Sunday, May 10, 2015

2015 High Dividend Stocks in Singapore and Global! (Part 2)

2015 High Dividend Stocks (39-57)

The third part of this year's list produced a few interesting names. Let's look at the global firms. These are household names that are likely suitable candidates for long term portfolios: Pearson, General Electric, Caterpillar, Siemens, Coach, Kimberly Clark etc. All strong companies with proven track record now looking reasonably priced at 3-3.7% dividend yields, mostly with double digit ROEs and PE in teens. Sounds too good to be true? In most cases, things probably are so. Do dig deeper and figure things out. We have to work hard to make money!

Say Caterpillar, it has significant exposure to global mining which is in a huge decline after China slowed and all the commodities got hit by slow demand, over capacity and low prices. Iron ore fell from $100 to $40 and copper also suffered a 30-40% decline from its peak. Even oil is not spared. Who could have predicted that oil would crashed to $50 in 2014? 

This is actually a very important point in investing which is worth highlight here again. Prediction is futile. Everyone loves to predict the future. Singapore property prices would be rising into 2015, 2016, 2017, whatever. Japan is dead with aging population and declining workforce. Who needs cars when we have horses. Well, Singapore property prices dropped! Japan's stock market went to a 15 year high with the Nikkei at 20,000 and we no longer see horses today.

The answer to good investing is not to be able to predict but to be able to buy things that are safe and reasonably priced. Once in a while, we see some no-brainers and real bargains but they are quickly snapped up. Bargains also come when things are so bad that no one dares to buy anything. That's the time to come in. Be greedy when others are fearful. 

Amongst the global names, Pearson looks pretty interesting. For the un-initiated, Pearson is the #1 education firm in the world with US$8bn in revenue. It sells both print and digital textbooks and education materials and also administer tests for educators and owns strong brands like Penguin, Longman, Prentice Hall and the Financial Times and The Economist. Don't play play! Pearson generates consistent and strong free cash flow of US$1bn on average over the last decade. It currently trades at a 5-6% free cashflow yield which is pretty cheap for such a great business. 

The stock had been weak with some issues in the US market where analysts opined that iPad and Google will make education materials completely free and kill Pearson left-right-centre. There was also this huge debate about shifting US junior and high school education to a new Common Core standards (something like O Levels?) but then teachers would also be judged by how good they taught. It became a major political issue and Pearson was right in the middle of it. So the stock languished for some time. Of course, we all know educators are one of the most stubborn people to change anything, so personally, I don't think Pearson's franchise is under any serious threat. 

Hence it's really a great time to own this! Imagine you can tell people you own Financial Times! (FYI: I already owner)

Criteria used for 2015

As per the previous years, I have used the same criteria over and over again with just minor tweaks. This year we included the major markets, cut off dividend at 3% yield and cut off average ROE, Free Cashflow (FCF) and EBIT margin as shown in the snapshot above (8%, 5%, 8% respectively for those unable to see the snapshot). With global markets at near highs, the cut offs, as one could tell, are not great nor at bargain levels. Usually FCF yield at 10% would be considered as a great entry point. Sadly, we haven't seen that in many years.

Oh, not forgetting the Singapore stocks, the few names in this pack were also good stuff. Jardine Cycle and Carriage, one of my core holdings and probably ok to buy now. Osim, Singpost and Wing Tai are also well-known names. Unfortunately, I have not studied recently. Readers with recent updates do share!

So that's that for this year! Hope to have some good catch! Huat Ah!

Again here are the past lists:

Wednesday, April 08, 2015

2015 High Dividend Stocks in Singapore and Global! (Part 1)

It's time for the annual dividend stock list! For this year, we have included the global major markets in the universe to spice things up a little. We already know all the good Singapore names: SIA Engineering, CSE, M1. The value add and effort of using this screen to find another good gem in Singapore really doesn't pay off as well after years screening and more years of research. So we cast a wider net and look at global names. Now, the world is our oyster!

