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The Billionaire Interview That Tanked The Stock Market

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Bill Ackman panicked about the coronavirus early on.

The billionaire investor had a nightmare about COVID-19 in late January, which might as well have been the plot of the pandemic thriller Contagion. When he woke up, he started prepping.

He began arranging for his firm’s fifty employees to abandon their midtown Manhattan offices. He put on doomsday hedges. And then he pulled an enormous amount of cash from an ATM. By the time the Dow Jones Industrial Average was plunging seemingly a thousand points a day, Ackman’s $5.6 billion firm was making money amid the chaos.

So when he woke on Wednesday morning, Ackman didn’t have a pleasant message for America. He took to Twitter to recommend a shutdown of the country.

Then he called into CNBC around noontime to elaborate. And it was bad.

“Hell is coming,” said Ackman, in a frenzied 28-minute interview. “Shut it down now,” he said of the economy, “There is a tsunami coming.”

Ackman recommended President Trump effectively close the country for 30 days and shut the borders to stop the spread of the coronavirus. Yes, it would mean an economic disaster, so Ackman recommended that Trump call a national ‘Spring Break’ and have the government pay wages, halt foreclosures, and help with other monthly bills like rent to tide people over.

This way Americans will stay at home and the virus will stop spreading.

If not, Ackman warned in an emotional interview that verged on panic, the country will experience a prolonged pandemic, which will put many industries ranging from hotels, to restaurants, to real estate out of business.

“What’s scaring the American people and corporate America now is the gradual roll-out,” said Ackman, of containment and distancing measures. “Capitalism does not work in an 18-month shutdown, capitalism can work in a 30-day shutdown.”

The hedge fund manager, turned amateur health expert, said the contagiousness of the virus may mean millions will die without drastic measures. He choked up when talking about the risks of the disease to his elderly father, and revealed that some of his employees may have the virus.

“The only shared sacrifice that is going on right now is the healthcare community, the nurses, the doctors, the people taking care of patients,” said Ackman. “The president is not saying storm the beaches of Normandy,” he said, hypothetically, of his 30-day shutdown proposal. “He’s saying go home, spend a month with your family.”

When Ackman turned to his portfolio and the rest of Wall Street, his warnings were dire.

“Hilton is the canary in the coal mine,” said Ackman of the hotelier, which is one of his larger holdings. Without quicker action, “it’s going to zero along with every other hotel company,” he predicted. Though, he did say his Pershing Square was buying shares of Hilton as markets plunged on Wednesday morning.

“I have enormous respect for KKR and Blackstone,” Ackman added of the two illustrious private equity firms, before predicting their leveraged deals would be toast if there isn’t a quick solution within the next 18-months. “[E]very one of their companies goes bankrupt,” he said.

After the interview, Forbes has learned Ackman called Blackstone and said he’s buying the firm’s shares.

His ideas were boundless: He recommended Elon Musk convert Tesla’s car-making factories into ventilator-making factories.

As he spoke, the market plunged, tick-by-tick.

The Dow Jones Industrial Average was down over 1,000 points when he went on air. It hit a circuit breaker as he spouted dark doom and gloom, then closed for 15 minutes. When it reopened, it was down 2,000-plus.

Some on Twitter took Ackman’s dire warnings as necessary.

His “shut it down now” idea, increasingly, is becoming the pandemic playbook for cities either implementing or considering “shelter-in-place” laws. And, in recent days and weeks, health experts have responded positively to market-tanking warnings by public officials about the virus.

Many commended President Trump for talking about the gravity of the pandemic earlier in March, even though it was the catalyst for a sudden market drop. Before Ackman went on air, Dr. Deborah Birx, the head of the White House Coronavirus Task Force, said many people, particularly young people, are not taking the pandemic seriously enough. Her message to millennials? You can die from this.

However, others saw a panicked billionaire investor talking down the market and inciting fear.

Ackman then went back on Twitter to clarify his intentions. “These are the bargains of a lifetime if we manage this crisis correctly,” he said.

You can watch Ackman’s CNBC interview in full here. (Pershing Square declined to comment further.)

Antoine Gara, Forbes Staff, Banking & Insurance

Current Affairs

New York On Lockdown

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As I walk through Brooklyn Bridge Park, gazing at the magnificent Manhattan skyline on the East River, at first glance it looks as crowded as it usually does. However, if you look closer, it’s not your typical mixture of tourists with their cacophony of foreign languages, photographers with tripods, or teenagers on skateboards. The park is filled with lone joggers, parents in yoga pants pushing double strollers and carefully guarding kids on scooters. No one plays volleyball in the sand by the river. No one picnics in the barbecue area. Everyone keeps a friendly and polite distance, some people wear face masks. And yet, it doesn’t really look like social distancing, or the lockdown that it is–ordered by the mayor and the governor of New York in an effort to contain the spread of the Coronavirus.   

