Vodafone has long had trouble with its investors. Often its the institutional guys fronting the big money that make a lot of noise, grab the headlines and then, when it comes to hey-boys-hey, collapse in a grumbling huddle unwilling to rock the goose that lays the golden eggs (if you see what I mean), writes Martyn Warwick.
However, one can rely on the smaller investors to say what they mean and mean what they say. They have put their own money into Vodafone (rather than simply placing it on behalf of surrogates) and are keen to call the board to account if they think they are being badly served (as they often have been in the past) and are being now if Vodafone's moribund share price is anything to go by.
Cue their most recent action - cautioning Vodafone's directors against the temptation to go on yet another acquisition spree and spend big on buying T-Mobile in the UK.
Vodafone can smarm and prevaricate as much as it likes - and it does and it is and it will - but being a small investor doesn't mean being an idiot investor and the little guys can read the news, listen to the industry and come to their own conclusions just as well as can the institutional investors. It just costs them a lot less is consultantcy fees.
It is said (everywhere) throughout the industry that investment bankers JP Morgan have approached Vodafone in an effort to get it to buy T-Mobile's British assets. Vodafone originally denied it but has since trimmed and tacked around the subject. Meanwhile JP Morgan has failed to come out and deny the story.
So, shareholders know there's something afoot and have wasted no time in telling Vodafone's top brass exactly what they think of the prospect.
Those attending Vodafone's 25th AGM earlier this week in London lined up to protest against acquiring the troubled and underperforming T-Mobile and demanded that the company must not, in any event, borrow cash to fund such an exercise. Instead they want the company to rid itself of its Turkish business that is performing dismally and shows no sign of getting any better.
Shareholders are all the more exercised after, last week, chief executive Vottorio Colao made the following gnomic pronouncement, and I quote, "We think consolidation [in the UK market] would be quite a good thing."
What does this mean? That there are too many mobile players in the British market and Vodafone might buy T-Mobile to whittle the Big Four down to the Big Three? Or does it mean that there are too many mobile operators and one or more will eventually go to the wall but all Vofafone will do is stand by and watch? I don't know. You tell me, because Vittorio isn't saying.
In light of this and having been forced into making a response by aggrieved shareholders, Vodafone's chairman Sir John Bond said, "There is no sales process for T-Mobile"
And what exactly does that mean? That it's not for a sale (even though it is) ? That Vodafone hasn't been approached (even though it has)? Or does it mean that Vodafone isn't interested(even though it is bound to be)? It's all very opaque. In fact it's yet more corporate smoke and mirrors.
The point is that having been helpless and unwitting bystanders over the years as Vodafone time and again launched itself on foreign adventures and splurged money left, right and centre in pursuit of misguided world domination, shareholders have had enough of it. They want the share price up and dividends to rise- and quickly.
One angry shareholder told Sir John, "We have been through chief executives like diarrhoea (erk!) and we get, every year, a technological update which is not feeding through into your prime role of delivering a return for shareholders. It is always jam tomorrow. Should you not be yielding some shareholder delight instead of lumbering on like some behemoth?"
Others remain very angry indeed that Arun Sarin, Vittorio Calao's predecessor and the man who so relentlessly and reckless pursued a policy of "acquire, acquire, acquire - and damn the torpedos", was paid £500,000 to depart these shores and head home to the USA despite having been paid a bloody fortune for spending shareholders money like water and providing very little return for his obsessive adventurism.
So, who'd like to venture a guess at exactly how long it will be before we hear that Vodafone has, after all, made an offer for T-Mobile? Sooner rather than later, that's my reckoning.
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