2015 High Dividend Stocks (1-19)

First let's look at the Singapore names again. There will always been some obscure names. The diligent ones who have the bandwidth can really go study each and every one. For this list, we see UMS, TIH etc. Frankly I have not the slightest idea what they do. It could be very interesting, so readers here if you find out, do report back! For this set of names (more to come, this screen has a total of over 60 names), sadly, there is nothing new for me. The names that we know well have been studied and discussed. SIA Engineering remains one of the top favourites. The stock fell 15% in the last 12 months, yield is now 5% but it is also still not cheap at 20x PE. This reflects the high quality of the firm. The concern last year was that it was losing business as airplanes are now better equipped with efficient engines, requiring less maintenance. There was also some impact with Ebola and the tragic crashes of various airlines and firm specific issues of losing some orders. But the long term outlook remains intact. More LCCs, more airplanes flying, hence more maintenance. Singapore will see T4 and then T5. We are not slowing down. So just keep buying if it corrects and collect the 5% dividend  along the way. 

2015 High Dividend Stocks (20-38)

The next batch of names look more interesting. Again we know the Singapore ones all too well. SATS, SPH, Singtel, Starhub. My top pick would be SATS, with the similar angle that they would benefit with the opening of T4 and T5. Their Japan business could also turn around finally now that inbound tourism to Japan is becoming a big thing! Singtel is the stalwark, slow and steady but it charged 20% in the last 12 months and now hit $4.3. I would wait for it to correct back to $3 plus to add more. I have held this stock since it was $1 plus and collected a decade of dividends. That would be the kind of investing I advocate for all the readers here.

The two interesting global names here are Garmin and National Oilwell Varco or NOV. I know very little about these two but a first cut definitely looks promising. Garmin is a mapping and technology firm building its brand in wearables, sports related gadgets and GPS related applications. It is a very important niche and one that is not easily replicated. Remember Apple's map follies when it first launched that landed people in the middle of nowhere, out of gas and food? It's no joke. But heard they have improved. Google is the biggest competitor, but Garmin being just focused on maps might help. Anyways, definitely need more work.

NOV is an interesting one. Nobody remembers what it really stood for. Ok, I gave the full name above. But in the industry, it's known as No Other Vendor, as a joke. They are that powerful. As a client, you have no other vendor, it's NOV. You have to use their products to drill oil on land, sea, deep sea, ice etc. It's now interesting as it collapsed with the rest of the oil industry, alongside our Keppel and Sembmarine. So maybe good to do more research.

That's a start for these year's series of dividend posts. More to come! Stay tuned!

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Tribute to Singapore's Titan: Lee Kuan Yew

To me, Lee Kuan Yew and Goh Keng Swee were the best political duos the world had ever seen. Our two Titans who shared tremendous intellect and common goals started with bold ideals to provide for the people, then went on to build a nation from scratch, from a kampung to a global hub, from third world to first. They are true heros. I wrote with intensity for Dr Goh five years ago. Mr Lee deserves as much respect as our first Prime Minister, as our leader, and indeed, as our founding father. However, so much had already been written about the great man, one would barely have new and differentiated views. So I shall focus on his leadership and his team.

The best endeavours in human achievement often see enduring partnerships between a strategist and/or architect and a visionary leader. Zhuge Liang and Liu Bei, Takeo Fujisawa and Honda Soichiro, Sergey Brin and Larry Page. For all the good fortune of Singaporeans, we had Goh Keng Swee and Lee Kuan Yew. The two best brains that generations had seen, deciding to come together and built a nation with no natural resources nor hinterland, not for personal benefits or personal glory but for the greater good of their people. Let's remember the team behind as well, Fong Swee Suan, Rajaratnam, Toh Chin Chai, Hon Sui Sen and all our other unsung heroes. This is as much a tribute to all honorable men who played their part in building Singapore.

Mr Lee was the force binding this dream team to execute with his charisma, his foresight, his tough attitude and his commitment. Oh, and he was really committed, here's one of my favourite quotes:

Whoever governs Singapore must have that iron in him. Or give it up. This is not a game of cards. This is your life and mine. I’ve spent a whole lifetime building this and as long as I’m in charge, nobody is going to knock it down.

His goals were simple yet monstrous: to provide a roof over everyone's head, to give everyone a job and a livelihood and to provide top notch affordable education to every Singaporean. And he did all that. He succeeded way beyond expectations. Because he really gave everything for Singapore and inspired every Singaporean then to do the same as well. He was also the orator who convinced the people to take the pain when the going got tough, to delay gratification and to work hard for the future. His grit fueled the people to endure, to strengthen themselves and then to soar to greater heights.

