Can Sony be saved? Stock near 32-year low.June 5, 2012: 12:44 PM ET
Business journalists are having fun chronicling the stock market woes of Facebook (FB). I call the phenomenon Zuckenfreude. But when it comes to technology train wrecks, Facebook can't hold a candle to the disaster that is Sony.
Shares of Sony (SNE) are trading at a more than 3-decade low, dipping below the 1,000 yen mark in Tokyo on Monday for the first time since 1980. That's four years before Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg was born!
The problems plaguing Sony for the past few years are well known. The strong yen is taking a huge bite out of overseas profits. The company hasn't had a gadget catch fire like its ubiquitous Walkman did in the 80s and is now trailing the likes of Apple (AAPL), Microsoft (MSFT) and Korea's Samsung and LG in the consumer electronics market. Sony owns a major record label and it's no secret that the music business model is broken, if not dead.
Adding insult to injury, the massive earthquake and tsunami in March 2011 as well as flooding in Thailand last year caused major manufacturing shutdowns and supply chain disruptions.
Last month, Sony reported that sales in its latest fiscal year (which ended this March) fell 10% from a year earlier. The company's flagship consumer products division, which includes PCs, TVs, cameras and the PlayStation gaming business and accounts for nearly half of all of Sony's revenue, posted a sales decline of 18.5%. As a result, Sony recorded a loss for the fourth consecutive year.
All this begs the question: Is it time for Sony to consider selling itself? Or, at the very least, breaking itself up to save the company? Sony's market value is now only about $13 billion. So it's not unthinkable that it could be a takeover target. Several tech giants, including Apple, Microsoft, Cisco (CSCO) and Google (GOOG), have much more than $13 billion in cash.
There were some fanciful rumors back in the fall of 2010 that Apple was interested in buying the company. The speculation didn't last long though. And it doesn't make that much sense for Apple to buy Sony -- especially if the chatter about an imminent Apple iTV turns out to be true.
But you could argue that some of Sony's businesses, if not the whole company, could be attractive to a buyer. New CEO Kazuo Hirai, who took over for Howard Stringer earlier this year, has already announced 10,000 layoffs and has not ruled out asset sales or other restructuring.
Sony owns a movie and television studio that has been doing quite well lately. That division, which Sony quaintly refers to as Pictures, reported a 10% increase in sales last year. Operating profits were down 11% -- but at least the unit is profitable.
The company has already predicted that revenue in this division will be up again this year. Sony's studio has had box office hits this year with "Men in Black 3" and "21 Jump Street" and could have two more summer hits with the upcoming re-launch of the Spider-Man franchise ("The Amazing Spider-Man") as well as a remake of "Total Recall." (Sorry. But Colin Farrell is no Ah-nold!)
But the film unit has long been considered a division that doesn't really mesh with the others. Sony may eventually have to come to a decision similar to General Electric (GE), which after years of shareholder pressure, finally sold its NBC Universal unit to Comcast (CMCSA).
So would a leading Hollywood company be willing to buy Sony's movie and TV unit? Perhaps.
It might make sense for Disney (DIS) to take a look. Disney already owns Marvel and buying Sony's movie studio would allow Disney to have full control of the Spider-Man franchise, which is arguably an even bigger draw than any of the other Marvel comic book stars in "The Avengers." Heck, a Chinese firm might be interested in Sony's film unit. A big Chinese conglomerate has already scooped up American movie theater chain AMC after all.
Sony is also still a leader in the video game market and won some raves for announcements it made about its PlayStation Vita handheld device and Move motion controller at the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) gaming trade show in Los Angeles Monday night. In fact, shares of Sony gained nearly 3% on Tuesday following the news.
Now the gaming business does fit better within the rest of Sony's consumer gadget businesses. So it may not seem like the best candidate for an asset sale. But at the same time, Sony may be fighting a losing battle with a console-centric strategy in a world where games are increasingly migrating to smartphones and tablets.
Look no further than Japanese rival Nintendo for evidence of how tough it is to be in the video game business. Shares of Nintendo (NTDOY), like Sony, are down nearly 50% in the past 12 months.
Nintendo has a lot riding on its new Wii U console but investors have bemoaned the fact that Nintendo refuses to release app versions of games tied to popular franchises like Super Mario Brothers, Zelda and Donkey Kong for non-Nintendo devices. It wouldn't shock me if Nintendo's name started popping up more frequently on the merger rumor merry-go-round.
But back to Sony. The speculation about some sort of Sony shake-up is likely to grow even louder if Hirai is not able to turn things around soon.
Jason McRae, a senior analyst with the Forester Discovery Fund (INTLX) in Lake Forest, Ill., said his firm sold its stake in Sony earlier this year (the fund had owned Sony since late 2008) due to concerns that sales would continue to fall. He said that even after the stock's big drop, it would have to fall further before he'd feel comfortable investing in Sony again.
Sony may never be able to duplicate the success of the Walkman. That's asking a lot. But if it doesn't come up with something cool soon, it may be time for the company to find a buyer to help it out.