Can the Murdoch and Fairfax families support their debt laden public empires?
Whilst it is all very well for The Australian to plaster pictures of overpaid bankers across the front page, News Corp shareholders should be demanding that their leaders take a huge salary cut in 2008-09, writes Stephen Mayne.
When Rupert Murdoch fronts his shareholders on Friday morning in New York at the historic Hudson Theatre, he’ll have a lot on his mind.
Fellow ageing media mogul Sumner Redstone has just been embarrassingly margin called out of part of his Viacom stake and the family is publically brawling.
While I’ll be missing only the second News Corp AGM since 1999, here’s hoping someone asks the Sun King just how much debt the Murdoch family is carrying on its much-diminished $4.2 billion stake in the company.
The ability to service this debt comes in part from the $50 million-plus a year in salary that News Corp is paying to Rupert and his youngest son, James, plus the pathetic US11c annual dividend.
Whilst it is all very well for The Australian to plaster pictures of overpaid bankers across the front page, News Corp shareholders should be demanding that their leaders take a huge salary cut in 2008-09.
Why not a gesture similar to the practices of James Packer and his late father, who have always donated their services to various public companies for free?
In Australian dollar terms, News Corp shares have halved in a year to this morning’s multi-year low of $13.42. In US dollar terms, the fall exceeds 70%.
The company is now capitalised at $35 billion and is carrying $20 billion in debt. The audited accounts claim News Corp has total equity of $50 billion and you have to wonder about that $50 billion in goodwill on the balance sheet.
It is a similar story at Fairfax Media, which at least appears to have owned up to the crisis infecting newspapers around the world.
However, John B Fairfax would also appear to be in a difficult position with his 14% stake in Fairfax Media.
The Australian’s Nick Tabakoff broke the story earlier this year that John B moved to 100% of the family’s private company by paying about $500 million to buy 131 million shares held by his three siblings.
This was financed by pledging 159 of his 211 million Fairfax Media shares to secure a $170 million margin loan.
Fairfax shares today plunged 13c to a 15-year low of $2.08, valuing John B’s stake at $438 million. If there are no other debts, this would still be comfortable and he could possibly turn to his cashed up siblings if things got really hairy.
However, in a world that is frantically deleveraging with all sorts of asset bubbles bursting, a bigger problem for John B Fairfax might be Fairfax Media’s $2.5 billion debt after the Ron Walker and David Kirk spending spree over the past three years.
You don’t want to have leverage on leverage in this market, which is what makes the private debt positions of the Murdoch and Fairfax families so vital. Do they have the financial capacity to raise private debt to support an equity raising to pay off corporate debt if it comes to the crunch? It’s a question being asked of shareholders of all sizes across the world right now.
*Watch this recent speech about Rupert from the Melbourne Writers Festival.