Kara Swisher

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Yahoo Starts Making Wish List, as Asian Deal Huffs to Finish Line and Board Changes Readied

Let’s be clear on the much-awaited Asian deal that Yahoo and its Asian partners have been working on: While it is certainly still moving forward, once signed, it will not actually officially close until next year.

Yes, that’s right — 2013!

Still, what everyone and his investor is waiting for is the splashy announcement of the agreement, which involves the Silicon Valley Internet giant, China’s Alibaba Group and SoftBank, a large shareholder in Yahoo Japan.

Yahoo leadership has been hoping that could happen before Feb. 24, an important date after which activist shareholder Daniel Loeb could begin to mount a proxy fight against the current board.

And while the definitive agreement — involving the sale of Yahoo’s 33 percent stake in Alibaba and 35 percent stake in Yahoo Japan — has been moving back and forth among the dealmakers, one source said its completion might take a little longer than that, perhaps even into mid-March.

“It is one of the most complicated cross-border transactions in a long time,” said one person close to the situation. “It’s three different languages, three time zones and three companies that have not always seen eye to eye.”

It’s not that the companies don’t have the top talent on the effort. For Yahoo, it is CFO Tim Morse (who most recently also warmed the CEO seat, until Scott Thompson’s recent appointment); for Alibaba, it’s CEO Jack Ma and CFO Joe Tsai; and, for SoftBank, it is top man Masa Son and his top man Ron Fisher.

To make things even more complex, at the same time as the negotiating is going on, the trio also has to pay mind to how the Internal Revenue Service in the U.S. is going to view the whole deal.

As you can see here from a Wall Street Journal chart, it’s a pretty complicated “cash-rich split-off” to avoid taxes.

While the IRS cannot take an application for a “private letter ruling” until it has an actual agreement in hand, and will not issue one on a hypothetical transaction, the agreement still must be crafted so it is most likely to pass muster.

And only then can anyone move on to the many billions of dollars that Yahoo will instruct Alibaba and SoftBank to pay or contribute in kind for the asset part of the arrangement.

As the Journal noted, in more clarity than I ever could: “A key part of satisfying tax-code requirements is that the company shedding its shares get assets, not just cash, in exchange for them. Cash can’t account for more than two-thirds of the transferred value, tax rules say. This restriction was adopted in 2005 to limit misuse of the provision.”

While Yahoo’s execs have met about the various possibilities, it is more considering now than anything else.

And although a lot of names have been bandied about — Weather Channel, WebMD, as well as Glam Media and even Digg — the more likely direction Yahoo will go in will be different, according to many sources.

First, said sources, the key criteria for the purchase will be to diversify revenue streams, a theme Thompson sounded in his first earnings report recently. That could mean more online commerce, perhaps, rather than advertising or media assets.

Second, said sources, international properties might be more valuable to Yahoo than owning more U.S.-based ones, which opens up a range of interesting possibilities.

This could even include some already held by Alibaba, for example, such as garnering a big stake in its publicly-traded Alibaba.com. That property has become a prime candidate for the deal, said several sources, for a number of reasons.

Technically, via Alibaba, Yahoo already owns some of the e-commerce giant, but not directly. Another possibility is to get back the Yahoo China business, also now owned by Alibaba.

Third, U.S. companies that Yahoo might look at could be unusual and even bold. Two names brought up in recent internal meetings, for example, were Netflix (before its stock revived) and Yelp (which is prepping for an IPO, and which Yahoo once tried to buy already).

And if things were not already needlessly complex in fixing its Asia problem, expect a change in the Yahoo board composition, too, as early as this week.

As I previously reported, at least four directors are expected to move on. More to the point, there will also be replacements announced at the same time.

To stave off Loeb and even give him a perceptible win, sources said the company is considering announcing the changes sooner than later, with the hope that fresh new members will placate other shareholders.

Lastly, with Thompson starting to take the reins after a month there, I would also expect he’ll weigh in on some significant restructuring (his word, not mine!) at Yahoo soon enough, too.

Complicated? Sure is! Perplexing even? And how! But until Asian and board resolutions, the real work of fixing Yahoo can’t really begin.


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— David Pogue on why he’s joining Yahoo