Growing field of activist investors pushes companies to perform better

February 5, 2019

By Svea Herbst-Bayliss

BOSTON (Reuters) – More investors who typically make passive bets flexed their muscles last year and helped push a total of 922 companies to perform better by improving operations and capital allocation, data from research group Activist Insight show.

The data show that 922 companies were approached last year compared with 856 companies approached in 2017 by investors who had ideas on how management could run the business better or who asked for board seats.

So-called occasional activists were the most pushy last year, contacting 266 companies with public demands, the data show. In 2017 they reached out to 240 companies. These investors are typically passive shareholders who try to protect existing investments by demanding improvements at underperforming companies.

The numbers also show that only 116 companies were contacted by primary focus activists, the large hedge funds that have made their reputations over the years by pushing for change at companies from Allergan to Yahoo!

“More entrants into the activism space does limit the options for the big name activists,” said Josh Black, an analyst at Activist Insight, which tracks activist fund managers and their activities.

Activist Insight worked with law firm Schulte Roth & Zabel to compile its annual review.

To be sure many primary focus activists like Starboard Value, Pershing Square Capital Management and Third Point were busy in 2018 targeting companies ranging from Newell Brands to United Technologies to Campbell Soup.

But as a group, primary focus activists targeted only 116 companies in 2018 after having reached out to 121 companies in 2017. This made them the least pushy last year, the data show.

And the brand-name activists are still commanding attention from corporate chiefs. Elliott Management, one of the biggest firms to pursue activist strategies, was busier than ever in 2018 and launched 24 new campaigns. And Starboard won 29 seats through negotiated settlements in 2018.

Referring to these types of firms who started 2019 on a busy note, Schulte Roth partner Eleazer Klein said pure play activists will always be around and working. “These people are not going away.”

And they will raise money even amid poor returns where the average activist hedge fund lost roughly 11 percent last year. “Fund raising is certainly more challenging especially when firms are not performing. But I don’t think these types of firms will have problems.”

(Reporting by Svea Herbst-Bayliss; Editing by David Gregorio)