(April 27, 2009 WSJ)
By Gregory Zuckerman
It’s hard to scare a target when you are on the run yourself. But that is the awkward position in which activist investors find themselves.
Activist funds lost almost 10% in the first two months of this year, after falling almost 31% last year, according to Hedge Fund Research. That’s worse than other hedge funds and in line with the overall market, suggesting that many are simply long-only investors who take concentrated positions in single stocks.
Meanwhile, many of the largest activists are dealing with unhappy investors who are fleeing their hedge funds. A focused fund started by William Ackman succeeded in getting Target to buy back shares, among other things. But Target has resisted some of his other suggestions. And amid the market downturn, Mr. Ackman’s Target fund has lost more than 50% since its launch.
Despite such setbacks, activists might again be trying to flex their muscles, pumped up by gains of 9.3% in March. Carl Icahn has been pushing top executives at Amylin Pharmaceuticals to trim waste and not resist any possible sale. Smaller hedge funds such as Ironfire Capital are preparing to launch campaigns, according to people familiar with the matter.
The question is what playbook will work in today’s environment. Activists have spent much of the past few years pushing companies to take on more debt and pay out cash to shareholders. It turns out that many of the companies were correct to try to conserve cash for a rainy day, given the tsunami in the markets and economy that subsequently resulted. Companies should easily shrug off pressure to return cash right now.
Another activist favorite, pressuring companies to break up or sell themselves, also could be a challenge. Financing markets remain in disarray and valuations are distressed in many cases.
And such attempts have included notable failures. Investors jumped into Yahoo stock when Mr. Icahn last year pushed the company to sell to Microsoft, figuring he could bridge the gap between the two sides. But they still are dragging their feet, and Yahoo is down more than 40% since he got involved.
A more fruitful area could be on forcing cost cuts. Activists have often targeted entrenched and overpaid managers they believe are looking after themselves rather than shareholders. With many executives receiving generous compensation packages, even as their companies struggle, there could be plenty fodder for activists. A range of academic research suggests that hedge-fund activists have had a positive impact in areas such as reining in executive pay and perks.
Research also shows that activists can have a positive impact on long-term share prices, although some studies cover bull-market periods when companies could be successfully prodded to sell themselves or certain assets and pile on debt to boost payouts. In today’s leaner times, activists have their work cut out demonstrating that they aren’t a spent force.