Paul Singer: the secretive wizard casting a spell over Waterstones

A Republican billionaire hedge fund manager attacked by the former president of Argentina as a “financial terrorist” and “vulture lord” has just bought your local bookshop.

Elliott Advisors, the UK division of the $34bn (£25bn) activist hedge fund, Elliott Management, run by controversial New Yorker Paul Singer, last week bought Waterstones from Russian billionaire Alexander Mamut in a secretive deal thought to have valued the bookshop chain at more than £200m.

It’s small change for Singer, 73, who has amassed a $2.9bn personal fortune according to Forbes. But it’s the latest in a string of deals his fund has made in the UK, where his son Gordon runs Elliott Advisors.

Earlier this month, Elliott also bought a 6% stake in Whitbread as part of an activist investor strike at the company, demanding it spin off its Costa coffee chain from Premier Inn hotels and the Brewers Fayre and Beefeater restaurant chains. Days later, Whitbread’s chief executive gave in to the pressure and announced plans for the split.

Elliott, the world’s largest activist hedge fund, has sued Tesco over the 2014 accounting scandal and fought a very public battle with the management of coach and train operator National Express.

Last month – after rapidly building a big stake in takeover target GKN – it threw its weight behind bidder Melrose, helping the business branded an asset stripper win the battle for control of the industrial giant. GKN’s then boss, Anne Stevens, said shareholders like Elliott did not “give a crap” about the best long-term outcomes.

The firm’s renewed interest in British companies should allow Singer to indulge in one of his greatest passions: Arsenal FC. He is a regular at his local sports bar on New York’s exclusive Upper West Side when Arsenal are playing, and has been spotted in the crowd at the Emirates stadium with his son Gordon.

Singer is also an accomplished pianist and has been known to perform with one son on guitar, the other on drums and his son-in-law on saxophone. On one occasion he rocked out with Meat Loaf at a party.

But it is his aggressive attitude to business for which Singer is equally feared and respected. His hedge fund, which he started in 1977 with $1.3m raised from friends and family, has been involved in many of the most high-profile and bruising corporate and political battles of recent years.

His strategy of buying up struggling countries’ debts in order to sell them on for big profits or sue governments to demand full repayment led to Elliott being repeatedly labelled a “vulture fund”, a term Singer is known to despise.

He spent $20m in 1995 on defaulted debt from Peru, and then successfully sued for $58m. He acquired at a discounted price a $30m debt owed by Congo-Brazzaville, and in 2002 and 2003 won more than $100m in interest.

He chased Argentina for debts for more than decade, including tracking the course of a Argentine navy ship, Libertad. When it arrived in Ghana, he persuaded one of the country’s judges to detain the vessel in port until he was paid the millions owed to him. Argentina won that round, successfully arguing in the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea that the ship should be released. But he won a later court battle resulting in the South American country defaulting on its debts.

The former president of Argentina, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, memorably described Singer as “the Vulture Lord”, a “bloodsucker” and a “financial terrorist”.

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Singer guards his privacy fiercely and has given very few interviews, but the Financial Times reported that when a journalist from Euromoney magazine asked if legal skirmishes were fun, he was met with a look of incomprehension and astonishment. “Fun? Skiing is fun. This is work.”

In a rare deliberate step into the spotlight, he corralled other hedge fund managers to join him in financially backing the 2011 vote to legalise gay marriage in New York state. The money, an estimated $10m of which Singer personally pledged, was said to have swung the vote.

It was personal for Singer, as his younger son Andrew, a New York doctor, is gay and could not marry in the state, so instead married his husband in Massachusetts in 2009.

“It was something that was beyond my understanding at the time,” Singer said of his son’s coming out during a debate on gay rights at the World Economic Forum in Davos in 2014. “After a series of mutually supportive conversations, I became very educated about gender and sexuality, and I became very enthusiastic about his efforts to stop discrimination.”

Singer is a big donor to the Republican party, but funded the “Never Trump” movement before the 2016 election. But ever the pragmatist, since the election Singer has met Trump in the White House.

After one visit Trump declared that Singer “was very much involved with the anti-Trump or, as they say, ‘Never Trump,’ and Paul just left, and he’s given us his total support and it’s all about unification.”