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Danger zone: Shareholder and CEO wars take their toll

Elon Musk
Photo: David McNew/AFP via Getty Images

The stock market might look as though it's effortlessly gliding to record highs, but there's a lot of turmoil right below the surface, much of it related to tensions between shareholders and management.

Driving the news: At Tesla, CEO Elon Musk seems to be constitutionally incapable of dialing down the tweets that have cost him and his shareholders billions of dollars in wealth.

  • His calls for short selling to be made illegal will be music to the ears of, well, short sellers like David Einhorn, who smell blood in the water.

At Unilever, lame-duck CEO Paul Polman wanted to cement his legacy by finally getting rid of the company's anachronistic and confusing structure of having dual listings and dual headquarters in London and Rotterdam.

  • He failed: The move would have been good for the company as a whole, but bad for U.K. shareholders, many of whom would have been forced to sell their stock once Unilever became a Dutch company headquartered solely in the Netherlands.
  • What happens next is anyone's guess, especially after the U.K. leaves the EU in March.

At GE, CEO John Flannery was unceremoniously defenestrated on Monday, after just one year running the troubled conglomerate.

  • The company took the opportunity to take a $23 billion write-down on the value of its power unit, most of it related to the disastrous $10.6 billion acquisition of Alstom's power business in 2015. Amazingly, the write-down on that single acquisition is likely to be substantially greater than the purchase price.
  • If his history is any indication, new CEO Larry Culp is likely to lower the company's dividend.
  • To make matters worse, Culp has no experience at GE beyond a short stint on its board.
  • GE shares rose on the news, but the real story is told in the bond markets, where GE debt continues to trade at deeply depressed levels and where S&P just downgraded the company to a mere three notches above junk. It's a far cry from the perfect AAA rating that GE enjoyed in March 2009.
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