Wheelin’ and dealin’ with McGraw-Hill

Just what is a stock worth?

The obvious answer, of course, is what someone will pay for it. And that depends on a host of factors, including the company’s business prospects, the appetite investors have for risk, regulatory challenges and the possibility of big change at the company. Pricing stocks is a gamble with as many variables as a roulette wheel.

So it’s amusing when a self-interested investor group pegs a value for a stock, insisting that’s what it should fetch if only company managers do what the group wants them to do. Just such a group has done this now with the McGraw-Hill Cos., my hard-pressed former employer. Some will laugh while others, including shareholders such as myself, surely hope the group is close to right.

Jana Partners and the Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan, which recently bought up some 5.2% of MHP’s stock, say the outfit is worth $65 a share. But it will take a breakup to unlock that value and lift the stock out of its mire at around $40, the JOT group suggests. JOT is pushing its vision on chief executive officer Terry McGraw, urging him to take a cleaver to an operation his family has run since 1888. The group, whose holdings top those of the McGraw family’s now, aims to jumpstart an ongoing internal strategic review the methodical McGraw has been undertaking.

JOT offers an elaborate argument to arrive at its $65 valuation. Its presentation, replete with Power Point slides filed with the SEC, includes graphs like that above that spell out in precise detail what the value of the stock would be if such elements as the conglomerate discount and the cost of management overhead were factored out. The bar on the right represents the $65 mark; the one on the left, a depressed recent price. It’s all very tidy and scientific.

Of course, it’s all wishful thinking, despite the veneer of sophistication and precise calculation. JOT, for instance, figures that investors knock $11 off the share price just because the company is a conglomerate. It pegs the cost of the corporate cost structure at $6 a share. Once those millstones disappear — poof! — the stock rises, right?. And it says a buyback of stock, together with enhanced profit margins equaling those of peers, would push up share value another $7.50. Voila, $65.

Despite the numbers, there’s really nothing new about JOT’s thinking. The view that McGraw-Hill is worth more in pieces than as a single, un-synergistic, unit is as old as the company’s diversification. Critics have long carped that Standard & Poor’s has nothing in common with the textbook division. Even within a single division, the information and media services unit, there has been little synergy: before BusinessWeek was sold in 2009 and became Bloomberg Businessweek, it had nothing in common with a group of TV stations MHP put on the market some months ago. As long ago as July 2010, I rooted for a deal of some sort myself to sort out MHP’s challenges.

The difference now, though, is the environment. S&P has been set back on its heels by a Justice Department probe of its Pollyanna ratings — terribly flawed in hindsight — of mortgage securities prior to the housing crash. News of this investigation broke just after S&P downgraded U.S. Treasury debt to AA+, an unpopular move that has riled Congressional critics. Furthermore, recently enacted law, if not changed, will strip away requirements that securities carry ratings by S&P and its competitors. No wonder the stock plunged to about $35 in early August and rival Fitch Ratings downgraded MHP’s debt a notch to A. It all threatens S&P, which is why the outfit has brought in a fix-it man from Citigroup, Douglas Peterson, to take charge.

Then, on the textbook side, hard-pressed states aren’t buying many books for students these days. And the Net is making pricey hardbacks look antediluvian, oh so pre-Kindle. Kids will always need learnin’ but they might not need to pay so much for it, at least not to textbook companies. This is an existential challenge to the company.

All these pressures, I’m sure, have pinned MHP’s shares to the floor. Oh, don’t we all pine for the days when the stock rocketed to $71, back in mid-2007. Why would it ever be worth less? Why only $65 post-breakup now? Those Canadian teachers and their buds at Jana have talked up the value a bit, adding $5 a share so far with their lushly detailed charts and sharp calculations. Thorough coverage by the Wall Street Journal has helped, too.

But the real value of McGraw-Hill won’t be set by chalk-wielding Ontario-dwellers or hedge fund speculators. The market will rule. I’m sure hoping it rules well. Anybody think MHP is worth $100 a share to some savvy buyer? Do I hear $125?

