William Albert Ackman (born May 11, 1966) is an American investor, hedge fund manager, and philanthropist. He is the founder and CEO of Pershing Square Capital Management, a hedge fund management company. Ackman is considered by some to be a contrarian investor but considers himself an activist investor.
Early life and education
Ackman was raised in Chappaqua, New York, the son of Ronnie I. (née Posner) and Lawrence David Ackman, the chairman of a New York real estate financing firm, Ackman-Ziff Real Estate Group. He is Jewish.
In 1988, he received a bachelor of arts degree magna cum laude in history from Harvard College. His thesis was "Scaling the Ivy Wall: the Jewish and Asian American Experience in Harvard Admissions." In 1992, he received an MBA from Harvard Business School.
Research published at the University of Oxford characterizes Ackman's activities with Canadian Pacific Railway as paradigmatic of "engaged activism," which is longer-term in nature with correlated benefits to the real economy, and distinct from shorter-term "financial activism."
Ackman's investing style has been praised and criticized by U.S. government officials, heads of other hedge funds, various retail investors, and the general public. His most notable market plays include shorting MBIA's bonds during the financial crisis of 2007–2008, his proxy fight with Canadian Pacific Railway, and his stakes in the Target Corporation, Valeant Pharmaceuticals, and Chipotle Mexican Grill. From 2012 to 2018, Ackman held a US$1 billion short against the nutrition company Herbalife, a company he has claimed is a pyramid scheme designed as a multi-level marketing firm. His efforts were reported in the documentary film Betting on Zero.
In 1992, Ackman founded the investment firm Gotham Partners with fellow Harvard graduate David P. Berkowitz. The firm made small investments in public companies. In 1995, Ackman partnered with the insurance and real estate firm Leucadia National to bid for Rockefeller Center. Although they did not win the deal, the bid generated increased interest in Gotham from investors, which led to $500 million in assets by 1998. By 2002, Gotham had become entrenched in litigation with various outside shareholders who also owned an interest in the companies in which Gotham invested.
Despite an ongoing probe of his trading by New York state and federal authorities, in 2002 Ackman began research challenging MBIA's AAA rating. He was charged fees for copying 725,000 pages of statements regarding the financial services company in his law firm's compliance with a subpoena. Ackman called for a division between MBIA's bond insurers' structured finance business and its municipal bond insurance business.
He argued that MBIA was legally restricted from trading billions of dollars of credit default swap (CDS) protection that MBIA had sold against various mortgage backed CDOs, and was using a second corporation, LaCrosse Financial Products, which MBIA described as an "orphaned transformer." Ackman bought credit default swaps against MBIA corporate debt and sold them for a large profit during the financial crisis of 2007–2008. He reported covering his short position on MBIA on January 16, 2009, according to the 13D filed with the SEC.
In 2003, a feud developed between Ackman and Carl Icahn over a deal involving Hallwood Realty. They agreed to a "schmuck insurance", under which, if Icahn were to sell the shares within 3 years and made a profit of 10% or more, he and Ackman would split the proceeds. Icahn paid $80 per share. In April 2004, HRPT Property Trust acquired Hallwood, paying $136.16 per share. Under the terms, Icahn owed Ackman investors about $4.5 million, but he refused to pay. Ackman sued. Eight years later, the Court forced Icahn to pay $4.5 million, plus 9% interest per year since the date of the sale.
Pershing Square Capital Management
In 2004, with $54 million from his personal funds and from his former business partner Leucadia National, Ackman started Pershing Square Capital Management. In 2005, Pershing bought a significant share in the fast food chain Wendy's International and successfully pressured it to sell its Tim Hortons doughnut chain. Wendy's spun off Tim Hortons through an IPO in 2006 and raised $670 million for Wendy's investors. After a dispute over executive succession that led Ackman to sell his shares at a substantial profit, the stock price collapsed, raising criticism that the sale of Wendy's fastest-growing unit left the company in a weaker market position. Ackman blamed the poor performance on their new CEO.
In December 2007, his funds owned a 10% stake in Target Corporation, valued at $4.2 billion through the purchase of stock and derivatives.
In December 2010, his funds held a 38% stake in Borders Group and on December 6, 2010, Ackman indicated he would finance a buyout of Barnes & Noble for US$900M.
