Southwest Airlines “Poison Pill” Fails to Impress Amid Activist Battle
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Southwest Airlines “Poison Pill” Fails to Impress Amid Activist Battle

Southwest Airlines has adopted a "poison pill" strategy to counter Elliott Management, which recently acquired a $1.9 B stake in the company.
Neither the author, Tim Fries, nor this website, The Tokenist, provide financial advice. Please consult our website policy prior to making financial decisions.

Southwest Airlines (NYSE: LUV), one of America’s largest carriers, is embroiled in a high-stakes corporate battle with activist investor Elliott Management. The airline’s recent adoption of a “poison pill” defense strategy marks the latest development in a months-long saga that has seen the company’s leadership and financial performance come under intense scrutiny.

Elliott Management Plans to Make Southwest Airlines Great Again, Oust CEO and Chairman

In June, Elliott Management revealed a $1.9 billion stake in Southwest Airlines, instantly becoming one of the carrier’s largest shareholders. The activist fund announced plans to push for leadership changes, seeking to replace CEO Bob Jordan and Chairman Gary Kelly with outside candidates.

Elliott claimed Southwest had fallen from a “best-in-class” airline to one of the industry’s biggest laggards, citing the company’s share price decline of more than 50% over the previous three years.

Elliott’s critique of Southwest extended beyond leadership, targeting what it called a focus on “incrementalism” rather than comprehensive strategic evaluation.

The fund’s 18-month research period, which included conversations with former Southwest employees and surveys of over 2,000 flyers, highlighted the airline’s struggles with Boeing 737 Max delivery delays and shifting travel demand patterns.

Despite Southwest’s defense of its leadership and strategic plan, the company’s stock jumped 7% on the day Elliott’s stake was announced, signaling investor interest in potential changes.

Southwest Airlines Adopts “Poison Pill” Defense Strategy Against Activist Hedge Fund

In response to Elliott’s challenge, Southwest Airlines announced on Wednesday the adoption of a “shareholder rights plan,” commonly known as a “poison pill” defense strategy.

This measure aims to dilute Elliott’s stake if the fund acquires too many additional shares. Specifically, if Elliott’s ownership reaches 12.5% or more of the company, other shareholders would be able to double their holdings at half price.

Southwest’s board chairman Gary Kelly stated that the move was necessary to fulfill fiduciary duties to all shareholders. The board also expressed confidence in their current strategy, plan, and team.

Despite these defensive measures, Southwest’s shares remained flat in early Wednesday trading and were down 1% for the year, reflecting ongoing investor uncertainty about the company’s future direction.

Southwest Airlines Shares Trend Downwards

As of July 5, 2024, Southwest Airlines stock was trading at $28.21, down 1.29% on the day. The company’s market capitalization stood at $16.883 billion, with a trailing P/E ratio of 44.66 and earnings per share of $0.64.

Southwest’s financial performance has lagged behind the broader market, with a year-to-date return of -1.18% compared to the S&P 500‘s 16.30% gain. The airline’s longer-term performance has been even more challenging, with negative returns over one, three, and five-year periods significantly underperforming the S&P 500.

Despite these headwinds, Southwest maintains a strong cash position of $10.51 billion and generated $26.71 billion in revenue over the trailing twelve months.

However, the company’s negative levered free cash flow of $349 million and high debt-to-equity ratio of 89.85% highlight ongoing financial pressures. Analyst price targets for Southwest stock range from $20.00 to $37.00, reflecting divergent views on the company’s prospects as it navigates both operational challenges and activist investor pressure.

Disclaimer: The author does not hold or have a position in any securities discussed in the article.