UPDATE 3-Herbalife buyback fails to halt stock slide

Thu May 3, 2012 4:37pm EDT

* Survey finds that CEO Johnson highest paid chief executive

* Company to buy back about $428 million of shares

* Says shares are undervalued

* Stock closes down 12 pct

May 3 (Reuters) - Shares of Herbalife Ltd fell for a third day, even after the company accelerated a share buyback program, extending a slide that began after influential short-seller David Einhorn pressed the company on details of its distributor network.

Meanwhile, Herbalife shareholders found out that according to a survey by corporate governance research firm GMI Ratings, their CEO Michael Johnson was the highest paid among all U.S. chief executives.

The company, which has now lost about a third of its value since Einhorn raised his questions in a post-earnings conference call on Tuesday, said it would buy back about $428 million worth of shares because it felt they were undervalued.

Some analysts agreed. "We feel this recent sell off in shares of Herbalife will ... prove to be an attractive entry point for the stock," said Rommel Dionisio at Wedbush Securities.

Linda Weiser of Caris & Co reiterated her 'buy' rating on the stock on Wednesday, dismissing market chatter that lumped Herbalife with Green Mountain Coffee Roasters Inc, another stock that Einhorn has targeted.

Einhorn's questioning of Green Mountain' accounting practices last year started a long slide in that stock that culminated in a 50 percent fall on Thursday.

Trader chatter on Twitter suggested that the crash of Green Mountain's stock appeared to bear out at least some of Einhorn's criticisms of that company and heightened concerns that he had found something wrong at Herbalife as well.

Einhorn, who famously shorted Lehman Brothers ahead of the 2008 financial crisis, did not make any critical comments during Herbalife's conference call. But his reputation for spotting companies to bet against was enough to send the stock reeling.

Herbalife revealed details of its distribution groups on Wednesday, in response to Einhorn's main line of questioning, but that failed to arrest the stock fall.

About 5 percent of Herbalife's stock was held in short positions as of April 13, according to Thomson Reuters data. In contrast, only about 1 percent of larger rival Avon Products Inc's shares are held short.

Einhorn's position in Herbalife is not known, but investors will be watching for his presentation at the annual Ira Sohn Investment Research Conference on May 16 in New York for any mention of the company.

Herbalife shares closed down 12 percent at $46.20 on the New York Stock Exchange. The company's market value has dropped by about $2.82 billion since Einhorn made his remarks.

Buybacks are a key strategy for companies looking to stem a fall in their share price and defend against short-sellers.

"Herbalife just reported its best quarter in its 32-year history and has confidence in its business fundamentals, financial results and earning power," the company said in a statement announcing the buyback.

The company, which has retained Merrill Lynch for the program, said it would pay for it from cash on hand and borrowings under a senior secured revolving credit facility.

According to the pay survey report released by GMI on Thursday, CEO Johnson made about $89.4 million on an annualized basis, as of April 2012. About $76.9 million of that came from exercising his stock options.

Most of the awards were made early in his career as CEO, following his appointment to the top job in 2003. From when the company went public the next year, the stock has grown nearly ten-fold to the life high of $73.00 it hit in late April.

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