By Diane Bartz
WASHINGTON Feb 20 The U.S. Justice Department and Anheuser-Busch InBev, which have been embroiled in a court fight over whether AB InBev can expand its stake in Mexican brewer Grupo Modelo, asked a court on Wednesday for a short delay as the two sides hold settlement talks.
AB InBev, the world's largest brewer, has 200 brands ranging from big names like Budweiser and Stella Artois to craft-style beers like Shock Top and Goose Island.
AB InBev wants to buy the 50 percent of Modelo it does not already own for $20.1 billion, but in a nod to antitrust concerns the company said it would sell its 50 percent share of Modelo's U.S. distributor, Crown Imports, to Constellation Brands, the world's largest wine company.
The Justice Department said that would be inadequate and filed a lawsuit on Jan. 31 to stop the transaction.
In the hope of salvaging the deal, AB InBev said last week that it was willing to sell Modelo's Piedras Negras brewery in Mexico near the U.S border to Constellation for $2.9 billion and that it would grant Constellation perpetual rights for Corona and other Modelo brands in the United States.
The two sides requested a limited stay that would put the case on hold until March 19, according to a court filing.
"It means they (the Justice Department) need more time to study it (the revised InBev offer), which means that they're not rejecting it out of hand. That doesn't mean it's a done deal," said Michael Sohn, an antitrust expert with Davis Polk & Wardwell LLP.
The three companies noted the request for a delay in a joint statement and said they were in talks with the Justice Department. "There can be no assurance that the discussions will be successful," they said.
Beverage industry consultant Tom Pirko of Bevmark Consulting in Santa Barbara, California, said investors should not assume the parties are close to an agreement.
"It hasn't been solved," he said, adding that issues laid out in the Justice Department complaint would not be resolved by the concessions that InBev offered last week.
The case was filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. It is United States of America v. Anheuser-Busch InBev and Grupo Modelo. The case is No. 13-cv-00127.