Herbalife Ltd. (HLF) Stock Manipulation 101: Using Stock Buybacks to Mask Deep Business Problems by Tony Sagami, Mauldin Economics
Stock buybacks are always a good thing… right? That’s what the mass media has trained investors to believe, but there are times when stock buybacks are a horrible strategy.
Let’s take a look at Herbalife, which has had very visible news items as billionaires like Carl Icahn, George Soros, Daniel Loeb, and Bill Ackman publicly debate the future of the company.
Herbalife shares have lost more than half their value in 2014 because of a Federal Trade Commission investigation and a big drop in profits. 50% is a huge haircut, but I believe Herbalife is poised for even more pain.
Rapidly Disappearing Profits
Herbalife recently reported its third-quarter results and they were just awful. Herbalife earned $0.13 per share in Q3, but that was a whopping 92% decline from the $1.32 it earned last year.
That’s awful, but Herbalife says business will be even worse going forward. The Wall Street crowd expected Herbalife to grow revenues by 7% in 2015, but the company said that its revenues will fall by -1% to -2% instead.
Part of that lower guidance is from the impact of the strong US dollar. Guidance for Q4 includes an unfavorable impact of $0.31 from currency conversions. If you remember, I previously wrote that the strong dollar was going to kill the 2015 profits of companies that do lots of business overseas.
I have to admit, I am skeptical of all the multilevel marketing businesses, but Herbalife is reinforcing that preconceived notion.
FTC and FBI Investigation
The Federal Trade Commission is investigating Herbalife for what could ultimately result in charges that Herbalife is operating an illegal pyramid scheme.
In March, the FTC sent Herbalife a civil investigative demand (CID), which is a subpoena on steroids because all the evidence produced by a CID can be used by other agencies in other investigations, such as the FBI, which is also investigating Herbalife.
The FTC outcome is unknown. Heck, Herbalife could eventually be declared innocent and pure… but I wouldn’t bet on it.
Board Members Gone Bad!
When your company is in the middle of FTC and FBI investigations, the last thing you want is for your company officers to get in trouble with the law. A current Herbalife board member, Pedro Cardoso, has been charged with illegal money laundering by Brazilian prosecutors. Time will tell if the charges are true… but it looks very bad.
That’s not the only problem with the Herbalife board of directors. Longtime Herbalife Ltd. (NYSE:HLF) Board Member Leroy Barnes announced that he is leaving. Board members leave for legitimate reasons all the time, but Barnes is the fourth Herbalife board member to leave in 2014. Talk about rats jumping the ship!
The Smoke and Mirrors of Stock Buybacks
The above issues are all serious and enough to stay away from Herbalife, but the biggest red flag I see is the abusive financial engineering that Herbalife is using to prop up its stock.
Example: In Q2, Herbalife spent over $500 million to buy back its own stock for the purpose of propping up its earnings-per-share ratio. Fewer shares translates into higher earnings per share.
The root of the problem is that Herbalife Ltd. (NYSE:HLF) is using up all its cash AND borrowing money like mad to finance the stock buyback.
In the last year, Herbalife’s debt has exploded by over $1 billion. Herbalife is using every penny of operating cash flow and taking on new debt just to buy back its stock.
Moreover, since Herbalife Ltd. (NYSE:HLF)’s stock has plunged by 50% this year, Herbalife wasted hundreds of millions of dollar of shareholder money by buying stock at much higher prices.
And now that revenue, profits, and free cash flow generated by operations are shrinking, Herbalife is on a collision course with insolvency.
Carl Icahn, who is certainly a much better investor than I will ever be, is a big Herbalife fan and even went as far as to call the shares undervalued. “I would tell you I do believe Herbalife is quite undervalued and it is still a good business model.”
Ahhhh… Carl… sorry, but I think you couldn’t be more wrong.
George Soros, by the way, appears to agree with me because he reduced his Herbalife Ltd. (NYSE:HLF) holdings by 60% after the company reported those disastrous third-quarter results a few weeks ago.
I’m not suggesting that you rush out and buy put options on Herbalife tomorrow morning. As always, timing is everything, but I have very little doubt that Herbalife’s stock will be significantly lower a year from now.
Moreover, the real point isn’t whether Herbalife is headed higher or lower, but that good, old-fashioned fundamental research can help you make money in any type of market environment.
Even during bear markets.
30-year market expert Tony Sagami leads the Yield Shark and Rational Bear advisories at Mauldin Economics. To learn more about Yield Shark and how it helps you maximize dividend income, click here. To learn more about Rational Bear and how you can use it to benefit from falling stocks and sectors, click here.