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Hedge fund wants part of Sony entertainment sold

Yuri Kageyama, AP Business Writer

FILE - In this Thursday, Feb. 7, 2013 photo, Sony signs hang from a store in Tokyo. A U.S. hedge fund has proposed that Sony Corp. selling up to 20 percent of its entertainment business to use that money to strengthen its ailing electronics unit. In a May 14 letter to Sony President Kazuo Hirai, first published in The New York Times, Daniel Loeb, chief executive of hedge fund Third Point, suggested Sony take 15 percent to 20 percent of the entertainment unit public. (AP Photo/Junji Kurokawa, File)

TOKYO (AP) -- The U.S. hedge fund manager renowned for shaking up Yahoo Inc. has set his sights on Sony Corp., proposing that the Japanese electronics giant spin off up to 20 percent of its movie, TV and music division and use the money to strengthen its ailing device manufacturing unit. Sony rejected the plan, but analysts latched onto the idea as a way for Sony to unlock hidden value.

Sony's U.S.-traded shares jumped $1.99, or 10.5 percent, to $20.88 in Tuesday afternoon trading.

In a May 14 letter to Sony President Kazuo Hirai, first published in The New York Times, Third Point LLC CEO Daniel Loeb suggests Sony take 15 to 20 percent of the entertainment unit public by offering current Sony shareholders the opportunity to buy shares.

Loeb said that would allow the Japanese maker of PlayStation game machines and Bravia TV sets to fund improvements to its battered electronics operations and provide existing shareholders with a way to own one of Sony's most profitable businesses more directly.

Sony replied in a statement Tuesday that its entertainment business is not for sale, and stressed it is trying to strengthen both that division and its electronics operations.

"As president and CEO Kazuo Hirai has said repeatedly, the entertainment businesses are important contributors to Sony's growth and are not for sale," Sony said. "We look forward to continuing constructive dialogue with our shareholders as we pursue our strategy."

Despite Sony's rebuff, analysts hailed the idea.

Pivotal Research Group analyst Brian Wieser said that becoming a separate company would allow Sony's entertainment division to grow and become more profitable. It would also focus investor attention on its assets, which would take on new value as a potential acquisition target for media companies like CBS Corp.

CBS spokesman Dana McClintock declined to comment on what he called "rumor and speculation."

Besides distributing blockbusters like the James Bond hit "Skyfall," Sony's TV show unit makes popular shows such as "Community" for NBC and "Breaking Bad" for AMC. Sony Music's most notable artists include Beyonce, Adele, Bob Dylan and Kenny Chesney. Wieser said Sony operates 124 pay TV channels in more than 159 countries.

"Buried inside of a bigger company, Sony has not been able to highlight the valuable businesses," Wieser wrote in a research note Tuesday.

Loeb's letter said that over 40 percent of Sony's enterprise value is tied up in its entertainment assets, but they are underperforming compared to their peers. If the division's profitability were raised to the industry average, it would add 625 billion yen ($6.1 billion) to Sony's market value. With the rise in Sony's stock Tuesday, the company has a market capitalization of about $21.1 billion.

The proposal highlights a common criticism of Tokyo-based Sony that it has never been able to take advantage of having both electronics and entertainment under its wing.

Instead, one has tended to drag the other down.

Sony's electronics business has been ailing, particularly its TV division, which has lost money for nine straight years.

Sony fell behind in flat panel TVs, and has never been able to compete against Samsung Electronics Co. of South Korea in TVs as well as cheaper makers.

Following four straight years of red ink, Sony reported a profit of 43 billion yen ($434 million) in the fiscal year that ended in March, helped by the recent decline of the yen.

It had suffered a loss of 457 billion yen ($5.7 billion) the previous year, which was the worst in the company's nearly seven-decade history.

Outspoken investors like Loeb are still relatively rare in Japan. Major companies tend to have networks of shareholders such as banks and group companies. Resistance to big change is strong.

Shareholders' meetings, including those of Sony, tend to be boring affairs in which company agendas are rarely challenged, except in proposals that are quickly defeated or in rambling speeches by shareholders seen more as a nuisance than a real influence on policy.

But change could be in store. Japan is seeing a surge in global investment interest because of its recent policies of super-easy money and an inflation target designed to wrest its economy out of the doldrums.

In his letter, Loeb pointed to the "Abenomics" monetary policies of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who took office last year, which have buoyed Tokyo stocks and brought the yen down.

Loeb said Sony should seize on the opportunity provided by Abenomics to shore up its electronics business.

"Sony stands at the crossroads of compelling corporate opportunity and massive Japanese economic reform. Under Prime Minister Abe's leadership, Japan can regain its position as one of the world's pre-eminent economic powerhouses and manufacturing engines," he said.

Loeb said in his letter that his fund owns 64 million Sony shares, which is about a 6.5 percent stake in Sony.

The 51-year-old billionaire is perhaps best known for instigating a massive shake-up at Yahoo Inc., using his 5.8 percent stake to gain seats on the board. Loeb helped engineer the ouster of then-CEO Scott Thompson by revealing last May that Thompson did not have the computer science degree that was widely assumed. The ouster led to the eventual hiring of former Google Inc. executive Marissa Mayer as CEO last July. Since then, Yahoo shares have ralied about 70 percent.

Sony did not have the latest numbers on the fund's holdings, but confirmed it is a major shareholder.

"Sony has stood for innovative engineering and consumer satisfaction for decades," Loeb said. "Like many conglomerates we have invested in previously, Sony has two strong businesses facing different challenges side by side, each obscuring the other's true worth."


Follow Yuri Kageyama on Twitter at twitter.com/yurikageyama


Business Writer Ryan Nakashima in Los Angeles contributed to this report.