Latest demerger to cost Murdoch dear

Rupert Murdoch and his wife Wendi Deng: Investors are taking news of their divorce calmly. Photo: Reuters

It was the timing of Rupert Murdoch’s divorce news that raised the odd eyebrow in financial markets.

The impending split of Mr Murdoch’s $70 billion News Corp media empire into two separate businesses, publishing and entertainment, is just 14 days away. The Murdoch family controls 38.4 per cent of News Corp’s voting shares and, as his wife, Wendi Deng, has a claim over her husband’s assets in the event of a divorce.

The question is, what sort of claim? News Corp’s share price was higher on Friday, suggesting any prospective legal action by Ms Deng was unlikely to disrupt the merger. Moreover, News Corp shareholders are expressing more interest in the social aspects than the sharemarket consequences of the divorce.

Mitigating the size of the Deng claim will be two key factors, according to an Australian super fund source: one, the prenuptial agreement struck when she married Mr Murdoch in 1999 and, two, the structure of the family trust that controls News. Mr Murdoch’s six children hold equal shares in the company through the family trust, but only his first four children – Prudence, Lachlan, James and Elisabeth – have the right to appoint trustees for the trust.

In light of these factors, the News stock price, the ultimate barometer of investor sentiment, was 1 per cent higher. News Corp was not commenting on the financial implications of the divorce.

The demerger is slated for June28 and will entail the Murdoch family taking both voting and non-voting stock in the entertainment company, 21st Century Fox, and in the publishing company, News Corp.

The Australian business, News Ltd, from which Mr Murdoch forged his global enterprise, will form part of the publishing business.

When he divorced his previous and second wife, Anna, in 1998, the cost was $US1.7 billion, of which $US110 million was in cash.

Despite the prenup with Ms Deng, sources said, any settlement is likely to be much larger. In the 14 years the couple have been together, the rally in News Corp shares has turned a $7 billion company into a $73 billion company, apart from any assets that Mr Murdoch might hold elsewhere.

Divorces of this dimension are more akin to large corporate transactions than typical family law matters. Ensuring that any settlement is on a confidential basis may weigh in Ms Deng’s favour in negotiations.

According to The New York Times, Ira Garr of the law firm Garr Silpe will represent Rupert Murdoch, and Pamela Sloan of Aronson Mayefsky & Sloan will represent Wendi Deng. The divorce coverage in Mr Murdoch’s own New York newspaper, the New York Post, is not quite so detailed.

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