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Barry Diller, David Geffen probed over Microsoft-Activision trades

The US government is investigating media moguls David Geffen, Barry Diller and his stepson Alexander von Furstenberg over bets the trio made on Activision Blizzard ahead of its merger with Microsoft. The three men have an unrealized profit of roughly $60 million from the trade based on Activision’s recent share price of around $80, according to the Wall Street Journal, which first reported the news of an investigation by both the Justice Department and the Securities and Exchange Commission. Diller, chairman of media company IAC, owner of the Daily Beast, People and All Recipes, confirmed the investigation by the DOJ. He told the Journal that none of the three men had private information about the looming merger. “It was simply a lucky bet,” he told the paper. “We acted on no information of any kind from anyone. It is one of those coincidences.” Diller said von Furstenberg, son of his wife, fashion designer Diane von Furstenberg, had been “buying Activision stock prior to that and the thought was that Activision at some point would either go private, or would be acquired at some point.” Diller, von Furstenberg and Geffen, a music mogul and producer known for launching Dreamworks with Steven Spielberg and Jeffrey Katezenberg in the ’90s, bought options to purchase Activision shares at $40 each on Jan. 14 in private deals arranged through JPMorgan Chase, sources told the Journal. They said the video game developer’s stock was already trading around $63 at the time. This meant that the options already were profitable to exercise, and option holders could reap more if Activision’s stock price rose. Microsoft announced it was buying Activision, maker of popular video games like Call of Duty, World of Warcraft and Candy Crush, for $69 billion or $95 a share on Jan. 18. The shares ended Jan. 18 at $82.31, gaining 26%. Over the course of the day, Activision shares rose 48 cents to $81.03 on Nasdaq. As part of a 2020 criminal settlement over market manipulation claims, JPMorgan Chase was required to report the trades to law enforcement after the merger deal was made public. The Journal said the DOJ is investigating whether any of the deals violated insider-trading laws, and the SEC is looking at a civil case along the same lines. The feds did not comment. The men could not be reached for comment. Call options give a trader the right to buy shares at a specific price by a certain date. The Journal reported that Diller, von Furstenberg and Geffen haven’t yet exercised the options, which don’t expire until early next year. The trio reportedly have spent around $108 million to acquire the right to buy 4.12 million Activision shares. Those options are now valued at around $168 million, based on recent trading prices. The value of the options would rise further if the deal closes at the per-share price of $95. Microsoft expects to close the deal no later than June 2023. If the men hold the options through a closing at that price, their profit stands to surpass $100 million, sources said. Diller, who has served on the Coca-Cola board with Activision CEO Bob Kotick, and Geffen are longtime friends who go way back. In the 1960s, the media moguls cut their teeth in the mail room at the William Morris agency, a breeding ground for some of today’s biggest Hollywood execs.

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