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Billionaire Joseph Lewis, the British-born, Bahamas-based currency trader, has paid $860.4-million (U.S.) for a 7-per-cent stake in Bear Stearns Cos., making him the beleaguered brokerage firm's largest shareholder.

Mr. Lewis, a one-time waiter whose business empire includes golf courses, a genetic engineering firm and Patagonian real estate, is the president of Aquarian Investments Ltd. and four other Bahamian companies that bought the Bear Stearns shares, according to a filing today with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission.

Bear Stearns' stock has fallen more than 30 per cent this year, punished by the collapse of the U.S. subprime mortgage market. Two of the New York-based company's hedge funds that bet on mortgage-linked securities failed in July, wiping out about $1.5-billion of investor capital and damaging chief executive officer James Cayne's reputation for avoiding risk.

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Mr. Lewis's investment is "validation that Bear Stearns isn't going out of business," said Bruce Foerster, president of South Beach Capital Markets in Miami. "Lewis must be a bottom-fisher, seeing value at these distressed prices."

"This investment is somewhat disappointing," said Richard Bove, a Punk Ziegel & Co. analyst in Lutz, Fla. "I had hoped that by now Bear Stearns would have found an investor who would buy new stock from the company adding to its equity base."

Mr. Bove said Aug. 16 that Mr. Cayne might sell as much as 20 per cent of the firm to an investor such as a Chinese bank.

Mr. Lewis, 70, drew headlines in the 1990s when he accumulated almost 30 per cent of auctioneer Christie's International and mounted an effort to take the company private. He sold the stake to French billionaire Francois Pinault in 1998 for $244-million.

Born in an apartment above a pub in London's East End, Mr. Lewis was listed as the world's 369th-richest person in Forbes magazine's 2007 survey, with a fortune of $2.5-billion.

Tavistock Group, his holding company, owns the Isleworth golf course in Windermere, Fla., and has stakes in companies including sporting-goods maker Puma AG and luxury auto maker Bristol Cars Ltd. Tavistock is also developing real estate in Orlando, Fla., and the Bahamas, according to its website.

After dropping out of school at 15 to become a waiter in his father's catering company, he expanded the business into a chain of eateries and opened tourist souvenir shops in Geneva, London and Rome.

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He got into currency trading as a means of investing receipts from his pubs and shops in yen, dollars and European currencies.

He sold the family business in 1979 and moved to the Bahamas.

Aquarian and four other Bahamian companies Mr. Lewis presides over bought 8,096,942 shares of Bear Stearns during the past 60 days, according to the SEC filing.

He now tops Putnam Investments, which owns 7.03 million shares, as the brokerage's largest holder, according to Bloomberg data. Mr. Cayne owns 5.66 million shares and is the fourth-largest shareholder.

Thomas Youth, an executive at Lewis's Tavistock Group, and Bear Stearns spokesman Russell Sherman didn't return phone calls seeking comment.

Bear Stearns (BSC)

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