Yahoo is in a bit of a strange pickle. It has its core business that most consumers would recognize and which generates over four billion in annual revenue. It has billions in cash. And then it has two very valuable stakes in Yahoo Japan and the Chinese ecommerce titan Alibaba. That complex structure, and uncertainty around a possible tax bill if Yahoo tried to separate its core business from those foreign investments, has led investors to value Yahoo's core business at less than zero.
Today Yahoo announced a new plan to break apart from Alibaba. Instead of trying to sell that stake off, it will perform a "reverse spin" to move its core business — basically, all of the web and entertainment products you're familiar with — into a new company. This will turn the original Yahoo into a holding company for Alibaba shares, while this new company would essentially be the consumer-facing Yahoo. The hope, says CEO Marissa Mayer on a call today with CNBC, is that this will give investors an opportunity to place a more rational valuation on Yahoo, allowing her to better attract and retain talented employees.
Yahoo could come through in one piece (or could get picked apart)
By using a reverse spin, Yahoo is effectively prohibited from actively seeking out buyers. But it still has a fiduciary duty to engage with any serious buyers that approach with an offer. It will likely be a year or more before the process is complete.
It's possible that Yahoo will smoothly transfer its businesses to a new Yahoo, and this maneuver will all happen behind the scenes without consumers taking notice. But it's also possible that this is the moment Yahoo starts to be broken up and sold for parts. As Recode points out, Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer specifically notes that the spinoff will "provide more transparency into the value of Yahoo’s business." That means other companies will get to know a lot more about divisions of Yahoo and what they're worth, and it's possible that they'll make offers to pick it apart. Verizon, for example, has expressed interest in Yahoo, but might be more interested in buying just its media and ad-tech assets.
Maynard Web, the chairman of the board at Yahoo, had a far more optimistic take. On CNBC he said the move to create a new Yahoo independent of Alibaba would, or at least could "return this great company to an iconic place where it belongs." A more likely outcome is that an independent core Yahoo does regain a more rational valuation, but continues to retain an image as a company whose best days are behind it.