Eastward ho! China beckons

The Chinese embassy has made it official now. My visa for a semester-long teaching gig at Tsinghua University in Beijing just popped in the front door. So it looks like a year’s preparation will pay off with a nearly four-month stay beginning Sept. 8.

I’m stoked.

The program, organized by the International Center for Journalists in Washington, D.C., and backed by my Dean, Gary Kebbel, and the far-sighted folks in the administration at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is thrilling. I get to teach two classes to budding Chinese journalists, grad students in the Global Business Journalism program at Tsinghua. They are keen to learn about business and economic coverage and about multi-media journalism.

For my part, I get to learn first-hand about the world’s second-biggest economy as it pushes even further into the global limelight. It will prove to be a fascinating, if paradoxical place, I expect. A “developing country” that is nearly 4,000 years old. The U.S.’s biggest creditor and yet a place with one of the lowest per capita incomes on the planet. A planned economy that seems to work, mostly anyway.

The university I’ll teach in is commonly ranked among the top three in the country. China’s current president, Hu Jintao, studied and taught at the 100-year-old school. Its journalism college, however, dates back to just 2002, as this technologically minded university — sometimes called the MIT of China — is still developing its humanities offerings. The ICFJ, led by China hand and former BusinessWeek colleague Joyce Barnathan, has been involved there since just 2007. I’m told the students at the Tsinghua School of Journalism and Communication will include some of the brightest kids in China, the likely leaders in their organizations in the future. I’m hoping they will challenge me as much as I challenge them and that, in my small way, I can make some lasting impact that will affect they way they see – and influence – the world.

It’s a daunting prospect. Will they behave like American students – in good and bad ways? Will they question and argue, for instance (probably not, I’m told, since deference to the teacher is a Chinese cultural trait)? Can I teach them about the cut and thrust of good journalism? Will they understand American-style journalism at all, or have a wholly different notion of the mission of media? Just think about how much some major pubs in China get quoted here as, more or less, the voice of officialdom.

Then there are the personal issues. Will the government particularly care what I have to say in the classroom or on the Net? Will it pay attention in either place? There are so many academic visitors to China from the U.S. nowadays that keeping track could be impossible and pointless for folks in official ranks. The Chinese want what we have to offer, especially in areas such as business and economic journalism. They think it a crucial skill as their business communities grow and globalize, and they’re right about that.

I’m going, however, as much as a student as I am a teacher. I’ve always felt that missionaries were fundamentally arrogant, assuming that they were bringing the truth to the ignorant masses. I’m a bit contemptuous – though usually more amused — when they knock at my door. So I’ll pack a sense of humility along with my syllabi. Yes, I can teach my young charges some useful skills – just as I do back home in Nebraska – but I expect I’ll learn far more from them and their country. China, after all, does have a few years on us in the U.S. as a civilization.

I plan to keep a blog of my experiences. This opportunity will vastly enrich me as a teacher, not to mention how much it could broaden my worldview. The three-week trip colleague Bruce Thorson and I took to Kazakhstan with eight students last year was good preparation. It gave me a sense of how people in a developing place look on us in the West, and on how they look on life in general. I expect to get more than a glimmer of that in the coming semester and look forward to sharing that both here and in classes to come.

Stay tuned. Should be one heckuva trip.

Cojones at Standard & Poor’s

You’ve got to hand it to the folks at Standard & Poor’s. It took cojones to stand up to the Treasury Department and give an honest assessment of U.S. debt and the problems of dysfunctional government. The downgrade to AA+ doesn’t make up for the misses the outfit was guilty of in the financial crisis and doesn’t atone for its seemingly willing blindness to the fool’s paradise we were living in. But its clear-eyed view of the shadows on our horizon now is worth a bundle.

The big question, though, is whether it will make a difference. The U.S. will not default, no matter how keen the GOP pols are to use threats such as that. Investors know that and they won’t flee Treasury securities. Where would they go anyway? Investors have known the same things S&P has known for months and still the yields on Treasurys are at historic lows. Putting money into the government bonds is safer than any bank, and that won’t change anytime soon, as even our tut-tutting creditors in China know.

