Ackman in Full

Bill Ackman has been in the SPAC game for long before it was trendy.
Bill Ackman was in the SPAC game for long before it was trendy. Photo: Sylvain Gaboury/Getty Images
William D. Cohan
October 4, 2023

The hedge fund manager Bill Ackman has always been a master of media access, perhaps even bordering on media manipulation. He knows how to get publicity on CNBC, mostly good over the years, as he’s weaved his way in and around one minefield (Herbalife) after another (Valeant), despite losing billions of dollars along the way. In the past five years, though, his hedge fund, Pershing Square Capital Management, is up 195 percent, thanks in part to an ingenious $27 million Covid-themed hedge that generated some $3.6 billion in three weeks in and around March 2020. In the same time period, his hero Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Holdings is only up 58 percent. The S&P 500 is up 47 percent. The publicly traded holding company controlled by his nemesis, Carl Icahn, is down 72 percent. So you have to give Bill his props.

During the SPAC renaissance of 2020, he volubly launched his own blank-check vehicle designed to take a private company public through a merger. More than $4 billion poured into the SPAC, Pershing Square Tontine Holdings, much of it from retail investors mesmerized by the possibility that Ackman would land a once-in-a-lifetime deal. Ackman fueled the frenzy by suggesting that he’d approached Airbnb, before it went the I.P.O. route, and Stripe, the payments company, which remains private. (At one point, the media got wind of the fact that Ackman wanted to take a stake in Bloomberg LP.; Bill still will not comment about his desire to buy a minority stake in Bloomberg.) Alas, it was not to be. In July 2022, as the SPAC frenzy faded, the time clock ran out, and Bill closed up Tontine Holdings and returned to his investors the $4 billion he raised. That gambit cost him $35 million in lost underwriting fees.

Now Ackman is back with a new variety of SPAC that he’s calling a SPARC, or “special purpose acquisition rights company,” and he is once again chumming the waters. On Sunday, just two days after the S.E.C. gave its approval to the company, Bill got a huge free advertisement for it by telling The Wall Street Journal that he would “absolutely” want to do a deal using his new SPARC to buy Elon Musk’s private company, X, which the rest of us still call Twitter. That got Bill a whole lot of media attention, of course, including a sit-down Monday morning on CNBC with Andrew Ross Sorkin. Needless to say, Wall Street now knows that Ackman’s SPARC is open for business and on the make for a big deal.