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Why the Glencore-Xstrata merger is alarming governments

Too big to succeed?

Glencore. Photograph: Getty Images

First it was Qatar, then South Africa followed by the EU and now China. The largest merger deal commodities history is alarming governments all over the world.

The $76 bn Glencore-Xstrata merger was first announced in February 2012. It was to be the largest corporate deal that year, but was successively held up: First there was Qatar Holdings, a shareholder of both commodities giants, who demanded a higher share price and a cap on the vast payments made to board members. To break the deadlock between Qatar and other investors, Tony Blair was roped in at the last minute to negotiate and a deal was made in November 2012.

The merger of the two Anglo-Swiss companies then had to jump through the hoops at Brussels. To meet the EU’s competition laws, Glencore, the world’s largest commodities company, had to sell its stake in the zinc trader, Nyrstar. Approval was granted in late November 2012.

South Africa was next on the list of countries to console. The state’s Competition Tribunal wanted to limit job losses that the merger would inevitably entail in the resource rich nation. Other concerns regarding coal supplies (85 per cent of South Africa’s electricity is from coal fired plants) were smoothed over and the deal was again approved in January 2013.

Deadlines were set and investors raring to go, but one last government had to be satisfied – China. Glencore and Xstrata – when merged – will control over 10 percent of the world’s copper concentrate supplies. China is the world’s largest copper consumer and this has caused the deal’s current delay – China is obviously concerned about an over-reliance on a Swiss company listed in London.  

One of the larger deals in corporate history now hangs in the balance of Mofcom (the Chinese Ministry of Commerce). Whether they will request – like the EU – that certain assets be dropped to reduce the company’s size and dominance, or flounder under pressure of the two commodity giants and approve the deal outright will set the rules for future mega-deals.

The multinational vs. nation state debate has long been a topic pursued by international relations theorists. But here reality trumps theory: A merged Glencore-Xstrata will be the world’s fourth largest diversified mining company and by far the largest commodities trader. As we have seen, the merged company will hold sway over the resources of the EU, South Africa and China, let alone numerous smaller countries. This deal, then, is critical to both the future of commodities trading and multinationals as a whole. Come May 2nd, the latest date for the merger, we could see either a stagnant deal held at ransom by the Chinese government, or a new power to be reckoned with over the world’s resources.