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Activist Shorts Austerity, Goes Long M&A

"Almost every company that is doing share repurchases could be doing M&A," says Ubben of the disparity between companies that are engineering earnings growth versus the types of growth-oriented turnarounds that he's investing in and even pushing for.

Ubben currently sits on the boards of financial software specialist Misys (MSY) and Acxiom (ACXM), companies for which ValueAct was a rumored takeover bidder. Foods giant Sara Lee (SLE), another board seat for ValueAct, recently announced a split of its foods and beverages unit and asset sales to J.M. Smucker (SJM).

"We are a huge advocate of pure play companies," said Ubben about how spins add a control premium to shares, on a Monday activism panel. He also noted that the fund usually targets just one board seat and not a slate of directors. ValueAct also has board seats at Valeant Pharmaceuticals and data provider Gartner (IT), among others.

ValueAct's website highlights quotes from Berkshire Hathaway's Warren Buffett and John Bogle, founder of the Vanguard Group, not your typical touchstones for activists: Buffett is famous for saying the best holding period for a stock is forever, and in the case of Bogle, he's synonymous with passive mutual fund investing.

Yet Ubben's breed of activist is on the rise. In fact, on a IMN Active-Passive Investor Summit panel, key players in many shareholder campaigns gave insight into why they are more likely to side with quieter long-term corporate activism and board nominations, over louder voices.

Preston Athey, a manager of T. Rowe Price's Small Cap Value Strategy Fund (PRSVX) since 1991, said that in today's low rate environment companies are "missing an opportunity" if they aren't putting their balance sheets toward boosting EPS. "I have seen a lot of causes where just one person on the board shakes things up and has led to the unlocking of value," noted Athey.

"Activists are more likely to get our support where there is a more centrist approach than an extreme push for change," added Corin Frost, Global Head of Index Strategy at Blackrock. "Our concern is an activist who has short term goals that leaves long term shareholders like Blackrock out in the cold."

"You need to give companies a chance to develop a long-term strategy," noted Paola Perotti, a partner with Governance For Owners.

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