Federal Cooling Off Rule

Wedding

The Thermonuclear, Scorched-Earth, Mother-Of-All Best Practices Series

By Kevin Grimes

Virtually everyone has heard something about some mysterious state or federal law or regulation that provides some buyers under certain circumstances the ability to cancel some types of purchases or contracts within three days.

But . . . most folks are rather hazy on the details.

On January 6, 2015, the FTC made a change to the federal “cooling off” rule[i] (which is actually a federal regulation). Although the change is not tremendously significant, direct sellers and their independent contractors (“ICs”) need to be aware of the change . . . as well as the other pieces of the Rule.

Introduction

The Cooling-Off Rule is a federal trade regulation rule that was published by the FTC to address unfair and deceptive practices in sales conducted at locations other than the fixed place of business of the seller. In other words, if you’re marketing products or services for a network marketing company, this federal regulation applies to YOU and the company. Even though the vast majority of sales are not made on a door-to-door basis, the Rule calls all such sales “door-to-door sales.”

In addition to sales at consumers’ homes, door-to-door sales include sales at facilities rented on a temporary or short term basis, such as hotel or motel rooms, convention centers, fairgrounds and restaurants; or sales at the buyer’s workplace. The Rule requires door-to-door sellers to provide consumers with written and oral notice of a buyer’s right to unilaterally rescind a contract within three business days from the date of the transaction. Additionally, sellers must provide buyers with a completed receipt, or a copy of the sales contract, containing a summary notice informing buyers of the right to cancel the transaction.

What is New?

Under the new rule, the revised definition of “door-to-door sales” distinguishes between sales at a buyer’s home and those at locations outside the home. The revised definition retains coverage for sales made at a buyer’s home that have a purchase price of $25 or more, and it increases the purchase price to $130 or more for all other covered sales.

When is the Change Effective?

The change becomes effective on March 13, 2015.

What Do Companies and ICs Need to Know?

The Rule is applicable to the:

  • Sale, lease, or rental;
  • Of consumer goods or services;[ii]
  • With a purchase price of:
    • $25 or more for sales made at a buyer’s residence;[iii] or
    • $130 or more for all other temporary locations;
  • In which the seller[iv] or his representative personally solicits the sale;[v] and
  • The buyer’s agreement or offer to purchase is made at a place other than the place of business[vi] of the seller (e.g., sales at the buyer’s residence or at facilities rented on a temporary or short-term basis, such as hotel or motel rooms, convention centers, fairgrounds and restaurants, or sales at the buyer’s workplace or in dormitory lounges).

This means that certain sales to customers will fall within the scope of the Rule, and some will not. In addition, if the enrollment of a new IC exceeds the applicable threshold ($25 for sales made at the buyer’s residence and $130 for sales made at all other temporary locations), the Rule will apply.[vii] Whether a particular sale is or is not subject to the Rule depends on the facts involved. Because it’s difficult (and sometimes impossible) to know whether the Rule is applicable to a particular transaction, it’s simply a “best practice” to insure that your documents, corporate practices, and your ICs’ practices always meet the requirements of the Rule.

There are six exemptions to the Rule, however, most of them will be inapplicable to direct selling companies and their ICs . . . most of the time.[viii]

What Do Companies and ICs Need to Do?

The Rules requires “sellers” (direct selling companies) and “their representatives” (ICs) to:

  • Furnish the buyer with a fully completed receipt or copy of any contract pertaining to the sale at the time of its execution;
    • Which is in the same language, e.g., Spanish, as that principally used in the oral sales presentation;
    • Which shows the date of the transaction;
    • Contains the name and address of the seller, and
    • In immediate proximity to the space reserved in the contract for the signature of the buyer or on the front page of the receipt if a contract is not used and in bold face type of a minimum size of 10 points, a statement in substantially the following form:

“You, the buyer, may cancel this transaction at any time prior to midnight of the third business day after the date of this transaction. See the attached notice of cancellation form for an explanation of this right.”[ix]

  • Furnish the buyer with two copies of the Notice of Cancellation[x] at the time the buyer signs the contract or otherwise agrees to buy the consumer goods or services;
  • Before furnishing copies of the “Notice of Cancellation” to the buyer, complete both copies by entering the name of the seller, the address of the seller’s place of business, the date of the transaction, and the date, not earlier than the third business day following the date of the transaction, by which the buyer may give notice of cancellation;
  • Exclude in any contract or receipt any confession of judgment or any waiver of any of the rights to which the buyer is entitled under the Rule, including the buyer’s right to cancel the sale in accordance with the provisions of the Rule;
  • Inform each buyer orally, at the time the buyer signs the contract or purchases the goods or services, of the buyer’s right to cancel;
  • Not misrepresent in any manner the buyer’s right to cancel;
  • Honor any valid notice of cancellation by a buyer and within 10 business days after the receipt of such notice, to:
    • Refund all payments made under the contract or sale;
    • Return any goods or property traded in, in substantially as good condition as when received by the seller; and
    • Cancel and return any negotiable instrument executed by the buyer in connection with the contract or sale and take any action necessary or appropriate to terminate promptly any security interest created in the transaction;
  • Not negotiate, transfer, sell, or assign any note or other evidence of indebtedness to a finance company or other third party prior to midnight of the fifth business day following the day the contract was signed or the goods or services were purchased;
  • Notify the buyer, within 10 business days of receipt of the buyer’s notice of cancellation, whether the seller intends to repossess or to abandon any shipped or delivered goods.

The FTC expects that companies will inform (and remind) their independent contractors of the requirements that are applicable to them. Accordingly, these requirement should be set forth in the Policies and Procedures. In addition, companies should remind their independent contractors of these requirements not less than annually.

Conclusion

Is there a potential downside to violating the Rule?

Yes, there is. A few of the cases the Federal Trade Commission has pursued include:

$22,000 – FTC v. Vision Group of America, Inc., for alleged violation of the Cooling-Off Rule and deceptive income claims.

$40,000 – FTC v. College Resource Management, Inc., for alleged violation of the Cooling-Off Rule and deceptive claims.

$972,000 – FTC v. Screen Test U.S.A, for alleged violation of the Cooling-Off Rule and deceptive claims.

Violation of the Rule can be very expensive.

If you’re bored and want to see the entire text of the Rule, click here.

Let’s do it right!

———————–
The Thermonuclear, Scorched-Earth, Mother-Of-All Best Practices SeriesTM is a collection of articles, reports, and blogs that articulates, educates, and advocates the absolute highest and best business and legal practices for direct selling companies and their independent contractors. We invite and look forward to your feedback.

End Notes———————–

[i] The actual title of the federal cooling-off regulation is Trade Regulation Concerning Cooling-Off Period for Sales Made at Homes or Certain Other Locations, and is found in Title 16 of the Code of Federal Regulations, Part 429.

[ii] “Consumer goods or services” are defined in the Rule as “goods or services purchased, leased, or rented primarily for personal, family, or household purposes, including courses of instruction or training regardless of the purpose for which they are taken.”

[iii] This is true regardless of whether the transaction is consummated under single or multiple contracts.

[iv] A “seller” is defined as “any person, partnership, corporation, or association engaged in the door-to-door sale of consumer goods or services.”

[v] Such solicitations include those in response to or following an invitation by the buyer.

[vi] The “place of business” is defined in the Rule as “the main or permanent branch office or local address of a seller.”

[vii] How do I know that the Rule applies to Starter Kits and Enrollment Fees? I have talked with multiple FTC staff attorneys. Even though the enrollment of an IC involves the commencement of a business, the FTC’s position is that it involves the sale of “consumer goods or services.”

