Beware of Billionaire Hedge Fund Managers Preaching Morality

To paraphrase philosopher Sam Johnson, a billionaire hedge fund manager preaching personal morality is like a dog's walking on his hind legs. It is not done well, but you are surprised to find it done at all.
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To paraphrase philosopher Sam Johnson, a billionaire hedge fund manager preaching personal morality is like a dog's walking on his hind legs. It is not done well, but you are surprised to find it done at all.

Take the case of William A. Ackman, billionaire founder of the $16.5 billion Pershing Square Capital Management.

According to the hedge fund tycoon, he refrains from investing in Coca-Cola because, "I think it's bad for children and bad for people." I wonder what he thinks about investing in defense contractors that make weapons used to bomb hospitals operated by Doctors Without Borders killing scores of medical workers and patients. But that is for another day.

If you believe Mr. Ackman subordinates profits to morality, you probably also believe in the geocentric theory of the universe.

How strong is his aversion to Coca-Cola or unhealthy foods generally?

This is a man who invests in Burger King, a fast food chain which features Coca-Cola as its marquee beverage and calorie rich cheeseburgers, french fries and milk shakes as its pieces de resistance.

Burger King has earned a bronze medal from Consumer Reports in its race to the bottom of unhealthiness. Its menu fuels the obesity epidemic that is afflicting tens of millions of men, women, and children in the United States alone. Is Burger King good for children and good for people?

In other words, to distinguish Coca-Cola from Burger King on a health chart is like squaring the circle.

But Mr. Ackman makes a lame attempt.

He insinuates that Burger King is like a supermarket which not only sells Coke, but also offers consumers asparagus, Brussel sprouts, broccoli, kale, and squash.

Have you ever encountered a Burger King patron who ordered any of that? Indeed, if its menu switched to promote a cavalcade of vegetable dishes, its stock price would plunge to zero and Mr. Ackman's investment would be worthless.

Adam Smith in Wealth of Nations anticipated the likes of Mr. Ackman in observing: "I have never known much good done by those who affected to trade for the public good. It is an affectation, indeed, not very common among merchants, and very few words need be employed in dissuading them from it."

Mr. Ackman's greatest notoriety, however, is not as a faux Adelle Davis. That dishonor attaches to his quest to destroy Herbalife in hopes of reaping huge profits from short selling the stock.

Herbalife is a multilevel nutritional marketing company. Its main product is a meal-replacement shake powder far healthier than anything Burger King sells. You would think Mr. Ackman's moral barometer would make him an eager Herbalife investor to diminish the obesity epidemic. But mammon has a stronger claim on his affections. He could earn up to $1 billion if Herbalife stock tanked, an objective which Mr. Ackman has cynically unveiled as a personal moral crusade to prevent exploitation of low-income people unable to protect themselves.

Mr. Ackman has maligned Herbalife as the "best managed pyramid scheme in the history of the world." He has hired lobbyists and alerted community groups to discover "victims" and direct them to regulators. He has created websites, placed advertisements, posted notices, set up 1-800 numbers, and contacted former Herbalife employees and distributors. He has sought to enlist Members of Congress to intercede with the Federal Trade Commission or other federal agencies to launch an investigation of Herbalife. Senator Edward Markey (D-Mass.) wrote letters to the FTC and Securities and Exchange Commission.

Members of Congress control the budgets of enforcement agencies. Their suggestions to agencies under their purview receive premium treatment. Ackman is a known billionaire. Under the Citizens United decision of the Supreme Court, Ackman could independently spend unlimited personal or corporate funds to support a Member's re-election. Members know that accommodating a billionaire's request to exhort a regulatory agency could be reciprocated by independent expenditures without an express quid pro quo. That is how the amoral political system works.

The FTC unsurprisingly issued a Civil Investigative Demand to Herbalife on March 12, 2015. Its investigation is ongoing. While Herbalife remains under a cloud, its stock price has remained robust much to Mr. Ackman's chagrin.

I suspect that the hedge fund billionaire may be our next moral charlatan to run for President of the United States. Stranger things have happened--like Donald Trump, Ben Carson...

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