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    86岁激进投资者再次出手:我通过研究人类天生的愚蠢行为赚钱

    86岁激进投资者再次出手:我通过研究人类天生的愚蠢行为赚钱

    SHAWN TULLY 2022-04-08
    卡尔·伊坎准备向西南天然气控股公司施压出售旗下企业。

    卡尔·伊坎(Carl Icahn)在大部分时间里都有好心情,但目前他明显不开心。

    在10月初的一个星期天,伊坎一直在慢慢增加在拉斯维加斯公用事业公司西南天然气控股(Southwest Gas Holdings)的股份,悄然获得了该公司约5%的股份。伊坎确信,市场价格没有体现西南天然气公司旗下业绩出色的能源建筑业务部门Centuri的价值。伊坎没有发起突然袭击,但他准备向公司施压出售Centuri,并大幅改善其核心业务。

    但在10月3日,一则令人震惊的内部消息披露,西南天然气计划在另外一家公司进行一笔大规模收购。西南天然气将以约15.5亿美元现金从道明尼能源(Dominion Energy)收购Questar Pipeline,双方已经达成协议,这一价格比沃伦·巴菲特之前同意支付的价格高20%,但巴菲特在几个月前放弃了收购。

    在10月3日之前,伊坎从未与西南天然气公司CEO约翰·赫斯特进行过交流,并且该公司显然并不知道这位传奇的激进投资者正在收购其股份。伊坎非常震惊,于是他迅速采取措施,希望在官宣之前阻止该笔交易。伊坎对我表示:“我连续三天给赫斯特的办公室打电话,但他的助理每次都说:‘他去吃午饭了。’”

    “我对她说:‘你说的真对。他肯定是出去吃午饭了。’”

    当天,伊坎发表了一封措辞严厉的公开信,首次披露了他在西南天然气持有的股份,并且激烈批评了该公司的表现。他在信中指责公司与Questar的交易是另外一个“将由股东承担代价的极其严重的错误”,“这比公司以往犯过的所有错误都要严重。”他批评公司管理层“让公司的开支失控”,并指责公司通过虚报支出欺瞒监管机构,例如“喝得酩酊大醉的晚餐”、“指甲护理”和“百万豪宅”等。伊坎指责公司日常管理水平低下,当同行都在剥离资产仅保留核心业务时,该公司却在收购“不受监管的”资产,导致公司股价被低估了至少40%。

    伊坎在一系列采访中向《财富》杂志介绍了他最新的收购战,展示了他之所以成为华尔街最有声望、最令人恐惧的激进投资者所使用的工具、技巧、策略和手段。作为产业集团伊坎企业(Icahn Enterprises)(市值150亿美元)的创始人,伊坎现年86岁。虽然他是激进投资领域的老手,但业内资深人士表示,收购西南天然气是自大萧条爆发前至今,第一次针对一家公用事业上市公司的恶意收购。在大萧条来临之前,塞缪尔·英萨尔和摩根大通(J.P. Morgan)联合收购了多家公用事业公司,并将其合并成美国第一批大型控股公司。激进投资者在本世纪有充分的理由避开公用事业公司,因为各州政府对于该行业规定了容许费率和回报率,而恶意收购者很难说服股东他们经营这些公用事业公司,能比现有团队做得更好。恶意收购者面临的另外一种风险是,其收购动作无法扫清取得完全控制权所面临的巨大的监管障碍。

    伊坎与西南天然气的收购战让我们可以从一个独特的视角了解资本主义颇具争议的一面,即单枪匹马的投资者一方面对公司口诛笔伐,另一方面向股东抛出一个更有利可图的未来愿景。目标公司必须巧妙防御,同时要努力战胜入侵者。目前,伊坎在西南天然气持有4.9%的股份,并对剩余股份发出了每股82.50美元的收购要约。到目前为止,投资者已经有意向将约20%的股份出售给伊坎,他在该公司的持股比例有可能达到25%左右。

    但伊坎与公司管理层的较量将在下个月展开,届时西南天然气将在5月12日公布代理权投票结果,这显然不止是关乎金钱或权力。对于伊坎而言,这是一次大胆的举措,将证明其在六十年间日臻完善的策略依旧行之有效,而对于西南天然气来说,这是一场公司控制权的争夺战,而且还关乎公司高层的工作岗位。

