Is Herbalife Finally Getting Seriously Worried About Ackman?

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Since he made his presentation on the business practices of Herbalife Ltd. (NYSE: HLF) in China last Tuesday, Pershing Square Capital Management’s William Ackman has turned up the heat even higher on the nutritional supplement company. Herbalife announced Thursday that it is postponing its annual general meeting of shareholders for five days, until April 29, in order to continue its discussions with activist investor Carl Icahn, who owns 17% of Herbalife’s stock and wants to add to his two board seats.

Maybe it will actually take another five days to conclude discussions with Icahn, but more likely Ackman got the attention of current members of Herbalife’s board of directors with his warning that they face “enormous personal liability” if the company is adjudged to be a pyramid scheme. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) announced that it had filed a civil investigative demand on Herbalife, which implies that the commission has opened an investigation on the company’s business practices.

The interesting part is the threat Ackman refers to with relation to the company’s board members. He took a shot at Herbalife distributor and board member John Tartol in February. Tartol has been associated with the company for 32 years and a board member since 2005. A former board member, Leslie Stanford, who is a member of the company’s Founder’s Circle and who served on the board from 2002 to 2005, also has been an Ackman target.

Icahn, Dan Loeb, George Soros and others have sided with the company against Ackman’s charges, but Icahn, with billions at stake, may be taking a closer look at Ackman’s latest missile about the culpability of a board member if the company is determined to be a pyramid scheme. Icahn may be using his leverage on Herbalife to guarantee in some way that if the company gets flamed, he will not get burned.

Either Herbalife gives Icahn the protection he wants or he walks. Because he has been the company’s loudest defender, even a small sale of his shares would just hammer the stock.

Herbalife shares were up about 2% in the early afternoon, at $58.55 in a 52-week range of $34.72 to $83.51.

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