Swedes sell £555m stake in AstraZeneca

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The Wallenbergs, one of Sweden's richest families, yesterday sold £555m of shares in AstraZeneca, the Anglo-Swedish pharmaceuticals giant traded on the London Stock Exchange.

Investor, the family investment vehicle run by Marcus Wallenberg, cut its stake in AstraZeneca from 5 per cent to 3.75 per cent, raising cash that it said would be used to pay down debt.

Speculation swirled in Stockholm, however, that the Wallenbergs intend to acquire a big stake in Scania, the Swedish truckmaker which is 45 per cent owned by Volvo.

Mr Wallenberg said: "We have decided to reduce our leverage and strengthen our financial flexibility. We continue to believe strongly in AstraZeneca and the company is still our largest holding." AstraZeneca's shares have risen by more than a third since Investor last sold part of its holding in January last year. The company has kept profits buoyant despite the onset of cut-price competition for its best-selling drug.

The Wallenbergs have held a stake in Sweden's Astra since its creation in the Twenties. It merged with the British company Zeneca in 1998.

UBS, the Swiss investment bank, organised the latest sales of 21.2 million shares on Investor's behalf, at 2,617p apiece. AstraZeneca shares closed in London down 60p at 2,594p, the worst performer in the FTSE 100.

Volvo said last week that it was still searching for a buyer for its 45 per cent stake in Scania, which it acquired as part of a takeover attempt four years ago. The deal was blocked by the European Commission on fears that the group would dominate the market in Scandinavia, and Volvo has until April to dispose of the holding. Mr Wallenberg has expressed an interest in helping Volvo resolve the issue.