    迈阿密风云

    3月29日,本人与伊坎和伊坎企业的投资组合经理安德鲁·特诺进行了一次长时间通话。特诺在伊坎作为大股东的多家公司董事会任职,也是这场代理权争夺战中西南天然气公司的董事候选人。两人在位于迈阿密北部一栋办公大楼顶部两层的伊坎企业总部通过电话接受了采访。去年12月,我曾在伊坎办公室里见过这位留着胡子的传奇人物,下属们都称呼他为“长官”。这间办公室有带有边框的玻璃窗,能欣赏到壮丽的海景,还有一座小型美术馆,展示了莫奈和雷诺阿的作品。伊坎在电话中指责西南天然气公司:“西南天然气公司不存在任何公司治理。它像是一个独裁政权……所以我们接管董事会至关重要。否则,他们会继续大肆收购。”

    尤其令伊坎愤怒的是西南天然气公司到目前为止最大的反制手段:去年秋天,该公司启动了“毒丸计划”,将伊坎的持股比例限制在9.9%。4月22日要约届满后,伊坎的持股可增加一倍。但他目前的持股不能超过这一上限。为了否决毒丸计划,伊坎正在发起一场代理投票权争夺战,计划用2名伊坎的内部人士和8名富有声望的独立董事换掉西南天然气的整个董事会。

    伊坎称投资者面临三个选择。他表示,第一种选择:“投票支持我们,然后我们接管董事会。董事会放弃毒丸计划,股东可以以每股82.50美元的价格出售股票。”第二种选择:股东可以投票支持他的董事人选,但不出售股票,等到新董事会和管理层上台以及董事们放弃毒丸计划后股价上涨时出售。或者第三种选择:支持现有制度。他认为这将是一场灾难。他说道:“如果我们失败,他们会像过去一样继续进行糟糕的收购。公司股价将远低于我们在要约中提出的82.50美元。”伊坎预测,如果他的阵营获胜,西南天然气公司的股价将高达144美元。

    伊坎锁定目标

    伊坎早在2021年7月产生了收购西南天然气公司的想法,开始增加持股。伊坎最喜欢的目标是被严重低估的行业老牌企业,西南天然气公司恰好符合伊坎的偏好。西南天然气公司是亚利桑那州和内华达州最大的天然气供应商,同时还参与加州太浩湖地区的天然气供应,服务210万客户。作为一家公用事业公司,该公司还有一个庞大的非公用事业部门Centuri建筑业务,虽然它是该领域的门外汉。过去五年,Centuri通过内部强势扩张和一系列收购快速增长,目前占公司总收入的50%以上。从2016年初到2019年9月,西南天然气公司的股价一路高歌上涨82%,轻松跑赢标普公用事业指数。但之后,其股价大幅下跌,到2021年6月初已经下跌22%,比行业平均表现落后超过30%。

    去年夏天,西南天然气公司的市盈率约为16倍,这个倍数代表公司利润低迷。虽然该公司在内华达和亚利桑那这两个美国增长最快的家庭和商业能源市场占据主导地位,其公用事业部门的收益增长却毫无亮点可言。从2017年到2021年,公司利润年增长率仅略高于4%。有多位分析师将公司增长停滞归因于这两个州极其严格的监管环境。投资银行、交易与研究公司Siebert Williams Shank的克里斯·埃林豪斯表示:“亚利桑那和内华达等州的费率基准正在快速上涨,许多公司目前的支出不断增加,但他们要想提高费率需要等待很长时间才能获得许可。尤其是亚利桑那州采取了严格控制涨价的措施。”西南天然气公司的龙头业务是基础设施业务。从2017年到2021年,该业务的收益增长了95%,年增长18%。(Centuri在2021年的收益下降,原因是与8.55亿美元收购新泽西州承包商Riggs Distler有关的一次性支出,该笔交易将在未来几年大幅提升该部门的盈利能力。)

