What is Carl Icahn's attack on eBay all about?

On Wednesday February 5, activist investor Carl Icahn launched a scathing attack on Britain's favourite online auction site, eBay. While verbal tirades directed towards some of the world's most powerful enterprises are not exactly short in supply, Icahn's stance as a high-profile businessman with significant financial power ensured that his own attack would not slip under the radar quite so easily.

Icahn has claimed that eBay is the worst-run company he's ever seen and typifies America's problem with corporate governance. Taking the comments out of business-speak, Icahn clearly refers to eBay's own board of directors and the decisions they're making to drive one of the most powerful online companies in the world.

While the fact that eBay made $16.05 billion (£9.6 billion) in revenue over 2013 would suggest that all is well on the business side of things, many have pondered why Icahn chose to go off like he did.


The conflict began in 2007 when venture capitalist Marc Andressen purchased a controlling stake in instant messenger service Skype from eBay for $1.9 billion (£1.3 billion). After selling the business to Microsoft for $8.5 billion (£5.1 billion) just 18 months later, Icahn accused eBay of general incompetence after selling the tool for such little money in the first place. 

The fact that Andressen is now an eBay board member caused Icahn to accuse the investor of a conflict of interest, but this isn't the first time this phrase has cropped up in the same battle.


It might sound like sour grapes as a result of possibly failing to intervene on the deal for Skype, but Icahn's decision to take aim at eBay is not without reason.

He has proposed that eBay spin off its online payment service PayPal and turn it into a new independent company through sale or distribution of new shares. As Icahn might have expected, the company has reviewed this move and decided against it. However, the investor claims this too is on the grounds of a conflict of interest after highlighting that eBay board member Scott Cook is the owner of Paypal rival Intuit.


Analysts believe Icahn is hoping to force the hand of eBay and acquire a shares in the new Paypal. He made the proposal after acquiring a 0.8 per cent stake in the company but this has done little to quench his thirst for control.

Would the transformation of PayPal into a new independent firm have any impact on its service? Well, not immediately, but by freeing PayPal from the shackles of eBay, the online auction site may well choose another payment firm to link up with. 

PayPal has been the primary method of payment on eBay for over ten years, but this relationship may be put to the test if Icahn gets his way.

In the absence of PayPal, a new service, possibly Intuit, would have to step in and serve the millions of people who shop and sell with eBay every week. As for PayPal itself, the company would be free to start partnerships with other businesses, but whether it would process anywhere near the same amount of transactions without its top client is another question. 

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