James Ashton: 'Absentee landlord' shareholders? No, we're all activists now

  • @mrjamesashton

Outlook The attention that has been given to making sure shareholders are not the "absentee landlords" that Lord Myners grumbled about in the aftermath of the financial crisis should have made redundant the description of any investor as an activist. It clearly hasn't, as Carl Icahn's move on Apple proves.

Various stewardship codes are designed to underline the point that we're all activists now. Even the polite Norwegians are recruiting corporate governance experts to ensure their voices are heard around the boardroom table of companies in which their huge sovereign wealth fund has invested.

Sometimes there is no substitute for a little megaphone diplomacy, though. That's Mr Icahn's speciality, given the shake-ups he has sparked at the media giant Time Warner and internet stock Yahoo. It's probably the only way to go with Apple, whose sensational growth has given it a good excuse in the past to listen to investors but rarely act on what they are told.

Handing back cash is seen as a sign of weakness in the technology world. Apple's chief executive, Tim Cook, has already put in train one of the biggest share buybacks on Wall Street. Mr Icahn wants more, and says the iPod maker is undervalued. He may have a point, as its shares have tumbled 40 per cent since last September on fears that competitors are starting to make headway against it.

Perhaps Lord Myners, the former City minister who isn't averse to a bit of activism as chairman of the British arm of Cevian Capital, which has stakes in security firm G4S and wealth manager Old Mutual, should have taken a bite of Apple himself.