My father's generation adored Lee Kuan Yew and his team. They saw the transformation of Singapore. They saw how their environment changed from a laid back village to a metropolis, mostly in astonishment that so much could be achieved in such a short time. They were the beneficiaries of the shelter over their heads and owning homes they could call their own. They were employed in the stable jobs the Government created, earned their livelihoods and saw better education for their kids. Lee Kuan Yew was their idol, their god. Hence they bought all the books, collected all the newspaper cuttings and mourned when Mrs Lee passed on. Mr Lee, do kindly say hi when you see them as you reunite with Mrs Lee. 

Yes, we have come so far because Lee Kuan Yew gave his life to build this nation. It is now our job to continue his legacy and also to pass on his greatness to our future generations. RIP Mr Lee, thank you. Thank you for all that you have done for Singapore. 

Related posts

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

CNY Post - Business Moats. Must Read!

Investing is about finding discounts (or margin of safety). The discount is the difference between the intrinsic value of the company, and the current stock price. Intrinsic values of companies do not change daily. Good companies can grow or compound value. Bad firms destroy value. So the trick is to find good companies, and buy them cheap or at a fair price. They only get really cheap during financial crisis. In normal times, like now, we have to look hard. It is not easy but not impossible.

Good companies have what we call business moats or economic moats. They keep building their businesses around certain factors that keep competition at bay. Business moats are not easy to identify to many laypeople. We would usually think that technology is a moat, or innovation or perhaps government support. But these are usually not moats. They can keep competition at bay for a while. But they are not sustainable. Especially government support or policies which can change in a wink.

True business moats that I see time and again are:

1. Brands
2. Scale
3. Eco-system
4. Switching cost
5. Distribution

Technology is usually not a moat because it is usually copied. Some guy invents a new technology, say, the electric vehicle. For 100 years we pump petrol to make cars move. No longer do we need to visit gas stations to fill up our cars for them to run. Then we see 10 other manufacturers making electric cars. Tesla's moat is definitely not that it makes cars that runs on batteries. It's gonna be something else (if they succeed though, they are still burning cash). But that's topic for another day, let's talk about innovation first.

I think innovation comes together with building brands. By itself, innovation is not enough to defend a business. Innovation is also always copied. But if a strong player has a strong brand, by further strengthening it with innovation, then the business moves towards impenetrability. We discussed Colgate and Swatch before. It’s also the same with Kao (in laundry detergent: Attack & Attack Neo), Diageo (Johnnie Walker) and Reckitt (Durex condoms) etc.

Economies of scale is very important, hence investors always look at market share and the industry structure. If the market leader grows to be a certain size, it is very hard for any competitor to replace it. As the largest player, it will also has the lowest cost of production, the biggest spending power, the attraction for talent to join. It is very powerful. When a certain company has over 40-50% market share in certain products, usually its scale is so huge that it's impossible for any competitors to fight them head on.

Eco-system, switching cost and distribution are similar. By building a network that supplement the business, it makes it hard for customers to leave or for competitors to enter. Facebook built an eco-system locking in the world, our friends, families are all on Facebook, we cannot switch easily. Alibaba also has a strong eco-system with its taobao online shopping mall and now all sorts of stuff including a money markets fund and Alipay and taxi apps etc. Honda’s strong distribution and sales network in motorcycles is why it flourishes in the emerging markets. When your bike breaks down, you need the service guy to be round the corner, imagine buying a Korean bike and nobody can service it! Johnnie Walker/Diageo is also sold in over 100 countries, since 100 years ago. We can find those small bottles of Johnnie Walker in a remote village in Vietnam or Africa for that matter. Diageo’s distribution network cannot be easily replicated. In fact Diageo has brand, scale and distribution, which makes its business moat so huge that it's mind boggling!

I do not think the moat list ends here, there will be other moats. It takes time and experience to understand them. Warren Buffett took 50 years. Bros and gals, we are just starting here... As we learn about these business moats, it helps us become better investors and better thinkers. I learnt by reading daily, newspapers, annual reports, books, magazines. This is a hobby that requires you to read a lot. If you like to invest but not reading, something doesn't gel here. Also, screens are killing our eyes, so nowadays actually I would prefer hard copies. Trees or your eyes. Your choice.

