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There is a growing body of thought that argues the so-called AOL Time Warner “merger of equals” might not have gone so far astray had it not been for Chairman Stephen Case’s ill-timed decisions to buy back the 49% stake in AOL Europe owned by German publishing giant Bertelsmann AG and acquire European magazine publisher IPC Media. Admittedly, the U.S. media giant would neither be saddled with $29 billion of debt today nor facing threats of below-investment-grade status from credit rating agencies. The New York-based company also would not have to be considering the sale of some of its most profitable properties at a time of severely depressed asset prices. “It would have made a huge difference if the merged company had not made that AOL Europe purchase right after completion of the merger,” says Sean Egan, a managing director at Philadelphia-based ratings firm Egan-Jones Ratings Co. “What they were doing in a sense was doubling their bet on the Internet economy, right before the Internet economy tanked.”

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