(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Dan Loeb’s Third Point LLC says it has a history of working constructively with boards to promote the success of their companies. The activist’s latest goal seems to involve removing the board of Prudential Plc entirely, and dismantling the head office around it, as part of a breakup of the $48 billion insurer.
That may not be as hard as it sounds.
Once focused on Britain, Prudential has transformed into a large Asian insurer with a smaller U.S. business attached. Its shares suffer under a stark valuation discount to Hong Kong-listed peer AIA Group Ltd., and Loeb has set out a plausible explanation for why. The reason, he says, is that the Asian side needs capital to grow, but competes with shareholders for dividends. Likewise, the U.S. business would be better off conserving cash in support of its own capital strength. Meanwhile, most investors don’t want to invest in an Asian-U.S. hybrid insurer.
The remedy sounds simple: Split Prudential into separate U.S. and Asian businesses with their own stock listings and dividend policies. The Asian shares would probably command a much higher valuation than whole the group does now, providing an acquisition currency that would be a cheap source of growth capital. At the same time, scrapping the conglomerate structure would eliminate the need for a costly corporate center based in London.
None of this is likely to be a huge surprise to Prudential’s directors. The board has already been simplifying the company, mainly by spinning off the M&G Plc asset management business. That move has failed to address the valuation gap, so the next logical step would be to jettison the U.S. subsidiary and become a pure Asia play. Prudential’s chairman, Paul Manduca, is retiring next year anyway, and Chief Executive Officer Mike Wells has been in the role for five years. Manduca’s successor, banker and former government minister Shriti Vadera, has a chance to be radical.
The real opponents to Loeb’s ideas are more likely to be found among Prudential’s long-term investors. Third Point is a new arrival taking on a longstanding problem. But Prudential has a large number of U.K. investors whose own narrow interests may be served by keeping it in its current form, paying high dividends via a London-listed share. Recall that consumer giant Unilever NV encountered huge resistance to an attempt to simplify its structure in 2018, while plumbing group Ferguson Plc is moving with extreme care about a possible re-domicile for the same reason.
Loeb argues Prudential in two pieces would be worth twice what it is today. He may be right, but if a breakup involves a dividend cut along the way, it won’t be plain sailing.
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Chris Hughes is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering deals. He previously worked for Reuters Breakingviews, as well as the Financial Times and the Independent newspaper.
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