Sports Direct International has sold the stake in fellow retailer Debenhams it bought on Monday and replaced it with a put option over a larger shareholding.
On Monday, the FTSE 100 sports discounter, which is led by founder Mike Ashley, acquired a 4.6% stake in struggling department store Debenhams.
But on Thursday, Ashley announced the stake had been sold, to Spanish fund manager Bestinvur, with Sports Direct instead taking out a 'naked' put option agreement with the Spaniards over a larger 6.6% stake in FTSE 250-listed Debenhams, a move that confused the markets.
A put option gives the holder the right, but not the obligation, to sell the underlying security at a defined price.
As the writer or seller of the put, explained analyst Mike van Dulken at Accendo Markets, Ashley still wants exposure to DEB "but only if the shares
dip", and the threat of this now looms over Debenhams' management team.
An announcement from Debenhams showed the expiry dates for the options were: January 14th 2015, January 28th 2015, February 11th 2015, February 25th 2015 and March 12th 2015.
Sports Direct reassured investors that its maximum exposure under the option was limited to approximately £64m.
Ashley's company reiterated its wish to "explore options at an operational level to work together with Debenhams", admitting that it had yet to meet senior management team at the UK's second largest department store.
"Sports Direct reiterates its intention to be a supportive stakeholder and create value in the interests of both Sports Direct's and Debenhams' shareholders," it said in a statement.
Analysts had on Monday posited that a full takeover by Sports Direct was less likely than a plan to place some of its sportswear concessions inside Debenhams stores.
Broker Liberum said: "What could the rationale be with Debenhams though, given the lack of product overlap? A full takeover or attempt to merge the businesses in any way seems unlikely to us and the wording of the statement suggests a more collaborative approach."
On Thursday Accendo's van Dulken said the if Debenhams' share price fell below the option's agreed price before expiry, which is thought to be less than a year's time, this would imply Ashley making a small loss but crucially would restore exposure in the department store at a lower in-price.
"The structure of the deal implies Ashley still wanting exposure to DEB - in fact increase it, but only if the shares dip. However, he won't want it to dip too much," he wrote.
"It also implies bad news for DEB shareholders in that he sees little upside over the next year. Well, no more profit potential from a 4.6% stake than the value of the premium from today's 6.6% put option. Otherwise why sell Monday's stake?"
"He'll be gutted if DEB shares rally or if they tank. His belief in the shares going nowhere must thus be pretty strong. The canny man has reduced direct exposure and freed up capital, maintained indirect exposure and is even set to pocket some cash in the meantime."
Shares in Sports Direct were down 0.3% to 735p on Thursday, with Debenhams shares down 0.9% to 82.45p in early trading.