    正如伊坎后来在申报文件中所说,他看到了该公司存在的问题。市场并不喜欢一家公用事业公司和一家建筑公司的结合体。理由很简单,投资者之所以选择投资公用事业公司,是因为其费率上涨有保障,可以提供稳定可靠的收益和股息增长。而建筑公司则截然不同。伊坎将特许经营视为未来的一大赢家,他认为美国公用事业公司将用数十年时间升级电网,为向可再生能源转型做好准备,并将对老化的天然气管道网络进行维修,因此特许经营企业会趁势获得发展良机。但公用事业投资者不愿意承担风险,也不喜欢其投资的公用事业公司同时涉足建筑领域所带来的额外的不确定性。此外,对于低市盈率的投资对象,投资者更愿意选择企业集团,而不是单一业务公司。

    事实上,在西南天然气公司持续推动业务多样化的同时,大多数公用事业公司都在剥离不相关资产,专注于其公用事业特许经营这项核心业务。道明尼、CenterPoint、DTE和ConEd最近宣布出售中游管道业务,PEG和AEP缩小了或计划缩小不受管制的可再生能源业务的规模。但西南天然气公司却依旧在与大多数同行背道而驰。让分析师和投资者不满的是,西南天然气公司的高层一致表示要将Centuri拆分成一家独立公司,但却从未付诸实施。在马里奥·加贝利的GAMCO公司担任投资组合经理的蒂姆·温特尔曾建议西南天然气公司尽早拆分Centuri,而不是继续扩大其规模。GAMCO持有西南天然气公司3%的股份,价值约1.5亿美元。温特尔表示:“公司管理层最初表示,当Centuri的销售额达到10亿美元时,其规模将足以成为一家独立公司。问题是,当建筑业务发展到一定规模后,其面临的风险组合与公用事业公司的风险组合截然不同。”

    去年7月,西南天然气公司宣布收购Riggs Distler之后,管理层在电话会议上曾强烈暗示西南天然气公司不会退出建筑业务。温特尔表示:“事实证明等待并非坏事,因为Centuri表现出色,但最终让它变成一家独立公司才是明智的决定。”

    引起伊坎关注

    在去年10月的那个星期天,最令伊坎不满的是赫斯特收购Questar的计划。但伊坎将该计划视为彻底击败对手的一次机会。Questar收购计划的演示报告披露,西南天然气公司计划进行9至10亿美元股权融资,用于支持该笔交易。10月5日之后,伊坎曾多次与西南天然气公司CEO赫斯特通话,称以约65美元的超低价出售目前价值100美元甚至更高的股票,这个主意糟糕透顶。伊坎在接受采访时说道:“我告诉他:‘这是个疯狂的决定!这会严重稀释股票收益。你怎么能一边跟股东们说:‘不要把股票以75美元的价格卖给伊坎,因为这个价格低估了公司的价值’,一边却以60多美元的价格大量出售给你的朋友!’”

    伊坎做出犀利的反击措施。他首先建议向现有股东进行10亿美元配股发行,他将收购未被认购的所有股份以“制止”公司的计划。他表示,这样做可以确保一大批股份不会流入“白衣护卫”投资者手中。这类投资者会支持公司管理层,作为回报其将以极低价格获得公司股份。伊坎表示,赫斯特只是说他会与董事会讨论这份提案。

    后来伊坎担心西南天然气公司会寻找“白衣护卫”投资者,于是他提出愿意提供整整10亿美元资金以每股75美元的价格收购股份,远远高于当时的市场交易价格。伊坎将是该计划的一大赢家,因为他将以较低的价格,额外获得西南天然气25%的股份。

    但董事会拒绝了伊坎的提议,理由是该价格严重低估了公司股票的价值。伊坎反驳称公司拒绝他提出的每股75美元的价格,却打算以65美元的价格出售公司股份,这种做法“不可理喻”。10月10日,西南天然气公司董事会启动了“毒丸计划”,将伊坎的持股比例限制在9.9%。两周后,伊坎做出反击,提出以每股75美元收购所有西南天然气公司股份的要约。但他还需要获得董事会多数同意终止毒丸计划。于是,伊坎发起了代理投票权争夺,计划以他自己提名的候选人取代西南天然气公司现有的10名董事,并谴责毒丸计划是“管理层和董事会的工作保护计划”。除此之外,他还需要应对繁琐的规章制度。这些规定增加了恶意收购公用事业公司的难度。伊坎若想将在西南天然气公司的持股比例提高到24.9%以上,需要获得州监管部门批准。他提出了一种创新解决方案:通过一家信托持有超过该比例的股份,他不会在该信托行使任何表决权,直到他收购西南天然气公司所有权的计划获得批准为止。

