Seagram stock up on merger reports

Vivendi, Cox denying rumors of takeover

Seagram shares headed higher in lively trading Monday on new reports that the company may be selling itself in a three-way merger with cabler and radio group Cox Communications and France’s Vivendi.

Vivendi, a giant conglomerate that owns big chunks of France’s Canal Plus and British satcaster BSkyB, adamantly denied the speculation, as did Cox. “There is no truth to that rumor. Cox has not been in discussions of any kind with Seagram or with Vivendi,” a Cox spokeswoman said.

Seagram declined to comment on the reports, which first surfaced over the weekend in London’s Sunday Telegraph. The family-controlled entertainment and liquor behemoth is holding a regularly scheduled board meeting on Tuesday. Cox is also family owned, which can make deals simpler as long as the principals agree.

The possibility of a combination sparked a mini rally among the stocks involved. In U.S. markets, Seagram shares rose nearly 9% in a weak market to close at $63; Cox ended up 8% at $47.19; and BSkyB, which has American depositary receipts trading on the New York Stock Exchange, rose 4.4% to $189.94.

Vivendi owns 24.9% of BSkyB; News Corp. owns 40%.

CEO Edgar Bronfman Jr. has been contending with rumors that his company is for sale on a weekly, and sometimes daily, basis. Most recently, he told analysts at a meeting in Orlando this month that he didn’t think a mega-merger was necessary, but didn’t rule out smaller, strategic deals or alliances.

The fiercest takeover rumors have dogged Seagram’s Universal Studios.

“There are so many rumors floating around about Seagram that sooner or later one of them will turn out to be true,” said one Wall Streeter. But the Vivendi-Cox report was specific and, at least at first hearing, logical enough to have a ring of truth to it despite the denials, he and some others acknowledged. A closer look reveals three companies with a rather compatible set of entertainment assets.

Seagram has held talks with Canal Plus and may have discussed a possible alliance with Cox cabler rival Comcast earlier this year.

“Since the AOL-Time Warner deal, it is certain that every single company in this space has been talking with every other company about strategic alliances. Sometimes they work out the be full-fledged deals, sometimes they come to nothing,” said Alan Gould of Gerard Klauer Mattison. He figures Seagram could fetch up to $80 per share in a sale and is worth about $72 on pure fundamentals.

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