Way left clear for E.ON as Gas Natural backs out of Endesa bid

The long saga for control of Spain's utility giant Endesa SA appeared to be at an end last night after reports suggested one of the two bidders, Gas Natural SA, will back out next week.

That would leave the way open for the German energy firm E.ON AG to clinch control of the Spanish utility, ending a 17-month battle for Endesa. If the Germans are victorious they will create the biggest energy firm in Europe. Reports in Spain yesterday said Gas Natural would announce they would end their bid after their biggest shareholder said they did not want to inject more cash.

Sources at La Caixa, one of Spain's biggest savings banks, said the Gas Natural bid was "over", according to a report in the Spanish daily El Mundo. And Antoni Brufau, vice-president of Gas Natural, complained it would be impossible to raise their bid from €21.30 per share to €40 in order to beat the German offer because of "lack of information".

He complained that Endesa bosses held 40 meetings with their German counterparts, but Gas Natural had to rely on public information. E.ON offered €34.5 per share for the Spanish company, far outstripping the offer from Gas Natural.

The complicated battle for Endesa began in September 2005 when Gas Natural launched its original bid. But after E.ON launched a rival takeover, it soon became mired in international politics and courtroom battles.

Spain's socialist government became involved when it championed the Gas Natural bid to keep Endesa Spanish-owned. But it was warned by European Commission competition commissioner Neelie Kroes to withdraw a series of 19 measures which it set for the E.ON takeover after they were branded "illegal".

Despite the threat of court action, Madrid told Brussels yesterday it would not withdraw two remaining conditions. Jonathan Todd, EC anti-trust spokesman, said: "The requirement on the Spanish government is to ensure that the measures that we declared illegal were withdrawn by the latest today. If the measures were not withdrawn we would have the option of opening an infringement procedure."

Meanwhile, a court in Madrid this week finally lifted conditions which freed up both contenders for Endesa to launch their bids. But though E.ON is five times the size of Gas Natural, the battle was still open. Last year, Acciona SA, one of Spain's biggest construction companies, bought 21 per cent of the shares in Endesa to keep the company Spanish.

Acciona president, Jose Manuel Entrecanales, denied he was trying to find more shareholders to fend off an E.ON bid.