Oaktree offers Australia’s Crown $2.3 billion buyback to remove founder Packer

SYDNEY (Reuters) -Oaktree Capital Group proposed bankrolling a A$3 billion ($2.3 billion) buyback by Australian casino company Crown Resorts Ltd of its founder’s stake, potentially spoiling a full buyout by Blackstone Group Inc.

FILE PHOTO: Crown Resorts Ltd’s flagship tower nears completion at Barangaroo, Sydney, Australia, April 17, 2020. REUTERS/Stephen Coates/File Photo/File Photo/File Photo

Crown said on Monday it would consider the offer from U.S. turnaround specialist Oaktree to use a “structured instrument” to buy out James Packer’s 37% stake.

The proposal offers an alternative path to an A$8 billion full buyout offer from U.S. private equity firm Blackstone, which would also see Packer pocket about A$3 billion.

Packer has borne the brunt of criticism about the company’s operations that led regulators to deem it unfit for a gambling licence for its flagship new Sydney casino and also threatens gaming licences it holds in two other cities.

With regulators citing Packer’s influence over Crown as partly responsible for alleged activities including money laundering, the company’s largest shareholder has indicated he is willing to offload his stake.

Crown has said it was considering Blackstone’s March 22 proposal, but many investors have declined to endorse the approach, saying it undervalues the company. They argue Crown had a higher market capitalisation in early 2020 before the coronavirus pandemic and regulatory attention hammered its shares.

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The Oaktree proposal, in contrast, would allow Crown to remove Packer without agreeing to a takeover at a price below investor hopes. Packer is not on the Crown board but he alone can decide the company’s response to Blackstone approach since it requires 75% shareholder approval.

Crown shares were up 1% at A$12.06 in Monday morning trading, in line with the broader market, but ahead of Blackstone’s proposed purchase price of A$11.85 per share.

“Oaktree might be positioning itself to do something creative with Crown,” said Nathan Bell, portfolio manager of Intelligent Investor, which has Crown shares.

Blackstone had a history of buying similar companies and spinning off their property assets, and there was “no reason Crown couldn’t copy the strategy and do it themselves” with Oaktree’s help, Bell added.

Oaktree and a spokeman for Packer declined to comment on Monday, while Blackstone was not immediately available for comment.

($1 = 1.2962 Australian dollars)

Reporting by Byron Kaye in Sydney and Nikhil Kurian Nainan in Bengaluru; Editing by Christopher Cushing and Jane Wardell

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