Ackman Answers Munger's Valeant Critique by Faulting Coke

  • Coca-Cola responsible for obesity around world, Ackman says
  • Ackman speaks at New York event honoring Warren Buffett

The symposium at the Museum of American Finance was billed as an event commemorating Warren Buffett’s 50 years leading Berkshire Hathaway Inc. and the billionaire’s “exceptional management and savvy acquisitions.”

Among those highlighted on the program were Buffett biographer Roger Lowenstein, dealmaker Byron Trott and money manager Bill Ackman, who has long expressed his admiration for Berkshire. But Ackman couldn’t resist getting in a dig at Berkshire at the event Wednesday in New York -- not after the company’s vice chairman, Charles Munger, criticized Valeant Pharmaceuticals International Inc.

Ackman’s Pershing Square Capital Management is Valeant’s third-biggest shareholder, and the money manager said that Munger, 91, had no business calling the drug company immoral, especially given the profits that Berkshire made from investing in soft-drink maker Coca-Cola Co.

“I have a problem with Berkshire’s ownership of Coke,” Ackman told an audience of about 200 people. “Coca-Cola has probably done more to create obesity, diabetes on a global basis than any other company in the world.”

‘Deeply Immoral’

Ackman has been working to defend Valeant after scrutiny of its pricing practices and a pharmacy partner contributed to a 42 percent stock drop this year through Tuesday. Munger said in a recent interview that Valeant is a “deeply immoral” company because of its practice of acquiring rights to treatments and boosting prices.

“I’m never one for avoiding controversy,” Ackman told the attendees, which didn’t include Buffett or Munger. “What is Coca Cola’s business model? Coca-Cola’s business model is to displace the water that children and adults consume with sugar water.”

Ackman went too far in his critique of the company, which also sells bottled water, milk and fruit juice, Kent Landers, a spokesman for Atlanta-based Coca-Cola, said in an e-mail. “These comments are irresponsible and do not recognize the current breadth of our business,” he wrote.

Candy, Ice Cream

Buffett is known for his investments in sugary treats. Berkshire owns See’s Candies and Dairy Queen, and has a large stake in Kraft Heinz Co. The billionaire said in May that he doesn’t see many people smiling at Whole Foods Market Inc., the grocery chain known for its offerings such as almond butter and organic frozen blue curled kale.

Ackman’s Pershing Square has also invested in Mondelez International Inc., the maker of Oreo cookies. Pershing Square and Berkshire have both taken stakes in Restaurant Brands International Inc., owner of Burger King and the Tim Hortons doughnut chain.

Buffett, who has cultivated a folksy personality and sought to distinguish his long-term approach as a more informed strategy of investing, has drawn criticism before from high-profile investors. Hedge fund manager Dan Loeb said in May that the billionaire is full of inconsistencies.

“He criticizes hedge funds yet he really had the first hedge fund,” Loeb said at a conference that month. “He criticizes activists. He was the first activist. He criticizes financial service companies, yet he likes to invest in them. He thinks that we should all pay more taxes but he loves avoiding them.”

Happy Skinny People

Berkshire’s holding in Coca-Cola is valued at more than $16 billion. Buffett’s Omaha, Nebraska-based company acquired the stake at a cost of about $1.3 billion, mostly by the end of 1989. Ackman said the company’s profits are built on savvy branding at the expense of its customers.

“You have some of the best marketing in the world and a lot of happy skinny people drinking it in the advertising,” Ackman said. “Unlike the tobacco companies, there’s no disclaimer on the Coke saying ‘replacing the water in your diet with Coca-Cola can cause harm.’ So when Charlie was saying Valeant is a deeply immoral company I would argue that.”

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