    伊坎在Twitter上公开了自己的收购计划,其中一句个人简介似乎总结了他如何看待西南天然气公司阻止他的策略:“有人通过研究人工智能获得财富。而我则通过研究人类天生的愚蠢行为赚钱。”

    加大筹码

    3月初,西南天然气公司公布了期待已久的Centuri拆分计划。公司股价上涨至略高于70美元。显然伊坎需要提高要约获得更多股份。3月14日,他将要约价格提高到82.50美元,之后公司股价持续上涨。到3月底,西南天然气公司又有新举措,完善了Questar融资条款,这可能也是得益于伊坎的施压策略。公司管理层将用于支持收购Questar的股权融资规模从9至10亿美元下降到4亿美元,并且发行股票的价格并不是之前宣布该计划时所说的65美元,而是74美元。

    伊坎随后在4月4日的一封公开信中批评了这项举措,指责公司不接受他所提出的82.50美元的价格,却选择向局外人发行股份以支持该笔交易,只是为了提高其赢得代理投票权争夺的概率。伊坎写道:“应该有某项法律规定,你不能只是为了提高赢得选举的概率,就烧掉6,000万美元。”

    伊坎依旧认为,如果他不能完全掌控西南天然气公司,其现有管理层不会充分挖掘出公司资产的全部价值,也无法使公司股价达到他所提出的远高于100美元的目标。自从伊坎在10月5日公开自己的收购计划以来,西南天然气公司的股价已经上涨了25%,领先标普500公用事业指数10个百分点。GAMCO的温特尔表示:“西南天然气公司是否应该有更优化的经营模式?或许吧。伊坎可能是促使公司拆分服务业务的催化剂。”Siebert Williams Shank的埃林豪斯表示:“业务拆分不可避免,但伊坎可能加快了这个过程。”

    但伊坎希望将西南天然气公司完全解体,将Questar出售后变成一家单一业务公用事业公司。他认为,在投资者眼中,这种模式最有价值。当然,除非伊坎赢得代理投票权争夺战,然后新董事会取消毒丸计划。伊坎表示,如果他的阵营失败,赫斯特会继续用糟糕的方式运营这家公用事业公司,甚至进行更多与公用事业毫无关联的收购。伊坎坚持认为,这种合并会使公司股价远低于他的出价82.50美元。

    西南天然气公司将在5月12日的年度大会上公布代理权投票结果。伊坎成功还是失败,将取决于多个至关重要的因素,这些因素不可预测,例如代理投票权咨询公司ISS和Glass Lewis的建议、伊坎是否会提高出价以及将价格提高到什么水平等。

    来自西南天然气的“知情人士”透露,公司曾计划在完成Questar收购之后彻底拆分Centuri,伊坎的施压与公司的决定没有任何关系。知情人士称:“当伊坎说公司股份价值远超过100美元时,股东除非失去理智才会以82.50美元的价格出售股份。”知情人士还表示,声称赫斯特计划将向“关系友好的”投资者发行股份的说法“完全是错误的”。西南天然气公司还向《财富》杂志提供了下列声明:“在剥离Centuri之后,西南天然气公司的股东可以在Centuri的成长过程中继续保持对其的所有权,并从中获益,而西南天然气公司作为一家完全接受监管的、市场领先的单一业务公司,将显著提高融资和经营效率,也将令股东受益……伊坎先生的计划可能让股东错过这两方面[的好处]。”

    即使伊坎在代理投票权之争中败北,他也没有损失,因为他获利数千万美元。但如果伊坎获胜,他的收益会成倍增长。为了胜利,他可能需要大幅提高出价。但如果他对于西南天然气公司的最终价值预测是准确的,即使是略高于90美元的出价也有很大的上涨空间。我曾询问伊坎他是否因为西南天然气公司来自能源领域,而他预测到这个领域将变得异常火爆,所以才会特意选择这家公司。他说:“不。我认为经济存在许多问题,而要从中获利最好的方式就是收购被低估的公司。”

