Allan Sloan spots New York Times tax genius

January 22, 2009

The New York Times might not have figured out its long-term strategy to survive just yet, but Fortune columnist Allan Sloan discovered that someone working for the company is a genius when it comes to taxes.

The Times this week said it will borrow $250 million from companies controlled by Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim, also the world’s second-richest man. Slim also is getting warrants that he can convert into stock, something that will make him one of the company’s largest shareholders. Aside from questions about whether he will take over the TImes, the aspect of the Slim deal that turned business reporters’ heads was the crazy interest that the Times will pay — 14 percent.

Sloan has a way of explaining how there is a way around this. Here are some excerpts, but for the full effect, go read his column. While Sloan is a master of converting complicated financial practice into plain English, this one is pretty tough for the layman.

The Times will use “HYDO” (pronounced HI-dough, and it stands for “high-yield discount obligation), junk securities issued at a discount to their face value.

The $250 million of Slim notes yielded the company $250 million – but as part of the deal the Slim outfits got a fat slug of stock-purchase rights, known as warrants, that the Times Co. valued at $21,147,000 in a Securities and Exchange Commission filing.

So for tax purposes, it’s as if the company got less than $229 million for issuing $250 million of notes, making them a discount obligation. That makes the effective interest cost to the Times 15.3% – the $35.1 million of annual interest (14.053% of $250 million) divided by $228,853,000 ($250 million less the value of the warrants.)

Rules dictate that the Times would only be able to deduct half its annual interest ($18 million, or so), Sloan says, but…

The company says that five and half years after the Jan. 19 borrowings, it will fork over enough cash to cover non-cash interest costs that it accrued for tax purposes. For amazingly complicated reasons, this payment would get the company off the HYDO hook, and makes all the interest on these borrowings tax deductible.

My head spins, but in a good way.

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