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Activist Investors Flex Muscles Amid Record Campaigns

Tom Burroughes Group Editor 13 July 2018

Activist Investors Flex Muscles Amid Record Campaigns

In a low-yield context, activist investors such as hedge funds are using more capital to unlock value where they can find it.

Investors deployed $25 billion in a total of 73 new shareholder activism campaigns in the first three months of this year in a bid to wrest more returns in a low-yield environment, figures show.

Lazard, the investment firm, said shareholder activist activity has “reached new heights” in terms of the number of campaigns and the amount of money put to work in trying to force corporations to change tack, such as by firing underperforming boards, forcing mergers or restructurings.

(The data is for campaigns carried out by US and European activists with firms with market capitalizations greater than $500 million.)

A total of 65 board seats were won in Q1, well ahead of results in 2016 and 2017, and a total of 78 additional boardroom seats are “in play”.

With some commentators having fretted that the rise of so-called “passive” investing has blunted the ability of stockholders to vote their shares against lackluster boards, it appears that some actively-managed investment firms are flexing their muscles now more than ever.

The figures, based as they are around European and US campaigns, beg the question about cases involving Asian or other regions where the ability to use shareholder votes is not always as clear-cut. With Japan’s government having shaken up rules about corporate governance in recent years, activism is increasingly more important in that country; there have also been cases involving firms in jurisdictions such as Hong Kong. Bank of East Asia (China), for example, was targeted by renowned US activist investor Elliott Advisors, to take just one example.

Another issue – not covered in the Lazard report – is the case of class-action lawsuits to wrest money from cases in the event of alleged wrongdoing. The amount of capital deployed in such activist cases is the highest since Lazard started to track the field in 2013.

Hedge funds have been prominent activists at times; as noted by the Wall Street Journal last week. However, activist strategies have not always beaten a straight ride up on a stock index. An activist hedge fund index tracked by Chicago-based Hedge Fund Research showed total returns of 5.5 per cent in 2017, way behind the S&P 500’s 22 per cent result.

The Lazard figures also underscored the sheer market firepower of the largest fund management houses. Vanguard is the top shareholder of S&P 500 firms, with a collective ownership stake of 7.4 per cent; BlackRock owns 6.4 per cent; State Street has 4.5 per cent. Capital Group has a 3.1 per cent stake, while Fidelity has 2.5 per cent.

The story of shareholder activism has been controversial at times. In the 1980s, the rise of "junk bond king" Michael Millken, for example, and his use of leveraged finance to take over firms and unlock value through breakups caused anger among those claiming it was damaging the long-term health of firms.

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