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Britain's Office of Fair Trading is putting the finishing touches to a probe into a five-way takeover battle for supermarket chain Safeway Plc, reports Reuters.
Technically, the OFT considers each bid on its own merits and the administrative timetable is imposed for each bidder individually, not for all the bids collectively. However, as it prepares its findings for the British government, the OFT will try to coordinate its judgments to avoid giving one or more players an unfair advantage.
Bidding for the prize are William Morrison Supermarkets, Wal-Mart's Asda division, Tesco, and J. Sainsbury. Retail entrepreneur Philip Green made a late bid and may be left out of the running. The OFT's decision will be made public, most probably on March 18 or 19.
But while it seems likely that the OFT will be sending a buff envelope to the Department of Trade and Industry in the next couple of days, the one thing it won't contain is answers. It won't even deal with all the questions.
Most experts believe that the three largest trade suitors -- Tesco, Sainsbury and ASDA -- will all be referred to the Competition Commission, whose investigation could take at least three months.
"I expect Morrison will be waved through subject to the disposal of 10 outlets," said Tim Attenborough, analyst at BNP Paribas in London. "Philip Green should not get troubled, but I expect that the recommendation will be a full referral of the others."
Morrison, which started the whole melee in January and which is the only player yet to make a formal bid, might not be referred to the Competition Commission, but Safeway shareholders are unlikely to jump into the Morrison camp for the time being.