By Greg Roumeliotis and Svea Herbst-Bayliss
(Reuters) - Intercontinental Exchange Inc (ICE), the owner of the New York Stock Exchange, said on Tuesday it had approached e-commerce company eBay Inc to explore "a range of potential opportunities".
The statement came after people familiar with the matter said ICE discussed a potential takeover of eBay. The acquisition would exceed $30 billion and represent a substantial departure from ICE's focus on financial markets.
The move would call on ICE's technological expertise in running markets to extract efficiencies from eBay's marketplace platform, which connects buyers and sellers of goods around the world.
ICE said in its statement that "eBay has not engaged in a meaningful way", and as a result, it was not in negotiations regarding the sale of all or part of eBay.
The Wall Street Journal, which first reported on the deal discussions, said ICE is not interested in eBay's classified ad unit, which eBay has been considering selling.
EBay declined to comment.
EBay's board issued a statement on Wednesday morning saying it is "aligned and open to all value-enhancing alternatives."
EBay's shares ended trading 8.7% firmer at $37.41 on Tuesday following the news, giving it a market value of $30.4 billion. ICE shares fell 7.5% to $92.59, giving the company a market value of $51.6 billion, as investors fretted a deal could be dilutive for the stock exchange operator.
ICE, which also operates futures exchanges and clearing-houses, has faced pressure from U.S. regulators to freeze or reduce the fees it charges to operate financial markets, spurring it to diversify its business.
ICE's approach rekindles debate among investors over whether eBay should be moving faster to shed its classifieds business, which advertises products and services for sale off the eBay marketplace.
Earlier on Tuesday, activist shareholder Starboard Value LP once again called on eBay Inc to sell off its classifieds business, arguing the company has not made enough progress to improve shareholder value.
"To achieve the optimal outcome, we believe Classifieds must be separated, and a more comprehensive and aggressive operating plan must be put in place to drive profitable growth in the core Marketplace business," Starboard said in a letter to eBay's board.
The San Jose, California-based e-commerce firm said it would "review Starboard's letter and perspectives."
EBay has been shifting focus to its advertising and payments businesses amid stiff competition in its marketplace business from Amazon.com Inc and Walmart Inc.
The company faced pressure last year not only from Starboard but also from hedge fund Elliott Management. In a settlement, eBay offered a board seat to Elliott's Jesse Cohn and to Matt Murphy, president and CEO of Marvell Technology, which was backed by Starboard. EBay also agreed in March to conduct a strategic review of its business, and in November agreed to sell StubHub for $4.05 billion in cash.
The company is expected to provide an update this year on its classifieds business, which Elliott valued at between $8 billion and $12 billion.
(Reporting by Supantha Mukherjee, Ambhini Aishwarya, Mekhla Raina in Bengaluru and Svea Herbst-Bayliss in New York; Editing by Sonya Hepinstall, Cynthia Osterman, Sherry Jacob-Phillips and Louise Heavens)