Oversized Hedge Fund Egos?
William A. Ackman, the silver-haired, silver-tongued hedge fund mogul, gestured out the window of a 42nd-floor conference room at Pershing Square Capital Management in Midtown Manhattan. The view was spectacular, but Mr. Ackman’s arm extended not downward, toward the vibrant fall foliage of Central Park, but skyward toward the top of a glittering glass building just around the corner on 57th Street.This article provides a great profile of a well-known hedge fund titan. I track Bill Ackman's Pershing Square and many other top funds every quarter (next one will be out in a couple of weeks). Ackman's fund is having a great year, which is why he's leading the pack in 2014. But as I keep warning my readers, beware of investing in the hottest hedge funds.
He was pointing toward One57, a new 90-story, lavish hotel and condominium building described by one critic as “a luxury object for people who see the city as their private snow globe.” Specifically, Mr. Ackman was referring to the penthouse apartment. Named the Winter Garden, for a curved glass atrium that opens to the sky, it is a 13,500-square-foot duplex with an eagle’s-eye view of the park.
And it will belong to Mr. Ackman. When the sale closes, the reported $90 million price would be the highest ever paid for a Manhattan apartment. It is, he explained, “the Mona Lisa of apartments.” Never will there be another like it.
But Mr. Ackman, 48, doesn’t intend to live there. He lives at the Beresford, off Central Park, with his wife and daughters. The Winter Garden is just another investment opportunity for him and a few others. “I thought it would be fun,” he said, “so myself and a couple of very good friends bought into this idea that someday, someone will really want it and they’ll let me know.” Maybe he will hold some parties there in the meantime.
Whether it’s a top-of-the-world apartment, an attack on a company or even his annual vacations with friends (the next trip is Navy SEAL training), Bill Ackman does everything big.
And this may be his biggest year yet. Overseeing more than $17 billion, his hedge fund is up 32 percent in a year when many other hedge funds are just breaking even. He recently completed a public offering of stock in Europe of part of Pershing Square, and while the shares are trading below the offering price, he still raised $2.7 billion that he can use to make more big bets. He’s also a driving force behind one of the biggest — and certainly the most controversial — potential mergers of the year: Valeant’s $53 billion hostile takeover bid for Allergan, the maker of Botox.
His critics agree that he’s big. They say he stands out for his big mouth and oversize ego, an accomplishment in the hedge fund world. (Even back in high school, his tennis teammates presented him with a T-shirt that read: “A closed mouth gathers no foot.”) Others warn that his fund has a risk of blowing up. His portfolio is made up of bets on less than a dozen companies. (The Allergan stake alone made up 37 percent of his fund earlier this fall, according to filings.) That means when things go bad, they can go really bad. That’s what happened when his $2 billion bet on Target through a separate fund lost 90 percent of its value at one point.
He has wagered $1 billion that Herbalife, the nutritional supplement company, will fail. So far, that bet hasn’t panned out, and even one of his closest advisers has called his theatrics on the subject — including a teary, three-hour rant this summer in front of nearly 500 people — a mistake.
But on that crisp fall morning at Pershing Square, Mr. Ackman was uncharacteristically taciturn. Reserved, even. Or maybe he was just a bit annoyed.
When asked if he has had to make bigger, riskier bets as his fund has grown, he answered, a bit petulantly: “We certainly have to make bigger investments, that’s definitely true. But not riskier investments.” Asked about failures, like the Target bet, he sighed deeply. “Target was a bad investment,” he said, “but out of 30 investments, I don’t know of another investor with as high a batting average.”
He certainly has an enviable long-term record: His funds, excluding the Target and four other separate funds, have returned 21 percent net of fees over 10 years, annualized. He has achieved it by going on the offensive. Mr. Ackman’s role as an activist hedge fund investor is to persuade other shareholders that he knows how to run companies better than current management does. This involves research, argument and, perhaps most important, a sensitivity to how every pronouncement and gesture will be perceived.
