Predators circle Bass ahead of ruling on Interbrew

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The Independent Online

Speculation mounted yesterday that the Government would unveil its long-awaited ruling this week on which of the Bass assets it will force Interbrew to sell in order to avoid a monopoly in the UK brewing market.

Rival companies Heineken and South African Breweries, are watching the situation, with possible offers waiting in the wings for the parts of Bass which Interbrew is required to put on the market.

The options before Patricia Hewitt, the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, include sticking with the initial Competition Commission's proposition in January that Interbrew should get rid of all of Bass, which it bought for £2.3bn.

Interbrew's chief executive, Hugo Powell, got the ruling overturned on a technicality, but the deal was sent back to the Office of Fair Trading.

This time round, the OFT's director general, John Vickers, has accepted the case for a compromise and proposed to Ms Hewitt that the Belgian brewer be required to sell only part of the portfolio.

She could order Interbrew to sell assets including Bass' Carling brand. Alternatively, she may ask for the opposite, allowing Interbrew to hold on to Carling and other predominantly English brands while selling off brands sold in Scotland and Northern Ireland.

Different bidders for the Bass business are expected to come forward. South African Breweries, which has the deep pockets necessary to take on all of Bass, has said it is interested in the assets, but not in parts of the business.

Heineken is rumoured to be preparing a £1.2bn bid for the Carling side.

Ms Hewitt has another option available, which is to leave Bass alone and force Interbrew to sell Whitbread instead. But that option is not expected.