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Herbalife fires back at hedge fund giant

The company's CEO puts on a show for investors to rebut 'pyramid scheme' claim

January 10, 2013|By Alana Semuels, Los Angeles Times

The unusual fight on Wall Street ramped up in December, when Ackman laid out his case against Herbalife in a three-hour, 200-plus slide presentation. He questioned whether the company was focused on recruiting new distributors, who pay to join the company, instead of on selling products. His announcement sent the company's stock down 36% and turned heads when analysts heard he'd sold short 20 million Herbalife shares.

Ackman's biggest beef with Herbalife focused on its so-called multi-level marketing model, which he said led to only those at the top of the company making money. More than 90% of distributors break even or lose money, he said. Ackman even drew UCLA into the controversy, saying Herbalife mentioned a lab at the university multiple times during each investor presentation to lend itself legitimacy.

Herbalife shares recovered some of their losses in the weeks after Ackman's presentation as some investors expressed confidence in the company. Hedge fund Third Point said it was taking an 8.2% stake in Herbalife, betting that the company would survive Ackman's assault.

Analysts at Thursday's meeting seemed supportive of Herbalife, with some expressing their belief in the company during a question-and-answer period after the presentation. One analyst urged the company to fight back against Pershing Square's method of "slandering" the company.

"It was a good, thorough presentation that certainly accomplished the job of defending the legitimacy of their business model," Ramey said.

Still, not all investors were convinced by the presentation. Herbalife's stock closed down 71 cents, or 1.8%, at $39.24. That may be because on Wednesday the Securities and Exchange Commission opened an investigation into Herbalife, according to published reports.

alana.semuels@latimes.com

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