“I was angry at Carl Icahn for many years, as you know,” Mr. Ackman said of the longtime activist investor, when asked if he holds grudges. He swiped at his eye and added, lest the movement be misinterpreted: “My eye is tearing. It’s not emotion. I have a clogged tear duct.”
His attention to detail and persuasive powers will be especially important come December, when Allergan shareholders hold a special meeting. Mr. Ackman will urge them to replace a majority of the company’s board and to pave the way for approving the takeover by Valeant.
It’s a high-stakes move. And Mr. Ackman is all in for a big win. He is intensely competitive about everything, from memorizing two-letter words for Scrabble games to, as it turns out, owning apartments.
“It’s one of a kind,” he said of his trophy penthouse. “By the way,” he added, nodding down the street where other luxury towers are expected to be built, “these other buildings are not going to be as good.”
Commanding the Room
All successful people have stories to tell about what allowed them to achieve fabulousness. There is usually a moral. In the story that Mr. Ackman likes to tell, the moral is this: Never doubt Bill Ackman.
During his freshman year at Harvard, Mr. Ackman happened to read the application essay of the guy in the room next door. It was about why he hated Smurfs. Mr. Ackman thought it was really good, and an idea formed. He would write a book on how to write a college essay, drawing on examples and interviews with Ivy League admissions officers. On the advice of a family friend, he broadened his book to include information on college admissions and sent it off to publishers. The rejection letters piled up. He dropped the idea.
Later, two guys from Yale wrote a similar book called “Essays That Worked,” which would be featured in a New York Times article.
“I suffered extreme psychological torture,” Mr. Ackman recalled. The advice that the family friend gave, he added, had been bad. “I said, the next time I have a really good idea, I’m not going to listen just because someone is older than me.” Mr. Ackman continued, “It’s not going to stop me from going forward.”
Fresh out of Harvard Business School in 1992, Mr. Ackman went to work for his father, Lawrence Ackman, at his commercial real estate brokerage firm, Ackman-Ziff. But the young man was impatient. After just one week, and shrugging off advice that he first work for a veteran hedge fund manager, Mr. Ackman convinced his Harvard buddy David P. Berkowitz to start a hedge fund.
Cobbling together $3 million, the two started Gotham Partners. In a tiny office, they pored over corporate filings, hunting for undervalued companies. In 1998, Gotham started a hostile proxy fight against a small Ohio real estate holding company, First Union Real Estate Equity and Mortgage Investments. It took months of tussling before Gotham prevailed.
At Gotham, Mr. Ackman developed the methods he would use again and again. He went after big targets and took his battles into the public arena. Those techniques proved especially useful when he had sold short a company’s stock, betting on a collapse on the stock price.
His first foray into activist short-selling was in the spring of 2002, when he released a 48-page, scrupulously researched paper criticizing the management and reserve levels of the Federal Agricultural Mortgage Corporation. By that fall, Farmer Mac’s stock had tumbled, producing a quick win for Gotham, which had sold the agency’s stock short.
Mr. Ackman’s next short target, in late 2002, was the bond insurer MBIA, which he argued had backed billions of dollars of risky financing. It was a bet that would take years, hours of presentations to credit agencies and regulators, and a Wall Street financial crisis in 2007 before eventually paying off when MBIA’s stock started to collapse. Mr. Ackman’s bet was a huge success, netting just over $1 billion. But Gotham’s days were numbered.
Over the course of several years, Mr. Ackman struggled to right the troubled First Union, including an attempt to merge it with a failing golf operator that Gotham also owned. Investors started to voice concern. When a judge’s decision about the merger in late 2002 went against Gotham, the partners decided to wind down. The once highflying fund was done.
More than a decade later, Mr. Ackman accepts partial responsibility for Gotham’s demise. The problem, he said, was not its investments, which he argues ultimately paid off, but rather the strategy of investing in real estate, which was hard to sell quickly when investors wanted their money back. “I made a couple of strategic mistakes that, had I had more perspective, I wouldn’t have made,” he said.
