X-raying Xstrata

Xstrata is different from most other major mining companies. Rather than being a long established group with strong links to a particular country, such as Australia for Rio and BHP, South Africa for Anglo American, or Brazil for Vale, it is a relative upstart with few ties to any particular territory, aside from its tax inspired domicile, Switzerland.

The group’s culture might seem innocuous but it is important, particularly when Xstrata has this week proposed a “merger of equals” with South African stalwart Anglo American. Unlike many of its rivals, Xstrata’s raison d’etre is doing deals, led by raucous chief executive Mick Davis.

The company floated in March 2002 with an initial value of £2 billion. Since then, a number of transformational acquisitions such as the $19 billion purchase of Falconbridge, and the recovery in global commodity prices, has meant the group is now valued at £20 billion. At its record high last year, when it tried to buy platinum producer Lonmin, it was worth £67 billion.

Xstrata’s strength is that it has always been much closer to its customers than other, perhaps more parochial groups keener on looking after their employees. The presence of trading entity Glencore on its shareholder register, with a third of Xstrata’s stock, is testament to this.

Davis’s true loyalty showed earlier this year when he effectively enabled Glencore to retain this stake, by funding its participation in January’s £4.1 billion rights issue, via a side deal selling certain Glencore coal assets in Colombia to the group for $2 billion.

Xstrata’s clash of Anglo American culture

Just when you thought M&A was dead, along comes the $68bn “merger of equals” proposal between Anglo-Swiss mining giant Xstrata and rival Anglo American.

Xstrata confirmed over the weekend that its chief executive Mick Davis recently wrote to Anglo American’s outgoing chairman Sir Mark Moody-Stuart about doing a deal. On the back of that, Anglo’s shares surged as much as 12.4 percent before falling back during Monday’s trading.  Spurred on by uncertainty in the global economy, a need for substantial cost-savings, the recent merger of Rio Tinto’s iron ore business with that of BHP Billiton’s – and a belief that Xstrata must double its size to catch its closest competitor, Rio Tinto – and you have the rationale behind Davis’s thinking.

“The combination would create a premier portfolio of operations diversified across multiple commodities and geographies, with enhanced scale and financial flexibility to fund future growth,” Xstrata said in a statement. According to Citi analysts, the deal “makes financial and strategic sense, and could create synergies of up to $750m.  The combined entity would be a global leader in base metals, platinum, ferrochrome and coal”.

Steeling for a fight

If the global recession wasn’t enough, with its idled auto factories and demand dwindling from the construction to the ship-building industries, the world’s steelmakers are facing the kind of consolidation that could well be a transformative event for the business.

Coal giant Xstrata aims to buy Anglo American for $68 billion in a tie-up between two of the biggest iron ore suppliers, creating the second-largest producer of steel-making coals. The move follows joint-venture plans from ore suppliers BHP Billiton and Rio Tinto and is seen as a big threat to steelmakers’ ability to exert any control over falling prices. Expect plenty of opposition from governments about too much pricing power residing in too few hands.

But the deal has other obstacles as well. Xstrata is offering effectively no premium to Anglo shareholders, which is producing loud squawks of outrage from investors. Perhaps by the time this one gets ironed out, the global recovery will be in full swing.

Iron ore: Australians 1 Chinese 0

(From Acquisitions Monthly)

Rio Tinto’s agreement to scrap its refinancing deal with Chinese shareholder Chinalco, join its iron interests in Australia with arch rival BHP Billiton and raise $15 billion from investors is a remarkable coup, solving many of the miner’s problems.

Most importantly it allows the company to halve its $40 billion debts, which doubled to that level when chief executive Tom Albanese bought Canadian aluminum company Alcan for cash at the top of the commodity cycle in mid-2007.

After the cycle turned, and prices fell, exacerbated by the global economic downturn, Rio and Albanese’s position looked vulnerable. BHP had earlier tried to exploit this, proposing a mega 3.4-for-1 all share offer.

Going Nuclear

It is said that all that glitters is not gold. Keep that in mind when considering the bidding war heating up the nuclear power business. France’s EDF has offered $6.5 billion for half of Constellation Energy Group‘s nuclear business and some other assets, trumping Warren Buffett’s bid of $4.7 billion for all of Constellation.
If plummeting demand for everything from new cars to tin foil could fell BHP‘s monster bid for Rio Tinto, why wouldn’t it weigh on demand for energy? While nuclear power has regained some favor as a cheap, relatively clean alternative to nasty fossil fuels, is it really safe to expect consumers to ramp up electric heat this winter, and air conditioning next summer, when they are worried about losing their jobs?
And today brings more evidence that the lengthy, torturous bid process BHP endured before walking away from Rio Tinto may have saved it from dealing with a disastrous downturn in demand. Freeport McMoran, which bought Phelps Dodge for $26 billion two years ago, slashed its dividend this morning after raising it only four months ago.  
Constellation shares rose nearly 20 percent to over $30 this morning, but that is still well below the value of the EDF bid — $52 a share. Perhaps investors aren’t quite so warm and fuzzy toward nukes after all.

* Australia said it is open to a $5.9 billion merger between Qantas Airways and British Airways as long as it’s not a takeover, sending the Australian carrier’s shares up nearly 10 percent.

* A Japanese unit of Prudential Financial plans to bid for two Japanese life insurers put up for sale by American International Group, people familiar with the matter said.

The Day After for Rio Tinto

A day after mining giant BHP Billiton dropped its bid for rival Rio Tinto, Rio said it was confident it could sell assets worth billions of dollars. Analysts aren’t convinced.

As the credit crisis dries up available funds, some companies are backing away from buying anything.

“The environment over the next six to 12 months is not going to be a good environment for selling assets,” said FW Holst analyst Rob Craigie.

