The Herbalife (NYSE:HLF) media coverage may have quieted down a bit in the last week or two, but the battle rages on. We found out that Carl Icahn, in fact, does have a stake in the company while Bill Ackman has not covered a single share of his billion-dollar short. We also know that Dan Loeb -- who was the original super bull after Ackman's December presentation -- has trimmed his position in the company. Of course, the question still remains whether Herbalife can be deemed a fraud or not. Let's take a look at recent developments surrounding the too-hot-for-tv debacle to try and figure out where the company is headed into today's earnings report.
Previously on The Herbal-Life
While CNBC took its focus away from the Ackman versus Icahn blowout to focus on hopefully more substantial news, the story continued to develop. By a mixture of open market share purchases and call options, Carl Icahn amassed a 13% long position in Herbalife, confirming the suspicions of many after the corporate raider got into an extremely heated debate on live television with Bill Ackman. The position is reportedly very well built --with a combination of American-style calls and European puts that allow Icahn to exit whenever he pleases while also putting a tremendous squeeze on Ackman's billion-dollar short. To me, it reeks of personal vendetta.
On the less nefarious end of things, Daniel Loeb's Third Point Capital has been unloading its own shares of Herbalife after initially taking a stake right after Ackman's December presentation at the Sohn Conference. Ackman had said at the time he believes Dan is a smart and talented investor and he was trading Herbalife -- not investing. The fact that Loeb has spent less than two months in the position confirms this, dead on. Third Point still holds a position in the company, sources say, but we do not know the exact amount.
In late January, Herbalife announced that its fourth-quarter numbers came in above expectations and that the company was moving forward with a share buyback. Wall Street is expecting 19% sales growth and EPS growth from $0.86 in the prior year to $1.03 in 2012. The company reports its earnings today.
What's an investor to do?
As most other Fool writers covering the story have said, Herbalife stock should be on no one's shopping list. Not necessarily because it could be a pyramid scheme or not, but because there is way too much going on around the stock for the market to behave anywhere close to reasonably -- something it already has tremendous trouble in achieving even in much calmer times. Still, it is important to keep abreast of the situation, as any further clarity could create an opportunity -- long or short.
The question on most minds is whether Icahn's 13% stake is a sign of true faith in the company, or just a very expensive stink bomb sent to Ackman's office. When Dan Loeb first took his long position, he stated that his team had thoroughly analyzed Herbalife's business practices and found Ackman to be wrong and that the company was unfairly undervalued. Yet, by mid February, he is exiting his position. Will Icahn do something similar? The company is bound to impress analysts and investors with its upcoming earnings release, so there should be another near-term catalyst to boost the share price.
Of course, we cannot know for sure whether Icahn is doing this out of well-researched analysis or out of spite. But judging by the extremely harsh words the investor has for Bill Ackman, and Icahn's history of using brass tactics to make a penny, it sure does look like a personal issue.
Icahn, Ackman, and Loeb are all very talented money managers with the track record to prove it. One cannot discredit their investing prowess. But I do not think that investors should look at Icahn's stake in Herbalife as a strong sign for the company going forward. I repeat: this is not the time to take a long position in Herbalife. If you are still interested in the company six months from now, take a look at Icahn's position (if it still exists), that will tell you a lot about whether the money manager was truly bullish behind Herbalife, or just bearish on Ackman.
If you have missed every sentence in this article prior to this one, just understand that it is downright dangerous to take a long or short position in Herbalife at this time.