Investors seemed to like what they heard at today’s annual confab for John Malone’s Liberty Media. Shares of the hodge-podge of companies it either owns or controls were up on a day when the market was shaken by new fears that the European debt crisis will widen. Liberty Starz ended the day +1% and Liberty Capital was +0.5% after their parent said it will combine the two tracking stocks into a single asset-based security. But Live Nation was +6.7%, Barnes & Noble was +5%, and Sirius XM was +4.8% following CEO presentations to the Street.
Malone was more subdued than usual. But the executive who became a billionaire on the back of his devilishly complex deals — often to help him avoid paying taxes — got a chuckle in his response to a question about whether the changes in his tracking stocks will make their businesses confusing for investors. “We’ll get as complicated as we need to get to highlight value.” he said.
Sirius XM’s Mel Karmazin won the biggest laughs, though, with his explanation for why Malone was able to acquire a 40% stake in his company in 2009 — an investment that has appreciated about 3,000% since then. “Big government really screwed us by having our merger (of Sirius and XM) take 17 months,” Karmazin said. The combination was completed just as Lehman Bros — and the economy — imploded, turning Sirius XM into virtually a penny stock forced to borrow at interest rates as high as 15%. That expensive debt is is mostly paid off, but Karmazin says that he likes the idea of borrowing. “We have no desire to run the company as an investment grade company,” he said adding that if revenues are strong enough after a price increase in January “we may get there.” Karmazin’s keeping all options open, including possible acquisitions, but said he most likely will return cash to shareholders either through a dividend or share repurchase.
Liberty owns 16.6% of Barnes & Noble, and CEO William Lynch says the bookstore chain’s Nook reader and tablet puts it in a strong position to profit as consumers warm to reading on digital devices. The company collects high margins when people “subscribe to our ecosystem” of newspapers and magazines; a subscription to The Wall Street Journal can cost $20 a month. Digital also gives B&N an inroad into the romance novel market, the books that usually sell well in drug stores. “We are 26% of the romance market in digital where we’ve never been in physical,” Lynch says. Meanwhile the company is salivating over the prospect of a Christmas without competition from Borders, which folded in July. It means “there is $2B up for grabs this holiday season.”
As for Liberty’s 20.7% stake in Live Nation, CEO Michael Rapino says he expects the concert business to improve in 2012 when ticket buyers will be able to see Sting, Neil Diamond, Van Halen, and Roger Waters’ “The Wall.” “The shows are there and the business has gotten a little smarter,” he says. Liberty CEO Greg Maffei noted that “Live Nation has been a beneficiary of the fact that artists don’t have a way to make much money from albums.”