M&A Not Slowing Down

Another “Merger Monday” is shaping up nicely today, as deals continue to pour in at record levels. Wachovia (WB) buying Golden West (GDW) for $25 billion is by far the biggest deal of the day, but perhaps the most interesting is the bidding war for Aztar (AZR), casino operator and owner of the Tropicana Casino in Las Vegas.

In March, Pinnacle Entertainment (PNK) agreed to acquire Aztar for $38 per share, more than 20% above where AZR stock was trading at the time. Late Friday, the two parties agreed to a revised price of $51 per share. It’s not often that a company has to increase the price of a friendly takeover bid by 34%, but in this case, three other suitors emerged and a bidding war began.

Although Pinnacle has a signed merger agreement with Aztar at $51, it might not be done yet. Two of the bidders appear to be out of the mix, as Ameristar Casinos (ASCA) officially dropped out, and Colony Capital hasn’t been heard from since their $41 bid was trumped. Columbia Entertainment, however, saw their $50 cash bid expire Friday afternoon, and could very well come over the top sometime this week.

What is all the fuss over Aztar about? The Tropicana, although fairly old in Vegas terms, sits on prime real estate on the Vegas Strip. The buyer would like to knock it down and build another brand new casino, much like the newest hot spot, Wynn Las Vegas. Vegas is hot, and as a result, Aztar’s real estate appears to be worth far more than shareholders thought a couple of months ago when the stock was trading at $30 before the initial bid from Pinnacle.

Not only will it be interesting to see how the Aztar situation is resolved, but the overall theme of an immensely robust M&A market should be a focus for investors. The best way to play this, aside from speculating on which firms get bids next, is to go with the investment banks whose advisory fees are sky-high with the current deal flow.