Verizon yesterday threatened to abandon its $7.51 billion bid for MCI if MCI directors decide a competing offer from Qwest is better. Verizon, the largest U...

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Verizon yesterday threatened to abandon its $7.51 billion bid for MCI if MCI directors decide a competing offer from Qwest is better.

Verizon, the largest U.S. local-telephone company, is turning up pressure on MCI, the No. 2 U.S. long-distance phone company, which has until today to make a decision on the $8.94 billion offer from Qwest.

The ultimatum suggests Verizon won’t sweeten its bid, raised to $23.10 a share last month amid complaints by MCI’s top shareholders including Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim and persistence by Qwest, the No. 4 U.S. local-phone carrier.

MCI directors snubbed Qwest’s earlier offers to ally with a company they said would form a stronger partner.

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“The board has a tough choice,” said Paul Wright, an analyst at Boston-based Loomis Sayles, which owns Verizon and Qwest shares.

“If they go with Verizon, they’ve got a fight on their hands. If they go with Qwest, time will tell if it’s a good move.”

MCI, which announced the agreement to be bought by Verizon on March 29, resumed talks last week with Qwest after the fourth increase in Qwest’s terms in a seven-week takeover battle.

A decision in Qwest’s favor by today’s deadline would indicate “the decision-making process is being driven by the interests of short-term investors rather than the company’s long-term strength and viability,” New York-based Verizon said a statement. “Should this occur, we would no longer be interested in participating in such a process.”

Verizon could still force a shareholder vote if MCI deems Qwest’s proposal superior. Under the agreement with MCI, Verizon can compel MCI to ask its investors to vote on its offer alone.

That would wrest control of the takeover from MCI directors and delay any payout for investors who want MCI to be sold to Qwest.

MCI shares dropped 21 cents to $25.08 yesterday, with much of the decline following Verizon’s statement. Verizon gained 46 cents to $35.65 and Qwest added 18 cents to $3.82.

Verizon’s offer, excluding a 40-cent dividend paid last month, includes $8.35 in cash and at least $14.75 in stock. Qwest offered $27.50 a share, comprising $13.50 in cash and $14 in stock.

MCI Chief Executive Officer Michael Capellas defended the board’s decision to take lower offers by saying Verizon would do a better job attracting large business customers.

Qwest yesterday said it has enough money to fund the transaction and improve the network of the enlarged company, attempting to allay concerns it’s a weaker takeover partner.