The market's current newsworthy gadfly investor of the moment is Daniel Loeb, the founder and manager of Third Point, a hedge fund with nearly $9 billion in assets. Loeb and his fund grabbed a lot of headlines this month with their machinations around fallen Internet star Yahoo! (Nasdaq: YHOO ) . The activist investor seems to have moved on; a recent filing from the fund reveals it has amassed a big stake in food concern Kraft (NYSE: KFT ) .
Have an Oreo
But why Kraft? The company doesn't seem to fit the profile of Third Point's more recent investments. Loeb's fund habitually devotes resources to contrarian plays on companies with buried value that are down on their luck. These moves shake the market and make shareholders take notice. Loeb amassed a big stake in Yahoo! to the point where Third Point owned around 6% of the company, making it far and away the fund's largest holding.
The hedge fund manager also won a seat on the board, where he was one of the most influential voices -- if not the most influential -- on that body. It was he who revealed earlier this year that the resume of short-lived Yahoo! CEO Scott Thompson didn't quite reflect the chief's true educational background. It seems that Loeb's lobbying efforts were influential in Marissa Mayer being picked to lead the company.
Another firm stuffing Third Point's portfolio was Chesapeake Energy (NYSE: CHK ) , a formerly high-flying energy firm brought low by the, shall we say, questionable investment activities of its CEO. This looked like a classic contrarian play; the share price has been battered by the CEO scandal and a highly inconvenient Justice Department antitrust investigation. It's unclear, though, whether Third Point's position was in Chesapeake's stock or its bonds.
The Kraft stake -- which as of July 31st is Third Point's fifth largest -- bumped Chesapeake from the list of the fund's largest positions. It hardly seems a contrarian opportunity; Kraft's stock price has been teasing its all-time high lately. And no wonder -- despite the maturity of many of its brands, the company still manages to grow its top line, which is not an easy thing to do. It always seems to land in the black, and its most recent annual net profit ($3.5 billion) was its highest in years.
Say hello to Shorty
Or maybe it is a contrarian play after all. There's always a bit of the black box mystery about any hedge fund, and Third Point is no different. The fund hasn't disclosed whether that Kraft stake is a long or short position; Loeb and his cohorts may well have decided that the stock's going to slide from its lofty peak, and soon.
There's plenty to support a bearish outlook on the stock. Kraft spent a fat $19.5 billion to acquire the assets of Britain's Cadbury in an exhausting four-month courtship that wrapped up in early 2010. The purchase expanded the acquirer's brand portfolio and made it the globe's No. 2 food company in terms of revenue.
And $19.5 billion was a huge chunk of change, particularly since that price tag represented a 50% premium. Some of Kraft's big-name investors -- including no less an entity than Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway (NYSE: BRK-B ) -- criticized the purchase and subsequently reduced their stakes in the company.
Not long after the ink dried on the buyout deal, Kraft announced it would split into two separate companies. One will be the current firm's grocery unit, a cupboard stocked with some of Kraft's more mature, slow-growing products (instant macaroni and cheese, anyone?). The second is the candy rack that is the confectionery unit. This is now the home of the Cadbury offerings, plus such classic Kraft treats as Oreo cookies and Trident chewing gum.
There are question marks hanging over both entities. Will investors have an appetite for the grocery business, which is the smaller of the two (it generates around one-third of Kraft's revenue) and the one that's growing more slowly? It throws off more cash, but cash isn't all that sexy if underlying growth is sluggish.
As for the snacks business, it's bigger, has younger and snazzier products, and sports a better potential growth rate. The Cadbury acquisition is still fairly recent, though, and the merged company is no doubt coming to grips -- as all merged entities do -- with melding two distinct corporate cultures and product portfolios. Plus, much of the Cadbury brands' sales occur in Europe, which these days is no one's candidate for a high growth region over the next few years.
Staying out of the boardroom
At the moment, Loeb doesn't seem to be making any attempt to influence hiring decisions or sway Kraft's directors, as he did when Third Point bought into Yahoo! That seems to indicate a buy, wait, and unload short of the company. Whether short or long, though, Third Point's interest in the firm is intriguing.
What could be going on in that black box? For anyone interested in Kraft, it's worth keeping an eye on that dark container.
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