[viii] The term door-to-door sale does not include a transaction:

(1) Made pursuant to prior negotiations in the course of a visit by the buyer to a retail business establishment having a fixed permanent location where the goods are exhibited or the services are offered for sale on a continuing basis; or

(2) In which the consumer is accorded the right of rescission by the provisions of the Consumer Credit Protection Act (15 U.S.C. 1635) or regulations issued pursuant thereto; or

(3) In which the buyer has initiated the contact and the goods or services are needed to meet a bona fide immediate personal emergency of the buyer, and the buyer furnishes the seller with a separate dated and signed personal statement in the buyer’s handwriting describing the situation requiring immediate remedy and expressly acknowledging and waiving the right to cancel the sale within 3 business days; or

(4) Conducted and consummated entirely by mail or telephone; and without any other contact between the buyer and the seller or its representative prior to delivery of the goods or performance of the services; or

(5) In which the buyer has initiated the contact and specifically requested the seller to visit the buyer’s home for the purpose of repairing or performing maintenance upon the buyer’s personal property. If, in the course of such a visit, the seller sells the buyer the right to receive additional services or goods other than replacement parts necessarily used in performing the maintenance or in making the repairs, the sale of those additional goods or services would not fall within this exclusion; or

(6) Pertaining to the sale or rental of real property, to the sale of insurance, or to the sale of securities or commodities by a broker-dealer registered with the Securities and Exchange Commission.

[ix] I call this paragraph “the Pointer.”

[x] The seller may select the method of providing the buyer with the duplicate notice of cancellation form, provided however, that in the event of cancellation the buyer must be able to retain a complete copy of the contract or receipt. Furthermore, if both forms are not attached to the contract or receipt, the seller is required to alter the last sentence in the Point to conform to the actual location of the forms. You can find the Notice of Cancellation in §429.1 of the Rule.

See below for a nicely formatted copy of the article:

Kevin Grimes Joins Thompson Burton

As we’ve been building out Thompson Burton over the past few years with my longtime friend and business partner, Walt Burton, there’s one simple concept coined by Jim Collins that’s never failed us: Get the right people on the bus.

Kevin Grimes is the right person. I’m excited beyond measure to be announcing the addition of Kevin to our team!

Kevin and I have a history that goes back close to seven years. Back in the day when I was an in-house lawyer for Orrin Woodward, one of MonaVie’s distributors, I worked closely with Kevin. He was serving as their outside legal counsel on MLM and FDA compliance issues. During those interactions, I came to really respect and appreciate his level of expertise.

Great Character

I also came to admire him as a person. The business relationship was secondary. When I chat with him, he makes me better. And that, by itself, was worth the effort to get him to join. Also, we both share a passion for helping abandoned teens. I was raised by a single mother and I’ve been doing whatever I can for young men over the past several years. I still recall having lunch with him and our CEO and hearing Kevin pour out his heart about his work for distressed teens. He was a foster parent for 13 years and fostered 24 teenage boys! He continues to mentor a myriad of at-risk teenagers in various programs. His comments left a mark. And whenever I’ve had interactions with him as a competitor, he along with his other partners were always incredibly gracious. I always tell my prospective clients, there are about 5 good MLM attorneys out there. KG was one of them.

Great Lawyer

Aside from being a good person, he’s a great lawyer. He’s been working with network marketing companies for over 22 years, with a few $1B+ clients under his belt. His experience is vast and he’s not afraid to acknowledge the challenges facing the industry today. He’s seen the industry evolve over the past two decades, going from very little startup activity to the environment we’re seeing today. He’s also been part of over 3 significant regulatory matters.

One more thing, and I’ll stop bragging about him: he’s not afraid to poke around and explore opportunities. He does different things, and they all revolve around education. He was the first to create a compliance training module, which consisted of over 4 hours of footage and 47 separate video segments. It was deep!

Speaking of the compliance training….yes, it landed him in hot water. And he’s dealing with it. For the uninitiated, Kevin Grimes was sued by the Receiver in Zeek Rewards for, among other reasons, improperly providing Zeek Rewards with compliance training. The gist of the complaint: KG allegedly improperly sold compliance training to a company that he should’ve known was unfixable (Zeek Rewards paid for his compliance training). It’s one of the reasons why he’s no longer with Grimes & Reese, now R&R Law Group. With that being said, he’s gone close to 29 years without a bar complaint filed by a disgruntled client (it happens to the best of us, eventually). But Kevin…he’s got a great record and I know with 100% certainty that Kevin’s skill is unmatched by anybody else in the country. So regarding those challenges he’s facing, he’s going to make his positions clear soon. It’s a shame that the public doesn’t know him better, but that’ll change over time.

As for me, I’ve been a lone operator in MLM law for close to eight years. I’ve literally had to reinvent the wheel, and it’s been a good exercise for me and it’s been good for the clients. Now, it’s refreshing to have an extra set of eyes on these matters. He’s got more gray hairs than myself and his feedback is going to be priceless.

Another point: Kevin is going to focus a lot on his FDA law practice. There’s huge opportunity there to be “the guy” and Kevin is the guru when it comes to FDA regulations. In fact, he wrote a 430+ page ebook regarding dietary supplement marketing.

Everyone, I’m honored and proud to introduce you to KG! As my good friend said, “Two Kevins are better than one” ;)

ps, I hope you had a wonderful Christmas holiday and a Happy New Years. I’m overflowing with abundance and gratitude for the friends, family and partners in my life (including YOU). Cheers to a prosperous 2015.

MLM Special Deals: The Fraud Ends Now

We’ve been tip-toeing around this issue for years.

The first question: Is it legal to offer distributors special incentives (in addition to the pay plan) to join a company? Yes. Just like it’s legal to hire the services of a doctor to promote a new medical device.

The second question: Is it legal when the company / distributor fail to disclose the existence of these deals? No. Actually, it’s fraud. And as an industry, it’s been going on for years. We’ve known about it, yet we’ve done very little to stop it (or even slow it down). I tried humor when I wrote why more disclosure is bad. I addressed it more assertively in my “Is It Better to Raid In Plain Sight” article when Epic was aggressively cutting deals. I addressed it from an academic standpoint four years ago in my article “Master Distributors: good or bad?

I’ve been dancing around it for years.

Here’s the bottom line: FAILURE TO DISCLOSE IS FRAUD! IT’S DECEPTIVE. In the competitive landscape of MLM, in order to stimulate recruitment, companies with cash are tempted to drink from the fraud-cup and poach from the more seasoned companies. When the “top leaders” make their move and boast of the benefits of the product and company, it creates synthetic success stories. It creates the appearance of momentum, which creates a more favorable recruiting environment.

What Do These Deals Look Like?

  • Distributors are paid in a multitude of ways. I’ve seen countless deals, and no two are the same. These distributors are incentivized by way of the following methods (or a combination):
  • Given a “power-leg” of volume, which makes it much easier for the distributor to derive income via the pay plan (easier path to larger commissions);
  • Given a percentage override on top of their entire organization i.e. 2% on all gross revenues accumulated in their downline;
  • Given monthly pay IN ADDITION to the payout of the compensation plan i.e. $10,000 per month on top of the payout;
  • Given a percentage of the enrollment fees captured by new participants in their organization;
  • Given preferred compensation based on gross volume i.e. the typical pay plan is disregarded, and a new one is used that pays out more based on gross volume for a specified period of time (“50% of all CV paid out as dollars);
  • Given substantial signing bonuses;
  • Given cash advances against future commission cycles.

Why Should Companies Care?

If companies are building their organizations the right way, brick by brick, deal-free…they’re having the fruits of their labor stolen. And because there’s so little discussion about this practice, it creates an environment where companies can raid effectively without consequence. The non-deal receiving distributors (“lemmings”) follow the distributors because, in most cases, these deal-receiving distributors are great communicators and great recruiters. The lemmings TRUST their upline. But if the lemmings actually knew there was a little extra in it for the promoters….it would slow things down dramatically. The magic would vanish and people would be in a better position to make informed decisions.

Another reason why companies should care: the pressure of these deals leads distributors to play the “my company is better than your company game” in an effort to raid their old groups. It’s like throwing red meat to hungry lions…it causes people to go on a recruiting frenzy, making aggressive claims along the way. In some egregious cases, the leaders are given authority by the company to cut individual deals at the leader’s discretion. This gives the leader more ammunition to raid deep.

What Does the Law Say?

Regarding undisclosed deals, it’s fraud. And it’s getting worse, not better. I’ve flirted with the subject in the past, without much luck. Troy Dooly has published some content about it, without much luck.

It’s time to be more direct. It needs to stop.

