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Thursday, 4 January, 2001, 18:05 GMT
Belgium slams blocking of Bass deal
Stella Artois/Bass merger graphic with UK Trade & Industry Secretary Stephen Byers
The Belgian government has criticised UK authorities for blocking the 2.3bn ($3.4bn) takeover of Bass's beer operations by Interbrew, the Belgian brewer of Stella Artois.

Belgian Economics Minister Charles Picque said in a statement he had told UK Trade & Industry Secretary Stephen Byers that the decision would have "particularly prejudicial consequences" for the businesses.

Mr Picque said he regretted that approval with certain conditions could not have been made.

Company profile - Bass Brewers
Founded in 1777 in Burton upon Trent
Boasts UK's oldest registered trademark (1876)
From 1967-1995 UK's largest brewer
Owns Bass, Hooch, Caffrey's, Carling, Grolsch (in UK), Tennents and Worthington brands

The UK government had on Wednesday refused to approve the deal over fears it would lead to higher beer prices for consumers.

Legal experts said Interbrew had very little chance of overturning the decision in any appeal.

So far, no decision on a merger by a British minister has been overturned in the courts. Some 11 previous appeals in merger cases have all failed.

If Interbrew did decide to appeal, it would focus on whether the ruling was "reasonable" and proportionate to the perceived narrowing of competition.

Interbrew had said the ruling "defies logic" and was "clearly disproportionate to the competition issues at stake" although it did not say whether it would appeal.

The jobs factor

The deal would have brought together many of the UK's best known and best selling lagers and bitters, including Carling, Stella Artois, Boddingtons, Worthington and Caffrey's.

Jobs may also have been a factor in the government's decision to block the takeover, as the deal was expected to lead to the closure of a number of UK breweries.

Mr Byers ordered Interbrew, the world's second largest brewer, to put the Bass breweries it bought in June back up for sale.

Share price plummets

The decision saw shares in Interbrew, which had been suspended pending the announcement, dive more than 20% on Wednesday after trading resumed, falling to 28.62 euros.

Analysts thought it unlikely the group would be able to achieve a sale price for Bass to match the amount it paid.

David Liston, analyst at stockbroker Gerrard, said: "I think if they get 2bn, they would be doing quite well."

Mr Byers supported the conclusions of trade watchdogs who condemned the merger, which promoted Interbrew to number one spot in the UK beer market, as "against the public interest".

"This is because it would reduce competition in the market, lead to higher prices for end consumers and reduce consumer choice," Mr Byers said.

The deal would leave the UK brewing market in the hands of an "effective duopoly" of Interbrew and Scottish & Newcastle, Mr Byers was told by the Competition Commission.

Market leader

The commission feared that the two brewers would use their market dominance to raise the prices pubs and off licences pay for beer.

Company profile - Interbrew
Formed in 1987, but traces origins to 1366
World's second largest brewer
Owns brands such as Boddingtons, Dos Equis, Jupiler, Labatt, Rolling Rock, Stella Artois
"The commission expected that retailers would pass higher wholesale prices through to consumers," a statement from the Department for Trade & Industry said.

Scottish & Newcastle and a Bass-enhanced Interbrew would also, through their huge marketing and advertising capabilities, be able to block the entry of new competitors into the market, the commission said.

Leading drinks would be promoted at the expense of smaller brands, prompting rationalisation of beers and "therefore less choice for consumers", the DTI said.

Price 'discrimination'

The commission also found that supermarkets and off licence giants pay less than independent outlets for Interbrew beer, reducing the ability of small retailers to compete.

The price gap was "only in part explained by differences in costs occurred", the commission found.

"The commission expected that the merger would enhance Interbrew's ability to discriminate on prices in this way," it added.

Alternative buyer

Dutch giant Heineken has been tipped by analysts as favourite to land the Bass portfolio, following Mr Byers' sale order.

The third ranking brewer in the UK, Carlsberg-Tetley, is also expected to be in the running.

Leaders in the UK beer market
Interbrew (including Bass): 32%
Scottish & Newcastle: 28%
Carlsberg-Tetley: 13%

The business, the UK arm of the Danish-based brewing empire, said it would be interested in the purchase if it could be assured the deal would win regulatory approval.

Carlsberg in 1997 had a takeover bid for Bass Brewers blocked by competition authorities.

Bass decided to offload its brewing arm to concentrate on its hotel operations and its portfolio of 3,000 restaurants and pubs.

Bass operates Inter-Continental, Crowne Plaza and Holiday Inn hotels.

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See also:

03 Jan 01 | Business
What now for Bass beer brands?
01 Dec 00 | Business
Interbrew shares rise on debut
08 Nov 00 | Business
Interbrew to go public
19 Oct 00 | Business
Whitbread in pubs shake-up
14 Jun 00 | Business
Bass sells brewing ops
25 May 00 | Business
Beer sector faces shake-up
15 May 00 | Business
Whitbread and Bass to quit brewing
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