CARLSBAD, Calif. — Speculation over what it will take Microsoft (NASDAQ: MSFT) and Yahoo (NASDAQ: YHOO) to get together has turned into something of a CEO parlor game.
Media magnate Rupert Murdoch said this week he is “mystified” the two have not come to terms. E-commerce mogul Barry Diller said Microsoft should never have fired a hostile shot at Yahoo if they didn’t plan to stick it out.
Yahoo board member Bobby Kotick joked that he had tried to get top executives from Microsoft and Yahoo together to play Guitar Hero 4, the hit video game from the company he runs, Activision (NASDAQ: ATVI).
In separate appearances at The Wall Street Journal’s D: All Things Digital conference this week, the top executives of Microsoft and Yahoo said no progress had been made on a merger, though they were discussing lesser deals.
The two had held abortive takeover talks over a three-month period that ended May 3, Yahoo Chairman Roy Bostock has said.
Microsoft walked away from a proposal to buy Yahoo for $47.5 billion, or $33 a share, after Yahoo rebuffed it, saying it wanted $37 a share. Then in mid-May, the companies said they had begun talks on an unspecified deal short of a merger.
On Wednesday, Yahoo’s co-founder and chief executive, Jerry Yang, threw cold water on speculation that they might be edging back into merger discussions.
“Microsoft is no longer interested in buying the company, and we are talking about other things. We definitely have to understand what they’re proposing … they clearly have an interest in Yahoo, and we need to understand more,” he said.
In an onstage interview at the conference, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer said talks had broken down largely over price. Appearing with Yang, Yahoo President Susan Decker agreed price had always been the biggest barrier to reaching a deal.
Diller, who runs the company behind rival Ask.com, believes a merger of Microsoft and Yahoo is necessary to gain the scale to take on Google in Web search and advertising.
Diller expressed surprise at Microsoft’s decision to withdraw its offer and “move on” after pursuing Yahoo at regular intervals over the past two years.
“It seems to me if you fire a gun in a hostile offer, the bullet has to land in the heart,” he said in his own onstage appearance at the conference on Wednesday. “Otherwise, I can’t imagining firing at all.”
Murdoch agreed, saying that given the original 62 percent premium Microsoft was willing to pay for Yahoo, Ballmer should be more patient.
“You aim the gun, and you fire,” Murdoch said, echoing Diller. “They are not used to big deals, so they backed off.”
Murdoch’s News Corp. (NYSE: NWS) has gotten nowhere in its own efforts to talk to both sides in recent months about alternative deals involving his MySpace Web business.
The wily 77-year-old deal maker ruled out prospects for an alternative deal between Yahoo and Google (NASDAQ: GOOG) to succeed, saying regulatory issues would likely derail it.
And he dismissed activist investor Carl Icahn’s campaign to replace the Yahoo board in a proxy fight at the company’s July annual shareholder meeting as “helpful noise” to Microsoft and a threat that Yahoo shouldn’t bother worrying about.
“That is not serious,” Murdoch said of Icahn. “Look, he wants to make a few hundred million dollars for himself.”
[cob:Special_Report]Murdoch’s conclusion is that Microsoft and Yahoo need to lock themselves in a room and put their last respective offers on the table and settle on a deal.
Speaking as if he were one of the negotiators, Murdoch said, “Look, if it is complicated, we will clean it up afterward.”
Anticipating the flood of free advice from other executives, Yahoo made up its own joke video in which Yang and Decker are seen being inundated with unsolicited advice from top technology industry CEOs, investors and media pundits.
Warren Buffett’s advice to Yang? “Buy low, sell high.”