Shareholders of Herbalife (HLF) have to be feeling a little punch-drunk lately.
For the past two years, shares of the multi-level marketer have shown price volatility – as activist investors Bill Ackman and Carl Icahn go toe-to-toe over the stock.
And just as it seemed the company was finally able to put some significant issues behind it…
Federal law enforcement agencies are investigating the legality of the company’s “business practices.”
Once the feds contacted several Herbalife executives regarding the business model, shares took a 3% hit in Monday’s pre-market action.
But despite the early news, the stock rallied throughout the day, rising 1% to close – thanks to the company’s announcement that it’ll start selling products on its own website.
As of Monday’s close, the stock has jumped more than 14.9% higher year to date. Yet it remains 25% lower in the last 12 months, meaning it’s been struggling over the long haul.
The feds aren’t the only ones questioning Herbalife, either.
Battle of the Billionaire Heavyweights
Pershing Square Capital Management, the hedge fund run by Bill Ackman, isn’t thrilled with the company.
The hedge fund has accused Herbalife of operating a pyramid scheme that causes financial harm to individuals susceptible to the false financial claims of Herbalife.
Ackman claims that 88% of Herbalife’s independent contractors make no money, while 96% of sales leaders earn less than half of the minimum wage.
Based on these (and other) facts, Ackman has shorted more than 20 million shares – totaling $1 billion – on the belief that regulators will eventually close down Herbalife as an illegal pyramid scheme.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), as well as New York prosecutors are all ostensibly conducting investigations.
Now, while many investors agree with Ackman in principle, on the other side of the argument is activist billionaire investor Carl Icahn – Herbalife’s biggest shareholder.
Interestingly, Icahn only took a long position in Herbalife after he learned of Ackman’s short position, likely because Icahn apparently isn’t a fan of Ackman, as evidenced by publicly calling him a “crybaby” on CNBC.
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For now, Icahn is defending Herbalife’s business practices, while also accusing Ackman of manipulating the markets to save his short positions – now believed to be profitable after many months underwater.
Is the Stock Undervalued Now?
Shares of Herbalife have been under pressure for some time now.
The company’s performance fell short of expectations in 2014, likely the result of the almost-continuous bickering between the billionaires.
For 2014, Herbalife reported revenue of $5 billion, a slight 3% increase over 2013 numbers.
The company generated $500 million in cash flow from operations for 2014, while also paying $30.4 million in dividends and repurchasing common shares totaling more than $1.3 billion.
Now, despite the lackluster revenue performance, full-year adjusted earnings per share (EPS) increased 10.4% to $5.93 per diluted share in 2014. However, the company is less optimistic for 2015.
Currently, HLF expects 2015 EPS to fall in a range of $4.10 to $4.50 per share, with a consensus estimate of $4.28 per diluted share.
Applying a conservative 13.9 multiple to the consensus estimate gives a fair value to the stock of about $59.50 per share – a 37.2% premium to Monday’s closing price.
A Sober Perspective
At the end of the day, investment decisions are based on a company’s fundamentals.
And as my colleague, Louis Basenese, wrote back in 2012, Herbalife is designed around a flawed sales system that requires an almost-endless supply of new distributors to replace those who have lost their shirts selling the company’s products.
And this remains true despite the company selling products directly on its website.
Smart investors will let the billionaires battle it out to the end. They can afford the losses.
But for the average investor looking to save for retirement, Herbalife can be the company that provides a knockout blow to a portfolio. Don’t do it.