Back to the law: In their Testimonial and Endorsement Guidelines, the FTC states, “When there exists a connection between the endorser and the seller of the advertised product that might materially affect the weight or credibility of the endorsement (i.e., the connection is not reasonably expected by the audience), such connection must be fully disclosed. . . . “ These special deals are absolutely material and they absolutely affect the “credibility of the endorsement.” The FTC goes on to provide the following example:

Example 4: An ad for an anti-snoring product features a physician who says that he has seen dozens of products come on the market over the years and, in his opinion, this is the best ever. Consumers would expect the physician to be reasonably compensated for his appearance in the ad. Consumers are unlikely, however, to expect that the physician receives a percentage of gross product sales or that he owns part of the company, and either of these facts would likely materially affect the credibility that consumers attach to the endorsement. Accordingly, the advertisement should clearly and conspicuously disclose such a connection between the company and the physician.

In their FAQs on the subject, the FTC adds extra insight by answering related questions:

A famous athlete has thousands of followers on Twitter and is well-known as a spokesperson for a particular product. Does he have to disclose that he’s being paid every time he tweets about the product?

It depends on whether his readers understand he’s being paid to endorse that product. If they know he’s a paid endorser, no disclosure is needed. But if a significant number of his readers don’t know that, a disclosure would be needed. Determining whether followers are aware of a relationship could be tricky in many cases, so a disclosure is recommended.

I have a small network marketing business: advertisers pay me to distribute their products to members of my network who then try the product for free. How do the revised Guides affect me?

It’s a good practice to tell participants in your network that if they get products through your program, they should make it clear they got them for free. It also makes sense to advise your clients – the advertisers – that when they give free samples to your members, they should remind them of the importance of disclosing the relationship when members of your network praise their products. You might consider putting a program in place to check periodically whether your members are making these disclosures.

Based on these examples, it’s clear: if the FTC expects people to disclose that they received free product, they will certainly expect companies and distributors to disclose the existence of non-public financial arrangements.

And let’s not forget common sense: If someone is proclaiming the greatness of a company while under the influence of a special arrangement that’s NOT AVAILABLE TO THE PEOPLE THEY’RE RECRUITING, it’s misleading.

What happens now?

Ask! Just ASK. When you see a networker making a move, never feel embarrassed to ask “Were you given extra incentives to switch over? Did the upline kick in extra incentives to get you to switch?” If they actually answer, ask, “If not for the incentives, would you join this company as a new distributor?” I’m sure you’ll be attacked, because you’ll be honing in on a very sensitive subject. Basically, you’ll be questioning their integrity because deep down, they know its shady to withhold that kind of information.

Where should you start? Whenever you see an announcement on Business for Home, ask in the comments. Ted Nuyten over at Business for Home is a friend. I like him personally. But his site frequently gets used by companies looking to create a sense of momentum when, in some cases, the momentum is fabricated. When you see announcements about big moves, ask.

If the company cutting undisclosed deals is a DSA member, file an online Code of Ethics complaint here. Reference Section A of the Code of Ethics (available here). Section A prohibits unethical recruiting practices.

As a corporate leader, if you refuse to cut deals, stand up and make yourselves known. Let people see that you’re willing to forgo quick cash for an honorable organization. The average distributor will trust you more, creating more long-term value in your company. I’ll recognize those companies on this site in a separate page.

Conclusion

If this is the first time you’re learning of this issue, how does it make you feel? How can we work together to stop it?

If you’re reading this via email, the video can be viewed here.

Eric Worre’s Go Pro Recruiting Mastery Event

Network Marketing Go Pro 2014

Wow! It’s all I can say about it. I’m not easily excited, and I’m incredibly excited to share with you what I observed at this event. I was deeply honored when Eric asked me to speak at his 2014 Go Pro event in November. When I say “deeply honored,” I really mean it. With speakers like Todd Falcone, Jordan Adler, Chris Brogan, Les Brown, Richard Brooke, Eric Worre, Harry Dent, Paul Pilzer, Kevin Harrington and the lovely Donna Johnson….I was by far the least qualified of the speakers. It’s like being chosen for the all-star team and I was happy to serve as best I could.

I was blown away. Eric Worre has really cracked the code. I’m not a sales kind of person, and if you’ve been reading my blog over the past several years, I never get excited and I never promote. I’m funny about what I do with your attention (which I value and appreciate very much). At this event, people were talking about ethics, integrity, character, trust…elevating network marketing by committing, as a unified community, to doing things right. There were countless companies represented, several thousand distributors from all across the world….and it was a safe environment for everyone. There was no recruiting! Distributors came together to learn about best practices, as a unified group.

This is one thing I appreciate about Eric: he’s not willfully ignorant. He’s not putting his head in the sand, ignoring the problems in network marketing while proclaiming its virtues. He honestly admits that there’s room for improvement, and he confronts those issues. In order to advance as a community, we’ve got to have an adult conversation about the challenges so we can figure out what we need to solve. At this event, speakers were talking about the importance of avoiding hype, the importance of income disclosures, the importance of transparency, honor, etc. As a professional that’s been beating on this drum for several years, it was very encouraging to witness.

I was not paid as a speaker. I do not get paid via ticket sales. There’s no “catch.” I’m promoting the next event because I think the value exceeds the price. I have no idea if I’ll be speaking at it next year. But I do know that I’ll be there. Companies are starting to SAVE money by NOT having a convention and sending their folks to this one. It’s a safe environment where people learn the basics and walk away with a lot more belief. If a client is unable to draw a decent audience for their own convention, I’m going to recommend that they simply send their folks to this one.

Plus, Tony Robbins is going to be there next year. TONY ROBBINS!

Get a ticket. Click here to put your name on a list for next year’s event.

I’ve also included some pictures from this year’s event. I wish I took more! My wife, Sharon, and I had such a wonderful time. If you’re reading this via email, the photos can be viewed here.

Pershing Square’s lawyer, David Klafter, Sends a Letter to Herbalife’s Chief of Compliance, Pamela Jones Harbour

AdviceDavid Klafter, Senior counsel at Pershing Square, wrote an extensive letter to Herbalife’s new chief of compliance, Pamela Jones Harbour. Before diving into the letter, the basics:

Pam Harbour was a former FTC Commissioner. The FTC is led by 5 commissioners, she was one of them for 7 years. She recently took a position as head of compliance at Herbalife. Based on public comments, she’s been given tremendous authority.

David Klafter is a lawyer. He’s obviously well qualified and talented. With that being said, in this arena, I think it’s safe to assume the following:

He’s never represented a network marketing company;
He’s never represented a distributor in a network marketing company;
He’s never represented a network marketing company against Federal regulators;
He’s never worked with a compliance department in a network marketing company;
He’s never given advice on the appropriateness of penalties for compliance violations;
He’s never sued a network marketing company;
He’s published no articles, neither academic nor online, relative to the network marketing industry.

I’m not saying he’s a bad lawyer. He’s actually a good one. But it’s important to step back and look at the full picture.

As for his employer, Bill Ackman: Ackman warns PwC

He’s vowed to “go to the end of the earth” with his assault on Herbalife;
He’s bet $1,000,000,000 on Herbalife’s demise, accusing them of being a sophisticated pyramid scheme;
He’s spent $50,000,000 researching / attacking Herbalife;
He’s being investigated by the SEC for Insider Trading;
He’s counting on the Federal government to bail him out of his bet with Herbalife, hoping for regulatory action;
He’s suing the Federal government over Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac;
He’s been busy bribing / lobbying Congress to stimulate regulatory pressure. There’s nothing illegal about bribing people in Congress…money in politics is a disgusting reality these days;
He secretly promised a disgruntled former Herbalife executive as much as $3.6 million over 10 years if he blew the whistle.

With all of that being said, it was very magnanimous of Pershing Square to offer assistance to Pamala Harbour.

Since you now have a little more context into the history, it’s time to dive into the letter (available here if you’re reading this via email).

