Today, hedge fund bigwigs Bill Ackman and Carl Icahn delivered the most engaging TV smackdown in recent memory on CNBC.
Here's a story about two hedge funders who hate each other. It's also a story about whether or not a multi-billion-dollar nutrient company is actually a pyramid scheme.
Back in December, activist investor Bill Ackman gave the Powerpoint presentation to end all Powerpoint presentations -- it was 342 slides long -- about why he thought Herbalife, a company better known for weight-loss shakes and other assorted non-goodies, was doomed. The 1-slide version of his argument is that its web of distributors make more from recruiting new distributors than they do from actually selling products, making it less an Amway-style legal pyramid scheme, and more an illegal one. Ackman went short the stock -- in other words, he bet its price would go down by selling high and trying to buy low -- and very publicly said he expected it to go to zero.
Betting against a stock is a bit more involved than betting on it, because you can't exactly bet against something you own. Short-sellers have to first borrow the stock, then sell it, and hope to buy it back later at a lower price before returning it to the original owner. It's a risky game -- the stock can only go down so far, but it can go up an unlimited amount -- and Ackman seems to be playing a particularly risky version of it. He's short roughly 20 percent of the outstanding shares, which means he'll have a lot of stock to buy back that he might have trouble finding if, say, the price goes up and he tries to cut his losses.
That brings us to the billionaire battle. Activist investors aren't always the best of friends, and that's certainly the case when it comes to Carl Icahn and Bill Ackman. The two of them fought a seven-year legal battle over whether Icahn owed Ackman $4.5 million, a relative pittance in the rarefied air of Hedgistan, from the 2004 merger-sale of a real estate company -- a battle that Ackman ultimately won. That bad blood has carried over to Herbalife. Icahn thinks Ackman is just using his big media profile to make an easy buck manipulating the stock down, and that he's doing so in a way that could leave him very exposed. If other investors buy the stock for the express purpose of hurting his trade, Ackman might have to cover his large short position, which would send the stock racing up in a so-called "short-squeeze". Now, it's not clear Icahn is doing this ... but it certainly seems like a good bet.
Another good bet is that watching the two of them got at it on live television would be magical. It was. CNBC had the pair on, as you can see in the video below, and Icahn did not disappoint. This was tough, but here are his seven craziest quotes.
"I want to say what I want to say, and I'm not going to talk about my Herbalife position because you want to bully me ... So let's start with what I want to say. Ackman is a liar."
Discourse even more elevated.
"He wanted to have dinner once with me, and I had dinner with me. And I'll tell you, I laughed. I couldn't figure out if he was the sanctimonious guy I ever met in my life or the most arrogant."
Do these have to be mutually exclusive?
"I wouldn't have an investment with Ackman if you paid me to do it; if Ackman paid me to do it .... As far as I'm concerned, the guy is a major loser. You know, Disraeli once said, Disraeli once said about somebody that spoke in the Parliament, a young guy that spoke in the Parliament, 'Young man, I'd be happy if I could be as sure about one thing in my life as you are sure of everything.'"
"Ackman did it, look at the timing. Ackman did it with a week to go, or a month to go before he had to show his results. His results were bad for 2012, and this got his results up double, so he could get fees for himself. And then he talks about [giving these profits to] charity. That's complete bulls***."
Oops, live TV!
"I never said that I want to be friends with you Bill. I wouldn't be friends with you. And you said to me, you'd like to be friends so we could invest together .... I wouldn't invest with you if you were the last man on earth."
"I appreciate, Bill, that you called me a great investor. I thank you for that. Unfortunately, I can't say the same for you."
Give this man a mic to drop.
