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Vivendi spurns $8.5 billion Universal Music bid

Jean-Bernard Lévy, Chm & CEO, Vivendi
AP
Jean-Bernard Lévy, Chm & CEO, Vivendi

SoftBank, the Japanese telecoms group, proposed an $8.5 billion bid for Universal Music, the world's largest music group, about three months ago but was turned down, according to several people familiar with the proposal.

Vivendi, Universal's French owner, has been under pressure to restructure its portfolio of telecoms and media assets but told SoftBank it was not interested because it saw the music company as central to its future strategy, these people said.

Vivendi and SoftBank declined to comment.

An $8.5 billion offer, premised on the idea that music is some of the most heavily-consumed content on mobile devices, would value Universal at $2 billion to $3 billion above most analyst estimates.

(Read More: Google inks deal with Sony, Universal for streaming music)

Claudio Aspesi of Bernstein Research, who values Universal at $6.3 billion, said the premium underscored the attractiveness of the asset but "will only add to the frustration of [Vivendi] shareholders".

Vincent Bolloré, the French activist investor, has built a 5 percent stake in Vivendi and shareholders have been pressing for a faster pace of disposals since Jean-René Fourtou, its chairman, began a review of its businesses after Jean-Bernard Levy's sudden exit as chief executive last June.

SoftBank's all-cash proposal was put to Vivendi's board, one person familiar with the details said, and was not contingent on the outcome of the Japanese group's $21.6 billion bid for control of Sprint, the US mobile operator.

The message that Universal Music is not for sale fits with Vivendi's strategy of trying to sell its telecoms holdings and regroup around entertainment assets, which comprise Universal and majority stakes in French TV group Canal Plus and Activision Blizzard, the US video games company.

More from the Financial Times:

Universal wins rights to Jay Z label
Music labels rocked by bid for Parlophone
Universal proposes EMI sell-offs

Some analysts have argued that a full break-up would create most value, however. After failed attempts to sell Activision and GVT, its Brazilian telecoms company, it is in talks to sell Maroc Telecom to Etisalat and has been examining ways to extract cash from Activision.

It is unclear whether SoftBank would still have the capacity for an $8.5 billion music bid after sweetening its offer for Sprint in June. Its shares have doubled to a 13-year high since it announced the Sprint offer in October, but Standard & Poor's this month cut Softbank's credit rating to junk when it won the Sprint auction.

(Read More: Japan's Softbank cleared to buy Sprint Nextel)

Analysts disagree over whether SoftBank could find meaningful synergy benefits in a combination with a music company. Some highlighted the growth of mobile music consumption but others pointed to failed past attempts at similar synergies, saying that owning one music company could make it harder to get rivals to work with any SoftBank music service.

Dan Loeb, the activist investor, has urged Sony to consider a partial spin-off of its entertainment assets after years of struggling to find synergies with its electronics business.

(Read More: Sony CEO asks for shareholders' patience on spinoff plan)

Vivendi has guided analysts to expect improvements in Universal's profitability as the division led by Lucian Grainge integrates the recorded music assets it bought in last year's EMI auction.

It was not clear whether Mr Bolloré played any role in Vivendi's decision. The French group's shares have fallen 13 percent since early May to stand below their level of a year ago, but Mr Aspesi said Mr Bolloré's buying had provided support to the stock.

Mr Son played no part in recent auctions for Warner Music, EMI and EMI's Parlophone label, and many had thought that the size of Universal, home to The Beatles and Justin Bieber, would put it beyond the reach of most bidders.

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