Revenge can be so sweet, especially when it takes nearly a
It all started 10 years ago when Bill Ackman's first hedge
fund was imploding. Ackman reluctantly turned to fellow hedge
fund manager Carl Icahn for help. What has followed is a decade
of warring that has now culminated into feelings of mutual
All this appears to be coming to a head as the two are in
opposite corners in a battle over
. By all accounts, it looks as though Icahn may finally get his
Ackman is short 20 million Herbalife shares, and Icahn is long
17 million shares, or around 20% of the company. From a
confidence and conviction standpoint, Ackman is the clear leader.
He has a $1 billion bet on Herbalife; his Pershing Square Capital
hedge fund assets are only $11 billion. Icahn's position is worth
$765 million, compared with the more than $21.5 billion in assets
Life is full of dilemmas over what is ethical versus what is
merely legal, and Herbalife might be one such dilemma. Ackman has
claimed that Herbalife's business model takes money from the
"poor" and makes the "rich" richer, where only a small number of
Herbalife distributors actually make money. Although this sounds
rather unethical, the question comes down to whether it is indeed
By all indications, Ackman's "Herbalife is a pyramid scheme"
thesis has been willfully overlooked by the market. Back in
December, Ackman put a price target of zero on Herbalife, and
while the initial pullback was nauseating, the rally following
has been nothing short of riveting for Herbalife investors.
If Herbalife is not a pyramid scheme and its business model is
legal, then Ackman's short position is in serious trouble, as the
company is an earnings machine. Herbalife has cash of $850
million versus debt of only $960 million. Its stock is still
relatively cheap, trading at a price-to-earnings (P/E) ratio of
10.8 times forward earnings, while fellow multi-level marketing
both trade in excess of 14.
What's more is that analysts are predicting robust earnings
growth, with the company expected to grow earnings per share
(EPS) at an annualized 15% over the next five years. This puts
the company's price/earnings-to-growth (PEG) ratio at a low
A Decade Of Feuding
As mentioned, the heated Icahn-Ackman rivalry all started nearly
10 years ago. Ackman was closing down his Gotham hedge fund and,
as the story goes, Ackman reached out to Icahn in an effort to
sell his stake in Hallwood Realty, which was trading for $60 per
share, but Ackman believed the fair value was close to $140.
||Earlier this year, Ackman and Icahn hurled expletives
at one another in a heated phone conversation on CNBC.
Icahn agreed to pay $80 per share for Hallwood, and also
agreed to split the profits with Ackman if he was able to sell
the company within a three-year period. Turns out, Hallwood was
part of a merger deal that valued Hallwood at $137 less than a
year later. Icahn refused to pay Ackman because the deal was a
merger and not asale.
Ackman took Icahn to court, and a seven-year feud came to a
head in 2011. Ackman was victorious, collecting $9 million from
Icahn -- half of which was interest alone. But it appears the
feud between the two is not settled. In an infamous war of words
on CNBC earlier this year, the two hurled expletives at each
other and rehashed their own accounts of the Hallwood deal.
The $4.5 million the two went to court over is pocket change
to these guys, with Ackman having a net worth of more than $1
billion and Icahn's being a whopping $20 billion. But it was
never about the money. One might go as far as to say that Icahn's
investment in Herbalife is in an effort to settle a personal
score with Ackman.
Icahn Has The Wind At His Back
But at what point does fiduciary duty outweigh ego? For Icahn,
there is no such inflection point: He now manages his own money
after returning outside capital to investors back in 2011. Icahn
invest his money as he pleases, accountable only to himself.
Ackman, on the other hand, has investors.
And although Ackman claims to take a 50-year view when
considering investments, he knows his investors will never allow
him to tie money up in a Herbalife investment for 50 years. Look
at his less than than three-year investment period in previously
J.C. Penney (
Thus, Icahn would appear to have the greater staying
Icahn also has billionaire George Soros in his corner. Soros
owns just over 5 million shares of Herbalife. In early August,
Ackman filed a complaint with the Securities and Exchange
Commission over Soros' purchase of Herbalife stock, citing a
breach of insider trading rules. Ackman believes that Soros told
other hedge funds about its impending Herbalife purchase before
the news was public. After the allegation, Soros reportedly
pulled out some $250 million he had invested in Ackman's Pershing
Square hedge fund.
Icahn got another vote of confidence last week when
Post Holdings (POST)
CEO William Stiritz invested over $300 million of his personal
wealth in Herbalife. Stiritz now owns more shares more than
Soros: 5.4 million shares, just over 5% of the company.
Ackman With The Wind In His Face
As with many things related to the Federal Trade Commission and
the SEC, these understaffed and underfunded government agencies
can be slow-moving. Ackman has compared Herbalife to infamous
Ponzi schemer Bernie Madoff, but even Madoff lasted two decades.
We could be seeing a classic case of the market being able to
stay irrational longer than Ackman can stay solvent.
By all accounts, Herbalife appears to be a strong business
(assuming, of course, that it is not a pyramid scheme). David
Simon of Twin Capital Management has noted that if the majority
of Herbalife's sales to distributors is an issue, "then the FTC
would need to shut down Avon, Mary Kay and others."
The deck is just too heavily stacked against Ackman. With an
enterprise value of $6.7 billion, Icahn could feasibly take
Herbalife private. And given the two's disdain for each other,
Icahn might do it just to spite Ackman. That's just the kind of
relationship these guys have.
Risks to consider:
If you're long, the biggest risk is that Herbalife is indeed
a pyramid scheme and the stock goes to zero. If you're short, the
biggest risk is that an investigation never materializes and the
stock continues its surge -- where by all indicators the company
is a money-making machine.
Action to take -->
Investing in Herbalife is in essence like betting on which hedge
fund manager has the greatest staying power. Ackman appears to be
outgunned, but as an investor, I would choose to watch this
battle play out from the sidelines and avoid becoming collateral
damage in this clash of the titans. If Ackman eventually abandons
his short position and admits defeat, Herbalife could be worth
taking a look at from the long side.
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