Why Carl Icahn Gets What He Wants

ebay logo
Source: courtesy of ebay
When activist investor Carl Icahn first bought a stake of around 0.8% in eBay Inc. (NASDAQ: EBAY) in January of this year, the curtain went up on a play where you know that the mouse in the first scene is going to end up dead by the end of the second act. In the drama of Icahn’s pursuit of eBay in an effort to get it to spin off its PayPal business, the eBay CEO played the part of the mouse to Icahn’s cat.

Tuesday’s announcement that eBay’s board of directors and its CEO have decided to split up the company and leave Donahoe out as CEO of either successor company was almost predictable, even after Icahn in late April gave up his proxy fight and board nominations in exchange for a board seat. Icahn made it clear that he had no intention of giving up his demand that eBay spin off PayPal; he just intended to press his case privately.

Where Icahn leads, there are plenty of followers. His tactic of taking a small stake in a company ultimately leads to a run-up in the share price when the stake is made public. Then Icahn presses his case for more payouts to shareholders very publicly in every available media. When he wins — which he has been doing pretty often lately — he does not celebrate his victories silently. When he doesn’t win, most people remember the fight and not the outcome. Icahn has the knack of making even a defeat seem like a victory

ALSO READ: The Best and Worst Performing Dow Stocks in 2014

Icahn has always been adept at using the media to make his case, and he has adopted social media like Twitter and Facebook, as well as created his own shareholder rights website to reach an even wider audience. The added pressure from analysts and the media on can be very persuasive to a company’s board that is supposed to promote shareholders’ interests.

The results are not always so spectacular, but it is hard to deny that Icahn is on a roll. His stake in Family Dollar Stores Inc. (NYSE: FDO) brought competing buyout offers for the chain, and Icahn cashed out with a $200 million profit. He made $800 million before selling his stake in Netflix Inc. (NASDAQ: NFLX).

He lost his fight for control of Dell, and his tussle with Apple Inc. (NASDAQ: AAPL) ended without Icahn getting the additional $50 billion stock buyback he wanted. His stake in Talisman Energy Inc. (NYSE: TLM) is probably worth half what he paid for it last October, but the company continues to shed assets as it tries to consolidate its holdings after adding two Icahn appointees to its board of directors in December, and it will replace its CEO by the end of this year.

ALSO READ: 8 Analyst Stocks Under $10 With Massive Upside Calls

The remaining big play for Icahn is Herbalife Ltd. (NYSE: HLF), where he sided with the company against a short seller attack from Bill Ackman and Pershing Square Capital Management. Icahn noisily took the long side of Ackman’s bet and now holds about 17% of the multilevel marketing company’s stock and five of eight board seats, after agreeing to a one-year standstill agreement and to support the board at the general meeting last April. Icahn still retains the right to buy up to 25% of the Herbalife, but shares have fallen to within about $5 of what Icahn paid for his 13% stake in the company.

Herbalife’s stock buybacks totaled about $1.28 billion in the first two quarters of this year, while its long-term debt has doubled from $850 million at the end of December to $1.74 billion at the end of June. Herbalife’s share price drop is not the issue. Here is how finance website ZeroHedge described what was happening back in April:

[T]he FTC, DOJ and FBI are investigating [whether] Herbalife … is a Ponzi scheme, that much is clear. However, neither iCahn [sic], nor the management team, nor shareholders are looking forward to being around when the conclusion of said inquiries is revealed. And, as a result, by the time the various probes are over, Herbalife will be a massively levered debt-to-equity passthrough vehicle, which uses a tiny fraction of cash from operations, together with gargantuan leverage, to syphon off as much cash from the company to (activist) shareholders as humanly possible.

That may be an overstatement, but having Herbalife’s shares drop to zero — as Ackman predicted — won’t affect Icahn’s ability to profit from his stake in Herbalife.

That may be his secret to getting what he wants (a profit): knowing how to turn broken eggs into an omelet.

ALSO READ: 10 Best Technology Companies to Work For

Sponsored: Find a Qualified Financial Advisor

Finding a qualified financial advisor doesn’t have to be hard. SmartAsset’s free tool matches you with up to 3 fiduciary financial advisors in your area in 5 minutes. Each advisor has been vetted by SmartAsset and is held to a fiduciary standard to act in your best interests. If you’re ready to be matched with local advisors that can help you achieve your financial goals, get started now.