Sunday, April 5, 2015

Metal Prices Aid Glencore’s Chances with Rio Tinto

The biggest, most complex mining deal ever broached could boil down to a simple ratio: the price of copper versus the price of iron ore.

Glencore PLC, the Swiss mining giant with massive copper holdings, last year proposed a roughly $US150 billion merger with Rio Tinto PLC, among the world’s biggest producers of iron ore. Glencore’s announcement that Rio rebuffed the bid on October 7 set off a six-month moratorium under UK law from another approach.

That cooling-off period ends tomorrow, potentially opening the door to more talks. The two miners had never publicly disclosed potential terms, and Rio (RIO) executives haven’t encouraged new talks.

But two factors have swung in Glencore’s favour that could encourage a deal creating the world’s largest mining company and give investors exposure to every major commodity.

Glencore’s shares are up more than 15 per cent since mid-January, when they briefly hit their lowest level since the company went public in 2011 amid a decline in copper prices, while Rio’s have dipped 3 per cent.

A big reason for the divergence: Ironore prices have continued their long decline from highs of $US190 a tonne reached in 2011, recently hitting a 10-year low below $US50 a tonne. Copper prices, meanwhile, have rebounded by about 5 per cent to just north of $US6,000 a tonne in the past month.

Industry experts also don’t expect to see a recovery in the price of iron ore, a primary steelmaking ingredient, anytime soon. Caroline Bain, senior commodities economist at Capital Economics Ltd. in London, last month forecast that iron-ore prices are likely to hit $US45 a tonne by year-end as large surpluses of iron-ore continue to flood into the market and Chinese demand cools.

Such declines have been driven by unrelenting increase in iron ore production from Rio Tinto and its competitors such as BHP Billiton Ltd. and Vale SA. If production isn’t curbed, prices could continue to fall, analysts say.

“Sooner or later either (Rio is) going to have to back away from the volume-growth strategy, or they’re going to have to face the prospect that their earnings are going to fall through the floor,” said Sanford C. Bernstein mining analyst Paul Gait. If Rio’s earnings keep falling and its share price suffers, “they’re going to be vulnerable to Glencore, “ he said.

Rio Tinto chief executive Sam Walsh has repeatedly said he isn’t interested in a deal with Glencore. At a February event in London, Mr Walsh said bluntly the merger “isn’t going to happen,” indicating he thought Glencore couldn’t pay a high-enough price.

Glencore’s shares have lost about one-fourth of their value since last July, when its chief executive, Ivan Glasenberg, placed a call to Rio Tinto Chairman Jan du Plessis to discuss a potential merger. Since Glencore would need to offer shares as part of the deal, the math has become significantly more daunting for Mr Glasenberg.

Glencore also is heavily exposed to the price of coal, which has stumbled for similar reasons to iron ore. Plus, any deal would face strict scrutiny from antitrust authorities in the UK and Australia, where Rio Tinto is based.

One of Glencore’s main hurdles in executing a Rio Tinto deal is its debt-heavy balance sheet. Glencore had $US30.5 billion in net debt at the end of 2014, compared with Rio’s $US12.5 billion in debt. That puts Glencore’s leverage ratio — net debt divided by the sum of debt and total equity — at about 40 per cent, roughly twice the leverage at Rio Tinto.

That could put a cap on how much more debt Glencore can take on to fund a Rio bid. More debt could threaten its credit ratings, putting pressure on its trading arm, which relies on leverage to fuel its operations.

In Glencore’s favour are rebounding copper prices, which could help push its share price higher. Mr Gait of Sanford C. Bernstein expects copper and other factors to help lift Glencore’s share price to nearly double where it currently stands.

Perhaps the biggest wildcard is China. China’s state-owned aluminium company, Chinalco, is Rio Tinto’s biggest shareholder. It has seen the value of its 9.8 per cent stake in the company cut roughly in half since it made the investment in 2008. Rio in 2009 rebuffed a bid by Chinalco to double its stake, which would have given it a seat on Rio’s board.

Those factors have brewed tensions with Chinalco, potentially leaving Beijing open to new leadership at Rio Tinto, said Michael Komesaroff, a long-time analyst of China and natural-resource trends.

A person who picked up the phone at Chinalco’s Beijing office said nobody was available for comment over the weekend, which was also a holiday in China.

Glencore in its 2013 merger with Xstrata proved it could bargain with the Chinese, getting Beijing’s approval for the deal in part by agreeing to sell its Las Bambas Peruvian copper project to a Chinese consortium.

China, the world’s biggest consumer of copper, is unlikely to have lost its appetite for ownership of copper mines, analysts say. One option for Glencore would be to offer to sell one of Rio’s prized copper mining assets, such as its 30 per cent stake in Chile’s Escondida mine.

“If the Chinese want to make it happen, it’s more than likely going to happen,” said Mr Komesaroff said.

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