So now that Glenstrata is a go, should we be concerned?

The good news is that when it comes to transparency, bigger is (normally) better.

Vows have been declared and permission granted; the ceremony is set for the marriage of the two largest names in commodities – Glencore and Xstrata. The $76 bn merger to create Glenstrata is the largest in the industry’s history and yesterday was finally approved by the Chinese Ministry of Commerce (Mofcom).

Previously, I wrote of how governments were fretting at the deal. Since it was first announced in February 2012, many have vented their disapproval of a marriage between the two largest commodities companies in the world. The deal was held up by Qatar, South Africa, the EU and China. At each hurdle, Glencore – the one wearing the trousers in this relationship – was forced to pay a little bit extra, or sell a few more businesses.

Yesterday’s announcement was no different: Glencore was forced to sell Las Bambas, a big copper project in Peru. The decision was inevitable from a Chinese point of view: Glenstrata would control over 10 percent of the world’s copper concentrate supplies and China is the world’s largest copper consumer.

So now that Glenstrata is a go, should we be concerned? Will Glenstrata be the Ayatollah or the Mandela of the world’s commodities? The word monopoly is too easily deployed, but when one company dominates so many essentials – thermal coal, ferrochrome, zinc and copper to name a few – there is reason for concern.

The world of commodities is traditionally discreet. An earlier blog I wrote on Marc Rich, Glencore’s founder, shows just how suspect it can be. Price fixing, sanctions busting, illicit trading are all buzz words surrounding the industry, let alone the environmental and human rights issues that follow mining companies into the darkest corners of the earth.

But there is good news. When it comes to transparency, bigger is (normally) better. The larger the company and the more stock exchanges on which it is required to report to generally means that it is forced to clear up its act. Just look at ENRC’s move out of the Congo in December, when it was accused of entering a dodgy partnership with the suspicious mining billionaire Dan Gertler.

More good news for transparency came the same day that the Glencore-Xstrata deal was approved. Greg Page, chief executive of the trading house Cargill, advised the commodities industry to embrace greater transparency: “The industry, as a whole, must accept its responsibility to behave appropriately, properly, ethically,” Page said. “There are lessons to be learnt from the banking sector, and the forced legislation it prompted and is continuing to prompt.”

The marriage of Glencore and Xstrata is now scheduled for 2nd May. Let’s hope the honeymoon precedents a new era of transparency.

Photograph: Getty Images

Oliver Williams is an analyst at WealthInsight and writes for VRL Financial News

Photo: Getty Images
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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.