Profit up at Herbalife, subject of Street squabble

NEW YORK Herbalife (HBL), the company caught in the middle of a hedge fund dogfight, says it's doing just fine, thanks.

The company, which sells weight-loss products and other dietary supplements, said late Tuesday that profit and revenue both rose in the fourth quarter.

It's a key earnings period for Herbalife, which has been whipsawed this year by the opinions of two long-sparring hedge fund moguls. Carl Icahn heralds Herbalife as a great deal and last week disclosed a 13 percent stake in the company. Bill Ackman calls it a fraud and is shorting the stock, meaning he's betting it will go down.

In a news release, the company barely made mention of the financiers' smack-down, and credited the quarter's results to strong relationships with customers.

"Obesity and poor nutrition are global public health problems," CEO Michael Johnson said in a statement. "Our distributors are proud to be part of the solution."

The company did say it would be hit by one-time costs of $10 million to $20 million this year, mostly in legal and advisory services to respond to "information put into the marketplace by a short seller," which Herbalife "believes to be inaccurate and misleading."

But if investors and analysts were hoping for something more substantive, they'll have to wait until the earnings conference call on Wednesday morning. It's a chance for the company to make itself heard, in a fight where people outside the company have shouted loudest.

Herbalife peddles products like energy drinks and stress management pills, and recruits people to work as independent sales staffers. On its website, it promises to "change people's lives" - either by the chance to sell Herbalife products, or the chance to take them. Its claims about some of its products, the company says on its website, have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration.

Ackman says Herbalife is a pyramid scheme, meaning it makes most of its money by recruiting new salespeople, rather than on the products they sell. Herbalife disputes Ackman's statements and says he's just trying to force the stock down for his own financial gain.

Icahn's big stake in the company is another complication: He's hinted that he might push Herbalife to go private, which would be disastrous for short-sellers like Ackman.

Last month, the wrangling between Ackman and Icahn boiled over into a shouting match on live television - a rare instance of public upheaval by billionaire financiers.

"I've really sort of had it with this guy Ackman," Icahn told CNBC, while both were interviewed simultaneously by phone.

"This is not an honest guy, this is not a guy who keeps his word," Ackman shot back.

Ackman vs. Icahn has been both a boon and a bust for Herbalife, depending on the day. In the 33 trading days since the new year started, shares have moved more than 3 percent on 11 of them.

Tuesday, shares rose 2.6 percent, up $1 to close $39.74. The company reported fourth-quarter earnings after trading was over, and shares dipped 3 cents.

Net income rose 12 percent to $118 million, from $105 million a year ago. Per share, that worked out to $1.05, edging past the $1.03 that analysts polled by FactSet had expected.

Revenue rose 20 percent to $1.06 billion, from $885 million a year ago. Analysts predicted $1.05 billion.