Hedge fund manager Bill Ackman first came to my attention when he invested in Canadian Pacific railroad. As an activist investor, Ackman started a lengthy proxy battle with the board of directors to remove Fred Green as CEO and appoint Hunter Harrison in his place. Not only was Ackman successful but it was very profitable for his hedge fund since the value of CP shares more than doubled under Harrison’s leadership.
In early 2015, Bill Ackman invested in Valeant, another Canadian company. His hedge fund purchase shares around $196 and recently sold all of them at $11 a share. He accelerated his losses by buying call options and selling put options.
Hindsight is of course 20-20, are there any investment lessons that we can use?
Lesson: Intelligent people are capable of doing very dumb things.
Bill Ackman is clearly a smart man otherwise his Pershing Square hedge fund wouldn’t manage pension fund money. But if you asked the average investment professional /your grandmother whether it is a good idea to stick over a quarter of your assets into a highly levered pharma roll up the answer would tend to be a firm “no”.
Lesson: Position sizing is very, very important.
Always be aware of your risk of ruin, no matter how much you are convinced the odds are in your favor. Regardless of how amazingly smart and brilliant you are and how many hundreds of hours of research you have done, it is perfectly possible that you will lose money on any given investment. Pershing Square had too large a position to simply sell its stake and walk away when things started to go wrong.
Lesson: Highly incentivized management teams can still blow themselves up, and take you down with them.
Part of the original appeal of Valeant to the hedge funds that backed it was how the CEO’s stock options had been structured to make him highly incentivized to get the share price as high as possible. Having management teams with “skin in the game” is clearly important but this does not mean they will not do something very stupid.
Lesson: Auctions are not usually very good places to find bargains.
Ackman admits that he now believes Valeant “substantially overpaid” for Salix, its last big acquisition before things fell apart. A big problem with a role up strategy is paying high prices for third rate assets that no one else in the world is willing to buy.
Lesson: Beware of political risk.
Valeant used aggressive drug pricing to help pay for their acquisitions which got the attention of American lawmakers. Bill Ackman had to testify at a hearing held by the U.S. Senate aging committee which was reviewing escalating drug prices. It also became a big issue during the U.S. 2016 presidential election.
Lesson: Take a loss, don’t let your Ego get in your way.
There is no doubt that billionaires tend to have large egos. Being labeled “Baby Buffett” on the cover of Forbes is quite the ego booster. But there is an old saying, “the bigger they are, the harder they fall”. Ackman’s buying call options and selling put options on a losing position is a clear sign that his ego wouldn’t accept taking a loss on Valeant shares.
Postscript: The share price of CSX railroad jumped up 35% on rumors that Hunter Harrison would be the new CEO. Harrison got the job but can he deliver another turnaround? It may be too early to tell. However, I bought some shares of CSX for my investment club.