I’ve always believed it to be important to understand from the critic’s point of view. When I process all of the information, both good and bad, I feel I’m in a better position to give advice and make decisions. The “we’re completely right and they’re completely wrong” attitude is held by many in the MLM industry, and it’s juvenile and stupid. This eyes-wide-shut mentality has led to the proliferation of countless scams, all operating under the guise of legitimate network marketing. The largest trade association of network marketing companies, the DSA, has failed to appreciate the enormity of this problem. It’s this failure to spot these issues both inside and outside of its walls has led some member companies to question their continued involvement.

To steal a word from Herb Greenberg, the industry is due for a reset. Based on methodologies, this reset will impact some companies more than others. But make no mistake about it, the screws are about to be tightened and companies will no longer be able to turn a blind eye to questionable activities in the field. The days of “faux compliance” are over.

The question that has analysts on Wall Street scratching their heads: How will this reset affect Herbalife’s revenue? Is the more responsible Herbalife capable of producing similar results as the pre-Ackman Herbalife?

The reality is that the industry absolutely needs to improve. It’s true that many of the sins being referenced by Pershing Square are indeed problematic. Do those transgressions warrant an injunction? No. Is Herbalife a pyramid scheme? No. Have they been caught in the middle of some embarrassing mistakes? Yes. Will they continue to grow? Yes.

In my opinion, unless he exits from his position, Ackman is not going to profit from his gamble with Herbalife. Instead, he’s made an investment that will ultimately benefit the entire network marketing industry, revealing the vulnerabilities and leading to eventual reforms.

Back to the letter…

It’s hard to take this letter seriously when it starts off by saying “[W]e believe Herbalife operates the largest and best managed pyramid scheme in the world.” And with that being said, Klafter proceeds to offer Harbour some free advice.

He does have some good ideas. His compliance recommendations, of which he makes 17, can be boiled down to 2 categories:

(1) Transparency
(2) Authority

Transparency

DisclosuresThe majority of the letter is dedicated to Herbalife’s purported lack of adequate income disclosures. According to Klafter, Herbalife’s current income disclosure document needs to be more robust. Klafter appears to think that more substantial disclosures will result in fewer enrollments and less revenue. He writes, “It is the image (true or not) of their financial success that motivates existing distributors to continue investing time and money, and arms these top distributors with an essential deception that they use to lure new recruits into the scheme.”

He accuses Herbalife of condoning a “fake it till you make it” culture. Earlier in the letter, he writes, “Consider what would happen if, in all meetings with potential recruits, the recruiters were required to remind the audience clearly of certain key facts, for example: 88% earn nothing from the Company; Most money goes to the top 1%; Members churn rapidly; Most distributors suffer net losses. . . ”

Cultures of hype and hyperbole are problematic and do exist. Is it inherent in Herbalife’s culture? Does Herbalife sanitize this sort of behavior with its income disclosure measures? It’s not for me to decide.

Will an increase in disclosures slow down enrollments? No.

I have had numerous clients become more aggressive with its disclosures of average earnings. I’ve seen a client go so far as to say, on camera, “there’s a good chance you’re not going to make any money in this business.” As it turns out, the majority of people aren’t stupid. People intuitively know that there are no guarantees in anything, especially with an income opportunity. When they hear clear messages regarding average earnings, their level of Trust for a company increases, which is actually good for business.

As pointed out by Plaintiff’s counsel in the proposed settlement order in the class action case, “Herbalife claims, and has produced some documents and information indicating, that, since it began publishing the information regarding the winners and losers in its 2012 Statement of Average Gross Compensation [which contained more information regarding the average results], the number of people becoming new Herbalife members has not declined at all. In fact, new memberships have increased. In other words, Herbalife argues that after it began disclosing more information about those who received no payment from Herbalife in its SAGCs, there was no ‘impact’ on the number of people who wanted to become Herbalife members.”

While Klafter is looking to give Herbalife a poison pill, one that he thinks will lead to their end, pressuring them to up their game with income disclosures is not it.

Regarding the sale of “recruiting materials,” Klafter might have traction here. In some companies, particularly the older ones like Amway and Herbalife, some sales leaders have historically made additional income selling “tools.” In some cases, this “additional income” dramatically exceeds the money provided by the MLM. With Herbalife, it has come out that some of their leaders have earned significant incomes from the sales of leads (an old practice, recently shut down) and tools. The issue: It can be construed as misleading when leaders are showing images of wealth at an opportunity meeting when the source of that wealth was not from the sale of products. Amway has bled because of this very issue, being the main driver for its $50M+ settlement to a class action case. If leaders are talking about yachts and mansions while they’ve only made $200,000 from an MLM and $2,000,000 from tool sales, it’s a problem.

Companies in the industry need to be better when it comes to MLM income disclosures. The rules are simple. Whenever money is discussed, the prospect needs to see the average earnings. Instead of simply checking a box where the new person asserts that he or she has seen the disclosure document, I recommend that companies be more clear and have the prospects assert “I understand that the average participant earns a net income of $20 in this business.”

Authority

BOSTON_BOMB3_2541703bThis other category of his compliance suggestions is far more interesting. And candidly, I had never considered these sorts of concepts. Basically, Klafter expresses his hope that Pamela Harbour will have enough authority to protect consumers, regardless of the impact it may have on her employer. This is made clear in the letter when he writes:

“You may find yourself at the fulcrum of choosing between protecting consumers or protecting the Company. Based upon our research, we do not believe you can do both.”

He wants Harbour to have the authority to act independent, free from company pressure, to protect consumers. I’ve seen this sort of conflict inside companies between compliance administrators and company executives. Field leaders will align themselves with company executives, insulating themselves from the big, bad compliance department. When it comes time for the compliance department to root out bad behaviors, the distributors run to mom and dad and ask for protection. And more often than not, they get protection.

He also pushes for the compliance department to have the authority to retain separate legal counsel and/or report wrongdoings to the proper authorities without fear of termination.

His compliance suggestions are summarized below:

Modifications to rules to allow online selling

This is a poison pill. Herbalife, along with every other network marketing company, has every incentive to protect its channel of distribution. Online selling (via eBay and other third-party sites) should never be allowed because it completely undermines the field’s ability to sell. And candidly, online selling amounts to less than 1% of all sales activity.

Public announcements of the imposition of sanctions.

I call this the “head on a stake” policy. I’ve seen companies do it and it’s effective.

Protections for compliance admin to allow them to work without fear of termination.

This is interesting. It’s important; however, I’m drawing a blank as to how to execute this at the employment level. People can be fired for anything (in most states); thus, it would be hard for a compliance officer to argue that he or she was terminated because of their actions against distributors.

Independence of compliance from senior executives and senior distributors, such that top distributors are prohibited from inserting themselves into investigations.

This is very important. I’ve never seen a compliance admin be given the ultimate freedom to sanction distributors without an executive’s authority. And executives are under tremendous pressure to protect the relationship with top-leaders; thus, there’s usually a bit of a conflict between protecting consumers and protecting the leaders.

An anonymous procedure for receiving and investigating wrong-doing.

I call this a “911 Mechanism” where people can report bad activity. Most companies already have this in place.

An extensive monitoring system to capture distributor promotional material.

These tools exist. It’s my understanding Herbalife has some cutting edge tools to search content on YouTube and other areas of the web.

Making top distributors responsible for conduct in their downline.

I like it. If the distributors are going to profit from the bad behavior, they need to also share in the consequences.

Imposition of material financial sanctions to those who profit from wrongdoing.

I like it. I would surmise that regulators want to see more than slaps on the wrist when fraud in the field is detected.

Authority for the compliance department to engage separate legal counsel.

This is interesting. I’m not sure how it would work logistically, though.

Authority for the compliance department to refer matters to Federal, State and local regulators.

This is also interesting. I actually agree with it, provided that this authority is used sparingly. I’ve seen clients of mine snitch on field leaders AFTER the leaders were terminated, to give the authorities a heads up. It’s a pro-active way of saying “If you see this knukcle-head, he’s not with us!”

Conclusion

Regarding Herbalife, these changes, if adopted, would not sink the organization as many critics hope. I have found that investments in tighter compliance processes leads to MORE growth, not less. Compliance kills pyramid schemes, not legitimate companies that offer real products. While Herbalife’s domestic revenue has slowed as the field is absorbing these changes, it’s not going to collapse.

