議西南天然氣公司盡早拆分Centuri,而不是繼續擴大其規模。GAMCO持有西南天然氣公司3%的股份,價值約1.5億美元。溫特爾表示:“公司管理層最初表示,當Centuri的銷售額達到10億美元時,其規模將足以成為一家獨立公司。問題是,當建筑業務發展到一定規模后,其面臨的風險組合與公用事業公司的風險組合截然不同?!?/p>

    去年7月,西南天然氣公司宣布收購Riggs Distler之后,管理層在電話會議上曾強烈暗示西南天然氣公司不會退出建筑業務。溫特爾表示:“事實證明等待并非壞事,因為Centuri表現出色,但最終讓它變成一家獨立公司才是明智的決定?!?/p>

    引起伊坎關注

    在去年10月的那個星期天,最令伊坎不滿的是赫斯特收購Questar的計劃。但伊坎將該計劃視為徹底擊敗對手的一次機會。Questar收購計劃的演示報告披露,西南天然氣公司計劃進行9至10億美元股權融資,用于支持該筆交易。10月5日之后,伊坎曾多次與西南天然氣公司CEO赫斯特通話,稱以約65美元的超低價出售目前價值100美元甚至更高的股票,這個主意糟糕透頂。伊坎在接受采訪時說道:“我告訴他:‘這是個瘋狂的決定!這會嚴重稀釋股票收益。你怎么能一邊跟股東們說:‘不要把股票以75美元的價格賣給伊坎,因為這個價格低估了公司的價值’,一邊卻以60多美元的價格大量出售給你的朋友!’”

    伊坎做出犀利的反擊措施。他首先建議向現有股東進行10億美元配股發行,他將收購未被認購的所有股份以“制止”公司的計劃。他表示,這樣做可以確保一大批股份不會流入“白衣護衛”投資者手中。這類投資者會支持公司管理層,作為回報其將以極低價格獲得公司股份。伊坎表示,赫斯特只是說他會與董事會討論這份提案。

    后來伊坎擔心西南天然氣公司會尋找“白衣護衛”投資者,于是他提出愿意提供整整10億美元資金以每股75美元的價格收購股份,遠遠高于當時的市場交易價格。伊坎將是該計劃的一大贏家,因為他將以較低的價格,額外獲得西南天然氣25%的股份。

    但董事會拒絕了伊坎的提議,理由是該價格嚴重低估了公司股票的價值。伊坎反駁稱公司拒絕他提出的每股75美元的價格,卻打算以65美元的價格出售公司股份,這種做法“不可理喻”。10月10日,西南天然氣公司董事會啟動了“毒丸計劃”,將伊坎的持股比例限制在9.9%。兩周后,伊坎做出反擊,提出以每股75美元收購所有西南天然氣公司股份的要約。但他還需要獲得董事會多數同意終止毒丸計劃。于是,伊坎發起了代理投票權爭奪,計劃以他自己提名的候選人取代西南天然氣公司現有的10名董事,并譴責毒丸計劃是“管理層和董事會的工作保護計劃”。除此之外,他還需要應對繁瑣的規章制度。這些規定增加了惡意收購公用事業公司的難度。伊坎若想將在西南天然氣公司的持股比例提高到24.9%以上,需要獲得州監管部門批準。他提出了一種創新解決方案:通過一家信托持有超過該比例的股份,他不會在該信托行使任何表決權,直到他收購西南天然氣公司所有權的計劃獲得批準為止。

    伊坎在Twitter上公開了自己的收購計劃,其中一句個人簡介似乎總結了他如何看待西南天然氣公司阻止他的策略:“有人通過研究人工智能獲得財富。而我則通過研究人類天生的愚蠢行為賺錢?!?/p>

    加大籌碼

    3月初,西南天然氣公司公布了期待已久的Centuri拆分計劃。公司股價上漲至略高于70美元。顯然伊坎需要提高要約獲得更多股份。3月14日,他將要約價格提高到82.50美元,之后公司股價持續上漲。到3月底,西南天然氣公司又有新舉措,完善了Questar融資條款,這可能也是得益于伊坎的施壓策略。公司管理層將用于支持收購Questar的股權融資規模從9至10億美元下降到4億美元,并且發行股票的價格并不是之前宣布該計劃時所說的65美元,而是74美元。

