NEW YORK, Feb 27 (Reuters) - Billionaire investor William Ackman, whose hedge fund earned double-digit returns last year with the help of strong gains in Chipotle Mexican Grill shares, said on Thursday he remained a "delighted long-term shareholder" even after selling some stock.
"What started out as a large position recently became a massive one, in excess of 20% of capital," Ackman told Reuters, adding "We sold stock earlier this week only for portfolio management reasons."
Ackman spoke one day after his Pershing Square Capital Management said in a regulatory filing the firm had cut its stake in the fast food restaurant chain to 4.2% from 5.4%. Pershing Square oversees $7 billion in assets.
Investors, however, appeared unnerved by the news. In early trading, Chipotle's stock price tumbled more than 8% to $777.02 a share.
Even though stocks were falling sharply amid fears that companies will be affected by the spread of the coronavirus outbreak that originated in China, some investors worried that Ackman's move could point to potential problems at Chipotle.
Ackman pushed back, saying: "The company continues to generate extraordinary results, and we continue to be a delighted long-term shareholder."
In reference to Chipotle's chief executive whom he helped install two years ago, he said the company, "under Brian Niccol's leadership, has performed spectacularly since our initial investment in the company almost four years ago."
During Niccol's first year on the job, the stock price skyrocketed nearly 200%. Last year, it climbed 94% and was instrumental in helping Pershing Square Holdings, one of Ackman's portfolios, gain 58.1% year.
Ackman, like other managers, has previously trimmed holdings in certain stocks when gains made the positions too large for his portfolio.
Reporting by Svea Herbst-Bayliss; Editing by Bernadette Baum