The long-running tussle between Herbalife International (NYSE:HLF) and Pershing Square Holdings over the supplement company’s business model and the financial firm’s stock-and-shock accusations has experienced some form of closure, with Herbalife enjoying some vindication. A two-year-long federal investigation by the FBI and U.S. Attorney’s Office in Manhattan into Herbalife’s business practices found no evidence Herbalife’s multilevel marketing (MLM) business model is fraudulent, but it also found no evidence Pershing and its CEO William Ackman sought to manipulate HLF stock in publicizing allegations against Herbalife. Despite the decision not to bring any charges against either party, two other federal agencies, FTC and the Securities Exchange Commission (SEC), still have open investigations into Herbalife’s business practices and Pershing’s stock-and-shock tactics.
In a nutshell, Ackman accused Herbalife of being a pyramid scheme and put up $1 billion of Pershing’s funds to short HLF stock, essentially betting the market would react and HLF stock price would plummet. Herbalife then alleged Ackman and his fund, Pershing Square Capital Management LP, publicly trashed Herbalife’s business in order to make money on the short—in a short sale, a party sells “borrowed" stocks and then buys actual stock once the price plummets in order to “return" the stock to the borrower at a profit.
In this case, Pershing borrowed $1 billion of HLF stock in May 2012 at around $47/share. He said his breakeven price would be somewhere in the low $30s. Following his December 2012 research report blasting Herbalife as a pyramid scheme, HLF stock experienced huge drops and rises over a couple of years, at one point trading as low as Ackman’s breakeven level for a moment in January 2015 and as high as more than $80—Ackman remained steadfast in his determination to stick out his short despite huge losses on paper. At press time, HLF price was around $47.
The FBI and U.S. Attorney secured and analyzed evidence from both parties including lobbyists and public relations firms representing Herbalife and Pershing, as well as former New York federal prosecutors and SEC officials hired by Herbalife. Neither federal agency commented on the decision to end the investigation without bringing charges.
Both Pershing Square and Herbalife declined to comment on the probe and ongoing saga.