But actually, the most important thing in investing is buying with a margin of safety. The 30-40% discount. Even if you have identified the best businesses with the best moats, it will all come to waste if you bought it at a high price. The high price could have factored in years of growth so your return is bound to be miserable. Say a great business can compound at 10% per year. But you bought it at say, 40% over-valuation, it takes 4 years for catch up. So even if you hold it for 5 years, you would only have earned 10% over 5 years. That's 2% per year. That's miserable return, you might as well put in fixed deposit.

To buy at good discounts is not easy. Hence Buffett mentioned that great companies should be bought at fair value. i.e. if the company compounds value at 10%, then just buy at par, no need discount.  Bcos every year it will deliver you 10%. To get it at a good discount, usually it only happens once in a long while, when markets crash big time. Things would look so bad that buying stocks would be the last thing on your mind. At that point, it takes courage to buy when fear grips the whole world, and the stock markets. Hence, "be greedy when others are fearful."

Well it's Chinese New Year or CNY, it's good to be a bit greedy, just a bit and just for these 15 days.  Happy CNY to all! Huat Ah!

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Genting's Management and Financials

Geez 2015 came and the first month is ending! Time and tide really waits for no man. In investing, time helps in compounding, and we just have to keep reminding ourselves that we need to act early and incrementally while we are young. Because, if we don't, before we know it, we are 40, or 50 and the first half is gone and we are into half-time. Need to think quickly how we want to play the second half.

Today, Let's continue our analysis on Genting. We answered the first few questions: what's the investment thesis, is it a good business, is it cheap etc. Next, we focus on the management. Genting Singapore is essentially being run by two savvy executives and supported by strong managers who know the business well. The chairman is from the founding family and his lieutenant helps him run the day to day operations. Meanwhile the board is also made of more independent directors than insiders which is good for governance. Overall Genting's management has shown to be above board and has generated value for shareholders. The only caveat would be its minimal disclosure and its shareholder return policy while that has also improved with the recent share buyback announcement.

Genting's Board

Next questions: does it have Strong Financials and its Geographical and Industry Exposure? Well, Genting is all Singapore and gambling (just a bit of non-gaming entertainment). For financials, we use the cheatsheet that has appeared various times here (below). Numbers in blue are derived from others on the sheet. The first thing to highlight is that the sheet was updated in Sep 14. Well that's with investing, we are so busy with life, so things like updating spreadsheets shouldn't be top priority. Today let's use this one. Most of the time, things don't change that much in 3 months. Investing is a long marathon. People who wants to play it day by day and week by week are missing the point.

Ok, besides the date, one of the other first things worth highlighting would be its strong free cashflow. Genting is estimated to generate S$800m in free cashflow or FCF in the sheet but it is likely to have the ability to do a billion in the future. Casino is bloody good business once the initial capital outlay is done. Gamblers simply keep coming to drop money, and when times are good, they actually don't mind doing it. Genting is suffering now as per the Macau casinos because of the impact of Xi Jin Ping's anti-corruption campaign. But as the Asia middle income continues to grow, wealthy people will also keep spending and they would want to visit Singapore. Hence it should be a matter of time that free cashflow reaches a billion over time.

Genting's cheatsheet

As the stock nosedive with bad news about delays in Japan, Korea and clampdown in China, we can now get Genting at 5.8% free cash flow yield. If it its a billion in free cashflow, we are talking about 7% and if we consider that the S$2 billion of cash needs to come back to shareholders, then we get close to 10% free cashflow! 10% free cashflow is like a super bargain for a multi-billon dollar firm. It doesn't come often. 

Now, one might question, if Genting is generating so much cash, why doesn't it pay more dividend? Well, that should come in time, but again, things move in years in the world of investing, so shareholders would just have to be patient. Genting didn't start out throwing close to a billion dollar cash. It was listed in the early 1990s but only started to have stable positive free cashflow in the last few years. Before Resort World Singapore was opened, it was committed to build it at the doldrums of the financial crisis, burning S$2 billion in 2009. 

