Shareholder Activism On The Rise – Bigger Companies, More Campaigns

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Over the last year, activist investors have made the news over and over. If it seems like you’ve been hearing an awful lot about shareholder activism recently, then you’re right. Jefferies notes that there’s been a global rise in shareholder activism recently, and not only is the number of incidents growing, but activists are also targeting bigger and bigger companies in all parts of the world.

Activism targets bigger companies

The firm points to data from SharkRepellent, which indicates that the number of activism campaigns brought against companies with a market capitalization of over $10 billion has increased about three-fold over the last five years. In addition, the firm found that while activism was once considered to be a U.S. activity, now funds have spread across all parts of the world. At the end of the third quarter, there were already 22 campaigns aimed at companies outside the U.S.

Certain topics attract activists

Jefferies notes that there are a few areas which seem to interest activist investors the most. Of course share price and governance structure are two of the big ones, but those aren’t the only issues. They also note that lack of top line growth and lower dividend payout ratios compared to peers are also targets by activists. Two other areas are high cash balances and companies with multiple operating segments.

The firm said there are many activist campaigns—particularly outside the U.S.—which are not publicly disclosed. In these situations, companies are “actively defending and negotiating with an activist investor regarding a strategic pathway.”

Bill Ackman targets Herbalife

Here are just a few of the activism campaigns we heard about in 2013. Bill Ackman started his attack on Herbalife Ltd (NYSE:HLF) in December 2012 and continued it all throughout 2013. He has said he wouldn’t give up on his short of the company’s stock and continues to believe that it’s a pyramid scheme.

When Ackman started hammering away at Herbalife, it was a relatively unknown company on Wall Street. Using Jefferies’ market cap number of $10 billion as a guideline fir size, Herbalife falls into the category of smaller companies which have long been targets of influential activist investors. Even now, Herbalife’s market cap is still around $7.85 billion, although it was lower than that at the beginning of 2013.

Carl Icahn targets Apple, Dell

Things really started to get interesting late in 2013 when Carl Icahn started going after Apple Inc. (NASDAQ:AAPL)—the world’s most valuable company. Historically, Apple’s massive size would have made it less of an attractive target for activists. However, 2013 was different, as first David Einhorn—who doesn’t often go activist on companies—and then Carl Icahn began to target Apple’s massive cash pile. Einhorn was placated by Apple’s new cash return plan last year, but Icahn still thinks the company should do more.

And then there was the drama involving Dell which went on for months last year. Carl Icahn finally gave up and walked away, but he held up the go-private transaction for months.

ValueAct targets Microsoft

And then there are activism firms like ValueAct Capital, which prefer to work behind the scenes. The firm started targeting Microsoft Corporation (NASDAQ:MSFT) last year, winning a board seat toward the end of the year. Microsoft, with its $302 billion market cap, was another company which historically might not have attracted activism campaigns. But as the data shows, this trend is changing as investors start to get impatient with their money.

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