About a year after Gotham closed, Mr. Ackman reappeared with a new fund, Pershing Square, and a $50 million seed investment from the Leucadia National Corporation. There would be a new focus: activist investing.
At Gotham, he learned that he needed research and a story. At Pershing, he perfected the skill of telling that story to an audience of shareholders, corporate directors and the news media.
“He’s trying to create a theatrical setting where it’s not about the words, it’s about the dynamic, the action,” said J. Tomilson Hill, chief executive of Blackstone Alternative Asset Management, an investor in Pershing Square.
He charged quickly out of the gate, persuading Wendy’s to divest itself of the Canadian chain Tim Hortons. Then he got McDonald’s to sell some of its restaurants and buy back shares. It became clear that when Pershing Square announced a stake in a company, something big was going to happen, and the stock moved.
“Bill commands a room. He’s a tall guy, a good-looking guy. He draws all eyes to him when he speaks,” said Damien Park, the founder of Hedge Fund Solutions, which consults on activist campaigns but has not worked with Mr. Ackman. “Also, his ideas aren’t usually incremental in nature — asking a company to distribute cash or clean up a balance sheet. They’re usually quantum changes in a company.”
That was true of his 2007 mark on Target. In just two weeks, he raised $2 billion for a special fund to invest in just one stock. He wanted Target to sell its credit card business and restructure its real estate holdings. Target sold off part of its credit card business, but management disagreed with his real estate plan. Over the course of two years, Mr. Ackman waged a $10 million campaign to replace board members with himself and four others.
When shareholders voted against him in the spring of 2009, the defeat stung more than his reputation. By then, losses amounted to as much as 90 percent, and many investors in the special Pershing Square fund, including the fellow activist investor Daniel S. Loeb through his Third Point hedge fund, had asked for their money back.
Mr. Ackman suffered another black eye a few years later with J. C. Penney. He won a seat on its board in 2011 and handpicked Ron Johnson, the head of Apple’s retail stores, to turn around the troubled retailer. But the efforts were botched; the company went from being profitable to losing $1.4 billion in 2013. Mr. Ackman resigned from the board in the summer of 2013, selling his stake at an estimated loss of $473 million.
“Every time I see him,” said Mr. Hill at Blackstone, “I say: ‘Bill, do me a favor. Stay away from retail.’ ”
Still, Mr. Ackman notched two of his biggest hits — General Growth Properties and Canadian Pacific — over the same period, helping to offset the reputational and financial losses from Target and J. C. Penney. Pershing estimates that Mr. Ackman’s original $65 million investment in General Growth, which operated commercial properties and has been restructured into three businesses, is now worth $3.3 billion. In Canadian Pacific, Mr. Ackman has so far tripled the value of his original investment after replacing the board and forcing through a turnaround.
His defenders argue that anyone with a fund as large as Pershing is going to have the occasional blunder. “In this business, if you don’t make mistakes, you’re either a liar or you don’t take many swings at the ball,” said Leon Cooperman, the founder of the hedge fund Omega Advisors.
Always a Competition
Last year, Mr. Ackman and some friends took a scuba-diving trip off the coast of Myanmar. The sun was warm, the ocean calm, but even in this idyllic setting, Mr. Ackman felt compelled to devise a competition he could win. After surfacing from each dive, he checked his air gauge against everyone else’s, to see who had used the least amount of oxygen while diving. Using less oxygen suggested less stress, thus proving who was least rattled under water. Mr. Ackman really, really likes to win.
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“When we lost at tennis, always, on some fundamental level, he regarded it as an aberration,” recalled Michael Grossman, his tennis partner in high school.
Mr. Ackman had an upper-middle-class upbringing in the New York suburbs, and he recalls plenty of rough-and-tumble arguments at home with his parents and sister. “Let me win?” Mr. Ackman recalled. “That doesn’t exist in my house. No one lets anyone win. Fight to the death.”
And if, at times, that means putting his fund and reputation at risk, so be it.
“I think he is just prepared to live with the scrutiny and the calumny heaped upon his head,” said William A. Sahlman, one of his professors at Harvard Business School.