So dividend was never discussed then. Now that things have change, investors hoped for a better shareholder return and Genting responded with a share buyback. Part of the reason was also that the capex needed for Korea and Japan would be delayed, so might as well return cash to shareholders and generate some goodwill. That could be the start of better dividend and shareholder return.

Ok. We discussed all the good news, what about the bad news? 

The key risk is Genting's working capital. In the cheatsheet, it is shown as WC of S$4.7 billion. Somewhere in the right column there is also Accounts Receivables at S$1.5 billion .These are huge no.s considering that Net Profit and free cashflow are still just S$800-900 million. This also relates to Genting's strategy of growing its VIP clientele. 

VIP gamblers don't bring cash to play. They play on credit and Genting has to provide that credit. Some of these clients come from god-knows-where and they disappear after playing. So these are the account receivables on Genting's balance sheet. Some of these monies would likely not come back. So there is this huge risk of impairment in the quantum of S$500-1,000 million! This would be a big hit to its balance sheet with just S$9 billion in equity.

Well the mitigating factor is that Genting has clarified that things are under control and they have provisioned for 1/3 of the amount. Also the market has known this for quite a while so this negative is probably largely factored in.

Genting's franchise

So that's really the short and sweet analysis on Genting, the stock is at a multi-year low, there is the slowdown in gambling and the looming account receivables, but we should continue to see stable growth as the mass affluent from ASEAN and China continue to flock to Sentosa. Not forgetting that Universal Studios still have a lot of room to grow and it is opening its own brand hotel in Jurong later this year which will contribute to near term growth.

As the picture above shows, Genting's transformation to a world class resort would continue. By leverage on the brand name of Universal, Sentosa and Singapore, it would grow and generate even more cash going forward. To be able to get it at 7% free cashflow should look like a bargain years from now. 

This is one stock that probably won't affect our sleep at night.

The first post on Genting.

Saturday, January 03, 2015

Happy New Year! First Post of the 2015: Think Long Term

Happy New Year folks, it's a new year and a new start. This is a short post just to illustrate a simple point: Think Long Term. The effects of good habits and efforts show up over time. This is true for both stocks and our own personal development.

Here's two charts to illustrate this point.

Long term stock price chart for Jardine C&C

The chart above shows the 14 year price chart for Jardine Cycle and Carriage, one of the the components of our STI index. It's core business is in automobile distribution in Indonesia where its the dominant leader for both two and four wheelers. The chart above shows that it compounds value  tremendously over time. We see again and again that great companies doing great businesses compound their intrinsic values over time. While there would be ups and downs over short periods like 3-6 mths, or sometimes even over 1-2 years, like during the Global Financial Crisis (GFC) in 2009-2010, over the long run, the stock price charts of great companies and great businesses should track an exponential curve.

Long term stock price chart for SIA

Conversely, a mediocre business would follow a different chart like that of SIA's above. Over the last 14 years, one could tell that the intrinsic value of SIA did not grow. This is not to say the SIA's management is crap. SIA is well-known as one of the best run airlines in the world. It was a game-changer when it started some 60 years ago and is still a respected leader in its field today. However airline is a bad business with over 200 competitors and subjected constant external risks such as fuel prices, labour issues, high capex and maintenance costs, SARs and Ebola virus outbreaks and accidents. 2014 was a sad case of seeing our neighbour having three in one year. May the passengers and crew of MH370, MH14 and AirAsia QZ8501 rest in peace.


So, that's the short point today. It pays to think long term when it comes to investing. Compound interest takes time to take effect and when we buy and hold on to our winners, time takes it course and our stocks just keeps growing and paying ever bigger dividends!

Again, Happy 2015!

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Herbalife Dying - Part 2

This post continues from Part 1.

So what's so bad about Herbalife? Obviously not every Nutrition Club is gonna make money and not everyone would benefit from nutrition drinks. Isn't it a case of buyers beware? I guess every argument can always be framed on a spectrum. On one hand, Herbalife gives everyone an opportunity to become financially free, and while they are at it, drink lots of overpriced nutritional shakes and sells that to a dozen friends and help them lose weight as well. That's win-win-win for everyone, and that's Herbalife's value proposition.

On the other hand, it's scam that does more harm than good overall as it improvishes a lot more poor people to help a handful of rich people get richer. Yeah, meaning rob the poor and help the rich. But which argument is true?