    伊坎隨后在4月4日的一封公開信中批評了這項舉措,指責公司不接受他所提出的82.50美元的價格,卻選擇向局外人發行股份以支持該筆交易,只是為了提高其贏得代理投票權爭奪的概率。伊坎寫道:“應該有某項法律規定,你不能只是為了提高贏得選舉的概率,就燒掉6,000萬美元?!?/p>

    伊坎依舊認為,如果他不能完全掌控西南天然氣公司,其現有管理層不會充分挖掘出公司資產的全部價值,也無法使公司股價達到他所提出的遠高于100美元的目標。自從伊坎在10月5日公開自己的收購計劃以來,西南天然氣公司的股價已經上漲了25%,領先標普500公用事業指數10個百分點。GAMCO的溫特爾表示:“西南天然氣公司是否應該有更優化的經營模式?或許吧。伊坎可能是促使公司拆分服務業務的催化劑?!盨iebert Williams Shank的埃林豪斯表示:“業務拆分不可避免,但伊坎可能加快了這個過程?!?/p>

    但伊坎希望將西南天然氣公司完全解體,將Questar出售后變成一家單一業務公用事業公司。他認為,在投資者眼中,這種模式最有價值。當然,除非伊坎贏得代理投票權爭奪戰,然后新董事會取消毒丸計劃。伊坎表示,如果他的陣營失敗,赫斯特會繼續用糟糕的方式運營這家公用事業公司,甚至進行更多與公用事業毫無關聯的收購。伊坎堅持認為,這種合并會使公司股價遠低于他的出價82.50美元。

    西南天然氣公司將在5月12日的年度大會上公布代理權投票結果。伊坎成功還是失敗,將取決于多個至關重要的因素,這些因素不可預測,例如代理投票權咨詢公司ISS和Glass Lewis的建議、伊坎是否會提高出價以及將價格提高到什么水平等。

    來自西南天然氣的“知情人士”透露,公司曾計劃在完成Questar收購之后徹底拆分Centuri,伊坎的施壓與公司的決定沒有任何關系。知情人士稱:“當伊坎說公司股份價值遠超過100美元時,股東除非失去理智才會以82.50美元的價格出售股份?!敝槿耸窟€表示,聲稱赫斯特計劃將向“關系友好的”投資者發行股份的說法“完全是錯誤的”。西南天然氣公司還向《財富》雜志提供了下列聲明:“在剝離Centuri之后,西南天然氣公司的股東可以在Centuri的成長過程中繼續保持對其的所有權,并從中獲益,而西南天然氣公司作為一家完全接受監管的、市場領先的單一業務公司,將顯著提高融資和經營效率,也將令股東受益……伊坎先生的計劃可能讓股東錯過這兩方面[的好處]?!?

    即使伊坎在代理投票權之爭中敗北,他也沒有損失,因為他獲利數千萬美元。但如果伊坎獲勝,他的收益會成倍增長。為了勝利,他可能需要大幅提高出價。但如果他對于西南天然氣公司的最終價值預測是準確的,即使是略高于90美元的出價也有很大的上漲空間。我曾詢問伊坎他是否因為西南天然氣公司來自能源領域,而他預測到這個領域將變得異?;鸨?,所以才會特意選擇這家公司。他說:“不。我認為經濟存在許多問題,而要從中獲利最好的方式就是收購被低估的公司?!?/p>

    無論如何,西南天然氣公司的收購戰再次確認了美國企業界近半個世紀以來一個不變的事實:沒有CEO希望在外出吃午飯的時候接到卡爾·伊坎的電話。(財富中文網)

    譯者:劉進龍

    審校:汪皓

    Carl Icahn isn't always brimming with cheer, but at this particular moment he was distinctly unhappy.

    It was a Sunday, early in October, and Icahn had slowly been building up a stake in Las Vegas utility Southwest Gas Holdings, quietly amassing around 5% of the company. Icahn correctly believed that the market was giving Southwest’s stock zero value for the excellent Centuri energy construction unit. Icahn hadn’t pounced yet, but he was poised to start pressuring Southwest to sell Centuri and greatly improve operations at its core utility.

    Instead, on Oct. 3, a bombshell leak revealed that Southwest was planning another big acquisition, in yet another business. Southwest had reached a deal to purchase Questar Pipeline from Dominion Energy for around $1.55 billion in cash, a price 20% higher than Warren Buffett had agreed to pay before abandoning the deal months earlier.

    Till that day in October, Icahn had never spoken to Southwest CEO John Hester, and the company was apparently unaware that the legendary activist was amassing a position. So appalled was Icahn that he raced to stop the deal before an official announcement. As Icahn told me, “I kept calling Hester’s office for three days, and his assistant kept saying, ‘He’s out to lunch.’

