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Herbalife Battle: Great Theater, Terrible Trade


In the last 30 days shares of Herbalife (HLF) have gone from the mid-40's to the 20's and then back again. It's a dizzying ride driven by bickering hedge fund managers taking turns in the spotlight to make their cases on the long and short sides. It's a striking turn for an 11-year-old company with a market cap under $5 billion and, until very recently, almost no mindshare in the investment community.

For those considering getting involved with the stock on either side of the trade, the question is whether or not Herbalife is a "Ponzi Scheme," as Bill Ackman alleges, or if it's just another relatively boring company most investors should ignore. Value investor Vitaliy Katsenelson, chief investment officer at Investment Management Associates, says the company is probably best avoided.

"I think you just want to stay away from this fight," Katsenelson says. He has been to Herbalife's clubs and came away unimpressed. For one thing, most of the people were there, in his words, "just to sell the product to each other." For another, the product itself seemed overpriced for what you're getting. "Most people get into Herbalife not because they want to consume the product but because they want to sell it to their favorite mother-in-law."

That makes HLF a lousy long, but is it a short? Not really. Katsenelson has done his homework. He's been to HLF stores and he watched all three hours of Bill Ackman's argument for shorting the company. After all that legwork Katsenelson just doesn't see the appeal for either bullish or bearish investors.

Companies don't just tumble to zero, they need to be pushed. Katsenelson thinks Ackman's best chance in that regard is to create a self-fulfilling fundamental slide. If Ackman generates enough negative publicity it's going to be harder for HLF to set up distribution centers. Failing that, the stock could muddle along with the company itself for years before hitting the wall.

"I would just basically stay away," Katsenelson concludes. That's probably good advice for the vast majority of individual investors.