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Hedge honcho: Activists killing 'golden goose'

Jeffrey Ubben, ValueAct Capital
Source: CNBC
Jeffrey Ubben, ValueAct Capital

Jeffrey Ubben, founder of $14 billion activist hedge fund firm ValueAct Capital, believes that some of his fellow corporate agitators are doing undue harm to companies.

"We better be careful we don't kill the golden goose. I think the media has to call out some of this stuff and not just celebrate the quote unquote victories of activist investors," Ubben said Tuesday on an activist investment panel at the Milken Institute Global Conference in Los Angeles. "Companies might want to push back more because there is some bad behavior going on."

Ubben cited Keith Meister's recent investment via Corvex in security company ADT as an example of destructive activism.

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He noted that Corvex, where Meister is managing partner, bought a stake in the company, took a seat on the board and pushed ADT to take on debt in order to buy back stock, which it did. But Corvex exited the board and sold a large amount of shares in November for about $450 million as the stock started to lose value. ADT shares continued to decline and are down more than 32 percent over the past year.

Meister, a Corvex spokesperson and ADT representatives did not respond to a request for comment.

"In the vernacular of the media, it's a win, the activist triumphs. It's a loss—the company's worse off," Ubben said of the ADT example and others. 'We have to be more balanced in how we talk about this stuff because there are some real failures out there."

Meister, a protege of Carl Icahn, previously has said the company was on a positive track.

"We initially invested in ADT because of its leading market position and its potential for creating long-term shareholder value," Meister said in a November statement announcing the end of his directorship and the sale of some of his shares back to the company.

"The board and management have achieved admirable results over the past year. ADT is now on a path to achieving its optimal capital structure and implementing a capital allocation plan that will benefit shareholders in the long run."

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The company was also supportive of Corvex in the same news release, which noted that the investment firm would "continue to own a meaningful number" of shares.

"Keith and our other independent board members have been instrumental in helping management develop and implement a number of important strategic and financial changes that will create lasting value for our shareholders," ADT's chief executive, Naren Gursahaney, said in November.

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Ubben also said that Carl Icahn's use of Twitter to promote his investments was damaging because it encourages everyday investors to play stocks without looking at the fundamentals of the company.

"The fact that activist investing is day trader fodder is bad," he said. "Carl tweeting is not helpful."

Icahn did not respond to a request for comment.

Ubben still believes in the value of activist investing, especially ValueAct's brand of longer-term bets.

"This makes a ton of sense as an asset class," Ubben said.

—By CNBC's Lawrence Delevingne.

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