The IntercontinentalExchange may still raise its bid for the Chicago Board of Trade, even at the risk of overpaying, after rival suitor Chicago Mercantile Exchange Holdings sought to deliver a knockout blow.
After months of battle, analysts wondered whether ICE Chief Executive Jeff Sprecher could simply bow out after CME raised its bid for CBOT Holdings by 7% on Friday.
ICE's stock "acted as if ICE is not going to buy," said Scott Appleby of Appleby Capital. "But I still think there's a good chance they will raise their bid."
"CBOT is prime property and Sprecher is going to continue to pursue it," added Appleby, who until recently was the exchanges analyst at Deutsche Bank Securities.
But that could be "value-destructive" for ICE shareholders, said Morningstar analyst Patrick O'Shaughnessy.
"Hubris can always play a role in some of these dealings," he said, referring to Sprecher's reputation for being an aggressive and ambitious player.
CME's new offer, which offers CBOT shareholders 0.375 CME share for each of theirs, up from 0.35 share, won the support of CBOT's biggest shareholder, Caledonia Investments Pty.
A CBOT takeover "is probably worth more for the Merc than for ICE because there are more synergies involved and more revenue upside," O'Shaughnessy said.
Yet when ICE jumped into the fray in March with a hostile bid for CBOT, Sprecher established himself as a "force to be reckoned with," said Sandler O'Neill analyst Richard Repetto.
Since then, ICE's stock has risen almost 20%.
Hunter Turns Hunted
After turning ICE into one of the world's 15 largest derivatives exchanges in seven years, Sprecher is now aiming even higher.
ICE is primarily an electronic energy and commodity futures exchange that built its reputation on energy futures trades and over-the-counter contracts, but analysts said ICE cannot become a global player without developing a multiproduct portfolio.
This would include futures products in foreign exchange, interest rates and equity indexes, among others, said Sanford Bernstein analyst Brad Hintz.
"A merger with the CBOT (would) turn ICE into a full line derivatives exchange just like the CME," Hintz wrote in a recent note.
Yet if ICE pulled back, it could itself become a takeover target -- a possibility that helped push its stock up nearly 3% on Friday.
Last month, NYSE Euronext CEO John Thain said the transatlantic exchange was looking to expand its U.S. options and futures business through acquisitions.
Strong profit margins are attracting overseas exchanges to U.S. futures and Deutsche Boerse, which owns a majority of European derivatives exchange Eurex, could also be interested in ICE.
Yet even if ICE lost the CBOT battle, Sprecher would bounce back, analysts said. Appleby said ICE could target smaller overseas exchanges like the Montreal Stock Exchange, in which NYMEX Holdings owns 10%.
Merging with NYMEX's New York Mercantile Exchange -- itself the subject of buyout rumors -- is another possibility.
"He's a very aggressive man constantly looking to find ways to grow his exchange," Morningstar's O'Shaughnessy said. "If CBOT doesn't work out for him, he will be looking for something else."