Bill Ackman’s Pershing Protégés are Struggling Too

Hedge fund manager Bill Ackman
Bill Ackman, CEO and founder of Pershing Square Capital Management, at the 2015 Delivering Alpha on July 15, 2015.
Photograph by David A.Grogan—CNBC/NBCU/Photo Bank via Getty Images

For a while, having worked at Bill Ackman’s Pershing Square seemed like the ultimate hedge fund resumé builder. These days it could turn out to be a liability.

Pershing partner and Ackman’s roommate at Harvard, for instance, Paul Hilal, left the fund last quarter, and is likely to raise his own fund. Hilal’s already decided to name his own firm PCH Capital, in a nod to Ackman’s. And a year ago, the chances of Hilal, who specializes in technology investments and ran a tech-focused fund before joining Pershing, raising a big fund were pretty high. These days that’s not so certain.

Bill Ackman’s recent troubles have been well publicized. His publicly traded investment vehicle was down nearly 20% this year through March 8th. And that was before Valeant Pharmaceuticals (VRX), one of his Ackman’s biggest holdings, tumbled 50% on Tuesday.

One of Ackman’s best known protégés has been struggling recently as well. Mick McGuire left Ackman’s hedge fund to form Marcato Capital in 2010, launching with $100 million in seed funding from Blackstone. Back in 2013, McGuire, who is 40 and a Harvard grad, was named the emerging fund manager of the year by Institutional Investor, and the U.S. equity hedge fund of the year by Absolute Return. This came as Marcato posted double-digit yearly returns from inception in 2010 to 2013. Yet, publicity appears to be a net-negative for the Ackman posse. Recently, McGuire’s results have sagged.

Like Ackman, McGuire tends to be an activist investor, and runs a concentrated portfolio invested in a relatively few number of stocks. In the past, McGuire has profited from buying up shares of companies, including LifeTime Fitness and Sotheby’s (BID), and pushing their managements to spinoff real estate assets. The IRS, though, in the past year has said it will take a closer look at real estate separations to see if they violate tax rules. That’s made companies much more reluctant to do spin-offs, which had typically been considered tax-free.

On top of that, Marcato’s bets in the financial sector haven’t played out, either. Marcato’s latest activist target, LPL Financial (LPLA), has been cut in half since it announced its stake less than six months ago. Its largest holding, Bank of New York Mellon (BK), which makes up 40% of his long-only U.S. equity portfolio, is down close to 10% this year. Trian Partners has a board seat here and is against Marcato’s breakup plan.

The result: Marcato’s main fund lost 9% in 2015, and was down another 12% in January of this year.

A number of well known hedge fund managers have over the years been able to spawn a trove of new funds run by former employees. There are hedge funds that borrow the name Tiger from Julian Robertson, the most famous is Chase Coleman’s Tiger Global, which was an early investor in Facebook (FB). There are also a number of managers who have launched funds based on having worked for George Soros. Ackman, particularly when his brand of investing—activism—looked hot, seemed to be the latest successful manager following in this tradition.

And, at least, one of Ackman spinoffs does seem to be doing well. Scott Ferguson, 40, formed Sachem Head Capital in 2012. Ferguson’s Sachem Head appears to be outperforming not only Marcato and his former boss Ackman these days, but also the market. A large part of that comes as his fund hasn’t relied on acquisitive companies or real estate spinoffs. He also tends to be less combative than other activists.

Sachem Head’s fund returned 20.5% in 2014. One of Ferguson’s largest positions is in a software maker for auto dealers CDK Global (CDK), shares of which has soared 50% since Sachem announced its stake 18 months ago. Now, Ferguson is looking to do the same at Autodesk (ADSK). The other big difference for Sachem, from Ackman and other prominent activist investors, is that it has refrained from getting too aggressive with large-cap stocks. The average market cap of Sachem’s targets is $13 billion.

Nonetheless, Ferguson, despite his successes, has had some fumbles, most notably by following his old boss. Ferguson, along with Ackman, has bought into animal medicine company Zoetis (ZTS). The stock of that company is down 15% this year.

On top of funds run by managers who used to work at Pershing Square, there’s also Clear Capital Management, which launched last year with a large investment from Ackman. The fund is headed by Philip Hilal, the younger brother of former Pershing Square partner Paul Hilal. It’s not clear how well the younger Hilal is doing. But the one stock pick Hilal pitched at the Sohn Canada conference SS&C Technologies (SSNC) has been a dud so far. Shares of the company are down about 10% since his October presentation.


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