Celebrity SPACs produced lackluster returns for star-struck investors this year

December 16, 2021, 3:16 PM UTC

Betting on flashy names like Shawn “Jay-Z” Carter, Shaquille O’Neal and Martha Stewart to boost blank-check companies this year left investors mostly in the red.

Just about the nicest thing you could say about celebrity-backed special-purchase acquisition companies and the firms they brought public is that they’ve lost less for investors than benchmarks for the whole SPAC category. After that, things get ugly: 21 out of 33 SPACs tied to famous public figures have posted negative returns for 2021.

Not counting the SPAC tied to former President Donald Trump, which minted a phenomenal gain of more than 400%, the rest of the group averaged an 11% drop through Dec. 13, with rapper Jay-Z’s 84% plunge the worst of the bunch. Only two managed gains of more than 10%, trailing far behind the S&P 500’s 24% rally.

It’s a stark and expensive lesson: While an A-list person can attract attention for a blank check company amid a $155 billion glut of new offerings, it hardly ensures superior returns.

“Celebrities are eye candy, unless there’s really good reasoning to have them on board,” said Matt Tuttle, whose Tuttle Capital Management runs a bevy of exchange-traded funds holding SPACs and firms they’ve merged with. “At some point these companies need to deliver on a real mission, and it becomes less about the marketing and more about the strategy.”

Star-struck investors might agree after the sector’s horrific showing this year. The De-SPAC Index, a group of 25 companies that went public by merging with a SPAC, is down more than 40% through Dec. 13. The IPOX SPAC Index, a basket of 50 de-SPACs as well as SPACs that haven’t found a partner, slumped 16%.

In part, the sector’s carnage stemmed from being overrun by nearly 600 new and mostly undistinguished SPACs. The companies raise money through an initial public offering, with the promise that their experienced managers will buy a business that has yet to be determined—thus the “blank-check” moniker.

With so many competing for attention, some sponsors lined up famous names to serve as backers and board members, even if they didn’t bring a lot of corporate expertise.

Among winners in 2021, stocks with a range of ties to the former president and conservatives have dominated. CF Acquisition Corp. VI, the blank check sponsored by Cantor Fitzgerald that’s taking video platform Rumble Inc. public, rallied 20%. Trump Media and Rumble announced a partnership Tuesday, and the platform boasts commentators like Russell Brand among their biggest contributors.

The appeal of the ex-president and his followers stands out in the world of celebrity-tied SPACs, according to Jay Ritter, a University of Florida finance professor. “For better or worse, his pull in a certain segment can add a lot of value,” Ritter said.

Polestar, an electric-car maker backed by actor Leonardo DiCaprio, rewarded investors with a 17% rally for the SPAC it’s tied to as EV stocks rallied this year. Driverless tech startup Aurora Innovation Inc., which has ties to LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman and Zynga Inc. founder Mark Pincus, beat the S&P 500 with a 31% gain. 

Losers include Jay-Z’s cannabis-focused The Parent Company, fitness company Beachbody—the result of a deal with ties to former Walt Disney Co. executives and Shaq—and AppHarvest Inc. which counts home decor guru Martha Stewart among its board members. Each has shed at least two-thirds of their value during 2021.

Record lows  

Other members of the celebrity cohort hovering near record lows include DNA-testing company 23andMe Inc. which drew retail investors when it went public through a merger with a SPAC founded by billionaire Richard Branson. Even Bill Gates, the founder of Microsoft Inc., couldn’t reproduce his magic: Evolv Technologies Holdings Inc., a company he backed that uses screening technology to keep weapons out of public venues and workplaces, is off 51%. Tennis legend Serena Williams was on the board of the blank-check company that brought public Velo3D Inc., which is down 25%.

Some debuted with less dramatic results. Basketball star Kevin Durant is co-chief executive of Infinite Acquisition Corp., while Mission Advancement Corp. counts former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick as a sponsor and baseball great Alex Rodriguez heads Slam Corp. They posted respective returns of a 0.6% gain, 1% loss and a 2.5% dip.

The sampling of companies tracked for this year in review is drawn from SPACs with ties to widely known celebrities, market values of more than $150 million and significant developments in 2021. It covers SPACs that went public this year and those from before 2021 that completed a reverse merger. Individual returns are measured from the start of the year, or the IPO if they debuted in 2021, through Dec. 13.

Representatives for AppHarvest, Aurora Innovation, and Evolv Technologies cited their focus on delivering long-term value to investors in emailed statements. Representatives for the other companies and celebrities mentioned didn’t immediately respond or provide a comment.

As for the lackluster returns, shareholders can’t say they weren’t warned. The Securities and Exchange Commission was so alarmed back in March about celebrity SPACs that it issued a bulletin warning off investors. “It is never a good idea,” the agency said, “to invest in a SPAC just because someone famous sponsors or invests in it or says it is a good investment.”

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