Massmart, Wal-Mart mull legal options after delay

JOHANNESBURG Wed Mar 23, 2011 1:16pm EDT

A woman walks past a Makro branch of the South African retailer Massmart in Cape Town, September 30, 2010. REUTERS/Mike Hutchings

A woman walks past a Makro branch of the South African retailer Massmart in Cape Town, September 30, 2010.

Credit: Reuters/Mike Hutchings

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JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - Wal-Mart Stores Inc (WMT.N) and Massmart Holdings Ltd (MSMJ.J) are considering legal options to speed up a hearing into the U.S. group's $2.3 billion bid for its South African target after a delay by the local watchdog.

"Massmart and Wal-Mart are considering, together with their legal advisors, their options to facilitate an expeditious and fair regulatory hearing," the companies said in a joint statement on Wednesday.

South Africa's Competition Tribunal had on Tuesday postponed hearings scheduled for this week into Wal-Mart's bid for a controlling stake in Massmart to May 9-16, after the government and unions asked for more time to submit additional information.

Shares in Massmart (MSMJ.J) gained 1.3 percent to 132 rand by 1431 GMT, recouping some of their losses suffered in the previous session on worries the deal could fall through.

But legal experts said Wal-Mart, the world's largest retailer, had limited options to speed the process as any appeal or review of the decision could take just as long before it could be heard.

One expert said the Tribunal had taken a pragmatic position to ensure everyone had a chance to put their case in a deal that has also drawn opposition from three government departments led by the Economic Development Department.

"I think Wal-Mart's options are fairly limited," said Derek Lotter, a partner at law firm Bowman Gilfillan. "They would want it heard as expedite as possible but ultimately it is the decision of the Tribunal to regulate when things happen before it."

Another expert said the two companies were unlikely to appeal or review the decision because it could take up to six weeks before a hearing, close to the new hearing date.

"I'm not sure that's the legal option they would take, otherwise their options are very limited and they might as well just wait for the hearing date," he said.

Competition authorities are the last obstacle to Wal-Mart taking a 51 percent stake in Massmart after shareholders overwhelmingly voted in favor of the deal in January.

The deal has pitted Wal-Mart against South Africa's powerful trade unions, some of which have threatened to strike against the U.S. group.

Wal-Mart, which agreed to pay 148 rand per share for the stake, said Massmart remained a compelling investment that would give a substantial presence in South Africa and pave the way for further expansion across the continent.

The deal would be Wal-Mart's biggest acquisition since it bought British supermarket chain Asda in 1999. (Editing by David Holmes)

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