    “I said to her, ‘You’re so right about that, he sure is out to lunch.’”

    The same day, Icahn issued a scathing letter that for the first time publicly disclosed his Southwest holdings and left no aspect of Southwest’s performance unscorched. It called the Questar deal yet another “egregious error at the expense of shareholders” that made “all past errors pale by comparison.” He took management to task for “letting expenses balloon” and allegedly antagonizing regulators by padding expenses for the likes of “boozy dinners,” “manicures,” and “million dollar homes.” Icahn charged that poor day-to-day management and the strategy of buying “unregulated” assets when peers were divesting all but core operations led to shares being undervalued by at least 40%.

    Over a series of interviews, Icahn took Fortune inside his latest takeover battle, demonstrating the tools, tricks, strategies, and maneuvers that have made him arguably the most renowned, and feared, corporate activist on Wall Street. The founder of industrial conglomerate Icahn Enterprises (market cap: $15 billion) is 86 now, and while he’s an old hand at activist investing, industry veterans say this marks the first hostile takeover attempt of a public utility since prior to the Great Depression, when such titans as Samuel Insull and J.P. Morgan led winning attacks on sundry utilities, gathering the conquered into some of America’s first giant holding companies. Activists have had good reason to steer clear of utilities in the century since: In this industry where state authorities establish allowable rates and returns, an unwanted buyer faces a tough climb in convincing shareholders that they can run things a lot better than the current crew. An invader is also risking that its acquisition drive won’t clear the high regulatory hurdles needed to take full control.

    Icahn’s battle with Southwest offers a unique perspective on this highly contentious corner of capitalism, where a lone investor lobs verbal hand grenades while simultaneously proffering a vision of a more profitable future to shareholders. The target company must skillfully play defense, while also trying to outflank the aggressor. Icahn now owns a 4.9% stake in Southwest, and he’s launched a tender offer at $82.50 per share for any and all the remaining stock. So far, investors have tendered around 20% of their shares to Icahn, potentially bringing his total position so far to roughly 25%.

    But as this fight unfolds over the next month when Southwest will release the proxy results on May 12, it’s clear this is about more than just money or power. For Icahn it’s a bold way to demonstrate that his strategies honed over six decades are still relevant, while for Southwest it’s a fight to keep control over the company—and for those at the top, their jobs.

    Miami vice

    On March 29, I spoke at length by phone with Icahn and Andrew Teno, a portfolio manager for Icahn Enterprises who serves on several boards where the boss is a major shareholder, and who’s a candidate for a seat at Southwest in the proxy contest. They were speaking from Icahn’s headquarters on the top two floors of an office tower north of Miami. Last December, I met the bearded legend, whom lieutenants call “the chief,” in his office of framed glass that features sweeping ocean views and a mini gallery of paintings by Monet and Renoir. “There’s no semblance of corporate governance at Southwest,” Icahn charges on the call. “It’s like a dictatorship…That’s why it’s so crucial we take over the board. Otherwise, they’ll just continue on their acquisition spree.”

    He’s particularly incensed by Southwest’s biggest countermove to date: Last fall it adopted a “poison pill” that limits Icahn to a 9.9% stake in the company. Icahn could double his holdings after the tender expires on April 22. But for now, he’s capped at a tight ceiling. To kill the pill, Icahn is conducting a parallel proxy fight that would replace the entire Southwest board with 10 new directors: two Icahn insiders and a prestigious group of eight independents.

    Icahn said that investors face three choices. First: “Vote for us, and we take over. They drop the pill, and you get the $82.50,” he says. Second: They can vote shares for his directors but keep their stock on prospects that the price will go much higher once the new board and management take the helm and the directors junk the pill. Or third: They can support the current regime. That option’s a disaster, he contends. “If we lose, they’ll go on making bad acquisitions just like in the past. The stock will tank far below our $82.50 offer,” he says. But if his side takes charge, Icahn predicts, the stock’s worth as much as $144.

    Icahn circles his target

    Icahn’s quest first began in July of 2021, when he started accumulating shares of Southwest Gas. The target fit Icahn’s favorite profile as a vastly undervalued industrial stalwart. Southwest is the largest natural gas provider in Arizona and Nevada, and also covers California’s Lake Tahoe area, serving 2.1 million customers. For a utility, it’s an outlier in also harboring a big nonutility unit, that Centuri construction arm. Over the past five years, Centuri grew rapidly via strong internal expansion and a series of acquisitions, and now accounts for over 50% of revenues. Southwest’s stock thrived from the start of 2016 to early September of 2019, rising 82% and handily beating the S&P utilities index. Then its shares went into sharp decline, falling 22% by early June of 2021, underperforming the industry by over 30%.

