Activist Investor’s influence on Passive Funds

The cover story from this week’s Economist caught our attention, particularly as it relates to a number of IR themes we have been observing closely. Academic literature* examining the recent track record of US activist investors concludes that despite their reputation and short term focus they are more often than not a force for good, at least in terms of driving greater operating performance and shareholder returns.

The article draws attention to a polarity in today’s average shareholder structure, one that is particularly evident in the US. On one side of the spectrum is ‘lazy money’ which comprises a growing number of computer-run index tracking funds, ETFs and mutual or pension funds, which generally prefer not to get too involved in radically altering the strategic direction of the companies they invest in. On the other are large funds which buy entire companies, often taking them private and actively dictating strategy.

Activist investors can fill a key corporate governance void by influencing passive funds and ‘lazy money’ to take an interest and support either the activist investor or management’s chosen course of action. The long-only funds holding the majority of the free float generally assume the role of ‘blocker’ or ‘enabler’ for activist campaigns so the more involved they are the better. This involvement looks set to increase as activist funds grow in popularity. In 2014, a fifth of flows into hedge funds went to activist investors, resulting in their AUM rising from $55bn to $120bn over a 5-year period.

The two largest providers of passive products, Blackrock and Vanguard, have already pledged to work more towards ‘long term interests’; this will inevitably include increased contact with company boards. Company management and IR teams may also make a more proactive effort to establish relationships with passive managers, something which was not really considered as recently as a few years ago.

The final angle of the debate centres around the potential for transferring the US-style activism model across the Atlantic, particularly given the arguably limited opportunities in the US (only 76 companies in the S&P 500 registered a poor 5-year Return on Equity and only 29 trade below their liquidation value). European investors will argue that they already have more say than their American counterparts on corporate governance issues such as renumeration and board appointments, and differences in culture as we move east mean that many activist fund demands are often settled discretely and diplomatically.

* Long Term Effects of Hedge Fund Activism, Lucian A. Bebchuk,  WSJ