Why Glencore’s going public

By Felix Salmon
February 25, 2011
report on Glencore, which is likely to go public some time in the second quarter at a valuation somewhere in the neighborhood of $60 billion.

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I can highly recommend the big Reuters report on Glencore, a company likely to go public some time in the second quarter at a valuation somewhere in the neighborhood of $60 billion.

Even before the IPO, there’s lots of speculation about what Glencore will do with the proceeds, which could be $16 billion or more. Top of the list is further growth — a merger with Xstrata alone would probably suffice to push the capitalization of the combined company over the $100 billion mark. The deal will also mean a huge uptick in the wealth of Glencore’s partners, who currently cash out at book value. Given that the company is likely to trade on a multiple of 3x book, no one’s going to be doing that any more.

Glencore has been a highly secretive operation from its earliest days under Marc Rich, and constitutionally hates the transparency involved in being public. So if even Glencore is capitulating, what does that say about my thesis that the stock market is increasingly irrelevant?

For one thing, I think it says that Glencore is run by highly-aggressive traders who judge themselves and others on how much money they have. Billionaire CEO Ivan Glasenberg is no philanthropist, and neither does he feel, as many Silicon Valley founders do, that what their companies do is more important than how much money they make. Far from mistrusting speculators, Glasenberg is one. So the only real reason to stay private is the question of privacy. But Glencore already gives enormous amounts of financial information to so thousands of people around the world — it told Reuters that “full financial disclosure is made to all of the company’s shareholders, bondholders, banks, rating agencies and other key stakeholders.” As a result, anybody important who wants to know details of Glencore’s finances can probably find out pretty easily.

Going public will certainly mean more press for Glencore — and given what the company does, more press necessarily means more bad press. It’s hard to position yourself as a major force for global good when your main businesses are mining and commodities speculation, and when you generate a lot of your edge by being willing to do deals with highly-corrupt politicians that other companies won’t touch. But Glencore’s bosses are hardly the first people to make the calculation that for hundreds of millions of dollars, they’re OK with being hated.

There’s also a sense of statistical inevitability about going public. You can stay private for decades, but the option of going public will always be there, and there will always be charming investment bankers telling you what a wonderful idea it is. A single moment of weakness, and it’s done. And once done, it’s more or less irreversible. A unified and single-minded family like the Cargills can stay resolute — but that’s an impressive feat, and if Glencore starts draining Cargill’s milkshake after it goes public, even the Cargills’ resolve might waver.

This part of the Reuters report stood out for me:

Glencore’s arrival in the FTSE would intensify the London exchange’s shift into natural resource firms. Fox says the increasing domination by a single sector is a “big headache” for smaller British investors who want a diversified portfolio. “It concerns me as much from a financial perspective as a moral perspective,” he says. “Customers will not expect that when they invest in a mainstream UK growth fund that a third of their money will end up in commodities.”

The point here is that the stock market, at least in the UK, is becoming a commodities play — much as the Russian and Brazilian stock markets have been for some time, not to mention Canada and Australia. Betting on commodities is all well and good, but it’s not the same as investing in the economic growth of a country. “While the stock market is certainly not a perfect reflection of corporate performance,” Ira Millstein tells me, “it is one measure.” That’s true — but it’s a measure of declining utility. The Glencore IPO only serves to underline how the stock market is more of a reflection of global asset values and of financial speculation than it is of underlying corporate performance in the real world.

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