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30.10.2018

Aktivisme i vekst

Aktivistiske investorer setter I større grad preg på finansmarkedet også i Europa. Også flere Norske selskaper har opplevd dette tett på de siste årene. Thomas Johansson forvalter aksjefondet Skagen Insight, som beskriver seg selv på følgende måte: Skagen Insight investerer i en bred og aktivt forvaltet portefølje av selskaper knyttet til noen av de mest attraktive aktivistkampanjer i verden. Aktivister ønsker å skape verdier gjennom å forbedre selskaper. SKAGEN Insight «skygger» aktivistene ved å investere i disse selskapene.

I denne artikkelen deler Johansson noen perspektiver rundt fenomenet aktivisme (på Engelsk):

 

The reality is that most companies underperform their potential. This negatively impacts shareholders but very few investors are ready to do something about it. So-called activist funds are a notable exception. These are minority investors that exert pressure in public or private on companies to release value for all shareholders.

Activist funds apply a private equity-approach to public equity markets that puts shareholders in the driver seat of companies. This strategy is highly effective because what is good for activists is also good for other minority shareholders; the implicit backing from other minority shareholders allows activists to act on a large mandate when calling for change. In essence, shareholder activism is about standing up for minority shareholders’ rights.

Owners of companies

There are common misperceptions about activists. These funds are often assumed to wreak havoc in companies and operate with a myopic focus. The reality however is that activist funds have incentives that are aligned with those of other shareholders. This is a prerequisite for receiving the implicit backing of other minority shareholders needed to catalyze change. Without this, words weigh light in discussions with boards and management teams. It is therefore understandable why activists stand up for minority shareholders’ rights. Activists also promote other best-in-class corporate governance practices, because they depend on a strong link of accountability between shareholders, boards and management teams.

With the rise of passive money, the distinction between owners of companies and faceless investors becomes more pronounced. Activists backed-up by stable capital are in a position to support companies under stress. In fact, they tend to increase their ownership stakes at times when short-term investors shy away.

What activists want

Importantly, activists are made strong by facts. They run highly concentrated portfolios that leave no room for mistakes. Therefore they spend a great deal of resources and energy preparing and working with each investment. This forms the basis for a fact-based dialog with companies, which is ultimately the best way to catalyze change.

The changes that activists look for often include structural, strategic, operational, financial and/or governance measures. In most cases it is easy to figure out what activist funds want to achieve. The reason is that the most powerful changes are those that other investors can understand and often have thought about themselves. In many situations activists will also make their internal work publically available to rally support from other minority shareholders.

It should however be recognized that it is not the ideas of the activist that matters most. It is the fact that activists are able to raise the boardroom temperature by asking the right questions. This leads to better decision making at companies, which ultimately creates value not only for shareholders but for all stakeholders.

Source of returns

As long-term investors activists feed off of market volatility, which increases most corporates’ receptiveness to new ideas. They view stock price underperformance as an opportunity to catalyze change in the real world and increase the fundamental value of companies. Hence, the source of value creation in their investment strategy is de facto improvement of companies. Importantly, when activists buy effective control of companies in the public market they do not need to pay for this improvement potential unlike the case for private equity-investors competing in an auction process. Mainstream investors simply don’t believe activist targets are capable of positive improvement. Therefore corporate improvements fully translate into excess returns for these investors.

Activism is becoming a global phenomenon

Historically, shareholder activism has been most prevalent in the US and this is still growing. However, a big change is taking place outside of the US, with rising public pressure on companies in Europe and Asia. This is partly due to evolving governance frameworks in these regions, and partly because many of these companies are underperforming their US peers operationally. With a lot of untapped potential outside of the US this trend is set to continue in the future. The Nordics is especially fertile ground for activist investors due its tradition of strong shareholder protection.

While the face of shareholder activism sometimes differs between, for example, the US and Europe. This is often made necessary by the cultural context, while the aim of these investors remain the same: to improve companies for the benefit of all shareholders.

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