Carl Icahn finds his inner geek
The news that Carl Icahn is seeking a seat on Motorola's (MOT) board is part of what might become one of the year's most important business stories. That is, the legendary corporate activist appears to be turning his attention for the first time toward the technology sector (a tip of the Browser hat to the good people at Stockpickr! for tracking Icahn's moves so closely).
Some time in the second quarter of last year, Icahn bought 6 million shares, or 0.6 percent, of Symantec (SYMC), the well-regarded security and storage software company, as well as 2.9 million shares of Take-Two Interactive Software (TTWO), the people behind the controversial "Grand Theft Auto" video games, who this month have been hit with a slice of the ongoing option backdating shenanigans.
Icahn made his reputation trying to take over and force management changes at much more traditional companies, like TWA and a host of casinos, as well as Time Warner (TWX), which owns this Web site. His foray into biotech yielded a nasty spat with Imclone (IMCL), which nonetheless earned him board control. What does his arrival into technology mean about the valuation of the sector?
We see three possible readings. The first is that it means nothing: that Icahn's heat-seeking missiles simply go after companies with certain financial characteristics, regardless of what the companies do. The second is that Icahn perceives a shakeout specific to the tech world: the overall market boom means that some firms are undervalued. And thus, Icahn's playing a tech bid-'em-up game: buy up the stock of these firms when they're cheap; dictate as much managerial change as he can while the stock goes up; and then cash out. That certainly seems to be the case with Take-Two Interactive; despite the mad popularity of its main product, it's a fairly small company (current market cap of $1.2 billion) that has lost money for several consecutive quarters. When Icahn was snapping up shares they were trading in the $9-$10 range, and they're now about $16 a share, so it wouldn't surprise us to see him pull out with a tidy profit. Motorola, too, has seen its share price dip by 30%, so Icahn is arguably doing some bargain-hunting (and the news this morning has the price up 5% in early trading).
It's a lot harder, though, to apply that formula to Symantec, whose stock price has been less volatile than Take-Two's; even if it was lower when Icahn began buying, it was still not exactly cheap, using historic yardsticks. On this one we smell a merger in the works, the third possible Icahn strategy. Symantec has an impressive and growing business--how many people believe that Internet security is going to become LESS important in the next five years? But it might well make sense to merge Symantec into a larger enterprise software firm like Oracle (ORCL), and unlock those ever-prized synergies.
Regardless of Icahn's ultimate motivations, his arrival as a tech player ought to send a signal both to management and shareholders. The days of relying on a cool product or a booming market are coming to an end. Public tech companies require the same "deliverables" as public companies did in the industrial age: growth, profits, and dividends. If your company can't deliver them, Icahn and his like may decide some day soon it's not your company anymore.
And Motorola (MOT) CEO Ed Zander just joined the Time Warner (TWX) board of directors. Should lead to some interesting discussions between Zander and Icahn.
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