Regarding the network marketing community in general, some of these suggestions are worth considering. If done properly, a robust compliance department can actually be really good for business.

It’s true that some companies operate with a “veneer” of compliance, without taking it seriously with the hopes of fooling regulators. Those days are long-gone. The sooner companies come to terms with this reality, the safer they’ll be. Build the ark before it rains.

What do you think? Do you think some of these ideas could fly?

Pershing Square Letter to Pamela Jones Harbour by kevin_thompson

Herbalife Settles Bostick Class Action Case

Herbalife announced its settlement to a class action lawsuit. The case was filed within months of Bill Ackman’s initial presentation where he announced his short position, so it could be an example of a law firm seizing on “blood in the water.” But I digress…

The settlement basically amounts to two things: (1) $15,000,000 in cash for product refunds and remuneration for excessive business expenses (with $5M of that fund going to the lawyers); and (2) Several reforms to Herbalife’s marketing practices. Candidly, Herbalife is already doing most (if not all) of the reforms required as part of this settlement. The cash portion of the settlement was quite smaller than I anticipated, given the size of Amway’s settlement to a similar lawsuit a few years ago ($60,000,000).

Already, there’s a group that’s announced they’re going to oppose the settlement. Brent Wilkes, the director of the League of the United Latin American Citizens (“LULAC”) said via a NY Post Article, “We plan to object to the settlement because it won’t begin to pay for the true damages that Herbalife has caused this class.” On a related topic, I have for a few months suspected that Bill Ackman promised to contribute some of his gains (if the bet goes his way) to various civic organizations. I suspect that LULAC is on that list. I sent both Brent Wilkes and LULAC a message via Twitter on Monday morning asking if any funds were promised. I have yet to receive a response. The question is relevant, in my opinion, because it’s important for all material facts to be fully disclosed. If there’s financial motivation in the background, the public deserves to know so the attacks can be judged accordingly. Again, it’s an unconfirmed suspicion. When I get a response, I’ll update the article.

UPDATE: See below. Brent Wilkes denies having any financial motivation in his attacks against Herbalife.

The required corporate reforms are included below. h/t to Seeking Alpha contributor, Ben_Nimaj for typing it up.

1) Simplified Pricing Structure: combine “Package & Handling” and “Order Shipping Charge” into a single “Shipping & Handling” charge

2) Differentiate “Members” and “Distributors”

3) Discourage members from incurring debt to buy product

4) Pay return shipping charges for legitimately returned product

5) Prohibit members from selling “leads” to or purchasing “leads” from other members

6) Prohibit the purchase of product as a condition of being a member

7) maintain procedures for enforcement of these and other rules, ie. implement a member compliance department

8) Include the Statement of Average Gross Compensation (SAGC) of member with any membership application

9) Require any applicant to actually acknowledge having reviewed the SAGC

10) The SAGC must contain the total number and percentage of all members who do not receive any compensation payment directly from Herbalife, [not just numbers from members that actually made money].

Bostick v Herbalife_Preliminary Settlement by kevin_thompson

Time to Revisit DSA’s Code of Ethics: Suggestions

It’s old news now. Avon left the DSA. In their announcement, they stated the DSA’s Code of Ethics needed revision. Specifically, Cheryl Heinonen at Avon said, “We believe the association’s agenda in the U.S. is overly focused on the issues of a few specific brands rather than industry-wide challenges. . . We believe that the U.S. DSA Code of Ethics requires updating to better reflect the current state of the industry in the U.S.”

In a separate article in the Washington Post, Heinonen gave a quote that shed a little light on what she meant. She said,

I think it’s problematic when you sell inventory — bulk product — that the person who is acquiring it can’t use themselves and sometimes may not know how to sell,” Heinonen said. She added that the language in the trade association’s code of ethics on this point and other aspects of consumer protection need to be firmer.

The problem: inventory loading. And I’ll drill down a little deeper because inventory loading, when it exists, is a symptom of a larger problem: lack of product value. In other words, when there’s a lack of legitimate demand for product, companies incentivize participants to “load up” on items they might not want or need in an effort to qualify for bonuses.

The cure for this problem has historically been the 12-month refund policy. If you boil down the DSA’s Code of Ethics, the most valuable requirement is the 12-month refund policy. According to Avon, this is not enough. And I agree.

The DSA has invited people to propose changes to the Code. Here’s a start. Call it “The KT Optimus-Prime Plan” (everything is better when you use Transformer names).

(1) Proper Customer Coding

I suggest that companies be required to offer an option for Customers to receive product discounts without joining. The technology exists. The most basic of startup companies in the industry can pull this off. The Preferred Customer concept has been around for at least 5 years, possibly longer. Today, it’s a great source of confusion when we, as an industry, say “We’re not able to deduce the amount of customer activity because many people join to save money on product.” While it’s a true statement, we’re in a position to clear this ambiguity and offer clean data. The alternative is nebulous and unprovable (short of paying for surveys, which has been done by Herbalife). Understand, it’s not illegal to operate without a preferred customer option. The absence of a customer option is not conclusive proof of fraud; thus, it’s not legally required. But, in my opinion, the DSA should not want to swim with average, they should strive to be above-average. Currently, the 12-month refund requirement is good, but by itself, it’s not good enough. There’s a cancer that has developed where companies, using the DSA’s Code, are “looking good” without actually being good.

Requiring that companies clearly track their buyer motivations / offering a clear path for customers will help eliminate all doubt regarding the motivations driving volume consumption. There’s no need to mandate the AMOUNT that needs to come via customers, just to have the ability to clearly track the data.

Also, along these same lines, when it comes to direct sales i.e. belly to belly sales, there needs to be a requirement that companies accumulate receipts from their sales leaders. The excuse that “we’re not able to track the retail activity in the field” needs to end. In the past, the excuse was reasonable. Going forward, it makes little sense.

The downside (or upside, depending on how you view it): regulators, via a subpoena, will be able to clearly see the amount of customer activity.

An argument against this concept: “When people join to save money on product, they might turn out to be productive distributors later.” In my opinion, the likelihood of these participants producing significant volume is slim; thus, the upside is not worth the alternative.

(2) Zero Personal Volume Requirements

This should be easier than the #1 idea above. It’s common for companies to require personal volume each month for participants to earn commissions i.e. move $100 worth of product to remain qualified for bonuses. While companies are smart enough to construct this in a way where it’s technically not required for people to buy the product (because they can qualify by SELLING too), in most cases, participants get on autoship and self-qualify. This is not illegal; however, the concept has been abused. It leads people to buy things they might not otherwise want or need in order to remain qualified for bonuses.

This sort of rule would be consistent with the current state of the law. In BurnLounge, the court cited the fact that participants were required to purchase products in order to qualify for commissions. This fact was used to prove that the participants were buying products primarily to qualify for money instead of the value. While companies today can argue that participants are technically not required to buy, BurnLounge also teaches us that courts and regulators will look at how companies “operate in practice.” If the vast majority of participants qualify via an autoship, it matters not what’s on paper. It’ll be used as proof to show that the opportunity is driving consumption, not the products. Yes, it might be more difficult for companies to get participants to buy products. But if participants do not WANT to buy product, why force them? The DSA, in my opinion, should create space here.

(3) Income Disclosure Statements

The DSA should require its member companies to publish average earnings. We know that EVERYONE makes income claims in the industry. When recruiting, the question always comes up: “What’s in for me?” The pay plan has to be explained, which means that income will be referenced. It’s not illegal to make income claims. It is, however, misleading to make income claims WITHOUT ADEQUATE DISCLOSURE. With this in mind, why allow companies admittance without a solid income disclosure document?

(4) Undisclosed Financial Arrangements

It’s common in the industry for a company to offer additional compensation to leaders in exchange for them leaving another company. While the agreements never explicitly say “We’re paying you to leave Organization X and raid your old downline,” they might as well. This sort of behavior has spun out of control, causing companies to rip into each other and there needs to be a clear signal at the highest levels that this will not be tolerated.

First, the FTC’s Testimonial and Endorsement Guidelines strongly suggests that these sorts of undisclosed deals are fraudulent. I wrote an article on the subject in June of 2010 here.

