Icahn Buys More Herbalife, Denying Claim He’s Selling Stake

  • Ackman had said Jefferies was working on unloading the holding
  • Icahn says he acquired 2.3 million additional Herbalife shares

Carl Icahn.

Photographer: Victor J. Blue/Bloomberg

Herbalife Ltd. backer Carl Icahn said he bought an additional 2.3 million shares in the nutrition company following remarks by fellow billionaire Bill Ackman that the investor has been trying to sell his stake.

“I continue to believe in Herbalife,” Icahn said in a statement on his website. “It’s a great model that creates a great number of jobs for people. Ackman may be a smart guy but he has clearly succumbed to the same dangerous (and sometimes fatal) malady that afflicts many investors -- he’s developed a very bad case of ‘Herbalife obsession.”’

Herbalife surged as much as 8.3 percent to $65.54 in late trading after Icahn posted the statement. That followed a 2.3 percent decline during regular trading.

Ackman had sent Herbalife shares tumbling when he said Icahn was looking to ditch his holdings. In an interview with CNBC, Ackman said investment bank Jefferies Group LLC approached him about buying a portion of Icahn’s Herbalife shares earlier this month. He said he considered buying some of Icahn’s stock if it would help get Icahn completely out of his position. Ackman later confirmed to Bloomberg News that he didn’t buy any of Icahn’s stock and would have quickly sold the shares if he had.

Four-Year Battle

Ackman and his hedge fund, Pershing Square Capital Management, have waged a campaign against Herbalife for almost four years, saying it’s an illegal pyramid scheme that should be shut down. Along with setting up a $1 billion wager against the stock, he hired investigators and gave public presentations while prodding regulators to look into Herbalife’s business practices. Icahn took the other side of the trade, snapping up 18 percent of the company’s shares and defending its multilevel marketing model.

Ackman maintained his bet against Herbalife even after the maker of weight-loss shakes and supplements reached a $200 million settlement with the U.S. Federal Trade Commission last month. He said that the terms of the agreement -- which Herbalife hailed as an acknowledgment that its business model was sound -- would cripple the company and cause it to collapse.

“If Carl sells, I think it can accelerate the demise of the company,” Ackman told CNBC. “With Carl there, they may have a better chance of keeping top distributors. With Carl exiting, I think it’s over and it’s over quickly.”

Herbalife, which has repeatedly denied Ackman’s accusations, declined to respond to his comments on Friday.

Major Player

A sale by Icahn would have removed a major player from the saga. He has been Herbalife’s staunchest outside supporter since early 2013, when he disclosed a large stake and criticized Ackman’s public attacks. Herbalife later agreed to let Icahn name five board members as its largest investor. The deal also capped the amount of Herbalife stock Icahn could acquire at 25 percent of the shares. Herbalife upped that ceiling to 35 percent after the FTC agreement. Icahn’s ownership, however, has remained at 18 percent, according to public filings. His purchase announced Friday has brought the stake to 21 percent.

“Carl is the confidence behind Herbalife,” Ackman told Bloomberg. “Once he’s out, the confidence is gone and the company collapses.”

On the day Herbalife’s FTC settlement was announced, Icahn declared victory, saying in a written statement that “the shorts have been completely wrong on Herbalife.”

It wouldn’t have been surprising if Icahn wanted to sell, said Ken Shea, an analyst at Bloomberg Intelligence. With the FTC question out of the way, there’s less potential upside to the stock.

Catalyst Gone

“Now that the regulatory risk has dissipated, more or less the company is going to be perceived in the market as a seller of product,” he said. “The big positive catalyst that was out there is gone.”

Icahn “doesn’t tend to stick around in his positions -- he’s there to make money,” Shea said.

Ackman told Bloomberg that he only spoke publicly about Jefferies’s offer after a news report named him as part of a group that had been approached about buying some of Icahn’s stock.

Icahn denied that he had told Jefferies to unload Herbalife shares.

“Over the years many investment bankers, including Jefferies, that specialize in block trades frequently make bids for our large positions,” Icahn said. “But completely contrary to what Bill Ackman stated on television today, I have never given Jefferies an order to sell any of our Herbalife shares.”

The dispute over Herbalife’s business centered on whether there was legitimate demand for its products by actual customers or whether its sales came mostly from contractors who bought the products in hopes of making money by reselling them.

FTC Changes

The FTC’s statement backed up many of Ackman’s claims, saying that the business was driven more by member recruitment than by retail sales and that a large number of its distributors lost money. The agency is forcing changes that could make it more difficult for distributors to profit. Herbalife will now have to depend on retail sales, which are to be verified by receipts, instead of bulk purchases by members.

Still, Herbalife has remained upbeat about its prospects. Earlier this month, the company posted second-quarter results that topped analysts’ estimates and said it expects to overhaul its business practices globally in response to the settlement. While the terms of the deal affect only its U.S. operations, the company said it would likely roll out some aspects of the agreement worldwide.

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