How the Push of Activist Investors Pressures Tech Jobs

Disappointed Investor

Recent layoffs at Juniper Networks — the company is cutting 6 percent of its workforce — is symptomatic of a growing battle between Wall Street financiers and Silicon Valley tech companies. As more hedge funds, private equity firms and activist investors put their money into the technology space, they’re demanding better financial returns, even from healthy companies. And that often puts technology workers at risk.

Hedge funds and private equity firms in particular have reputations as short-term thinkers, ready to wield an ax to costs in order to increase the return on their investment. Under pressure from the hedge funds Elliott Management and Jana Partners, Juniper “streamlined” its operations to cut expenses by $200 million, in part by eliminating nearly 600 jobs. It also abandoned plans to develop application delivery controller technology that would relieve excess server loads in favor of focusing on its traditional router and switcher business. Elliott has said such moves will increase the company’s stock price.

Juniper isn’t the only technology company under such pressure. Activist investor Carl Icahn recently mounted a campaign to force eBay to spin off its PayPal unit, but gave it up. He’s now pushing the idea of staging an IPO to put 20 percent of PayPal’s shares on the market. As part of the effort, Icahn attacked eBay’s executives and board, claiming mismanagement and conflicts of interest. Not too long ago, he was pushing Apple to add $50 billion to its stock buyback plan, arguing for a sale of Netflix, and trying to take over Dell. Icahn hasn’t had much luck with his efforts, but he hasn’t stopped trying.

Some companies are trying to head off such pressures. Anti-virus software producer Symantec is said to be interviewing investment banks including JP Morgan Chase, Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley, planning to hire one to help defend it against activist investors, Reuters reports. Some hedge funds are said to be considering a move on the company, the news service said.

Big investors tend to be focused on a company’s financial aspects more than their product plans or R&D. Their methodology is to buy a stake in a company, then advocate for restructuring, cuts, mergers or other financial moves that will increase the value of their investment. These aren’t necessarily a bad thing, but they can shake a company down to its foundation. That includes the workforce, which often pays a price in any kind of “streamlining.”

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