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Investors Gamble on a Bidding War for William Hill

Chris Hughes
·3 min read

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- It feels a bit soon to declare jackpot. The market is betting on a heated auction after U.K. bookmaker William Hill Plc confirmed a Bloomberg News report of bid interest from buyout shop Apollo Global Management Inc., adding that its U.S. partner, Caesars Entertainment Inc., is circling too.

But there must be some doubt over whether a deal really can be done much above the levels investors are hoping for.

William Hill stock has settled around 290 pence, about a 70% premium to the company’s share price the day before Apollo submitted a written offer on Aug. 27. That’s around 50% above the share price just before the pandemic gripped markets in late February, and one-third above William Hill’s closing price on Thursday. It’s as if a deal has already been done and investors are simply waiting for it to close.

The company isn’t revealing the price, but what’s on the table was evidently good enough for talks. If it is at the levels the market is expecting, that would suggest a very high degree of faith on the part of the bidders.

An agreement at 300 pence would cost the buyer 3.5 billion pounds ($4.4 billion) including assumed net debt. That would value William Hill at nearly 14 times next year’s forecast Ebitda. U.K.-listed peer GVC Holdings Plc was on 8.2 times expected 2021 Ebitda before rallying in sympathy.

As with so many bids at this time, it may look opportunistic. William Hill raised equity to cut debt earlier in the pandemic. It has been closing sites in the U.K. and it offers growth through its foray into U.S. sports betting. But regulatory risk continues to surround the domestic business, which may make any interested parties pause.

As for the prospects of a bidding war, the fact that Caesars is already tied to William Hill through a joint venture raises questions about whether it might drop out, say, if Apollo persuaded the U.S. casino owner that staying as a partner beats splashing out cash to be a full owner.

William Hill is evidently open to a sale. With talks public, others may come in. So perhaps the market’s expectations will yet prove to be more than the gambler’s false optimism.

It’s worth recalling though that Apollo really doesn’t like being pushed around. Remember its attempt to buy U.K. plastics company RPC. Having declared its bid best and final, and securing RPC’s backing, Apollo was later gazumped by Berry Global Group — embarrassingly, one of its own former portfolio companies. Caesars is likewise a former Apollo buyout. At least this time round the private equity firm knows who it’s up against from the outset.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Chris Hughes is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering deals. He previously worked for Reuters Breakingviews, as well as the Financial Times and the Independent newspaper.

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