How desperate is the New York Times for cash? So desperate that the company's talking with shady Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim, already the fourth-largest shareholder, to give them "several hundred million dollars" more.
Slim, whose personal fortune was pegged at $60 billion last year, is Mexico's version of a robber baron, leveraging his purchase of the country's telephone monopoly into control of businesses throughout Latin America and the U.S. Last September, he scooped up $127 million worth of the Times' publicly traded stock, giving him a 6% stake in the company. Now, the Wall Street Journal reports that he is in talks for a preferred-stock deal. Though the Journal notes "The talks are ongoing and may yet fall apart," the fact that the Times is even pursuing a deal underscores just how badly it needs a cash infusion.
As the Journal notes, the Times is carrying more than $1 billion in debt and has just $46 million in cash on hand. A $400 million credit line is expiring in May and it has another $650 million in credit payments due over the next two years. To raise money, it's already been contemplating a sale of its stake in the Boston Red Sox and a sale-leaseback of its brand new corporate headquarters. If it gets more desperate, its web property About.com would probably be the next to go on the block.
A preferred stock deal would work a bit like a loan. Slim's shares wouldn't have voting power, but he would be owed hefty dividend payments. Voting power at the Times Co. is held in a class of super-voting stock that the Sulzberger family controls. But the magnitude of the deal that the Journal describes could put Slim in position to be the paper's largest shareholder — even larger than the Sulzberger family — if he ever exercised his right to convert preferred shares into common stock. Right now the Sulzbergers and the hedge fund Harbinger Capital Partners each own about 20% of the Times Co. At Friday's closing price of $6.41 those stakes are worth about $180 million, far less than $300 million or more that the Journal describes Slim contemplating.