This year, Mr. Ackman made a rare move. It began with a meeting in early February between him and J. Michael Pearson, the chief executive of Valeant. Five days later, Mr. Pearson expressed his interest in buying Allergan, the maker of Botox, and sought Mr. Ackman’s help, according to Valeant’s regulatory filings. Mr. Ackman agreed and began buying shares in Allergan through a unique partnership with Valeant later that month, eventually building a $4 billion stake in the company. By April, Mr. Ackman and Valeant had gone public with a bid for the company worth $47 billion. It went hostile.
“A hedge fund getting together with another company to buy out a competitor?” said Alan Palmiter, a business law professor at the Wake Forest University School of Law. “That’s definitely unusual. I can’t recall ever seeing a hedge fund being part of an industry takeover.”
Allergan had stronger words for Valeant and Mr. Ackman. It rejected the deal and warned shareholders that Valeant would squeeze the company for profit and skimp on research. In a federal lawsuit, Allergan contended that the Valeant-Ackman partnership was an “improper and illicit insider-trading scheme hatched in secret by a billionaire hedge fund investor.” The S.E.C. is now investigating. Pershing Square denies the accusations.
The short-seller James S. Chanos, who predicted the fall of Enron, has called Valeant’s accounting aggressive and joined the fight — against Mr. Ackman.
While Mr. Ackman drew support from big Allergan shareholders — including T. Rowe Price and Pentwater Capital Management, and proxy advisers like Glass Lewis — for a special shareholder meeting in December to vote on a new board, the clash has intensified. In early October, Mr. Ackman provided a sometimes testy deposition for the Allergan lawsuit. (After confirming that he had given depositions “a number” of times before, Mr. Ackman added, “I love depositions.”)
Neither side shows signs of backing down ahead of the shareholder vote. In court filings, Valeant and Pershing have accused Allergan of providing false information about Valeant to shareholders. Allergan said last week that it saw no evidence to support those claims. Valeant and Pershing, meanwhile, have raised their offer twice and have signaled they might raise it again in the next few weeks, to $60 billion.
‘A Sad Performance’
For three hours on a sunny day this past July, Bill Ackman ranted. He raved. He brought up comparisons to Enron. To the Mafia. To the Nazis. He cried.
He did this in front of an audience of nearly 500 people in a Midtown Manhattan auditorium. He had billed this as the “most important” presentation of his career, promising that it would be the “death blow” against Herbalife, the nutritional supplement club that he has bet against.
It seemed to have the opposite effect. Throughout the jaw-dropping exhibition, Herbalife’s stock rose higher, ultimately closing the day up 25 percent.
The presentation was so over the top that other hedge fund investors, friends and even members of Pershing Square’s own advisory board quickly labeled it a mistake. “It was one of the few times that I felt sorry for Ackman, a guy who makes more in a day than I make in a year,” said Erik M. Gordon, a professor at the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan. “It was a sad performance, and it was, minute by minute, calling into question his judgment and credibility.” Mr. Ackman’s theatrical sense had gone wrong; later, he told Bloomberg News that the presentation “was a P.R. failure.”
Others feared the bet itself, which at one point totaled 10 percent of Pershing’s assets. At least one investor had already redeemed his money.
“I’m sure we had some redemptions from people who were nervous about Herbalife,” Mr. Ackman said in the Pershing conference room.
The head of a firm that invests in hedge funds, speaking on condition of anonymity because he might someday invest with Mr. Ackman, said: “There are two schools of thought on Herbalife. Bill thinks this is an outright fraud that will be convicted. To take that big a bet for your fund and your investors, I think it’s foolish.”
Even before the “death blow” presentation, Mr. Ackman had restructured his bet against Herbalife. After discussions with investors and his advisory board, he reduced Pershing’s exposure by 60 percent. But he has spent $50 million just on research and legal fees for his campaign against the company.
