Code green: activist investors are coming for environmental offenders

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Green activism is the new greenmail.

It may not be the controversial “greenmail” of the 1980s, when corporate raiders demanded money from companies to lift their sieges, but green is making a comeback in shareholder activism.

This time, activist funds are targeting European companies with a track record of poor environmental, social and governance issues.

That is according to a new study from Alvarez & Marsal, which examined the ESG credentials of around 1,300 companies in the region and found that the worst performers were more susceptible to activist intervention.

The stark warning from the global professional services firm comes with companies world-wide under increasing pressure to respond to investor concerns over issues such as climate change.

There is a growing body of evidence that companies with higher ESG ratings can outperform rivals and drive up returns for investors.

Christopher Hohn’s activist fund TCI this week warned several companies, including Airbus, Moody’s and Charter Communications, to improve the carbon footprints or it will vote against their directors, according to a report by the Financial Times.

Last year, U.S.-based activist investor Jana Partners teamed up with the California State Teachers Retirement System (Calstrs) to press the iPhone maker Apple AAPL, -1.16%   to help battle smartphone addiction among children.

A&M found that 62 percent of activist targets across Europe since 2017 were in the bottom two ESG quartiles. Companies in these groups are on average 24 percent more likely to face an activist campaign.

For U.K. and Italian companies, being in quartile three roughly doubles the probability of being targeted by activists.

“As the focus on ESG grows in the minds of investors and the wider public, ESG performance has now clearly entered the sights of activist investors. This compelling link between ESG ratings and the likelihood of activist targeting should serve as a wake up call to boards across Europe,” said Malcolm McKenzie, A&M’s head of European corporate transformation services.

He added: “Those who have overlooked ESG issues risk activist wolf packs closing in.”

More broadly, A&M found that the U.K. remains the largest European market for activists, with 54 London-listed companies currently at risk, up from 52 in April 2019.

However, this may change as activism across Continental Europe gathers momentum. Until recently, activists have avoided European companies with concentrated levels of family or state ownership and mechanisms that gives long-term investors extra voting rights.

In August, Pernod-Ricard RI, +0.62%   unveiled plans to buy back up to €1 billion ($1.1 billion) in shares, make new investments in the U.S. and China, and appoint independent board members after U.S. hedge fund Elliot Management built a 2.5% stake in the French spirits maker.

Industrials retain their position as the sector most at risk from activist campaigns, with 52 companies predicted to be a target, compared with 51 in April 2019.

Thyssenkrupp TKA, +0.49%   is in the process of selling its elevator business, which could be valued at up to $20 billion, after it came under pressure from activist investors to cut debt and invest in other divisions.