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Even ‘Nice’ Activist Hedge Funds Aren't Miracle Workers

Chris Bryant

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Say what you like about outspoken activist hedge fund investors such as Carl Icahn, Bill Ackman, Paul Singer or Dan Loeb but at least you know where they stand. Nowadays it’s more fashionable for activist funds to refrain from public criticism and work constructively behind the scenes to help managers turn around a business.

This is fine, but it becomes a problem when one of the “kindly” investor types resigns abruptly from a board seat they’d pushed to obtain, without providing much explanation. Shares in Rolls-Royce Holdings Plc tumbled as much as 5% on Tuesday when Bradley Singer, a representative of Jeffrey Ubben’s ValueAct Capital, said he has stepped down as a director. ValueAct is the British aircraft engine maker’s largest shareholder.

After serving almost four years on the board, Singer said the company was now on a “solid path forward.” His praise rang a little hollow, however, because Rolls-Royce’s shares are close to three-year lows. ValueAct didn’t help matters by failing to clarify whether it plans to keep its stake of about 9%.

Singer’s departure may in fact signal that there are limits to what activist investors can achieve, even the ones who ask politely.

In fairness, Rolls-Royce is a different company to the one ValueAct bought into. Under chief executive Warren East, it has cut costs, slashed jobs and overhauled a famously bureaucratic culture. The company has ramped up production and reduced upfront losses on engine sales (engine makers typically make money in servicing, not selling the equipment). Its struggling commercial marine business has been sold. 

Mission accomplished? Hardly. Because of engineering problems involving the Trent engines it supplies for Boeing Co.’s 787 Dreamliner, Rolls-Royce is a long way from being “fixed.” The company will have spent 2.4 billion pounds ($3.2 billion) between 2017 and 2023 dealing with the early deterioration of engine blades, a cash outflow the debt-laden manufacturer can ill afford. Standard & Poors cut its long-term credit rating last month to BBB-, one notch above junk.

Fixing the Trent engines is partly a logistics issue — making sure customers are inconvenienced as little as possible while their planes are grounded for repairs. But it’s also an engineering challenge: Rolls-Royce designed a new high-pressure turbine blade for the Trent 1000 TEN engine variant only to discover that it didn’t provide the necessary durability.

Getting this right is something Singer, a former Goldman Sachs Group Inc. banker and finance director of Discovery Communications Inc., would have had relatively little influence over. Yet after attending scores of board meetings, he should at least have been well-versed in what is ailing Rolls-Royce. His decision to step away isn’t reassuring.

To contact the author of this story: Chris Bryant at cbryant32@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: James Boxell at jboxell@bloomberg.net

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Chris Bryant is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering industrial companies. He previously worked for the Financial Times.

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