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Ackman’s Herbalife ‘death blow’ doesn’t appear to be fatal

Pershing Square's Bill Ackman and Valeant Pharmaceuticals International's Michael Pearson InterviewPershing Square's Bill Ackman and Valeant Pharmaceuticals International's Michael Pearson Interview
Hedge fund titan Bill Ackman.Photograph by Scott Eells — Bloomberg/Getty Images

Bill Ackman’s “death blow” isn’t quite the hit Herbalife (HLF) investors had feared.

Shares of the nutrition products company rose over 25% Tuesday, despite the activist investor’s lengthy Internet presentation in which he attacked Herbalife and charged that it’s basically a pyramid scheme with fake customers.

Wall Street had probably expected something more from Ackman. On Monday, the head of Pershing Square Capital Management said his Internet presentation would deal a “death blow” to Herbalife. “You’re going to learn why Herbalife is going to collapse,” he told CNBC. “This is the largest fraud, public fraud, in terms of scale of countries involved and harm to people.”

Shares of Herbalife lost 10.7% yesterday on fears of what Ackman would reveal in his presentation today. The activist investor told CNBC that he had collected a slew of papers, video and audio that would prove Herbalife’s fraudulent business model.

Ackman had an initial short position of $1 billion against the company, though hasn’t disclosed details. He stands to gain from a drop in Herbalife’s share price.

Ackman, in a live webcast from the Axa Equitable Center that ran over two hours long, showed evidence that Herbalife targets low-income minorities with the promise of big payouts for hawking the company’s powdered shakes, according to Pershing Square’s investigation into 240 clubs across multiple countries.

“It’s a tragedy they don’t realize they’re being defrauded,” he said of the low-income minorities who are being targeted as new sellers.

The set-up, which Herbalife calls a “multi-level marketing model,” centers on local nutrition clubs. These exist across the U.S. and Latin America and are the primary selling point for Herbalife products.

A live audience of 480 people, plus an uncounted number of viewers in an overflow room and online, listened to a step-by-step presentation that showed how these nutrition clubs are set-up as a pyramid scheme, benefiting the few at the top while deceiving millions of people at the bottom while making false promises of financial gain.

Ackman compared these nutrition clubs to Enron’s phantom trading floor. There are a few successful ones that the company parades Wall Street investors through, but most clubs bring in less that minimum wage for the sellers, Ackman said.The only way to reap the promised financial gains is to duplicate the model, essentially rise up the pyramid to have clubs and sellers underneath you that funnel business up the chain of command, he said.

“Everything is a gotcha until it’s not a gotcha anymore,” John DeSimone, Herbalife’s chief financial officer, told CNBC Tuesday. “Each one [of Ackman’s presentations] is the latest and greatest until its proven not to be.”

Herbalife is under investigation by the Federal Trade Commission in at least one state for its possibly fraudulent business practices, but no wrongdoing has yet been recorded by federal authorities. Ackman said he would turn over all evidence from the investigation to regulators after the presentation.

(This story was updated with closing stock information)