UPDATE 1-Ashley takes new Debenhams bet after making $7.5 mln on stake
* Sports Direct sells 4.6 pct stake days after buying it
* Agrees option deal that could give it 6.6 pct stake
By Paul Sandle
LONDON, Jan 16 (Reuters) - Mike Ashley's Sports Direct has sold the stake in Debenhams it bought just days ago, making a profit of about 4.6 million pounds ($7.5 million), and replaced it with a complex option that bets on the department store's shares staying underpinned.
Sports Direct, Britain's largest sporting goods retailer controlled by the billionaire who also owns Newcastle United soccer club, said on Thursday it had agreed a so-called "put" option that could see it buy a 6.6 percent stake in Debenhams next year from an undisclosed counterparty.
Under the deal, Sports Direct is paid a fee for agreeing to buy the shares at an pre-set price in the future.
If Debenhams shares rise above that undisclosed strike price, Sports Direct will be able to profit from the difference if the counterparty decides to sell, though it will be left with only the original fee if the counterparty does not sell.
Conversely, if the share price falls, Sports Direct will have to buy the stake at the agreed price, or pay the cash difference between the share price and the strike price.
It said its maximum exposure - in the case of it having to buy the shares after they had lost all of their market value - was about 64 million pounds, taking into account the fee.
As Debenhams shares are trading close to 18 month lows following a profit warning on Jan. 31, analysts said Ashley appeared to be making a reasonable bet.
"The canny man has reduced direct exposure and freed up capital, maintained indirect exposure and is even set to pocket some cash in the meantime," said Mike van Dulken, head of research at Accendo Markets.
Debenhams said the option expired in five tranches between Jan. 14 and March 12, 2015.
Sports Direct did not disclose how much money it made from selling the 4.63 percent stake in Debenhams which it announced only on Monday. Based on the share price movement over the past week, it may have made around 4.6 million pounds.
Despite no longer holding a direct stake in Debenhams, Sports Direct reiterated its intention to be supportive.
"Sports Direct wishes to explore options at an operational level to work together with Debenhams and is looking forward to meeting with Debenhams' senior management team in the near future," Sport Direct said.
Debenhams declined to comment. Its shares were trading down 1.9 percent at 81.6 pence at 1425 GMT.
N+1 Singer analyst Matthew McEachran thought Ashley hadn't backed away from his view that Debenhams' shares were too cheap.
"With this option (Ashley) still believes he can force his way into discussions with the management team," he added.
But he said Debenhams' management already had its work cut out in finding a new finance director and reviving confidence after over-cooking its promotions in the peak trading period over Christmas. Unless Ashley brought obvious benefits, he could be viewed as an unwelcome distraction, McEachran added.
Analysts had interpreted the initial stake purchase as an indication Sports Direct would seek to establish concessions for some of its fashion brands, including Firetrap, Kangol and SoulCal, in some of Debenhams' 156 UK stores, using its position as a shareholder as leverage in negotiations.
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