Activist hedge funds stepped up calls for asset sales and spin-offs in 2019: data

NEW YORK (Reuters) – Hedge funds that push for change at corporations stepped up their demands for asset spin-offs and sales last year, making them part of nearly half of all activist investor campaigns waged in 2019, according to data released on Wednesday.

“A record 99 campaigns with an M&A-related thesis were launched in 2019,” said Jim Rossman, the head of shareholder advisory at Lazard, which compiled the statistics. Calls for companies to be sold outright or for certain units to be divested accounted for 47% of last year’s activity, up from 35% in previous years, Rossman said.

Some of the most noteworthy mergers and acquisition plays from last year include Carl Icahn pushing for Hewlett Packard to accept a takeover offer from Xerox. Icahn owns shares in both companies.

Icahn also pushed for a strategic review at Caesars which was later purchased by Eldorado Resorts.

At AT&T, Elliott Management urged the company to consider selling off certain parts of its business. Elliott also called on Marathon Petroleum to break itself apart before the company spun off its Speedway unit.

The surge came as activist funds delivered their best returns in years, posting an average 18.3% return in 2019, Hedge Fund Research data show.

Activism has picked up dramatically since the 2008 financial crisis. But it was popular long before, including in the period form the 1970s to late 1980s when financiers including Carl Icahn and Nelson Peltz were called corporate raiders for strong-arm tactics used to replace top management and improve value for shareholders.

Activists also shifted their focus abroad with more non-U.S. companies being targeted, according to Lazard statistics.

Last year non-U.S. targets made up 40% of all campaigns, up from 30% in 2015. Among other destinations, they waged 19 campaigns in Japan, with Third Point returning for a second push for changes at Sony.

Reporting by Svea Herbst-Bayliss; Editing by Kenneth Maxwell

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