Is Leighton Holdings Limited a takeover target?

Construction group Leighton Holdings Limited (ASX: LEI) has had to defend itself to the ASX, after its share rose 14.7% in the past few days.

Shares in Leighton closed at their highest level in twelve months, at $20.72, after rising 7.7% today.

The company says it is not aware of any reason for the price rise, nor the unusually high volumes. Around 4.7 million shares changed hands, around 3 times more than usual daily volumes over the past year.

But it appears there may be a simple explanation for the price rise.

Germany’s Hochtief, Leighton’s largest shareholder, with more than 57% of the company’s shares, lifted its holding to 58.77%, after purchasing an additional 3.4 million shares. Under Australian corporate law, Hochtief, can buy up to 3% of the company every six months, without being forced to make a takeover offer.

Hochtief has in the past said that it would continue to lift its holding in Leighton. So this might be a slow and stealthy takeover.

On the other hand, Hochtief could also just be increasing its stake at a time when Leighton is recovering from a disastrous period in its history.

Since 2010, when shares in Leighton were consistently trading above $30, shares have fallen as low as $14.40 in the last twelve months, before rising over 28% since the start of 2014.

The company reported a 13% rise in annual profit in 2013 over the previous year, on the back of a 6% rise in revenues. That’s despite being exposed to the slowing resources sector.

And with the Coalition government indicating infrastructure spending could rise in the years ahead, Leighton could be perfectly placed to benefit.

While Leighton competes with companies like Lend Lease (ASX: LLC) in construction, it also holds a stake in property developer Devine Limited (ASX: DVN). It also competes against the likes of  Downer EDI (ASX: DOW) and MacMahon Holdings Limited (ASX: MAH).

Foolish takeaway

With a $7 billion market cap, Leighton’s is not small and would be a big bite even for Hochtief. My bet’s on Hochtief taking a bigger stake in Leighton to profit from the company’s turnaround currently underway.

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Motley Fool writer/analyst Mike King owns shares in Leighton. You can follow Mike on Twitter @TMFKinga

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