Time is ticking, Steve Ballmer.

Microsoft's (NASDAQ:MSFT) fiery CEO is still hungry for Yahoo!'s (NASDAQ:YHOO) search business. In an interview with London's Financial Times, Ballmer believes that it's a great time to strike a deal that will hand over Yahoo!'s search engine stronghold to the software giant in exchange for a healthy chunk of upfront cash and a piece of the ad-revenue action later. With Yahoo!'s search for a new CEO ongoing and Microsoft recently hiring a new head for its online arm, Ballmer suggests that the integration process will be easier now than before the new hires get comfortable.

"If a search deal is to be made, it's probably to be made in the interim period for new leaders in both places," he says.

He's right, but he's also being brilliantly sneaky.

It's all about game theory
Ballmer knows what will happen if Yahoo! hires a new CEO that Wall Street loves. If a new chieftain at Yahoo! injects optimism into the company -- and tacks euphoric price gains on Yahoo!'s stock -- there is no way that Yahoo! will surrender its bread-and-butter search business.

What exactly is Yahoo! without search? It's a question few have been asking as they set their sights on putting Yahoo! shareholders out of their misery. However, now that Yahoo!'s stock has risen nearly 50% since bottoming out two months ago, investors are starting to think about ceilings instead of floors.   

The challenge, naturally, is for Yahoo! to find that electric CEO. The moment it does, Ballmer's subtle serving suggestions will go ignored as the market sees what the new Yahoo! leader can accomplish without surrendering key assets.

Let's hope that Ballmer didn't blow a gasket when he cracked open this morning's Wall Street Journal. "Yahoo Nears End of Search for a CEO," reads a headline. The article indicates that "a decision could come as soon as next week."

Former Autodesk (NASDAQ:ADSK) CEO Carol Bartz is supposedly one of the candidates still under consideration. Bartz ran the engineering software company from 1992 until 2006.

Despite the first three letters of its ticker symbol, Autodesk really isn't "ads"-savvy. It is in online advertising where Yahoo! continues to lose ground to market titan Google (NASDAQ:GOOG).

However, Bartz would be a blessing in addressing what is perhaps a bigger shortcoming at Yahoo!, its inability to generate the kind of margins that rival Google consistently brandishes. She knows how to run a business.

Stop me if you think you've Hurd this one before
This reminds me of Mark Hurd. When he went from NCR (NYSE:NCR) to Hewlett-Packard (NYSE:HPQ), it was easy to be skeptical. However, after a couple of years of squeezing more out of HP's margins relative to the competition, Hurd is a turnaround genius.

More names will likely creep up in the coming days, but unless some huge Google exec is interested in the mother of all challenges, Yahoo! is probably better off with Bartz than disappointing the market with an internal promotion.

Sure, hiring from the inside of a troubled company isn't always disastrous. Disney's (NYSE:DIS) Bob Iger has done quite well. However, even the once star-studded Sue Decker has had her halo tarnished by being associated with Yahoo!'s recent demise.

An applause-worthy CEO will be what gets Ballmer to shut up -- or pay up for all of Yahoo! -- once and for all.

Yahoo!'s snooze bar tapping:

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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, save for Disney. 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.