Hunt on for Saipem seller as Fidelity cleared
* Italy asks UK to probe deal that preceded warning-source
* Consob filing confirms Fidelity was not the seller
By Stephen Jewkes and Giancarlo Navach
MILAN, Feb 5 (Reuters) - The hunt is on for the investor who sold shares in Italian oil services group Saipem just before a profit warning which slashed the group's stock market value, after confirmation it could not have been investment fund Fidelity.
Regulators have tracked the deal to London, a source close to Italian regulator Consob said on Tuesday, and have asked Britain's Financial Services Authority (FSA) to investigate a sale they believe took place just hours before the warning from Europe's biggest oil services company.
Fidelity last week denied reports from traders it had placed a 2.3 percent stake for sale with Bank of America Merrill Lynch on Jan. 28, and a filing lodged with Consob on Tuesday confirmed it sold a much smaller stake on Jan. 31, after the warning.
The filing also said it still held 1.9 percent in its Fidelity Worldwide Investment fund.
Larger Italian oil company Eni holds 43 percent but a spokeswoman said it had not sold any of its stock.
The only other institution shown by Reuters data as holding a stake bigger than 2 percent is Blackrock International, with 2.82 percent as of August last year, but there may be others, because under Italian regulations shareholders do not have to declare holdings below 5 percent.
Blackrock declined comment or to discuss its holding. "We do not comment on individual stocks or securities," said a spokesman in an email.
The source said Consob had asked the FSA to look into the placement by Merrill Lynch "to better understand what exactly went on," referring to press reports that Merrill had handled the sale.
BofA Merrill Lynch has declined comment since reports of the placement emerged last week. Consob and the FSA declined to comment. Fidelity declined to comment beyond its statement last week denying any pre-warning sale.
The regulatory probe is the latest headache for Saipem Chief Executive Umberto Vergine, who took the helm in December after his predecessor was forced out by an Italian investigation into alleged corruption in Algeria.
Last week, traders told Reuters that Bofa Merrill Lynch had on Jan. 28 started a process to sell 2.3 percent of Saipem shares on the market at 30.65 euros per share. After the market closed on Jan. 29, Saipem warned net profit would be halved this year to 450 million euros.
Its shares tumbled 34 percent to 19.97 euros the following day.
In an interview with an Italian newspaper on Sunday, CEO Vergine said he had not been pre-alerted as to any placement and had learned of it from news agencies.
Vergine, a former manager at oil major Eni, and Chief Financial Officer Stefano Goberti met Consob on Monday for more than two hours. The two managers left without comment. (Writing by Andrew Callus; Additional reporting by London financials team; Editing by Erica Billingham and David Holmes)