You're a Tease, Steve Ballmer

Jerry Yang just got punk'd!

Shares of Yahoo! (Nasdaq: YHOO  ) rose higher today, bucking the tech world's general malaise, after Microsoft (Nasdaq: MSFT  ) CEO Steve Ballmer made remarks that hint at the possibility of revisiting Microhoo.

Speaking at the Gartner ITXpo conference in Orlando, Ballmer said that the deal would "make sense economically" at this point for both Google (Nasdaq: GOOG  ) chasers. He followed that up by admitting that he does not know what price Yahoo! would be willing to accept at this fire-sale moment.

Nice one, Ballmer. Market mavens fell right into your trap. They think you're serious. You can't be, of course. You don't play that way. You would be an idiot if you did, and you, sir, are no idiot. Sending Yahoo! shares off to the races before you formally make an offer would cost you dearly in terms of a buyout premium. You saw what swelled heads will do to the Yahoo! boardroom earlier this year. They're poorer today, but not necessarily any humbler.

That's right, Ballmerino. I'm calling your bluff. It's no coincidence that you dropped this nugget mere miles from Fantasyland. I'll bet you an $8 churro that you're laughing right now. Microsoft doesn't telegraph its plays. It would rather hit-and-run than run-and-hit.

Think about it. When did Microsoft spring the original $31 buyout offer on the world? It did so at the end of January, just after Yahoo! shares hit new lows after posting disappointing quarterly results. Microsoft also supposedly offered $40 a share a year earlier, so discreetly that it didn't come out until two summers later.

The timing of a new buyout push makes sense on paper. Microsoft and Yahoo! continue to yield market share in online search to Google. Smaller players like IAC's (Nasdaq: IACI  ) Ask.com and Time Warner's (NYSE: TWX  ) AOL are holding up better, cutting into the gap between themselves and Microhoo. Yahoo! is also back at a multi-year low. That's been a dinner bell for a hungry Ballmer in the past. The only thing that doesn't compute is Ballmer pointing to the fences as he heads to the plate.

Heck, he even planted the perfect decoy. In announcing a $40 billion share repurchase plan last month, Microsoft was signaling to Wall Street that it would be using up the greenbacks it was once earmarking for Microhoo to nibble on itself. If he really wanted Yahoo!, he wouldn’t come clean before a crowd of IT pros. He would take it right to the Yahoo! boardroom, attached to an egg timer.

That is where Ballmer's brilliance comes into play. He's not going to approach Yahoo!. He saw what it did to Microsoft's stock earlier this year. Instead, by planting doubts about where Yahoo!'s expectations are, he is tempting Yahoo! to approach him with a buyout offer.

If Yahoo! aims too high, he can laugh nonsensically. If Yahoo! comes back with a fair price -- something that it may be willing to do, given the rumored layoffs around the corner -- Ballmer can come to a friendly merger agreement. No games. No jabs. Just two dwarfs teaming up to tackle Google the Giant.

That still doesn't explain why Ballmer would publicly suggest that it makes economic sense in the first place. How can Microsoft get a sweetheart deal if Yahoo! speculators are running back into the burning building again?

It's a trap! A trap, I tell you!

Other Microhoo headlines:

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Longtime Fool contributor Rick Munarriz is a fan of Yahoo! and Microsoft but not of bad weddings. He does not own shares in any of the stocks in this story. Rick is also part of the Rule Breakers newsletter research team, seeking out tomorrow's ultimate growth stocks a day early. The Fool has a disclosure policy.


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  • Report this Comment On October 16, 2008, at 4:01 PM, weiwentg wrote:

    Mr. Softy would be buying itself a whole boatload of integration risk if it bought Yahoo. Just a WAG, but I wouldn't pay much more than $13 - today's stock price.

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