The moral philosophy of Kyle Bass

CNBC EVENTS -- CNBC Institutional Investor Delivering Alpha Conference -- Pictured: Kyle Bass at the CNBC Institutional Investor Delivering Alpha conference on September 14, 2011 in New York City -- Photo by: Heidi Gutman/CNBC
Kyle Bass

A few weeks ago, we brought you the story of Kyle Bass, the best friend an Argentine autocrat could have.

Ever since he struck it rich on the subprime mortgage crisis, the mainstream media have paid plenty of attention to the moves and prognostications of the Dallas-based hedge-funder. In fact, you might even say that Bass has encouraged this attention, seemingly never saying no to an opportunity to appear on TV and share “analysis” that somehow always lines up with his own financial self-interest.

Take, for instance, the time he went on CNBC and called Argentina’s holdout creditors “immoral” for “holding up 42 million people from progress.” Never mind that what’s really holding up progress for the citizens of Argentina are the corrupt Kirchner caudillos, who’ve imposed disastrous economic policies on the country while simultaneously attempting to rob it blind.

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Argentine President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner

No, Bass decided to ignore President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner’s wholesale corruption and ideological insanity. Instead, he chose to kiss up to the Kirchner regime by slandering her preferred bogeymen, the holdout hedge funds. Could it be that Bass, who has extensive investments in Argentina, was trying to curry favor with the Kirchners, who are notorious about giving sweetheart deals to hedge funds that help them do their dirty work? Could it be, indeed, that Bass already benefitted from such deals? Stay tuned.

In the meantime, let’s return to that word “immoral.” It’s an interesting word choice for Bass, given his own preferred investments. In another of his more infamous TV appearances, Bass was asked a question about General Motors. Once again, Bass, a major GM stockholder, provided “analysis” that lined up perfectly with his own financial self-interest. GM had been charged with creating a “culture of cover-up” by masking a defect that disabled airbags in certain models, causing passenger deaths. How did Bass defend GM? Easy – by blaming the victims:

BASS: Of those 13 deaths that happened, 12 of them either weren’t wearing their seatbelt or were under the influence of alcohol. And so, again, we don’t know what caused each of these deaths, and each of them I think has a multi-variable equation that goes into what happened. But I think that it’s really important to understand the narrative being told in the press versus, kind of, the factual narrative that yes, all deaths are tragedies, and human beings seem to think that tragedies could be prevented, or even greater tragedies. But in this case, I don’t think that the narrative is being told, because there is no upside for the press to tell the narrative to drive with your seat belt on and be sober.

How very moral of Bass, all this concern about the “narratives” surrounding these deaths. In any event, interviewer David Faber’s response left Bass stammering and quickly trying to change the subject:

FABER: That’s absolutely true, but others would say, you know, just because people may have been driving under the influence or not wearing their seat belt doesn’t mean they should be getting in a car where the airbags don’t work and the power steering doesn’t work.

BASS: Exactly…exactly. So the public policy issue is a much larger one.

Nice try, Kyle. Actually, the issue was not “much larger” but very simple and straightforward: GM was aware of safety concerns but failed to act on them. And Bass’s effort to obfuscate and trivialize that issue for financial gain raises serious moral questions.

bass6Bass’s latest investment strategy is of equally dubious morality: exploiting a new process called “inter partes review” to challenge pharmaceutical companies’ patents. As a pharma-industry newsletter noted recently, Bass spins his new stratagem as “noble” – he wants to take on pharma monopolies, spur competition, and thus lower drug prices. “A small minority of drug companies,” maintained Bass’s fund, Hayman Capital Management, in a recent statement, “are abusing the patent system to sustain invalid patents that contain no meaningful innovations but serve to maintain their anti-competitive, high-price monopoly to the detriment of Americans suffering from illness.”

In short, Bass, who created something called the Coalition for Affordable Drugs for the express purpose of carrying out his patent challenges, would have you believe that he’s acting in the interest of those Americans. But the truth is a little more complicated – and quite a bit darker – than that.

The first product Bass tried to wrench away from its manufacturer was Ampyra, which helps multiple sclerosis patients walk. The active ingredient in the drug, wrote Tracy Staton at Fierce Pharma, is an “old molecule” that was originally used as a bird poison; Acorda Therapeutics “did the work to make it useful in humans.” Unsurprisingly, after Bass filed papers officially challenging the patent, Acorda’s stock price dropped – and guess who made a tidy profit? Bass, who’d sold Acorda short in expectation of this highly predictable result.

bassprofitBass’s cynical new money-making scheme, of course, raises the question: with somebody like him hammering away at other people’s patents in an attempt to rake in a few quick, easy millions – and thus driving down the profits of pharma shareholders – what will happen to the motivation of drug companies to develop medicines that transform the lives of people suffering from grave illnesses?

Bass’s next move after Ampyra made this question even more urgent. His target this time was Imbruvica, one of the latest generation of cancer-fighting drugs, produced by Johnson & Johnson and Pharmacyclics. Unlike Ampyra, Imbruvica was a brand-new drug, having received FDA approval as recently as 2013. It’s considered a “breakthrough” therapy and has been called “[t]he drug that may make chemo a thing of the past.” Bass challenged a patent for Imbruvica that was granted just last year – for treating mantle-cell lymphoma – and that expires in 2031. After he filed his petition taking on the patent, the price of Pharmacyclics stock went down – and Bass, once again, enjoyed a nice payday.

On April 1, he struck again. He filed challenges against patents for not one but two drugs – Lialda, a treatment for ulcerative colitis, and Gattex, a medication for short bowel syndrome, both produced by Shire. Before the month was over, Bass had taken shots at several additional patents: for Thalomid, a leprosy drug; for Revlimid, an anemia medication; for Tecfidera, which has been called a “blockbuster multiple-sclerosis drug”; for Fumaderm, used to treat psoriasis; and for Xyrem, a narcolepsy treatment.

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James C. Greenwood

James C. Greenwood, the chief executive of BIO, a trade association representing “biotechnology companies, academic institutions, state biotechnology centers and related organizations across the United States,” has denounced all these moves by Bass. When Congress instituted the inter partes review system in 2012, charges Greenwood, it didn’t mean for it “to be utilized by those attempting to profit from the confusion the current system creates. Such efforts not only damage the value of companies working on cures – but hurts those sick and suffering patients and their families who are eager for cures.” Apropos of Bass’s claim that he’s doing all this to help patients, moreover, Greenwood has pointed out that “[t]here’s nothing in this man’s history to suggest he has any interest in lowering health-care costs.”

Indeed, there’s nothing in Bass’s history – his grandstanding about morality notwithstanding – to suggest that this friend of corrupt autocrats is about anything more than turning a profit.

3 thoughts on “The moral philosophy of Kyle Bass

  1. Bass’ targeting of these pharmaceutical firms is absolutely for the common good! They have monopolies on drug patents that slows innovation! America needs to stop defending the corporate structure that controls markets and then cries when any amount of their wealth inflow is stymied. Im no fan of Bass’ defense of GM, but pharmaceuticals corporations represent the worst part of the broken capitalist system. Regulated control of the market and profit-sharing will drive long term innovation.

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