More Yahoo Deal Scenarios Keep the Goat Rodeo Going Strong!

Published on November 9, 2010
by Kara Swisher

If wishes were horses, as the old proverb goes, all beggars would ride.

Or, in the case of the incessant corporate drama around Yahoo: If wishes were deals, all bankers would get big fat fees.

Even BoomTown has been harboring a big wish that there were some new scenario–instead of the same retreads that have been bandied about for more than a month–that was at least possible.

But because making up scenarios about the fate of Yahoo is all fun and games, it goes on and on and on.

Today’s latest intrigue is from Reuters, which reports that the Alibaba Group’s Jack Ma is considering entreaties by moneybags private equity folks to give him the many billions of dollars needed to buy back Yahoo’s 40 percent stake in the Chinese Internet giant and perhaps even participate in a takeover of Yahoo itself.

As has been reported here and in many places many times already, private equity and other investor interest has centered for a while on working with Ma to unlock critical financial value for anyone interested in doing any kind of buyout of Yahoo.

And, as it turns out, Ma has long been explicit about wanting to rid himself of Yahoo and to take back control of Alibaba completely.

There’s no doubt the government of China would also look kindly on that result too, many sources say, given the huge size of the vexing foreign ownership of one of the country’s brightest Internet stars.

But, as most also know, wishing–and even offering a giant pile of money–doesn’t make it so, unless Ma can convince Yahoo to sell to him.

And, of course, he also does not have to do anything either, since Yahoo management has little say over his actions at Alibaba, in spite of the large stake Yahoo holds.

As you can see, you can spin these ideas all day long, which is what bankers apparently get paid so much for.

Luckily, I will do it for free.

You could, for example, add Microsoft into the Yahoo mix once again. Would it engage, in order to get the search business in China from Alibaba? Or to finally unload its pricey MSN unit?

And what of News Corp., with its extensive ties in Asia and interest in trading its weak digital properties, such as Myspace, for something better? Wasn’t CEO Rupert Murdoch sniffing around before?

There is also a renewed scenario for Demand Media to become involved.

Of course, let’s not leave out the old faithful plots about how tiny AOL, with its high-Q-quotient CEO Tim Armstrong, could still be a contender.

Just for fun, I will add another interesting idea I recently heard: Comcast. Could the cable and now media giant swoop in at some point and pick up a lot of digital assets it might need going forward?

Don’t forget Disney either–the Hollywood entertainment giant, which has a key interest in moving into the digital space even more boldly.

On consolation: Google is probably out, having been burned before, because of all the antitrust issue inherent in any hookup with Yahoo.

Of course, it will not be a party until Twitter gets here, with its date Zynga.

Finally: Where, oh, where is the holy union of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and Apple CEO Steve Jobs when you need them to knock this corporate drama into the stratosphere?

Until it is all sorted out for real, here is a reprint of some of the many similar scenarios I cooked up way back in late September–most of which were investor fantasies, but now are being taken more seriously–in a post titled “Could AOL Merge With Yahoo? Could News Corp. Make a Play? Takeover 2.0 With a Little Help From China’s Alibaba?”

Enjoy–although, as you will see, it’s the same scenarios floated then as now:

Today, as news of the departure of Yahoo’s U.S. head Hilary Schneider and two other top execs got around Wall Street, investors and dealmakers were actually thinking of things other than executive turmoil.

As in: Does the uncertainty, along with a naggingly lackluster stock price and weak growth, create pressure on its CEO Carol Bartz and its board to do something dramatic?

In addition, does the messy public situation even provide an opportunity to put Yahoo into play, despite its market cap of $19 billion?

These and many more are the scenarios being debated in boardrooms of big media and Internet companies today, as well as at private equity firms, investment banks and even in Asia.

That’s because many are focusing on Yahoo’s Asian investments. Yahoo itself owns almost 35 percent of Yahoo Japan and a 40 percent stake in China’s Alibaba Group, assets that now make up–along with cash on hand–most of the company’s valuation.

Alibaba and Yahoo have recently gotten into an ugly public tussle over the Chinese firm’s desire to buy back the shares now, with Bartz holding out for more appreciation.

Now, she might have to do a deal with Alibaba, according to one theory, because a sale of its stake would give Yahoo’s stock a significant boost.

One problem: Alibaba CEO Jack Ma has made it known to anyone who will listen that he loathes Bartz personally, after a series of awkward encounters. That said, he has a close relationship with former Yahoo CEO and co-founder Jerry Yang, who is on both companies’ boards.

That puts Ma in an interesting position, according to another theory, because other U.S. companies with an interest in Yahoo might try to make a deal with him to do some kind of deal with Yahoo.

Most frequently mentioned by big investors in Yahoo: AOL and its CEO Tim Armstrong.

Armstrong, said sources, has not shied away from the idea of Yahoo acquiring AOL and installing him as CEO with Bartz as chairman. AOL’s valuation is just $2.65 billion.

Although AOL has also been trying to turn itself around and is in a much less powerful position than Yahoo, Wall Street likes Armstrong’s story for AOL as a modern-day media and media distribution company.

“At least he has a narrative that is believable,” said one big investor in both companies. “Bartz has no vision.”

Another plus for Armstrong: His friendly and Don Draper-smooth demeanor, in contrast to Bartz’s tough-talking and now too-often curse-laden patter.

And while, Armstrong has assembled an experienced staff. And he himself has deep online advertising sales experience, given his last job as head of U.S. sales at Google.

Also likely to be interested: News Corp. The reason is that its own digital efforts, especially at the MySpace social networking site, have gone sideways.

And there’s history: News Corp. tried to facilitate a merger of MySpace, MSN and Yahoo into a company codenamed “TrafficCo” at the time Microsoft was attempting a takeover of Yahoo.

It was supposed to be headed by former Microsoft exec and now Juniper Networks CEO Kevin Johnson, another possible Yahoo CEO candidate.

That plot did not pan out and News Corp. has been trying mightily to revive MySpace ever since. It certainly would trade it into Yahoo for some stake.

Another hook: Its digital head Jon Miller, who used to be CEO of AOL, almost was CEO of Yahoo, during that same takeover fight. But a noncompete agreement with Time Warner was enforced by CEO Jeff Bewkes at the time.

Both AOL and News Corp. could certainly make approaches to Ma or Yahoo Japan’s Masayoshi Son to agree to help them get back their Yahoo stakes.

Son was the one who made the move recently to switch out Yahoo search for Google in Japan.

And, by the way, Son was one of Yahoo’s earliest investors.

Confused? Well, it is certainly shaping up to be a lively Silicon Valley goat rodeo, as there are also all kinds of private equity companies with spreadsheets already figured if Yahoo shares decline enough.

And there are other ideas spinning on spins into Yahoo, such as Demand Media, which is prepping an IPO, and its perpetually enthusiastic CEO Richard Rosenblatt.

One unlikely player is Microsoft. The once hostile suitor is now a partner to Yahoo in search and online advertising.

Of course, the last and biggest question is what happens between Bartz and the board. While they seem to have backed her this far, she has not performed as she has promised and now seems to have gotten publicly grumpy about all the pressure to do so.

Will the directors, who proved themselves pretty ineffectual in the past, continue to support her? Or will they find some self-protecting way to ease her out?

Some directors are definitely unhappy, sources said, but no one seems to be in charge or particularly influential.

Which could mean even more confusion as Yahoo moves unsteadily forward.

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