BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Brewing giant Anheuser-Busch InBev (ABI.BR) plans to sell the eastern European assets of SABMiller SAB.L, which could fetch almost $8 billion, as it seeks European regulatory approval for its $100 billion-plus takeover of its closest rival.
AB InBev has already lined up Japan's Asahi Group Holdings (2502.T) to buy SABMiller's Grolsch, Peroni and Meantime brands for 2.55 billion euros ($2.90 billion), and said on Friday it had put up for sale SABMiller's business in Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, Romania and Slovakia.
AB InBev, maker of Budweiser and Stella Artois, has barely any business in eastern Europe outside Russia and Ukraine, so analysts say the sale is more about preventing regulatory delays and exiting weak spots than ensuring market competition.
Beer consumption in eastern Europe has been on the decline, due to shrinking populations, weak economies and tighter regulation. That makes the region much less attractive than the growth markets of Africa and Latin America that are driving what will be the biggest deal in consumer goods history.
"The eastern European markets may have provided an unwelcome and unnecessary distraction, and valuation notwithstanding, we regard this asset sale as a net positive" for AB InBev, said Morningstar analyst Philip Gorham.
He estimates a sale could fetch $7.75 billion, based on a multiple of 11 times expected 2016 operating earnings of $705 million, with Carlsberg (CARLb.CO) the most likely buyer, though it might face antitrust constraints in Poland.
Molson Coors (TAP.N) could have antitrust trouble buying the assets, following its purchase in 2013 of eastern Europe's StarBev from CVC Capital Partners [CVC.UL]. Heineken (HEIN.AS) might also face hurdles from competition regulators.
But SAB's business could be attractive to a private equity group or Asahi if it wanted further European expansion, analysts said.
AB InBev has notified the European Commission, the European Union's antitrust regulator, which is set to deliver its verdict on the takeover of SAB by May 24.
If the Commission chose to open an in-depth investigation into the SAB deal, it would not receive clearance for up to 90 working days, a delay AB InBev may be keen to avoid.
AB InBev said in a statement the sale included a number of top brands in local markets, such as Pilsner Urquell in Czech Republic and Dreher in Hungary. It said it expected considerable interest from potential buyers.
The sale is conditional on AB InBev concluding its purchase of SAB, expected in the second half of this year.
Additional reporting by Martinne Geller in London and Esha Vaish in Bengaluru; Editing by Jon Boyle and Mark Potter