Are Activist Investors Starting to Overreach and Hurt Companies?

Activist investors have been present on Wall Street for years. They are the epitome of the old Wall Street adage about the golden rule: He whose has the gold, rules. With the advent of 24/7 cable and satellite news and social media like Twitter and Facebook that offer a large and willing audience, activist investors have what seems to be a large and growing bully pulpit. In this day and age of light-speed information, they are more than willing to use any platform to extend their message and influence.

While activists range from individuals to large powerful hedge funds and money managers, it seems that those willing to interject their personality along with their message get the most attention. With numerous forums, and a hungry media always breathlessly waiting for controversy, today’s activists are driving fundamental change at many of America’s biggest companies.

We decided to look at some of the stocks that are being or have been pushed and cajoled by activist investors. In many cases, the activist investors helped the smaller investors by instituting real change.

Apple Inc. (NASDAQ: AAPL) has been treated to a withering storm of criticism from long-time Wall Street activist Carl Icahn. While alternatingly professing his love for the company, which he started accumulating in the $468 range, he is pounding CEO Tim Cook and the board of directors for a substantial stock buyback. There is a good chance that Icahn’s persistence could pay off for investors. The last thing Apple needs after battling through a subpar year in 2013 is an ongoing beef with one of Wall Street’s highest profile investors. The Thomson/First Call consensus price target for the technology giant is $598.88. Apple closed Friday at $546.07.

eBay Inc. (NASDAQ: EBAY) is another company that Icahn has targeted recently. While he says he does not want to have a proxy fight with eBay, he seems prepared to attempt to win two seats on eBay’s board, and then force it to split off its PayPal unit, reports the Wall Street Journal. He says he expects eBay to resist the proposal. “The company seems to be sort of dug in on the fact they don’t want to do the PayPal spin off,” he says. Icahn has about a 2% stake in the company. There is no guarantee that monetizing PayPal will work, but he probably continues the fight. The consensus price target for the online auction outfit is $62.97. eBay closed Friday at $54.37.

Herbalife Ltd. (NYSE: HLF) is still in the middle of a nasty brawl with activist investors on both sides of the trade. Pershing Square hedge fund leader Bill Ackman has remained adamant that the company is no more than a multilevel marketing Ponzi scheme that is doomed to crash. Once again, Icahn is on the other side, arguing that the company is totally legitimate and that multilevel marketing has worked for many companies. He cites Mary Kay, Tupperware, Avon and others. This war of words and wills escalated into one of the most epic brawls ever presented on CNBC. With the Chinese looking closely at NuSkin, the waters may get a little choppy for Herbalife. The consensus price target for the stock is an astonishing $91. Herbalife closed Friday at $60.06.

Juniper Networks Inc. (NYSE: JNPR) has been in the cross-hairs of two separate entities looking to see some corporate change. Elliott Management recently took a 6% stake in the company. The company did well last year unlocking value in Hess Corp. and may have similar success with Juniper. Jana Partners also has taken a large position in the stock and is pushing for large cuts in costs. They also are arguing for the company to initiate a dividend. The Elliott argument is similar, and they also want to see a large stock buyback program. The stock rallied Friday on the increase in the stake owned by Jana. The consensus price target for the stock is posted at $24.268. Juniper closed way above that level at $27.72 on Friday.

Microsoft Corp. (NASDAQ: MSFT) had a large investor come in last year and take a $2 billion position in the software giant. Jeffrey W. Ubben, founder of ValueAct Capital Management, disclosed the holding and stated last spring that his company felt that Microsoft’s businesses were not appreciated by other investors. This kind of activism is far more passive and is often done to draw attention to a sleeping giant rather to shake up lethargic executives and board members. In ValueAct’s case, the investment has turned out to be extraordinary as Microsoft posted very solid third- and fourth-quarter numbers. The company pays investors a solid 3.1% dividend. The consensus price target for the technology behemoth is $37.26. Microsoft closed Friday at $36.81.

Yahoo! Inc. (NASDAQ: YHOO) has spent years trying to turn around its failing fortunes. Finally the stock has broken out, in part by large numbers of people hitting the popular website. The comScore website rankings for December 2013 on desktops have been published. The list has Yahoo! at the top of the most visited sites in the United States during the month. The listing shows that Yahoo! had 195 million unique visitors during December. Dan Loeb from Third Point amassed a huge position in the stock in the $13 price range and was instrumental in the recruitment of current CEO and President Marissa Mayer from Google. Loeb’s involvement in the resurrection of Yahoo! was significant, as he got former CEO Scott Thompson to resign after exposing his trumped up and false resume. Last summer, Loeb’s hedge fund Third Point sold 40 million shares of stock back to the company, and Loeb resigned from the board of directors. He not only helped to right the ship, but he made more than a $1 billion on the stock. Third Point sold its stock back to Yahoo for $29. It closed Friday at $37.91. The current consensus price target is posted at $40.05.

If nothing else, the activist investor has the ability to keep companies honest. Such investors also have the ability in some cases to institute real and profound change that benefits all investors. While many of the big activist investors have egos the size of their bank accounts, and rarely back down when challenged, they do continue for the most part to be a force for good on Wall Street.