Shares of Herbalife (HLF) are up 20% in early trading after it was revealed late yesterday that billionaire investor Carl Icahn filed a 13D disclosing that he'd taken a 13% stake in the company.
Those familiar with the story of Herbalife understand that Icahn's move was likely driven by his ongoing and very public spat with fellow billionaire, hedge fund manager Bill Ackman. Ackman has a large short position in Herbalife, leaving him vulnerable to a short squeeze. In an instant classic on-air argument last month on CNBC, Ichan suggested that HLF could become "the mother of all short squeezes."
The Icahn-Ackman brawl is the most public instance of what has become a recurring market theme: Hedge funds taking big positions then touting them on financial television. It makes for great theater but Lee Munson of Portfolio LLC and author of Rigged Money, says it's all part of a strange new world.
"Hedge funds back in the 1980s and '90s used to be private, we used to be secretive. Nobody told anyone about their positions," Munson explains in the attached clip. "Nowadays you go on TV and you jack with the system."
Jacking with the system is trader-speak for causing wild swings in stock prices. He may think Icahn bought such a huge chunk of Herbalife just to artificially inflate the stock price, but Ackman's in no position to complain. Back in December it was Ackman himself who caused a sell-off in shares of HLF when he called the company a "pyramid scheme" on national television, causing the shares to drop more than 10% in a single day. This came after he disclosed a $1 billion short position on the stock.
Related: Is Herbalife a Pyramid Scheme?
Munson wants to know where the SEC is in all of this. They may not be profiting from their public jaw-boning (for his part Ackman says he hasn't booked any profits on HLF yet) but these titans are undeniably causing massive swings in share prices. The spats might make for good theater but individual investors are getting whipsawed at the whims of the super rich.
Enforcement officials may or may not decide to put a stop to these shenanigans, but waiting for it to happen is a sucker's game. Munson says the only way for individuals to really protect themselves from getting trampled is to get out of the way.
"If your stock is in the news because of two big dudes getting in the big grass and trying to fight, you should leave the stock," Munson concludes.