A clever move for London’s brewing heiress

Heineken has outwitted SABMiller again –leaving insiders to describe the U.K.-listed company as "desperate" and "grasping at straws".

Shares in SABMiller, which owns Peroni and Grolsch, shot up 5 percent in early trading on Monday as hedge funds salivated at the prospect of SAB becoming a bid target itself. The stock jumped as much as 12 percent in early afternoon trade when the Wall Street Journal reported Anheuser-Busch InBev was talking to banks about financing a possible $122 billion takeover bid. Sources told CNBC however that AB InBev was not in talks with banks to fund a bid for its rival.

''It looks like desperation for a management team that has lost direction and is grasping at straws," a senior source said.

One theory, currently doing the rounds, is that Heineken is biding its time, hoping that the world's number 1 brewer, AB InBev swoops in for SABMiller. That would lead to asset sales, which would mean Heineken could buy the U.S. business, Molson Coors and all the option that goes with it. That strategy is cheaper, it's easier, and rather than strengthening the hand of a rival, you would be helping eliminate it.


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After all, why would Heineken – a listed Dutch company in the iron grip of a fourth generation family, play ball with U.K.-listed SABMiller? They certainly didn't hit it off the last time SAB and Heineken came to blows. Back then, it was over the auction to buy Bavaria.

Read MoreHeineken confirms, rebuffs SABMiller bid

When Heineken pulled out of the sale, they struck up a side bargain with Bavaria to keep hotel rooms in situ for three weeks in order to maintain the appearance that they were still competing, putting price pressure on SAB. Or at least, that's how the rumor goes.

This weekend's unfolding events have started the rumor mill again. Who is going to ultimately win the power tussle in a sector dominated by billionaire families and alpha males?

But the specter of the mega-merger deal returning, with SAB playing the role of the sap rather than powerbroker, shows a misstep in the U.K.-listed company's strategy.

South African Breweries was once the darling of the sector, sweeping through emerging markets, deftly amassing growth and market share in the face of rivals. But those regions have struggled recently and management has changed – they are certainly not as single-minded as the Brazilians leading AB InBev. And although it has a £55 billion ($89.3 billion) market value – plus a few Colombian billionaires on its shareholder register – SAB remains a soft target with no blocking vote.

The De-Carvalho family, which owns 50.1 percent in the Amsterdam-based Heineken, was able to reject the FTSE 100 group's offer without blinking because of its domination of the shareholding. Heineken, which together with Carlsberg, broke up UK Scottish & Newcastle in 2008, said a deal with SAB was "non-actionable" and that the company wanted to "preserve its heritage and identity".

That's all very well, but will SAB be able to do the same when AB InBev comes knocking?

Read MoreSABMiller 'absorbed' currency headwinds: CEO

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