‘It Was Getting Out of Control’: Media Giants Stare Down ‘Terrifying’ Debt Problem

Written by Staff
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Technology, media and telecommunications together ranked No. 2 among all sectors for total debt in 2018 — the financial sector was No. 1 — thanks to low-interest rates and a long bull market that helped fuel some big debt-financed acquisitions.

That TMI debt amounts to $1.75 trillion, according to S&P Global Market Intelligence — debt totals approaching levels seen just before the 2008 financial crisis.

Corporate debt now stands at $11 trillion — half the U.S. annual gross domestic product — SEC Chairman Jay Clayton warned on Sept. 9.

Digital media acquisitions over the past few weeks show that companies are merging to combine resources, reach bigger audiences and become profitable, or at least have a better chance to compete with Google and Facebook for ad revenue, Axios reported. But until companies go public or sell for a public cash figure, there’s no way of knowing what their big bets are really worth.

These are some recent digital media acquisitions that lend insight on the market:

Debt, which has fueled media growth for the 10 years, is being less widely encouraged by shareholders who worry about how expensive it is to service that debt, according to Hollywood Reporter.

“It was getting out of control there for a while,” an investment banker told Hollywood Reporter. “The entertainment bank market is very competitive and banks have been very aggressive in relaxing certain covenants and lending against certain assets or cash flows where they would not have lent a few years ago.”

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Borrowing also may be getting more difficult, according to insiders. Vice Media acquired lifestyle publisher Refinery29 in an Oct. 2 deal via a mix of cash and stock valued at $400 million. Other media deals include Group Nine’s acquisition of PopSugar Oct. 7 and Vox Media’s acquisition of New York magazine on Sept. 24 — both all stock.

Digital media investors and executives told Axios that the combined valuation of Vice Media and Refinery29 should be much lower than the total $4 billion figure that was reported.

Shareholders are nervous even when money is easy to borrow. AT&T brought down its debt down from $180 billion earlier this year to $170 billion — a number analyst Craig Moffett called “terrifying” at the time.