That peaceful picture of joggers and children playing shouldn’t fool anyone. The five boroughs of New York City – Brooklyn, Queens, Manhattan, Staten Island and the Bronx  — are hit hard by the rapidly spreading Coronavirus. With the death toll rising – 678 patients had died in overcrowded New York City hospitals by March 28, and the number of cases in New York state has surpassed 53,000; the five boroughs of New York have become the epicenter of the pandemic. 

The healthcare system is overwhelmed. I spoke with four medical professionals in the city and they all confirm the disturbing reality that is in the news. The hospitals don’t have enough protective gear, single use masks have been reused, hospitals do not have enough beds and ventilators. Medical personnel intubate patients non-stop, assisting them with breathing. The city hospitals have set up makeshift tents to triage COVID-19 patients as well as to act as morgues. The government’s delayed response to the virus’s spread is costing many, many lives. 

One thing that is striking about New Yorkers – my home of seventeen years – is how people come together and support each other. After the terrorist attack on September 11, 2001; during the power outage in 2003, when the entire city went dark for hours; and after the devastating hurricane Sandy in 2012. 

On the day when Donald Trump was elected president in 2016, New Yorkers, predominantly liberal democrats, were especially sensitive with each other, calmly sharing their sadness and expressing worry for the future of their country. Today, when schools, non-essential stores, bars and restaurants are closed, and many people are isolating and trying to follow social distancing guidelines, members of communities come together to help each other: buying food for older neighbors, helping with disinfecting door knobs and elevator buttons. Mental health professionals volunteer their services to the anxious and scared. At grocery stores and pharmacies only a few people are allowed in at a time, people are waiting outside, standing about two meters apart, and the doormen pour out hand sanitizer into people’s palms. 

Besides solidarity and respect, there is also fear and anxiety. Service and food industry workers are out of work, facing months of hardships. According to the New York State Labor department, during the first days of the lockdown, in some parts of the state, there was a 1,000% increase in unemployment claims as 1.7 million people called to file for benefits. Well over a million children from financially strained families relied on school lunches, and those are now provided at meal sites. But that also means the disparity in incomes in New York has been underscored by the Covid 19 impact, and the inequality between the haves and have-nots will continue to be exposed.

Forbes headquarters in New Jersey has been working remotely since the first week of March. We quickly re-organized: the entire company of 400 people has migrated into a virtual workplace, with a highly mobilized virtual newsroom. Besides holding daily meetings and video calls, our teams get together for virtual hangouts to keep each other’s spirits up. 

The city authorities were slow to respond to the Covid-19 spread. For weeks, when it was clear the crisis was imminent, eight million New Yorkers commuted in crowded subways, went to crowded restaurants and bars, and also traveled to and from crowded international airports, breathing in each other’s air. 

In the absence of the pandemic team, fired by Trump in 2018, the federal government’s response was slow to respond to the disaster. The Trump administration failed to prevent this crisis underestimating the danger of Covid-19: “We have it totally under control,” he said in January, when the virus was already spreading. “It’s one person coming in from China, and we have it under control.” The government failed to test people in a timely manner. In New York,  Mayor Bill De Blasio and the governor Andew Cuomo stepped in and tried to help the hospitals secure supplies and additional testing stations. They are still trying.

Meanwhile, the city is contemplating closing parks and other public places. Maybe even prohibiting people from leaving their homes, or perhaps prohibiting them from leaving New York itself. For the next few weeks, the Big Apple will stay confined indoors. Stay home, don’t spread, save lives.

Katya Soldak, Forbes Staff, Business

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Here’s How Much It Could Cost If We Stop Social Distancing

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Topline: This week, President Trump floated the idea of easing up on social distancing measures on the theory that the damage caused by shutting down the economy might be greater than the cost of letting the virus run its course—some models suggest, however, that reopening the economy too soon could be exponentially more expensive.

  • If the United States were to abandon aggressive social distancing measures after 14 days, more than 125 million people will contract the virus, some 7 million could be hospitalized, and 1.9 million people will die (accounting for other factors like infectiousness and hospitalization rates), according to a model built by the New York Times
  • If social distancing goes on for two months, the model predicts that 14 million will contract the virus, with fewer than 100,000 deaths.
  • There’s no debate that the broader economy is going to suffer even at the current rate of spread. Morgan Stanley is predicting a 30% drop in GDP next quarter. U.S. GDP is currently $21.43 trillion. A drop of 30% would mean a value-loss of more than $6.4 trillion (for context, the economic relief bill signed by President Trump this afternoon is worth about $2 trillion). 
  • If the outbreak worsens due to relaxed social distancing measures, it’s not unreasonable to anticipate even greater economic losses.
  • Economists can calculate the average value of one life saved using a model called the value of a statistical life. It’s a fuzzy metric used by some government agencies that is based on how much a person is willing to pay to reduce the risk of death. Right now, that figure hovers around $10 million.
  • “If we could prevent a million deaths, at the usual way we value [them] of around $10 million each, that’s $10 trillion, which is half of GDP,” says James Hammitt, a professor of economics in Harvard’s health policy department. 
  • University of Chicago economists have arrived at a similar conclusion: they’ve found that under “moderate” social distancing measures, 1.7 million lives and at least $7.9 trillion could be saved. 

