What is an Activist Investor?
In this article, Raphaël ROERO DE CORTANZE (ESSEC Business School, Master in Management, 2018-2022) explains what is an activist investor.
What is an Activist Investor?
Activist Investors regularly make the headlines. In March 2021, Emmanuel Faber stepped down as CEO of Danone as a result of an aggressive campaign led by Bluebell Capital Partners and Artisan Partners, two investment funds.
Who are these activist investors? What is their modus operandi? And, above all, what are the consequences of their actions on the companies they target?
Activist investors are mostly Private Equity firms, hedge funds and wealthy individuals that acquire a significant stake in a public company in order to influence how the company is managed, with a view to extracting short-term profits. As shareholders activists, they attempt to use their rights as a shareholder of a publicly-traded corporation to bring about change within the corporation.
Activist investors seek companies they think are mismanaged, have excessive costs or could be run in a more profitable way. Their goal is to boost the short-term profitability of a company, in order to make a quick capital gain by reselling the shares at a higher price than the activist investor acquired them before the company’s upheaval.
Owning a small proportion of the shares of a publicly-traded company is sufficient for an activist investor to wield enough shareholder power to implement short-term profit maximizing changes. Indeed, 5% or even 3% can already carry a lot of control power: above a certain percentage of ownership, it is possible to request the inclusion of a draft resolution on the agenda of a general assembly.
The typical modus operandi of activist investors is the following:
- acquire some shares of a company
- heavily criticize the company’s current management
- demand changes: cost reductions, board seats, departure of the current CEO, etc.
- convince other shareholders of the validity of their criticism and demands in order to gather around them sufficient shareholder voting rights and ownership to propose and implement their decision during a general assembly
- see these changes being implemented and bring short-term profitability
resell the shares
The Danone case
Mid-January, the activist fund Bluebell Capital Partners (with an ownership believed to range between 2% to 3%) began attacking Emmanuel Faber’s governance. It was joined a few days later by Artisan Partners (0,6% of ownership). Together they deplored what they considered to be the poor performance of the company compared to its competitors Unilever or Nestlé.
Initially, a separation of functions between chairman and CEO was made in response to the investment funds’ attacks: Emmanuel Faber would have remained chairman while his former CEO position would have been filled by Gilles Schnepp, former CEO of the Legrand group. However, the two funds quickly objected to this move and Emmanuel Faber was eventually forced to leave the group while Gilles Schnepp succeeding him as chairman (with two co-CEOs running the Executive Committee). In less than two months, therefore, the CEO was removed, replaced by a profile a little less focused on corporate social responsibility and a little more on financial results.
Activist investors: good or bad for shareholders?
On the one hand, one might think that the intervention of an activist fund is a good thing for the shareholders. Shareholder activism might bring about change in the corporation, or even in the company’s objectives and vision, and will lead to a growth in profits, which will inevitably result in a rise in the share price rather quickly.
However, it is important to keep in mind that activist funds have a short-term investment horizon and want to increase the share price quickly in order to pocket a capital gain as soon as possible. It’s far from being synonymous with long-term value creation. Furthermore, the public image of a company can be severely damaged by industrial actions and cost-cutting plans.
It is therefore difficult to say whether activist funds are beneficial or not. The arrival of an activist fund in a very badly managed company can be very good news. But it all boils down to what is considered to be a “bad” management. Could Emmanuel Faber’s focus on corporate social responsibility be really considered as bad management?
The role of activist investor cab be seen in two famous financial movies: Other people’s money and Wall Street.
Watch Garfield (in the Other people’s money movie) making his point about wealth maximization at the shareholders’ Annual Meeting of their company.
This could be compared to Gordon Gekko explaining “Greed, for the lack of a better word, is good” to the shareholders during the General Meeting of their company (in the Wall Street movie).
Sources: Les Echos, Boursorama, Investopedia, LegalAction, Wikipedia