It's a company whose business model is hard to figure out and which has little economic relevance. It could go out of business tomorrow and most of us wouldn't even notice. Its stock is being toyed with by a handful of billionaire investors who might as well be playing Monopoly. Maybe the L.A.-based company will go private. Maybe it won't. Whatever happens won't mean much except to the shareholders who are being held hostage to the maneuverings of these rich guys. If investors bought shares five years ago, they're up 78 percent. If they bought a year ago, they're down 36 percent (the Dow is up 9.3 percent for the same period). Buying into Herbalife is like walking into a dark alley. Carl Icahn, who has accumulated a 13 percent stake, says the company has a bright future. William Ackman, who claims it's a Ponzi scheme, says it's likely to crash. Let me ask the obvious question: Either way, why should we care?
*Update: Why should we care? Well, as the LAT reports, budding entrepreneurs, many of them Latino families, are are big part of Herbalife's distribution system. This doesn't legitimize the operation - questions have been raised over the years about Herbalife's nutritional clubs that are run out of people's homes. They range from the health products themselves to the financial viability of the system. However, the company insists that everything is on the up and up, as do many distributors. From the Times:
At the heart of this battle: Herbalife's army of salespeople. Among the biggest accusations facing the company is that it targets low-income members of minority communities, including Latinos, by making unachievable promises of vast wealth from selling its line of protein powders, vitamins, supplements and beauty products. One of Ackman's biggest allegations is that most distributors end up with garages filled with products they cannot sell. Meanwhile, the distributors who brought them into the business get rich for recruiting them.
On a recent afternoon, dozens of independent distributors filled the lobby of a massive Herbalife warehouse in Carson, waiting to pick up products for their small businesses. Nearly all of them spoke to Herbalife staff in Spanish. Some said they had successful businesses that generated thousands of dollars of monthly income. Many said they ran nutrition clubs based in storefronts or at their homes. Others just had a dream. Hipolito Bolaños, 55, wore a pin on his shirt that read, "Pierda peso ahora. Pregunteme como!" the slogan made famous by Herbalife founder Mark Hughes: "Lose weight now, ask me how."