MMC referral kills Decaux bid for More

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THE HARD-FOUGHT battle for control of More Group, the outdoor advertising company, appeared to be all over last night when the Government decided to refer a bid by Decaux, More's French rival, to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission.

The referral, which caused Decaux's offer to lapse, leaves the way open for Clear Channel Communications, the US media giant, to take control of More.

Last night Clear Channel raised its offer for More from 1030p to 1100p a share, matching Decaux's pounds 475m cash bid. The US group said the offer, which has been recommended by More's board, was final unless any other bidders emerged.

Decaux said it was "considering its options" and urged More shareholders to take no action on Clear Channel's bid.

Jean-Francois Decaux, the French group's chairman and chief executive, was last night understood to be locked in discussions with Lazard Brothers, the investment bank, about offering a higher price.

Although Decaux is not allowed to table a firm offer, it could make an indicative bid which is subject to it receiving a green light from the MMC. The competition watchdog is due to deliver its verdict on the bid by September 8.

Last night More Group shares closed at 1130p - 20p above Clear Channel's offer - suggesting that investors expected a higher bid. However, analysts played down the likelihood of Decaux raising its offer.

"1110p is a very full price to pay but if somebody wants to pay more they could do if they want it very badly," said Paul Richards, media analyst at Panmure Gordon. "I think we've seen the end of the story but you can't rule anything out."

The chances of Decaux returning to the fray were further reduced when BT Alex Brown, Clear Channel's brokers, picked up a large chunk of shares in the market to take the US group's holding in More to 22.5 per cent.

Clear Channel had lobbied hard for Decaux's bid to be referred to the MMC. The group enlisted the support of MPs and local authorities in its attempt to convince the Government that a takeover of More by Decaux would give the French group a dominant position in the market for street furniture like bus shelters and public toilets.

Nigel Griffiths, the Competition and Consumer Affairs Minister, accepted the Office of Fair Trading's view that the provision of street furniture should be regarded as a separate market. Decaux had argued that street furniture, which carries advertising, should be viewed as part of the wider outdoor advertising market.

Decaux said it was "surprised" by the decision, which it said contradicted an earlier ruling by the OFT in 1994.

The bid battle has been one of the most keenly fought of recent years. Although he was officially neutral on the two bids Roger Parry, More's outspoken chief executive, made no secret of his distaste for a takeover by his company's strongest competitor.

Although Decaux attempted to woo support in the UK by promising cheaper public toilets and free pagers for bus passengers, it was hampered by its reputation in France, where the competition authorities are investigating whether the company abused its dominant market position.

Mr Parry said he was happy the battle, which had unsettled the company, was drawing to a close. "For my line managers this has been a total nightmare," he said. "My main aim at the moment is to clear this up as fast as possible."

Mark Mays, president of Clear Channel, said: "We're delighted. We always assumed the Decaux bid would be referred but it's nice to see it in print."