Vincent Boland: In the age of passive investing, there is a place for aggressive activism

It has been a watershed year for activist investors as some of the world’s largest corporations such as Exxon, Shell and Danone found their boards under siege. And the activists now have secretive world of commodity trading in their sights

Activist shareholder Carl Icahn, who has made a fortune as a thorn in the side of once-great corporate names such as TWA and Texaco. Picture: Getty

First comes the stake-building. Then comes the aggrieved letter to the chair and board of directors demanding change – sometimes minor, often wholesale. Next is the public relations battle between entrenched managers and their media-savvy tormentors. Finally, one of them retreats, claiming vindication or, just as often, admitting defeat.

Activist investors have been a force in the financial markets for decades. They are called everything from corporate raiders to asset strippers. One of the most ...