So this is what came out of my mouth: “What do you tell the ordinary mortal—say, the person who works in the press that you talked about—what do you say to the person who has $20,000, $50,000, $100,000, or $200,000, maybe, parked somewhere doing nothing? What is your advice right now for that person?”
I looked around. The wizards in the room were having difficulty calculating figures of such humble size. I had thought $200,000 sounded like a large and unembarrassing number. But the room reacted as if I had asked, “Bill, I have 75 cents in my pocket. Do you think I should buy Twizzlers or a big red gumball?”
Ackman answered: “First, it depends on when you’re going to need the money. I’ve always said that if you want to take risk—any risk—you have to be prepared to put your money away for five years or more. If it’s that kind of money, I would give someone a couple of alternatives. Do you have enough money in the bank that if you were to lose your job, you’ve got a good window to get reemployed? You’ve got to make sure you have a safety net. Buy a house. I think it’s a great time to buy a house. But put a 20 percent down payment, get a good mortgage from Fannie and Freddie … It’s one of the best investments you could make. The rest of the money, either invest in a very broad index fund—a Wilshire 5000 type of index fund—or if you want to do a bit of homework, I’d invest in a few great unlevered businesses that earn attractive returns. In my opinion, McDonald’s, Visa, maybe Berkshire Hathaway.”
I think Ackman might not have been accustomed to talking to people like me, which would help explain why he sounded suspiciously like … a Merrill Lynch financial adviser.
He was, however, infinitely more compelling on the macro questions, and this was where the evening took a dark turn. “One of the things that’s interesting about the last year is that you realize how much of our capital system is based on confidence—business confidence,” he said. “If I’m confident I can refinance my debts when they come due, I’ll spend money. If I’m not confident I can refinance my debts when they come due, I’m not spending any more money. So if I can’t renew my home-equity loan and I’m not sure I can keep my job, I can’t spend. And you get into this death spiral.”
I asked him, “What’s the chance we’re going into that death spiral?”
“We’re in it!” he said. “Whether we’re going to die or not is another question.”
“What’s the percentage chance we’re going to move to a barter economy?” I asked.
“I think it’s small,” Ackman said.
“Small”? I had been hoping for “Zero.” “Zero” would have been a fine answer, and not because I have nothing to barter except for a stack of old SmartMoney magazines, but “Zero” because, by the time my 12-year-old turns 18, I would like to be able to use my portfolio of stocks and bonds as a flotation device, and not as kindling.
THE WAY I SEE IT, it’s all a con game,” Cody Lundin was saying. “What I mean is that Wall Street has always been an illusion. Now it’s an illusion that’s crumbling. Wall Street is like someone who’s having heart trouble. It’s in constant need of resuscitation, but after a while, it just doesn’t work anymore. People think that Bernard Madoff was unique, that he was an illusion, but he’s just an extension of the same illusion, the same con game. This is one of the reasons I don’t like to have any debt. When you have debt, you become part of this illusion, and sometimes you get trapped by it.”