The blood is starting to flow in Silicon Valley. In a single morning McAfee, the software group, and online news service CNET Networks both lost their chief executives to the growing options backdating scandal. As the many technology companies caught up in the mess complete their internal investigations, more heads are likely to roll. Of course, the story does not end there. Even if a company does its own “independent” investigation and limits punishment to a slap on the wrists for executives, the Securities and Exchange Commission and Department of Justice will do their own work. They could come to a different conclusion.
That creates uncertainty for investors. The share prices of certain technology companies with “star” CEOs could be hit hard if these executives were forced out. But the turmoil also creates opportunities. Mercury Interactive, for example, was sold to Hewlett-Packard after being rocked by the loss of its CEO.
There is certainly no lack of appetite for technology acquisitions – particularly in the software sector as companies such as IBM and HP look to plug gaps in their portfolios. Private equity investors are scouring the Valley for opportunities.
Potential acquirers could probably get comfortable with the risks of buying such businesses, despite a degree of accounting uncertainty and ongoing external investigations. The turmoil caused by the scandals, coupled with a leadership vacuum at some companies, could open the way to more deals.
Wednesday’s share price reactions appear to reflect that. McAfee’s shares actually rose on the news. It is in the hot area of anti-virus software and would have plenty of potential suitors. CNET’s shares, in contrast, fell. That should not come as a huge surprise. It has, after all, long been a takeover target but no one is very keen to pay up for the business.