AT&T CEO confident Time Warner deal on solid ground

(Reuters) - The U.S. Justice Department has only a remote chance of overturning AT&T Inc’s takeover of Time Warner, Chief Executive Randall Stephenson said on Friday, adding that the move could affect the bidding war for Twenty-First Century Fox Inc.

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Shares of AT&T fell 1.7 percent to close at $31.67 on Friday after U.S. officials signaled they would appeal a federal judge’s approval last month of the $85.4 billion deal.

Speaking on CNBC, Stephenson said the original court decision was well reasoned.

“At the end of the day the law was on our side,” he said. “We think the likelihood of this thing being reversed or overturned is really remote.”

The merger, first announced in October 2016, was opposed by U.S. President Donald Trump. AT&T was sued by the Justice Department on antitrust grounds but Judge Richard Leon concluded the government failed to show that prices would go up and allowed the deal to go forward.

Credit rating agency Fitch said in a statement it believed the original decision will be upheld, but acknowledged the three-judge appeals court panel could disagree. Moody’s said in a statement AT&T’s credit ratings remain unchanged.

Raymond James analyst Frank Louthan downgraded AT&T from outperform to market perform on news of the planned appeal, saying it is a “negative catalyst for the stock.”

“This is a significant overhang for an extended period and is not conducive to share price appreciation,” he wrote.

Approval of the Time Warner deal last month triggered further moves in a bidding war between Comcast Corp and Walt Disney Co over the bulk of Twenty-First Century Fox Inc’s film and TV assets. Disney has received U.S. antitrust approval for the purchase.

Stephenson told CNBC the dispute could hurt Comcast’s chances of prevailing. Comcast is a major cable provider while AT&T owns satellite giant DirecTV.

“It does affect that process. You’re in a situation where two entities are bidding for an asset and this kind of action can affect the outcome,” he said.

In Washington, Makan Delrahim, the assistant attorney general in charge of the Justice Department’s antitrust division, recently defended the decision to file its initial lawsuit last year.

“The division made multiple settlement offers involving divestitures, but the parties offered and would accept only so-called ‘behavioral’ remedies involving promises to refrain from anticompetitive conduct,” Delrahim wrote in an op-ed in the Washington Times on Thursday.

Senator Richard Blumenthal, a Democrat, backed the appeal. “The moment it acquired Time Warner, AT&T showed its true face and raised prices for consumers,” he said on Twitter.

AT&T has recently announced price increases. It raised the price for wireless customers with some unlimited data plans by $5 per month and informed customers it was increasing the price of its internet streaming service DirecTV Now by $5 per month.

“We’re not as sure as everyone else that Judge Leon’s ruling will be upheld on appeal,” analysts from brokerage MoffettNathanson wrote.

Reporting by Sonam Rai and Vibhuti Sharma, Additional reporting by Gaurika Juneja, Diane Bartz, David Shepardson and Sheila Dang; editing by Marguerita Choy and Tom Brown