BHP backs down

BHP announced an all-share offer valuing Rio at about $193 billion last November, as mining boomed worldwide. BHP said the risk of taking on Rio’s much heavier debts, and the low prices it could expect from asset sales forced on it by regulators, were among the factors behind the decision to abandon the bid.

The decision could have far-reaching consequences for consolidation in the industry, writes Reuters’ John Kemp.

“For more than two decades, merger policy in the EU and around the world has become progressively more permissive, as regulators cited new theories of market “contestability” to permit accumulation of market shares that would have been blocked had they been proposed in the 1960s and 1970s.

Raise or Fuld?

fuld2.jpgUncovering another dire quarter, with $5.6 billion in net writedowns and a worse-than-expected $3.93 billion loss, Lehman Brothers said it plans to sell a majority stake in its investment management division and spin off commercial real estate assets. The Koreans aren’t buying — they officially ran for the hills overnight — and Lehman also moved to dump other assets before announcing its results. It said in a filing it was chopping its stake in BHP Billiton almost in half, to below 3 percent. Back when Korea Development Bank was still interested in a Lehman stake, the word was that the two sides were having trouble agreeing on a price. Analyst Dick Bove said the bank was refusing to take what it believed were fire sale prices for its key assets. The question now is whether the offer of a majority stake in its investment division represents a change of heart — one that could smack of desperation for a market all too ready to believe the worst.

Other deals of the day:

* Coca-Cola plans to seek approval under China’s antitrust law for its $2.5 billion bid for top domestic juice-maker China Huiyuan Juice Group, the final obstacle to what would be the largest foreign takeover of a local firm, Huiyuan said.

* Infosys Technologies , India’s second-largest software services exporter, said it was confident its bid for Britain’s Axon Group would succeed and there was no rival bid on the table at the moment.

Hope yet for a Lehman Seoul mate

Lehman BrothersJust yesterday, the sound of doors closing could almost be heard echoing across the pacific as Lehman Brothers reportedly hit the Asian wealth circuit looking for help filling its expected $4 billion in third-quarter writedowns. Now state-run Korea Development Bank says it might be interested in buying the bank, lighting an 8 percent fire cracker under Lehman’s stock in premarket trade. “We are studying a number of options and are open to all possibilities, which could include (buying) Lehman,” a KDB spokesman said. KDB said it was open to mergers or acquisitions of both domestic and foreign companies to beef up its weak areas as the government was aiming to privatize it by 2012. Previous reports said KDB and CITIC Securities, China’s biggest brokerage, balked at the high price Lehman was asking.

Since its long-standing dispute with CME Group‘s Chicago Board of Trade over trading rights is just about settled, the Chicago Board Options Exchange may soon become a takeover target. While the CBOE is expected to pursue an initial public offering, with a filing possible as soon as next month, many exchange industry experts see that as only an interim step. It will be like sticking a “for sale” sign up, they argue. Despite being the top U.S. equities options market, with a stranglehold on index options, the CBOE may have to consider a bigger partner. It is one of the few remaining stand-alone exchanges, which leaves it vulnerable to a squeezing of its margins by growing competition, particularly exchanges that can offer investors stocks and options under the same roof.

Mining giant BHP Billiton‘s $128 billion bid for rival Rio Tinto could raise competition issues in iron ore. With mines across Australia’s ore-rich Pilbara region, Rio Tinto and BHP are the world’s second- and third-largest iron ore producers, respectively, behind Brazil’s Vale, and analysts reckon a combined group would control about 35 percent of the world’s seaborne traded iron ore. In a nine-page “statement of issues” ahead of its Oct.1 ruling, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC), which can order companies to sell assets if it thinks they have too big a hold in one sector, highlighted the likely impact of a deal on the iron ore trade and, in particular, on Australian steelmakers, but saw no major competition issues in copper, gold, uranium, bauxite or alumina. “I don’t think that’s a surprise to the two companies, particularly BHP … that iron ore would be the one area the regulators would be looking at very closely,” said Ken West, a partner at Perennial Growth Management. “But the Pilbara is the one they don’t want to be tampered with. If the regulators don’t show flexibility, then the Pilbara could become a deal breaker,” West said.

Turning the page on Borders

Barnes & NobleBarnes & Noble Inc reportedly has read the market and decided to turn the page on an acquisition of rival Borders Group Inc. The largest U.S. specialty bookseller, which had been looking into a bid for Borders, is likely to take a pass because of tight lending markets that would make it difficult to arrange bank financing, the Wall Street Journal said, citing people familiar with the situation. Borders, which put itself up for sale in March, has struggled with liquidity issues and has been closing underperforming stores and taking other steps to turn around its business.

Reuters’ DealTalk columnists report that overseas metal and mining companies may have U.S. coal assets in their sights. Indian and Russian firms in particular are looking to snap up assets in order to gain a foothold in the U.S. metallurgical coal market, DealTalk says. Metallurgical coal, also called met or coking coal, is used to make coke, the material used to fuel blast furnaces at steel mills. Two assets that could be on the market are privately owned U.S. coal producers United Coal and Bluestone, one source familiar with the matter said.

Shares in Impala Platinum (Implats), the world’s No. 2 producer of the precious metal, raced 9 percent higher on Thursday partly boosted by market talk that BHP Billiton could make a $26 billion bid for the South African company. South African website said BHP may soon have no choice but to make an offer of at least 200 billion rand ($25.65 billion) for Implats. The article said BHP, the world’s largest producer of metals and minerals, had the world’s best and most diversified portfolio of assets in the resources sector — with the exception of platinum, to which it has no exposure. “At the moment it is pure speculation, but yes, for sure the speculation is affecting the (share) price,” Roy Lamb, a trader at Investec Securities in Johannesburg said. BHP declined to comment.