Options traders had several companies to choose from in trying to figure out what Warren Buffett would do next in the food industry. Overwhelmingly, they chose Kraft Foods Group Inc., and their bets are paying off.
Buffett’s plans were the subject of media and analyst speculation and there’s no evidence to ascribe illicit intent to anyone taking a flier on the deal. Data compiled by Bloomberg show that bullish options volume surged 85 percent in 2015 on Kraft, while falling in Kellogg Co. and Campbell Soup Co. On March 10, a block of 10,000 Kraft calls betting on an 8.6 percent jump by June changed hands.
Kraft’s stock surged to a record Wednesday, and the trader of the March 10 calls made about $15 million as 3G Capital and Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway Inc. said they are buying the company to merge it with H.J. Heinz Co. Speculators probably focused on the Philadelphia Cream Cheese owner because it had the most value to unlock, according to Joe Kunkle of OptionsHawk.com.
“Options traders have been placing their bets in the consumer-foods segment ever since it was reported 3G Capital was interested in a large deal,” said Kunkle, founder of the Boston-based provider of market data and analytics. “Kraft was the name that saw the most consistent bullish options activity.”
The deal creates the third-largest food and beverage company in North America with revenue of about $28 billion. Kraft’s products will benefit from Heinz’s presence outside the U.S., and the companies expect to trim $1.5 billion in annual costs by the end of 2017.
Speculation had been rising of another deal funded by Buffett and 3G. A person familiar with the matter said this year that the private-equity firm was raising about $5 billion for a fourth special-situations fund, and Buffett told Berkshire shareholders that he expected to “partner with 3G in more activities.”
Kellogg was a logical target, Edward Jones & Co. analyst Brian Yarbrough said in a Bloomberg “Real M&A” column on March 3. Campbell Soup’s vegetable procurement and processing business would have fit well with Heinz, while Kraft offered strong cash flow, analysts and investors said.
Volume of Kraft calls jumped to a daily average of 3,650 contracts this year. The number of bullish options outstanding reached the highest level since July 2013 relative to bearish ones last week, data compiled by Bloomberg show.
“When I heard that Kraft was getting taken over, I was like ‘ah, that’s 3G,’” Daniel Brady, president of San Francisco-based trading firm Entropy Capital, said by phone. “There was nothing particularly suspicious about the trading though, and the stock had actually sold off since February.”
Options speculation was rife in Kraft even as its shares remained relatively subdued, as they did for Campbell Soup and Kellogg. Since Buffett said last month he was looking to team up again with 3G, Kraft fell 4.3 percent through Tuesday, while Campbell Soup lost 2.6 percent and Kellogg 2.4 percent.
The March 10 call trade was significant because of its size -- almost three times the daily average volume. That day, the stock fell 1.2 percent. The cost of the option jumped to as much as $20.10 on Wednesday from 70 cents on March 9. It traded at $15.02 as of 1:21 p.m. in New York.
A representative at 3G didn’t have a comment on the options trading, while Kraft officials didn’t return a call. Florence Harmon, a spokeswoman at the Securities and Exchange Commission, declined to comment.
Big options trades sometimes attract followers and part of the elevated volume might have reflected people assuming the March 10 transaction would turn out to be prescient, said Mark Sebastian, options trader and founder of Option Pit, a Chicago- based education and consulting firm.
“There was some pickup in activity in Kraft in the last few weeks, a lot of that could be following this trade,” Sebastian said. “There’s been a lot of consolidation in the food industry. How many deals have we seen in that industry in the last year? There didn’t necessarily have to be cheating here.”
The deal could have leaked, spurring the options trading, but it could also have been an educated guess, according to Sachin Shah, a special-situations and merger-arbitrage strategist for New York-based Albert Fried & Co.
“You had four parties at a minimum — Heinz, Kraft, 3G and Berkshire,” he said. “With four plus parties, the size of this transaction and the reporting that’s come out, then you may see that kind of options activity.”
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