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Dish Network

DISH Network ( DISH), long in the M&A rumor mill, is now increasingly the target of hedge fund and activist investors as the company mulls over both acquisitions and asset sales.

The satellite pay television provider and its Chairman Charlie Ergen spent 2011 in the M&A market, buying up $1.38 billion worth of spectrum from bankrupt -TerreStar Networks, which paved the way for a similar deal to buy wireless spectrum from DBSD North America, a satellite communications company also in bankruptcy. With the spectrum purchases, DISH Network emerged as a deals favorite at the end of 2011, as a $39 billion mega-merger between AT&T ( T) and T-Mobile USA was iced by the U.S> Department of Justice on antitrust concerns.

With hedge funds and activists now known to have jumped into the company's shares, it's especially important to consider whether the investors are targeting an M&A-based stock boost.

After AT&T and T-Mobile walked away from what was the largest merger of the year, DISH Network Chief Executive Joe Clayton said that the company could look to continue its acquisition spree or accept a takeover offer. "We could be acquired or we could be the acquirer," said Clayton in a Jan.11 Bloomberg Television interview.

One possibility that DISH had looked at was an offer for NBC Universal's Hulu Web video business, according to October reports. However, the popular Web video channel cancelled a sale process, leaving the business in the control of its parent NBC Universal - which is majority owned by Comcast ( CMCSA) and part-owned by General Electric ( GE).

When the AT&T deal went bust, DISH Network was both seen as an aggressor in the wireless market, potentially taking a majority stake in T-Mobile USA itself in a partnership to build out a stronger national network. Additionally, its recently acquired spectrum was also seen as a target of wireless capacity-hungry AT&T.

Immediately after the merger block, Stifel Nicolaus analyst Christopher Kind said that AT&T could acquire DISH for its wireless assets, or a T-Mobile and DISH partnership could emerge. "Dish has expressed interest in combining with T-Mobile, and AT&T could look at acquiring Dish, with spectrum a key consideration," King wrote in a Dec. 20 research note. In a Jan. 19 note, JPMorgan analyst Philip Cusick proposed that a DISH and T-Mobile joint venture would be a more financially viable way for DISH to slowly take ownership of the U.S. mobile arm of Deutsche Telekom.

On Thursday, the Wall Street Journal reported that AT&T is looking at new deals such as an acquisition of Leap Wireless ( LEAP), MetroPCS ( PCS) or DISH to help the nation's second largest carier boost its access to airwaves, benefitting high-data load smartphone services.

In February, an upstart spectrum service called LightSquared was dealt a near deathblow when the Federal Communications Commission ruled that it interfered with GPS signaling, fanning speculation that the company's owner Philip Falcone-run Harbinger Capital Partners may look to unload its radio spectrum assets to avert a bankruptcy. LightSquared investors include David Tepper-run Appalosa Management, Farallon Capital Management and Carl Icahn, who own pieces of the company's debt, revealing an alternative way to invest in wireless markets.

But speculation on any spectrum deals are complicated by AT&T's shifting views on spectrum waivers with federal authorities, in addition to a dearth of consolidation possibilities in the strictly regulated wireless market. While, AT&T is hungry for more spectrum, it's still unclear if the DoJ has a next antitrust target in mind.

AT&T, once defensive against spectrum waivers Okayed such transfers or leases, signaling an "change of heart" that may make the nation's second largest carrier an acquirer of DISH Network, according to a Credit Suisse note on Jan. 30.

Look for new hedge fund investors in DISH, especially activist investors to help DISH Network chose on an M&A strategy. Dan Loeb-run Third Point, an activist fund that pressed for a handful of corporate shakeups in 2011, jumped into DISH in the most recent quarter ended in December, taking a $116 million stake representing nearly 2% of a company's shares. Third Point was DISH's largest share buyer in the quarter.

Other funds like Pyramis Global Advisers, Two Sigma Investments and York Capital Management also built stakes in DISH, potentially on takeover speculation or a merger with T-Mobile, among a host of considerations.

DISH is expected to earn $14 billion in revenue and $137.1 million in 2011, according to consensus estimates of analyst polled by Bloomberg, who give the company's shares a $30.83 price target. In fourth quarter earnings due on Feb. 23, DISH is expected to earn 61 cents a share, according to consensus estimates polled by next Zacks. Analyst estimates show that in 2013, DISH's revenue is expected to grow, while earnings and profit margins fall.

The Colorado-based company's shares rose over 20% in the quarter, bolstered by takeover speculation. DISH Network shares are up just over 1% year-to-date, underperforming major indices. For more on DISH shares, see 6 good buys for a portfolio.

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