Every argument always boils down to percentages and probabilities. Type A personalities will have great difficulties understanding this hence they are always arguing over why they are 100% right and others are wrong. We must understand that this world is not digital and the truth always lies in between black and white.

Here's the stats, 99% of all Herbalife members will earn less than the minimum wage (like $3 an hour) Less than 1% will make decent income and about 0.1% of all Herbalife members makes six figure income annually. So what Herbalife promised is technically not impossible. Just seriously difficult. The financial freedom, save your friends, save the world, nutrition for better life blah blah, is a mere 0.1% chance that one could actually make it happen. One in a thousand. It's harder than getting into Harvard University. So to get rich via this scheme? Why not try applying for Harvard instead?

What's more, Herbalife does more damage than just promising an empty dream, it is selling overpriced useless shakes to lots and lots of people. It is estimated that over the next 10 years, consumers will lose $2-4 billion dollars through Herbalife.

These no.s are from

Needless to say, Herbalife argues that the stats are wrong, they have more members and distributors earning more money. The arguments really get into percentages, probabilities and convoluted counter-arguments. But what stood out was that Herbalife does not like to disclose how much their promoters actually earned. Not the average amount earned, nor median salary, nor any statistics that would show mathematically the probability of making good money. What's also interesting, Herbalife goes out of the way to state their "facts" against misrepresentations:  

Herbalife's version of misrepresentations and facts

Now, the way I understood the word fact was that it should be something quite indisputable, like IBM generated more than 10 billion dollars of free cashflow or IBM's CEO is a lady called Ginni Rometty or IBM has been in existence for more than a hundred years. So let's take a quick look at the 5 facts that Herbalife stated. Well, none of them really stood up to this indisputability test, do they? Is high quality product a fact? Maybe #2 on millions of consumers in and out of network could pass off as one fact. But then again, what's in and out of network?

So here's a firm that couldn't differentiate between what's fact and what's not claiming that it is saving the world by lifting people out of poverty, empowering them to sell great nutritional products and solving the world's obesity issue all at once. That's some firm! Go fly kite IBM.

Alas, we know that's too good to be true. Rather than making nutrition for a better world, there were evidence that Herbalife did real harm. The firm was sued in the past for misrepresentation and also some of products contained hazardous ingredients that have caused people to experience liver failure after consumption. Of course, Herbalife always managed to settle these issues out of court, never admitting to any wrongdoings.

Some might ask, if Herbalife was really such a scam, how did it earn over a few billion dollars in revenue annually with significant net profit over all these years. Its products are also sold globally and a lot of people have heard about it, or even consumed some of these products and found them beneficial. Well, I would say that scam could go on for a long, long time before it gets unravelled. Madoff was at it for 30 years, Enron also cooked its books for decades. Sometimes, some of these would never be uncovered. Sadly only in Disney movies would the bad guys ever get punished and the hero and his princess live happily ever after.

Having said all that, nothing is ever 100%, it is always between 1-99%. We cannot know for sure that Herbalife is 100% fraud and another Enron in the making. Everything lies on a spectrum and we can only say that maybe Herbalife is closer to the dark side ie it subtracted rather than add value to our world. One of the real time vindication would also be the stock price. The chart below showed how it roller-coastered over the past 2 years, rising up and down from $20 to $80 and now crashing its way to its multi-year lows.

Herbalife's 2 year stock price

Sad to say, the crash was actually brought about by slowdown in its emerging market sales leading to profit warnings and not because its scams were uncovered in a big way despite the SEC investigating it. In many parts of the world, it's business as usual. Herbalife stuffing its inventories into poor families and gullible people. They in turn living an empty dream that they would be financially free selling nutritional products to others.

Ironically, Herbalife dying and disappearing from existence would save some of these families. In other words, it would be Herbalife's death that is really nutrition for a better world. ;)

Part 1

Friday, November 21, 2014

Herbalife Dying - Part 1

We have to digress from Genting a bit given that this story is probably worth telling. We shall get back to Genting soon, hopefully the stock stays low! 

