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Fund managers push for higher Sky price from Murdoch

Fund managers rail at low offer for broadcaster and argue not enough has been done to counter conflicts of interest.

Fund managers push for higher Sky price from Murdoch
Fund managers are placing pressure on the board of Sky (SKYB) to secure a higher price for the company after news of the £18 billion bid from Rupert Murdoch's US media company, 21st Century Fox (FOXA.O).

Sky announced on Friday it had reached agreement on the £10.75 per share price and that it would recommend the offer to shareholders, but added that 'certain material offer terms remain under discussion'. The broadcaster has formed an independent committee, which does not include chairman James Murdoch, son of Rupert, to consider the deal.

But fund managers have criticised the deal, arguing it undervalues the company. Alastair Gunn, who holds Sky in both his Jupiter Distribution and Distribution and Growth funds, told The Telegraph Fox's approach 'ought to be the start of the process, not the conclusion'.

He pointed to the £7 billion Sky had paid for Sky Italia and Sky Deutschland in 2014, with much of that money going to Fox.

'If we did a deal that represents good value on those European assets not that long ago, we should be asking for a premium well above what we're seeing today, which isn't even above the year's high for the stock,' he said.

Gunn holds modest stakes in Sky shares. They make up 0.6% of his Distribution fund after the manager sold £4.1 million-worth of the shares in the year ending 30 September 2016, and just 0.1% of his Distribution fund. But he has larger positions in the company's bonds.

'This isn't a good deal'

Standard Life Investments fund manager Thomas Moore (pictured) also voiced concerns over the deal, speaking to the BBC.

Like Gunn, he said the price was too low. 'We've got to represent the interest of our clients and our view would be no, this isn't a good deal,' he said.

Despite the 36% premium the bid represented over Thursday's share price, Moore said Fox was seizing upon Sky at 'a low ebb' and, like Gunn, pointed to the fact the shares had traded at the offer level in April this year.

Moore also voiced concerns over the independence of the committee considering the bid from Fox, which already owns 40% of Sky, even though James Murdoch had been excluded.

'You've got others who are clearly very closely aligned and so that is quite a big lobby on the board for the interests of the family,' he said. Moore called on Sky deputy chairman and Aberdeen Asset Management chief executive Martin Gilbert to 'step up and put forward a strong case that this undervalues the true value of this company'.

Fund group Royal London Asset Management agreed that Sky had not gone far enough in tackling issues over conflict of interest presented by the bid.

'It would have been preferable to have an independent chairman,' said chief investment officer Piers Hillier. 'The creation of an independent committee of the board (excluding James Murdoch) to consider the bid addresses some of the conflicts of interest, however it doesn't go far enough,' he said.

Standard Life, Jupiter and Royal London are small shareholders in Sky, holding a combined stake in the company of only around 0.5%.

And one fund manager with among the largest stakes in the company, excluding Fox, doesn't have the same reservations.

'Glad to get rid of the shares'

Crispin Odey's Odey Asset Management owns 1.1% of the broadcaster, with the company accounting for more than 15% of his Odey Opus fund and nearly the same proportion of his Odey Allegra International fund, according to figures from Thomson Reuters.

'Sky has stopped releasing so much in the form of key performance indicators to show how it is doing that I will be glad to get rid of the shares,' Odey (pictured) told Bloomberg. 'We just can't work out how they are doing.'

While Fox dwarfs all other shareholders in the register, there are some fund managers who, like Odey, have bet big on the company.

Sky makes up 4.4% of Nicholas PurvesSt James's Place Equity Income fund and 2.9% of his RWC Enhanced Income fund. Citywire AA-rated managers Jeremy Lang and William Pattisson meanwhile hold more than 4% of their Ardevora UK Income fund in the stock, while Luke Chappell and Imran Sattar hold a similar proportion of their BlackRock UK Focus fund in the company.

And while they have enjoyed the shares' 25% rally over the last two days on news of the bid, analysts do not believe Fox will substantially up its offer, or that a rival bid will emerge.

'We concur with weekend press comment that the offer price is too low,' said Numis analyst Paul Richards, 'though given the absence of a likely rival offer and agreement from independent directors, it may prove difficult to extract a materially improved bid'.

Liberum analyst Ian Whittaker said the best investors could hope for would be a token increase in the bid. 'Fox may make a relatively modest increase in its cash bid to make it look as though it has listened to other shareholders but there is unlikely to be a major revision upwards and we do not think anyone else would come in with a bid, given Fox already has 39.1% of the shares,' he said.

But they were more optimistic about the deal going through, despite some scepticism from investors, with shares in Sky trading at 977.5p today, below the £10.75 offer.

'Given the change in corporate structure of Fox since the last bid, we see no plurality or competition issues for Fox acquiring the UK assets of Sky,' said Richards.

'As Fox used to own a majority of Sky Deutschland and all of Sky Italia until recently, clearly there should be no issues here. However, given political sensitivities we expect a full review by the competition authorities.'

Citywire contacted a number of fund managers invested in Sky for this article but they were either unavailable or unwilling to comment.

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