Scott Mill | CNBC
Bill Ackman said in 2021 that delaying Covid shots for older Americans “appears like genocide”.
Today, the influential hedge fund head and investor is amplifying the exposed anti-vaccination views of Democratic presidential nominee Robert F. Kennedy Jr.
Ackman doesn’t deny his change. In fact, he said Kennedy is asking “important questions” about vaccines and raising issues he’d like to learn more about.
According to several people who have known and been associated with him for years, several of Ackman’s recent tweets about Covid vaccines have stunned and confused many of his Wall Street peers. And it has led both his allies and enemies to ask the same question: Why is he doing this?
Ackman answered that question in an interview with CNBC on Wednesday.
“Having heard RFK on several podcasts and at a city hall, I felt he raised important questions about vaccines and other topics worth learning more about,” said Ackman, CEO of Pershing Square Capital. “I don’t feel that we have fully answered questions about the safety of all vaccines, particularly the recently approved vaccines, and our approach to determining their safety and effectiveness.”
Although the effectiveness of Covid vaccines has declined over time as the virus has evolved into new variants, public health officials say the shots are a crucial tool in preventing hospitalizations and deaths from the virus, particularly among the elderly People and those with pre-existing conditions. Serious side effects are rare. The CDC and FDA closely monitor vaccine safety using large surveillance systems and regularly discuss any issues in public advisory committee meetings.
Ackman, a billionaire whose comments can move markets, is the latest high-profile executive to endorse Kennedy and his views.
Wall Street veteran Omeed Malik is hosting a fundraiser for Kennedy later this month in the Hamptons. Venture capitalist David Sacks and fellow tech player Chamath Palihapitiya hosted a Kennedy fundraiser in June, raising approximately $500,000 for Kennedy’s campaign. Ackman would not say if he planned to donate to Kennedy’s presidential campaign.
Ackman’s new stance on vaccines marks a dramatic shift for the investor. In 2021, he said the US should initiate “mass vaccination” for the elderly. During the height of the Covid pandemic, he made big profits selling his bets against the market just days after warning on CNBC that “hell is coming” and begging the Trump White House to stop the country for shut down for a month. In a March 26 letter to investors, Ackman called the idea that his comments moved the market “absurd.” “We began unwinding our hedge on March 12 and continued to do so every day thereafter until we completed our exit on the morning of March 23,” he wrote.
Ackman told CNBC that his newfound concerns about vaccines stemmed from being a parent and a concerned citizen. He said he felt Kennedy was asking “important questions” about them. “Unfortunately, vaccines have not been tested for safety,” Kennedy said at a city hall late last month.
Scientific researchers and medical officials have strongly dismissed Kennedy’s position on vaccines, including his earlier argument that vaccines can lead to autism.
Ackman has shared his newfound skepticism with his approximately 740,000 followers while declaring that he is not opposed to vaccination. He has also hired a doctor known for dismissing Covid-related misinformation.
“@RobertKennedyJr and others have raised important questions about the safety of some vaccines and have sought explanations for the dramatic rise in the incidence of allergies, autism and other health problems in children. Those are good questions that haven’t been adequately answered,” Ackman said in a tweet last month, citing a video of former Fox News host Tucker Carlson arguing that Kennedy used President Joe Biden in the first days of the Democratic primary campaign.
Biden has a clear lead in the Democratic primary polls despite Kennedy receiving double-digit votes.
When asked if he thinks Kennedy should be president, Ackman said, “I don’t know yet, but I think he’s asking important questions and raising interesting issues worth discussing and debating.”
Ackman, who has supported Democrats in the past, also declined to say if he will support Biden.
“It depends on the alternatives at the time of the general election,” Ackman said. “I very much prefer that he now announces that he will not run in order to create a more open field for other candidates.”
Wall Street executives question Ackman
According to one of his allies, Ackman’s colleagues are increasingly discussing the matter in text messages and private conversations. Ackman is known among investors as a meticulous yet controversial thinker.
“I’m not at all surprised because the guy has a controversial streak,” an Ackman Wall Street ally told CNBC in reference to the investor’s recent tweets. “If he believes something, he’s not afraid to stand by it.”
Ackman has entered politics before, including through campaign donations.
He supported Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, DN.Y., an outside group that included former Citigroup executive and Democratic New York mayoral nominee Ray McGuire, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, former Democratic presidential nominee Pete Buttigieg, and former Republican congressman Liz-backed Cheney’s candidacy for re-election in 2022 fell through, according to non-partisan campaign funding tracker OpenSecrets.
