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

MLM Attorney, Kevin Thompson, on Bloomberg TV

I had the privilege of being on Bloomberg for a small segment talking about Bill Ackman’s latest presentation. The 7-minute segment can be viewed above. Ackman’s presentation today, if you can spare 3+ hours, can be found here.

Before summarizing his argument, it needs to be said that he heavily promoted this presentation yesterday. He was like Muhammad Ali talking about the Thrilla in Manila, saying it was “the most important presentation of his life.” He further said that this would be the “death blow” to Herbalife. He successfully spooked the market, causing it to sink 11%. Instead of “conclusively proving fraud,” which was his intent, he ignited confidence in the market due to the lack of substance. After the presentation, the stock UP 25% (same day). I’m not making this up. Up 25% the day of the death blow. Only on Wall Street.

I’ll summarize his thesis:

    • Herbalife’s usage of “Nutrition Clubs” operates like a bait and switch for consumers.
    • The prospects are lured into the clubs on the auspices of hanging out with friends and sampling products.
    • These prospects are then pressured to “get on the treadmill” and join as distributors and recruit more people to visit the clubs.
    • The Club concept is designed to recruit, not to sell.
    • Herbalife’s stance that the clubs foster community efforts for weight loss is smoke and mirrors.
    • He goes further and argues that the positioning of some of the clubs as “success universities” is misleading because they’re not accredited as real universities.
    • He further argues that the Clubs violate various labor laws since the members are expected to help out in keeping the club operational i.e. free labor.
    • He argues that Michael Johnson learned of these strategies of penetrating the hispanic market while at Disney. In my opinion, he gave Michael Johnson way more credit than he deserved in this regard. The Nutrition Club concept was likely an invention in the field.

We discuss the presentation during the interview. Herbalife has issued its own response, including the findings from an economist about its model. Based on his data, he concluded that the vast majority of revenue is attributable to legitimate product consumption i.e. people buying for legitimate value. The data is significant, as it essentially puts the pyramid scheme argument to bed. If true, the majority of commissions are driven via legitimate economic activity by “ultimate users.” This is why, in my opinion, Ackman paid very little attention to the law today. I think he knows the law is not in his favor on a macro level with Herbalife. Instead, he was arguing the facts on a micro level, painting a picture that there’s a massive bait-and-switch occurring with the Nutrition Clubs. In his mind, if he can kill the Nutrition Clubs, he can kill Herbalife.

Commentary from me

Herbalife needs to avoid gloating. They sort of spiked the football today with their remarks. Yes, Ackman’s presentation went off like a snap bomp instead of the full scale firework show we were promised. But, with that being said, he’s certainly not someone to poke. He’s obviously emotionally charged on the issue. He cried on a few occasions during the presentation. In his mind, he sees himself as a “Superman” that needs to rescue these poor, hispanic citizens. While 93% of Herbalife Nutrition Club operators are happy with their experience (based on a recent survey), Ackman would argue that they’re under a trance that only he can break. Referencing the history of his great-grandfather that came to America from Russia, Ackman sees Herbalife as preying on people like his great-granddad, causing significant damage for future generations.

Bottom line: he’s amped up. And his puts expire in January of 2015, which means he needs to land a punch soon to get the stock to soften before he eats the loss. I think he’s done his worst to Herbalife. It’s now in the hands of regulators. Speaking of regulators, he did not provide them with any new ammunition today that they did not already possess yesterday. I stand firm with my initial opinion, made in January of 2013. Admittedly, I could be wrong. But I do not think the FTC will file an action against Herbalife. Instead, I think there’s going to be some sort of negotiated settlement that will involve some sort of penalty for past transgressions. They’re the Federal government…they’re going to find something. Give me Ackman’s investigatory budget of $50,000,000 and I’ll find dirt on whatever you want. The return on his $50M investment was anti-climatic and the market made him pay.

What do you think? What’s next for Herbalife? What’s next in Bill Ackman’s playbook?

