As Silicon Valley and Wall Street watch with bated breath, the spotlight has fallen on a little-known investment advisory firm which seems to hold the fate of the HP/Compaq merger in its corporate mitts.
The final recommendation is to come from a proxy voting service, Institutional Shareholder Services (ISS).
Concerned about a possible conflict of interest charge in the Hewlett-Packard/Compaq merger case, Barclays Global Investors (BGI), a division of UK-based Barclays Bank, has already handed over control of its HP stock to ISS.
Patricia Dunn, chief executive officer at BGI, is also on the HP board of directors.
With pension and mutual funds holding close to $20 trillion worth of US equities, proxy voting service companies like ISS offer institutional investors analysis, ballot processing, voting recommendations and even vote execution.
"ISS analyses 10,000 US and 10,000 non-US shareholder meetings each year," said company spokesperson, Anjuli Mangat. "No-one else out there does what we do, to the same calibre."
And according to Mangat, the ISS regularly receives calls from corporations eager to know where they stand on particular policies.
While the ISS has just begun its analysis of the HP/Compaq merger, the fate of the deal could well lie in the hands of Ram Kumar, the senior analyst who will be responsible for writing up the final recommendation, anxiously anticipated next month.
Carl Howe, a principle analyst at Forrest Research Company, is reluctant to second-guess the voting decisions of the institutional investors, but is pessimistic about the future of both computer companies if the merger doesn't go through.
"The goals of managing a foundation are different than managing a strong technology company," he says. "They don't want to take much risk, but survival in the tech industry involves risks."
In a high-profile case earlier this year, the ISS was involved in the controversial battle for control of software giant Computer Associates (CA).
After considerable discussion with CA's management and with dissident shareholder Sam Wyly, the ISS ultimately sided with the dissident group against management.
Management prevailed even without the support of ISS, but remains under close scrutiny by investors.
Founded in 1985 by Boston lawyer Robert Monks, the ISS today boasts 160 employees and an impressive list of over 950 institutional and corporate clients throughout North America and Europe. These include Barclays Global Investors and Credit Suisse Asset Management.
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