REUTERS: Twenty First Century Fox Inc's shares rose 8 percent to a record-high on Wednesday as approval for AT&T's buyout of Time Warner Inc spurred speculation that Comcast Corp would proceed with an offer for most of the media company's assets.
A firm offer from Comcast, widely expected later in the day, could upend Fox's US$52 billion all-stock deal to be bought by Walt Disney.
A federal judge on Tuesday approved AT&T Inc's US$85 billion buyout of Time Warner, rebuffing an attempt by U.S. President Donald Trump to block the takeover and potentially clearing the path for more such deals in a rapidly changing media industry.
Shares of other telecom and media companies such as Sprint Corp, CBS Corp and Discovery Inc were all up between 1.5 percent and 3 percent in early trading. Time Warner rose about 4 percent, while Disney was up 2 percent.
"The decision ... may be interpreted as indicative of the general tone in Washington (and at the DOJ) towards large-scale vertical mergers," Deutsche Bank analysts said in a note to clients.
Craig Moffett, an analyst with Moffett Nathanson, said Judge Richard Leon's opinion will be seen as a green light for Comcast to bid for Rupert Murdoch's Fox, but tipped Disney as the potential winner in a bidding war.
"We continue to believe that Disney has the superior balance sheet, cost of debt, equity and rationale to emerge victorious over Comcast in a bidding war," Moffett said.
Comcast said in May it was in advanced stages of preparing a higher all cash offer for Fox's assets but did not indicate the value of its bid. Reuters reported last November that both Comcast and Verizon Communications Inc had expressed interest in buying Fox's assets.
The move by media companies to consolidate highlights the threat from online players such as Netflix Inc and Alphabet Inc's Google, which sell content online directly to consumers, without requiring a pricey cable subscription.
AT&T's stock, however, was down nearly 5 percent, with Moffett raising concerns about the debt the company would absorb as part of the deal.
"Time Warner will be a positive for AT&T's income statement, at least initially. But it will be a negative for the balance sheet," said research firm Moffett Nathanson's Craig Moffett, who downgraded the stock to "sell".
"The new AT&T will carry an astounding US$249 billion of debt."
The merger, including debt, would be the fourth largest deal ever attempted in the global telecom, media and entertainment space, according to Thomson Reuters data. It would also be the 12th largest deal in any sector, the data showed.
Cowen and Co analyst Gregory Williams played down the drop in AT&T's stock price.
"Once technically driven volatility wears off we expect the stock to move higher as closure will likely provide a new investor catalyst including about US$1.5 billion in anticipated cost synergies," Williams said.
(Reporting by Laharee Chatterjee in Bengaluru; Editing by Sweta Singh and Saumyadeb Chakrabarty)