A Qatari-backed investment fund has raised its stake in supermarket chain Sainsbury's to 25%. Delta Two paid £732m for another 7% of the blue-chip company, at a price 13p-a-share higher than the 582p a share reportedly offered by a private equity consortium in a failed £10bn takeover attempt in April.
The fund, backed by the Qatari royal family, declined to comment on the reason for its acquisition of more shares yesterday.
However, analysts focused on the possibility that Delta wants the chain to realise the value of its property for shareholders by placing the assets into a separate company.
Sainsbury's has already ruled out such a move as it is reluctant to burden itself with significant additional rental and interest costs.
Another of its major shareholders, property tycoon Robert Tchenguiz, is believed to want Sainsbury's to inject its property into a tax-efficient real estate investment trust, possibly alongside assets from companies such as Tesco and Carrefour.
Three Delta, which uses Delta Two as one of its investment vehicles, is founded by Paul Taylor, a former business partner of Mr Tchenguiz. They are not believed to be acting in concert.
Delta is now the largest shareholder at Sainsbury's after passing the 18% thought to still be in the ownership of the supermarket's founding family. The refusal of family members to sell shares led to the collapse of the £10.1bn private equity approach earlier this year.
The supermarket chain, which is due to publish a trading update next week, revealed last month that its property estate was worth around £8.6bn.
Ruling out the disposal of its property, Sainsbury's claimed that with 62% of its estate comprising leasehold properties, it already had the highest leasehold proportion of any of its competitors and believed the majority of its 120,000 shareholders were more concerned with total operating performance.
But Sainsbury's itself has been at pains to distance itself from any spin-off from its property, arguing that its value was closely tied to retail operations.
When in May it announced full-year profits of £380m, Sainsbury's said its property holdings were worth £8.6bn, 65% more than earlier estimates.
And some observers concur. In a note to clients, ABN Amro said it did not think anyone could unlock value from property "without hindering the group's... recovery and competitive capability".