This week I’ve been taking a look at Aswath Damodaran’s paper “Value Investing: Investing for Grown Ups?” in which he asks, “If value investing works, why do value investors underperform?”
Damodaran divides the value world into three groups:
- “The Passive Screeners,” – “The Graham approach to value investing is a screening approach, where investors adhere to strict screens… and pick stocks that pass those screens.”
- “The Contrarian Value Investors,” – “In this manifestation of value investing, you begin with the belief that stocks that are beaten down because of the perception that they are poor investments (because of poor investments, default risk or bad management) tend to get punished too much by markets just as stocks that are viewed as good investments get pushed up too much.”
- “Activist value investors,” – “The strategies used by …[activist value investors] are diverse, and will reflect why the firm is undervalued in the first place. If a business has investments in poor performing assets or businesses, shutting down, divesting or spinning off these assets will create value for its investors. When a firm is being far too conservative in its use of debt, you may push for a recapitalization (where the firm borrows money and buys back stock). Investing in a firm that could be worth more to someone else because of synergy, you may push for it to become the target of an acquisition. When a company’s value is weighed down because it is perceived as having too much cash, you may demand higher dividends or stock buybacks. In each of these scenarios, you may have to confront incumbent managers who are reluctant to make these changes. In fact, if your concerns are broadly about management competence, you may even push for a change in the top management of the firm.”
We looked at Damodaran’s passive screeners Tuesday, the contrarian value investors Wednesday, and today we’ll take a look at the activists.
The Activist Value Investors
Damodaran cites the well-known Brav, Jiang and Kim article that I have discussed here before:
If activist investors hope to generate their returns from changing the way companies are run, they should target poorly managed companies for their campaigns. Institutional and individual activists do seem to focus on poorly managed companies, targeting companies that are less profitable and have delivered lower returns than their peer group. Hedge fund activists seem to focus their attention on a different group. A study of 888 campaigns mounted by activist hedge funds between 2001 and 2005 finds that the typical target companies are small to mid cap companies, have above average market liquidity, trade at low price to book value ratios, are profitable with solid cash flows and pay their CEOs more than other companies in their peer group. Thus, they are more likely to be under valued companies than poorly managed. A paper that examines hedge fund motives behind the targeting provides more backing for this general proposition in figure 15.
As we have seen both undervalued or poorly managed stocks can generate good returns.
Damodaran says that the “market reaction to activist investors, whether they are hedge funds or individuals, is positive.” A study that looked at stock returns in targeted companies in the days around the announcement of activism showed the following results:
Damodaran points out that “the bulk of the excess return (about 5% of the total of 7%) is earned in the twenty days before the announcement and that the post-announcement drift is small.”
There is also a jump in trading volume prior to the announcement, which does interesting (and troubling) questions about trading being done before the announcements. The study also documents that the average returns around activism announcement has been drifting down over time, from 14% in 2001 to less than 4% in 2007.
Can you make money following activist investors?
Damodaran says “sort of,” if you follow:
• The right activists: If the median activist hedge fund investor essentially breaks even, as the evidence suggests, a blunderbuss approach of investing in a company targeted by any activist investor is unlikely to generate value. However, if you are selective about the activist investors you follow, targeting only the most effective, and investing only in companies that they target, your odds improve.
• Performance cues: To the extent that the excess returns from this strategy come from changes made at the firm to operations, capital structure, dividend policy and/or corporate governance, you should keep an eye on whether and how much change you see on each of these dimesions at the targeted firms. If the managers at these firms are able to stonewall activist investors successfully , the returns are likely to be unimpressive as well.
• A hostile acquisition windfall? A study by Greenwood and Schor notes that while a strategy of buying stocks that have been targeted by activist investors generates excess returns, almost all of those returns can be attributed to the subset of these firms that get taken over in hostile acquisitons.
Follow the right activists, and do ok, or front run them, and potentially do very well:
There is an alternate strategy worth considering, that may offer higher returns, that also draws on activist investing. You can try to identify companies that are poorly managed and run, and thus most likely to be targeted by activist investors. In effect, you are screening firms for low returns on capital, low debt ratios and large cash balances, representing screens for potential value enhancement, and ageing CEOs, corporate scandals and/or shifts in voting rights operating as screens for the management change. If you succeed, you should be able to generate higher returns when some of these firms change, either because of pressure from within (from an insider or an assertive board of directors) or from without (activist investors or a hostile acquisition).
So how do we mess it up?
• This power of activist value investing usually comes from having the capital to buy significant stakes in poorly managed firms and using these large stockholder positions to induce management to change their behavior. Managers are unlikely to listen to small stockholders, no matter how persuasive their case may be.
• In addition to capital, though, activist value investors need to be willing to spend substantial time fighting to make themselves heard and in pushing for change. This investment in time and resources implies that an activist value investor has to pick relatively few fights and be willing to invest substantially in each fight.
• Activist value investing, by its very nature, requires a thorough understanding of target firms, since you have to know where each of these firms is failing and how you would fix these problems. Not surprisingly, activist value investors tend to choose a sector that they know really well and take positions in firms within that sector. It is clearly not a strategy that will lead to a well diversified portfolio.
• Finally, activist value investing is not for the faint hearted. Incumbent managers are unlikely to roll over and give in to your demands, no matter how reasonable you may thing them to be. They will fight, and sometimes fight dirty, to win. You have to be prepared to counter and be the target for abuse. At the same time, you have to be adept at forming coalitions with other investors in the firm since you will need their help to get managers to do your bidding.