Does Hedge Fund Activism Pay Off?

New research from a trio of U.S. college professors examines whether the time and energy poured into activism campaigns is actually worth it for an activist hedge fund’s investors.

Illustration by II

Illustration by II

The latest campaign by legendary activist Carl Icahn – an effort made with fellow hedge fund manager Darwin Deason to block Xerox Corp.’s merger with Fujifilm Corp. – was a tumultuous affair, to say the least.

In the span of two weeks, Xerox chief executive Jeff Jacobson went from being ousted from the firm, to being upheld as CEO, to finally resigning under pressure from Icahn and Deason. The contentious back-and-forth ultimately resulted in a win for the hedge fund managers – but so far the time and energy poured into the drawn-out proxy battle has yet to result in improved shareholder value, with the stock currently trading slightly below its price at the beginning of 2018.

While it’s unclear what the longer-term outcome of this particular activist play will be for investors in Icahn’s and Deason’s hedge funds, new research suggests that, on average at least, hedge funds have not tended to generate more value through activism than they have through their non-activist bets.

A paper called “The Value of Activism: A Hedge Fund Investor’s Perspective,” published this month by a trio of U.S. college professors, examines how much return an activist play typically produces, compared to a non-activist bet made by the same hedge fund, based on a sample of 222 hedge funds operating between 1997 and 2011. On average, the activist positions neither outperformed nor underperformed the non-activist investments, according to authors Felix Zhiyu Feng of University of Notre Dame, Chengdong Yin at Purdue University, and Caroline Zhu from the University of Oklahoma. But there were some exceptions.

[II Deep Dive: More Activist Campaigns Aren’t Better for Hedge Funds]

The researchers observed outperformance within the first three months of an activist campaign, and, more notably, when the hedge fund making the activist play had prior activism experience or particular knowledge about the target company’s industry. Even among these outperformers, the authors found that activist hedge funds allocated significantly more capital to non-activist bets than to companies that were targets of activism.

Based on these findings, Feng, Yin, and Zhu suggested that activist hedge funds were actually underinvested in activism, and could potentially deliver more value for their investors by doubling down on activist bets.

“By allocating more capital toward targets, especially in the early stage of intervention, they may be able to generate more return for their investors,” the researchers said in their paper.