SPACs – hot stocks or empty promises? 5 things you must know

Alvin Chow
Alvin Chow

Special-purpose acquisition companies (SPACs) are all the rage right now in the US. You might even have invested in some of them without knowing that it was a SPAC. That’s not good.

Give me 3 minutes and I hope to level up your understanding about SPACs by the end of this article.

#1 What are SPACs and how do they work

Let’s say I harbour the ambition to acquire a fintech company because I believe it has a great future and disruption is unfolding soon. But I will need $500m and I don’t have enough money to pull it off. Borrowing is not possible since the fintech company isn’t making any profits and doesn’t have much assets to collaterize.

Given that I have an audience through Dr Wealth, I think I can raise money to fund this acquisition via an Initial Public Offering (IPO). Instead of listing Dr Wealth, I launch a new company called Dr Wealth Acquisition Holdings (DWAH), which would be used primarily for the acquisition.

In the IPO prospectus, I wouldn’t want to disclose the acquisition target so as not to attract competition. Investors will have to trust that I have the business acumen, a good plan and excellent execution to make money for them. All they need to do is to write the cheque and fund this new company.

Once DWAH is listed, I will have a deadline to complete the acquisition or the company will have to delist, liquidate and return the money back to shareholders. I will also be incentivised to complete the deal because I will receive a 20% stake in this company, even if I did not put up an equivalent amount of capital. It would be the payment for my work done.

The above is a simplified description of a SPAC. Sometimes it is called a blank cheque company because investors are just putting in money without knowing what acquisitions would be made. Why would they do it? Because they often trust the names of the individuals who run these SPACs.

#2 Prominent individuals have made use of their status to launch SPACs

Bill Ackman, the outspoken shareholder activist and fund manager of Pershing Square, has launched the largest SPAC – Pershing Square Tontine Holdings. It raised $4 billion. If you have Netflix, watch Betting To Zero.

They seemed to be proud of being a blank cheque company by putting the label on their homepage in big fonts:

They have not identified any targets but here are the broad areas they are looking at:

PSTH has not yet selected any specific business combination target. PSTH intends to pursue merger opportunities with private, large capitalization, high-quality, growth companies… PSTH will seek targets in four principal market segments: high-quality IPO candidates, mature unicorns, private equity portfolio companies, and family-owned companies.

Sir Richard Branson, the flamboyant founder of the Virgin Group of companies, is launching VG Acquisition Corp to raise $480m.

Here’s what was stated in the prospectus,

We are focused on effecting a business combination with a target that operates in one of the Virgin Group’s core sectors: travel & leisure, financial services, health & wellness, technology & internet-enabled, music & entertainment, media & mobile and renewable energy/resource efficiency. We will primarily search for consumer-facing businesses. We are not, however, required to complete our initial business combination with a business in one of these sectors and, as a result, may pursue a business combination outside of these categories if we find an alternative opportunity that we believe will result in an attractive return to investors.

Er… It is really as “blank cheque” as it can go.

Chamath Palihapitiya, ex-Facebook executive and prominent venture capitalist with Social Capital, has been filing SPACs under Social Capital Hedosophia. His first was launched in 2017. The second and third were launched in 2020. Now, he’s going for his fourth SPAC.

#3 SPACs have raised $21.5b in 2020 so far

SPACs saw a huge jump in the amount of money raised in 2017 and it has crossed the $20b mark in 2020. This is only made possible because of the insatiable demand from investors.

  • 2014: $1.8b (12 SPACs)
  • 2015: $3.9b (20 SPACs) +116%
  • 2016: $3.5b (13 SPACs) -10%
  • 2017: $10.1b (34 SPACs) +189%
  • 2018: $10.7b (46 SPACs) +6%
  • 2019: $13.6b (59 SPACs) +27%
  • 2020 (till Sep): $21.5b (51 SPACs) +58%

Why would tech companies want to go for SPAC instead of IPO or direct listing? (Direct listing or DPO was also gaining popularity as another avenue of going public. I explained DPO here.)

