It was few days before Christmas and Sahm Adrangi (from Kerrisdale Capital) pinged me (on Google Voice) asking if I had an opinion on Herbalife.
I responded: "why bother? Crowded short."
I knew a little about Herbalife. It was a multi-level-marketing scheme (MLM) selling mostly weight loss products. This was a scheme where instead of buying weight loss products from a grocer or a specialist shop I purchased them from a friend. And the friend could make money two ways - either by selling product to me or recruiting me to sell product to other people.
I have long held a distaste for MLMs seeing how Amway used to behave in Western Sydney. Amway sold overpriced crap to distributors who were a collection of no-hopers and recovering drug dealers. (Contra: I also knew a very successful Avon lady... and she convinced me that MLMs sometimes sold useful products well.)
That said, Sahm just told me to listen to the Bill Ackman presentation. Sahm is crazy-smart so if he tells me to listen to something I listen.
Anyway, I unfurled myself on the couch at work for three hours of (Bill's) self indulgence.
Bill Ackman's thesis about Herbalife is that it is a pyramid scheme, hence
(b) unsustainable, or
(c) both illegal and unsustainable.
He has several key slides to support this thesis...
First he makes out that people don't really know what Herbalife is. He uses comparable companies being Church & Dwight, Energizer and Clorox.
I confess to knowing few Herbalife products - so this was modestly convincing.
He then - using that piece of rhetoric asserts that Formula 1
is the only $2 billion brand that "nobody has ever heard of".
So far, so good. He does not assert the sales are not real though (because they are). Indeed he acknowledges the company is real and that the gross margins are superior.
Through a process of elimination he shows that the gross margins are not a result of superior product (its a commodity), superior technology (they do not have any), superior R&D (they don't do any) or any of half a dozen other reasons you might have superior margins.
After that he asserts (and then tries to prove) that the gross margin and indeed the whole business comes about because it is a pyramid scheme
He uses an old Federal Trade Commission (FTC) definition of a pyramid scheme - and it is the definition which we will go with because this determines whether Herbalife is illegal (in the US anyway) and the FTC definition overlaps with what would commonly collapse as a pyramid anyway.
Here is the slide defining a pyramid scheme
This legal definition is the core to the whole Herbalife story - so I will write it out:
If an organization sells goods or services to the public and the participants in the organization obtain monetary benefits from (1) recruiting new members and (2) selling the organization's goods and services to consumers, the organization is deemed a pyramid scheme if the participants obtain their monetary benefits primarily from recruitment rather than the sale of goods and services to consumers. [Emphasis as per Bill Ackman...]
In summary: real sales to consumers is kosher. Sales to distributors (and not to end consumers) are not kosher. A little of the latter is OK (the distributors do need to have some stock). A lot of the latter is not.
The critical question is how much are sales to consumers.
And here the question arises: what is a sale to a consumer versus a sale to a distributor. After all if a distributor buys the product for their own use they are considered a consumer. If the distributor buys it to sell it (and they are stuck with it) then they are a failed distributor. End consumption is what matters here
Slide 119 asks this question fairly directly:
How much product purchased by Herbalife distributors is actually resold to Retail Customers?
The next slide repeats the now infamous David Einhorn question on a conference call (the one that caused the stock to drop 20 percent). It is a question that Herbalife answered very
Again I will quote because it is critical:
Question #1 from David Einhorn: "First how much of the sales that you'd make in terms of final sales are sold outside the network and how much are consumed within the distributor base?"
Answer: We don't track this number and do not believe it is relevant to the business or investors.
The full text of the Einhorn question and answer session is at the end of this post...
Bill Ackman does not state it - but the question was asked on 2 May 2012.
Anyway this is a terrible answer and left Herbalife open to the Ackman attack because a surprisingly large proportion of the sales are not to externals but to people who are signed up as distributors. Self consumption by distributors is a critical issue and the company said they did not track it
Three weeks later Herbalife was in damage repair mode - trying to distance themselves from this answer. Ackman puts up several slides dealing with this - a typical one is repeated below...
Again - for completeness I will put up the Ackman highlighted sections...
"...the attempt of Herbalife 101 was to break the distributors into single and multilevel. Why? Because A, it is truly single, and B, nobody questions single-level, knowing that most people who are in single-level aren't in it to make a lot of money. They are in it for part time or it self-consumption. If you go back to the old Avon model, before they were multilevel, right, self consumption, not even an issue. It is not covered on the FTC's website. It is expected."
I think it has been misrepresented as the product needs to be consumed outside the network, which it does not. A, the FTC said it does not. But B, wehn you think of the 82% of people at single-level, which is, again, that is all they are, it is not even a consideration as a challenge to the model.
Essentially the company eventually
answered David Einhorn by asserting that the single level distributors are basically self-consumers - and hence part of the consumption set rather than part of the distributor set.
