Activist Hedge Funds Aren’t Good for Companies or Investors, So Why Do They Exist?Roger L. Martin | Harvard Business Review
Activist hedge funds have become capital market and financial media darlings. The Economist famously called them “capitalism’s unlikely heroes” in a cover story, and the FT published an article saying we “should welcome” them.
But they are utterly reviled by CEOs. And at best, their performance is ambiguous.
The most comprehensive study of activist hedge fund performance that I have read is by Yvan Allaire at the Institute for Governance of Private and Public Organizations in Montreal, which studies hedge fund campaigns against U.S. companies for an eight-year period (2005–2013).
Total shareholder return is what the activist hedge funds claim to enhance. But for the universe of U.S. activist hedge fund investments Allaire studied, the mean compound annual TSR for the activists was 12.4% while for the S&P500 it was 13.5% and for a random sample of firms of similar size in like industries, it was 13.9%. That is to say, if you decided to invest money in a random sample of activist hedge funds, you would have earned 12.4% before paying the hedge fund 2% per year plus 20% of that 12.4% upside. If instead you would have invested in a Vanguard S&P500 index fund, you would have kept all but a tiny fraction of 13.5%.
Since the returns that they produce underwhelm, why do activist hedge funds exist? Why do investors keep giving them money? It is an important question because the Allaire data shows the truly sad and unfortunate outcomes for the companies after the hedge funds ride off into the sunset, after a median holding period of only 423 unpleasant days. Over this span, employee headcount gets reduced by an average of 12%, while R&D gets cut by more than half, and returns don’t change.
The reason investors keep giving their money to these hedge funds is simple. There is gold for activist hedge funds if they can accomplish one thing. If they can get their target sold, the compound annual TSR jumps from a lackluster 12.4% to a stupendous 94.3%. That is why they so frequently agitate for the sale of their victim.