It’s not just the headlines: shareholder activism is in fact up this year. In the first half of 2015, there were almost as many campaigns as occurred in all of 2014, according to research by Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher LLP.
And hedge fund involvement this year has eclipsed the numbers for 2014. According to Gibson Dunn’s survey, 42 funds engaged in activist campaigns in the first six months of the year. In 2014, only 35 funds were involved for the entire year.
The report covered 56 activist campaigns at 50 U.S. public companies with market capitalizations of $1 billion and more. As of Aug. 28, according to Bloomberg data, more than 2,400 companies had market caps at that level.
While the activist goals varied, the study found that 38 percent of the campaigns targeted board composition, 31 percent focused on mergers and acquisitions, and 19 percent sought a better return on capital.
Last year, activists gained an average of 2.4 board seats, with the additions comprising 21 percent of the boards. That number dropped slightly this year. The average number of board seats granted this year is 1.8, with activists comprising 17 percent of the boards following settlement agreements.
The food distributor Sysco Corp., for example, on Aug. 21 announced that it was adding two directors from Trian Fund Management to its board, only a week after the activist investment firm disclosed a 7.1 percent stake in the company.
Nelson Peltz, Trian’s billionaire co-founder, and Josh Frank, another partner in the firm, will join, increasing the size of the board to 12.
On Aug. 27, billionaire activist Carl Icahn amassed about 8.5 percent of Freeport-McMoRan Inc. the international natural resources company, the investor disclosed Aug. 27 in a filing with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission.
The activist may seek board representation and intends to hold talks with the Phoenix-based company on “capital expenditures, executive compensation practices and capital structure as well as curtailment of the issuer’s high-cost production operations,” according to the filing.
Ultimately, as Richard Birns, a Gibson Dunn partner and lead author of the report, said in an interview, “everything is context-driven in these campaigns. There are few blanket rules.”