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AB InBev Australia asset sale to Asahi hits regulatory hurdle

By Aby Jose Koilparambil
FILE PHOTO: Portfolio beer brands of Budweiser Brewing Company APAC Ltd are displayed during a news conference on the company's IPO in Hong Kong

By Aby Jose Koilparambil

(Reuters) - Australia's competition regulator raised concerns over Anheuser-Busch InBev's $11 billion sale of its operations there to Japan's Asahi, complicating the world's largest brewer's efforts to cut debt quickly.

The Belgium-based brewer has been selling assets and listed its Asian business in Hong Kong in September to help reduce net debt that rose to some $100 billion after its 2016 acquisition of rival SABMiller.

It hoped to close the sale of Carlton & United Breweries (CUB) to Asahi in the first quarter of 2020.

But the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC), in a preliminary view, said that the deal will reduce competition in the cider market and might also do so for beer, adding it will make a final decision on March 19.

"The proposed acquisition would combine the two largest suppliers of cider in a highly concentrated market," it said, stating the combined business would control about two thirds of cider sales.

It also said Asahi may act as a competitive constraint on the two largest beer brewers - CUB and Lion - and has "the potential to be an even bigger threat in future".

Bernstein analysts said this was likely to require Asahi to dispose of a cider brand, but the impact was manageable.

In the worst case scenario, Ashai might offer to shed AB InBev beer brands Beck's, Stella Artois and Budweiser locally. Losing Corona though would be a likely deal-breaker, Bernstein said.

Jefferies analyst Edward Mundy, said he expected brand disposals, with a possible delay to the deal closure.

"We do not believe that this preliminary ruling would be insurmountable to the deal taking place," he said.

Asahi said it was not planning any changes for now, and would continue providing regulators with information. AB InBev was not available for comment

Shares in Asahi fell to a three-month low and closed down 1.1% on Thursday. AB InBev shares sunk to an eight-month low and were down 1.4% at 1230 GMT, making them one of the weakest performers in the FTSEurofirst 300 index of leading European stocks..

For Asahi, the deal would turn propel the Japanese firm into the major league of brewers, although well behind leaders AB InBev and Heineken.

It is set to gain leading Australian beer Victoria Bitter, placing it in more direct competition there with Japanese rival Kirin, which produces the XXXX Gold brand through its Lion subsidiary.

Asahi is the second largest supplier of premium international beers in Australia with Asahi Super Dry and Peroni.

(Reporting by Aby Jose Koilparambil in Bengaluru; Additional reporting by Ritsuko Ando in Tokyo and Philip Blenkinsop in Brussels; Editing by Miyoung Kim, Muralikumar Anantharaman and Keith Weir)