I worked on Capitol Hill for years and now am working in the private sector. As a staffer, I interacted with lobbyists on a daily basis. Many times, they came in to lobby for help in reducing regulations, lowering taxes, or passing legislation that makes sense for markets.
There were other lobbying meetings I had that gave me a bad feeling in the pit of my stomach, because these lobbyists came into the office to push for action that clearly would help their client to the detriment of other companies.
I am aware of at least one instance where this has played out in public. The case of hedge fund Pershing Square’s Bill Ackman using lobbying and public relations to pressure the federal government to put a business into bankruptcy. His public position is that he is an “activist investor” who is trying to do some good by pushing a sports nutrition company, Herbalife, which he believes has a flawed business model, out of business. Ackman has put a large amount of money behind this push.
In December 2012, Ackman’s hedge fund had shorted Herbalife to the tune of $1 billion. That set off an epic battle in which Ackman tried to persuade investors to stay away from Herbalife. He made a three-and-a-half-hour presentation lecture in a 500-seat auditorium that was webcasted that resulted in Herbalife stock dropping 10 percent in six seconds and a whopping 42 percent over a week.
But Herbalife recovered and the presentation resulted in failure. Ackman did not profit from a drop in the stock — he needed a complete crash of the company to cash in.
Ackman later bragged to the Street that he had spent $50 million “to research and publicize the fund’s negative views on Herbalife.” Some of this cash was spent on a lobbying campaign in Washington, D.C., designed to get the attention of members of Congress and to push for Federal Trade Commission and Securities and Exchange Commission investigations of Herbalife. Ackman was successful in getting the FTC to investigate Herbalife, yet that effort failed to drive the company into bankruptcy.
Once persuasion failed to kill Herbalife, Ackman had resorted to lobbyists and the government to do his dirty work. There is nothing wrong with a hedge fund shorting a stock they think is overpriced, but it’s a whole other thing to use the power of government to secure an investment strategy. I would think of Ackman’s tactics whenever I met with other lobbyists who came to my office wanting to use the government for competitive advantage.
Herbalife survived Ackman’s assault and saw its share price more or less recover. Ackman recently had to convert his short position into something called “put options.” According to Bloomberg’s report on the change from November of last year, Ackman has changed his position to make “sure he won’t lose more money if the shares keep going up.” Hopefully he and others will back way from this business of using government to get rich on their Wall Street bets.
Beau Rothschild is the founder of Rothschild Policy and Politics. Beau served as the members outreach director for the Committee on House Administration and helped the 2014 freshmen Republican class to set up offices.
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