MCI Inc. may have 15 million residential customers and a state-of-the-art telecommunications network, but it has something else that makes it even more appealing to some investors: lots of cash.
Just two months after the Ashburn-based company completed the bankruptcy process, the company is sitting on $4.4 billion.
Some analysts suggest that its flush bank account may be the real target of Leucadia National Corp., a New York investment firm that recently expressed interest in seeking a controlling stake in the long-distance giant. Leucadia has a reputation, built over the past 30 years, for swooping in and buying under-appreciated companies. And, according to many analysts, MCI fits the profile.
The value of MCI's cash alone accounts for approximately $13.50 per share, or about 80 percent of the $16.80 its shares fetched yesterday. If the company's $5 billion in debt is factored in, investors appear to be deeply discounting the company's domestic and international fiber-optic networks, its Fortune 100 corporate customers and its residential long-distance business. The bankruptcy plan approved by a U.S. federal judge in Manhattan estimated the operating value of those assets to be approximately $12 billion. But MCI's market value, based on yesterday's closing stock price, is about $5.5 billion.
Leucadia made its interest in MCI known just days before the company was to begin trading on the Nasdaq Stock Market for the first time in two years. Today it starts trading under its new symbol: MCIP.
MCI chief executive Michael D. Capellas said yesterday that the relisting of MCI on a major market is an important milestone in the company's recovery. "The bankruptcy is over," Capellas said in an interview. Capellas declined to comment on whether MCI is accurately valued by the market.
Formerly known as WorldCom Inc., the company was delisted in July 2002, after it revealed the largest accounting fraud in history and then filed for bankruptcy protection. The stigma of fraud and Chapter 11 is only part of the reason that shares of MCI may be trading at current levels.
The long-distance giant, like its peers AT&T Corp. and Sprint Corp., is also suffering from intense competitive pressures and cutthroat price wars. MCI was recently surpassed by Verizon Communications Inc., which became the nation's second-largest long distance company behind AT&T.
But being the third-largest player in the telecommunications industry is still a formidable position. MCI has told Wall Street that plans on bringing in $21 billion in revenue this year.
Leucadia has declined to comment on its interest in MCI. Instead, it was MCI that revealed the investment firm planned to seek regulatory permission from the Justice Department and the Federal Trade Commission to buy a controlling stake in the phone company. MCI officials said yesterday that they had yet to receive a formal offer for the company.
So for now, MCI's top brass is more focused on what to do with the company's cash.
At the time MCI emerged from bankruptcy in April, it had $6 billion on hand. The company plans to spend $2 billion paying off its obligation to creditors, bringing its total cash down to $4 billion. But it also plans to sell off its Brazilian subsidiary Embratel for approximately $400 million, which would bring its total cash back up to $4.4 billion by the end of the year.
It is unusual for a company to emerge from bankruptcy with so much money in the bank. But MCI proved adept at building up its cash reserves during the almost two-year Chapter 11 process. And, as a condition of its bankruptcy plan, many of its creditors opted for stock in the company instead of cash, giving them a stake in its future.
Capellas said yesterday that deciding what to do with the cash is one of the board's highest priorities. But before the company makes any decisions, it must conclude whether it will need the money to cover ongoing expenses.
One investor familiar with MCI's financing suggested that Leucadia's bid may be an effort to take control of the company before the cash is disbursed. Leucadia declined to comment on that prospect yesterday.
But assuming that MCI opts to spend some portion of the cash, the directors have several options. They could buy up MCI stock on the open market, a move that often pushes up share prices by making fewer shares available (and suggesting the company is confident in its future). The directors could also disburse the cash in a one-time dividend, a decision that would reward large shareholders who bought up MCI's debt on the cheap during the bankruptcy process and have since converted it to stock. The company could return the money to shareholders through a regular quarterly dividend. In addition, directors will consider using some of the cash to pay down MCI's existing debt.
"This is very, very much on the board's mind," Capellas said. In fact, in an unusual provision of MCI's bankruptcy plan, the board is required to make a decision about its cash reserves, although it faces no deadline.
Capellas declined to comment directly on Leucadia's interest in MCI other than to say there had been "introductory conversations" between the two companies. In addition, Capellas said MCI is barred from providing Leucadia with any non-public information until a formal offer is made.
Capellas said the company's officers have a fiduciary obligation to shareholders to consider legitimate offers. And even if nothing comes of the interest, he regards the discussions as a positive.
Just a year ago, MCI was the subject of several federal investigations and was fending off competitors that were trying to use the bankruptcy process to drive it out of business. Now Capellas finds himself parrying questions about potential offers from savvy investors.
"It's always nice to be wanted," Capellas said.