Ackman vs Icahn is an epic but pointless battle

January 25, 2013

By Jeffrey Goldfarb
The author is a Reuters Breakingviews columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.

William Ackman squaring off against Carl Icahn is an epic battle, but ultimately a pointless one. A decade-long personal feud between the New York billionaires erupted into public view again. Though it’s emblematic of their approach to investing and escapist fun for the financial community, the two men do play important roles in the markets. Their aggressions are better directed at supine boards than each other.

Nutritional supplements seem to have re-energized the white-haired combatants. Ackman’s campaign against Herbalife has polarized opinions about the maker and distributor of weight-management products. Icahn, according to media reports, is among those going long against Ackman’s $1 billion short. Icahn didn’t confirm the stake during a Thursday interview with Bloomberg TV but criticized Ackman’s tactics in Herbalife, calling his attitude “holier than thou” and saying he doesn’t respect him.

Ackman unsurprisingly took the bait. Hours later, he issued a press release rehashing details of his legal tussle with Icahn that ended in 2011 with the 76-year-old corporate raider being forced by a court to pay Ackman’s investors. The Pershing Square Capital boss says he rebuffed Icahn’s entreaties to be friends when the case was over. “In my experience, he does not keep his word,” Ackman said.

The spat, which spilled over onto live TV on Friday when the two men bickered at length on CNBC, only confirms what corporate directors and other investors have come to understand about the two uppity investors. Ackman is typically passionate about his endeavors, putting big bets behind his theses.

Whether it’s a belief in a turnaround story like U.S. retailer J.C. Penney, the value of a breakup like Fortune Brands or that Herbalife is a “pyramid scheme,” Ackman’s convictions can sound arrogant. Icahn, on the other hand, seems to treat investing more like sport, needling companies like Lions Gate and CVR Energy with convoluted tactics that can be more irritating than they are productive.

In the end, both Ackman and Icahn are useful for keeping CEOs on their toes. Though their motives are ultimately selfish, shareholders don’t have enough such agitators on their side. Whether they like it or not, the two men shouldn’t forget they’re really on the same small team railing against wrongs in the capital markets.

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