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Safeway shares rise on talk Canada division could draw bids

A customer buys flowers at a Safeway store in Mountain View, Calif., in this file photo.

Paul Sakuma/AP

Safeway Inc.'s shares rose as much as 9 per cent on Wednesday on expectations that it may see increased buyout interest for its Canada operations from local grocery chains.

Shares of Safeway, the second-largest U.S. supermarket chain, were trading at $19.78 on Wednesday afternoon, after touching a high of $20.57 earlier in the session on the New York Stock Exchange.

BMO Nesbitt Burns analysts noted that the sale of Safeway Canada has been widely discussed for years, but recent actions by Canadian grocer Metro Inc. and its larger rival Loblaw Companies Ltd. have fuelled speculation that they are monetizing assets to boost finances in preparation for a bidding war.

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The brokerage cited Tuesday's announcement that grocer Metro was selling off nearly half its stake in Couche-Tard Inc., soon after Loblaw announced plans to spin off most of its property assets into a real estate investment trust.

Metro said on Tuesday it would sell nearly half of its stake in Alimentation Couche-Tard Inc for $479-million (Canadian), cashing in some of its investment in the gas-bar and convenience store operator.

Loblaw, Canada's largest grocer, had said in December that it plans to spin off the vast majority of its property assets into a real estate investment trust.

"I think (Safeway shares rising) has a bit to do with the speculation about Safeway Canada and if there is an interest to buy it," Gabelli & Co analyst Damian Witkowski said, adding that the bidders could either be Metro or Loblaw.

Grocery consolidation in Canada may also be prompted by Wal-Mart Stores Inc.'s announcement Tuesday that it will invest $450-million to expand its distribution network and open new stores in the country.

U.S. rival Target Corp is also preparing to open its first stores in Canada this spring.

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