AOL Time Warner Said Shopping CD Unit

AOL Time Warner , looking for ways to pay down about $26 billion in debt,
is in talks to sell off its CD and DVD manufacturing business from its
music division in order to raise cash, according to published reports.

The Wall Street Journal and New York Times reported Friday
that the media conglomerate is looking at selling the unit, perhaps to
France’s Thomson, and Cinram International of Canada. The reports cited
anonymous executives familiar with the matter as sources for the stories,
which said the company could raise as much as $1 billion from the sale.

A spokesperson for AOL Time Warner had no comment on the stories. The company is focused on revitalizing AOL, reducing its debt and running its business better than ever, the spokesperson said.

The news comes on the heels of a Bear Sterns investor conference in
Florida this
week, at which CEO Richard Parsons said the company was looking to raise
between $2 billion and $4 billion to ease its debt levels. The company has said those sales might include non-media holdings, but Parsons also stressed at the investor conference that AOL Time Warner is “not in fire-sale” mode.

News about the possible sale of the CD/DVD manufacturing unit, which is part of the Warner Music Group division, comes as speculation about AOL Time Warner as a possible takeover target, or even splitting off AOL and Time Warner, heats up. Still, the same analyst that raised the scenarios also said they were unlikely.

In an investment note about AOL Time Warner published Thursday, Jessica Reif Cohen, media analyst for Merrill Lynch, wrote that AOL’s possible asset sales, plus well-documented issues such as accounting investigations — and now, takeover talk — all trace back to AOL Time Warner’s balance sheet.

“In our view, the primary reason for this focus is the growing concern of the health of AOL Time Warner’s balance sheet amid generally dull operating results,” Cohen wrote Thursday. “While we do not believe a break-up of the company is currently being contemplated, the possibility that the company could be acquired due to its current low valuation is not out of the realm.”

Although AOL Time Warner is a sizeable company with a market capitalization is just over $50 billion, and total debt of nearly $30 billion, its book value due to its lower stock price in the $11 range make it an attractive takeover candidate, according to Cohen. She also called the scenario unlikely and labeled it “perhaps truly as a last resort” in the March 6th research theme of whether “there is a path to value recognition” with AOL Time Warner.

AOL Time Warners’ “inexpensive valuation and attractive risk/reward profile should hardly come as a surprise to investors. More importantly, rather than question whether value exists, we believe investors are more concerned with whether or not there is a clear path to unlocking that value.”

The most obvious moves to shore up the balance sheet, and improve the company’s stock price, Cohen noted, would be asset sales, such as the Warner Music division entirely.

“With respect to the music division, we believe management would be in favor of either completely exiting the business or getting bigger. In other words, AOL Time Warner would have to either get bigger by combining with another player (EMI?)…or exit the business completely (possible sale to EMI?). Alternatively, Warner could consider the sale of parts of the music business,” she wrote, such as the CD/DVD manufacturing group also cited in Friday’s press reports.

Cohen also cited a sale of CNN, AOL Time Warner’s cable unit, as an
off-and-on topic during the last few years. “Although recently both Disney and AOL Time
Warner formally ended merger/joint-venture discussions, we believe discussions could resurface for an outright sale.”

A person familiar with AOL Time Warner dismissed the takeover chatter as nothing more than speculation, and “highly implausible,” given the current federal investigation of some of the AOL unit’s accounting practices during the late 1990s, shareholder lawsuits and other issues the company is working to resolve.

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