Your Money or Your Job! (Or Both!)

I must admit to being unimpressed with Sam Zell’s bid for Tribune. I can’t remember the last time someone put up so little money for so great an asset, aside for when I was the juniormost member of the AIG team considering whether to take over The Equitable. (AXA walked away with it, and the untold story is how AIG botched the whole thing.)

The skinny is this: Tribune the company borrows money, and gives it to the ESOP [employee stock ownership plan] to buy up the shares of Tribune. Sam Zell provides a small amount of subordinated financing ($325 million) to Tribune to help make this happen, and receives a warrant to purchase 40% of the company for $500 million. If the true value of the company is $8 billion, this is one sweet deal for Zell. Imagine getting interests in a company worth $3.2 billion, and only having to put up $825 million for that right.

Now, Tribune in its soon to be levered state might not be worth that much, to Zell, or to the employees. This deal presumes a lot in terms of the future profitability of Tribune. Will they be able to carry the debt load?Those that have read me for a while (at RealMoney) know that I am a bear on the newspapers, and most non-internet media businesses. The internet is destroying the margins that support newspapers in three ways:

  • Classified ads are more effective over the web
  • Advertising on the web is more targeted
  • Why subscribe to a paper, when the data is freely available online?

Now in each area a newspaper is still useful, but enough erosion occurs to ruin the economics. I doubt you can turn around a newspaper; perhaps you can create ancillary businesses off of proprietary content, but try to get people to pay for it, or stream a ton of traffic to get ad revenue.

As for the use of the ESOP to finance the takeover, it puts a gun to the heads of employees, who can only vaguely affect firm performance. Any value that they had built up in the ESOP is now at greater risk. If they succeed, they could make quite a bit (while Sam Zell makes proportionately more. If Tribune fails, the ESOP will be worthless, for any who were relying on it. (I realize some older workers can diversify some, but that’s not enough.) Sam Zell would lose his investment, but he can afford that easily. The proportionate impact to workers whose largest asset might be the ESOP would be much worse.

If I were a Tribune worker, I would urge the ESOP to vote down the deal. The downside is more significant than the upside.