Friday, July 31, 2009

Carol Bartz Finally Ties Yahoo Up With Microsoft

The big news in the technology sector this week was Yahoo's deal with Microsoft. Ever since the latter launched its semi-hostile takeover bid for the former, some sort of alliance has been talked about.

With Carol Bartz' recent assumption of the CEO position at Yahoo, investors' hopes brightened. Yet, after reading the reports on the actual deal, and various pundits' reactions to it, it seems many of those investors headed out of Yahoo positions, causing a one-day 12% drop in its stock price after the Microsoft deal was announced.

Meanwhile, an article in the Wall Street Journal this week extolled Microsoft's Ballmer for finally getting a few things right, e.g., Windows 7, improved XBox revenues, and the Yahoo deal.

As the nearby two-year stock price chart for Microsoft, Yahoo and the S&P500 Index shows, there wasn't a huge difference between the three. Certainly, after applying some risk premium for the two companies, they would both have underperformed the index.

The second chart, a five-year view, reinforces that conclusion.

I don't think Ballmer is by any means out of the woods yet.Microsoft has not convincingly outperformed the S&P for years, and I don't really think it's about to start now.

As for Bartz and Yahoo, I'm inclined to be a little less critical than most published pundits.

Unless you think she simply lost her mind last week and got snookered by Ballmer, the odds are that, despite her upbeat remarks to the media since she took over the helm at Yahoo, Bartz found things much, much worse than she feared.

To have gone from forecasting a 'boatload of cash' to come Yahoo's way from Microsoft for any tie-up, to getting very little, clearly disappointed a lot of shareholders. Even Ballmer chimed in with helpful comments like, 'people don't understand how good this deal is for Yahoo,' or some similar quote.

I think Bartz got the best deal she could for a firm, the very existence of which, prior to her arrival, was in doubt. She managed to outsource development for search, keep a lot of ad revenue, and get breathing room to pursue her objective of pumping up Yahoo's content.

If you revisit Bartz' remarks about the future she envisions for Yahoo, it's all about content, not search. She has managed to narrow the management focus of the firm and get continued search technology for free.

Not too bad. My guess is Bartz saw things as much worse than outsiders, and just couldn't drive a bargain that would effectively pay Yahoo up front for the Microsoft deal. But she still got what she wanted, and probably the best result among several not so stellar ones available.

While I would be unlikely to own Yahoo anymore, and don't forsee it entering our equity portfolio anytime soon, Bartz seems to have done a lot in a short time to begin reversing the damage done over many years by Terry Semel and Jerry Yang. Investors who want to own Yahoo should at least be thankful for that.

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