And this is the critical question. If the single level distributors are distributors without end sales then this is a pyramid. If the single level distributors are really consumers then this is not a pyramid, is legal and probably sustainable.
The company clearly has some explaining to do. What they are asserting is that millions of people sign a 48 thousand word distribution agreement, pay a $55 fee to become a distributor and buy product then just consume it themselves anyway. Bill Ackman clearly thinks this is BS.
The company asserts they do this because if they sign up as a distributor they get a 25 percent discount. It makes their personal consumption cheaper.
Bill Ackman then asks the following (possibly rhetorical) question:
Again to quote:
Why would anyone pay $55 to get a 25% discount when Herbalife products are widely available online for discounts of more than 35%?
Ackman answers this question with the following slide:
Bluntly - and this is the critical step in his argument
that "We Believe the Majority of Herbalife's So-Called "Discount Buyers" are, in Fact, Failed Distributors" [punctuation in Ackman original].
About this time Sahm Adrangi pinged me again. It was one of those classic Sahm Adrangi observations - super-smart but I don't think how smart he realized it was.
He said that Ackman's assertion is really funny. He was imagining billions of dollars worth of Formula 1 diet supplements sitting on people's shelves or in their garages unsold. They sell almost two billion dollars worth of Formula 1 per year - on my count roughly 120 thousand metric tonnes per year. Most of that is sold to "distributors" who may or may not be "discount buyers". If they are - as Bill Ackman asserts - "failed distributors" then maybe 50 thousand tonnes of this stuff are building up on shelves and in garages every year.
If that 50 thousand tonne per annum build up is real then Bill Ackman is right.
And if that 50 thousand tonne per annum build up is not real then Bill Ackman is wrong. He is falsified. The whole Bill Ackman thesis falls apart.
We at Bronte are really into our epistemology
. We seek things that can falsify our thesis - and if our thesis does not conform to reality then it does not matter who we are (Bill Ackman or Richard Feynman) and it does not matter how smart we are, we are wrong. Indeed here is Richard Feynman explaining process...
Indeed this video (and you really should watch it - visitors by email should go to the blog) lays it out.
You make a guess. You calculate the implications of the guess. If those implications do not square with observation then the guess is wrong.
Ackman made a guess - the guess is that the "so called discount buyers are in fact failed distributors".
The guess implies that there is a 50 thousand tonne per annum build up of Formula 1 on shelves and in garages of failed distributors.
If that calculation does not conform to reality then Bill Ackman is wrong (and it does not matter who he is, how smart he is or how beautiful the thesis)...
Our attempts to observe the 50 thousand tonnes per annum build up...
At Bronte our version of investing nirvana is when we can find theses on which you can make or lose a lot of money. And then peculiarly we can design simple falsifiable tests. Sahm Adrangi (bless his brilliant soul) provided us our test...
Go find (or fail to find) that 50 thousand tonnes per annum build up...
To start I asked some Herbalife distributors (found via the internet) what their stockpile was.
The answers were so small that they could not possibly account for the necessary build up.
But I guess those are the successful distributors as they can be found via the internet.
So I tried to think like a failed distributor.
If I was a failed distributor I might have $2000 worth of this getting old on my shelf. I might (reasonably) want to recover some money. So I would sell it.
Where? Craigs List or Ebay.
If I found lots of desperate distributors - failed ones - selling it on Ebay then Bill Ackman is probably right. If there are no such people then Bill Ackman is wrong. Simple test. And I can do it for any city or country in the world from my desk at home
. For example I could use a proxy server and log into Ebay in France and test there. Which is what I did.
Anyway here is an example - Craigs List, Chicago, complete Herbalife listing...
It is a grand total of six people, five of whom present as small time failed customer/distributors and one of whom is trolling for business as a continuing distributor. The small-time distributors have some opened product (as in I started this diet and it was not for me).
I have done this test for many cities - and I simply have not found the level of distress. However if you go to a city with a large Hispanic population you find a lot of adverts. Los Angeles has many but almost all of them are continuing distributors wanting to sell products
. This is a typical advert:
This person has been advertising on Craigs List for some time.
There are also adverts pitching that if you "sign up with me" you can have a permanent 25 percent off your Herbalife products...
In other words they are pitching precisely the offer that Bill Ackman (rhetorically) thinks is implausible.
So far I have found nothing like the level of distress that would be implied if Bill Ackman's thesis is correct.
So I looked at Ebay. Linked
is a typical seller... the seller has sold well over 2000 Herbalife items, all with a minimum price (typically a 35 percent discount to retail) and over a multi-year period. They often detail their use-by dates - and those use-by dates change over time (suggesting that the product was purchased at dates that also changed over time).
