Opinion

No Investor Should Be Too Connected To Fail

Should hedge fund managers be allowed to be too politically connected to fail? The answer might seem obvious, but the responsiveness of regulators and some lawmakers to the self-interested demands of Pershing Square manager Bill Ackman raise serious doubts. If Ackman succeeds in his current effort to enlist the forces of government in destroying another company for personal gain, it will at the least confirm the public’s worst fears about cronyism, and likely encourage others to pursue the same strategy.

Ackman has been waging war on Herbalife, which bills itself as “a global nutrition and weight management company.” Ackman, however, insists it is really a pyramid scheme. He began his onslaught by publicly shorting Herbalife’s stock – betting it would drop – to a tune of $1 billion in 2012, which is fine, but then spent millions more lobbying politicians and regulators to destroy the company, which is not fine.

Recently, The Wall Street Journal reported that probes by the FBI and the U.S. attorney’s office following nearly two years of investigations cleared Herbalife of allegations that it operates a fraudulent business model. That’s far from the end of the matter, however, as Ackman has put considerable resources into mobilizing as many federal agencies as possible to take on Herbalife.

As part of his anti-Herbalife blitz, Ackman not only set up websites and 1-800 numbers to troll for potential victims, but also lobbied the SEC and the FTC directly for government action. He even got three representatives and a senator, along with a number of state attorneys general, to write to the FTC on his behalf. They have responded by engaging in their own investigations.

Ackman’s campaign rests on Herbalife’s status as a multi-level marketer. MLMs recruit and use distributors to sell product, often to their friends and family as well as the broader public. Many MLMs are in fact pyramid schemes, but the structure itself does not necessarily demonstrate one way or another whether a company is legitimate. Key factors for making that determination include whether a business focuses more on recruitment than selling, and if products actually wind up with end users instead of stuck, along with their costs, with recently recruited distributors.

Among MLMs, including prominent brands like Avon and Tupperware, Herbalife and its $5 billion in sales last year is largest by capitalization and second by revenue. Does this and the fact that it has been around for 35 years mean that it can’t possibly be a pyramid scheme? Of course not, but those facts do make it less likely. And despite the considerable resources Ackman has pumped into finding evidence to bolster his campaign, the prosecutors and investors alike remain unconvinced.

While Herbalife stock has been more volatile since Ackman’s fight began, it hasn’t collapsed like he hoped despite numerous public presentations and, most recently, a mini-documentary of supposed Herbalife videos. Both the lack of stock decline and the recent acknowledgment by investigators that they have no legal case suggests his extensive efforts have turned up no smoking gun, but there’s still a chance his efforts with other agencies could result in regulatory action.

From the broader policy perspective the question at this point isn’t whether Herbalife is likely to survive in the long run or not, or even if it should, but whether federal agencies should be so easily bought and used as another investment tool.

Encouraging others to behave as Ackman has by rewarding his extensive lobbying would be good for neither government nor the market. The former would be made even corruptible, further compromising the public’s faith in a system that all too often seems to favor the wealthy, or more accurately the politically connected, over everyone else. The market would similarly suffer with the introduction of even more incentive to direct resources toward pleasing politicians and regulators instead of providing real value and satisfying customers.

Ackman may well end up right about the fate of Herbalife. Like any business it could fail, whether for reasons Ackman suspects or not, and he will cash in on his big bet. But if he’s wrong and Herbalife stock continues defying his expectations, the government shouldn’t step in to bail him out from the consequences of his failed prediction just because he has the resources and connections necessary to direct regulatory attention wherever he desires.