Since the 1970s, Carl Icahn has been a corporate raider (he prefers the term "shareholder activist"). His MO has changed very little over the years: He targets troubled companies and gets them to make drastic changes, such as selling off divisions, paying dividends, and so on. He's not shy about his intention to make a quick buck.
Needless to say, he never has problems finding targets. In fact, his latest prey has been in the "troubled" category for the past five years: Motley Fool Stock Advisor pick Time Warner
While Time Warner has indicated it may engage in some spinoffs, it appears that the company still believes in media synergy. Yet, according to the stock price, investors are not convinced. Other media companies like Viacom and News Corp. are also having a tough time demonstrating the benefits of media synergies.
Icahn thinks "synergy" is a dirty word. His primary complaint regarding media conglomerates (and, well, most conglomerates) is that it's very difficult to effectively manage businesses with disparate goals and differing strategic needs. As a result, profit maximization sometimes just doesn't happen because things get lost in the noise -- such as, say, an AOL unit. He wants Time Warner broken into pieces. According to his estimates, he thinks the stock price would surge to $27 a share.
There's nothing new in this strategy; it's classic Icahn at work. It is unknown how many shares Icahn owns, but he does have the support of other undisclosed shareholders. While Icahn has a big war chest, it seems highly unlikely he could finance a buyout of Time Warner, which has a market cap of $85 billion.
In its current form, Time Warner has five divisions, which include America Online (AOL), Cable, Filmed Entertainment, Network, and Publishing. According to press reports, Icahn wants to spin-off cable, publishing, and perhaps the AOL unit. Such transactions would generate significant amounts of cash. This ties into another of Icahn's goals: increased stock buybacks, which would ideally result in greater per share returns to existing shareholders.
This is not an isolated trend. It appears that others in the media world are moving toward simplifying operations. This year, the founder and CEO of Viacom
Also, there is John Malone, the media mogul at Liberty Media
As usual, Icahn has a good sense of shifts in Corporate America. By taking a position on Time Warner, he's certainly going to be heard. And divvying up some of the assets may produce higher returns for shareholders as well.
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Fool contributor Tom Taulli does not own shares mentioned in this article.