ALARM bells over Johnston Press’s future started ringing in May 2015 when, after announcing a major debt restructuring and rights issue, the firm’s share price – which had topped £59 in 2004 - plunged from £1.30 to less than 20p.

Yes, the £140 million rights issue had allowed the business, whose stable includes venerable titles The Scotsman, Yorkshire Post and the profit-making i, to reduce a historical debt pile that at that time stood at £323m.

And, yes, issuing £220m worth of bonds with a June 2019 expiry got the business out of having to pay back millions of pounds by the end of 2016.

But with the company taking those decisions at a time when its revenues were falling and its pension deficit was rising, it was simply kicking the issue down the road – and the market knew it.

Now, with June 2019 looming large, there is no road left and, having tried and failed to either refinance its bonds or come up with a solution for dealing with its £40m pension deficit, the business has put itself up for sale.

The problem is that the company’s shares never recovered from their 2014 rout and, having bumped around the 3p mark for most of the past year, their current price gives Johnston Press a valuation of just £3.4m.

It is fair to say that the company’s bond debt has already been priced in by investors, but the pension liability - which can rise and fall depending on the markets - is much harder to quantify.

As was seen with Fife manufacturing business Havelock Europa, which was ultimately bought out of pre-packed administration in July, trying to sell a business with a large and unpredictable pension liability attached is all but an impossible task.

As with Havelock, the prospect of being lumbered with a multi-million pound deficit is likely to prove too much of a turn-off for potential Johnston Press buyers.

The company has for some months been looking into the option of offloading its pension via a regulated apportionment arrangement, a mechanism that allows businesses to pass their schemes to the Pension Protection Fund if the alternative is them becoming insolvent.

An actual insolvency by way of a pre-packed administration may turn out to be the only option left for Johnston Press. Buyers may not be interested now, but the thought of acquiring the firm’s assets while leaving its liabilities behind could well sweeten the deal.