This week, hedge fund millionaire Robert Wilson reportedly committed suicide. Wall Street will remember him in part for being “the challenge king of philanthropy” — for giving away most of his $US800 million fortune.
And in no small part Wall Street will remember him for almost losing it all in what Forbes called “the most catastrophic short play in modern times”, the 1978 short squeeze of Resorts International.
As anyone watching Bill Ackman’s Herbalife squeeze will tell you, history lessons like this should be taught over and over again… and memorized.
Wilson launched his long/short hedge fund, Wilson and Associates, with $US15,000 in 1969.
In May of 1978, he built a 20,000 share short position in Resorts International after the hotel chain built the first casino ever in Atlantic City.
The idea was that, as more casinos moved into Atlantic City and built flashier, more on-trend businesses, Resorts International’s properties would suffer due to the competition.
The market turned against Wilson’s trade from the start, but he stayed cool. “I’m getting crucified, but I may buy more,” he told Forbes.
The shares eventually sky rocketed from $19 to $US190 by the fall of that year.
During that time, Wilson was travelling around the world on vacation — Norway, Hong Kong, Australia, you name it. At home, Wall Street was going crazy for gambling/casino stocks in 1978 and 1979. Wilson’s brokers convinced him to cover his short before he lost it all.
Now, Wilson wasn’t the only major investor caught in this short squeeze. George Soros had also built a position against Resorts International. The difference? Soros didn’t publicize his position at all, and when the trade started turning against him, he changed his mind and went long.
There’s definitely a lesson in there. Find it and take it away.
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