However, unlike his recent tweets, none of those donations came as a surprise to Wall Street.
Some say Ackman could position himself to have more influence in politics and possibly run for office one day. Ackman said in a recent tweet that he planned to meet with Schumer this week to discuss his idea of how to solve the student debt problem after the Supreme Court rejected Biden’s relief plan.
Ackman denied any plans to run and declined to comment on the Schumer meeting.
Others say he may seek to ally with outspoken business leaders who are more conservative and hold similar views, such as Sacks and Twitter owner Elon Musk. Sacks and Musk have both expressed their support for Kennedy and Republican presidential nominee Ron DeSantis, who went to governor of Florida.
Many of those familiar with Ackman – allies and rivals alike – spoke to CNBC on condition of anonymity to be candid about their views on why they believe he’s suddenly exercised his contrarism on issues like vaccines and Russia.
Carl Icahn, the veteran activist investor and longtime opponent of Ackman, told CNBC in a phone interview that he believes the Pershing Square CEO’s tweets are another example of how wrong Ackman can be.
“His tweets could be something positive. Since I’ve known him, he’s almost never been right about anything he’s said. So if you read his tweets and do the opposite, you’re almost certainly right and very likely wrong. “Big win,” Icahn said.
“He bets big and like the riverboat gambler, sometimes wins but often loses tremendously. Just look at the billions he’s lost on Herbalife and Valeant. Most riverboat gamblers die broke,” Icahn said. “The only difference between him and a gambler on a river boat is that not only does he lose his own money, but unfortunately a lot of other people’s money too.”
Ackman declined to comment on Icahn’s comments.
Institutional Investor reported that Ackman broke a three-year winning streak in 2022 and recorded his first negative year since 2018. Pershing Square Holdings fell more than 8% this year, according to the publication.
Ackman’s recent tweets have also caused a stir outside of Wall Street. Alexander Reid Ross, a disinformation expert who teaches at Portland State University in Oregon, told CNBC that it seems like Ackman keeps talking about different conspiracies — and doing it wrong.
Reid Ross referred to Ackman’s recent tweets related to the Wagner Group armed insurgency in Russia.
“Ackman’s profile seems to fluctuate wildly, drawn to statements that might seem interesting and extreme, but end up wrong. For example, about the recent Wagner rebellion, he shares one person who actually says “either”. [Vladimir] Putin kills Prigo [Yevgeny Prigozhin] “or Moscow falls,” and in another case he supports the nation that Putin made the whole thing up,” Reid Ross said. “It fluctuates wildly from one false assumption to the next, both mutually exclusive.”
Ackman and Covid
While apparently defending Kennedy’s widely debunked and criticized stance on vaccines, Ackman also engaged in a Twitter battle with Dr. Peter Jay Hotez, who has dismissed misinformation surrounding the coronavirus and vaccines.
Podcast host Joe Rogan initially pushed for the idea of a debate between Hotez and Kennedy. Rogan, who has turned his popular show into a platform for celebrities and conspiracy theorists, has offered to donate $100,000 to a charity if the doctor would be willing to appear on his show to debate Kennedy. Ackman later said he would “add $150,000 to @joerogan’s bet so now $250,000 can go to charity and allow the public to hear an open debate on an important issue.”
Musk chimed in, saying, “Maybe @PeterHotez just hates charity.” Hotez declined to debate Kennedy, but said he was willing to go on Rogan’s show to discuss his own position on vaccines. He later said on Twitter that “a few anti-vaccinationists” showed up at his private home in Texas and “taunted” him for debating Kennedy.
First, Ackman suggested a debate between Kennedy and Hotez. He later retracted the idea and criticized the doctor, who says on his website he has been working on “developing coronavirus vaccines, including vaccines given to over 100 million people in India and Indonesia.”
“Following my further research, Hotez does not appear to be a credible advocate for vaccination policy given the repeated inaccuracies of his public statements during the crisis and possible conflict,” Ackman tweeted June 19 to his more than 700,000 followers.
Hotez replied to Ackman on Twitter the next day.
“Terrible to read Mr. Ackman’s account of my activities. I have no pharma conflicts, I have co-developed low-cost, patent-free Covid vaccines for global health, reaching 100 million doses. I’ve never paid a penny for cable TV news/podcasts. radio appearances,” Hotez said.
“And you have the audacity to present fake conspiracy websites monetizing the internet as evidence?”
– CNBC’s Lora Kolodny contributed to this report.