Herbalife Announces FTC Investigation

Herbalife announced that the FTC has initiated an investigation. While it’s not pleasant to deal with a government subpoena, this gives Herbalife an opportunity to put this issue to rest. Watch the video below to get my thoughts. In summary, I believe the FTC will use the data it collects from Herbalife to sharpen its saw in an effort to create better guidelines for network marketing companies. They’re not going to sue Herbalife (though I’m sure they’re thinking about it). If you’re reading this via email, click here to watch the video. The paper referenced in my video can be found embedded below (or here).
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Senator Markey’s Letter to the FTC: Prediction

Recently, Senator Markey from Massachusetts called upon the FTC to investigate Herbalife.  His full letter is included below. Click here to read if you’re reading via email. It’s worth mentioning that that the letter was likely originated by someone at Pershing Square, as observed by John Hempton. Markey has useful letterhead, being a U.S. Senator and all. I digress…

These are my predictions:

  • The FTC will respond. While Markey’s letter called for a response by February 28, I’m guessing they’ll respond after the deadline but by late April.
  • The FTC is not going to respond specifically about Herbalife. Three points worth mentioning here: (1) The FTC lacks the data to provide any meaningful commentary about Herbalife; (2) If the FTC had a problem with Herbalife, they’re not going to announce same at the behest of a Senator; and most importantly (3) Herbalife is not a pyramid scheme.  Ackman is playing another confidence game, and the market has grown immune to his tricks.
  • The FTC is going to take this as an opportunity to start a broader discussion about the network marketing space.  There’s an ocean of gray that separates legitimate network marketing companies from illegal pyramid schemes.  As a result of this ambiguity, fraudulent programs are flying under the guise of network marketing, claiming legitimacy because they’re “just like Amway.”  In my opinion, this is the underbelly of the space that the FTC needs to address, not companies like Herbalife.  What will these guidelines look like in the future?  That’s a different set of predictions for another time.

The video is a short one. I hope you find it informative. If you’re reading this via email, please click here to view the video.

Update: Herbalife’s CEO, Michael Johnson, personally wrote a response to Senator Markey. It’s also included below.

Article on Seeking Alpha: Ackman’s Folly With Herbalife: 7 Assumptions That Led Him Astray

I published an article on Seeking Alpha yesterday. SA is a site dedicated to stock analysis. As a wannabe-tech nerd, I think their site is brilliant. People interested in a stock can subscribe to receive updates when articles are published about the specific stock. If you have the mobile app, you’re notified when new articles are live. Herbalife has been a widely discussed stock over the past year. It’s been almost a year since Bill Ackman gave his first presentation about Herbalife. In this article, I outline the seven assumptions that caused Ackman to miss big. The article got 90+ comments on day 1. Some favorable, some not-so-favorable.

Check it. Chime in. Share.

Bill Ackman’s Folly With Herbalife: 7 Assumptions That Led Him Astray

Bill Ackman Throws a Hail Mary: warns auditing firm about liability if they validate Herbalife


If you’re reading this via email, please click this link to watch a full video update.

Ackman Warns PwC

In an attempt to thwart the inevitable short squeeze on Herbalife’s stock, Bill Ackman has recently turned to “warning” PricewaterhouseCoopers of potential exposure if they validate Herbalife’s accounting. The letter is included in full below. Irrespective of the fact that PwC has been in business for over 150 years and have maintained a stellar reputation among auditing firms, Ackman felt the need to educate them on accounting. In the letter, he sites a number of issues with Herbalife’s numbers, none of which will be addressed here because, candidly, I have no idea what it all means. However, I do trust analyst Tim Ramey. He wrote a solid rebuttal to Ackman’s letter, which was included on ValueWalk. The key bullets:

The opening point in the PWC letter is that Herbalife is a pyramid scheme, and PWC will have risk if it audits the Herbalife books and does not disclose that fact. The remainder of the 52 pages does absolutely nothing to prove or allege the pyramid scheme hypothesis. Remarkable.

The letter is an eleven-point discussion of various accounting treatments that Herbalife and its previous auditors have taken. We did not see a single “smoking gun” or anything that would cause us meaningful concern. There are audit-type questions, something that two accountants might have a spirited discussion about at a cocktail party, but nothing that seems material. If this is all Ackman has after millions spent on forensic accounting, Ackman has been cheated. On some of the points Pershing Square is just wrong, in our opinion; a risk you take when your securities analysis does not ever engage in a dialog with the company.

What Does This All Mean?

It’s the fourth quarter with 2 minutes left on the clock. The ball is on Ackman’s 5 yard line. He’s down by 16. He needs to traverse the field, score a touchdown, get a two-point conversion, recover the onside kick, score another touchdown and get another two point conversion. Ackman claims to be armed with the “truth;” however, it’s his version of the truth. In order to pull out of his self-induced tailspin, he needs two things to happen: He needs Herbalife to report a decrease in earnings next quarter (not likely to happen). And he needs, more than anything, the FTC to take action. The FTC is NOT going to take action. Care to know why? (1) HERBALIFE IS NOT A PYRAMID SCHEME; and (2), the existing regulations leave plenty of room for debate on both sides. If there were a lawsuit, the FTC would lose. Plain and simple. The FTC, in my opinion, is not equipped to target companies in the gray. They’ve got to go after the easy targets. And Herbalife, without question, does not fit that definition.

