Yahoo Update: I Might Be The Only Person Who Likes Marissa Mayer’s Turnaround Plan

Nearly three years ago I wrote a bullish article on Yahoo (YHOO) after ex-Google exec Marissa Mayer took over as CEO, with the stock at $16 per share (Does Marissa Mayer Make Yahoo Stock A Worthwhile Bet?). After the stock had doubled a year later I postulated that it was fairly valued, but for a while now I have moved back into the bullish camp. The skeptics point out (correctly) that the stock’s huge run since Mayer’s hire is mostly due to a massive increase in the value of its stake in Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba (BABA), the last of which will be spun off to shareholders in late 2015 or early 2016.

The consensus view on Mayer’s efforts to reinvigorate the company’s core business is quite negative. Many of the hedge fund activists who pushed for the BABA spin-off have publicly called for Mayer’s exit. While Yahoo’s own financial results remain about where they were when Mayer took over three years ago, the make-up of that business has changed dramatically, which positions the company very well for the future.

Back in 2012 Yahoo’s core business was like a melting ice cube, as user preferences were moving away from both the Yahoo brand and from desktop search. Much to Mayer’s disappointment, the company had hardly any presence in areas like mobile and social media, even though that was clearly where online usage was going. So, Mayer made a big push into what she calls “Mavens” (mobile, video, native, and social). By revamping Yahoo’s mobile apps, acquiring upstarts like Tumblr, and refocusing the company on current usage trends, Mayer’s plan was to expand into areas of growth in order to offset the slowly declining legacy business (conducting internet searches on from a desktop computer is so 1995). Perfectly logical.

Mayer’s critics, however, are unimpressed. Yahoo’s annual revenue dropped from $5 billion in 2012 to $4.6 billion in 2014, as legacy declines more than offset growth in Mavens. Since Mavens started from practically zero in 2012, it is going to take a while for the new businesses to get large enough to overshadow the legacy ones, but when that happens Yahoo can begin to see absolute growth again. Mayer is making a lot of progress on this front. Mavens revenue in the second quarter of 2015 was $400 million, or 1/3 of total company sales, representing growth of 60% year-over-year. The plan is working despite the multi-year timeframe.

But the real reason I am bullish on the stock at current prices ($39) is the fact that Wall Street has basically decided that Yahoo’s core business has no chance of returning to growth, ever. The soon-to-be spun off Alibaba stake is worth $32 billion or $34 per YHOO share (the after-tax value is less — $22 per share — which is relevant if Yahoo cannot get IRS approval for a tax-free spin-off). Add in the market value of Yahoo Japan ($6 per share after-tax) and Yahoo’s current net cash position ($6 per share) and you can see that investors are getting core Yahoo for a pittance. Even assuming a fully taxed Alibaba stake, core Yahoo is valued at only $5 per share (around 1 times current annual revenue). Assume a tax-free spin of BABA and you get a ridiculous figure for core Yahoo’s value — negative $7 per share!

Given the momentum the Mavens businesses are seeing right now, coupled with the $7 billion of cash on the company’s balance sheet (fuel for more acquisitions, perhaps), I actually think Mayer can turn around the Yahoo ship in the not-too-distant future. Paying just $5 per share for the core business even in the worst case scenario makes the risk/reward trade-off  extremely favorable. For investors who are willing to hold the Alibaba stock for the long-term (that company is very well-positioned), I can easily see Yahoo shares being worth over $50 a year or two from now on a cumulative basis.

Full Disclosure: Long shares of YHOO at the time of writing, but positions may change at any time