    无论如何,西南天然气公司的收购战再次确认了美国企业界近半个世纪以来一个不变的事实:没有CEO希望在外出吃午饭的时候接到卡尔·伊坎的电话。(财富中文网)

    译者:刘进龙

    审校:汪皓

    卡尔·伊坎(Carl Icahn)在大部分时间里都有好心情,但目前他明显不开心。

    在10月初的一个星期天,伊坎一直在慢慢增加在拉斯维加斯公用事业公司西南天然气控股(Southwest Gas Holdings)的股份,悄然获得了该公司约5%的股份。伊坎确信,市场价格没有体现西南天然气公司旗下业绩出色的能源建筑业务部门Centuri的价值。伊坎没有发起突然袭击,但他准备向公司施压出售Centuri,并大幅改善其核心业务。

    但在10月3日,一则令人震惊的内部消息披露,西南天然气计划在另外一家公司进行一笔大规模收购。西南天然气将以约15.5亿美元现金从道明尼能源(Dominion Energy)收购Questar Pipeline,双方已经达成协议,这一价格比沃伦·巴菲特之前同意支付的价格高20%,但巴菲特在几个月前放弃了收购。

    在10月3日之前,伊坎从未与西南天然气公司CEO约翰·赫斯特进行过交流,并且该公司显然并不知道这位传奇的激进投资者正在收购其股份。伊坎非常震惊,于是他迅速采取措施,希望在官宣之前阻止该笔交易。伊坎对我表示:“我连续三天给赫斯特的办公室打电话,但他的助理每次都说:‘他去吃午饭了。’”

    “我对她说:‘你说的真对。他肯定是出去吃午饭了。’”

    当天,伊坎发表了一封措辞严厉的公开信,首次披露了他在西南天然气持有的股份,并且激烈批评了该公司的表现。他在信中指责公司与Questar的交易是另外一个“将由股东承担代价的极其严重的错误”,“这比公司以往犯过的所有错误都要严重。”他批评公司管理层“让公司的开支失控”,并指责公司通过虚报支出欺瞒监管机构,例如“喝得酩酊大醉的晚餐”、“指甲护理”和“百万豪宅”等。伊坎指责公司日常管理水平低下,当同行都在剥离资产仅保留核心业务时,该公司却在收购“不受监管的”资产,导致公司股价被低估了至少40%。

    伊坎在一系列采访中向《财富》杂志介绍了他最新的收购战,展示了他之所以成为华尔街最有声望、最令人恐惧的激进投资者所使用的工具、技巧、策略和手段。作为产业集团伊坎企业(Icahn Enterprises)(市值150亿美元)的创始人,伊坎现年86岁。虽然他是激进投资领域的老手,但业内资深人士表示,收购西南天然气是自大萧条爆发前至今,第一次针对一家公用事业上市公司的恶意收购。在大萧条来临之前,塞缪尔·英萨尔和摩根大通(J.P. Morgan)联合收购了多家公用事业公司,并将其合并成美国第一批大型控股公司。激进投资者在本世纪有充分的理由避开公用事业公司,因为各州政府对于该行业规定了容许费率和回报率,而恶意收购者很难说服股东他们经营这些公用事业公司,能比现有团队做得更好。恶意收购者面临的另外一种风险是,其收购动作无法扫清取得完全控制权所面临的巨大的监管障碍。

    伊坎与西南天然气的收购战让我们可以从一个独特的视角了解资本主义颇具争议的一面,即单枪匹马的投资者一方面对公司口诛笔伐,另一方面向股东抛出一个更有利可图的未来愿景。目标公司必须巧妙防御,同时要努力战胜入侵者。目前,伊坎在西南天然气持有4.9%的股份,并对剩余股份发出了每股82.50美元的收购要约。到目前为止,投资者已经有意向将约20%的股份出售给伊坎,他在该公司的持股比例有可能达到25%左右。

    但伊坎与公司管理层的较量将在下个月展开,届时西南天然气将在5月12日公布代理权投票结果,这显然不止是关乎金钱或权力。对于伊坎而言,这是一次大胆的举措,将证明其在六十年间日臻完善的策略依旧行之有效,而对于西南天然气来说,这是一场公司控制权的争夺战,而且还关乎公司高层的工作岗位。

