By Svea Herbst-Bayliss
BOSTON, March 11 (Reuters) - Billionaire investor William Ackman renewed his attack on Herbalife on Tuesday, saying he has evidence showing the nutrition and weight loss company is breaking direct-selling laws in China, its fastest growing market.
The company said it follows local laws, and Chinese regulators have yet to comment on the matter.
Ackman, who has placed a $1 billion short bet against Herbalife, said the company is breaking the law in China by making recruits pay an entry fee and by letting distributors recruit new members. He also said the company is disguising its sales to distributors as hourly consulting fees.
He made the claim on a conference call that lasted more than two hours and drew some 300 listeners.
He was joined on the call by one of his lawyers, David Klafter, and Aaron Smith-Levin, whose OTG research firm conducted interviews with Herbalife distributors in China, and Ben Hakim, one of his partners.
“My understanding of the facts and law in China is yes, they are violating both civil and criminal law” in China, Klafter, a senior counsel at Ackman’s hedge fund Pershing Square Capital Management, said on the conference call.
Ackman and his team said this presentation is a first step toward bringing Pershing Square’s concerns to the attention of Chinese officials.
Herbalife said sales in China rose more than 120 percent in the fourth quarter of 2013, the fastest of any region worldwide, contributing about 10 percent to global sales last year. The company has 200,000 sales representatives in the country and uses a “unique marketing program” to meet Chinese regulations, it said in its latest annual report.
Herbalife has said it remains confident in its business in China and said it is in compliance with local laws.
Direct sales models have recently come under fire in China. Authorities launched a probe into Herbalife rival NU Skin Enterprises Inc in January after state media published reports that it brainwashed its members. Shares of NU Skin, Herbalife and rival USANA Health Sciences Inc fell on news of the probe.
Ackman has accused Herbalife of running a pyramid scheme in which members make more money recruiting new members than selling the actual product. He made that claim public in December 2012 when he unveiled a $1 billion short position in the company’s shares. So far he has lost money on the bet as rivals such as Carl Icahn took the other side.
The company says its business is not a pyramid scheme.
Despite the paper losses, Ackman said he is sticking by his bet, showing no fatigue on the conference call where he answered wide ranging questions from listeners. In the 14 months since making his short bet public, Ackman said he has found fresh evidence nearly daily that is convincing him to stick by his original bet. If Herbalife ceased to exist right now he would make a few billion dollars, he said.
But there is no sign yet that Herbalife is near collapse, particularly since no regulator has yet commented publicly about its intentions in spite of heavy lobbying from Ackman.
Ackman also suffered another blow on Tuesday when lawmakers agreed on a broad outline to replace mortgage lenders Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac in which Ackman owns common shares and likely suffered hundreds of millions in losses. Recent sharp gains in those stocks helped Ackman’s fund return roughly 12 percent this year, far better than the average hedge fund’s 1.4 percent gain this year.
On Herbalife, he acknowledged that there is investment risk if regulators do nothing, a factor that he cannot control.
Many on the conference call asked why there are virtually no public stories about people who have lost their life savings on investments in Herbalife.
Ackman said civil rights groups have identified over 1,000 victims and that this firm has found roughly 200 victims. But he said many victims are reluctant to go public because they do not realize they have been cheated or are embarrassed about it. Also “a lot of Latino victims are undocumented and the last thing they will do is complain to the government,” Ackman said.
Fresh media attention, including a front page article in the New York Times on Monday, should help galvanize regulators into reviewing the matter, he said.
Herbalife’s share price closed down 1.16 percent at $65.39.