Paul Singer, the activist hedgie with chutzpah

Asked in an interview what he would say if he was writing his own obituary, Paul Singer paused, then shrugged. “He tried to make a difference, he protected a lot of people’s capital over a long period of time, he was steady, he was reliable,” he offered earnestly.
It was a rather tepid description of the man who is giving company executives around the world nightmares, and who has built Elliott Management into one of the most formidable activist hedge funds. But the soft-spoken Mr Singer has never been one for self-promotion — unlike his peers Carl Icahn and Nelson Peltz, who make frequent television appearances.
These are tough times for some of the senior statesmen of the hedge fund industry, who are struggling to retain assets amid dwindling returns. But Mr Singer has outdone many of them by building a firm that has transcended him.
Elliott confirmed on Thursday it had taken a stake in ThyssenKrupp, the German industrial conglomerate. It said that after years of painstaking restructuring, ThyssenKrupp was now rushing to complete a merger of its steelmaking assets into a joint venture with Tata Steel on poor terms. Shares jumped 8 per cent when news of the stake broke.
This month alone, Elliott has pressured South Korea’s Hyundai Motor into shelving a controversial restructuring plan, succeeded in a shareholder battle with the French media group Vivendi to secure control of the board at Telecom Italia, and made a $7bn takeover offer for Athenahealth, an American electronic medical records company, as part of its expanding private equity strategy. In April, it bought a controlling stake in Waterstones, the British high street bookstore.
In one of the fund’s most infamous positions, Mr Singer waged a long battle with Argentina over its defaulted debt. The fight even involved detaining an Argentine navy ship that was docked in a Ghanaian port.
As the tales of Elliott’s chutzpah have grown, assets have flooded into the fund. Elliott — the company takes Mr Singer’s middle name — now manages about $35bn, an increase of more than $10bn over the past four years. This makes it the largest activist hedge fund in the world. Demand to invest in Elliott is such that when it last opened to outside money, in May 2017, the fund was inundated with requests. It raised $5bn in 24 hours and quickly re-shut its doors.
These days, Mr Singer seems content to delegate more. He named his long-time deputy, Jon Pollock, as co-chief executive in 2015 and last year, he expanded the partnership circle to seven.
That leaves Mr Singer with more time to fret over the markets. He has become known for his bearish views, which are often on display in his colourful investor letters, sprinkled with doomsday predictions of impending market crashes and possible bubbles. In one dating from late 2014, he warned of his fear of an electromagnetic pulse destroying the world.
“While these pages are typically chock-full of scary or depressing scenarios, there is one risk that is head and shoulders above all the rest,” he wrote to investors. “Even horrendous nuclear war, except in its most extreme form, can be a relatively localized issue, and the threat from asteroids can (possibly) be mitigated. The risks associated with an electromagnetic pulse, or EMP, represent another story entirely.”
He explained that a solar disturbance could “cause a massive disruption to the electric grid . . . with unimaginable consequences . . . ”
Mr Singer, who was born in 1944, grew up in Teaneck, New Jersey, a suburb of New York City. After Harvard Law School, he went to practice law in New York. Dissatisfied after seven years as a lawyer, he turned towards investing, in which he had begun to dabble with his pharmacist father, trading tech and mining stocks.
In one investor letter dating from late 2014, Singer warned of his fear of an electromagnetic pulse destroying the world
“He and I found just about every possible way conceivable to lose money, and so when I started Elliott in 1977, I was determined to engage in a trading strategy that made money all the time,” Mr Singer said in an interview with the financier David Rubenstein. Elliott’s focus for the first decade was on convertible bond hedging. It turned to bankruptcies and distressed investing when that manoeuvre soured. More recently, the fund has poured money into equity activism, and in the past few years, into private equity.
Mr Singer, whose net worth is estimated by Forbes to be about $2.8bn, is a signatory to Warren Buffett’s Giving Pledge, a promise by some of the world’s wealthiest to give away more than half of their fortunes. He has also given millions in the past five years to conservative political action committees and to individual candidates.
He has discussed economic issues with US president Donald Trump. However, it emerged late last year that a conservative website bankrolled by Mr Singer, the Washington Free Beacon, had funded the research firm, Fusion GPS, that later produced the dossier detailing the alleged ties between Mr Trump and the Russian government.
Mr Rubenstein asked him if he had known the president before he took office. Mr Singer said no, though he used to own bonds in Mr Trump’s company. Asked if the bonds were high-grade, Mr Singer smirked. “They may have been when they were first issued,” he said.
The writer is the FT’s hedge fund correspondent