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Activist investors: The best (and worst) performers of 2014

December 3, 2014, 12:00 PM UTC
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In terms of publicity, 2014 was a great year for activist investors. Victories like Jeff Smith’s takeover of the board of Darden (DRI) and Bill Ackman’s fight for Allergan (AGN) put activists on the map, and signaled to CEOs that they need to take note of these hedge fund agitators.

Measured by investment returns, though, the past year was just okay for activists. Overall, the average hedge fund that described its investment strategy as activist was up 4.5% through the end of October, according to Hedge Fund Research. That’s better than the average hedge fund, which was up by 2.8% in the first 10 months of the year. But it still trails the S&P 500, which was up 11% over the same period.

What’s more, unlike Smith, other activists have not been as successful in getting the companies they have targeted to make the changes they want. Below is a ranking of prominent investors’ activist campaigns for this year.

Carl Icahn

Icahn Enterprises
Campaigns: 5

The elder statesman of activism has still got it. Icahn had a nearly perfect record in 2014. Even his one “loss” drove a pretty huge gain: Icahn asked Apple (AAPL) to buy back $150 billion in stock. It agreed to $90 billion. Elsewhere, Family Dollar (FDO) put itself up for sale. eBay (EBAY) is spinning out PayPal. Gannett (GCI) split in two. And Hertz (HTZ) granted him three board seats.

Grade: A-

Bill Ackman

Pershing Square Capital
Campaigns: 3

Ackman had a great year in 2014, even if his activist campaigns didn’t always pan out. His teary Herbalife (HLF) takedown was a bust. A Fannie Mae (FNMA) lawsuit didn’t go his way. And Allergan tied up with Actavis (ACT) and not Ackman ally Valeant (VRX)—yet he still made a $2.2 billion profit on his investment. His fund is up 31%.

Grade: B+

Daniel Loeb

Daniel Loeb, founder of Third Point

Third Point
Campaigns: 4

Loeb, known for publicly skewering CEOs with critical letters, has gone digital. A political-type attack ad about Dow Chemical (DOW) scored him board seats within days. But his results were mixed. A six-month fight with Sotheby's (BID) drove out the CEO, but drove down the stock. Loeb’s calls for the split-ups of Amgen (AMGN) and Royal DSM (RDSMY) have been ignored.

Grade: C

Nelson Peltz

Trian Partners
Campaigns: 3

Like Icahn’s, Peltz’s activism dates back to the days of corporate raiders in the 1980s. His game plan: push for split-ups, which worked at Kraft. This year, though, has been a tough one for Pelts. He was rebuffed and outmaneuvered by the CEOs of PepsiCo (PEP) and DuPont (DD), who each argued that his breakup plans made no sense. Neither looks close to following Kraft’s lead—yet. Eleven months into the year, Peltz scored his first major activist win of the year. In early December, Bank of New York Mellon announced that it would give a board seat to Peltz's Trian Partners. Shares of BNY Mellon (BK), which Trian began to purchase earlier this year, are up 13% in 2014.

Grade: D+

The following is an adapted version of a story that appeared in the December 22 issue of Fortune.