Liberty keeps eyes on the prize

Malone eager to go shopping

Liberty Media’s John Malone put Wall Street on notice Thursday that he could raise up to $60 billion for a major acquisition after passing in recent years on prizes like Cendant and Vivendi Universal.

Musing on Liberty’s strategy, he told investors at a Gotham meet that he and former CEO Robert Bennett had been too worried about racking up debt to make a move — and he regrets it.

Bennett was recently replaced by former Microsoft exec Greg Maffei.

“We could. Stranger things have happened,” Malone told the aud. “Microsoft’s not doing that well,” he chuckled to Maffei on the stage of the Hudson Theater.

Malone likes stirring the pot.

Liberty controls chunks of stock in Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp., Time Warner and Barry Diller’s IAC. None of them is thrilled.

Malone’s been trying for more than a year to extract some asset from News Corp. in exchange for the stock, which Murdoch wants back. But Malone acknowledged any deal has to be a “win-win.”

Fox’s interest in National Geographic Channel would have been “nirvana,” he said. Both sides were on board, but the National Geographic Society nixed it.

Wall Street anticipates a settlement by October, before Malone and Murdoch face off over News Corp.’s poison pill anti-takeover provision.

Malone may be set, albeit unenthusiastically, to take the Atlanta Braves baseball team off Time Warner’s hands in exchange for TW stock. He’s been petitioning regulators to transform his TW shares from non-voting to voting status.

Meanwhile, Liberty’s been transformed. The company was once a darling among investors but fell out of favor due to its complex structure and sometimes nebulous strategic direction.

Liberty has split into four separate public companies: Liberty Capital, Liberty Interactive, Liberty Global and Discovery Holdings. The first two are new tracking stocks, which started trading this week.

Core businesses include QVC and struggling Starz Encore.

Malone said Liberty could explore smaller acquisitions built around its GSN (formerly Game Show Network) and Starz; provide venture capital for investment in new businesses; and sell, or buy back in, the publicly traded Liberty affiliates.

“Private equity is swarming all over” Liberty Global to take it private, Malone said. “Greg’s saying, ‘If anyone is going to do it, why don’t we?’ ”

Separately, Discovery Holdings’ quarterly profit fell to $11.6 million from $16.8 million.

Revenue dropped 12% to $154 million, company said Thursday.

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