Special Purpose Acquisition Companies (SPACs) and speculative fever

SPAC is a new name for an old capital-raising form. The first instance I’m aware of is a mention in Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, a famous 1841 book on the craziness that happens in financial markets at times of speculative fever. The author, Charles Mackay, cites an operator during the eighteenth-century South Sea Bubble in the UK. He writes:

“…the most absurd and preposterous of all, and which shewed, more completely than any other, the utter madness of the people, was one started by an unknown adventurer, entitled ‘A company for carrying on an undertaking of great advantage, but nobody to know what it is.’ Were the fact not stated by scores of credible witnesses, it would be impossible to believe that any person could have been duped by such a project.”

According to Mackay, the “adventurer” set up an office, issued shares and then disappeared.

I came across this form early in my investing career, when the vehicles were called blind pools. They’ve also been called blank check companies. My reaction was the same as Mackay’s. Now, as SPACs, the name is fancier but the idea is the same, as far as I can see. An entrepreneur offers to use his skills to make shareholders a lot of money by means not specified in the offering document. Unlike the case in 18th-century London, the adventurer doesn’t simply close up shop and disappear. My impression is that the entrepreneur mostly pays himself fees while he looks. I have no idea about the ultimate outcome from such blind pools, but the fact that promoters don’t seem to point to past glories suggests that results aren’t that great–for shareholders, at least.

The current reemergence of blank check offerings is important to me in only one sense. They appear at times when speculation is rampant. They serve as an unambiguous signal that government policy is too stimulative. In other words, they typically signal market tops.

In the present case, I’m not so sure. Even before the pandemic, Trump had somehow managed to get a vibrant US economy to grind to a halt. Now, a second tour de force, as Canada and the EU are opening up again–crediting this outcome to having followed the advice of US medical research–the coronavirus is spiking again here. Why? …because Trump pressuring state and local governments to ignore medical protocols. Sort of Trump’s Atlantic City debacle twice over, only a lot worse.

The upshot is that while I can imagine more economic stimulus from Washington, I can’t see the punch bowl being taken away any time soon.