888investors Betting on Bwin; MARKET REPORT

Article excerpt

Byline: by Geoff Foster

IF shareholders of 888 Holdings play their cards right and stick, they could soon hit the jackpot.

Rumours were rife on the German bourse that ubiquitous Austrian internet bookmaker bwin is on the verge of a major fundraising and has the online gaming group at the top of its Christmas shopping list.

It recently acquired Gioco Digitale, the leading Italian online poker and gaming operator, and now wants to add 888 to further strengthen its hand in Europe.

888's shares firmed 1.4p more to 1071/2p, while bwin edged up to e38, valuing the group at around e1m. Should bwin make a move, it would have to get the agreement of brothers Avi and Aaron Shaked, who own 50pc of the equity through family trusts. Another pair of brothers, Shay and Ron Ben-Yitzhak, control a further 11pc.

In late 2006, Ladbrokes (6.1p better at 134p) and 888 held merger discussions. But they were amicably terminated in April 2007 following changes of tax laws in the UK and fears of legal actions by the US government.

888 in September made itself look even more attractive to any predator when its business-to-business division, Dragonfish, signed a long-term deal with US giant Harrah's to become its software provider. It put it in a strong position should the US market open up.

Punters also showed their hand in British Gas owner Centrica as a revival of the ancient Gazprom takeover story got the market excited. The shares touched 260.4p before closing 41/2p higher at 256.8p on reheated gossip the Russian giant would soon launch a [pounds sterling]4-a-share cash offer for the British gas operator. The Russians have often said they wanted to expand in the UK but dealers are still waiting.

Wall Street fell 67 points in early trading following an unexpected decline in home construction and building permits in October. That prompted late profit-taking in London and the Footsie lost a 27 points gain to finish 3.8 points off at 5,342.13.

Marks & Sparks soared 21.7p or 5.9pc to 382.39 as the City gave the big thumbs up to Marc Bolland's appointment as chief executive.

Sir Stuart Rose will remain as chairman to ensure a smooth transition. …