Bill Ackman: the billionaire who bet big on viral doom

Bill Ackman of hedge fund Pershing Square saw trouble coming early and placed a punt on the stockmarket outcome. His huge win may be followed by a second one.

“Hell is coming,” Bill Ackman, the billionaire manager of hedge fund Pershing Square, told millions of Americans in a 28-minute, near-hysterical TV interview at the onset of the market meltdown in mid-March. He said the US had underestimated the severity of a virus that would kill millions and devastate the global economy. 

Even as he spoke, that prediction was netting Ackman a $2.6bn fortune, says The Guardian. Having “quietly placed a bet that stockmarkets would tank”, his doom-mongering on CNBC – in which he revealed he had evacuated his family and colleagues from New York – was later described by Forbes as “the billionaire interview that tanked the stockmarket”. Within the week, Ackman had made a near 10,000% return on his $27m investment in “credit protection” hedges. He used the gains to buy “the shares we love at bargain prices”. 

A reputation destroyed

It might not have looked pretty to anyone who had lost their job or seen their savings shrivel. But in the market, Ackman’s one-two was met with admiring speculation that the silver-haired maestro could be on course for “a second win”, says the Financial Times. Having pumped the cash into stakes in big US names (Hilton, Starbucks) at knockdown prices, Ackman was positioned to profit handsomely from a swift rebound. 

Ackman, of course, was hardly lacking in the readies already. Before the crisis, Forbes estimated his net worth at about $1.3bn, says Business Insider. Raised in the wealthy New York suburb of Chappaqua, the son of the boss of one of New York’s premier real-estate firms, Ackman enjoyed an upper-crust education, culminating in an MBA from Harvard. Shortly after graduating in 1992 he founded Gotham Partners at the age of 26. The investment firm was “successful”, but in 2002 he wound it down, citing a series of lawsuits. The following year he was investigated by the New York State Attorney General over Gotham’s trading practices. No charges were ever filed, but the experience was bruising, he told The Minneapolis Star Tribune in 2008. “People look at you funny. I learned that it takes a lifetime to built a reputation and someone can destroy it in a few days.”  

Back in the limelight

Undeterred, he went on to establish Pershing Square Capital with $54m of investment. The fund – which now has more than $8bn under management – has thrived on the back of his sometimes “controversial” moves, says the FT, recording annual investment gains of 14.5%. The coronavirus hedge marked the first time Pershing Square had wagered in credit default swaps since the financial crisis. “At first glance, it was an unusual move for an activist investor who made his fortune taking big bets on equities, then loudly and publicly defending his point of view.” But the scale of the latest trade bears “the hallmark of an investor whose career has turned on a small number of large bets”. They haven’t always gone to plan. Pershing lost almost $2bn on US retailer Target when an activist campaign waged by Ackman “fizzled out”. He was later “wrong-footed” by big bets on the pharmaceutical company Valeant and the marketing firm Herbalife. 

“Those setbacks prompted Ackman to step back from the public eye,” says the FT. But now Pershing Square’s biggest and best trade has left him in a familiar position: centre stage and resolutely bullish about the stocks he thinks you should buy.” He must relish being back in the limelight. 

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