With all the headlines about the successful meddling and big scores reaped by a handful of board-rattling activist investors, you might be tempted to think this whole class of hedge funds raked in fat profits last year. But you would be wrong.
The five dozen or so activist funds tracked by hedge fund monitor HFR posted a gain of just under 3.5 per cent through the first 11 months of 2014. That was by no means one of the weaker categories. Funds haplessly devoted to energy and basic materials plunged nearly 5.3 per cent and others playing the short side of the market certainly took their lumps.
But the paltry activist returns pale beside the 11-per-cent gain last year from simply playing the S&P 500 index.
Still, the big-name interventionists did far better that. Bill Ackman's Pershing Square Holdings fund led the way with an impressive net gain of just north of 40 per cent, compared with a mere 9 per cent the previous year. The difference makers: a hugely profitable can't-miss bet on Allergan, which produced a 90-per-cent gain thanks to the rich buyout of the drug maker by Actavis, and an almost 27-per-cent gain in Canadian Pacific Railway.
Mr. Ackman's controversial and determined short bet against Herbalife, a nutritional supplement and weight-loss company he regards as a pyramid scheme, could even pay off this year if the stock price keeps dropping like a stone. Rivals Carl Icahn and Daniel Loeb won big betting on the other side of the Herbalife trade. And we may see more activist infighting this year, as members of the rapidly expanding investing class chase the same opportunities.
The activists are bound to make their growing clout felt again this year in boardrooms across the U.S., Canada and, increasingly, overseas markets as they fill their war chests with fresh capital pouring in from investors scouring the globe for higher returns.
The targets will run the gamut from major industrial players to retailers, food purveyors and service providers of all stripes. Resource producers hammered by falling global prices and stuck with suddenly unprofitable production look particularly vulnerable, as do their key equipment suppliers.
Mr. Icahn's latest target is a case in point. Mr. Icahn, whose investment funds have produced impressive returns in excess of 25 per cent over the past several years, is pushing a 112-year-old Wisconsin industrial company called Manitowoc Co. Inc., to separate its crane and food-service equipment businesses. Customers are still loading up on products like industrial refrigerators and deep fryers. But the crane arm has been roiled by falling demand.
Boards are getting more used to such demands from activists and their quieter institutional allies. Mr. Icahn is the second activist to take a run at Manitowoc in the past year. The typical demand is for board seats, greater transparency, stronger financial management and shifts in strategies, including cost-cutting, spinoffs and other moves to generate higher stock prices and fatter dividends.
All corporate boards and managements should be striving to meet similar goals. And now that institutional investors are actually investing in some of these activist strategies, we should be seeing more off-camera negotiating and less public confrontation.
That means we probably won't see as many of the entertaining headline-grabbing clashes of 2014 – Mr. Ackman and Valeant versus Allergan; Mr. Loeb and Sotheby's; Mr. Icahn and eBay.
That's a bummer for us media types. But it would benefit everyone else, provided the activists – some of whom, like Mr. Icahn, were corporate raiders in an earlier incarnation – turn out to be more than stock-flippers focused on juicing short-term stock prices and making quick exits.