Still, the grand game of “chicken” will continue in D.C. for the rest of the year, at least, and the downgrade could make a difference in how the game is played. The Gang of 12 – the bipartisan panel that is supposed to decide our financial fate – will have S&P’s jaundiced judgment to bear in mind as they go through their ideological faceoff. As they try to resolve problems that should have been dealt with in recent weeks, the prospect of a continued low rating, or even a further downgrade, could focus their minds on the consequences of fiscal mismanagement and dithering. Their debate, too, could keep a dead hand on the markets.

Politics, and the prospects of ousting a President, will weigh heavily on those folks, no doubt. The temptation to deny President Obama a victory – a financial resolution that would serve the country well – will be just about irresistible for half the panel. Maybe S&P’s independent judgment will prove to be a bracing slap of cold water, a reminder that the bloodsport that politics has become does have real consequences outside the Beltway. Voters could make judgments about mismanagement similar to that S&P folks made and simply throw all the bums out.

But it is too easy to cast this drama as simply a matter of gaining political advantage. This is much more than just naked opportunism. This fight is over the real and yawning ideological gulf between the parties. It is all about the longstanding argument over the size and role of government that has colored every election since at least the Reagan days. The Californian shook up prevailing wisdom in D.C. and made people believe government was the problem, not the solution – a view that is echoed decades later by the likes of Rep. Eric Cantor and, of course, the Tea Party movement.

The “two different worldviews” that divide Washington are too far apart for anything more than an armistice, Cantor suggested in a Wall Street Journal piece today. The Virginia Republican argued that expanding the welfare state and redistributing income are the central plays in the Democratic playbook. “The assumption … is that there is some kind of perpetual engine of economic prosperity in America that is going to just continue,” Cantor said. “And therefore they are able to take from those who create and give to those who don’t. We just have a fundamentally different view.”

Beyond that is the Keynesian-supply-sider divide. Keynesians such as New York Times columnist and Princeton economist Paul Krugman say Obama and Washington aren’t doing enough to use government money to stimulate the lackluster economy. By contrast, the GOP leaders invoke economist Arthur Laffer’s dictum – the Laffer Curve – to argue that tax cuts would be far more effective than government spending, especially when so much of the government money is borrowed. Variations of this debate are as old as the Great Depression and economists still are split on whether the government pulled us out that 1930s slump or prolonged it with government programs.

These are serious disputes, and unresolved economic questions. It comes to a matter of faith, of whether you worship at the Church of Laffer or the Congregation of Krugman. And, lately, it comes to a matter of who has the power to either turn on the government spigot or choke it off and, in theory, let the economy heal itself. Problem is, with a 9.1% unemployment rate, an outrageous amount of debt and the never-ending political campaign that Washington has become, the power centers and the course are anything but clear.

That’s partly why we should tip our hat to S&P. The outfit, the economic engine of my former longtime employer, McGraw-Hill Cos., didn’t bow to what had to have been enormous pressure from Washington in coming to its judgment. We can only imagine the debates that raged at company headquarters: Will this downgrade lead to higher interest costs for all Americans? What are the consequences when the economy is so weak? And what of the unlikely possibility that vengeful government regulators could make life tougher for S&P and McGraw-Hill, especially at a time when McGraw-Hill is facing pressure to reorganize or sell itself?

In fact, it’s a remarkable thing about our system that Washington can’t dictate terms to S&P. One can’t imagine that kind of independence in some other major global economies. Wall Street and Washington intersect at crucial points but neither can dictate to the other. That’s a priceless strength of our system and it would have been a sorry statement if S&P had caved to Treasury.

It is fascinating, of course, to see these warring economic visions collide. But this is no classroom exercise, no parlor game. The entertainment value is far outweighed by the size of the stakes. What Washington does will affect the livelihoods of millions, the legacy our kids inherit, and the role of the U.S. in the world. It doesn’t get much more serious than that. It will take smart and independent people to help the pols to chart the way.