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Spinoffs: GE, Johnson & Johnson

I wrote this past week about corporate spinoffs, which are all the rage these days. In a spinoff, a company takes a division or two and hands it to its shareholders, creating a brand new public company. The new company usually doesn’t fit in with its new owners, which can be a very good thing for patient investors.

Funds will own, say, a bank, and now they have a small insurer or whatever and sell its shares. But the managers of the new insurer are suddenly even more motivated as they have stock options and a lot more upside if its shares do well. The famous value investor Joel Greenblatt wrote a gem of a book largely about spinoffs, You Can Be a Stock Market Genius.

As with lots of things in investing, though, the magic has faded. Investing in spinoffs used to be a formula for very good returns, but lately they have lagged. The problem might be too many people reading the same statistics and also too many activist funds pushing companies to split apart for no good reason. With both General Electric and Johnson & Johnson announcing split this past week, I asked whether these latest attempts would create more than some initial excitement.

Breaking apart a company can, in theory, unlock value. Corporate spinoffs as an asset class have done well historically. Value investor Joel Greenblatt highlighted the opportunity for the masses in his book “You Can Be a Stock Market Genius.” Several studies using data from the 1990s through the middle of the last decade have shown that a portfolio of spinoffs can beat the market by 10 to 15 percentage points in the year after they go public. Managers of a newly public company are more focused and valuations often rise to reflect those of peers. But there are catches. One is that investors have to hold on to the spinoff to reap the rewards, and many don’t. Initial selling pressure on spinoffs often creates opportunities for even more outperformance once a new shareholder base is established. But the spinoff secret is out. Activist investors now push companies to reshuffle the deck chairs to generate short-term stock-market gains. Trian, the fund that took a stake in GE in 2017 with disastrous timing, applauded Tuesday’s move.

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