Politics may block InBev’s Anheuser-Busch bid

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MyWay

Jun 12, 7:22 AM (ET)

By CHRISTOPHER LEONARD

(AP) In this July 24, 2008 file photo, cars stream past a sign advertising Budweiser beer in St. Louis….
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ST. LOUIS (AP) – Belgian Brewer InBev is offering a big payday to shareholders of Anheuser-Busch Cos. (BUD) (BUD) Inc., but its bid to create the world’s largest beer company is already facing a major obstacle – U.S. election-year politics.

InBev SA, whose brands include Beck’s and Stella Artois, delivered an unsolicited all-cash bid of $65 a share for Anheuser-Busch, which makes Budweiser, Michelob and Bud Light. That’s well above the St. Louis-based company’s closing share price of $58.35 Wednesday.

But politicians and activists are already lining up against the deal, saying it could cost jobs in the United States and send ownership of an iconic American company overseas. With economic concerns at the front of voters’ minds, the opposition could cause a headache for InBev.

Republican Gov. Matt Blunt said Wednesday he opposes the deal, and directed the Missouri Department of Economic Development to see if there was a way to stop it.

“I am strongly opposed to the sale of Anheuser-Busch, and today’s offer to purchase the company is deeply troubling to me,” Blunt said in a statement.

Web sites have sprung up opposing the deal on patriotic grounds, arguing that such an iconic U.S. firm shouldn’t be handed over to foreign ownership. One of the sites, called SaveAB.com, was launched by Blunt’s former chief of staff, Ed Martin.

“Shareholders should resist choosing dollars over American jobs,” Martin said in a statement Wednesday night. “Selling out to the Belgians is not worth it – because this is about more than beer: it’s about our jobs and our nation.”

If the deal goes through, it would create a beer-brewing giant and mark just the latest phase of consolidation in an industry facing rising ingredient costs and stale demand in the United States.

“Anheuser-Busch said that its board of directors will evaluate the proposal carefully and in the context of all relevant factors, including Anheuser-Busch’s long-term strategic plan,” the company said in a statement. “The board will pursue the course of action that is in the best interests of Anheuser-Busch’s stockholders.”

A spokeswoman said the company would not comment beyond the statement.

InBev Chief Executive Carlos Brito said the deal would boost both companies, giving InBev access to the U.S. market while expanding Anheuser-Busch’s reach overseas.

“We have the highest respect for Anheuser-Busch, its employees and its leadership, who have built the leading brewer in the U.S. and grown the iconic Budweiser brand. Together, we would draw on the collective expertise of both companies’ management and employees.”

Shares of Anheuser-Busch soared 7.6 percent to $62.80 after regular trading hours, when the announcement was made. They had risen 2 percent in late-afternoon trading, when rumors of the deal were reported on CNBC. Speculation has been rife in recent weeks that the deal might occur.

InBev was formed in 2004 when Belgium’s Interbrew merged with South America’s biggest brewer AmBev. Since then, the company has cut jobs in several European countries while its sales were boosted by strong demand in Latin American countries.

Worries about job cuts at Anheuser-Busch could be justified. InBev has a reputation for squeezing costs out of the companies it acquires, said Benj Steinman, editor of the Beer Marketer’s Insights trade publication. Because of its size – and control of nearly half the U.S. beer market – Anheuser-Busch could be a ripe target for cost-cutting.

“One theory is that their own cost reductions are winding down in Europe and Asia and around the world, and they need somewhere to sort of implement what they’re best at,” Steinman said.

InBev tried to allay those fears Wednesday, saying it would not close any Anheuser-Busch breweries and would make St. Louis the headquarters for its North American division. The company also said it would invite some Anheuser-Busch directors to join InBev’s board.

Anheuser-Busch executives have made cost-cutting a goal over the last two years. Sales in the United States have been stagnant as consumers turn toward wine and cocktails, and the rising costs of ingredients have bitten into profit margins.

Last year, Anheuser-Busch turned a profit of $2.12 billion, up nearly 8 percent from $1.97 billion in 2006. But its core brands of Budweiser and Bud Light continued to lag as sales of craft beers and imports rose.

While the InBev deal looks sweet on paper, it’s far from a sure thing. InBev said it plans to pay for the deal with $40 billion in debt, and raising so much capital could be tough as banks tighten their standards during a global credit crunch.

InBev’s statement said the company has “strong support” from a number of financial institutions, including Barclays Capital, Deutsche Bank and JPMorgan. The company would pay for part of the deal by divesting some “noncore assets” along with equity financing.

Opposition to the deal is sure to be stiff in St. Louis. SaveAB.com offers visitors yard signs and bumper stickers to express their distaste for the purchase.

“Like baseball, apple pie and ice cold beer (wrapped in a red, white and blue label), Anheuser-Busch is an American original,” the site says.

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