Second, these sorts of deals are not illegal. It’s only a problem when there’s no disclosure. If the DSA were to require that these deals be disclosed, it might actually curb the activity.

Third, these sorts of deals are bad for the industry because, candidly, they rarely make economic sense. The leader leaves, boasts about the greatness of the new company, takes very few people with him or her and subsequently crashes. This leaves hyperbolic activity in the industry where companies are trying to out-hype each other.

Fourth, the DSA’s Code Administrator, when put onto the case, can easily deduce if a deal has been struck and whether the deal was publicly disclosed.

(5) Compliance Training

Rule 11 in the Code of Ethics states: “Member companies shall provide adequate training to enable independent salespeople to operate ethically.” But what does this mean? If companies are going to be allowed to sell starter packs ranging in price between $500 and $2,000, there needs to be solid training to ensure that the inventory moves properly. Compliance training can be delivered a number of ways: videos, email blasts, etc. If a new distributor was promised easy money, the time to cure this false expectation is at the beginning of their tenure. This is where the company can explain its refund policy, explain that success takes work and also reference its income disclosure statement. And, if the company were confident, it would be a great opportunity to suggest that if the distributor wants easy money, they should quit now and get a refund.

(6) Sales Aides

The Code needs to improve in this category by clearly prohibiting the practice of paying commissions on sales aides. First, it’s clearly pyramiding. Sales aides are not commissionable because there’s no market for the products beyond the network itself i.e. there’s no opportunity for customer sales, i.e x 2 the resulting rewards are “unrelated to product sales to ‘ultimate users,’ i.e. x 3 it’s pyramiding. The Code tries to create space from this practice by saying, “This Code provision is not intended to endorse marketing plans that provide financial benefits to independent salespeople for the sale of company-produced promotional materials, sales aids or kits (“tools”).” The Code needs to revisit this issue and address it head-on.

If the company, or its leaders in the field, sell tools and pay commissions on those tools, they need to adjust or get out. Tool sales are highly profitable, leading sellers to focus primarily on recruiting new participants to expand the market for those tools (because there’s no market outside the network itself; thus, recruiting is the only way to maximize profitability). It leads to a twisted culture in the field, one that depends on hype and hyperbole. The DSA needs to create space here.

Conclusion

It’s time to have an honest discussion about the future of the industry. Candidly, it’s BEEN time for several years. But, it sometimes takes a good crisis to mobilize support for change. Avon’s departure is a good catalyst for this sort of discussion. I’m not a fan of closed door meetings. Transparency is key. And transparency, at times, makes people uncomfortable. If you know me by now, you know that I’m not one to “kiss the hand” and play political games. In other words, I’m not trying to be liked by everyone.

Leadership at the DSA needs to understand that building a consensus on any of these issues is going to be impossible. In order to “tighten the screws,” it’s going to frustrate some member companies. It needs to prepare itself for a little internal-controversy. Candidly, the DSA avoiding some of these issues has also frustrated members, leading to Avon’s departure. Avon was not a fluke. While this subject matter is unpopular, it’s very important for the health of the industry. I think the best ideas come by way of open discussion. And I’m not afraid to lead it.

Do you agree with any of the “KT Optimus-Prime Plan” items referenced above? Disagree?

Don’t be bashful. Share your thoughts and share this article.


Avon Writes Open Letter to DSA Members Regarding Its Decision to Leave

Avon has recently announced its exit from the Direct Selling Association.  The video includes my thoughts. This is a very significant development and represents extreme discomfort experienced by companies in the industry. The reasons for Avon’s exit. I’ll sum it up: (1) They’re not feeling the love. They feel as though other companies, the companies that do not quite match Avon’s values, are setting the DSA’s agenda; (2) They’re not happy with the current Code of Ethics. They feel it should be updated and that the current Code has too many holes; thus, minimizing the effectiveness of “self regulation.” Watch the video. Read Avon’s letter. This is an important subject to process.

Beginning of letter (h/t to Matt Stewart for transcribing the letter)

To our U.S. direct selling colleagues,

At Avon, we strongly believe in the power of direct selling to enhance people’s lives. Our entire business model is based on our commitment to helping women build better lives for themselves and their families. And we know that multi-level marketing, in some markets and with the appropriate guardrails, is a robust and effective channel for distributing products to consumers.

As you may be aware, this week Avon made the decision to exit the U.S. DSA. This decision came after careful consideration and more than a year of thoughtful discussion. This decision was driven by two key issues:

• We believe the association’s agenda in the U.S. is overly focused on the issues of a few specific brands rather than industry-wide challenges.

• We believe that the U.S. DSA Code of Ethics requires updating to better reflect the current state of the industry in the U.S.

As the U.S. DSA is currently operating, we do not believe that either of these issues will be addressed.

Like any industry, direct selling and multi-level marketing evolve and the associations that support the direct selling industry need to evolve as well. As one of the largest direct selling companies in the world, we at Avon feel that it is our duty and responsibility to protect those just starting out in the industry, as well as those who have made careers as independent direct sellers.

In the U.S., we believe there is a need to enhance the DSA Code of Ethics to better ensure that individuals entering direct selling have the benefit of adequate safeguards. If and when these issues are better addressed by the U.S. DSA in a way that is supportive of the industry as a whole, we would re-consider our membership.

Avon is not exiting the World Federation of Direct Selling Associations (WFDSA}, local market DSAs, or other direct selling trade organizations outside of the United States. We continue to believe that industry associations play an important role for Avon and you, our direct selling peers.

As it relates to Direct Selling Associations (DSAs} around the world, Avon has a long history of involvement. In fact, we were a founding member of many of these organizations. The Direct Selling Code of Ethics, as administered by the DSAs, is a key component of the industry’s self-regulation.

Accordingly, Avon abides by the World Federation of Direct Sellers “Code of Ethics.” There are three major aspects of our business model that we believe further safeguard our Representatives and consumers.

1. The Avon business model does not rely on nor does it encourage sales of inventory, training or business support materials between Representatives. The     core of our business model is Representatives selling our products to an end consumer.

2. Avon has reasonable return policies.  Representatives are not left holding excess inventory.

3. Avon limits earnings to three generations. We do not promise commissions on infinite sales. Rather, we primarily promote and incentivize            Representatives based on their sales to Customers.

By adhering to these principles in every market where we operate, we protect our Representatives and help ensure new recruits have a positive experience with direct selling.

It is also important to consider how consumers view direct selling. Avon’s message to consumers is:

At its best, direct selling is “I tried the product. I liked the product. I recommended it to a friend.” If you are considering entering direct sales (or ‘social selling’) here are three tips to remember:

1. Like the product! Make sure it’s a product you use and enjoy yourself. You will be selling to your friends, family, neighbors and co-workers.

2. Understand the product. All good direct selling/social selling companies will provide training and mentoring support. But you should not need to invest heavily in start-up training and marketing materials.

3. Know who you are buying from and who is paying you. When ordering product for your customers, make sure you will be purchasing from the Company, not the individual who recruited you into selling, and that your earnings will be paid by the Company.

With over $32 billion in sales in 2013, direct sales continues to be a vibrant and growing industry in the United States. Every day, people across the country looking to earn extra money are signing up to become direct sellers. These women and men are hoping to build a business, unlock additional earnings, start a college fund for their children, buy a new car or simply supplement their current income

For well over a century, Avon has been committed to assuring that direct selling remains a viable option for individuals looking for financial empowerment. Our commitment to our Representatives today and in the future will not waiver.

Cheryl Heinonen

Senior Vice President, Corporate Relations & Chief Communications Officer  Avon Products.

Avon Exits the DSA

Memo by Hedge Fund Manager Robert Chapman: Bill Ackman’s Attempt to Goad Regulators Into a Baseless, Unnecessary Legal Battle

The attacks on Herbalife have been staged on many fronts.  Almost two years into Ackman’s bear raid against Herbalife, the clock is ticking and Ackman undoubtedly needs a government bailout / regulatory action against Herbalife.  Ackman’s thoughts about those on the long-side of $HLF: they’re all idiots.  Kenny Moelis, Bill Stiritz, Carl Icahn, Joele Frank, Boies Schiller, PWC, “uneducated” Herbalife distributors….all operating with inferior minds to his own.  Do Ackman and his gang have an explanation for the 0.25% rate of return on Herbalife products (which offers a 100% buyback)?  Sure they do. It’s magic.  I’m not kidding.  Brent Wilkes, director of a Latin American advocacy group, attributed the low rate of return of inventory to a “magical hold” Herbalife has over its distributors.  In other words, consumers, if they were thinking clearly, would demand more refunds.  

