By Euan Rocha
TORONTO (Reuters) - BlackBerry shares rose 14 percent on Monday, fueled by takeover speculation and news that AT&T Inc will start selling the new BlackBerry Z10 touchscreen smartphone in the United States on March 22.
The speculation was sparked by a comment from the head of China's Lenovo Group Ltd, who told a French newspaper on Monday that the personal computer maker might consider an acquisition of Canada's BlackBerry at some point in the future.
"External growth remains a question of opportunities," said Yang Yuanqing, Lenovo's CEO, in an interview with Les Échos.
"As for BlackBerry, the file could eventually make sense, but I must first analyze the market and understand the exact weight of this company," he said in response to a question about whether Lenovo would make a move on the smartphone maker.
BlackBerry, a one-time smartphone pioneer, has bled market share to Apple Inc's iPhone, Samsung Electronics Co Ltd's Galaxy line and other devices powered by Google's market-leading Android operating system.
In a make-or-break move to regain market share and return to profit, BlackBerry introduced the new smartphone to much fanfare in January, and said it was abandoning its old name, Research In Motion, and renaming itself BlackBerry.
Analysts however poured cold water on the speculation that the Chinese technology giant would make a move on BlackBerry.
"We believe a takeout of BlackBerry is unlikely, especially in the near term, nor is our investment thesis or 'outperform' rating predicated on such an event," said Wells Fargo analyst Maynard Um, in a note to clients.
A spokesman for Lenovo in Canada also downplayed the CEO's comment, saying, "in no way was this an indication of activity or strategic direction."
Another Lenovo executive had made a similar comment when asked about BlackBerry in January. That remark had also sparked a rally in BlackBerry shares, but Lenovo said at the time that the executive was only speaking broadly about M&A strategy.
Analysts are also skeptical that the Canadian government, which in 2010 blocked mining giant BHP Billiton's $39 billion bid for Potash Corp, will easily approve a Chinese acquisition of BlackBerry.
"An acquisition might be difficult," said Morningstar Inc analyst Brian Colello. "My understanding is that Canada treats the company and its patents as a bit of a crown jewel and would not rule lightly on a takeover."
BlackBerry shares ended the day up 14.1 percent at $14.90 on the Nasdaq on Monday, while the Toronto-listed shares closed up 13.8 percent at C$15.29.
BlackBerry is hoping the new devices, already on sale in Canada, Britain and more than 20 other countries, will help it win back market share in the United States, which was once a stronghold for the smartphone industry pioneer.
The U.S. launch of the new devices has been delayed due to a longer carrier-testing phase in the country. AT&T said pre-sales of the devices will begin on Tuesday.
BlackBerry says sales of its new smartphone have been outpacing its expectations so far, but investors are keen to see how it fares in the United States.
As expected, AT&T said it would sell the devices for $199.99 with a two-year contract. T-Mobile USA said on Friday it planned to start selling the BlackBerry Z10 to its business customers in the United States on Monday.
Verizon Inc, the biggest U.S. wireless carrier, has yet to say when it will start selling the Z10. The Z10 and the soon-to-be-launched Q10, which will come with BlackBerry's traditional physical keyboard, are powered by the new BlackBerry 10, or BB10 operating system.
"We believe the Street is pricing in such a weak fiscal 2014 that BB10 does not need to be an outstanding success to surprise," Scotiabank analyst Gus Papageorgiou said in a note to clients on Monday.
Papageorgiou, who has a "sector outperform" rating on the stock, said he expects the company sold about 1 million BlackBerry 10 devices in the quarter ended March 2.
"Gross margins should begin to move higher as more Z10s enter the mix," he said. "Next quarter will be the true test as BB10 launches in the U.S."
($1 = 1.027 Canadian)
(Editing by Lisa Von Ahn, Peter Galloway, Matthew Lewis and Ken Wills)