Van Voorhis: Swampy Ackman defies FTC in $1 billion war on Herbalife
Billionaire hedge fund owner William A. Ackman, the founder and CEO of Pershing Square Capital Management, prides himself on being a driven activist investor, who uses his massive influence to turn around companies and benefit not just his investors, but society-at-large.
The New York Post reported Oct. 7 Ackman took a beating his public short on the company Herbalife’s stock, as the company’s value has soared.
The Post reported that Ackman is hurting because of an 11 percent jump in the stock after a recent offer to repurchase $600 million of outstanding shares was leaked.
The rise in the value of stock hurts Ackman because he is banking on Herbalife’s stock price crashing and burning. This creature of Wall Street tried to use the power of the Washington swamp to kill a viable and healthy company – and it did not work.
After his very public five-year war on Herbalife ended in a settlement with the Federal Trade Commission, and full compliance by the company, Ackman keeps working to destroy them by any means necessary.
Most people would wonder why a self-described moral do-gooder like Ackman would keep fighting for the implosion of a company which not only employs thousands of everyday Americans, but also has met and exceeded the compliance standards set by the FTC.
It’s because he has more than just $1 billion on the line.
It’s his reputation that is on the line.
According to Fortune, “at about 2 p.m. on Wednesday, Dec. 19, 2012, CNBC’s Kate Kelly broke the news that billionaire Bill Ackman’s hedge fund had taken a massive short position—about $1 billion worth, we know now—in the stock of a nutrition company called Herbalife. Herbalife stock then fell 10 percent in six seconds, triggering circuit breakers and a temporary trading halt.”
After labeling the company as a “pyramid scheme,” Ackman has spent millions of dollars of his investors’ money hiring top-tier lobbying and public relations firms to get the federal government on his side – and beat the company into bankruptcy.
The New York Times reported in 2015 that his war against Herbalife “is a wager that Mr. Ackman has pledged to ‘take to the end of the earth’ and one that will ultimately depend on whether the government punishes Herbalife.”
To draw the government’s attention, Mr. Ackman has employed a handful of law firms and the Global Strategy Group, a public affairs firm that organized rallies and conducted opposition research on Herbalife. He also hired lobbyists to attract the attention of lawmakers, including Senator Edward J. Markey, Democrat of Massachusetts, when Mr. Markey was a member of the House. In January 2014, months after his staff had met with Mr. Ackman, Mr. Markey wrote letters to the F.T.C., the S.E.C. and Herbalife.
That wasn’t the end of Ackman’s conniving efforts to discredit the company, however. ABC News reported that Ackman even offered to pay a ‘whistleblower’ as much as $3,600,000 if he could provide the government with damaging information about the company.
Ackman also appeared in a documentary about his struggle, titled “Betting on Zero,” where he made the extraordinary claim that he expected Herbalife shares to go to $0. The motive here was clear – to cause a government investigation that would result in the death of Herbalife – and a massive profit that he could line his pockets with.
After four years of crusading to get the government on his side, the FTC concluded their investigation by handing Herbalife a $200,000,000 jjudgment and demanding that they reform their business practices. To Ackman’s dismay, the agency disagreed with his label that Herbalife was a pyramid scheme, and the stock jumped over 10% on news of the settlement.
According to The New York Times the agreement with the F.T.C. will require Herbalife to overhaul its system for compensating its customers and recording sales of its supplement drinks and other food products.
After overhauling their compensation system, Herbalife announced earlier this summer that they had successfully documented over 90 percent of their purchases, which greatly exceeded the 80 percent threshold set by the FTC less than a year ago. The stock is currently within arm’s length of its all-time high, and is significantly higher now than when Ackman shorted it almost five years ago.
As an owner of one of the country’s largest hedge funds, it’s well within Ackman’s rights, however objectionable those rights may seem, to try to discredit and deface a company for his own profiteering motives. What’s not okay is that to achieve this aim, he did everything in his power to weaponize the federal government, and use your and my tax dollars for his private greed.
For sake of argument, let’s forget for a moment what Ackman has done in years past. One could make the claim that Ackman was simply trying to hold the company accountable, and wanted the FTC to investigate what he felt were unfair consumer practices. That would certainly fit within the framework of Ackman’s moral investor mantra.
If that claim is true, then the FTC laying down a $200 million judgment, and forcing Herbalife to revise all of its business practices under the scrutiny of the full force of the federal government should be punishment enough. Meeting those deadlines earlier than necessary certainly proves that management has taken the problem seriously and is committed to ethical business practices going forward.
What is critically important here is that despite Herbalife being in full compliance with all government edicts, Ackman continues to wage war on a company operating well within the law and providing solid stock returns to its investors.
When Ackman pledged to take the Herbalife fight to the end of the earth, he wasn’t doing it for any moral reasons. If he really believed in simple moral rectification of companies, he would logically be more than happy to give up this fight.
But it is not about righting the wrong of companies for him. It’s all about winning a war at any cost, even if that means stopping at nothing to destroy a profitable, well-run company that has proven it has righted its wrongs.
In an article Ackman wrote in his student newspaper at Harvard, he told his audience: “Let’s face up to what HBS (Harvard Business School) represents. We spend 90 percent of our studies at HBS pursuing the maximization of the dollar.”
The same man who competed on his school’s rowing team with dollar signs affixed to his oars is continuing to use his crony capitalist friends in government to sink Herbalife’s ship. Perhaps it’s time that Ackman faces up to the reality that his battle is unwinnable, and the only person who is going to keep losing is him.
Peter Van Voorhis is a conservative activist, commentator, and journalist who focuses on political issues affecting millennials. Find him on Twitter @RepublicanPeter.