Okay, that was fun, but it's time for a serious point. Markets are mostly efficient, except when they're not. As Keynes, who knew a thing or two about picking stocks, pointed out, the market can be a bit like a newspaper beauty contest where you pick the six prettiest faces from a list of 100, and the winner is the one whose picks come closest to the most popular of the combined picks. But this means your optimal strategy is picking the faces you think other people think are the prettiest, not the ones you think are the prettiest. In other words, you're betting based on the crowd, and not the "fundamentals". It's the same with stocks, even before we consider hedge fund billionaires using a nutrient supplement company's stock to settle their grudge match.
Or, as Disraeli might have said, there are lies, damn lies, and efficient markets.
"[Ackman's] like the crybaby in the schoolyard. You know, I went to a tough school in Queens, and they used to beat up the little Jewish boys. And [Ackman] was like one of these little Jewish boys, crying that the world was taking advantage of him."
The Islamic State is no mere collection of psychopaths. It is a religious group with carefully considered beliefs, among them that it is a key agent of the coming apocalypse. Here’s what that means for its strategy—and for how to stop it.
What is the Islamic State?
Where did it come from, and what are its intentions? The simplicity of these questions can be deceiving, and few Western leaders seem to know the answers. In December, The New York Times published confidential comments by Major General Michael K. Nagata, the Special Operations commander for the United States in the Middle East, admitting that he had hardly begun figuring out the Islamic State’s appeal. “We have not defeated the idea,” he said. “We do not even understand the idea.” In the past year, President Obama has referred to the Islamic State, variously, as “not Islamic” and as al-Qaeda’s “jayvee team,” statements that reflected confusion about the group, and may have contributed to significant strategic errors.
For centuries, experts have predicted that machines would make workers obsolete. That moment may finally be arriving. Could that be a good thing?
1. Youngstown, U.S.A.
The end of work is still just a futuristic concept for most of the United States, but it is something like a moment in history for Youngstown, Ohio, one its residents can cite with precision: September 19, 1977.
For much of the 20th century, Youngstown’s steel mills delivered such great prosperity that the city was a model of the American dream, boasting a median income and a homeownership rate that were among the nation’s highest. But as manufacturing shifted abroad after World War II, Youngstown steel suffered, and on that gray September afternoon in 1977, Youngstown Sheet and Tube announced the shuttering of its Campbell Works mill. Within five years, the city lost 50,000 jobs and $1.3 billion in manufacturing wages. The effect was so severe that a term was coined to describe the fallout: regional depression.
Former Senator Jim Webb is the fifth Democrat to enter the race—and by far the most conservative one.
In a different era’s Democratic Party, Jim Webb might be a serious contender for the presidential nomination. He’s a war hero and former Navy secretary, but he has been an outspoken opponent of recent military interventions. He’s a former senator from Virginia, a purple state. He has a strong populist streak, could appeal to working-class white voters, and might even have crossover appeal from his days as a member of the Reagan administration.
In today’s leftward drifting Democratic Party, however, it’s hard to see Webb—who declared his candidacy Thursday—getting very far. As surprising as Bernie Sanders’s rise in the polls has been, he looks more like the Democratic base than Webb does. The Virginian is progressive on a few major issues, including the military and campaign spending, but he’s far to the center or even right on others: He's against affirmative action, supports gun rights, and is a defender of coal. During the George W. Bush administration, Democrats loved to have him as a foil to the White House. It’s hard to imagine the national electorate will cotton to him in the same way. Webb’s statement essentially saying he had no problem with the Confederate battle flag flying in places like the grounds of the South Carolina capitol may have been the final straw. (At 69, he’s also older than Hillary Clinton, whose age has been a topic of debate, though still younger than Bernie Sanders or Joe Biden.)
Defining common cultural literacy for an increasingly diverse nation.
Is the culture war over?
That seems an absurd question. This is an age when Confederate monuments still stand; when white-privilege denialism is surging on social media; when legislators and educators in Arizona and Texas propose banning ethnic studies in public schools and assign textbooks euphemizing the slave trade; when fear of Hispanic and Asian immigrants remains strong enough to prevent immigration reform in Congress; when the simple assertion that #BlackLivesMatter cannot be accepted by all but is instead contested petulantly by many non-blacks as divisive, even discriminatory.
