It was the timing of Rupert Murdoch’s divorce news which raised the odd eyebrow in financial markets today.
The impending split of 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 today, suggesting any prospective legal action from Deng was unlikely to disrupt the merger. Moreover, News Corp shareholders are expressing more interest in the social aspects than sharemarket consequences of the divorce.
Mitigating the size of the Deng claim will be two key factors said an Australian super fund source today: one, the pre-nuptial agreement struck when she married Rupert Murdoch in 1999 and, two, the structure of the family trust which controls News. Rupert Murdoch’s six children hold equal shares in the company through the family trust however 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 one per cent higher at lunch time today. Still, News Corp spokespeople were not commenting on the financial implications of the divorce.
The demerger is slated for June 28 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 Limited, from which Rupert Murdoch forged his global enterprise, will form part of the publishing business.
When Murdoch divorced his previous and second wife Anna in 1998, the cost was $US1.7 billion of which $US110 million was in cash.
Despite the pre-nup with Wendi Deng, sources said yesterday, the settlement is likely to be much larger. In the past 14 years since Deng and Murdoch have been together, the rally in News Corp shares has turned a $7 billion company into a $73 billion company, apart from any assets Rupert Murdoch might hold elsewhere.
Divorces of this dimension are more akin to large corporate transactions than typical family law matters. Ensuring any settlement is struck on a confidential basis may weigh in Deng’s favour in negotiations.
According to the New York Times, Ira E. Garr of the law firm Garr Silpe will represent Rupert Murdoch, and Pamela M. Sloan of Aronson Mayefsky & Sloan LLP will represent Wendi Deng.
The Murdoch divorce coverage in Murdoch’s own New York newspaper, the New York Post, is not quite so detailed.
The response from News Limited this morning was a no comment off the record.