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A 'very bullish' Bill Ackman is an 'aggressive buyer' of stocks in coronavirus panic

Julia La Roche
Correspondent

Billionaire investor Bill Ackman is an “aggressive buyer” of stocks as the coronavirus pandemic bleeds markets, having bought “around $2 billion worth of equities” in the last ten days. 

Stocks have been caught in the undertow of an endless wave of selling that’s all but erased the market’s gains since President Donald Trump was elected back in November of 2016.

However, Ackman — the CEO of Pershing Square — took the money the firm made from profitable hedges in the credit markets, and put that to work in the equity market. Pershing scooped up shares in companies like Starbucks (SBUX), Berkshire Hathaway (BRK-B), and Hilton Hotels (HLT), to name a few. 

As most of Wall Street turns extremely bearish, Ackman characterized the stock purchases as a “big commitment to us,” given the size of the firm’s fund of around $8 billion in assets under management.  

“We’re very bullish, and we do think there are certain companies obviously, we like more than others,”Ackman told Yahoo Finance in an interview on Monday. “You’ve got to have a strong balance sheet to withstand the current environment.”

His comments come less than a week after the hedge fund manager took to Twitter to call for shutting down the U.S. for several weeks. Ackman said the government should offer a “30-day rent, interest and tax holiday for all” as COVID-19 infections wreak havoc on the economy. 

‘Approaching zero’

Many on Wall Street agree with Ackman’s proposal of taking strong measures to backstop an economy in free fall. But his message may have been overshadowed by his telephone interview into CNBC on Wednesday afternoon, which Forbes called “the billionaire interview that tanked the stock market.”

Ackman walked back some of what he said last week — particularly around Hilton Hotels, which he called “the canary in the coal mine” and suggested it was heading to zero. The hotel chain is Pershing Square’s largest stock holding, based on the latest regulatory filings.

He told Yahoo Finance that “Hilton is arguably one of the greatest hotel companies in the world.” He called them a “battle-tested” company that made it through the 2008 financial crisis “with a fair amount of leverage and survived and thrived.” 

He added: “The point I was making is no company, whether it’s Hilton, very few companies can survive an 18-month shutdown of the United States, right?”

Hotels have been among the hardest hit due to the virus, with many closing temporarily and occupancies “approaching zero” as people pull back from traveling. 

“You can sustain that for a short period of time if you’re a well-capitalized company. You can’t sustain it for 18 months,” he said. 

Since Ackman’s tweets from a week ago, a number of states and localities have implemented “shelter-in-place” regimes. 

“As the virus makes its way around the country, the states that are seeing the writing on the wall, are going to shelter-in-place. And rather than have it be done state by state, with slightly different regimes, my argument is, do it all at once. Go all 50 states at once,” Ackman said.

President Donald Trump has resisted the idea of a federally-imposed shutdown, even as multiple states and countries impose stiff restrictions. As early as Sunday, the president suggested the economy should reopen within a couple of weeks.

Yet Ackman said that shutting down the entire country was “the best thing for the economy. Businesses can plan if you shut the country for 30 days and then carefully reopen it and test people and protect older people during that period of time, but businesses can’t plan if you have a shut down in one state with no end date. That doesn’t work for any company.”

He emphasized that he’s a buyer of Hilton and other stocks because his view is “the country is going to do the right thing” and shut things down, then reopen within a few weeks. 

At the time of this writing, the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases moved above 367,000 world-wide, with a death toll of more than 16,000. In the U.S., confirmed cases were last reported at more than 41,500, while the death toll moved to 484, according to data from Johns Hopkins

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Julia La Roche is a Correspondent at Yahoo Finance. Follow her on Twitter.