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When billionaire Bill Ackman went on television last week to tearfully warn that “hell is coming” and beg the White House to shut down the country for 30 days, he was knee deep in a bet against the markets that netted him $2.6 billion.
In a Wednesday note to investors of his Pershing Square fund, Ackman said he cashed out of a credit hedge on Monday for a profit of $2.6 billion. The hedge, which he started building on March 3, cost him roughly $27 million and scored big as stock and debt markets floundered on fears of the coming pandemic — fears, critics say, that he helped stoke.
After firing off a tweetstorm to President Trump on March 17 proposing that the US impose a nationwide “extended spring break” to combat the virus’ spread, Ackman called into CNBC the next morning. In an emotional interview, he claimed to have locked down in late February after realizing how deadly the pandemic was going to be for people like his immuno-compromised septuagenarian father.
“Everyone feels, you know, 99 percent chance I’ll be OK!’” Ackman said on the air. “But it’s not you: It’s the person you give it to. I am not going to kill my father, OK?”
After his CNBC appearance, Ackman was lambasted by critics for helping an already depressed stock market sink lower. “Please get Ackman off CNBC before people start jumping off bridges,” fellow billionaire and ex-hedge fund manager Michael Novogratz tweeted.
Now the size of Ackman’s profit — tied to credit spreads widening as investors ran for safety — is turning heads again.
“It looks like a hell of a trade,” quipped one trader at a large bank who read Ackman’s Wednesday letter. “I guess Bill was crying on TV for a lot of reasons. Tears of joy.”
“It looks like a hell of a trade. I guess Bill was crying on TV for a lot of reasons. Tears of joy.”
— Trader at a large bank
Sources close to Ackman say he’s lost money overall given his exposure to stocks, resulting in a loss of 6.5 percent for the year in early March. And they point out that he was one of the first financiers to close his office and tell staff to work from home in order to prevent the spread of the virus in late February.
“Maybe it had something to do with what was going on in the world,” one source quipped about the global stock rout.
During his CNBC interview, Ackman said he would buy stocks based on his confidence that Trump would follow his advice. He was particularly bullish about stock in Hilton Hotels, which he predicted would “go to zero” if radical action wasn’t taken against the virus.
In his Wednesday letter, Ackman told investors that “substantially all of the proceeds” from his $2.6 billion windfall would be used to buy more stock in current investments, like Hilton, Starbucks, Restaurant Brands and Lowe’s.