By Svea Herbst-Bayliss and Katya Wachtel
BOSTON/NEW YORK - Two institutional investors with William Ackman's $12 billion hedge fund plan to reach out to the manager to get more information about the firm's big bet on ailing retailer JC Penney (JCP), whose stock has dropped 21 percent this year.
Officials with two state pension funds that, combined, oversee assets of more than $120 billion told Reuters they want Ackman to give them more information about Pershing Square Capital Management's portfolio and to say more about the long-range plan for turning around JCPenney's fashion lines.
The pension officials did not want to be identified because they had not yet set up their meetings with Ackman. The manager, whose fund is sitting on a roughly $500 million paper loss in JCPenney stock, declined to comment.
It's not uncommon for pension managers and institutional investors to seek a private meeting with hedge fund managers, especially when a big bet or a portfolio is underperforming.
The move by two of Ackman's investors is an indication that some investors are growing uneasy with Pershing Square's stake of 39 million shares in JC Penney, which the hedge fund began amassing in 2010.
"People are reading a lot about Bill Ackman these days and have questions, and while these kind of hedge funds can't speak to everyone, keeping their very largest clients informed will have benefits," said Don Steinbrugge, managing partner at investment consulting firm Agecroft Partners LLC, in Richmond, Virginia.
Pershing Square is up 3.6 percent for the year through February, compared with a 2.8 percent gain for the broader $2.6 trillion hedge fund industry.
The pension plan officials said they are also concerned about Ackman's other very large and public bet -an estimated $1 billion short position in shares of nutritional supplement company Herbalife. Ackman is betting that Herbalife will be exposed as an unsustainable pyramid scheme and the stock will collapse. He currently has a $200 million gain on that bet.
Billionaire investor Carl Icahn has taken a large stake in Herbalife (HLF) and has engaged in a very public war of words with Ackman over the company.
Meanwhile, at least one prominent hedge fund manager is beginning to line up against Ackman on the short side on JC Penney. Reuters reported last week that York Capital and Morgan Stanley (MS) are shorting the debt of JC Penney, where Ackman sits on the board.
Earlier this week, market speculation that Ackman's handpicked CEO Ron Johnson might be leaving briefly pushed JC Penney shares up 5 percent on Tuesday.
But not all investors are pushing for Ackman to talk more about JC Penney. Given the fund's strong track record over the years and current gains, several investors said they are very happy with Ackman and his team.
To be sure, Ackman often says he can't say too much about JC Penney because he is on the board. But in private with his own investors, Ackman would face fewer restrictions to be candid with investors about what should come next at the retailer.
"JCP entered into a 'Letter Agreement' with Pershing Square in which Ackman agreed to maintain the confidentiality of company information while he is on the board," said Damien Park, managing partner at consulting firm Hedge Fund Solutions, in Philadelphia. "This, however, does not restrict him from saying anything negative about the company, its management or board."