Fake news may be taking the political world by storm, but investors have been dealing with it for so long there's actually infrastructure in place.
The website Seeking Alpha sadly has unwillingly become part of that infrastructure. Created in 2004 by a former Morgan Stanley analyst named David Jackson, the site attracts about 9 million visitors per month. Rather than rely on journalists, Seeking Alpha publishes articles from thousands of self-directed investors and other students of the market to produce close to 250 fresh articles per day.
These articles, some written anonymously and others by people who use pseudonyms, offer both positive and negative views of stocks and other investments.
Obviously, a lot of the information and insight investors glean from these articles is reliable, or it would not attract 9 million unique visitors each month. But it has had some problems. Early this year, a story on The Street, a website that covers Wall Street, revealed Seeking Alpha had taken down at least a half-dozen articles about a biotech firm after the site's leaders discovered some writers were not honest about their identities.
One person used three different pseudonyms. Another wrote five articles anonymously. The firm finally had to not only take down the articles but restate its core principles.
The same thing has happened with Herbalife. In that case, Bill Ackman, a billionaire investor, has it in for Herbalife and is using tools such as Seeking Alpha not to warn other investors about a bad deal but to actively drive the company out of business.
Ackman executed a $1 billion "public short" on the company, an unusual move in which an investor shorts stock — bets on it to fail — and announces both the plan and the reasons for it. Four years ago, almost to the day, Ackman unveiled his case in a 3 1/2-hour, 342-slide webcast lecture in a 500-seat auditorium in midtown Manhattan.
He called Herbalife the "best-managed pyramid scheme in the history of the world," said he wanted to ensure the stock went all the way to zero, and even promised to donate all proceeds from his short to charity rather than accept what he called "blood money."
The stock fell 10 percent in six seconds, which triggered a temporary trading halt. But once Ackman's evidence was inspected, the stock rebounded and now stands at $49.60 per share.
The Federal Trade Commission also looked into what Ackman described — at the urging of members of Congress to whom he contributed handsomely. And the agency did identify some business practices that needed to be changed and issue a $200 million fine. But it did not declare that the business model itself was illegal or that it wasn't a legitimate company with legitimate products, employees and customers.
The 35-year-old Los Angeles-based firm employs 8,000 workers and sells 5,300 products in 91 countries. Its biggest seller is Formula One — a meal-replacement shake powder made from soy protein that comes in 25 flavors. The product accounts for 30 percent of Herbalife's sales and more than double the sales of its three leading competitors — Ensure, Kellogg's and SlimFast — combined.
So Ackman is at it again, this time with a series of articles on Seeking Alpha designed to undermine Herbalife's stock. One columnist states, "My theory is that once a company knowingly breaches legal and ethical boundaries, the behavior permeates other areas of the business, and the cockroaches multiply."
"Herbalife stock should be going down, not up," wrote another, in a piece titled "Ackman Emerges Victorious Over Herbalife."
Ackman also has tried to drag Herbalife shareholder Carl Icahn into this, but Icahn is not having it. After Ackman claimed he had been approached about buying Icahn's shares in Herbalife, Icahn not only denied the charge but bought 2.3 million more shares. "The greater takeaway is still that Icahn wants out," that columnist responded. Thus, "Herbalife is still a clear sell to me."
In a letter published on his website, Icahn said he'd never asked any firm to sell any of his Herbalife shares and that indeed he had received permission from the company to up his ownership share to 35 percent. He accused Ackman of becoming obsessed with destroying the firm and that such obsession has blinded him to the facts.
"It amazes me that a guy who hasn't any knowledge of my internal investment thinking believes he is in a position to go on television and tell the world what I am thinking," Icahn wrote. "Amazing! He has no right to do so, and even worse, I'm sure his unsubstantiated, obsessive comments, especially about Herbalife, have cost investors a great deal of money over the last few years."
The fact is Bill Ackman took out a public short on Herbalife, and it's not panning out. Siccing regulators on it hasn't worked. Trying to drive away investors hasn't worked. So he has turned to desperation … to pretending to know more about Icahn's investment plans than Icahn himself.
That's called fake news, and if Ackman doesn't stop it, he could and should lose a lot more than his $1 billion bet against Herbalife.
Brian McNicoll, former senior writer for The Heritage Foundation and director of communications for the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, is a conservative columnist based in Reston, Va. Thinking of submitting an op-ed to the Washington Examiner? Be sure to read our guidelines on submissions.