Carl Icahn recently gave a guest lecture to Professor Robert Shiller’s Yale Financial Markets class.
In the lecture, Icahn talks about how he started out in finance and evolved into a shareholder activist. He trots out a few of his old saws: the biggest challenge facing corporate America is weak management and today’s CEOs, with exceptions, might not be the most capable of leading global companies. He also discusses the economy and slaps down an undergrad Yalie who has the temerity to have him repeat an answer, which is fun to watch. There are a few gems, including this one:
I was borrowing money and bought all these convertibles and I thought I was a genius and Jack Dreyfus said, you’re going to lose all your money. I had made a few bucks playing poker and that’s how I started with about eight, ten thousand dollars and I made all this money by borrowing at 90%. I would go out and I was making a lot more in two weeks than my father made in two years. My father said, well you know, put the money away. I said, no Dad, I’m really going to make a fortune here. So, I went out–I remember once–and bought a Galaxy convertible. It was a beautiful car. I had a beautiful girlfriend; she was a model–it was just pretty nice.
What happened? The crash came in 1962. I was wiped out in one day; I didn’t even have the poker winnings left. I tell you, I can’t recall if the car left first or the girl left first, but it was pretty close–maybe the same day actually. After that, I learned you have to learn something and I became an expert in options.
Here’s Icahn on his investment strategy:
What I do today still is pretty much the same idea. You buy stocks in a company that is cheap and you look at the asset value of the companies that you buy the stocks in and it becomes a little more complex. Basically, you look for the reason that they’re really cheap and the major reason is often–and usually–very poor management. In a sense, it’s like an arbitrage. You go in; you buy a lot of stock in a company; and you then try to make changes at the company. Today, if you read the newspapers tomorrow, you’ll read–we’re trying to do the same thing at Motorola and if you bother to read The Wall Street Journal tomorrow–or maybe The Times, I don’t know–you’ll see a little bit of what we’re trying to do there. We’re trying to get them to change the structure of the company. We think the board is a very poor board there and we’re trying to change what happens.
And, finally, Icahn responding to a question about activism:
Student: Hi, Mr. Icahn. One major criticism that one CEO against corporate activist that they think activists don’t think long-term interest of the corporation; they just want to get money and get out. How do you answer to that?
Icahn: I would just say that the facts don’t bear that out as far as I’m concerned. I mean, if you–I own quite a few companies. Any company we got control of I put literally hundreds of millions of dollars into them. I mean, I bought a company in 1985–a rail car company–we put hundreds of millions; we still have the fleet. I bought casinos and energy companies and over the years kept them; sold them now, but that’s after ten years. So, any company that we’ve been able to get control of I actually kept. Because getting control is a great thing. If you really believe that management’s not doing well, you can go and clean them up and put a good guy in, So, we–I know they criticize you like that, but that’s part of the propaganda machine; but it’s just not the facts.
Student: A related question is that, what do you do when your activist spirit is not appreciated, as in the case of Motorola when you asked for a seat on the board but just get declined? What’s your next step?
Icahn: Alright, you have patience and now it’s a year later and we’ll see what happens now. Motorola is a good example of what I’m talking about. People don’t like it; they don’t like the cell phone business, but I really think that that business, if you look at Motorola and study it, you’re buying that whole business for nothing. It’s not reflected in the stock price, but they have to do it. As I said publicly, take that business out of Motorola; spin it off and give it to the shareholders. I think, then, you’ve got a real good value. What I’m saying is, nobody likes it now, but hopefully I’m correct on that. I really think by being an activist and putting pressure on that board that has done nothing, really–I think eventually that will happen, hopefully.
Hat tip Mark.