Yahoo writes down the costs of being Yahoo
In a call with investors to discuss the company's earnings, here is how Marissa Mayer explained her plan to turn Yahoo around:
”I want to be very clear. We are committed to growing our core business, first in line with the industry and ultimately surpassing it... We’re on course to do what we said we would do over the next few years. Stabilize, grow with the market and ultimately grow users and share disproportionately.”
Clear enough. The only thing is, Mayer said this nearly three years ago in early 2013. And that plan hasn't worked. Yahoo's revenue grew 8 percent to $5 billionin 2015, a year when digital ad spending grew 17 percent. Exclude traffic acquisition costs, which most analysts do when calculating ad revenue from search, and Yahoo's revenue fell 7 percent last year.
In 2016, growth in digital ad spending is expected to slow to a more modest 15 percent, according to eMarketer. And Yahoo? It says its total revenue will decline another 9 percent (before traffic acquisition costs) to $4.5 billion. In a way Mayer was right three years ago: Yahoo is growing disproportionately, if by disproportion you mean not growing at all, but shrinking.
Despite that failure, here is what Mayer said yesterday, explaining financial results for the fourth quarter of 2015, which beat analyst expectations and yet left the stock lower in after-hours trading: “I have never believed more in this company, in the people, in the products and in the inherent value of what we do.”
And: “2016 will very much be a transition year with revenues and earnings expected to decline, returning to modest but accelerating growth in 2017 and 2018.”
Hmm. And: “Yahoo today is a far stronger, more modern company than the one I joined three-and-a-half years ago... we were sitting on about $5 billion of deteriorating revenue, with essentially no clear path to growth.”
Let's pause to acknowledge that Yahoo today, much like Yahoo three and a half years ago, is sitting on about $5 billion of deteriorating revenue, with essentially no clear path to growth.
The familiar, forward, positive spin on Yahoo's future made me dig back into old transcripts to find similar promises of growth that never really deliver and yet never really disappear. And, ultimately, it made me pull the yellowed Penguin paperback of Moby Dick off my bookshelf to recall Ahab's words after his white whale demolished his ship: “Oh, now I feel my topmost greatness lies in my topmost grief.”
Ahab at least had the luxury of forthrightness as he confronted the unfathomable force that undid him. Mayer's fail whale isn't white but purple in color, and it haddragged down many a talented CEO before she showed up. Looking at Mayer's exhausted, empty eyes in the earnings videocast, and listening to her perfunctorily utter the prepared comments as if the brain were too weary to register them in passing, one can only conclude her true, innermost thoughts were probably closer to Ahab's lamentation than anything a corporate PR department would vet.
Mayer perked up and seemed like her old self during the few parts of the call when analysts got her to geek out about topics like mobile search versus desktop search, or ad-load times. In those scattered glimpses, we saw the product genius who was hired to tame Yahoo - that purple, feral CEO slayer with the ungainly siren song of a yodel. Those of us who foresaw this outcome early on can't enjoy the sight of a defeated Mayer, but there it was yesterday, on a Yahoo video feed that cut out several times during the earnings call.
This week has produced new numbers measuring Yahoo's slow sinkage below the water line. Not just the declining revenue, but the severing of ties with 1,600 workers (15 percent of the total) who stayed loyal to the company through thin and thin; the $230 million writedown on the $1 billion Tumblr acquisition; and another $4.2 billion in written down to impairment charges from vague factors Yahoo describes as “decreases in our market capitalization, projected operating results and estimated future cash flows.”
In other words, Yahoo wrote down the costs of being Yahoo.
There are more numbers to parse, all arguing that Yahoo isn't so much in a turnaround as in a spiraldown. There's the 45 percent loss in market value over the past 15 months. There's Yahoo's vows to slash $400 million in operating costs. Its planned sale of assets (currently valued at $1 billion, but who knows) into a market where few are inclined to buy. These moves, along with the layoffs and writedowns, are the kinds of cosmetic grooming a company performs ahead of a shotgun wedding.
On the call, for example, Mayer named two ways of turning around a company: reviving growth in existing properties and buying companies that can deliver newgrowth. She favored the latter option, but there is also a third: slashing costs to lift profits just long enough that a bigger company will think it's a good deal. The Plan B of acquiring growth the way Facebook did with Instagram and WhatsApp hasn't worked for Yahoo. So now it's off to Plan C.
The overarching irony of this drama in Yahoo's core business is that, from an investor standpoint, it matters far less than whether the company can spin off its Asian assets tax free. For years, investors have been pressing for Yahoo to sell off its Alibaba and Yahoo Japan shares, which would have happened already except they are also clamoring for the sale to happen tax free. And the IRS isn't comfortable with the revenue loss this would cost them, let alone the precedent it would set.
So instead of spinning out the Alibaba and Yahoo Japan shares, Yahoo is spinning itself out of its Asian assets. It is structurally twisting itself inside out. What we know as Yahoo today will soon become what investors have seen Yahoo as for years: a hedge fund with two Asian assets. Yet both of these assets are troubled in 2016. One of them is foundering under the shaky Chinese economy, the other subject to a growing global protest for abetting a bloody ivory trade that kills hundreds of thousands of elephants every year.
While the positive spin of Mayer's rhetoric hasn't changed much, Yahoo's plan has evolved over the past three years to become as complex and thorny as a thicket. At first, the plan was simply to buy growth, especially growth that will surpass the market average for a long time. That didn't work. And now?
Now, according to Yahoo chairman Maynard Webb, the plan is this,
"exploring additional strategic alternatives, in parallel to the execution of the management plan, is in the best interest of our shareholders. Separating our Alibaba stake from our operating business continues to be a primary focus... In addition to continuing work on the reverse spin, which we’ve discussed previously, we will engage on qualified strategic proposals.”
Wags called out this opaque wording on Twitter, but simply put it means Yahoo has gone from a simple turnaround to a more robust menu of choices. Yahoo may, as Mayer continues to wish, yet turn itself around. Or it could become a side dish to the meatier main course of its Alibaba shares. Or maybe it's a prix-fixe meal for select, established diners like Verizon. Or maybe a bit of carrion that lies there while hyenas chew off all they can eat. There is no end of strategic alternatives, because the options go down a whole lot easier when they're labeled as strategic.
Whatever the outcome, it's got to feel like Mayer's plans to right the company have always been, at most, an afterthought. Yahoo was founded with a name more at home in a Roy Rogers oater than a 21st Century digital giant, and the spirit of anachronism inscribed inside that name was always greater than any plans a CEO had for the company.
Under Mayer's tenure, Yahoo's history could be seen not as so much as a tale of an innovator finding its footing in a mobile economy as much as a hedge fund doing its damnedest to avoid paying taxes. The thing Mayer tried to fix will live on somewhere, no doubt, but Yahoo itself may well be remembered as the tech giant that went down for the sake of a desperate tax dodge.