If you’re reading this via email, click here to download the letter.

Herbalife Distributors Continue to Win Despite War on Wall Street

This post is for the unsung heroes carrying the Herbalife organization through this difficult period. Candidly, their distributors are dominating! 2nd Quarter Earnings are in for Herbalife. All of the major metrics are up. Despite the war on Wall Street over the fate of Herbalife between several notable players, the Herbalife distributors continue to produce results. In this video, I explain the importance of their achievement. I also give a few predictions about what this conflict means for the future of the industry.

If you’re interested in the financial elements surrounding Herbalife stock, check out the video below. Robert Chapman does a great job explaining the current and potential value of $HLF. He understands the network marketing model AND the markets, which makes his insight valuable. If you’ll recall, Robert Chapman was literally the first professional on Wall Street to question Bill Ackman’s analysis. His article titled “Herbalife: Why I Made It a 35% Position after the Bill Ackman Bear Raid,” let a lot of air out of Ackman’s proverbial tires. It moved the market. I’m proud to know him.

http://video.cnbc.com/gallery/?play=1&video=3000187031

Update on the Fortune Hi Tech Case – FTC Passes on Scalpel, Goes for Sledgehammer

As a refresher, in early February of 2013, the FTC got an injunction issued against Fortune Hi Tech Marketing. The summary of the lawsuit can be found here: FTC vs. Fortune Hi Tech.

FTC’s Strategy

FTC passes on the scalpel and picks up the sledgehammer.

FTC passes on the scalpel and picks up the sledgehammer.

Since the lawsuit was filed, I’ve had a lot of time to study the FTC’s arguments against FHTM. In particular, I closely studied the FTC’s expert report prepared by Dr. Peter Vander Nat. The FTC’s entire case hinges on the validity of Peter Vander Nat’s report.

In the lawsuit, the FTC passed for the scalpel and picked up the sledgehammer. In summary, they’re no longer relying on Vander Nat’s convoluted math formula, which I discussed in my last article regarding the FTC’s economist. If you’re following the news with Herbalife, I think you’ll find this next point interesting. Currently, there’s a lot of bickering back and forth between MLM proponents and critics alike over the interpretation of Vander Nat’s formula. People are discussing how Herbalife stacks up to the standard. With one word, I can put the entire debate to rest for both sides.

Are you ready for it?

The word is:

IRRELEVANT

The formula is irrelevant. In Vander Nat’s lengthy declaration used against Fortune Hi Tech, the formula is never mentioned. Not once. Why? The answer is obvious. The FTC is distancing itself from it because the formula is too broad and too confusing. The FTC’s case against BurnLounge (sued in 2006) is jeopardized due to the ambiguity of this standard. The case is currently under appeal. The main source of contention: Vander Nat’s qualification as an expert. Vander Nat had never studied an MLM that he concluded was legal. Where’s the fairness in using an objective standard to measure right from wrong when you never find anything right? There’s no wisdom in designing a water-filter if there’s no opportunity for water to pass through.

Sledgehammer

In his declaration, Vander Nat opines and argues that FHTM was operating as an illegal pyramid scheme. Instead of relying on his formula, he bases his finding on a few assumptions. Those assumptions are all addressed in Charles King’s declaration (available below). Dr. King was retained by FHTM as its expert in their effort to dissolve the injunction. Out of Vander Nat’s assumptions, there’s one that should be concerning for all people in the network marketing industry: commissions triggered via internal consumption are “recruitment bonuses.” In other words, rewards triggered via distributor consumption are illegal. This argument represents a dangerous and irresponsible strategy employed by the FTC. In one of the footnotes in his declaration, Vander Nat writes, “…I also understand that the ultimate users of the products – for purposes of the Koscot test – are people who are not participants in the business venture.” With this framework, he pulls out all revenue garnered from distributor consumption. He then compares the money left over (not much) with the money paid out in bonuses. He then concludes that the pay plan is underfunded and relies on “recruitment bonuses” to survive. Charles King sums it nicely when he writes:

Since Vander Nat is not counting commissions generated via internal consumption, it creates the impression that the plan lacks sufficient revenue from product sales to support the commissions. He treats the difference between revenue available for commissions and the amounts paid as recruitment bonuses. Using his own definition of “end user,” he’s able to dramatically shrink the commission pot; thus, creating the false impression that the Commission Plan is insufficient and underfunded.

