What Is a Shareholder Activist?

By Michael Flannelly · December 14, 2022 · 6 minute read

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What Is a Shareholder Activist?

A shareholder activist is a hedge fund, institutional investor, or wealthy individual who uses an ownership stake in a company to influence corporate decision-making. Shareholder activists, sometimes called activist investors, typically seek to change how a company is run to improve its financial performance. However, they may also have other objectives, such as increasing transparency or promoting social responsibility.

Activist shareholders can impact the way a company is managed, thus affecting its stock price. As such, you may benefit from understanding shareholder activism and how these investors may impact the stocks in your portfolio.

How Shareholder Activism Works

Shareholder activism is a process where investors purchase a significant stake in a company to influence the management of the company. When an investor builds up a large enough stake in a company, this usually opens up channels where they may discuss business proposals directly with management.

Activist investors may also use the shareholder voting process to wield influence over a company if they believe it is mismanaged. This more aggressive tactic may allow activist shareholders to nominate their preferred candidates for the board of directors or have a say on a company’s management decisions.

Activist investors typically own a relatively small percentage of shares in a company, perhaps less than 10% of a firm’s outstanding stock, so they may need to convince other shareholders to support their proposals. They often use the media to generate support for their campaigns, discussing their plans with CNBC, Bloomberg, The Wall Street Journal, and other outlets.

Shareholder activists may also threaten lawsuits if they do not get their way, claiming that the company and its board of directors are not fulfilling their fiduciary duties to shareholders.

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Activist investors’ goals can vary. Some investors may want to see companies improve their environmental and social impact, so they will suggest that the company adopt a Corporate Social Responsibility framework. Other investors try to get the company to adopt changes to unlock shareholder value, like selling a part of the company or increasing dividend payouts.

However, shareholder activism can also be a source of conflict between shareholders and management. Some activist investors may prefer the company unlock short-term gains that benefit shareholders, perhaps at the expense of long-term business operations. These investors may exit a position in a company once they unlock the short-term gains with little concern for the company’s future prospects.

Types of Shareholder Activists

There are three primary types of shareholder activists: hedge funds, institutional investors, and individual investors. Each type of shareholder activist has its distinct objectives and strategies.

Hedge Funds

Hedge funds are private investment vehicles usually only available to wealthy individuals who make more than $200,000 annually or have a net worth over $1 million. These funds often take a more aggressive approach to shareholder activism, like public campaigns and proxy battles, to force a company to take specific actions to generate a short-term return on its investment.

Institutional Investors

Institutional investors are typically large pension funds, endowments, and mutual funds that invest in publicly-traded companies for the long term. These investors often use their voting power to influence a company’s strategy or management to improve their investment’s financial performance.

Individual Investors

Though less common than hedge funds and institutional investors, very wealthy individual investors sometimes use their own money to buy shares in a company and then push for change.

Examples of Shareholder Activists

Shareholder activism became a popular strategy in the 1970s and ‘80s, when many investors – called “corporate raiders” – used their power to push for changes in a company’s management. Shareholder activism has evolved since this period, but there are still several examples of activist investors

For example, Carl Icahn is one of the most well-known shareholder activists who made a name for himself as a corporate raider in the 1980s. He was involved in hostile takeover bids for companies such as TWA and Texaco during the decade.

Since then, Icahn has been known for taking large stakes in companies and pushing for changes, such as spin-offs, stock buybacks, and management changes. More recently, Icahn spearheaded a push in early 2022 to nominate two new directors to the board of McDonald’s. His goal was to get McDonald’s to change its treatment of pigs. However, his preferred nominees failed to get elected to the board.

Another well known activist investor is Bill Ackman, the founder and CEO of Pershing Square Capital Management, a hedge fund specializing in activist investing. Ackman is known for his high-profile campaigns, including his battle with Herbalife.

In 2012, Ackman shorted the stock of Herbalife, betting the company would collapse. He accused Herbalife of being a pyramid scheme and called for a government investigation. Herbalife denied the allegations, and the stock continued to rise. Ackman eventually closed out his position at a loss.

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Other examples of shareholder activists include Greenlight Capital, led by David Einhorn, and Third Point, a hedge fund founded by Dan Loeb.

In 2013, Einhorn took a stake in Apple and pushed for the company to return more cash to shareholders through share repurchases and dividends. Apple eventually heeded his advice and initiated a plan to return $100 billion to shareholders through dividends and buybacks.

In 2011, Loeb’s hedge fund took a stake in Yahoo and pushed for the company to fire its CEO, Scott Thompson. Thompson eventually resigned, and Yahoo appointed Loeb to its board of directors. More recently, in 2022, Loeb took a significant stake in Disney and started a pressure campaign calling on the company to spin-off or sell ESPN. However, he eventually backed off that suggestion.

Is Shareholder Activism Good for Individual Investors?

Depending on the circumstances, a shareholder activist campaign may be good for investors. Some proponents argue that shareholder activism can improve corporate governance, promote ESG investing, and lead to better long-term returns for investors.

Others contend that activist investors are primarily interested in short-term gains and may not always have the best interests of all shareholders in mind. While individual investors may benefit from a stock’s short-term spike after an activist shareholder’s campaign, this rally may not last for investors interested in long-term gains.

The Takeaway

Shareholder activists use their financial power to try to influence the management of publicly traded companies. Because activist investors often leverage the media to promote their goals, individual investors may read about these campaigns and worry about how they could affect their holdings.

Generally, the impact of shareholder activism on investors depends on the specific goals of the activist and the response of the company’s management. If an activist successfully pressures management to make changes that improve the company’s performance, this can increase shareholder value. However, if an activist’s campaign is unsuccessful or the company’s management resists the activist’s demands, this can lead to a decline in the stock price.

Though it seems like the actions of activist investors can lead to stock volatility and uncertain outcomes, it doesn’t mean you should avoid investing in the targeted companies. The stocks targeted by a shareholder activist can still be part of a well-rounded portfolio, particularly if you believe in the proposed changes. And if you want to build your own diversified portfolio, SoFi can help. With a SoFi online brokerage account, you can buy and sell stocks and exchange-traded funds (ETFs) with no commissions, for as little as $5.

Take a step toward reaching your financial goals with SoFi Invest.

Photo credit: iStock/xavierarnau

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