At a panel meeting discussing Bernie Madoff in January 2009, Ackman defended his longtime friend Ezra Merkin, saying, "Has Ezra committed a crime? I don't think so," and "I think [Merkin] is an honest person, an intelligent person, an interesting person, a smart investor." In April 2009, Merkin was charged with civil fraud by the State of New York for "secretly steering $2.4 billion in client money into Bernard Madoff's Ponzi fraud without their permission." A settlement was reached on June 2012 requiring Merkin to pay $405 million to victims including the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty.
In December 2012, Pershing Square Capital Management launched a new closed-end fund called Pershing Square Holdings, which raised $3 billion in an October 2014 IPO on Amsterdam's Euronext stock market. As a closed-end fund valued at $6.7 billion, PSH was designed as a permanent capital vehicle from which investors would not be able to directly withdraw funds. PSH reported 17.1% in returns since inception (Dec. 2012 – November 2017) under Ackman's management, 80% below the S&P 500.
Ackman started buying J. C. Penney shares in 2010, paying an average of $22 for 39 million shares or 18% of J.C. Penney's stock. In August 2013, Ackman's two-year campaign to transform the department store came to an abrupt end after he decided to step down from the board following an argument with fellow board members.
In a statement dated August 27, 2013, Pershing Square reported that it had hired Citigroup to liquidate the 39.1 million shares the firm then owned of the Plano, Texas-based department-store chain at a price of $12.90 per share, resulting in a loss of approximately $500 million. In January 2015, LCH Investments named Ackman one of the world's top 20 hedge fund managers after Pershing Square delivered $4.5 billion in net gains for investors in 2014, bringing the fund's lifetime gains to $11.6 billion since its launch in 2004 through year-end 2014.
On April 27, 2016, Ackman, along with Valeant Pharmaceuticals' outgoing CEO, J. Michael Pearson, and the company's former interim CEO, Howard Schiller, testified before the United States Senate Special Committee on Aging. The testifying panel answered questions related to the Committee's concerns about repercussions to patients and the health care system posed by Valeant's business model and controversial pricing practices. Ackman opened his testimony saying, "As a shareholder of Valeant, I recognize my investment was an… endorsement of Valeant’s strategy." Ackman sold his remaining $27.2 million share position in Valeant to the investment bank Jefferies for about $300 million in March 2017. It has been estimated that the total cost of the position, including direct stock purchases and $9.1 million shares that were underlying stock options traded with Nomura Global Financial Products, was $4.6 billion, leading to a loss greater than the original price of the securities.
According to Forbes Magazine, Ackman has a net worth of US$1.09 billion as of February 12, 2018.
In December 2012, Ackman issued a research report that was critical of Herbalife's multi-level marketing business model, calling it a pyramid scheme. Ackman disclosed that his hedge fund, Pershing Square Capital Management, sold short the company's shares directly (not with derivatives) starting in May 2012, causing Herbalife's stock price to drop.
At an investor conference in January 2013, the company released results of a Nielsen Research International survey showing 73% of Herbalife distributors never intended to make money by reselling the product. Instead, they wanted to buy products at a discount for personal use. To make the distinction clearer, the company announced on its June 2013 earnings call that it would begin referring to these discount buyers as "members" rather than "distributors."
A few months after Ackman's initial comments, billionaire investor Carl Icahn challenged Ackman's comment in a public spat on national TV. Shortly thereafter, Icahn bought shares of Herbalife International. As Icahn continued to buy up HLF shares, the stock price continued to show strength. By May 2013, Icahn owned 16.5% of the company. That number had declined to 6.4% by November 2013.
In 2014, Ackman spent $50 million on a public relations campaign against Herbalife, which was designed to hurt the company's stock price.
Former Rep. Bob Barr (R-GA) has called on Congress to investigate Ackman's use of public relations and regulatory pressure in his short campaign, and Harvey L. Pitt, a former chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission, has questioned whether Ackman aims to move the price rather than spread the truth. In 2014, Senator Ed Markey wrote letters to federal regulators, including the FTC and the SEC, demanding they open an investigation into Herbalife's business practices. The day the letters were released, the company's stock dropped 14%. Markey later told the Boston Globe that his staff had not informed him that Ackman stood to benefit financially from his actions and defended the letters as a matter of consumer rights.
