Activists On The Rise In IT

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The rise of activist investing is one of the big stories of 2013, and most analysts think its popularity is still growing as investors see the outperformance of the best activist hedge funds and boards become more accustomed to the idea that they need to justify their actions to shareholders.

Carl Icahn’s mostly good-natured campaign to get Apple Inc. (NASDAQ:AAPL) to spend some of its cash on buybacks, which he has since dropped, and his far more aggressive tactics against the eBay Inc (NASDAQ:EBAY) board of directors have made big headlines, but activism has been growing across the tech industry with the number of targeted companies growing 52% from 2011 to 2012 and another 16% last year.

Activists targeting IT megacaps

Activists have also been taking on bigger game. The average size of IT firms targeted by activists grew from $4.6 billion in 2011 to $5.2 billion in 2012. Last year that number spiked as activists took on Microsoft Corporation (NASDAQ:MSFT) and Hewlett-Packard Company (NYSE:HPQ), in addition to Icahn’s Apple Inc. (NASDAQ:AAPL) campaign, but even excluding those three megacaps the average size was $4.4 billion, and it’s $7.8 billion so far this year.

“With $832 billion in cash and investments concentrated in just the top 25 global technology companies alone,” writes Ernst & Young Global Technology Industry Transaction Advisory Services, Joe Steger in the latest issue of Activist Monthly. “I expect activist shareholders to continue challenging technology companies in 2014 to put ‘excess’ cash to use by pursuing special dividends, share repurchases, operational improvements or more strategic options around acquisitions, or divestitures of non-core or underperforming businesses.”

The most common objective for activist investors in the tech industry is to get a seat on the board to improve the quality of management and have a clear way to influence future decisions, but sometimes proxy fights are simply used to drive an agenda and alert other shareholders to the potential for change. Though returning cash to shareholders in the form of stock buybacks or dividends and pushing for the company were also common goals.

Drives for divestiture may become more common

While it was only the third most common objective, Ernst & Young found that divestitures had the largest immediate impact on performance because they immediate generate cash. Icahn’s campaign against eBay Inc (NASDAQ:EBAY) is partially making news because of the personal attacks questioning the board’s competence and ethics, but Ernst & Young expects activist drives for such divestitures to become more of an industry norm than a well-known exception.

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