Optimal Scenario

Vander Nat also relies on an economic theory known as “Optimal Scenario.” Using the Optimal Scenario framework, Vander Nat assumes that if EVERYONE were to hit the high levels in the FHTM business, the plan would be underfunded. The reality: not everyone hits the levels nor does everyone try. While Vander Nat acknowledges that breakage exists (money in the plan from un-earned commissions), he ignores it completely. In network marketing, the participants operate with various goals. There are some that want to earn a few hundred dollars a month, some do it for social reasons, some want to save money on product, some are supporting a friend or relative, etc. They’re not all trying to “max out” the pay plan. This assumption was faulty and led to a faulty conclusion.

What does all of this mean?

Change is coming. Stay tuned. In 2004, the FTC said that the amount of internal consumption is inconsequential for pyramid scheme analysis. Based on their recent case against FHTM and various posts on their website, the FTC appears to be back-tracking. It’s going to take strong leadership to steer this conversation in a favorable direction for the industry. And strong leadership requires that we at least acknowledge the areas where we’re weak. Cultures of hype need to stop. Product value matters. Without question, the industry is going to look different within 18 months. How different? We’ll see.

If you’re reading this via email, click this link to review the declaration prepared by Charles King.

CNBC Interview With Herb Greenberg

Kevin Thompson, MLM Attorney, and Herb Greenberg

As most of you know, Herb Greenberg prepared a story about Herbalife for CNBC. The 20 minute documentary was titled Selling the American Dream. Herb worked for a very long time on the story, interviewing several people all throughout the country. I was interviewed by Herb in the CNBC studio in July of 2012. If you blink in the video, you miss me. I was only on for about 10 seconds, right around the 16 minute mark.

While Herb was working on the story for over a year, the catalyst for CNBC airing the story was the saga between Bill Ackman and Herbalife. There’s a great guest post on my site about the impact (or lack thereof) of Ackman’s Bear Raid on Herbalife.

Personal Views on Greenberg

He’s a very pleasant person. And he’s very intelligent, surrounded with a great staff of people. And unlike a lot of MLM critics, he actually gives a little airtime to BOTH sides of the agrement. While he certainly favors the negative side by providing links to MLM critics, he at least tries to inject some pro-industry commentary. I believe he’s spoken with the DSA, he interviewed Herbalife’s CEO and he also interviewed me. He dove deep and did his homework. In his own words, “After 10 months of independently digging into Herbalife and the industry, culminating with the CNBC documentary, “Selling the American Dream,” I can say with a fair degree of certainty: Multi-level marketing, which has been dogged by the same legal questions and controversies for 65 years, needs to be cleaned up.”

While not everyone shares this view with me, particularly leaders in the DSA, I actually agree with Herb on the need for change. I’ve written in the past about the MLM industry’s problem with self deception. Burying our faces in piles of money, pretending there’s not a problem is a sure path to irrelevancy. Paying commissions on internal consumption is fine. But we need to create better standards to alleviate the growing problem of “opportunity driven demand.” Opportunity driven demand exists when people purchase products they never would buy at prices they never would pay with the expectation of recovering their “investment” by recruiting additional participants (to repeat the cycle).

There needs to be legitimate value in the products and services changing hands. The popular sentiment that “all pay plans driven by product volume are legal” falls short of common sense and fails to account for opportunity driven demand. Under the influence of a pay plan, people will literally pay $1,000 for an ounce of lemonade. If you drive a pay plan from such sales, is it legal? Of course not. It’s this distinction that’s leading to so much confusion on Wall Street. We can attack the short sellers for manipulating the market. But really, they’re just exploiting the ambiguity in the law. And until the law is cleaner, it’ll keep happening whether at the hands of short sellers, class action attorneys, regulators, FTC, whoever.

My role in Herb’s story was simple: I was to discuss the laws in place distinguishing legitimate MLMs from illegitimate pyramids. While we discussed a lot of the positives in the industry, there’s none of that content that made the final cut. I’m not complaining. I’ll take the exposure when I can get it. But I’m just letting you know, I tried. The interview was an intense thirty minutes. The questions came at me rapid-fire the moment I hit the seat. It was fun.

