Here is a disclosure from the Focus Media 20F filing:
Mobile handset advertising services
|The original sellers which subsequently repurchased Catchstone were Only Education Holding Limited and Maxnew Holdings Limited, BVI companies owned by a single PRC individual unrelated to our company.
|The original seller which subsequently repurchased WonderAd was Megajoy Pacific Limited, a BVI company ultimately owned by seven PRC individuals unrelated to our company.
|The original sellers which subsequently repurchased Jiahua were two PRC individuals unrelated to our company.
|The original seller which subsequently repurchased Jichuang was Richcom International Limited, a BVI company owned by a single PRC individual unrelated to our company.
|The original sellers which subsequently repurchased Keylink Global Limited were four PRC individuals unrelated to our company.
|The original sellers which subsequently repurchased 1024 were two PRC individuals unrelated to our company.
|The original sellers which subsequently repurchased Dongguan Yaya were Sinoalpha Limited and Max Planet Limited, BVI companies each of which is owned by a separate single PRC individual unrelated to our company.
I want you dear readers to read and try to understand this disclosure.
It says that we (Focus Media) were planning to IPO our internet advertising segment but we aborted that plan "due to the economic recession of late 2008". In other words we thought they were businesses worth taking to IPO.
Instead we took seven of our businesses and disposed of them at losses.
Six of them we disposed of to the original owner.
WonderAd and several others were given to the original owners. 14,926,003 dollars was paid for WonderAd. That was also the loss on disposal - so presumably the business was given back to the original owner. Same is true of Jiahua, Wangmai, Jichuang and 1024. Donggyuan Yaya was also given away.
There was a loss on disposal of $44.1 million from these subsidiaries.
Prior to disposal these subsidiaries had $127.6 million in revenue and $45.4 million in pre-tax losses. So they were big revenue earners - but presumably they had over $170 million in costs. In China where wages are low that is a lot of costs - they appear to have been large operations with a lot of staff.
Because they had large losses ($45.4 million pre-tax) and they did not collapse I presume that Focus Media injected a great deal of cash into the subsidiaries before it gave them back to the original owner for whom in most cases the ownership vehicle was an untraceable British Virgin Islands company.
I have three possible interpretations - and without doing due diligence I could not easily be certain which (if any) is the correct interpretation.
Interpretation A: the accounting statements are entirely accurate
In interpretation A the accounts are entirely straight. Focus Media purchased many independent British Virgin Island companies running internet advertising businesses in China.
These businesses had well over $100 million revenue.
However they all failed and cash - probably $40 plus million - needed to be used to fund operating losses.
Given the (not inconsiderable) pain of funding those operating losses they wanted to close the businesses. But rather than close them they found that the original owners were happy to take them back for no consideration. Presumably the original owners can fund the losses and know how to turn the businesses around.
So they gave the businesses back to their original owners for no consideration and closed the book on the whole sorry saga.
Interpretation B: Focus Media management participated in the looting of Focus Media
These businesses were good or bad or possibly even non-existent. However over $40 million dollars was paid for the businesses and the businesses were given back to the original owner (making the original owners $40 million better off). Moreover a further $40 million was injected into the businesses to just zip up the scale of the looting to something even more attractive for the thieves.
That is why you would do it in the British Virgin Islands. No tax to pay on stolen money - and the companies are untraceable. Yipee!
Interpretation C: The money was never there, the losses are fake and they are used to wash fake profits
In interpretation C, Focus Media reports fake profits over its main businesses. These fake profits result in fake cash on the balance sheet (something that is easily found by auditors). So they produce fake losses to offset them.
What better way to fake losses than buy some businesses, have operating losses and write them off?
And where better to locate the fake businesses but the British Virgin Islands where they are untraceable?
In this interpretation the underlying profitability of Focus Media is grotesquely overstated. When the fake transactions stop the fake losses stop and the fake profits get revealed. The poor private equity buyers (and the suckers who lent them 1.5 billion dollars) are left holding a turkey.
As I said it is very hard to tell which interpretation is correct without doing due diligence. But due diligence is going to be very hard because the losses are buried in untraceable British Virgin Island subsidiaries. I hope Focus retained enough documentation to verify the first interpretation - and I hope the auditor has traced the BVI subs. Moreover I hope the original owners can be found.
Which interpretation is found to be correct under due diligence matters a lot for the take-private deal.
The first two interpretations are acceptable to the PE buyers and if either is true the deal will probably close.
If the acquisitions were bad (as per the first interpretation) then the PE buyers can stop that prospectively. After all PE buyers can do due diligence and do not have to close bad acquisitions.
If the company was looted (as per the second interpretation) then the PE buyers can stop that prospectively - after all Carlyle and Fountainvest should be competent to construct rigorous financial control of businesses that they acquire.
The third interpretation is utterly terrible for Focus Media stock. In that case Focus Media is a Chinese display media company that uses very complex BVI transactions to fake their profits. Real profitability would be low - but ultimately unknowable. The privatisation will fail under due diligence.
Moreover what is left would be a Chinese display media company which fakes their accounts using untraceable BVI entities. What is that worth? Certainly far less than the current multi-billion dollar market cap.
Now of course off the disclosure I can't tell which of these three interpretations is correct. But if the deal fails then intellectually you are led to the third interpretation. The upside for the stock is to $27 - the bid price. The downside? Large.