Access denied and insults; U.S. mutual funds get taste of activist life

Fri Nov 4, 2016 6:33am EDT
 
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By Michael Flaherty

NEW YORK(Reuters) - Tensions between Ultratech, Inc UTEK.O and one of its largest shareholders got so high that by the spring, the chief executive was calling the investor a "cockroach" and refusing to meet with him.

The target of the CEO's ire was not a brash activist investor seeking a quick shake-up but Benjamin Nahum, a portfolio manager at Neuberger Berman, the mutual fund company that had held stock of the tech industry supplier for over a decade.

Neuberger Berman, along with Franklin Resources, Artisan Partners and several other large mutual fund firms are part of a growing band of traditional U.S. money managers that are taking a page out of the activist investor playbook by publicly agitating for change at companies they believe can perform better.

In the past, so-called active fund managers that aim to pick the best stock and bond performers rather than passively follow an index, would have voiced concerns to CEOs in private, if they chose to speak up at all. Public agitation has normally been the realm of activist hedge funds and a cadre of smaller funds.

By voicing frustrations for all to see, large active fund managers open the door even further for other major shareholders to join the public fight and add pressure on CEOs and boards to address the proposed strategy shifts, leadership shuffles and other changes.

T. Rowe Price, historically the most outspoken of the big active managers, is currently pushing Oracle Corp ORCL.N to improve its $9.3 billion offer for cloud storage company NetSuite Inc N.N, which expires on Friday. The fund, which manages $763 billion, has sent a detailed letter to each company and has said it will not tender its shares.

The mutual funds' public efforts to wring more value out of their holdings is in part a response to the rising competition from the low-fee index-tracking funds.

"You just can't follow the herd anymore. The idea of active means defending and enhancing your investment," said Nahum, the Neuberger portfolio manager.   Continued...