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AOLTW’s post-merger depression lingers on

Jan 30, 20035 mins
Financial Services IndustryWi-Fi

News Wednesday that AOL Time Warner (AOLTW) was not only reporting a nearly $100 billion loss for 2002, but also the departure of another top executive, has stirred what was already considerable speculation over both the company’s past and future.

The media conglomerate formed when AOL and Time Warner tied the knot in January 2001 appears to be unraveling, as the company’s Internet unit continues to flounder, leading to financial losses, internal tension and the exit of former AOL top brass, including founder Steve Case.

During release of the company’s fourth-quarter and full-year 2002 results Wednesday, it was revealed that AOLTW Vice Chairman Ted Turner is the latest executive to bid the rocking ship adieu, preferring to pursue “philanthropic interests.”

In a statement released late Wednesday, Turner said that he did not come to the decision lightly, given that the company had been part of his life for more than 50 years. However, he said, he wants to devote more time to philanthropic causes and “socially responsible business activities.”

Turner’s resignation, which will take place in May, when Case is also set to sail, leaves much of AOLTW’s future in the hands of CEO Dick Parsons. Parsons has also been tapped to take over Case’s post as chairman when he officially steps down.

And it appears that Parsons has his hands full.

During a conference call on the company’s financial results Wednesday, Parsons said that investigations into AOLTW’s accounting practices by both the U.S. Department of Justice and U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission are continuing. The probes were initially disclosed last year, and focus on allegations that AOL double-booked ad revenue.

Amid the scrutiny, AOLTW launched an internal investigation into AOL’s accounting and turned up a handful of questionable transactions, leading the company to announce late last year that it would be restating two years of financial results.

The accounting issue is just one of the financial problems weighing on the AOL division, which reported an 11% decline in earning before taxes, interest, depreciation and amortization (EBITDA) for the fourth quarter of 2002 on revenues that fell 6% year-over-year.

AOL’s EBITDA for the quarter came in at $474 million on revenue of $2.3 billion, compared to $701 million for the fourth-quarter of 2001 on revenue of $2.2 billion.

AOL’s continued weakness, which has been pinned on the evaporation of the online ad market, slowed subscriber growth and a slow move into broadband, has been cited for the nearly 70% drop in AOLTW’s stock since the merger.

The AOL problem has not only resulted in former Time Warner executives wrangling the power away from the AOL side of the company, it has also prompted AOLTW to take multibillion-dollar write-downs over the difference between what AOL was valued at during the merger and what it is now worth.

The New York media giant announced Wednesday that it took a staggering $45.5 billion noncash goodwill charge due to the decline in value of AOL and other intangible assets during the fourth quarter. The company took another $54 billion charge in the first quarter of 2002 under new accounting rules to reflect a decline in assets since the merger.

With charges and losses leaving AOLTW’s books awash in red, many have come to question the wisdom of the merger, which was valued at $350 billion when the all-stock transaction occurred.

The pessimism is not that hard to fathom. After all, the company’s nearly $100 billion loss for 2002 is greater than the estimated 2001 gross domestic products (GDP) of countries such as Bolivia, Bulgaria and Cambodia.

AOLTW execs are already aware of the comparisons. Speaking at the conference call Wednesday, Chief Financial Officer Wayne Pace said, “I know these are big numbers and are going to create a lot of comments in the marketplace.”

The company is keeping a stiff upper lip, however, as Parsons tagged 2003 as a “reset year” for the company. Although he forecast no immediate improvement in the online advertising market or in AOL’s revenues, saying that he expects the company’s performance to be “flat” this year, he did proclaim his faith in the recently announced strategy to revamp AOL.

This plan includes increasing the number of broadband subscribers, scoring exclusive content deals and serving up premium services. Analysts participating in the conference call did not seem so confident, however, and repeatedly probed the executive team over the possibility that AOL would be spun off.

While denying that a spin-off is in the works, the executives did not discount it as a last-ditch effort to get the company back on track.

For now, AOLTW will be focusing on reducing its debt load and refocusing its capital investments, Parsons said.

“We believe we still have a lot of wins,” he added, citing the company’s strength in film and video entertainment, as well as its large subscription base.

Users filled up Internet chat boards with their own take on the AOL saga Thursday.

One user, identified as “George W Boosh” wrote, “Of course they are losing money. They charge an arm and a leg for services that are available from any ISP for free.”

Another user, identified as “Carl23” took a more practical approach, writing, “At least now AOL will have to focus on improving.”