In March 2014, the New York Times reported that Ackman had employed tactics to undermine public confidence in Herbalife to lower its stock price, including pressuring state and federal regulators to investigate the company, paying individuals to travel to and participate in rallies against it, and boosting its spending on donations to nonprofit Latino organizations. According to the article, groups such as the Hispanic Federation and the National Consumers League sent federal regulators numerous letters. "Each person contacted by The Times acknowledged in interviews that they wrote the letters after being lobbied by representatives from Pershing Square, or said they did not remember writing the letters at all. Mr. Ackman's team also then started to make payments totaling about $130,000 to some of these groups, including the Hispanic Federation — money he said was being used to help find victims of Herbalife."
By December 2, 2014, stock prices had fallen nearly 50% to $42.08 from their January 8 high of $83.48. Later that month, Pershing Square Capital released a 2005 Herbalife distributor training session, in which an employee described high turnover rates and implied that the company's business model was not sustainable. According to an unnamed source speaking to the New York Post, the video had previously been subpoenaed by federal investigators. In an interview with Bloomberg, Ackman predicted that the company would experience an "implosion" in 2015 or early 2016, citing federal scrutiny and debt.
On March 12, 2015, The Wall Street Journal reported that prosecutors in the Manhattan U.S. attorney's office and the FBI were investigating whether people hired by Ackman "made false statements about Herbalife's business model to regulators and others in order to spur investigations into the company and lower its stock price." In March 2015, U.S. District Judge Dale Fischer, in Los Angeles, California, dismissed a suit filed by Herbalife investors alleging the company is operating an illegal pyramid scheme. In response to Fischer's ruling, Herbalife stock rose approximately 13%. Herbalife and the FTC reached a settlement agreement in July 2016, ending the agency's investigation into the company. On the day of the settlement, Fortune estimated that Ackman lost $500 million.
Ackman's position on Herbalife led to a discussion on live television with Herbalife supporter Carl Icahn for nearly half an hour on CNBC on January 25, 2013. During the segment, Icahn called Ackman "a crybaby in the schoolyard" and claimed that going public with his short position would eventually force Ackman into the "mother of all short squeezes." On November 22, 2013, Ackman admitted on Bloomberg Television that Pershing Square's open short position in Herbalife was "$400 million to $500 million" in the red, but that he wouldn't be squeezed out and would hold the short "to the end of the earth."
In November 2017, Ackman told Reuters that he had covered his short-sell position, but would continue to bet against Herbalife using put options with no more than 3% of Pershing Square's funds.
On February 28, 2018, Ackman exited his near billion-dollar bet against Herbalife after the company's stock price continued to rise, choosing to build his position in United Technology instead.
Ackman has given to charitable causes such as the Center for Jewish History, where he spearheaded a successful effort to retire $30 million in debt, personally contributing $6.8 million. This donation and those of Bruce Berkowitz, founder of Fairholme Capital Management, and Joseph Steinberg, president of Leucadia National, were the three largest individual gifts the center has ever received.
Ackman's foundation donated $1.1 million to the Innocence Project in New York City and Centurion Ministries in Princeton, N.J. He is a signatory of The Giving Pledge, committing himself to give away at least 50% of his wealth to charitable causes.
In 2006, Ackman, and then wife Karen, founded the Pershing Square Foundation to support innovation in economic development, education, healthcare, human rights, arts and urban development. The foundation is a major donor to Planned Parenthood. Since its inception, the foundation has committed more than $400 million in grants since 2006. In 2011, the Ackmans were on The Chronicle of Philanthropy's "Philanthropy 50" list of the most generous donors.
In July 2014, Challenged Athletes Foundation, which provides sports equipment to those with physical disabilities, honored Ackman at a gala fundraiser at the Waldorf Astoria hotel in New York City for helping raise a record $2.3 million.
Ackman endorsed Michael Bloomberg as a prospective candidate for President of the United States in the 2016 presidential election. He is a longtime donor to Democratic candidates and organizations, including Richard Blumenthal, Chuck Schumer, Robert Menendez, the Democratic National Committee, and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.
Ackman married Karen Ann Herskovitz, a landscape architect, on July 10, 1994, and they have three children. On December 22, 2016, it was reported that the couple had separated.
In 2018, Ackman became engaged to Neri Oxman. In January 2019, Oxman and Ackman married at the Central Synagogue in Manhattan, and they had their first child together in spring 2019.