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Tax issue throws Energy Transfer’s Williams deal into doubt

NEW YORK (Reuters) – U.S. pipeline company Energy Transfer Equity said on Monday its lawyers may not be able to deliver an important tax opinion for its takeover of peer Williams Cos Inc, throwing the agreed $14 billion acquisition into doubt.

Energy Transfer rose 10 percent on the news, as investors bet that the company may now have a way to get out of a deal that looked increasingly unattractive as energy prices plunged. Williams shares fell 5 percent.

The spread between the value of Williams shares and the implied value of Energy Transfer’s cash and stock offer jumped from 26 percent to as much as 50 percent, before paring gains to around 38 percent. The move indicates increased doubt among investors as to whether the deal would be completed.

A tax opinion confirming that the acquisition qualifies as an exchange and would be tax free for Energy Transfer and Williams shareholders is a key provision of the merger agreement.

ETE said in a filing with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission that its law firm Latham & Watkins said that it would not be able to deliver such an opinion if the deal were to close today.

Energy Transfer said that Williams disagrees with this position on the tax issue.

Dallas billionaire and Energy Transfer CEO Kelcy Warren set his sights on Williams last year in order to transform his empire into one of the biggest pipeline networks in the world but the timing was poor. A prolonged drop in oil and gas prices has made the deal more difficult to finance and to justify to shareholders.

ETE would need to take on a heavy debt load to fund the $6 billion cash portion of the deal. Williams has alleged that ETE is looking into ways to walk away from the tie-up even though the terms of the deal would not allow that.

Since the takeover was announced, ETE has launched a controversial offering of preferred shares to its top shareholders, for which it is currently being sued by Williams. ETE has also fired its chief financial officer and slashed projections for cost savings from the Williams deal.

Representatives for Williams declined to comment. An Energy Transfer representative did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

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