MONEY TALKS: Looking for your Alan Bond moment

By Paul McBeth

The late Aussie media mogul Kerry Packer had his Alan Bond moment a quarter of a century ago when he sold Nine Network to the Perth-based businessman before buying it back at a steep discount a few years later.

That was a case of Bondy not knowing the cost of getting too big for you boots.

Colourful characters, a product people can relate to, and volumes of column inches dedicated to the topic - that's what a charitable cynic would boil the media industry down to. A nastier person would probably call it a sector in its death-throes.

If you look at the headlines, both home and abroad, you see plunging ad revenue, massive writedowns, red ink everywhere and various companies pinning their hopes on some kind of nebulous digital strategy.

The media is still a sexy business (by virtue of reporting on itself) but it's hardly an investor would go for high growth. Long-gone are the days it provided a stable income stream.

At least, that's what the likes of my ilk would have you believe. After all, there is something of a perverse delight in watching your rivals stumble and passing judgement on their woes.

The last thing I would discourage you from doing is keying into the media - I'm far too self-interested for that.

But I would point out some of the more interesting battles are being played out in traditional media companies that deal in print and broadcasting.

Some people see value in these companies. The shares find buyers as they fall.

And it's easy to see why.

Take Fairfax Media. It's one of the big two Australian print groups, and goes head-to-head with Rupert Murdoch's News Ltd. The reason we pay so much attention to it over here is that it owns the Stuff website, Trade Me and newspapers like the Press and Sunday Star-Times.

Fairfax has been the target of billionaire mining magnate Gina Rinehart in recent months. She's thrown stones at the board and won the right to nominate a director. What she's up to is anyone's guess, but the rumour is that she wants a couple of good Aussie mastheads to talk up the mining sector across the Ditch.

Where things get a bit more interesting are with fund manager Allan Gray Australia's intentions. The institutional investor has backed Gina to the hilt, and built a reasonable stake itself.

The share price is at 37 Australian cents, valuing the company at A$882 million, about half what analysts think the enterprise value is. At that level you've got to question whether this is the bottom for media stocks, and if it is, if there are credible ways to make a bob or three.

And Fairfax isn't an anomaly. APN News & Media is trying to figure out what to do with its kiwi assets including the New Zealand Herald and the Radio Network as it tries to recover from dwindling ad sales and a diminishing circulation.

What makes things interesting for APN is that Allan Gray also holds a decent chunk of shares there too, and its top investment guru Simon Marais has floated the idea that APN is ripe for a takeover tilt by Fairfax.

It may seem Machiavellian, but if anyone's going to squeeze value out of these media assets, it's the money men looking for that extra piece of margin.

This isn't just an Australasian phenomena. Analysts the world over are struggling to figure out how much media companies are worth, with massive discounts to enterprise value appearing in firms' share prices.

APN parent Independent News & Media trades at about 10 percent of the value analysts ascribe to it on an enterprise basis, and less than the value of its stake in the Australasian company, and even US media giants like Time Warner Cable and CBS Corp are trading at discounts to what the analysts think is the sum of their parts.

Picking the bottom of a market is like leaving when you're on top - it doesn't generally happen.

The one question it boils down to is whether you think old media is dead. Well, do you?



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