    By last summer, Southwest was selling at roughly 16 times earnings, a low multiple on depressed profits. Although it dominates two of America’s fastest-growing household and business energy markets in Nevada and Arizona, the utility segment has posted unimpressive growth in earnings. Profits increased just over 4% annually from 2017 to 2021. Several analysts ascribe that halting rise to the extremely the tough regulatory climate in both states. “In states like Arizona and Nevada where the rate base is growing fast, companies have increases in expenses right away, but there’s a long lag before they get permission to raise their charges,” says Chris Ellinghaus of Siebert Williams Shank, an investment banking, trading, and research firm. “And Arizona is especially tough in holding down increases.” Southwest’s star is the infrastructure business. From 2017 to 2021, its earnings rose by 95% or 18% a year. (Centuri earnings declined in 2021 owing to one-time charges tied to its $855 million acquisition of New Jersey–based contractor Riggs Distler, a deal that should substantially raise its profitability in the years ahead.)

    Icahn saw the problem, as he later noted in his filings. The markets dislike combining a utility and a construction unit under the same umbrella. The reason: Investors choose utilities because their rates are guaranteed to increase, providing steady, reliable growth in earnings and dividends. But the construction business is a different animal. Icahn views the franchise as a big winner going forward, believing it will ride the wave as U.S. utilities will spend decades upgrading the grid to prepare for the transition to renewable energy and to repair aging natural gas pipeline networks. But utility investors are risk-averse and don’t like the extra uncertainty in owning a utility that’s also in the construction field. Plus, investors tend to pay lower multiples for conglomerates than for pure-play businesses.

    Indeed, at the same time Southwest kept diversifying, most utilities were shedding unrelated assets to focus on their core utility franchises. Dominion, CenterPoint, DTE, and ConEd recently sold their midstream pipeline units, and PEG and AEP downsized or are looking to downsize their unregulated renewables. But Southwest kept moving in the opposite direction. What frustrated analysts and investors is that Southwest’s leaders kept talking about the virtues of spinning Centuri into a separate company but didn’t do it. Tim Winter, a portfolio manager at Mario Gabelli’s GAMCO, owner of some $150 million or 3% of Southwest’s shares, suggested that Southwest separate Centuri earlier instead of continuing to build it. “They initially said that when Centuri reached $1 billion in sales it would be large enough to become a separate company,” says Winter. “The problem is that when a construction business gets to a certain size, its risk profile is far different from that of a utility.”

    On the conference call last July following the announcement of the Riggs Distler deal, management strongly implied that Southwest was in the construction game to stay. “As it turned out, waiting wasn’t a bad thing, because Centuri was doing so well, but it’s a good thing they finally decided to separate it,” says Winter.

    Getting Icahn’s attention

    It was Hester’s blueprint for financing Questar that most irked Icahn on that Sunday in October. But Icahn saw that plan as an opening to checkmate his opponent. The presentation for the Questar purchase disclosed that Southwest planned to raise $900 million to $1 billion in equity to finance the deal. In his calls with Hester in the days after Oct. 5, Icahn told the Southwest CEO that it was a terrible idea to sell shares worth $100 or more at the current, greatly depressed price of around $65. “I told him, ‘This is crazy! It’s massively dilutive. How can you tell your shareholders, “Don’t tender your shares to Icahn at $75, because it undervalues the company,” then go and offer a large bloc to your friends in the $60s!’” Icahn told me in our interview.

    In a shrewd riposte, Icahn first recommended a $1 billion rights offering to existing stockholders that he would “backstop” by buying any unpurchased shares. That option, he said, would assure that a big bloc didn’t go to a “white squire” investor who would support management in return for getting shares at a deep discount. According to Icahn, Hester simply said that he’d discuss the proposal with his board.

    When Icahn became worried that Southwest would indeed seek a “white squire,” he offered to fund the entire $1 billion at $75 a share, a big premium to where the shares were trading. The deal would have been a huge winner for Icahn, giving him an additional 25% of all Southwest stock at a bargain price.

