It began with a bang, and it ended with a whimper.
Five years ago, activist investor Bill Ackman declared war on Herbalife, placing a $1 billion bet against the nutritional supplement company he accused of being an illegal pyramid scheme. The company’s shares fell by more than 12 percent when Ackman announced his short position in December of 2012, making it briefly the worst performing stock on the New York Stock Exchange. The following day, shares fell another five percent to $35.46.
But Ackman was not satisfied with the profits he earned from the decline in the stock price. He thought the stock would go to zero.
On Wednesday, Ackman said his hedge fund, Pershing Square Capital, had unwound its short position, an admission that his campaign against the company had failed. Shares of Herbalife rose by more than eight percent, hitting an all-time high.
By any measure, Ackman’s bet against Herbalife was a disaster. It lost Ackman and his investors money. It damaged Ackman’s reputation as a brilliant investor, although a host of other bad bets–in favor of JC Penney and Fannie Mae, to name two examples–had arguably already tarnished his name.
Other big Wall Street investors decided to invest in Herbalife. Carl Icahn, who was more recently an adviser to the Trump administration, relished attacking Ackman and his Herbalife short, at one point describing him as a “crybaby.”
Ackman’s campaign against Herbalife went far beyond a bet that its stock would decline. He constructed presentations that lasted hours, laying out what he saw as evidence that Herbalife was defrauding customers and was a pyramid scheme. He set up a website attacking the company. He cajoled both the Federal Trade Commission and the Department of Justice to investigate the company.
This was not merely a wager that the market would come to agree with his view of the company. It was a crusade that sought to deploy all the weapons of public relations, lobbying, and the federal government against a public company. His team helped organize protests against the company, launch letter-writing campaigns to regulators, and convinced members of Congress to pressure federal regulators to crack down on the company. A New York Times investigation revealed that Ackman’s team provides money to people to travel to Washington to participate in a rally against the company.
“We’re doing God’s work,” Ackman said in a 2016 interview on CNBC.
God, or at least Providence, disagreed.
To be sure, the government investigations did find wrongdoing at the company. An enormous fine was paid, and the company was forced to change its business practices. But the government disagreed with the idea that Herbalife was so bad it could not continue with its business.
Now, Ackman has finally given up the crusade. He is, of course, still tremendously wealthy, so it is doubtful that many will be offering up their thoughts and prayers for his humiliating loss.