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Forgive The Business Press Maven's cynical expression so early on a Monday morning, but I need to ask a question. How do you know when takeover and buyout talk is reaching such overblown levels that every last knave is into the game and there is nowhere to go but down?
Well, just look around at press reports. And hear me out, so you won't throw your hard-earned money at the next rumor or misperception.
When the prospect of previously disregarded mammoth takeovers are revived (see this morning's reports in
The Financial Times
The New York Times
gobble -- which would be followed by a regurgitation of parts -- by Kohlberg Kravis Roberts), our left ear has to perk up.
When we also see good publications like
rush something on mergers into print so quickly that it contains a basic mistake (if not two), our right ear has to perk up. When we read features about corporate hacks who are going to make magically successful acquisitions, our nose perks up and we plug it. And when columnists in trade magazines unrelated to mergers and acquisitions start dispensing free merger advice, well, we have no more ears or noses to perk up, so let's just get out the umbrella. There's something about to come down on this parade, and it ain't rain or air-conditioner drips.
Anyhow, Vivendi is a rambling, disorganized behemoth, peddling everything from TV in France to telecommunications in Morocco, plus video games. Oh, and it used to be a water utility. I've never understood the company, but then again I'm not nuts, at least not when my dosages are working properly.
I guess a genius and dastardly accountant type could buy it and sell it off for parts, but there is so much involved -- from disparate businesses in disparate countries and more tax implications than I care to count -- that I understood why previous talks collapsed. Now the talk is back, apparently heating up over the weekend, for a price that makes the old '80s-era
bid look like finger-painting, as it's so quaint in comparison.
Speaking of quaint,
The Los Angeles Times
runs a headline this morning that is not quaint: "With eye on Web, CBS makes key hire: The arrival of tech banker Quincy Smith suggests acquisitions in digital media are likely." In only the second paragraph, Leslie Moonves, the troubled
CEO, is given a platform to say that the strategy is not to buy YouTube but to buy the next You Tube ... on the cheap.
If ever there was a half-baked, easier-said-than-done, ain't-gonna-happen strategy in corporate America, I haven't heard it. But in this sort of buyout environment, where everything is starting to seem possible, it can be reported as legitimately attainable goal -- not a shot-in-the-dark hope.
Then we have
explaining to us why private-equity investors are keen on buying newspaper companies. "Hot on the press" is the
headline of the article, which at least ends by rightly calling this the "seller's market of a lifetime."
But the piece also mentions several reasons why private-equity companies might seek out these companies without specifically mentioning the biggest: These media companies have assets that can be sold off in a second. Moreover -- and I could be proven wrong on this (but I won't be) -- there is no mention that a lot of the purported buyers (such as Jack Welch, on book tour) might be making some noise about making purchases to drum up some instant publicity.
From Welch to David Geffen, there seems to be some preening going on here. None of these guys seems to be actually bidding. And when any actual bids come back, they come in lower than expected. "Hot on the press,"
says? The Business Press Maven would be happy with lukewarm.
And the last indicator that the spread between press perception of buyouts and reality has crossed the threshold of ridiculous comes from
. This publication is not
The Daily Deal
, an M&A trade, but guess what? A columnist there is
getting into the business of buyouts. She pontificates, through quoting an analyst, that
Should it really? Will it? "Only time will tell," she writes at the end. Indeed. That line is the refuge of journalists who take on a subject with which they are totally unfamiliar. And when journalists unfamiliar with mergers start doling out free advice -- and when mistakes are being made in excitable coverage, reports that the latest, greatest buyout has risen from the dead and that someone has been brought in to make acquisitions just like the last one, only for free -- well, The Business Press Maven knows what time will tell. That we're getting to the top of the buyout market. Make sure you walk with your umbrella in this parade.
Before I put a cold compress on my head and retire to my daybed, a few quick matters.
mentions one of the most interesting current advertising campaigns:
( RBK) move to, uh, move basketball sneakers by emphasizing team play more than the individual ethos that has ruled such sales.
And on the subject of basketball, Knicks embattled coach Isiah Thomas has been following
wider corporate strategy of not saying anything negative, even in the face of reality.
That is why I was fascinated to see that two of my favorite companies,
(I like the company, not the stock), take quite a different tack.
this statement from Berkshire over its stellar earnings: "Clearly, our insurance business has benefited in a major way from the absence of catastrophic losses. This is due not to managerial brilliance but rather to good luck."
And David Neeleman, JetBlue's well-regarded founder and CEO, tells
The Wall Street Journal
that part of the company's current trouble was due to "a certain euphoria from our previous successes." He blames himself, adding: "We had no great distribution system, we did not price connections competitively, we did not do a good job of revenue management, we had no package division, we weren't forced to figure out how to increase revenues." In an environment in which honesty is hardly ever heard, even The Business Press Maven is speechless.
A journalist with a background on Wall Street, Marek Fuchs has written the County Lines column for The New York Times for the past five years. He also contributes regular breaking news and feature stories to many of the paper's other sections, including Metro, National and Sports. Fuchs was the editor-in-chief of Fertilemind.net, a financial Web site twice named "Best of the Web" by Forbes Magazine. He was also a stockbroker with Shearson Lehman Brothers in Manhattan and a money manager. He is currently writing a chapter for a book coming out in early 2007 on a really embarrassing subject. He lives in a loud house with three children.