A shareholder revolt at natural gas producer SandRidge Energy (SD) recently exposed considerable, board-approved, insider greed at company expense, and that alone should give investors pause before buying into the company. But now that the activists have won – a deal Wednesday will likely lead to the exit of the founder and CEO and more shareholder-friendly board members – investors might ask: could this be another Chesapeake Energy (CHK)?
Chesapeake Energy CEO Aubrey McClendon got similar treatment from major shareholders last year after a Reuters investigation uncovered several questionable transactions between McClendon personally and Chesapeake that added tens of millions of dollars to his bank account. But since the major shareholders revolted and orchestrated an overthrow in January, the share price is up some 22%, as seen in a stock chart. McClendon has agreed to step down on April 1.
The take-down of SandRidge CEO Tom Ward, who worked as president of Chesapeake under McClendon before starting SandRidge in 2007, was launched by hedge fund TPG-Axon Partners. The activist fund started sending letters to the board late last year complaining of Ward’s $150 million in compensation over the previous five years, a period in which SandRidge’s share price had roughly halved. (SandRidge now has a market cap of only about $2.9 billion.)
The SandRidge board responded by adopting a poison pill. Another Reuters investigation outlined questionable loans and asset sales at SandRidge that benefited Ward. In Wednesday’s settlement, SandRidge agreed to fire Ward by the end of June or turn board control over to TPG-Axon directors, which is essentially the same thing.
Hedge fund manager Prem Watsa, sometimes known as the Canadian Warren Buffett, apparently believes SandRidge will see better times ahead. In the fourth quarter, he bought some 28.1 million shares, which made SandRidge 8.5% of his portfolio, according to datarama.
Still, both Chesapeake and SandRidge have a long way to go before convincing mainstream Wall Street that their shares are credible buys now. Most analysts rate them as holds, although Chesapeake got an upgrade to buy from Stifel Nicolaus in January. Both companies have lots of debt, and both face the uncertainty of natural gas prices that need to be significantly higher to make drilling it particularly profitable.
In other words, it’s a hard enough business even without CEOs lining their own pockets.
Dee Gill, a senior contributing editor at YCharts, is a former foreign correspondent for AP-Dow Jones News in London, where she covered the U.K. equities market and economic indicators. She has written for The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Economist and Time magazine. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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