“Some of us might be surprised by how much he ventured — how much he got into it — but I don’t think there is anybody on the board who thinks that this is now a mistake,” said Martin Peretz, one of Mr. Ackman’s professors at Harvard, who was an early investor in Gotham and serves on Pershing’s advisory board. (Members of the advisory board each received 1 percent of the firm.) That Herbalife’s share price has fallen 34 percent this year helps, he added. Still, Mr. Ackman’s position will start making money only if Herbalife stock falls roughly another 9 percent.
The Federal Trade Commission and the S.E.C. have opened inquiries into Herbalife and its practices — in no small part because Mr. Ackman lobbied regulators and lawmakers to encourage investigations. The S.E.C. is also looking at Pershing Square and some of the investors who took the other side of the bet.
Some hedge fund executives wonder whether Mr. Ackman has lost his perspective on Herbalife, allowing it to become a personal vendetta.
“I think Bill has gotten very angry about what Herbalife is doing, and the presentation made it very clear that it’s personal to him,” said Whitney Tilson, a hedge fund manager and a longtime friend of Mr. Ackman. “He wants to be vindicated for his personal reputation as well.”
Mr. Ackman argues that he maintains plenty of rational distance. When asked if he could absorb any new information that might change his thesis against Herbalife, he first nodded curtly. Certainly, yes.
But, unable to stop himself, he fell into a familiar refrain. “There’s nothing actually that could prove that Herbalife is not a pyramid scheme,” he said. “There’s nothing.”
Maybe Mr. Ackman is capable of changing his mind. Or maybe not. As for Herbalife, he finished heatedly, “That’s a bad example.”
As far as egos, there is no doubt Ackman has a huge ego and it often comes back to bite him in the ass, making some of his investors extremely nervous. The sad public display of hedge fund cannibalism didn't make him or Carl Icahn look good. In fact, it turned many people, especially those in the Jewish community, completely off which is why they wisely simmered down and made up.
What else does the article show us? Great investors invest with conviction and they're not afraid to take very concentrated bets. They will lose on some big bets but win on most which is why they typically outperform the S&P500 over a long period.
Ackman's fund has hit a few home runs, offsetting his big flops. Two of his biggest hits — General Growth Properties (GGP) and Canadian Pacific (CP) — helped to offset the reputational and financial losses from Target (TGT) and J. C. Penney (JCP).
I must admit, I always thought J.C. Penney was a dud and openly questioned why so many top hedge fund managers, including Soros, jumped on that bandwagon in the third quarter of 2013 (Soros cut his losses in the subsequent quarter). As far as Herbalife (HLF), I continue to steer clear from it as I never bought their products and don't have an opinion on the company. As far as Valeant Pharmaceuticals (VRX), Ackman might be right but I wouldn't bet against Jim Chanos, the man who exposed Enron as a fraud.
In another story related to oversized hedge fund egos, Bloomberg's Christie Smythe reports, Bridgewater Sues Ex-Employees Who Founded Rival Convoy:
Bridgewater Associates LP, the $160 billion hedge-fund firm founded by Ray Dalio, sued two former employees who started competitor Convoy Investments LLC, claiming they exaggerated their previous roles with Bridgewater to win clients.
Convoy founders Howard Wang and Wenquan Wu, who Bridgewater said served in “low-ranking roles” in client services and information technology, have tried to pass themselves off as “former key figures,” according to the firm’s complaint accusing the two of violating laws against false advertising.
“Rather than promote their new venture honestly, defendants elected to trade off of Bridgewater’s hard-earned reputation,” the Westport, Connecticut-based firm said in the Oct. 21 complaint in Manhattan federal court.
Wang had publicized that he personally “managed” multibillion-dollar portfolios and helped oversee the $70 billion All Weather fund, while Wu billed himself as helping oversee various “critical components” of the company’s operations systems, Bridgewater said.
After being confronted about misleading claims, Wang and Wu took down only some of their statements from Convoy’s website, and then “mysteriously” hid the bulk of the site behind a password, Bridgewater said. The Convoy founders also submitted exaggerated claims in an application for a trademark for the new firm, according to the complaint.
