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Expanding capital and scope of professionalized shareholder activism


Source: Insightia, February 18, 2022, article

Late last year Insightia reported a surge in assets under management by activist firms, which now stands at over $200 billion, versus $159 billion at the end of 2020. This past week, we saw where much of that money is going as funds filed their quarterly 13F disclosures.  

We are still crunching the numbers and will provide a full data set next week, along with more in-depth analysis. A preliminary review, however, shows a surge in activist stock buying that is already resulting in proxy fights.

Partial and full-time activists invested $7.2 billion in 174 new positions in the fourth quarter of 2021, versus $3.4 billion in 171 new positions in the third quarter and $5.9 billion in 136 new names in the same quarter of 2020. The jump in the number of new positions is due to Engine No. 1 stocking its new ESG-focused exchange traded fund with multiple toehold stakes. But the jump in dollars deployed was driven by traditional activists taking big stakes in companies, some of which are already facing demands.

Starboard Value was an especially big spender, putting around $1.2 billion into new positions, the largest being GoDaddy, followed by Willis Towers Watson. Jana Partners splurged on Zendesk, where it is now engaged in an acrimonious proxy contest centered on that company’s planned acquisition of Momentive Global. 

Technology appears to have attracted more new investment than any other sector, a trend we noted last quarter. That said, H Partners spent almost half a billion dollars on a shiny new Harley-Davidson stake (previously revealed in a Schedule 13D filing), leading to the activist getting a board seat at the motorcycle maker earlier this month. 

Indeed, while the year is still young, it does feel like we are seeing the start of a full-blooded proxy season after two years of uncertainty due to COVID-19.  

This last week has seen Sachem Head kick off a contest at US Foods, Engine Capital put forward three board nominees at Blucora, and Macellum Advisors kick off a new proxy contest at Kohl’s, advancing a majority 10-person slate that includes the activist's own Jonathan Duskin. 

Carl Icahn, meanwhile, moved forward with his board fight at Southwest Gas, arguing a tender offer launched by the activist cannot succeed with the current board in place. 

The veteran activist, who turned 86 on Wednesday, and is the current subject of an HBO documentary, also took on the unlikely role of animal rights activist. Given Icahn's reputation as an amateur comic, some may have laughed at earlier reports he was considering a campaign against McDonald's over the treatment of pigs. Specifically, he is unhappy that McDonald's sources pork from suppliers that house pregnant pigs in small crates.   

He showed how serious he was when he told Bloomberg television Wednesday that he was "probably 90%" from putting up a slate in a bid to fight the practice, which the activist sees as inhumane. "We're not going to fool around with them anymore," said Icahn, who only holds 100 shares in the fast-food chain.


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