Once Again Proving that High Finance Can Destroy Everything

In this case, it’s Univision that they have run into the ground:

This is the story of how corporate raiding, complacency, excess, and incompetence are gutting a media company that matters to tens of millions of people. It’s not a novel story, and perhaps not even scandalous by the standards of corporate opulence: A shark-obsessed boss, millions wasted on consultants, and an executive who insisted on publishing softcore porn are more embarrassing buffoonery than insidious greed. The main problem—the billions in debt the company ran up in the process of its owners buying it and weighing it down—is practically routine in media and beyond; that doesn’t make it any less infuriating.

This company is Univision, which until recently obligingly filled the role of absentee stepfather to Gizmodo Media Group, our employer. Now, Univision’s business is struggling, and GMG has suddenly found itself under a very watchful eye.

Once upon a time, Univision, an American broadcasting operation aimed primarily at Spanish speakers in the United States, was a tremendous golden goose laying tremendous golden eggs: It made incredible amounts of money and had to do essentially nothing for it other than run programming produced by Televisa, a Mexican broadcasting operation. The fairy tale ended long ago. Univision has been in decline for years, thanks to a disastrous private equity buyout finalized in 2007; an aging audience; a burdensome program-licensing deal with Televisa; competition from Telemundo and Netflix; layers of overpaid and useless middle management; and a general failure to position itself for a digital future.


From routine human resources f%$#ups to vastly overselling the prospects of an IPO whose ultimate doom this March precipitated the company’s current cost-cutting spree, Univision has been deeply mismanaged and is in the midst of making huge cuts that have, among other things, already claimed vast swaths of Univision Noticias—the most vital newsgathering operation serving the Spanish-speaking community in the U.S.—and Fusion Media Group. Consultants from Boston Consulting Group, who have reportedly recommended budget cuts of up to 35 percent in some parts of the company, have been combing through the books for months, and more than 150 people have been laid off so far. Plenty more cuts are pending (Univision president of news Daniel Coronell reportedly described them as “catastrophic” to his newsroom), including at GMG, the staff of which fears the newsroom may be cut by up to a third by the end of June, perhaps as part of a broader pivot toward video and branded content. What is happening to the company is not ultimately a failure of editorial or even executive management, though: If Univision was a mammoth whose failure to adapt slowed it down, it was private equity investors, consumed by the thought of turning their riches into more riches, who brought it down and bled it dry.

(emphasis mine)
You’ll notice a pattern: Company has problems, or potential problems, takes said company private with other people’s money, bleeds it dry, and leaves bleached bones.

Rinse, lather, repeat:

In 2007, a consortium including Texas Pacific Group, Thomas H. Lee, Madison Dearborn, Providence Equity, and Saban Capital took Univision private for $13.7 billion. These firms—executives of which still shape Univision’s board—borrowed heavily to finance the deal, saddling their new prize with more than $10 billion of debt. According to an FCC filing, each firm holds between 20.6 and 7.1 percent of Univision’s equity, and between 27.3 and zero percent of the voting interests. Thomas H. Lee, the only firm with no voting rights, has no official members on Univision’s board, but two of THL’s employees, James Carlisle and Laura Grattan, are listed as Univision board observers in their company bios; Univision would not say if the firm had appointed members to the board or who they were. Univision, for its part, declined to answer questions about the board, while all the involved firms either declined to comment or did not respond to questions about their involvement with Univision.

Leveraged buyouts such as the ones by which these companies acquired control of Univision were common in the years leading up to the financial crisis: Investors borrow a huge amount of money to purchase a company and then make that company responsible for paying back the debt. The amount of borrowing required is often large relative to a company’s earnings. This relationship—known as leverage—is used to gauge whether a company is likely to be able to pay back its lenders. The financial world commonly measures this through the ratio of “debt to EBITDA,” or earnings before interest, taxes, and depreciation and amortization of various assets. (The finance industry’s inscrutable jargon is a feature, not a bug. Just think of this ratio as a company’s debt compared to how much money it makes each year.)
Univision’s ratio, estimated at 12.5-to-1, made it highly leveraged even by the standards of the pre-crisis boom period. (In 2013, Obama administration regulators would urge banks to limit companies’ leverage to roughly half this level to reduce the risk of default.) Still, in 2007—when the company maintained a tight grip on the then-swelling U.S. market for Spanish-language media, and before media enterprises came to be viewed as dead investments—Univision found itself in a position of relative strength.

One of the reasons that we see this is because our regulatory and tax regimes subsidize such behavior.

As to a fix, on the mild side are things like changing the bankruptcy code to allow for private equity management fees, and all paid received by executives in excess of $1 million a year to be clawed back.

On the more severe side, and I think that this might be necessary, completely eliminating the deductability of interest payments would be a good thing.

I am sure that there is a middle ground, but I want to fiddle while Wall Street burns.

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