Icahn Eyes 'Strategic Options' for Herbalife After FTC Settlement

Billionaire raider turned activist Carl Icahn on Friday said that a settlement Herbalife's (HLF)  just struck with the Federal Trade Commission clears the way for the nutritional supplements distributor to consider a range of strategic options including a potential roll-up with competitors.

The settlement is a blow to rival activist investor Bill Ackman's Pershing Square who under took a multi-year activist $2 billion short-selling campaign asserting that Herbalife was a "ponzi scheme" with a worthless stock that should trade at zero.

Prodded by Ackman's campaign, the FTC conducted a more than two-year investigation launched in March 2014 that concluded Friday that Herbalife must pay a $200 million to compensate consumers to settle the agency's charges that it "deceived consumers into believing they could earn substantial money selling diet, nutritional supplement, and personal care products." It also will pay $3 million to the Illinois Attorney General as part of the settlement.

However, Icahn launched a significant public campaign in opposition to Ackman and in support of Herbalife. The two billionaire insurgents at times clashed publicly over the issue, including one CNBC TV interview on the issue in 2013 where Icahn said he "really sort of had it with this guy Ackman." However, the two hugged it out at a CNBC conference in 2014 and appear to have gotten over their differences. Icahn said Friday he is on friendly terms with Ackman though the two disagree "vehemently" on the subject.

On Friday, Icahn also eyed strategic options for Herbalife now that the "cloud" over its operations are gone. He said Herbalife will "continue to grow and continue to provide much needed employment for many more hard-working people" and that it should consider a range of strategic options in the wake of the settlement, including a potential roll-ups with competitors as well as other "strategic transactions." Icahn didn't provide any further details about what specific strategic options he may want. 

Timothy Ramey, a food, beverage and nutrition analyst at Pivotal in New York, suggested that Icahn is likely seeking to have Herbalife consider "rolling up" or acquiring Usana Health Sciences Inc. (USNA) , which develops and sells science-based nutritional and personal care products. "Usana is a perfect fit for Herbalife," said Ramey in an interview. "It has a big Chinese organization that is complementary to Herbalife."

He didn't think a combination of Herbalife and another major competitor, Nu Skin Enterprises Inc. (NUS) made as much sense. "I think an Herbalife combination with Usana makes the most sense," he said.

Ramey also suggested that Icahn's comments about "a range of strategic options" could also mean he may want it to consider some form of leveraged buyout.

Icahn has a lot of influence about what will likely take place next at Herbalife. He has a 17% stake, according to a May, 2013 securities filing, and five directors on the company's 13-person board including the fund's assistant general counsel, Jesse Lynn and CEO of Icahn Enterprises, Keith Cozza. Herbalife announced Friday that Icahn could hike his stake from 25% to 35% of the company's shares and Icahn said he was "pleased" by the move.

As far as the settlement, Ramey said that it was a "total victory" for Herbalife shareholders and "total defeat" for the short sellers. "This deal is consistent with our long-held view that while the company has had certain historic weaknesses in its compliance and oversight, it is a legal and ethical business model with the best-in-industry compliance function today," Ramey said.

Herbalife has a large Chinese operation. In fact, Ramey notes that the U.S. accounts for only 20% of Herbalife's sales. A large part of Ackman's campaign involved targeting Herbalife's Chinese operations. In 2014, Ackman held a two hour question and answer session to discuss an investigation he launched over Herbalife's Chinese operations. Ackman has alleged that Herbalife is an illegal pyramid scheme that functions by continuously bringing on new distributors rather than predominantly through product sales.

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