Published: November 7, 2014 11:34:25 pm
By: Neil Irwin
William Ackman is a wildly successful hedge fund manager. He oversees $17 billion of mostly other people’s money. Forbes estimates his personal net worth at $1.7 billion. These facts alone would make him a prime candidate to buy the penthouse condominium at One57, the new luxury tower on West 57th Street.
And indeed, Ackman told The Times in a fascinating profile Sunday that he is the buyer of the 13,500-square-foot condo with an estimated price of $90 million. What is more shocking is what he plans to do with it.
Apparently content living with his family on the Upper West Side, he told The Times he was purchasing one of the most expensive properties in New York because “I thought it would be fun” and he and some close friends “bought into this idea that someday, someone will really want it and they’ll let me know.” They may throw the occasional party there.
Bill Ackman is a condo flipper! It may be the most expensive attempted condo flip in history, but in substance it isn’t much different from the middle-class dreamers who bought a preconstruction condo in Florida in the mid-2000s in hopes of selling it a couple of years later at a great profit.
It may seem like a funny example of the ways the wealthiest one-hundredth of 1 per cent live. What makes it interesting is that unlike a typical private equity deal or hedge fund, it is pretty transparent what is going on here, if one takes his comments to The Times at face value.
Ackman seems to view the penthouse as a one-of-a-kind property. It’s “the Mona Lisa of apartments,” as he put it to The Times, that, thanks to its uniqueness, will appeal so much to some other rich person in a few years that he or she will be willing to pay far more than the estimated $90 million Ackman and his friends are paying now.
Even if he’s right — and the combination of other super-luxe condo towers now under construction, increasingly hostile relations between the United States and billionaire-rich Russia, and falling oil prices that will hurt the income of Middle Eastern plutocrats all work against him — it’s a fascinating study in financial speculation that isn’t creating any value for society.
The finance guys who provided the construction loan that funded the building of One57 helped create value. So did the architects who designed it, the construction workers who built it and the developers who brought all these pieces together to turn a raw piece of land into a 90-story tower with a hotel and housing that people can make good use of.
You could ask what’s the difference between letting it sit and then flipping it and living there and then selling it. It’s a bit like a division of Goldman Sachs that warehoused a huge chunk of global aluminum supplies, as The Times reported last year. Goldman didn’t mine the bauxite or smelt the aluminum. According to that report, it moved aluminum from warehouse to warehouse to make money, during which time the aluminum wasn’t available to be used productively in drink cans or airplane parts.
Ackman is making a bet that the high-end real estate market in New York, for whatever reason, currently misprices the penthouse, and that in a few years this mispricing will be corrected. In the meantime, a 13,500-square-foot apartment with magnificent views of Central Park and, on a clear day, the entirety of New York, will sit empty the great majority of the time waiting for that day.
It’s actually destroying value: There’s the opportunity cost of whatever the apartment would rent for, plus the maintenance fees and property tax his investment group will have to pay on the empty condo used for the occasional party.
Ackman’s deluxe apartment in the sky may not be his biggest deal this year, or the one most important to his long-term wealth and reputation. But it is the clearest example you can find of a financier doing a deal that does nothing to make the economy better off.
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