August 25, 2009 / 3:01 PM / 10 years ago

Forget Microsoft, Yahoo's value is overseas: Eric Auchard

By Eric Auchard LONDON (Reuters) - The fate of Yahoo Inc has become intertwined in the public’s imagination with the success or failure of its dealings with Microsoft Corp in recent years.

That’s despite the fact that as much as 70 percent of the value investors put on Yahoo’s depressed shares are tied up in its international assets or cash holdings — factors that have nothing to do with Microsoft.

Yahoo’s operations trade for just $5 to $6 per share out of its current $15 share price, once you exclude its Asian investments and the value of its cash. Its hidden assets in Japan and Chinese affiliates — Yahoo Japan Corp and China’s Alibaba Group — alone are worth around $6 to $7 per share.

The trouble is that Yahoo needs to find a way to cash out of its increasingly rocky relationship with Alibaba Group, in which it holds a 39 percent stake after it pulled back from operating its own business in China in 2005.

Yahoo’s best chance here may come next year if Alibaba succeeds with a second IPO of its Taobao.com consumer ecommerce site, building on the success of the 2007 IPO of Alibaba.com, now valued at more than US$13 billion on the Hong Kong exchange.

Truth be told, Yahoo’s huge success in building the biggest U.S. Internet media destination never translated very well overseas, despite the early foray into Asia that left it with lucrative assets in Japan and China. These passive investments came to substitute for a global operating strategy.

But that’s changing now, as Yahoo once again has begun investing in international operations it can fully control.

In its latest such push, Yahoo said on Tuesday that it would buy Maktoob.com, the largest Internet media site for the Arab world, with an estimated 16.5 million users. Terms were not disclosed.

Yahoo’s international stronghold is Asia, where it had 172 million unique users in the month of June, according to industry estimates. It is the top player in Japan through its stake in Softbank-controlled Yahoo Japan, and is dominant in Taiwan and Hong Kong as well.

In India, Yahoo has the most visited home page and is the most popular provider of e-mail, instant messaging and online news to consumers. In a country mad on the sport, Yahoo operates the most popular site for cricket fans. Yahoo had 23 million unique monthly users in India in June, according to market researcher comScore.

But Yahoo stock gets little to no stock market credit for these international operations. Converting market share into meaningful financial results will take years. First, Yahoo must develop its patchwork of leading properties in places like the Philippines and Vietnam and Latin America into a global franchise. And it’s hard to see how Yahoo can regain lost ground in Europe’s more developed Internet markets.

Until now, the trap for Yahoo has been that much of its international value remains latent, locked up in investments in Japan and China rather than in operating businesses it controls. That is changing, slowly.

This leaves Yahoo at the mercy of an eventual rebound in U.S. advertising markets. For the foreseeable future, any significant rebound in Yahoo’s share price depends on conjecture over the still unknown potential of getting into bed with Microsoft.

— At the time of publication Eric Auchard did not own any direct investments in securities mentioned in this article, with the exception of a token Yahoo share. He may be an owner indirectly as an investor in a fund.

— Eric Auchard is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own —

Editing by David Evans

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