    Southwest’s board rejected Icahn’s offer on grounds that it vastly undervalued the company’s shares. Icahn fired back, calling the rationale for selling at $65 when he was offering $75 “crazy.” On Oct. 10, the Southwest board introduced the poison pill limiting Icahn’s holdings to 9.9%. Two weeks later, Icahn counterattacked by starting a tender offer for any and all Southwest shares at $75. But he also needed to capture a majority of the board to junk the pill. Denouncing spoiler as “a management and board job protection plan,” Icahn started a proxy contest to replace all 10 Southwest directors with his own candidates. Still, he had to deal with the heavy regulations that make the hostile takeover of a utility so difficult. He needed approval from state regulators to amass over 24.9% of Southwest’s shares. Icahn proposed an innovative solution: holding any stock over that threshold in a trust where he would exercise no voting rights until he’d secured the go-ahead to take ownership.

    Icahn posted the offer on Twitter, under a bio line that appeared to summarize his opinion of Southwest’s strategy to repel him: “Some people get rich studying artificial intelligence. Me, I make money studying natural stupidity.”

    Sweetening the deal

    By early March, Southwest announced the long-awaited separation of Centuri. Southwest’s stock rose into the low $70s. It was clear that Icahn needed to sweeten his offer to win more shares in the tender. On March 14, he raised his bid to $82.50, and the stock has been climbing ever since. Later in March, Southwest made another move that improved the terms for the Questar financing, also likely the result of Icahn’s pressure tactics. Management pared its equity raise to finance the Questar deal from $900 million to $1 billion to just $400 million––and got the cash by selling shares not at the $65 that prevailed when it announced the deal, but at $74.

    Icahn subsequently denounced the new arrangement in an April 4 letter, slamming Southwest for not taking his bid to back the deal at $82.50 and instead issuing shares to outsiders in an effort to increase the odds of winning the proxy battle. “There must be a law somewhere saying that you can’t burn $60 million…simply to make the chance of winning an election higher,” wrote Icahn.

    Icahn still believes that if he doesn’t fully take charge, Southwest’s current management will never exploit the full value of its assets, and never get the stock to his target of well over $100. Since Icahn took his campaign public on Oct. 5, Southwest’s shares have jumped 25%, outpacing the S&P 500 Utilities index by 10 points. “Could Southwest have been run more optimally? Perhaps. Icahn was probably a catalyst in getting it to separate the services business,” says Winter of GAMCO. Adds Ellinghaus of Siebert Williams Shank, “The separation was an inevitability, but Icahn probably accelerated the process.”

    But Icahn wants a full breakup, so that Southwest sells Questar as well to become a pure-play utility, in his view the model that investors will value most highly. Of course, that can only happen if Icahn wins the proxy war so that the new board scuttles the poison pill. Icahn contends that if his side doesn’t win, Hester will keep doing a poor job running the utility, and probably make more nonutility acquisitions. That combination, Icahn insists, would render the shares worth a lot less than his $82.50 bid.

    Southwest will release the proxy results at the annual meeting on May 12. Whether Icahn prevails or loses hinges on such crucial yet unpredictable factors as the recommendations from proxy advisory firms ISS and Glass Lewis, and whether Icahn increases his bid, and if so by how much.

    A Southwest source “close to the deal” told me that the company had planned all along to split Centuri after securing the Questar acquisition, and that Icahn’s pressure had nothing to do with that decision. “It would be insane for shareholders to sell at $82.50 when Icahn says shares are worth way over $100,” says the source, who added that any characterization that Hester attempted to place shares with “friendly” investors is “completely inaccurate.” Southwest also provided Fortune with the following statement: “With the spinoff of Centuri, Southwest Gas stockholders will benefit from continued ownership of the Centuri growth story and the significant financing and operating efficiencies available to Southwest Gas as a fully regulated pure play leader…Mr. Icahn’s plan risks denying stockholders [the benefits of] both.”

    If Icahn loses the proxy fight, he’ll do fine by bagging several tens of millions in gains. But he could make multiples of that number if he wins. To get there, he’ll probably have to substantially increase his bid. But if he’s right about Southwest’s eventual worth, even a number in the low-$90s would leave plenty of upside. I asked Icahn if he specifically chose Southwest because it’s in the energy business, and foresaw that the field would get incredibly hot. “Naw,” he says. “I think the economy has a lot of problems, and the best way to benefit is to buy undervalued companies.”

    Either way, the battle for Southwest reaffirms one truth that has remained a constant for nearly a half a century in corporate America: No CEO wants Carl Icahn to be on the other end of the phone when they’re out to lunch.

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