Activist investor Bill Ackman has bet $1 billion on Herbalife's (HLF) collapse, calling it a Ponzi scheme. But a New York Times piece now reveals the great lengths he's taken to bring down the company. Ackman's bet will pay off for his hedge fund only if the stock falls. Meanwhile, the stock is up close to 57% in the past year.
In the accompanying video, Yahoo Finance interactive editor Phil Pearlman weighs in.
Lobbying is nothing new, whether it's defense or tobacco, but this story gives a very intricate look at how it all works in this one case. Pearlman says this case seems over-the-top when it comes to the extent to which Ackman has lobbied officials and advocacy groups, and the incredible amount of power he's achieved at times as a result.
One prime example: The NYT reports a dinner where Ackman was telling a group of hedge fund managers about why the stock could plunge. Ackman cited a letter Representative Linda T. Sanchez (D-Calif.) had sent the Federal Trade Commission about a possible investigation of the nutritional supplement company. The hitch? This letter was not public information nor had it been stamped by the FTC. But Ackman, who had personally lobbied Sanchez on this issue, had a copy of the letter that he read from his cell phone.
Pearlman says this raises questions about how Ackman traded during that period of time when he had the letter before it was public. "For the general public and the investing public to be able to see this type of detail is hugely important," Pearlman says.
When it comes to other details, there were also the demonstrations led by community leaders organized by Ackman's consultants, the letters these leaders sent to authorities calling for an investigation of the Herbalife "pyramid scheme," and the money paid to try to find victims (to no avail).
A major win for Ackman came after lobbying Senator Edward Markey (D-Mass.), on Jan. 23. Markey sent letters to the S.E.C. and the F.T.C., and Herbalife’s stock fell from $73.41 to $65.92 that day.
Pearlman casts this as one battle in the war that has been Herbalife, with prominent investors on both sides of the trade.
More broadly, there are some positive examples of short-sellers' helping to expose fraud.
Famed short-seller Jim Chanos, founder and president of Kynikos Associates, has raised red flags over a number of frauds in the past, probably the most famous (or infamous) being Enron.
And he's called short-sellers and hedge funds "real-time financial detectives," telling The Daily Ticker in an interview last year that "they are incentivized through profit to ferret out fraud." He thinks that’s a very important role of these investors that people forget about from time to time.
So the question may be, where do you draw the line between ferreting out fraud and advancing an investment thesis that will benefit your company? Check out the video to see Pearlman's take.
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