Kara Swisher

Recent Posts by Kara Swisher

Will the “Marissa Mayer Premium” — or Is It Those Hedge Fund Dudes Piling in — Finally Get Yahoo’s Stock to $20 a Share?

They like her, they really like her.

Wall Street, that is, in regards to new Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer, assigning the former Google exec a clear premium.

And whether it is deserved or not yet from a pure performance perspective — we actually won’t know for several quarters ahead — the shares of the Silicon Valley Internet giant over the past three months have gone up 22 percent. The rise has taken place pretty much on the promise that she will finally be the one to deliver what no other Yahoo leader has done.

And that is, besides making the company relevant and innovative again: Getting Yahoo’s stock past $20 a share again.

That’s within striking distance now. Shares are at $18.40 today, close to an all-time high for the year. The recent rise certainly isn’t taking into account the results of the recent lackluster third quarter, which continued to show the worrisome downward trends — even though partial asset sales of the company’s Chinese Alibaba stake successfully masked the problems — in growth, engagement and overall profitability.

But Mayer’s confident I’ve-got-this tones on the earnings call itself — especially in pushing a mobile strategy that has not been put in place as yet in any substantive way — won over Wall Street investors, who apparently like how she sounds and, thus, are intrigued with what she might do.

While this kind of perceptual game will only get Yahoo so far, moving out of the teens in share price would be an important benchmark for the company.

The stock was last at that level in August of 2008. At the time, in fact, $20 a share was considered very disappointing, taking place after Microsoft dropped its $44.6 billion hostile bid for Yahoo a few months earlier. Indeed, $20 was a big comedown from when Yahoo shares were above $43 in 2006.

The lowest price Yahoo shares got in recent years were $9.39 in November of 2008, just before then CEO and co-founder Jerry Yang stepped down.

Now the stock is close to double that sad trough, fueled in part by some cosmetic moves to improve culture by Mayer — including free food, smartphones and a promise to end the slow-moving decision-making at Yahoo.

There has also been a start of the promised multi-billion-dollar stock buybacks by the company, although Yahoo has been cagey about how and when it is purchasing. Also helping, more recently, is that several big hedge funds are buying into the story of hope.

Following in the footsteps of successful activist shareholder Dan Loeb of Third Point, who is now on the board and is a major Yahoo investor, others like him have now joined in the party in a bigger way. That includes David Einhorn of Greenlight Capital and Chase Coleman of Tiger Global Management.

The thoughtful Einhorn, who is a friend of Loeb’s, has been in and out of the stock before, buying it on hopes that now ousted CEO Carol Bartz would be Yahoo’s savior and selling it soon after it was clear she might not be. He came back in February with three million shares, sold them in May, but now has upped his stake to just over five million more under Mayer’s regime.

More substantively, Tiger’s Coleman has grabbed 25 million shares (interestingly, he’s also upped his stakes in Groupon and Facebook).

Obviously, they must believe Yahoo is set to move upward, which all depends on Mayer. She’s made one critical stock misstep early in her tenure, by announcing that she was considering keeping the huge cash windfall from its sale of Alibaba stock and not giving it back to shareholders in some form.

That dropped Yahoo’s shares to under $15, but Mayer walked back that mistake and the stock has been climbing since.

For the year to date, it’s up almost 14 percent — a nice rise — although that pales in comparison to Apple’s 39 percent rise, Amazon’s 37 percent rise and, most of all, AOL’s 136 percent leap.

The comparison to the massive stock run that AOL has had, after CEO Tim Armstrong — also a former Googler — cut costs, focused units, sold patents and bought back stock, is often made. It’s perhaps apt, but arguably Yahoo has much better and fixable assets than AOL.

More to the point, Yahoo’s price-to-earnings ratio remains unusually low — it’s 5.6, compared to the S&P’s 14.2 average — which means that the entire business is severely undervalued by Wall Street.

It is if Mayer can create real value by actually staging the comeback she is already getting credit for accomplishing. She certainly has a lot of levers to improve results, from the stock buyback to finally making a deal to sell its multi-billion-dollar stake in Yahoo! Japan to making expense cuts to buying some innovative small start-ups to creating products that aren’t, well, lame.

Most importantly, Mayer has to stop the decimation of Yahoo’s once mighty advertising business, which makes up the bulk of its revenue, as well as improve its search monetization by rejiggering its heretofore dysfunctional partnership with Microsoft. (But, as I wrote earlier this week, she will not be making new search engines with Facebook.)

A gander at this chart of Yahoo’s declining quarterly revenue should give you a good visual of the problem with the core business:

YHOO Revenue Quarterly Chart

YHOO Revenue Quarterly data by YCharts

And, indeed, Yahoo’s sales have dropped 29 percent since 2007, with typically flat display revenue and declining search revenue, which was once Yahoo’s crown jewel. While operating margins have risen over the years, very few point to the company as an exciting growth story.

And it still isn’t, although investors are starting to consider it a possibility. We’ll see as Mayer makes more significant changes in 2013, hopefully underpinning the stock’s recent rise with a true story of financial strides.

But, for now, giddy shareholders probably should not get too far ahead of themselves. Not that you can stop them: Mayer fan Eric Jackson is calling for Yahoo’s stock to be over $40 again by end of 2013.

Whether the Mayer premium can do pull off that particular investor miracle or not remains to be seen.

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The problem with the Billionaire Savior phase of the newspaper collapse has always been that billionaires don’t tend to like the kind of authority-questioning journalism that upsets the status quo.

— Ryan Chittum, writing in the Columbia Journalism Review about the promise of Pierre Omidyar’s new media venture with Glenn Greenwald