Big activist investors have first-quarter losses while small counterparts thrive

BOSTON (Reuters) – Well known U.S. activist investors including Nelson Peltz and William Ackman took a hit from the first-quarter U.S. stock market slump, with their funds losing money while some smaller players delivered gains.

FILE PHOTO: Nelson Peltz founding partner of Trian Fund Management LP. speak at the WSJD Live conference in Laguna Beach, California October 25, 2016. REUTERS/Mike Blake

Peltz’s $11 billion Trian Fund Management lost roughly 4 percent during the first three months of the year while Ackman’s $8 billion Pershing Square Capital Management’s flagship hedge fund dropped 5.7 percent, investors said.

Returns among activists have been lower than usual as the market favored growth stocks instead of the underpriced value stocks that activists traditionally target for corporate improvements. The firms either did not return requests for comment or declined to comment.

Daniel Plants’ Voce Capital, which invests roughly $200 million, gained 7.9 percent and James Mitarotonda’s Barington Capital Group climbed 6.8 percent. Smaller activists tend to focus on smaller companies where changes may occur faster, helping boost returns.

The quarter was tough for most stock investors as fears of faster interest hikes coupled with tough language on trade from U.S. President Donald Trump left the Standard & Poor’s 500 with a 1.2 percent loss, the first quarter drop since late 2015.

Declining returns came as activists launched a record 73 new campaigns and put $25 billion to work in the first quarter, data from Lazard show. The average activist fund lost 1 percent, lagging behind the average hedge fund which was roughly flat at 0.4 percent, Hedge Fund Research data showed.

FILE PHOTO: William ‘Bill’ Ackman, CEO and Portfolio Manager of Pershing Square Capital Management, speaks during the Sohn Investment Conference in New York City, U.S., May 8, 2017. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid

Even some of the industry’s most widely admired agitators did not have much to brag about in early 2018. Daniel Loeb’s Third Point slipped 0.7 percent while Jeffrey Smith’s Starboard Value was up 0.71 percent.

ValueAct, founded by Jeffrey Ubben and now run by Mason Morfit, gained 1.6 percent. Despite the positive return, ValueAct told clients in February that it plans to return $1.5 billion in capital.

Some firms’ losses swelled. David Einhorn’s Greenlight Capital, which occasionally engages in activism, lost 14 percent in the first quarter, while Glenn Welling’s Engaged Capital dropped 7.9 percent and Scott Ferguson’s Sachem Head Capital was off roughly 5 percent. Jana Partners was off 2.4 percent.

Explanations for sluggish returns vary, ranging from criticism that many activists are not good at hedging their portfolios through short selling, industry investors said, to bad news at some portfolio companies.

Despite sluggish returns, activists are pushing for change at a fast pace, data showed. “In a market that lacks direction or a down market, activist investors can catalyze change and unlock value and outperform,” said Engaged Capital’s chief investment officer Glenn Welling.

Reporting by Svea Herbst-Bayliss; Editing by Cynthia Osterman

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