This is not even the tip of the iceberg on the elitist logic used by MLM critics.  Lately, the “influence-by-insult” strategy has been directed towards federal regulators.  With titles like “Does Herbalife Think The FTC Is Dumber Than A Bag Of Hammers?,” the critics are directing their ammo at regulators.  In other words, if the FTC fails to intervene, they’re “asleep at the wheel” and stupid like the rest of us.

Robert Chapman calls out this strategy in a very well-researched memo.  With his permission, I’ve included the full content below.  The actual PDF can be downloaded here.

Begin memo

DATE:            August 8, 2014

TO:                  Herbalife Regulators and Related Parties

RE:                  Bill Ackman’s Attempt to Goad Regulators Into a Baseless, Unnecessary Legal Battle

Introduction.  As has been covered widely by the media, Pershing Square Capital Management’s Bill Ackman has been engaged in a nearly two-year campaign to profit by putting Herbalife out of business.  Ackman’s goal appears quite obvious:  to add $2 billion to Pershing Square’s and his own wealth while feeding his apparently insatiable appetite for ego and reputational aggrandizement.  The first goal – earning profits for himself and his investors, is the cornerstone of legal and socially acceptable capitalism.  As such, it deserves no rebuke.  However, Ackman’s unconventional method of accomplishing that profit goal – making what I and an indisputably respectable list of Herbalife institutional and individual investors view as a seemingly endless string of false, exaggerated, and/or misleading statements via an unprecedented $50 million “research” (propaganda) campaign–  is worthy of the high volume of criticism it has received.

My Motive.  Unlike Ackman and his gang, I shall not attempt to obfuscate the motive underlying this communication, nor will I make false claims about what conclusions I believe the short sellers have drawn.  Unlike the short sellers preposterously stating that the shareholders of Herbalife believe it to be an illegal operation, I shall not baselessly state that the short sellers of Herbalife believe it to be a legal operation, although there are various signs that Ackman belatedly has come to realize that is the case and thus shall pivot next to goading lawmakers into changing the law itself.  I shall state my motive honestly and clearly: to portray accurately my view of this last ditch tactic being used by Ackman and his gang – to goad and attempt to shame regulators into a baseless, unnecessary legal battle against Herbalife.

Desperate Situations Require Desperate Measures.  Having incurred an estimated $200 million – $400 million in realized and unrealized losses on this one investment, Pershing Square finds itself in a fragile reputational position.  Particularly following Ackman’s unapologetic yet highly influential role in the dismantling and near bankrupting of 100-year old retailer JCPenney, his status as an investment superstar is in further jeopardy with Pershing Square’s Herbalife debacle, which unlike massive money losers JCPenney or Target, is far from over. Having proclaimed ubiquitously that Pershing Square’s research on Herbalife had led to this “best investment idea ever,”  — this despite Ackman’s reported decision not to have even one meeting with Herbalife management before launching his bear raid in December 2012 — his reputation, and potentially his franchise should there be legal repercussions, is on the line.  Indeed, the investment and regulatory worlds appear to be converging on an agreement that Ackman’s claims vs. Herbalife are mostly wrong.  Moreover, there exists no shortage of those who believe that Ackman now appears to know that his emotionally fraught analysis was and remains “wrong.” Even so, he persists in a quixotic and  most un-valiant holy war against an enemy of his own fabrication.

Ackman’s Final, Desperate Strategy:       Goad/Shame the FTC into a Self Serving, Baseless Legal Battle

  • Goading/Prodding Just the Latest Tactic at Manipulating Regulators:  It is no coincidence that Bill Ackman kick started his July 22nd Herbalife-bashing presentation with John Hempton’s thoughtless categorization of the global nutrition products company Herbalife as “scumbags” in a 2012 CNBC interview.  Ackman’s nutrition club presentation followed Bruce Craig’s letter from the day earlier to FTC Chairwoman Edith Ramirez, in which the anti-MLM campaigner went over the heads of both FTC Bureau of Consumer Protection (CPB) Director Jessica Rich and FTC CPB Marketing Practices Director Lois Greisman in an overtly hostile attack.  Essentially, Craig publicly accused Ramirez subordinate Jessica Rich of having the wrong priorities (based on a March 2014 speech whereof in a MLM clampdown was not highlighted) and preposterously seemed to categorize her subordinate Lois Greisman as a feckless shill for the MLM industry, based apparently on the absurd theory that since her prior boss at the FTC was Amway’s lawyer, she must be aligned with the MLM industry herself.  I can only imagine how Ms. Rich and Ms. Greisman felt when they read how they were being depicted by Ackman ally Mr. Craig to their own common boss.
  • The Order Apparently Has Been Sent Down from Pershing Square:  Very recently and non-coincidentally, one can hardly read any of the myriad Seeking Alpha “articles” or other short seller propaganda without recognizing an obvious pattern of the short sellers trying to shame the FTC into shutting down or otherwise impairing Herbalife.  In the most recent post by Bill Ackman’s close personal friend and Herbalife short seller Whitney Tilson, Tilson claimed that many of Herbalife’s investors “concede the company is deceptive, but invest because they think regulators are spineless.”  Tilson is surprisingly shameless in displaying his coopting of Ackman’s “goad the FTC” tactic.  As one of his correspondents (per Tilson’s own concession) wrote to him on July 26 and then published proudly by Tilson, “I believe you are correct that the regulators will ultimately be goaded into action.” Tilson’s correspondent then took a shot at goading the regulators himself:  “Many of our regulators are not fond of complex cases and hard work.”  One can expect more disrespectful propaganda like this coming from those who stand to strike it rich by maiming or dealing a “death blow” to Herbalife.  They indeed seem willing to try virtually any tactic to manipulate the markets, media or regulators to that dire end.
  • Short Sellers Must Know Their Claims Are False:  The short sellers are spreading these transparently manipulative and, in my view, knowingly false depictions of the true investment thesis of Herbalife’s investors.  The true long/bullish thesis I actually do hear is that the Company is a legitimate, legally operating global MLM selling products desired and purchased by ultimate consumers, both internally and externally.  Again, whether it be D.A. Davidson’s (Tim Ramey) or Barclays (Meredith Adler) with their in-depth sell-side research, or 19% Herbalife owner Carl Icahn’s repeated public statements that he believes Herbalife is a legitimate, legally run company selling products that help people worldwide, there is not a single Herbalife investor amongst the many with whom I have spoken who ever has indicated in any way that Herbalife is ‘deceptive’ or ‘fraudulent’.  Even John Hempton’s careless choice of words in 2012 was intended to convey his view that the MLM industry has participants, including some distributers of Herbalife products, who are overly aggressive and opportunistic.  Moreover, that singular statement, no matter how taken out of context by Bill Ackman, did not represent anyone but John Hempton’s apparent view at that particular time.
  • Short Sellers Insult the Regulators’ Collective Intelligence:  The irony and hypocrisy of the Herbalife Short sellers vis-à-vis the MLM’s regulators is nothing short of astounding.  Ackman and his cabal of profiteers are not dissimilar to a small but high pitched gang of school yard bullies who repeatedly egg on an honors student to start a fight by shouting, “Come on!  He called you a wimp!  You really gonna take that?”  As I shake my head in disbelief, I wonder how Ackman & Co. actually believe that these truly sedulous regulators, who have a history of taking on the likes of the Mafia, international drug dealers and money launderers, possibly could be goaded into doing the short sellers’ bidding with this patently obvious shaming tactic.
  • Charming, Cajoling, Overwhelming, Bullying and Now Goading and Shaming Regulators:  In mid-late 2012, nearly two years ago, it appeared that Bill Ackman began his version of a charm offensive with the FTC, SEC and other state regulators.  Exhibiting a typical lack self-awareness, Ackman essentially told the FTC, the SEC, and state regulators that Pershing Square was doing these regulators a huge favor by blessing them with his propriety analysis that supposedly proved Herbalife to be a “criminal enterprise.”  Again, allow me to emphasize, Ackman essentially accused these regulators of having been asleep at the switch for nothing short of decades, and, as such delinquents, they all require Pershing Square’s collective perspicacity to finally do their regulatory jobs.  When his unique form of enchantment predictably failed, Ackman moved on to overwhelming the regulators with a deluge of documentation estimated into the thousands of pages.  As that tactic did not attain the immediate prosecution Ackman sought, Ackman moved onto his well-practiced approach of bullying, enlisting a relatively small segment of LULAC and a U.S. Senator to replace his own public face of his war.  In March this year, some 15 months after his first public presentation, Ackman’s final bullying thrust seemed to pay dividends when the FTC launched the formal investigation for which Ackman had agitated.  However, there is a great distance between the investigation and shutting down of Herbalife, as the now 1.5 year SEC investigation exhibits.  One may want to ask the following hypothetical:  “What might Ackman do if the SEC has turned its focus on Pershing Square and/or one of its current or former employees involved in Herbalife? What theoretically might Ackman do if he begins to sense that the results of the FTC investigation were heading toward actually vindicating rather than crucifying Herbalife? Might Ackman and his gang then begin to goad, prod and attempt to shame the FTC into a fight that was baseless and solely served the interests of those who have sold short Herbalife’s stock?”  This is precisely what I believe is happening.
  • Regulators of Herbalife are Diligent, Not Spineless:  At the risk of stating the obvious, every bull on Herbalife shares I know thinks the FTC/SEC/AGs/DOJ are anything but spineless.  Instead, they are extremely diligent in prosecuting truly illegal, endless chain pyramid schemes that primarily compensate distributers for ENROLLING their downline (vs. selling product/inventory to that down line).  The FTC, and the Illinois, Kentucky and North Carolina attorneys general hardly were “spineless when they worked for years together ahead of halting truly illegal pyramid scheme Fortune High Tech Marketing.  For over half a decade, the FTC investigated and then prosecuted truly illegal pyramid scheme BurnLounge, successfully pursuing justice through 2014 all the way to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. The diligently laboring Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) hardly was “spineless” when it slapped TelexFree with a lawsuit on charges it sold fraudulent and unregistered securities to mostly Brazilian and Dominican immigrants, who served as its promoters.  New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, amongst a plethora of other effective and legitimate law enforcement, ferociously has pursued enforcement against the High Frequency Trading players, whose business model involves front running the investments made indirectly and directly by America’s hard working citizens.  California Attorney General Kamala Harris has risen to superhero status on a national scale for her hard charging battle against the nation’s top banks to win a $20 billion settlement for mortgage fraud.  This is but a tiny sample of many examples of strict, appropriate enforcement.  The list of “fully spined” regulators and their persistent pursuit of justice via the prosecution of legitimate, non-falsified or fabricated cases is truly endless.  Therefore, I apologize for the many I failed to include in my list above.