When you try to communicate with one of these sellers you work out the truth. They are higher-level distributors. They buy the stuff effectively at a 50 percent discount (or 42 percent discount) and sell it at a 35 percent discount and thus make a profit. They are not failed distributors
. Instead they are discounters gaming the system by trying to capture the bulk of the profits of the chain.
I looked and looked. Honestly I did. And I could find no evidence of large sales at distress - the sort of sales that would happen if there were 50 thousand tonnes per year build up of unsold inventory in the hands of "failed distributors"
And so we have it. Bill Ackman had a thesis. I calculated the implications of that thesis (distress selling on Ebay and Craigs List). This observation did not accord with reality.
Therefore Bill Ackman is wrong. And it does not matter how beautiful Bill Ackman is, how smart he is, how rich he is, or whatever. He is still wrong. And there isn't any room for argument about it.
PS. Bill Ackman being wrong does not make the stock a great buy. Indeed Bill Ackman being wrong does not tell me the truth. I can't find the truth with any certainty. I can only falsify ... I have a series of theses about the truth but they are subject of other posts...
There could be one of hundreds of other things wrong with the company (and hopefully those are testable things).
But we can be certain of one thing: Herbalife is not a pyramid scheme in the sense promoted by Bill Ackman. We can take the 300 page Bill Ackman presentation and throw it out. Falsified...
And any journalist (Michelle Celarier) who continues to take Bill Ackman seriously on this issue has disconnected from reality.
Appendix - the full text of the Einhorn question and answer session
I've got a couple of questions for you. First is how much of the sales that you make in terms of final sales are sold outside the network and how much are consumed within the distributor base?
So, David, we have a 70% customer rule, which effectively says that 70% of all products is sold to consumers or actually consumed by distributors for their own personal use. So, obviously, what we've seen with Nutrition Clubs is that we now have visibility for the first time to our customers. You know that we reported on this call for the first time, the number of commercial clubs around the world, which is in excess of 30,000. So that has given us visibility to the tremendous amount of products that are being sold directly to the consumers and we see that as a growing trend in our business.
So what is the percentage that is actually sold to consumers that are not distributors?
So we don't have an exact percentage, David, because we don't have visibility to that level of detail.
Do you have an approximation?
So well, again going back to our 70% rule, we believe that it's at 70% or potentially in excess of that.
Okay. What is the incentive for a supervisor to sign somebody up to become a distributor as opposed to -- if they're just going to consume it for themselves, as opposed to just selling them the product for the markup? How does the supervisor come out better?
Sure. So I think there's 2 reasons for that. So we know from our business today that many of our future supervisors and business builders come in as customers and then they become distributors. So the benefit from a supervisor is the ability for a greater retention of that customer/distributor because they are now earning a 25% discount. The second issue is that it preserves lineage. So obviously, if I sign you up, David, as a distributor, my hope and expectation is that based on the tremendous product result that you're going to achieve, that you will have friends and families go to you and say, gosh, David you look great, what are you on? You're going to respond and say I'm Herbalife and that will encourage you to say, wow, maybe this is a business opportunity I could be interested in. So the benefit for me as your supervisor is one, the discount that would get and therefore, my greater likelihood of retaining you as a permanent customer. And secondly, the hope that at some stage, you will decide to do the business and therefore, that you are already in my lineage and is part of my group.
But just trying to understand this clearly. If I sell to a customer -- I bought it, I'm a supervisor, I buy at a 50% discount, I sell to a customer and make 50 points if he pays the full price. If he signs up as a distributor and buys it himself, he gets a 25% discount and I get 7 points as a royalty, is that how it works?
No. You will get the other 25%.
I'll get the 25% plus the 7.
So unless you're earning royalties, you would simply earn the difference. So you're in a 50% discount, you're selling at a 25% discount. And so the difference between the 2 is your profit on that sale.
Right. So if he signs up as a distributor and buys it for himself from Herbalife, I still get the 25%?
That is correct.
Okay, good. One last question. When you had your previous 10-K, you disclosed 3 groups of distributors at the low end. You called 29% self consumers, 57% smaller retailers and 14% potential Sales Leaders. And then that disclosure did not repeat in the subsequent 10-K. So I've got 2 questions. First of all, how do you track that and how do you characterize and know which ones are which? And second, why did you stop disclosing that in the last 10-K? Is that something that you've stopped tracking or just stopped disclosing?
John G. DeSimone
This is John. The criteria for grouping distributors into different classes was based off of their volume purchases. And we make assumptions that people below are a certain volume weren't doing the business, they were buying self consumption. And I don't remember the exact amounts but I can get it to you after the call. It's how we delineated between the 3 classes. One of the reasons we took it out of the 10-K is a change in CFO for which to me, I didn't view it as valuable information to the business or to the investors. However, we can easily provide the exact same breakout going forward if you like. I could email it to you and to our investors. Again, I don't remember the exact delineation between the 3 classes but I can certainly get it to you. Our objective is to be completely transparent.