Margareta Pagano: The Murdoch cloud that hangs over News Corp
Sunday 17 July 2011
In the US they call it the "Murdoch discount".
This is the amount by which US analysts reckon shares in News Corporation are depressed because of the controlling stake held by the Murdoch family; about 40 per cent of the B voting shares, although only 13 per cent of the share capital. Analysts never like powerful shareholders, mainly because their impact can be so profound. And in Rupert Murdoch's case it's because they can't predict what a media tycoon with megalomaniacal tendencies will do next.
In recent years, Wall Street has watched as he has bought some pretty strange and very expensive businesses: he paid $500m for Myspace and sold it for $35m and then earlier this year paid $615m for his daughter Elisabeth's Shine production company. But the purchase they really didn't like was of Dow Jones, the Wall Street Journal newspaper group, for which he paid $5.7bn and has written off $2.8bn.
What they like even less, though, is UK newspapers which lose money and bring down the wrath of the public over phone hacking as well as bribing police officers. The accounts of News International are difficult to unravel but some analysts estimate it makes about £60m profit – including the now closed News of the World. Without the newspaper, the rest of the NI stable – The Sun, The Times and The Sunday Times – are likely to break-even at best. In the US, investors reckon the shares – down to $16 on Friday – would return to the $20 range if the newspaper group were sold and there were changes to corporate governance, so would make an interesting buy for smart investors.
As my colleague, Stephen Foley, reports from New York, all eyes are on October's annual meeting when investors will get a chance to air their views. So far they've been happy because News Corp is an excellent company with fabulous cash flow. But the Murdoch cloud is why its shares have underperformed for the past decade, on a price earnings multiple of around 14 against the sector's 18 times.
That's why Alex DeGroote, a media analyst at Panmure Gordon, bets that News Corp will eventually sell the UK newspapers, despite Murdoch's insistence on Friday that this is tosh. Right now he may be right, but the long-term impact of this scandal may force his hand to show the big US investors he's cleaning up. News Corp may even sell its 40 per cent stake in BSkyB over the next year or so, either because it has to if the Murdochs fail the fit and proper test, or because the top guns reckon it would be easier to have another pop at bidding for the broadcaster after a decent absence.
It's impossible to know what strategy News Corp may take, or who will be running the giant media group in even six months. What is sure is that BSkyB's share price has fallen to Earth after nearly 18 months of bid fever, down to 706p on Friday, and is likely to stay down on Earth for some time. Analysts are not even attempting to put a new target price on the shares until they see the results from the broadcaster in a couple of weeks.
They will be good – showing operating profits of around £1bn. But the litmus test is going to be what BSkyB says about the consumer market and how demand for its sky-high priced Sky packages are holding up during such tough times. The truth is that no one quite knows what happens next – not even Murdoch.
Top Gear: After a poor spring Superdry is back on the road
I'm not sure what the polite form of "Told you so" is, but that's how I felt watching shares in SuperGroup jump last week after the fashion retailer reported a fantastic trading period.
Back in May, the shares tanked after the owner of Superdry and Cult admitted sales had suffered as it hadn't got enough espadrilles on shelves during the unseasonal heatwave. After a 20 per cent fall, shares more than halved as investors sold on fears that Julian Dunkerton's group had run out of steam.
As I wrote then, the fears were overdone and it was a good chance to buy. So it has proved – SuperGroup's shares have shot back up to 1,084p after profits of up to £47.3m. This was a 110 per cent rise, with sales up by 71 per cent. Dunkerton says first quarter sales are excellent, and he plans another 20 UK stores this year, plus the new Regent Street flagship store. And the shares now? Still worth a punt.
If my fairy godmother won't give me solar panels, the Government should
It's at times like this that I wish for a fairy godmother. One who would magically wave her wand so that solar panels would appear on our south-facing roof to heat the water and then, if its not asking too much, for heat pumps to be buried into the garden to generate electricity.
Just think how wonderful it would feel to be self-sufficient – no more running out of oil two days before Christmas in the worst ever winter on record because we forgot to check the oil tank gauge, and no more tears when opening the demands over another huge price hike to the electricity standing order.
It's this sweet dream which keeps me mugging up on everything I can find out about solar panels, working out whether it's best to have only those for hot water or the photovoltaic ones which power electricity. Then there's the working out how much money one can save; how many kWp you need for the home (between 1.5kWp and 3.5kWp I've established) and then how much can be sold back to the grid through the feed-in tariffs. And that's when my eyes start to glaze; it's not only the complexity but the outlay – the £10,000 for panels and £11,000 or so for heat pumps.
But with the news that energy prices will be going up again this year – ostensibly because companies need to invest more – then it's time for all of us to forget the fairy godmothers and get serious about alternatives.
Solar and other technologies are not yet advanced enough to power our big users of energy – hospitals, offices, factories et al – but they are efficient enough homes. The Government's feed-in tariff is a start but there is so much more that can be done to help the "little people" to light up their homes; it could be through grants or long-term loans with the new green bank, but for a supposedly green government it's time to get real.
There are other benefits: people will be more careful of their fuel use, insulation will improve and everyone gets thinner; doctors are now discovering that too much central heating is a cause of much of today's obesity. It could cut the NHS budget, too.
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