Greenberg’s View on MLM

If you’re not able to tell by reading Herb’s stories about Herbalife and the MLM industry in general, he has a bad taste in his mouth. Intellectually, he’s not able to really “feel” and understand the benefits of the distribution channel. In an article Herb Greenberg posted on LinkedIn, he extends his focus away from Herbalife and discusses the potential challenges facing the entire industry. In his view, he predicts some regulatory activity against some of the larger companies. This would, in turn, trickle down and affect the smaller companies. While Herb senses a disturbance in the industry, he’s not able to put his finger on it. In his mind, it makes no sense for people to buy an arguably inferior product via MLM. This rationale assumes that the product is inferior and discounts the benefit of joining a community of people that share a common goal. In Herbalife, that common goal is weight loss and nutrition. Notorious short seller, John Hempton, summarized it well when he said,” Herbalife works in the same way as alcoholics anonymous – by supplying (and in this case selling) a support group to help you kick the ‘fat addiction’.” There’s power (and value) in community.

One thing is certain, as Herbalife’s stock continues to climb, Ackman will get desperate and start lobbying Congress (if he has not done so already). Will he be able to get the regulation he needs to save him from a stupid bet? It’s unlikely. And even if regulation does come, it’ll likely affect the smaller MLMs significantly more than companies like Herbalife. In my opinion, Ackman’s prayer for a government savior will go unanswered.

Conclusion, Lessons Learned and Special Thanks

I learned a lot from this experience. First, if someone with a platform invites you to participate in a conversation, show up. There seems to be this fear of the media by professionals in the industry. While there’s certainly the potential for bad, the upside outweighs the risk. We need more professionals willing to put their necks out there, communicating the benefits of the model. Second, the critics are becoming more organized. The internet is sticky and their content is spreading. The critics are getting in the ear of hedge fund managers, investment bankers, journalists and politicians. They’re like like Agent Smith in the movie The Matrix. If you’re not a tech nerd like myself, Agent Smith was like a computer virus, hell bent on destroying the very program that gave him life.

I want to extend a special thanks to Len Clements of MarketWave. Len is a great friend, and someone I trust very much. He took the time to help me prepare for the kinds of questions that are common from people skeptical of the model. His insight was key. I also want to thank my partner’s wife and Thompson Burton litigator, Melissa Burton. She literally reviewed my notes beat me up for over an hour on the issues. She has a good mind for poking holes in arguments and was invaluable for my preparation.

I’ve included some pictures below from my trip to New York. It’s such a fun place. My wife and I got a babysitter and left the three kids at home for a few days. I hope you enjoy the pictures.

Battle of Billionaires Commences: Dan Loeb Bets Against Ackman, Puts Over $300M In the Game

Dan Loeb, Herbalife MLM lawyerHerb Greenberg of CNBC said it best on his twitter feed:

“ackman/loeb is classic: two smart guys, same set of books/info, totally different analyst. that’s what makes markets!”

Billionaire Dan Loeb places a $300,000,000+ bet AGAINST Ackman in favor of Herbalife, arguing that Ackman’s short-thesis is “preposterous.” In Third Point’s Q4 letter to investors, Loeb explains his optimism for the potential of Herbalife ($HLF). The full letter to investors is included below. The key sections dealing with Herbalife have been cut and pasted below for your convenience. Take care and stay tuned. There’s bound be some collateral damage when Wall Street giants collide. Note, Herbalife is scheduled to issue a rebuttal on January 10th regarding Ackman’s pyramid allegations. .

Excerpts from Loeb’s Letter to Investors

Herbalife is a leading provider of weight management and nutritional supplements
operating in more than 80 countries through a network of independent distributors. The stock declined by nearly half last month following controversial assertions made by a short seller about Herbalife’s business model and practices. Third Point has a different view and holds about 8% of Herbalife outstanding common stock, which we acquired mostly during the panicked selling that followed the short seller’s dramatic claims.

Based on its strong financial performance, Herbalife is a classic “compounder” – a well-managed company that sustains consistent top-line growth, has a leading market position, and steadily increases margins, earnings per share and free cash flow while demonstrating shareholder-friendly behavior. Since going public in 2004, Herbalife has increased revenue at a double digit rate for seven of the past eight years, expanded gross and operating margins, leveraged operating expenses, and introduced more premium products. Earnings per share have increased by approximately 20-50% each year since 2004, with the exception of 2009. Led by CEO Michael Johnson, management has also used the company’s ample free cash flow to de-lever its balance sheet and shrink the share count by nearly 25%. This type of steady non-cyclical growth is hard to find and puts Herbalife at the head of the compounders’ class.

