Kara Swisher

Recent Posts by Kara Swisher

Another Day, Another Questionable Yahoo Story Rocks the Stock

The stock seesaw for Yahoo–fueled this time by a story in The Wall Street Journal claiming that former AOL CEO Jon Miller was seriously buttonholing private equity firms for money to buy the Internet giant–continues.

Yahoo shares rose seven percent due to the report, to $11.50, up 76 cents.

Unfortunately for everyone but stock manipulators, the Journal story had a lot of problems, including the highly pertinent fact that Miller has not been actively working on such a deal with any more effort that he had been over the last six months.

The Journal was basically correct that the idea of buying Yahoo (YHOO) has long intrigued Miller, who has not particularly hidden that sentiment, for a long time.

In fact, it is an idea that has drawn interest from many in the media and Internet space.

That is, except Microsoft (MSFT), which many investors still hope will revisit its failed takeover bid for Yahoo.

While a Microsoft spokesman would not comment yesterday, top sources there said they had not been working with Miller on such a deal. The Journal obliquely suggested the software giant might be involved.

Finally, while the Journal did call the Miller effort “informal,” it is actually even more casual than that. No money has been raised and Miller–along with his partner, Ross Levinsohn, in the Velocity Interactive Group–has not been mounting the kind of organized campaign described in the Journal, said several sources.

“Nothing is different now than it was last week, or even months ago,” said one person close to the situation. “It’s a mystery why that story came out now and who would put this out.”

While sources close to the situation BoomTown spoke to today also noted that Miller and Levinsohn have been in many meetings with potential investors about Yahoo, most of those people have sought them out rather than vice versa.

And none of the talks has been serious, as the pair have mostly been spending their time raising a $300 million fund for Velocity.

“When someone asks for a meeting to discuss investing in Yahoo and is credible, it’s not unusual to meet with them,” said one source close to the situation. “There have been a lot of conversations for a long time, but it ebbs and flows and most lead nowhere.”

That’s been especially true since the economy has collapsed and the credit markets have dried up, making it hard for anyone to raise the tens of billions of dollars it would cost to buy Yahoo or any company whose shares have waned.

The prices mentioned by the Journal were also unusually high, from $20 to $22 a share for Yahoo, or $28 to $30 billion in total. That is almost double its recent valuation.

“Anyone would love to get Yahoo for a bargain, but it is a complex and troubled situation too, so it’s also hard to pin down anyone to truly put up the money,” said another source. “No one can put it together and no one would at those prices either.”

But Yahoo remains an enticing target, despite its troubles, given its huge Web traffic and panoply of attractive online assets.

That’s been especially true as Yahoo’s shares have dropped well below $10 a share, from close to $30 earlier this year.

And Miller would be well positioned to take on a Yahoo deal, if it were possible. He has been mentioned as a candidate in its recent CEO search, after current CEO Jerry Yang announced he was stepping down.

Miller was also the choice of Carl Icahn, when the activist shareholder was waging a proxy fight against Yahoo, to lead it. It was a scheme that never panned out, mostly due to Miller’s indifference.

Miller was later Icahn’s top choice for a Yahoo board seat–Icahn got three after he settled with Yahoo and is now on its board.

But a noncompete agreement with Time Warner (TWX), which fired Miller abruptly from AOL several years ago, was enforced by the company, preventing Miller from becoming a director.

That noncompete is in place until the end of March, which would present yet another obstacle to Miller leading Yahoo.

Several sources said Miller has discussed interest in figuring out how to revive Yahoo with Icahn many times and they serve on a board together. But Miller has not discussed it formally with Yahoo leaders or made an kind of approach to the company.

What is most intriguing about the Journal story is why it would appear now, except that dubious Yahoo rumors have become too common of late, all of which have been debunked.

Just last weekend, for example, an inaccurate report appeared in the Times of London that, ironically, had Microsoft and Yahoo in a convoluted search deal, with Miller and Levinsohn as the picks for co-CEOs. All parties mentioned in that full-of-holes report denied it was true.

Full disclosure: Both the Times and the Journal, as well as this Web site, are owned by News Corp. (NWS).

And the media giant has–in the last year–been deeply involved in discussions with both Microsoft and Yahoo about potentially doing various kinds of deals and partnerships with its interactive assets, including MySpace.

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I think the NSA has a job to do and we need the NSA. But as (physicist) Robert Oppenheimer said, “When you see something that is technically sweet, you go ahead and do it and argue about what to do about it only after you’ve had your technical success. That is the way it was with the atomic bomb.”

— Phil Zimmerman, PGP inventor and Silent Circle co-founder, in an interview with Om Malik