    迈阿密风云

    3月29日,本人与伊坎和伊坎企业的投资组合经理安德鲁·特诺进行了一次长时间通话。特诺在伊坎作为大股东的多家公司董事会任职,也是这场代理权争夺战中西南天然气公司的董事候选人。两人在位于迈阿密北部一栋办公大楼顶部两层的伊坎企业总部通过电话接受了采访。去年12月,我曾在伊坎办公室里见过这位留着胡子的传奇人物,下属们都称呼他为“长官”。这间办公室有带有边框的玻璃窗,能欣赏到壮丽的海景,还有一座小型美术馆,展示了莫奈和雷诺阿的作品。伊坎在电话中指责西南天然气公司:“西南天然气公司不存在任何公司治理。它像是一个独裁政权……所以我们接管董事会至关重要。否则,他们会继续大肆收购。”

    尤其令伊坎愤怒的是西南天然气公司到目前为止最大的反制手段:去年秋天,该公司启动了“毒丸计划”,将伊坎的持股比例限制在9.9%。4月22日要约届满后,伊坎的持股可增加一倍。但他目前的持股不能超过这一上限。为了否决毒丸计划,伊坎正在发起一场代理投票权争夺战,计划用2名伊坎的内部人士和8名富有声望的独立董事换掉西南天然气的整个董事会。

    伊坎称投资者面临三个选择。他表示,第一种选择:“投票支持我们,然后我们接管董事会。董事会放弃毒丸计划,股东可以以每股82.50美元的价格出售股票。”第二种选择:股东可以投票支持他的董事人选,但不出售股票,等到新董事会和管理层上台以及董事们放弃毒丸计划后股价上涨时出售。或者第三种选择:支持现有制度。他认为这将是一场灾难。他说道:“如果我们失败,他们会像过去一样继续进行糟糕的收购。公司股价将远低于我们在要约中提出的82.50美元。”伊坎预测,如果他的阵营获胜,西南天然气公司的股价将高达144美元。

    伊坎锁定目标

    伊坎早在2021年7月产生了收购西南天然气公司的想法,开始增加持股。伊坎最喜欢的目标是被严重低估的行业老牌企业,西南天然气公司恰好符合伊坎的偏好。西南天然气公司是亚利桑那州和内华达州最大的天然气供应商,同时还参与加州太浩湖地区的天然气供应,服务210万客户。作为一家公用事业公司,该公司还有一个庞大的非公用事业部门Centuri建筑业务,虽然它是该领域的门外汉。过去五年,Centuri通过内部强势扩张和一系列收购快速增长,目前占公司总收入的50%以上。从2016年初到2019年9月,西南天然气公司的股价一路高歌上涨82%,轻松跑赢标普公用事业指数。但之后,其股价大幅下跌,到2021年6月初已经下跌22%,比行业平均表现落后超过30%。

    去年夏天,西南天然气公司的市盈率约为16倍,这个倍数代表公司利润低迷。虽然该公司在内华达和亚利桑那这两个美国增长最快的家庭和商业能源市场占据主导地位,其公用事业部门的收益增长却毫无亮点可言。从2017年到2021年,公司利润年增长率仅略高于4%。有多位分析师将公司增长停滞归因于这两个州极其严格的监管环境。投资银行、交易与研究公司Siebert Williams Shank的克里斯·埃林豪斯表示:“亚利桑那和内华达等州的费率基准正在快速上涨,许多公司目前的支出不断增加,但他们要想提高费率需要等待很长时间才能获得许可。尤其是亚利桑那州采取了严格控制涨价的措施。”西南天然气公司的龙头业务是基础设施业务。从2017年到2021年,该业务的收益增长了95%,年增长18%。(Centuri在2021年的收益下降,原因是与8.55亿美元收购新泽西州承包商Riggs Distler有关的一次性支出,该笔交易将在未来几年大幅提升该部门的盈利能力。)

    正如伊坎后来在申报文件中所说,他看到了该公司存在的问题。市场并不喜欢一家公用事业公司和一家建筑公司的结合体。理由很简单,投资者之所以选择投资公用事业公司,是因为其费率上涨有保障,可以提供稳定可靠的收益和股息增长。而建筑公司则截然不同。伊坎将特许经营视为未来的一大赢家,他认为美国公用事业公司将用数十年时间升级电网,为向可再生能源转型做好准备,并将对老化的天然气管道网络进行维修,因此特许经营企业会趁势获得发展良机。但公用事业投资者不愿意承担风险,也不喜欢其投资的公用事业公司同时涉足建筑领域所带来的额外的不确定性。此外,对于低市盈率的投资对象,投资者更愿意选择企业集团,而不是单一业务公司。