Big number: The average cost of a hospital stay for a mild case of pneumonia is $9,763, according to Peterson-KFF analysis (pneumonia is commonly associated with COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus). The median total cost balloons to $88,114 for the most severe cases that require more than four days of ventilator support. Seven million hospitalizations for patients with mild cases would cost more than $68 billion. If 17% of those patients required ventilator support, as was the case in one Chinese study, the cost of hospitalizations alone could add up to a staggering $161 billion, and that’s before the cost of other health complications related to the virus is accounted for. 

Crucial quote: “Anything that slows the rate of the virus is the best thing you can do for the economy, even if by conventional measures it’s bad for the economy,” University of Chicago economist Austan Goolsbee told the New York Times

Key background: In some ways, all of this discourse is more than a century old. A new paper released yesterday found that during the1918 flu pandemic—the closest historical analogue for the current coronavirus outbreak—cities that intervened earlier and more aggressively to slow the spread of the virus through social distancing and isolation of cases suffered no greater economic damage than those that didn’t. “On the contrary,” the authors write, “cities that intervened earlier and more aggressively experience a relative increase in real economic activity after the pandemic.” Seattle, Oakland, Omaha, and Los Angeles, for instance, implemented stronger containment measures than Pittsburgh, Nashville, and Philadelphia and all saw a much larger surge in job growth after the crisis was over in 1920. 

Tangent: Texas Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick suggested earlier this week that grandparents might be willing to die to preserve the economy for their grandchildren. “No one reached out to me and said, ‘as a senior citizen, are you willing to take a chance on your survival in exchange for keeping the America that all America loves for your children and grandchildren?’” he said. “And if that’s the exchange, I’m all in.” His and Trump’s comments sparked a backlash among progressives on social media on Tuesday, when the hashtag #NotDying4WallStreet trended on Twitter as users voiced their fears of the pandemic, and of the government’s response to it. “I’ll let Wall Street flat line before my grandma does,” wrote one Twitter user. 

Sarah Hansen, Forbes Staff

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As Wealthy Depart For Second Homes, Class Tensions Come To Surface In Coronavirus Crisis

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Topline: As New York City’s coronavirus cases exploded in recent weeks, residents fleeing to second homes have come under intense scrutiny and push-back, prompting officials in multiple states to create highway checkpoints screening for New Yorkers and a national travel advisory for the entire Tri-state area, highlighting the dramatic roles class and wealth will play in the pandemic. 

  • With over 56,000 coronavirus cases in New York, privileged New Yorkers with secondary homes are fleeing the City with massive effect on vacation home communities: the population of Southampton has gone from 60,000 a few weeks ago to 100,000 and rental prices in Hudson Valley rocketed from $4,000 to $18,000 per month—posing a threat to small-town hospitals that are ill-equipped to handle caring for high numbers of coronavirus patients.
  • In wealthy New England island communities like Nantucket, Martha’s Vineyard and Block Island that are heavy with secondary homes and short on hospital infrastructure, officials are going so far as to cancel all hotel, Airbnb and VRBO reservations while stationing state troopers and the National Guard to maintain flow on islands and, in the case of Rhode Island, instating 14 day mandatory quarantine on all people traveling to stay in the state from New York, New Jersey or Connecticut.
  • As outrage has grown at the privileged fleeing the city while middle and working classes remain confined in New York City apartments, there’s been social media clapback at ostentatious displays of wealth in isolation: Geffen Records and Dreamworks Billionaire David Geffen ultimately deleted his Instagram of his $570 million megayacht captioned: “Sunset last night..isolated in the Grenadines avoiding the virus. I’m hoping everybody is staying safe” after it sparked outrage on social media.
  • New York City’s poorer boroughs are hit hardest by coronavirus: Brooklyn and Queens, where median income is  $56,015 and $64,987, respectively, remain the epicenter of COVID-19, compared to Manhattan with average income of $82,459, which has been less permeated by the virus and is home to many of Manhattan’s wealthiest enclaves—and those most likely to have residents with second homes elsewhere.
  • On Saturday, President Trump said he was considering quarantining parts of New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, then, backed down and issued a domestic travel advisory for the tristate area that discourages residents of these states from non-essential domestic travel after “very intensive discussions” at the White House on Saturday night, said Dr. Anthony Fauci on CNN today: “The better way to do this would be an advisory as opposed to a very strict quarantine, and the President agreed.”
  • “Due to our very limited health care infrastructure, please do not visit us now,” reads a travel advisory from Lake Superior’s Cook County in Michigan, exemplifying vacation towns’ plea to travelers and second home owners across the country to stay away. 

Background: Coronavirus cases in the United States have skyrocketed to 124,000, with deaths doubling from 1,000 to 2,046 in two days. Since those with COVID-19 can be asymptomatic for days, their presence in remote communities may be deadly, as they can spread the virus and wreak havoc on rural hospitals. The clash between wealthy and poor, also creates state-versus-state hostility, as federal support is limited and essential to states overcoming coronavirus.

Alexandra Sternlicht, Forbes Staff, Under 30

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