Here's why Wall Street is so excited about a Yahoo acquisition

Marissa MayerTaylor Hill/FilmMagicYahoo CEO Marissa Mayer

Yahoo’s stock popped 7% on Tuesday, after a Wall Street Journal report that the company’s board was considering selling its core internet business.

The potential sale would represent an abrupt change of plans: until now Yahoo has been pressing ahead with a plan to spin off its 15% stake in Chinese ecommerce giant Alibaba Group by January, returning the proceeds to shareholders and freeing Yahoo to focus on revitalizing its flagging collection of internet businesses.

But investors are nervous that the Alibaba spin-off might not get the tax-free treatment that Yahoo hopes, resulting in a hefty tax bill. And activists are pressuring Yahoo to scrap the spinoff, and sell the business.

Cantor Fitzgerald analyst Youssef Squali sketched out the three most likely scenarios for Yahoo, and concluded that a sale of Yahoo’s core business would deliver the biggest payoff.

Here’s Squali’s thinking:

  • Tax-free Alibaba spinoff: This is the plan that Yahoo is officially working on. If all goes as planned, Squali reckons that the fair value of Yahoo’s various components is $51.22, meaning a 42.2% upside from the stock’s most recent intraday price.
  • Fully taxed Alibaba spinoff: This is the scenario investors are worried about, and Squali estimates that the value of Yahoo’s various parts would be worth a total of only $37.43, a scant 3.9% upside to where the stock is currently trading.
  • Sale of core internet business: By selling the internet business in a fully taxed transaction, Squali thinks the sum-of-the-parts value for Yahoo increases to $53.14, a 47.5% upside to the stock’s current level. Squali pegs the value of core Yahoo (before taxes) at $4.12 a share, and he sees another $7.27 a share of value in the cash on Yahoo’s balance sheet.

Clearly the last scenario delivers the biggest return to shareholders, which explains the sudden frenzy for a Yahoo sale. Squali gave each scenario an equal probability of occurring, and said it’s likely that one of them will occur by January.

But the final scenario implies there a buyer will emerge who is interested in Yahoo’s struggling internet properties, and is willing to pay the price that Squali believes the business is worth. At this point, that is hardly a given.

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