With results like these, the case against Herbalife rests on a bold claim that the company is a fraud. The short seller’s lengthy argument against the Company can be boiled down to three principal smoking guns: the first, a claim that Herbalife has been operating an “illegal pyramid scheme” under the nose of the Federal Trade Commission for the past 32 years; the second, that Herbalife’s loyal customer and distributor base has been exploited and harmed despite the low number of consumer complaints and generous company return policies; and the third, a claim that Herbalife’s products are commodities sold at inflated prices not supported by sufficient levels of advertising or R&D.

Taken in reverse order, the third claim misses an essential truth that invalidates the indictment. No one believes Starbucks is a scam because you can buy a cheaper cup of coffee at your local bodega. A key contributor to Herbalife’s growth has been its distributor-led “Nutrition Clubs”, where consumers can purchase single servings of the Company’s signature beverages. The short seller’s assertion ignores the significant value customers place on every consumer brand and its community “experience” – whether at a Herbalife Nutrition Club, a Starbucks, or a corner bar. The markup is merited by community and brand identity, not by the commodity itself.

The second claim seems similarly dubious. The FTC, by all accounts, receives a very low volume of complaints annually about Herbalife – fewer than forty per year – and we find it hard to believe the short seller’s theory that hundreds of thousands of people who have been scammed supposedly are too ashamed to speak up. Herbalife is well-known for its generous return policies, buying back product from exiting distributors for up to twelve months. The Company repurchases an average of only 1% of sales volume pursuant to this policy. It is difficult for us to understand why the buyback volume would be so low if there are in fact so many unsatisfied consumers and distributors who presumably would not hesitate to be reunited with their cash.

The pyramid scheme is a serious accusation that we have studied closely with our advisors. We do not believe it has merit. The short thesis rests on the notion that the FTC has been asleep at the switch, missed a massive fraud for over three decades, and will shortly awaken (at the behest of hedge fund short seller) to shut down the Company. We find this thesis to be preposterous, particularly since the FTC has been sensitive to frauds of this kind. Since 1997, the FTC has brought 13 separate cases against alleged pyramid schemes. None of the companies that the FTC pursued had been in business for more than ten years and 11 of the 13 companies involved were less than five years old, suggesting the FTC actively protects consumers subjected to this type of behavior. The FTC has also aggressively pursued enforcement actions against similarly odious “deceptive business opportunity schemes” [see www.ftc.gov/opa/2012/ll/lostopp.shtm] under the “Business Opportunity Rule” (although this rule does not apply to multi-level marketers such as Herbalife).

. . . We also understand that Herbalife has a series of internal policies in place (based on a 1979 case involving Amway) designed to reduce the possibility of abuses that have been identified in other MLM structures.

Do such policies eliminate all possibilities of bad behavior? Most likely they do not, especially at a company with so many distributors. By the Company’s own admission, past irregularities and misbehavior have been detected and corrected. While the short seller’s presentation was lengthy, it presented no evidence to show that Herbalife has crossed a line that would compel regulators to shut it down. Indeed, there was very little “new” news in the presentation and when pressed in later interviews, even the short seller conceded that the FTC was not looking at Herbalife’s practices. In our experience, expert regulators like those at the FTC do not respond to sudden pressure from hedge fund whistleblowers by acceding blindly to their demands. Finally, even if there were some regulatory intervention that changed how the company does business, we are comforted by the fact that 80% of Herbalife’s revenues come from overseas.

So we return to our compounder thesis, available at an attractive discount, probably for a limited time only. We believe that continued strong operating performance combined with disciplined capital return could easily send the stock back towards its April highs. Let’s not forget: the business itself is performing well. Volume, revenue and earnings are all growing double digits and the balance sheet is largely unlevered. Management has a history of returning 100% of net income to shareholders in the form of dividends and buybacks. If management were to deploy its existing $950 million buyback authorization in the $40-45 range (only taking leverage to approximately 1.5x), we estimate that run-rate EPS for 2013 could be $5.50-5.70 using the reduced share count. Applying a modest 10-12x earnings multiple suggests Herbalife’s shares are worth $55-$68, offering 40-70% upside from here and making the company a compelling long investment for Third Point. Given that the Company has historically traded more in the 12-14x range (and traded at 16-20x earnings through much of 2011 and early 2012), the opportunity for the Company to tell its side of the story tomorrow at its Analyst Day in New York, and the significant short interest, we believe shares could even trade well above our current price target.

If you’re receiving this message via email, please click this link to review Loeb’s full letter to his investors.