Activist Short Sellers: Market Manipulators or Market Protectors?

by Joanna Lee

Introduction

Unlike the stereotypical investor who purchases stock with the hope of profiting from the share’s appreciated value, short sellers profit when the price of a company’s stock declines. A short seller “shorts” his position by borrowing shares from an investor-lender, and immediately selling the shares. The short seller closes his “short” position when he repurchases the shares (at a lower price than he sold for, in order to gain a profit) and returns the shares to the investor-lender. Reporters covering the financial industry monitor short positions because short sellers “make their money looking for targets of opportunity, and the existence of such targets is always newsworthy.”

On December 20, 2012 in a three-hour PowerPoint presentation, Pershing Square Capital Market’s William Ackman, a short seller and “activist investor,” began his crusade to expose Herbalife Ltd. as an “unsustainable ‘pyramid scheme.’” Ackman’s campaign launch caught the media’s attention. Herbalife Ltd. (NYSE:HLF) attempted to curb the damaging allegations by highlighting Ackman’s “misstatements and mistakes.” Michael Johnson, Herbalife Chief Executive Officer, equated Ackman’s campaign to nothing more than market “manipulat[ion]” to reduce Herbalife’s stock price for his own financial gain. Unfortunately for the company, Herbalife’s efforts were insufficient against Ackman’s mammoth campaign as cautious investors sold their positions and share prices fell.

The ensuing feud between Ackman and Herbalife Ltd. (NYSE:HLF) has focused on the “enormous short position” Ackman held against Herbalife prior to the conference. Analysts speculate that Ackman has already profited “hundreds of millions of dollars” from the decline in Herbalife’s share prices. Currently, United States’ securities laws do not require short sellers to disclose their positions, so until Ackman chooses to disclose, no one knows how much Ackman shorted on Herbalife. Given the motivation for market manipulation, as the Herbalife debacle exemplifies, some reporters recommend that Congress and the Securities and Exchange Commission (“SEC”) explore whether to implement filing requirements for investors that hold large shorts positions. This article, however, argues that the positive role that short sellers play in the market should be a factor that legislatures and regulators consider when deciding on regulation, as severe regulations could negate short seller’s helpful effect. Section B outlines the controversy behind Herbalife, explains why some critics, such as Ackman, have labeled the company a “Ponzi scheme,” and discusses short sellers’ negative reputation as market manipulators. Next, Section C provides examples of short sellers contributing to the market. Finally, Sections D and E discuss current regulations applicable to short sellers and potential future regulations.

Short Sellers, the Market Manipulators

The Herbalife case study demonstrates the powerful sway active short sellers hold over share prices in the stock market. Herbalife Ltd. (NYSE:HLF) has been developing and marketing nutrient-enhancing products since 1980, but over the years, critics have focused on Herbalife’s business model and practices instead of its products. Because Herbalife utilizes a multi-level marketing (“MLM”) structure, its products are not sold in stores, but rather are available solely through direct sales from “independent distributors.” A company that operates under the MLM structure compensates a distributor both from his “personal sales” to consumers and those from distributors that he recruits and trains.

Because distributors profit not just from their sales but from the sales of people that they recruit under the commission arrangement, some, such as Ackman, have criticized Herbalife as a “pyramid scheme.” Ackman went as far as to compare Herbalife’s commission structure to “a modern-day version of a Ponzi scheme.” Since independent distributors have the potential to earn far more from recruitment than personal sales, the commission system wrongly motivates independent distributors to sell the Herbalife system to new recruits rather than the Herbalife products to new customers, thereby turning the company into a pyramid scheme. Ackman supported his allegations with calculations derived from Herbalife’s “complicated system of recruitment and financial rewards and incentives.”

Because the investing community views Ackman as a celebrity, the financial media closely follows and analyzes his actions. Due to the wide exposure of his presentation, which induced fear and panic among some investors, Herbalife Ltd. (NYSE:HLF) ’s stock prices plummeted 38% in one week alone. Such a plummet in targeted companies is not uncommon—Herbalife faced a similar situation just last year with another prominent investor, David Einhorn. In May 2012, Einhorn, an investor at hedge fund firm Greenlight Capital Inc., participated on Herbalife’s earnings call. Because of his “investor celebrity” status, a few of Einhorn’s questions prompted share prices to drop as “investors fear[ed] he ha[d] discovered something wrong.” As predicted, his questions generated a loss of almost three billion dollars in Herbalife’s market value. Involuntarily drawn into scandal, Herbalife will be hard-pressed to regain normalcy.

See full Activist Short Sellers: Market Manipulators or Market Protectors? in PDF format here.

Activist Short Sellers: Market Manipulators or Market Protectors?