THE LOOMING SPAC MELTDOWN
Forbes Indonesia|February 2021
What’s driving SPAC mania on Wall Street? Not the billionaires and bankers making headlines daily, but a mob of little-known hedge fund investors, the “SPAC Mafia,” who are incentivized to gobble up these opaque public offerings with little concern over whether they ultimately succeed or fail.
ANTOINE GARA, ELIZA HAVERSTOCK AND SERGEI KLEBNIKOV

if you want to see the future of so many of the special purpose acquisition companies currently flooding the market, look to the recent past. Nearly five years ago, Landry’s Seafood billionaire Tillman Fertitta took Landcadia Holdings public to the tune of $345 million. No matter that, true to the SPAC “blank check” model, there was not yet any operating business—dozens of hedge funds piled into its $10-per-unit IPO.

In May 2018, Landcadia finally located its target: a budding online restaurant delivery service called Waitr that would merge with the SPAC in exchange for $252 million in cash. Fertitta touted the fact that the Louisiana startup, with $65 million in revenue, would now have access to 4 million loyalty members of his restaurant and casino businesses, and a new partnership with his Houston Rockets NBA franchise. Two years later, though, you very likely have never heard of Waitr. As such, its stock recently traded at $2.62, down more than 70% from its IPO price (the S&P 500 has climbed 76% over the same period).

Waitr was a disaster for pretty much anyone who bought the stock early. But the hedge funds that purchased Landcadia’s IPO units did just fine. Virtually all recouped their initial investment, with interest, and many profited by exercising warrants in the aftermarket. “SPACs are a phenomenal yield alternative,” says David Sultan, chief investment officer at Fir Tree Partners, a $3 billion hedge fund that bought into Fertitta’s Landcadia SPAC IPO—and pretty much any other it could get its hands on.

The SPAC boom of 2020 is probably the biggest Wall Street story of the year, but almost no one has noticed the quiet force driving this speculative bubble: a couple dozen obscure hedge funds like Polar Asset Management and Davidson Kempner, known by insiders as the “SPAC Mafia.” It’s an offer they can’t refuse. Some 97 percent of these hedge funds redeem or sell their IPO stock before target mergers are consummated, according to a recent study of 47 SPACs by New York University Law School professor Michael Ohlrogge and Stanford Law professor Michael Klausner. Though they’re loath to talk specifics, SPAC Mafia hedge funds say returns currently run around 20%. “The optionality to the upside is unlimited,” gushes Patrick Galley, a portfolio manager at Chicago-based RiverNorth, who manages a $200 million portfolio of SPAC investments. Adds Roy Behren of Westchester Capital Management, a fund with a $470 million portfolio of at least 40 SPACs, in clearer English: “We love the risk/reward of it.”

What’s not to love when “risk” is all but risk-free? There’s only one loser in this equation. As always, it’s the retail investor, the Robinhood novice, the good-intentions fund company like Fidelity. They all bring their pickaxes to the SPAC gold rush, failing to understand that the opportunities were mined long before they got there—by the sponsors who see an easy score, the entrepreneurs who get fat exits when their companies are acquired and the SPAC Mafia hedge funds that lubricate it all.

It’s about to get far worse for the little guy. Giant quant firms—Izzy Englander’s Millennium Management, Louis Bacon’s Moore Capital, Michael Platt’s BlueCrest Capital—have recently jumped in. Sure, they all raised billions based on algorithmic trading strategies, not by buying speculative IPOs in companies that don’t even have a product yet. But you don’t need AI to tell you the benefits of a sure thing. And that means torrents of easy cash for ever more specious acquisitions. Says NYU’s Ohlrogge: “It’s going to be a disaster for investors that hold through the merger.”

In the first 10 months or so of 2020, 178 SPACs went public, to the tune of $65 billion, according to SPAC Insider—more than the last ten years’ worth of such deals combined. That’s just one indication that the current wave of blank-check companies is different from previous generations.

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