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LiveNation CEO Didn't Start Sell-Off

Some of the top hedge funds dumped their stakes in the live entertainment giant before Rapino sold his shares. Maybe they should have held on.

Posted on September 16, 2013, at 5:18 p.m. ET

Last month, when news trickled out that Michael Rapino, CEO of concert and event conglomerate Live Nation Entertainment, sold nearly 40% of his stock in the company, it raised more than a few eyebrows. The sale reportedly came as the company was showing Nathan Hubbard, the head of its Ticketmaster division, the door.

But there were other major investors who wanted out of Live Nation, a company with what analysts call "strong fundamentals" and whose stock has steadily climbed throughout the summer. Nearly 50 institutional investors, including a handful of top tier hedge funds, sold off their entire stake in Live Nation in the second quarter, according to hedge fund data aggregator Whale Wisdom. Among them, funds like Tiger Global Management, Bronson Point Partners, SAC Capital, Millennium Management and Passport Capital sold off millions of Live Nation shares from April to June of this year.

Some music industry observers are pondering the chicken-and-egg enigma of the hedge funds' and Rapino's liquidation, with at least one trade publication positing that the funds are following Rapino's lead.

Speculated Digital Music News: "CEO Michael Rapino offered the first confidence-killer by dumping 40% of his own shares, for a near-$12 million payout. Others, including Board members and even the CFO, followed with sell-offs of their own. These guys know something the rest of us don't. And now, there's another group going cold: hedge funds."

But given that the funds started selling before Rapino, the real question is why investors began selling in the first place.

And the CEO's departure may not have much to do with it. The hedge fund community likely began its sell-off of Live Nation before Rapino's, due to the fact that the stock, which had typically traded between $8 and $12 per share throughout the year, began hovering right at the top end of the year's average range in the second quarter, noted Rich Tullo analyst at Albert, Fried & Company. Some of the most sophisticated investors in the world then thought Live Nation had peaked, but with clear view of hindsight, it appears these hedge funds may have jumped the gun.

"When we got around $12 again, we saw a lot of money coming out of the name, but now it's up even higher," Tullo said. As of end-of-day Monday, Live Nation Entertainment shares were trading at $17.15 each. "I think they're selling because the stock is up. At the end of the day, I'm a fundamental analyst, I don't follow what hedge funds do because if you played to the hedge fund cue, you would have sold it at $12 and now it's at $17."

As for individual investors, many of whom use hedge fund positions and activity as a bellwether for their own investment decisions, in the case of Live Nation, this might not be the best call.

"I talk to these [hedge fund] people every day and I see the mistakes they make," Tullo said. "We like the stock, and you're going to want to be interested in Live Nation because an improving global economy means improving ticket sales for concerts, and they're doing a lot to lower prices."

So if not major hedge funds, which, with billions of dollars to invest can often move markets with a single play, or a CEO selling a significant portion of his shares, just what would concern analysts about Live Nation stock going forward?

According to Trullo, only the media and cable magnate and largest Live Nation shareholder John Malone and his Liberty Global could create a significant shift in analyst and investor perception.

"If they were to sell the stock, we'd take that as something interesting and something to look at, but over time they've increased," Trullo said. "We like the fundamentals and top line growth. This is the first time in two years that there hasn't been a strike among the major sports teams, and mobile tickets should help Ticketmaster; they should post an all-time high in ticket sales this year."