Virgin Galactic shares tumble after chairman sells $213 million stake

The stock fell by 9.9% to $27.29 in New York on Friday and has shed more than 50% since its peak in mid-February

FILE PHOTO: Chamath Palihapitiya, founder and CEO of Social Capital, speaks during the Sohn Investment Conference in New York City, U.S., May 8, 2017. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid/File Photo

Virgin Galactic Holdings tumbled on Friday after its billionaire chairman Chamath Palihapitiya offloaded shares worth about $213 million in the space-tourism company founded by Richard Branson.

Mr Palihapitiya, 44, who has helped drive the frenzied growth of blank-cheque companies, disposed of 6.2 million shares at an average price of $34.32 this week, based on a filing with the US Securities and Exchange Commission.

He still owns 15.8 million shares with his partner Ian Osborne through investment company Social Capital Hedosophia, amounting to about a 6.5 per cent stake.

Mr Palihapitiya previously sold shares worth almost $100m in December, filings show.

The latest transaction allows him to fund an investment to help fight climate change, he said.

“The details of this investment will be made public in the next few months,” he said on Friday.

“I remain as dedicated as ever to Virgin Galactic’s team, mission and prospects.”

Virgin Galactic’s shares fell by 9.9 per cent to $27.29 in New York on Friday and have lost more than 50 per cent since their peak in mid-February.

The Las Cruces, New Mexico-based company merged with Social Capital’s first special-purpose acquisition company, or Spac, in 2019.

Mr Palihapitiya has since launched blank-cheque companies that have merged with businesses across health insurance, financial services and property, including Opendoor Technologies and Clover Health Investments.

Opendoor fell by 9.8 per cent on Friday while Clover Health rose by 7.5 per cent after an earlier decline.

Other Spacs by Mr Palihapitiya such as Social Capital Hedosophia Holdings IV and V reversed midday losses to end the day higher.

Mr Palihapitiya has made a fortune for himself and his investors through Spacs.

The former Facebook executive has raised more than $4 billion via blank-cheque companies, using social media to talk up the investments and becoming one of the most prominent figures in the phenomenon, which has everyone from Colin Kaepernick to former House Speaker Paul Ryan racing to market their own.

He is also a lightning rod for sceptics who dismiss his success as the product of self-promotion and see blank-cheque companies as proof of a bubble inflated by government money-printing.

FILE PHOTO: Chamath Palihapitiya, founder and CEO of Social Capital, speaks during the Sohn Investment Conference in New York City, U.S., May 8, 2017. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid/File Photo

A month ago, Mr Palihapitiya said it would only be under the rarest of circumstances that he would reduce his holdings of any Spac.

“If I could really just go for it, I would not sell a share of anything I buy because I believe in it,” he told Bloomberg Television last month.

“But every now and then, I run into liquidity constraints, like everybody else.”

At the time, Mr Palihapitiya had just recently sold 3.8 million Virgin Galactic shares. He said he did so because his family office needed cash for other purposes.

Social Capital’s merger with Virgin Galactic – where Mr Palihapitiya is chairman – made the start-up the world’s first publicly traded space-travel venture.

The transaction raised about $800 million, with Mr Palihapitiya also directly contributing $100m.

While the shares increased after the listing, they have declined since a February decision to delay the next flight to space. The new schedule also pushed back plans to carry Mr Branson, 70, on a separate mission before Virgin Galactic is expected to take its first flight with passengers paying for the trip.

On Thursday, the company announced the departure of its chief space officer, George Whitesides, and said he had decided to pursue potential opportunities in public service.

Mr Whitesides, who served as chief executive for a decade until July, will remain chairman of a four-person Space Advisory Board. Swami Iyer is joining Virgin Galactic later this month as president of aerospace systems.

Although Virgin Galactic has hundreds of clients lined up to pay at least $250,000 for a 90-minute flight to the edge of space, it has been a slow journey since the venture was founded in 2004.

Plans were put on hold for four years in 2014 after a space plane broke up mid-flight, killing one pilot and injuring another.

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