Ambitions HiddenI'm keeping a close eye on this case for two reasons. First, if Bridgewater is right and these former employees are misrepresenting their experience at the fund to garner assets, then kudos to Bridgewater for exposing them.
While they had agreed to disclose their post-employment plans, Wang and Wu didn’t tell the firm that they were planning to start a competitor, Bridgewater said. The men “kept their competitive ambitions hidden,” telling Bridgewater they were “traveling, ballroom dancing” or passively advising friends and family about their investments, according to the complaint.
A representative of New York-based Convoy who wouldn’t provide a name said in an e-mail that the lawsuit claims are “baseless.”
“We believe this is a case of a giant hedge fund using its weight to scare ex-employees from becoming competition, particularly because we believe our low fee and pro bono approach is disruptive to the established industry model,” the representative said.
Bridgewater is seeking damages and a court order stopping the men from allegedly engaging in false advertising.
The case is Bridgewater Associates LP v. Convoy Fund LP, 14-cv-8413, U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York (Manhattan).
But if this isn't the case, then I give all the credit to the founding partners of Convoy Investments for standing up to the 'Bridegewater bullies' and starting a new hedge fund with much lower fees than the established industry norm. They aren't the first fund to think of drastically chopping fees and they won't be the last.
In the hedge fund world, you won't find a bigger ego than Ray Dalio even though he will vigorously deny this claiming his critics don't understand Bridgewater's unique culture and 'radical transparency.'
I'm not a critic of Ray Dalio or Bridgewater but I have raised concerns on their size and performance in the past and some of the deals they entered with public pension funds. I was one of the first in Canada to invest in Bridgewater back in 2002 and met Ray Dalio roughly ten years ago when Gordon Fyfe and I visited their office. I even confronted him on why deflation and deleveraging is the endgame, irritating him to the point where he blurted out: "Son, what's your track record?" Fyfe got a real kick out of that response.
I like Ray and think Bridgewater is a top global macro fund which produces outstanding research to back their positions. But let there be no mistake, it's Ray's shop and he rules it with an iron fist. He will claim otherwise but look at the facts. How many Bridgewater "cubs" or "tigers" are there out there? Why haven't there been more former Bridgewater employees starting up their own fund? The evidence speaks for itself and Bridgewater's reaction to this new venture sends a strong message to any of their employees thinking of starting a new fund, "We will squash you like a bug!".
There is something else that irks me a lot. All these overpaid hedge fund gurus collecting huge fees on the billions they manage have catapulted into the Forbes' list of billionaires. Dalio is now the richest person in Connecticut with an estimated net worth of $14.3 billion (do the math...when managing over $100 billion, that 2% management fee really kicks in, making Dalio obscenely rich). Kudos to him, he's come a long way since starting his fund in a small Manhattan apartment in the mid-70s.
But when a hedge fund manager's net worth is roughly 10% of the assets he manages, I start worrying that his ego will get the better part of him and whether he's spreading enough of his enormous wealth to all his employees. What else worries me? As I've stated before, that 2% management fee should be scrapped for alternative investment funds managing billions because it turns most funds into large, lazy asset gatherers (not the case for Bridgewater but this is a legitimate concern).
As always, I welcome your feedback and if Ray Dalio or Bill Ackman have anything to say, they can contact me directly (LKolivakis@gmail.com). There are a lot of egos in finance, especially in the hedge fund industry, and that's not always a bad thing. But all these overpaid hedge fund gurus owe their enormous wealth to teachers, police officers, firefighters and other public servants working hard to make an honest living. I wish they'd recognize this and publicly thank them once in a while.
Below, Daniel Posner, chief investment officer of Opportunistic Credit at Golub Capital, and Columbia University’s Fabio Savoldelli discuss how hedge funds were impacted by volatility, the recent market selloff and where Gloub Capital is finding value. They speak on “Market Makers.”
And Skybridge Capital Senior Portfolio Manager Troy Gayeski discusses the performance of hedge funds, Fed policy and his outlook for the economy on “Bloomberg Surveillance.”