News Corp. shares recovered some ground on bargain-hunting in Australian trade Tuesday amid reports that under-fire tycoon Rupert Murdoch could step down as chief executive.
The stock closed 2.40 percent, or 34 cents, higher at Aus$14.50, with one analyst saying the firm had been oversold, losing about a fifth of its value, since being rocked by a phone-hacking scandal at one of its British newspapers.
The rebound came despite a warning by Standard & Poor’s that the company’s credit rating could be cut due to risks from the widening scandal.
The agency placed News Corp’s BBB+ rating on a negative watch — a prelude to a potentially costly downgrade — citing “increased business and reputation risks”.
“Since our last research update on July 13, the UK legal process has expanded and pressure from US lawmakers has increased for an FBI probe” into the practices of News Corp’s media holdings in both countries, S&P said.
“We see the risk that, if evidence arises sufficient to bring a criminal charge against the company or any current or former employee of the company, then prosecuting authorities in the US could proceed with those charges.”
Murdoch, his son James, and former top aide Rebekah Brooks were Tuesday due to face British lawmakers over phone-hacking at the News of the World tabloid, which continues to claim high-profile scalps.
London’s assistant police commissioner John Yates, who refused to reopen an investigation into the now-defunct newspaper in 2009, became the latest casualty, resigning on Monday.
His departure came a day after his boss Paul Stephenson quit, while at the weekend former News of the World editor Brooks and close Murdoch adviser Les Hinton also resigned.
In another twist to the snowballing saga, a whistleblower at the heart of the scandal and a former reporter on the Sunday tabloid, Sean Hoare, was found dead Monday but there appeared to be no suspicious circumstances, police said.
The global company has been in crisis since it emerged this month that journalists at the News of the World had hacked the phone messages of a missing British schoolgirl who was later found murdered.
With no end in sight, the Wall Street Journal reported that the Australian-born Murdoch, 80, has been considering for some time stepping down in favour of chief operating officer Chase Carey.
The newspaper, owned by News Corp., said that under such a scenario Murdoch would remain as executive chairman.
“Even if Mr Murdoch decides to make this change, he wouldn’t do it right now,” it quoted a person familiar with the situation as saying.
“Instead, it would likely happen in several months’ time, when presumably the furor had died down.”
In a separate report, the Bloomberg newswire cited insiders as saying a decision had yet to be made with much riding on Murdoch’s performance before the parliamentary inquiry on Tuesday.
It said News Corp. executives who watched Murdoch rehearse for his appearance were concerned about how he handled questions.
Francesco De Stradis, an analyst at Ord Minnett, said Murdoch stepping aside would be seen by the market as a big negative.
“He has been the figurehead and the driver of the company for so long. I think short term it would create a vacuum and uncertainty and with that a lot of investors would leave,” he said.
The analyst added that Tuesday’s stock rally was more about the shares’ recent huge slump.
“The shares have been sold down something like 20 percent since this all broke and it is overdone. I think it will range trade around the current levels until all these issues are sorted out.”
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