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Redstone hit by credit troubles

The billionaire is forced to sell a fifth of his family's stake in Viacom and CBS to raise cash to pay debt.

October 11, 2008|Meg James | Times Staff Writer

Billionaire Sumner Redstone got caught in the credit crunch Friday.

The 85-year-old mogul, who has long bragged about his financial savvy and competitive drive, was forced to sell a fifth of his family's stake in his two media companies -- Viacom Inc. and CBS Corp. -- on a day when the companies' shares were trading at record lows. It shows that even the wealthiest people are not immune to the meltdown in the markets and are being thrust into once-unimaginable situations.

On the most volatile trading day in the stock market's 112-year history, Redstone's family's holding firm, National Amusements Inc., had to dump $400 million of nonvoting B shares in Viacom and CBS to raise cash to "pay down debt to comply with covenants under [the company's] credit agreements," according to a statement from National Amusements.

"This was a margin call in the broadest terms," said Hal Vogel of Vogel Capital Management, a longtime media analyst and investor. "When the banks don't renew your credit, you get a margin call and that is, in effect, what happened to National Amusements."

A spokeswoman for the closely held firm, which operates a chain of about 1,500 movie theaters worldwide including the Bridge in Westchester, declined to comment.

Redstone's credit troubles set off a chain reaction with damaging consequences for CBS and Viacom.

Regulations require companies to publicly provide financial guidance whenever insiders sell large blocks of stock shortly before earnings reports are released. CBS is scheduled to release third-quarter results Oct. 30, and Viacom on Nov. 3.

The revised guidance issued Friday was bleak. Both Viacom and CBS lowered earnings estimates, blaming the world financial crisis for weaker advertising sales. They said the situation could get worse.

"Given the rapid softening of the economy and the uncertainty this creates in forecasting advertising growth, we are taking the prudent step of moderating our near-term targets," Viacom Chief Executive Philippe Dauman said in a statement.

Dauman said Viacom, which owns cable channels including MTV, Nickelodeon and Comedy Central along with the Paramount Pictures studio, would move to "quickly adapt to the changing environment" and "take appropriate steps to secure new efficiencies." Viacom executives declined to elaborate or say whether there soon would be job cuts.

CBS said it would take a write-down of about $14 billion to account for the diminished value of its TV and radio stations, which have been hard hit by the advertising downturn. The noncash charge, which is meant to bring the value of the company's assets in line with the market value of CBS, is expected to be included in third-quarter results at the end of the month.

CBS nonvoting B shares nose-dived Friday, falling 20% to $8.10. A year earlier, they were trading at $30. Viacom's B shares also plunged, at one point trading down 28%. They bounced back a bit, ending the day down 17.9% to $16.50. The shares are down 62.4% since the beginning of the year.

Stocks of other media companies also were dragged into the slide, although most others rallied late in the roller-coaster day on Wall Street.

"Most companies would seek a waiver or an amendment, and the banks may have looked for a large fee or just said no, " said Neil Begley, an analyst with Moody's Investors Service.

"But ultimately the sale of this stock came at a most unfortunate time when shares were trading at a fraction of what they were a year ago. For the Redstones, this was rather historic -- and on the negative side. This was a real nasty shot for them."

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meg.james@latimes.com

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