    事实上,在西南天然气公司持续推动业务多样化的同时,大多数公用事业公司都在剥离不相关资产,专注于其公用事业特许经营这项核心业务。道明尼、CenterPoint、DTE和ConEd最近宣布出售中游管道业务,PEG和AEP缩小了或计划缩小不受管制的可再生能源业务的规模。但西南天然气公司却依旧在与大多数同行背道而驰。让分析师和投资者不满的是,西南天然气公司的高层一致表示要将Centuri拆分成一家独立公司,但却从未付诸实施。在马里奥·加贝利的GAMCO公司担任投资组合经理的蒂姆·温特尔曾建议西南天然气公司尽早拆分Centuri,而不是继续扩大其规模。GAMCO持有西南天然气公司3%的股份,价值约1.5亿美元。温特尔表示:“公司管理层最初表示,当Centuri的销售额达到10亿美元时,其规模将足以成为一家独立公司。问题是,当建筑业务发展到一定规模后,其面临的风险组合与公用事业公司的风险组合截然不同。”

    去年7月,西南天然气公司宣布收购Riggs Distler之后,管理层在电话会议上曾强烈暗示西南天然气公司不会退出建筑业务。温特尔表示:“事实证明等待并非坏事,因为Centuri表现出色,但最终让它变成一家独立公司才是明智的决定。”

    引起伊坎关注

    在去年10月的那个星期天,最令伊坎不满的是赫斯特收购Questar的计划。但伊坎将该计划视为彻底击败对手的一次机会。Questar收购计划的演示报告披露,西南天然气公司计划进行9至10亿美元股权融资,用于支持该笔交易。10月5日之后,伊坎曾多次与西南天然气公司CEO赫斯特通话,称以约65美元的超低价出售目前价值100美元甚至更高的股票,这个主意糟糕透顶。伊坎在接受采访时说道:“我告诉他:‘这是个疯狂的决定!这会严重稀释股票收益。你怎么能一边跟股东们说:‘不要把股票以75美元的价格卖给伊坎,因为这个价格低估了公司的价值’,一边却以60多美元的价格大量出售给你的朋友!’”

    伊坎做出犀利的反击措施。他首先建议向现有股东进行10亿美元配股发行,他将收购未被认购的所有股份以“制止”公司的计划。他表示,这样做可以确保一大批股份不会流入“白衣护卫”投资者手中。这类投资者会支持公司管理层,作为回报其将以极低价格获得公司股份。伊坎表示,赫斯特只是说他会与董事会讨论这份提案。

    后来伊坎担心西南天然气公司会寻找“白衣护卫”投资者,于是他提出愿意提供整整10亿美元资金以每股75美元的价格收购股份,远远高于当时的市场交易价格。伊坎将是该计划的一大赢家,因为他将以较低的价格,额外获得西南天然气25%的股份。

    但董事会拒绝了伊坎的提议,理由是该价格严重低估了公司股票的价值。伊坎反驳称公司拒绝他提出的每股75美元的价格,却打算以65美元的价格出售公司股份,这种做法“不可理喻”。10月10日,西南天然气公司董事会启动了“毒丸计划”,将伊坎的持股比例限制在9.9%。两周后,伊坎做出反击,提出以每股75美元收购所有西南天然气公司股份的要约。但他还需要获得董事会多数同意终止毒丸计划。于是,伊坎发起了代理投票权争夺,计划以他自己提名的候选人取代西南天然气公司现有的10名董事,并谴责毒丸计划是“管理层和董事会的工作保护计划”。除此之外,他还需要应对繁琐的规章制度。这些规定增加了恶意收购公用事业公司的难度。伊坎若想将在西南天然气公司的持股比例提高到24.9%以上,需要获得州监管部门批准。他提出了一种创新解决方案:通过一家信托持有超过该比例的股份,他不会在该信托行使任何表决权,直到他收购西南天然气公司所有权的计划获得批准为止。

