The Bancroft Ownership Mystery

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Off to a slow start here this morning because of the rain in New York City. We had to wait for our interwebs to dry out. (Just like Alphaville, the deal blog at Financial Times, which has reportedly had trouble due to the flooding in England. Unless that's just Brit-speak for, uhm, one too many pints on Sunday night.)
But it’s back to business now. And by “business” we mean, of course, the saga of Rupert Murdoch, the Bancroft family and the Wall Street Journal.
One of the things we’re sure has been absolutely frustrating to anyone who has been following the endless tape of this story has been the complete lack of information about which members of the Bancroft family and its representatives control exactly which shares and which percentage of the votes. It was only at the middle of last week that we learned that Michael Elefante, the partner at the Boston law firm Hemenway & Barnes who is a trustee for two of the largest trusts holding shares for the family, can deliver a little less than half of the family's 64% voting stake. Let’s call that 30% of the total voting power of the company.
Today the New York Times reports that the leader of the opposition to Murdoch within the family, Christopher Bancroft, controls around 14.5 percent of the total Dow Jones shareholder vote as of January. And his cousin, Jane Cox MacElree, is running around with 14.8 percent. (Apparently no-one else has more than 4.3%.) But you have to read a bit between the lines of the Times—too often the stuff we really want to know apparently isn’t “fit to print”—to understand why they spend so much time talking about Chris and so little talking about Jane. It’s because Jane isn’t really involved with the Dow Jones stuff, and leaves the decision making to Chris. So you can count her shares as shares controlled by Chris. That gives him around a little more than 30% of the voting power of the company, or about what Elephante controls. To that you can add the “Never Murdoch” shares controlled by the Ottaway family to come up with a 36% opposed number.
In short, going into today’s big Boston Bancroft powwow, Murdoch is a bit behind. Probably at least 36% of the voting power of Dow Jones opposes him. He’s got 30% on his side. But Murdoch has a secret weapon: the 30% or so of the voting power vesting in shares that were once held by the general public and are now held by stock arbitrageurs, the Bancrofts, the Ottaways and a few people who aren’t paying any attention. Most of those shares will vote his way. To play it safe, let’s put that pro-Murdoch number at around 25%.
Which gives Murdoch right around 55% of the voting power of the company. Since he only needs 51%, that means he wins. But it’s close. And since we’ve been guestimating at a few of the crucial numbers, it’s possible that it’s even closer than this. If the numbers are shifted a couple points in the only direction—say, Elefante only has around 28% of the vote in his pocket and only 22% votes held by common shareholders go for Murdoch, he’s down to a losing 50%.
Which leaves us at the exciting possibility that we may be entering the rare situation where a very few amount of votes—perhaps those held by a small shareholder who doesn’t even remember he has the shares in his account (or his attic)—could swing the voting. In short, the Bancrofts may be meeting in Boston in 2008. But the voting may well be in Florida, 2000 territory.
A Family Meets Today to Hear the Complexities of a Bid for Dow Jones [New York Times]
Bancrofts To Consider Murdoch Bid, ‘Close Vote' Predicted [New York Sun]
Know Your Bancrofts [New York Magazine]

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