Many tech companies have matured a lot over the last decade and are big enough to go public (especially the unicorns which are private companies worth more than US$1b). But going via the traditional IPO route is a tedious and expensive process. SPACs are already listed with ready funds and the target company just need to negotiate with one party instead of numerous investors during an IPO roadshow. In other words, SPACs offers a cheaper and faster way of listing.

#4 High profile acquisitions by SPACs

The highest profile SPAC would be Nikola, the electric truck maker which was accused of fraud by Hindenburg. Nikola went public in Jun 2020 after a reverse merger with VectoIQ, a SPAC.

It was a popular stock among Robinhood traders and given that Tesla is a hot stock, Nikola rubbed off some of the fame and interest. By the way, Nikola Tesla is a real person – he is the guy who invented the AC power transmission that we power our homes today. This was a more superior way than Thomas Edison’s DC transmission.

The second high profile SPAC acquisition was DraftKings. It is not a tech company but a sports betting business. Diamond Eagle Acquisition was the SPAC that merged with DraftKings in April 2020. Even retired basketball star, Michael Jordan, joined in the party as an investor and board advisor to DraftKings.

The third high profile SPAC acquisition has not happened yet – Social Capital Hedosophia II is combining with Opendoor, a tech company looking to disrupt the way people buy and sell their real estate.

#5 There’s even a SPAC ETF now

The SPAC bubble is getting bigger while you are figuring out what it is.

A SPAC ETF is now available!

Defiance NextGen Derived SPAC ETF (SPAK) started trading on 1 Oct 2020. It has 36 holdings and here are the top 10:

  • Draftkings
  • Clarivate
  • Vertiv
  • Vivint Smart Home
  • Open Lending
  • Broadmark Realty Capital
  • Immunovant
  • Virgin Galactic
  • Repay Holdings
  • Churchill Capital Corp III

The fund size is rather small at $2.5m.

Would you invest in any SPAC?

It seems like SPACs are riding on the tech wave and the bull market to raise as much money as possible. I find it uncomfortable to invest in something without knowing what I am getting. Writing blank cheques isn’t my thing.

Some of these acquisitions can be speculative and eventually turn sour. More SPACs would also mean that there will be competition to acquire companies and this could lead to sky-high valuations for the target companies. Even if these are good businesses, paying high prices may not yield a good return at the end of the day.

Alvin Chow
Alvin Chow
CEO of Dr Wealth. Built a business to empower DIY investors to make better investments. A believer of the Factor-based Investing approach and runs a Multi-Factor Portfolio that taps on the Value, Size, and Profitability Factors. Conducts the flagship Intelligent Investor Immersive program under Dr Wealth. An author of Secrets of Singapore Trading Gurus and Singapore Permanent Portfolio. Featured on various media such as MoneyFM 89.3, Kiss92, Straits Times and Lianhe Zaobao. Given talks at events organised by SGX, DBS, CPF and many others.
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2 thoughts on “SPACs – hot stocks or empty promises? 5 things you must know”

  1. Spacs in the US used to be the landscape for scams & scammy small cap companies. Regulations were really lax in the 1980s. While regulations have improved today, Spacs are still speculative in nature, and opening it up to retail rather than limiting it to accredited investors will lead to quite a bit of heartbreak.

    Spacs are gaining popularity in the US becoz of 2 main things: (1) popularity & cashing in of startups linking to anything remotely “tech” or “e-commerce”, (2) the dearth of hundreds of small commercial banks that used to cater for the IPO of smaller companies due to being eaten up by big banks in the 1990s & 2000s.

    I think the 1st recorded “SPAC” was mentioned in the book Extraordinary Popular Delusions & the Madness of Crowds way back in London circa 1720 — A company for carrying on an undertaking of great advantage, but nobody to know what it is.


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