Microsoft Bid for aQuantive Signals Desperation

This stunning bid for online advertising firm aQuantive (AQNT) by Microsoft (MSFT) seems to stem from simply missing out on deals that competitors have made and feeling the need to get something, anything, done. After talks with Yahoo! (YHOO) went nowhere and Google (GOOG) bought Doubleclick for $3.1 billion, Microsoft had two options if they felt they needed to keep up with everybody else; buy aQuantive or Valueclick (VCLK).

Not only did they go with aQuantive, but they paid an astronomical price. Shares of AQNT were trading at $36 yesterday and that quote was pricing in a lot of buyout speculation already. Somehow they got Ballmer and Company to offer more than $66 per share in cash, an 85% premium. Such a bid puts Mister Softy on the hook for a cash outlay of $6 billion. In return it gets a business at 104 times trailing earnings, 86 times current year earnings, and a whopping 67 times 2008 earnings.

Is it a good move, given the price tag paid? I can’t see how it could be. Based on 2006 sales figures, AQNT will represent less than 1% of Microsoft’s revenue. This deal can hardly move the needle for them, in my view. Sure it will add some expertise in a field that the company is struggling with, but given that this deal is just being done to keep up with acquisitions already announced by competitors, Microsoft is just keeping pace with rivals, not gaining on them.

Buying Yahoo! would have been a better option. There aren’t any comparable deals Google could have done to match a Yahoo! purchase by Microsoft, so that would have actually closed the gap. I don’t think this aQuantive deal does that. And given the price they paid, I wouldn’t be too happy if I was a Microsoft shareholder.

The only positive coming out of this announcement, unless you are long aQuantive shares (congrats to all of you), is an opportunity for merger arbitrage traders. AQNT is nearly $3 below the $66.50 offer price. Although no other bids are likely, the discount is more than 4% and the deal should close by year-end, so arb players can make an 8% to 9% annual return by waiting six months or so for the deal to close.

Full Disclosure: Long Google, short Yahoo!, and no positions in the other companies mentioned