    伊坎在Twitter上公开了自己的收购计划,其中一句个人简介似乎总结了他如何看待西南天然气公司阻止他的策略:“有人通过研究人工智能获得财富。而我则通过研究人类天生的愚蠢行为赚钱。”

    加大筹码

    3月初,西南天然气公司公布了期待已久的Centuri拆分计划。公司股价上涨至略高于70美元。显然伊坎需要提高要约获得更多股份。3月14日,他将要约价格提高到82.50美元,之后公司股价持续上涨。到3月底,西南天然气公司又有新举措,完善了Questar融资条款,这可能也是得益于伊坎的施压策略。公司管理层将用于支持收购Questar的股权融资规模从9至10亿美元下降到4亿美元,并且发行股票的价格并不是之前宣布该计划时所说的65美元,而是74美元。

    伊坎随后在4月4日的一封公开信中批评了这项举措,指责公司不接受他所提出的82.50美元的价格,却选择向局外人发行股份以支持该笔交易,只是为了提高其赢得代理投票权争夺的概率。伊坎写道:“应该有某项法律规定,你不能只是为了提高赢得选举的概率,就烧掉6,000万美元。”

    伊坎依旧认为,如果他不能完全掌控西南天然气公司,其现有管理层不会充分挖掘出公司资产的全部价值,也无法使公司股价达到他所提出的远高于100美元的目标。自从伊坎在10月5日公开自己的收购计划以来,西南天然气公司的股价已经上涨了25%,领先标普500公用事业指数10个百分点。GAMCO的温特尔表示:“西南天然气公司是否应该有更优化的经营模式?或许吧。伊坎可能是促使公司拆分服务业务的催化剂。”Siebert Williams Shank的埃林豪斯表示:“业务拆分不可避免,但伊坎可能加快了这个过程。”

    但伊坎希望将西南天然气公司完全解体,将Questar出售后变成一家单一业务公用事业公司。他认为,在投资者眼中,这种模式最有价值。当然,除非伊坎赢得代理投票权争夺战,然后新董事会取消毒丸计划。伊坎表示,如果他的阵营失败,赫斯特会继续用糟糕的方式运营这家公用事业公司,甚至进行更多与公用事业毫无关联的收购。伊坎坚持认为,这种合并会使公司股价远低于他的出价82.50美元。

    西南天然气公司将在5月12日的年度大会上公布代理权投票结果。伊坎成功还是失败,将取决于多个至关重要的因素,这些因素不可预测,例如代理投票权咨询公司ISS和Glass Lewis的建议、伊坎是否会提高出价以及将价格提高到什么水平等。

    来自西南天然气的“知情人士”透露,公司曾计划在完成Questar收购之后彻底拆分Centuri,伊坎的施压与公司的决定没有任何关系。知情人士称:“当伊坎说公司股份价值远超过100美元时,股东除非失去理智才会以82.50美元的价格出售股份。”知情人士还表示,声称赫斯特计划将向“关系友好的”投资者发行股份的说法“完全是错误的”。西南天然气公司还向《财富》杂志提供了下列声明:“在剥离Centuri之后,西南天然气公司的股东可以在Centuri的成长过程中继续保持对其的所有权,并从中获益,而西南天然气公司作为一家完全接受监管的、市场领先的单一业务公司,将显著提高融资和经营效率,也将令股东受益……伊坎先生的计划可能让股东错过这两方面[的好处]。”

    即使伊坎在代理投票权之争中败北,他也没有损失,因为他获利数千万美元。但如果伊坎获胜,他的收益会成倍增长。为了胜利,他可能需要大幅提高出价。但如果他对于西南天然气公司的最终价值预测是准确的,即使是略高于90美元的出价也有很大的上涨空间。我曾询问伊坎他是否因为西南天然气公司来自能源领域,而他预测到这个领域将变得异常火爆,所以才会特意选择这家公司。他说:“不。我认为经济存在许多问题,而要从中获利最好的方式就是收购被低估的公司。”

    无论如何,西南天然气公司的收购战再次确认了美国企业界近半个世纪以来一个不变的事实:没有CEO希望在外出吃午饭的时候接到卡尔·伊坎的电话。(财富中文网)

    译者:刘进龙

    审校: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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