Wolves at the Door: A Closer Look at Hedge Fund Activism

Forester Wong is a PhD Candidate in Accounting at Columbia University. This post is based on a recent article authored by Mr. Wong. Related research from the Program on Corporate Governance includes The Long-Term Effects of Hedge Fund Activism by Lucian Bebchuk, Alon Brav, and Wei Jiang (discussed on the Forum here), The Myth that Insulating Boards Serves Long-Term Value by Lucian Bebchuk (discussed on the Forum here), The Law and Economics of Blockholder Disclosure by Lucian Bebchuk and Robert J. Jackson Jr. (discussed on the Forum here), and Pre-Disclosure Accumulations by Activist Investors: Evidence and Policy by Lucian Bebchuk, Alon Brav, Robert J. Jackson Jr., and Wei Jiang.

Some commentators attribute the success of certain hedge fund activism events to “wolf pack” activism, the theory that the primary activist is successful because of the support offered by other investors (i.e., the wolf pack). Commentators usually assume that activist hedge funds orchestrate the formation of wolf packs. According to this line of thinking, the lead activist—the 13D filer—recruits other investors to join the campaign before the 13D filing becomes public because the public announcement of the activist’s campaign typically leads to a positive stock return. In effect, the activist uses the expected jump in stock price to compensate the other investors for their support. This arrangement may be viewed as a way to circumvent securities regulations and takeover defenses triggered by holdings thresholds. The SEC, for example, requires activists to file a Schedule 13D within 10 days after crossing a 5% ownership threshold. By inducing other investors to acquire shares of the target, the lead activist may be able to accumulate a larger percentage of de facto ownership before triggering regulation thresholds, thereby increasing the chances of a successful campaign (Coffee and Palia, 2015). I label this as the Coordinated Effort Hypothesis. However, an alternative mechanism is that wolf packs arise spontaneously because investors monitor and target the same firms around the same time. Brav, Dasgupta, and Mathews (2015), for example, analytically show that, under certain conditions, a pack can form around an activist campaign without any explicit coordination by the activist. I label this as the Spontaneous Formation Hypothesis.

In my paper, Wolves at the Door: A Closer Look at Hedge-Fund Activism, which was recently made publicly available on SSRN, I investigate wolf pack activism by addressing the following three questions. First, is there any evidence of wolf pack formation? Second, what is the mechanism for such pack formation? Third, is the “wolf pack” tactic effective? I investigate these questions using 1,922 activist hedge funds’ campaigns—all campaigns in the SharkRepellent database from 1990 through 2014 in which an activist filed Schedule 13D.

First, I find evidence consistent with wolf pack formation. I document a higher level of share turnover prior to the public disclosure of activists’ campaigns. In particular, on the day that the 13D filer crosses the 5% threshold (the “trigger date”), a date that is not publicly observable until the 13D filing, the share turnover is about 325% of the normal trading volume. Furthermore, using a manually collected dataset, I find that the bulk of the trading volume reflects trades by investors other than the lead activist. In the 60 days prior to the public disclosure, the abnormal trading volume by other investors cumulates to around 9% of total shares outstanding (the median holding by lead activists is 6%), possibly indicating that investors other than the lead activist accumulate significant share-holdings before the public disclosure of activists’ campaigns.

Second, I examine the mechanism of wolf pack formation. As mentioned above, there are two theories for how wolf packs are formed. The Coordinated Effort Hypothesis assumes that the wolf pack is orchestrated by the lead activist as a way to bypass certain regulatory constraints. By contrast, the Spontaneous Formation Hypothesis proposes that wolf pack arises spontaneously because investors monitor and target the same firms around the same time. My results find evidence consistent with the Coordinated Effort Hypothesis. In particular, my evidence indicates that these share turnovers are more likely to be mustered by the lead activist than to occur spontaneously, and that lead activists are tipping off institutions with which they have prior relationships. Using a proprietary dataset, I find that an institution is more likely to accumulate shares in an activist’s campaign if the institution has done so in an earlier period.

In addition, by showing substantial trading by other investors on the trigger date, I provide evidence against the Spontaneous Formation Hypothesis. While other investors may independently decide to accumulate shares in the target firm, it is not clear why so many of them would do so on the same day—and even less clear why they would do so exactly on the day the 13D filer crosses the 5% threshold (i.e., the trigger date). Under the Spontaneous Formation Hypothesis, the only explanation for this synchronicity would be that they are all responding to the same, sudden changes in market conditions. Using a battery of univariate and multivariate tests, I show that the abnormal trading volume on the trigger date cannot be fully explained by any sudden changes in market conditions.

Finally, in the last section of my paper, I find evidence that the “wolf pack” tactic is effective. The presence of a wolf pack is associated with a statistically significant 6% increase in the success rate of campaigns and a statistically significant 8.3% (6.9%) increase in buy and hold abnormal (raw) returns calculated over the duration of the campaigns. Furthermore, consistent with the notion that the wolf packs are used to circumvent securities takeover defenses, I find that wolf packs are more likely to occur in better-defended companies, as proxied by Bullet Proof Rating (a takeover defense measure by FactSet) and the use of poison pills.

The full article is available here.

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