ConclusionThat regulators refuse to be cajoled, bullied, prodded, goaded and “shamed” into pursuing Bill Ackman’s profiteering and self- aggrandizing agenda does not come anywhere close to making them “spineless.”  This is so obvious that any reasonable observer, Herbalife investor or otherwise, would have to agree. Bill Ackman and his compliant operatives should feel ashamed for their transparent attempts to manipulate not only the markets[1], but those who assiduously and honorably have been regulating them for decades.

[1] Herbalife’s illiquid convertible bonds (2’s of 2019) in the past few weeks have been sold down aggressively and disproportionately to the common stock, with some speculating that Pershing Square directly or indirectly (via CDS bidding) having influenced their lower pricing to create the appearance and related media “reporting” of a symptom of financial distress, despite the company’s healthy debt service coverage.

End

FTC Settles with TriVita. Is the word “Inflammation” off limits when you’re selling a health product?

InflammationThe FTC has spoken and we better pay attention. Recently, the FTC announced a $3.5M settlement with TriVita, a network marketing company. TriVita is an Arizona corporation that advertises, markets, distributes, and sells Nopalea. Nopelea is a nutrient rich drink derived from the superfruit of the Nopal cactus. TriVita peppered the marketplace with an aggressive marketing campaign that touted the curative properties of Nopelea. The theme of the advertisements: Nopalea is a drink that will reduce bodily inflammation, which will lead to a reduction in pain associated with inflammation-related diseases.

In May, the FTC obtained an Injunction against TriVita because of the aggressive claims. In the lawsuit, the FTC found the following claims about Nopalea offensive:

• Significantly reduces or eliminates the effects of inflammation on the body
• Provides significant relief from pain, including but not limited to, chronic pain, joint pain, back pain, nerve pain, phantom pain, and pain from inflammation, arthritis, fibromyalgia, surgical procedures, or other conditions;
• Significantly reduces or relieves swelling of joints and muscles;
• Significantly improves breathing or provides significant relief from respiratory conditions, including but not limited to, sinus infections; or
• Provides significant relief from skin conditions, including but not limited to psoriasis.

The FTC found these claims to be disease claims. The FDA defines disease as “damage to an organ, part, structure, or system of the body such that it does not function properly (e.g., cardiovascular disease), or a state of health leading to such dysfunctioning (e.g., hypertension).” Under this definition, a common cold is considered a “disease.” Basically, if an ingredient is marketed expressly or implicitly as having any kind of positive effect on a disease (as defined above), it’ll be treated as a disease claim and subject to further regulations/penalties.

As a result of the settlement, TriVita has agreed to pay a $3.5M fine a refrain implying that its product can be used in the treatment of any diseases.

Regarding the product claims above, they’re obviously over the line. References to diseases like arthritis, fibromyalgia, sinus infections and psoriasis are obvious examples of what not to do.

But what about inflammation?

If a company states that a product can limit the effects of inflammation, is that considered a “disease claim.” In this article by MonaVie, the word “inflammation” is referenced 16 times. Vemma went so far as to commissioning a report on Vemma’s affect on inflammation. I’m not picking on MonaVie and Vemma, I’m just referencing the links to show that it’s quite common for juice companies to talk about their products’ affect on inflammation in the body.

The big question is whether “inflammation” is now in the government’s little black book of unusable words. Based on their position in this case, it would certainly seem to be the case. While one could argue that TriVita was not sued SOLELY because of their use of the word inflammation, it was certainly a strong factor.

If a company promotes a product as an anti-inflammatory, the logical conclusion is that the field will take it one step further. While “inflammation” by itself is not a disease, the easy association of the word to several ailments will result in the inevitable (and predictable) disease claims. The field will naturally explain that inflammation is a leading cause of various diseases, with arthritis and fibromyalgia being on top of the list.

TriVita was too aggressive. Nopalea was advertised as a product that could do more than alleviate ailments, it was advertised as a product that could treat and cure. TriVita, and its field leaders, marketed the product explicitly as one that can mitigate horrible disease symptoms. They portrayed their product as the Ferrari of all anti-inflammatories.

Takeaway

The FTC is taking its job seriously. If a company is going to play in the gray with the word “inflammation,” it’s playing with fire. Again, “inflammation” might not be a disease by itself; however, it’s going to be nearly impossible to prevent field leaders from taking it to the next level. If a company insists on keeping the word “inflammation” in its marketing literature, it needs to take EXTRA precautions to ensure that the field is not extrapolating the message and stating that the product can cure or mitigate diseases associated with inflammation. This is where compliance enforcement is critical i.e. disciplining people when infractions are observed.

Bottom line: While it’s treacherous water to promote a product as one that can reduce inflammation, it’s not illegal to swim there. If the FTC or FDA releases a clear statement regarding their thoughts on whether “inflammation” is an actual disease, I’ll update this article. In the meantime, companies need to tread cautiously. Candidly, I would advise my clients to stop using the word “inflammation” because the message in the field is nearly impossible to control and the downside is too great.

What do you think? Do you think this is a fair outcome for TriVita? Should the word “inflammation” be a privilege only allowed by FDA approved drugs?