Unibail shares fall as rebel investors build up stake

PARIS, Oct 22 (Reuters) - Shares in Unibail-Rodamco-Westfield (URW) fell sharply in early trading on Thursday, after a group of investors that opposes the shopping centre operator’s planned capital hike said the group had increased its stake in the firm to over 5%.

French telecoms billionaire Xavier Niel has teamed up with URW’s former boss to oppose the company’s 3.5 billion euro ($4.2 billion) rights issue, initially leading to a positive market reaction when the move came to light in mid-October.

The stand-off between URW’s management and the activists has deepened since, with URW Chief Executive Christophe Cuvillier saying a capital hike was vital as the firm combats the COVID-19 crisis, which forced many shops to close this year.

URW’s shares were down 8.5% at 0749 GMT, after the consortium of investors led by Niel and former URW boss Leon Bressler said it now held more than 5% of Unibail’s capital, up from 4.1% previously.

The investors have called on URW to sell off assets including those it acquired in the United States through its $16 billion purchase of Westfield in late 2016, saying it would do better to focus on its strengths in Europe.

Niel and the investors have called on shareholders to vote against what they called a “severely dilutive rights issue” at a general meeting on Nov. 10.

URW has about 24 billion euros in debt. Its management has said the capital raising is key to preserving its debt ratings, that it needed to reinforce its balance sheet and that it already had a plan to sell some assets.

$1 = 0.8429 euros Reporting by Sarah White; Editing by Mark Potter