A teary-eyed hedge fund manager

TANYA THOMAS | Updated on July 23, 2014

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Not how the character is usually scripted, so I can’t get behind this. Who’s crying?

William (Bill) Ackman, activist investor and Founder-CEO of Pershing Square Capital Management. It wasn’t a downright sob, but it still made headlines this week.

And why was he crying?

He’s despairing of convincing the world that Herbalife International, a US-based multi-level marketing multinational that sells nutrition supplements, weight loss and skin-care products, is a pyramid scheme. He has also lost some money, $500 million at last count, because the company refuses to go down the way he believes it should.

And he wants instant results?

Not really. In December 2012, Ackman made a three-hour presentation accusing the company of being a pyramid scheme. He also placed a $1-billion bet of a ‘long-term nature’ that the company’s shares would collapse. Ackman’s been saying that a large portion of Herbalife’s sales are to its own distributors and very little is sold to outside customers. He has also accused it of offloading inventory with distributors and making it hard for them to return products, hence propping up sales.

There’s also the practice of Herbalife nutrition clubs, where existing members invite new members and train them in wellness practices for a fee. The newbies then start clubs of their own and the cycle continues.

He must have spent a lot of time investigating all this.

In another three-hour long speech this Tuesday (the one with the tears), Ackman said his firm spent $50 million investigating the nutrition clubs and their starring feature – the weight-loss shakes. All of it, he says, serves as a cover for member recruitment. His teams have also met several lawmakers and regulators, including the SEC, convincing them of the need to investigate the company. They have also worked with Latino advocacy groups, since many of Herbalife’s members are poor Hispanics in the US and Mexico.

So what happened this week?

On Monday, Ackman appeared on US TV promising another exposé on the company. Dutifully, Herbalife’s shares fell. On Tuesday, however, the ‘death blow’ didn’t quite land, and its shares shot back up by 25 per cent – incidentally, its biggest ever single-day gain.

Ouch! Was the speech such a letdown?

Apparently, but it didn’t lack for colour. Ackman said Herbalife is a ‘big, bold lie’, comparing it to the Nazis. He accused it of having ‘phantom customers’, much like Enron. He also lashed out against celebrity supporters of the company, including football stars David Beckham and Lionel Messi and pharmacologist/Nobel laureate Louis Ignarro, who serves on the company’s board.

And the company obviously denies these allegations?

Of course. It has additional defence by way of other prominent hedge fund managers, such as George Soros and Carl Icahn, who hold substantial stakes in Herbalife.

But Ackman isn’t backing down?

On Tuesday, he even welcomed a court battle with the company, saying, “I'm an extremely, extremely persistent person. Extremely…When I believe I am right and it is important, I will go to the end of the Earth.”

Besides, he’s got money in the balance.

Yes, but even without that, following Herbalife’s trajectory should prove interesting. The allegations against Herbalife sound very much like those against another American multi-level marketing firm ruffling feathers in India, and whose India chief is popping in and out of prison.

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Published on July 23, 2014
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