And that’s looking only at race. Add gender, guns, gays, and God to the mix and the culture war seems to be raging along quite nicely.
The Disney CEO and the Oscar-winning actress compare notes on Hollywood.
Midway through Goldie Hawn and Michael Eisner’s on-stage conversation at the Aspen Ideas Festival on Thursday, the former Disney CEO proposed a theory for what made Hawn stand out in Hollywood over the years.
“From my position, the hardest artist to find is a beautiful, funny woman,” he said. “By far. They usually—boy am I going to get in trouble, I know this goes online—but usually, unbelievably beautiful women, you being an exception, are not funny.”
It’s a statement that recalls Christopher Hitchens’s Vanity Fair essay, “Why Aren’t Women Funny?,” which drew big controversy upon its publication in 2007, given the success of women comedians from Lucille Ball to Tina Fey. For her part, Hawn said she agreed that she may owe her sense of humor to her being an “ugly duckling” growing up.
It wasn’t that bad. But it did help me understand why it made people so angry.
From the Gray Lady, a Modest Dip Proposal. On Microblogging Platform, a Furor. For Peas, a New Use. There are times when The Times out-Timeses itself, and then there was Wednesday. The country's largest newspaper smugly tweeted a link to a recipe for guacamole. One made with peas. "Trust us," it read.
“I’m not a vegetarian because I love animals. I’m a vegetarian because I hate plants.”
If the U.S. and Iran conclude a nuclear deal next week, the Islamic Republic stands to gain billions of dollars in eventual sanctions relief. But money isn’t the most important reason the Iranian leadership may be set to shake hands with its historic enemy after 18 months of negotiations.
“One of the most important reasons Iran is signing this deal, in my opinion ... is not actually sanctions,” said Vali Nasr, the dean of Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies. “It’s ISIS. There is actually support for this deal within the Revolutionary Guards in Iran, because their day job is right now fighting ISIS, and they need the United States, particularly in Iraq, on the right side of that fight.”
This Independence Day, we should take a page from the Founding Fathers, as well as our ancestors around the world, who imbibed gallons of low-alcohol beer pretty much all the time.
“Beer,” writes the Egyptologist Wolfgang Helck, “could easily have been discovered by chance.” The Babylonians and ancient Egyptians didn’t have microbrewing supplies, but they had grains—grains that would, from time to time, get wet, interact with airborne yeasts, and voila, a brewski was born.
That’s according to Ian Spencer Hornsey, who describes in his book, A History of Beer and Brewing, the long, global history of fermented beverages.
Today, most beer is made either by multinational conglomerates or careful artisans, but originally, all men were (rather careless) home-brewers. The Babylonians would mix crumbled bread with water, add yeast, and just forget about it for a while. One of the Sumerians’ few female deities was Ninkasi, “Lady of the inebriating fruit,” who watched over the “cooked mash” as it cooled.
The meaning of the Confederate flag is best discerned in the words of those who bore it.
This afternoon, in announcing her support for removing the Confederate flag from the capitol grounds, South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley asserted that killer Dylann Roof had “a sick and twisted view of the flag” which did not reflect “the people in our state who respect and in many ways revere it.” If the governor meant that very few of the flag’s supporters believe in mass murder, she is surely right. But on the question of whose view of the Confederate Flag is more twisted, she is almost certainly wrong.
Roof’s belief that black life had no purpose beyond subjugation is “sick and twisted” in the exact same manner as the beliefs of those who created the Confederate flag were “sick and twisted.” The Confederate flag is directly tied to the Confederate cause, and the Confederate cause was white supremacy. This claim is not the result of revisionism. It does not require reading between the lines. It is the plain meaning of the words of those who bore the Confederate flag across history. These words must never be forgotten. Over the next few months the word “heritage” will be repeatedly invoked. It would be derelict to not examine the exact contents of that heritage.