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Greenberg: Ackman and Herbalife -- The Day After

By: Herb Greenberg | 07/23/14 - 09:45 AM EDT

Stocks in this article: HLF

NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- Funny what a good night's sleep away from the intensity and noise of a network newsroom will do.

During Bill Ackman's presentation on Herbalife  (HLF) Tuesday, I was surrounded by people who kept coming up to me, shrugging and wondering where the beef was -- pointing to the screen hanging over the newsroom that showed a stock price that suggested he had nothing. I had headphones in my ears as I was trying to concentrate through the distractions, jumping on and off TV several times at CNBC to give a quick opinion.

As I wrote in a blog post Tuesday night, Ackman's presentation was clearly an "anticappointment."

Yet it was blockbuster or would have been considered a blockbuster if it was being presented to an investment committee at a hedge fund to support a position. And it would have been blockbuster if it was written as a 5,000 word piece in a major newspaper or online investigative site like Pro-Publica, based on the superb investigative skills of the no-razzle-dazzle Christine Richard, a former journalist who has worked at Dow Jones and Bloomberg and was contracted by Ackman to do much of the digging. (Sorry to break the news to you, but good investigative reporters often aren't good TV.)

But in this world of Wall Street, where all anybody cares about is the symbol and the next trade, Ackman made two mistakes:

1. Going on TV the day before and priming the pump for investors to expect something blockbuster, and

2. Not thinking like a TV producer -- something, as a former print newspaper guy, that still sometimes gets lost on me in the world of TV, where the mantra is "Just tell us the headline"

Instead -- silly him -- what Ackman did was lay out, step by step, in the laborious, methodical and even sometimes boring nature of an investigation, what he found. He was giving viewers in a world where attention spans are shorter than memories, too much credit for caring about the details.

And because he's short the stock, the pushback was that he can't be trusted because he's biased, which, of course, is absurd. (Everybody is biased, even longs.)

As I tweeted at one point during the presentation:

Reality: This $HLF presentation is boring, laborious. But so are investigations. Devil is in detail; Wall St wants 1 bombshell, not detail.

I was trying to make a point, lost obviously on anybody and everybody. In yet another tweet, as the stock continued to rise:

$HLF case being laid out, all Wall Street wants is the headline! Just the symbol, please!!!

And much of the presentation was spent talking about something 90% of the people trading in-and-out of Herbalife have never heard and couldn't care less about, yet is perhaps the most important part of the story: The growing significance of Herbalife's so-called nutrition clubs, which the company itself can't speak enough about.

What Ackman -- actually Richards -- pointed out was the result of visits to hundreds of clubs.

In my own investigation of Herbalife for CNBC, even after 10 months, I marveled at how complicated Herbalife was -- how little of it was intuitive to understand. After thinking I had figured it out, I would realize there was yet another layer to the onion.

When people hear "Enron," which Ackman at one point evoked, they think definitive numbers hidden off-balance sheet; they don't think about the apparent anecdotal nature of an investigation's findings, and how they're really pieces of a puzzle.

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Herb Greenberg, editor of Herb Greenberg's Reality Check, is a contributor to CNBC. He does not own shares, short or trade shares in an individual corporate security. He can be reached at herbonthestreet@thestreet.com.

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