It was the investing world's equivalent to a professional wrestling match. On Friday, CNBC aired a live telephone smackdown between hedge fund manager Bill Ackman and billionaire investor Carl Icahn. Insults flew back and forth in the bizarre yet entertaining verbal fight spurred by Ackman's attacks on network marketing company Herbalife (NYSE:HLF).
While the intensely combative conversation made for compelling television, I couldn't help but wonder if any good can come of the skirmish. After mulling over what was said on Friday, I think that perhaps there are some lessons buried amid all of the trash talking. Here are three ways to possibly win from the Herbalife hoopla -- compliments of Ackman and Icahn.
1. Win by trading vs. investing
As any longtime reader of The Motley Fool knows, our focus is on investing for the long run and not trading for the short term. However, we're looking for lessons from this battle, and winning by trading is one of those lessons.
Bill Ackman repeatedly mentioned the opportunity to make money in Herbalife via trading. He stated that hedge fund manager Dan Loeb went long on the stock because "[he] is in it for a trade." After referring to Carl Icahn as "a bully" and saying that he "either has a very, very bad memory or he has trouble with the truth", Ackman congratulated Icahn on a "good trade." This stemmed from Ackman's supposition that Icahn had bought Herbalife shares after they fell and sold after the stock rebounded.
Traders who bought Herbalife after it began to bounce back and sold after it regained its price levels prior to Ackman's public allegations made over 50% returns within a few weeks. Could that performance be repeated? Probably not to those levels. However, Ackman indicated on CNBC that more information about Herbalife's alleged problems would be forthcoming. Additional big swings seem likely.
Keep in mind that timing these kinds of trades is much easier said than done. That's one of the key reasons the Fool doesn't recommend this alternative as a way to win over the long run.
2. Win by investing vs. trading
If we assume that Herbalife will continue to grow, the current price is quite attractive. The company has a trailing price/earnings ratio around 10 and a forward multiple below 9. My hunch is that Herbalife will keep on selling its weight loss shakes across the world at a solid pace. If it does so, shares are likely to go up over the long run and make considerable profits for investors who aren't shaken out by temporary fluctuations.
However, that scenario won't happen if the Federal Trade Commission shuts the company down. Is Herbalife running an illegal pyramid scheme that would result in this dire scenario? I don't think so. There is a risk that the FTC could take action, though, so investors shouldn't entirely dismiss the possibility.
Speaking of risk, Icahn questioned Ackman's prudence in taking a 20% short position in Herbalife because of the risk involved. His exact phrase was that "this could be the mother of all short squeezes." He made a good point, regardless of the stock and whether you go long or short. Managing risk by limiting position sizes in any one equity improves your chances of winning over time.
3. Win from guilt by association
Ackman put his finger on another way to possibly win from the Herbalife controversy. He mentioned rumors that Dan Loeb has a short position in another multilevel marketer, Nu Skin (NYSE:NUS). Interestingly, Ackman seemed to go out of his way to say nice things about Nu Skin. He noted that the company's fundamentals look great and went on to add that Nu Skin "distanced themselves from Herbalife" and "gave some very good data points for why they're not a pyramid scheme."
When the allegations about Herbalife were made public, shares of several network marketing companies fell along with Herbalife's. Nu Skin's stock dropped 28%. Medifast (NYSE:MED) and Usana (NYSE:USNA) shares sank by 17%. However, as fears diminished all of the stocks rebounded at least somewhat.
If Ackman's strategy pays off and the FTC finds that Herbalife is a pyramid scheme, these other companies' shares would drop significantly also due to guilt by association. However, assuming that one or more of them actually aren't pyramid schemes, that would present a great buying opportunity for long-term investors. I haven't researched the business models of these companies to draw a conclusion one way or the other, but the point is that investors can do the research for themselves and possibly find a way to profit in these types of scenarios.
The saga continues
The Herbalife saga isn't over. Expect more twists and turns along the way. But there are always lessons to be learned, even from broadcast brawls between billionaires.