Ok, Herbalife, as most people would know, is an MLM scheme. MLM stand for multi-level marketing which is a legalized form of pyramid or ponzi scheme. We shall get into this in more detail later. Back to Herbalife. Herbalife sells some nutrition stuff by recruiting people to sell to their friends and their friends hopefully sell to even more friends. Herbalife claims that its products are healthy, very good for the body and apparently also help with weight management! What's more, the seller can make impressive passive income by become a distributor selling Herbalife products to others. It has operations all over the world, including Singapore and it has made huge monies. In recent years, revenue is close to USD 5 billion and net profit of USD 500 million. So this is no small fry!

Herbalife logo

Now MLM while disgusting, is quite legal. Many companies use MLM rather than traditional distribution (like via NTUC or internet) to sell stuff. In a ponzi scheme, which is illegal, there is no product involved. A person pays say $100 to join the ponzi scheme and benefits when he can recruit more downline (say 5 friends each pay $100 to their original upline friend). He takes a cut from his friends and if his friends recruit more people then he earns more. This obviously is unsustainable and hence outlawed in many countries when it became well known how the trickery works some 80 years ago.

However, MLM introduces a product (usually something qualitative with intangible benefits like health products, cosmetics etc) and if the value of the product exceeds 50% of the transaction, then it becomes legal! Now this makes things quite tricky because numbers can always be played around. Of course not all MLM are bad. Insurance works on the MLM concept and Tupperware was originally sold via MLM. But I would say that majority of MLM out there are dodgy and it is best to avoid them wholesale.

Ok, back to Herbalife.

The story begins when a famous hedge fund manager Bill Ackman uncovered the atrocities that Herbalife committed. Herbalife years ago started out selling to rich overweight people who can afford their overpriced health drinks but as it would, growth ran out. In order to continue growing, Herbalife in recent years started targeting low income and less educated sellers to help generate more earnings for their upline. The master salespeople dangled carrots of nutrition, weight loss, huge passive income and managed to con tons of these people. 

Here's how things work. A successful upline guy would usually invite a friend or two to one of Herbalife's health supplement party where they get to sample herbalife products. There will be lots of people at these parties but mostly already Herbalife people and everyone appears happy and chatty and it's easy to get sucked in and buy some of these overpriced stuff. Maybe like $200 for a week's worth. I believe in the a very short term, the product could have some visible health benefits, so people get hooked.

As time goes by, these people get persuaded to setup their own party or as Herbalife calls it: Nutrition Club to get more downline, sell more Herbalife products to their friends and earn passive income! Alas, most people cannot fork out $200 every week so 90% of these Nutrition Club owners see their life savings get sucked into buying inventories and inventories of Herbalife products. Some of these clubs become the neighbourhood childcare centre as the other low income mums and dads put their kids there while they go to work. There were sob stories of how families were ruined as they got conned into a promise of strong passive income for life but ended up broke with truckloads of unsold Herbalife inventories.

Due to some legalities around MLM, Herbalife cannot put up its logo and sell its products outright so Nutrition Clubs are not discernible from the outside. Usually, the interior is also pretty badly done up since most of these owners would not have money to invest in capex. The nice parties that they went to were akin to "mock" setups that doesn't represent most real nutrition clubs.

Supposedly a Herbalife Nutrition Club

In short, Herbalife was a con job, according to Bill Ackman, who uncovered most of these stuff in a 300+ page presentation a few months back. In fact he started shorting Herbalife about 2 years ago and repeatedly reported that it was a mega ponzi scheme waiting to blow up. However, given Herbalife's strong earnings growth, nobody believed him. Most unfortunate for Bill, another richer and more well known hedge fund manager Icahn bought Herbalife and squeezed up the stock price. Herbalife went from $40 to $80 and Bill Ackman lost a billion dollars at its peak. They went on TV and got into a vicious "gladiator fight show" with the media. It was bloody. 

Meanwhile Herbalife itself was feeling some heat from Bill and decided to launch its own fightback. It retorted some of Ackman's claim point by point in its investors' day presentation. Reading some of the slides reminded me of this famous Chinese story about a guy who duck a hole and buried some gold, but he was afraid that somebody might take it and hence he wrote,"there is no gold underneath this soil" and stuck it exactly where he buried the gold. Now if Herbalife is doing a legit business and making honest money, why does it need to make a big fuss over some hedge fund manager's claim?

Was it more than meets the eye? Stay tuned for Part 2!