Why the Glencore-Xstrata merger is alarming governments

Too big to succeed?

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.       

Glencore. Photograph: Getty Images

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

Photo: Getty Images
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How can Britain become a nation of homeowners?

David Cameron must unlock the spirit of his postwar predecessors to get the housing market back on track. 

In the 1955 election, Anthony Eden described turning Britain into a “property-owning democracy” as his – and by extension, the Conservative Party’s – overarching mission.

60 years later, what’s changed? Then, as now, an Old Etonian sits in Downing Street. Then, as now, Labour are badly riven between left and right, with their last stay in government widely believed – by their activists at least – to have been a disappointment. Then as now, few commentators seriously believe the Tories will be out of power any time soon.

But as for a property-owning democracy? That’s going less well.

When Eden won in 1955, around a third of people owned their own homes. By the time the Conservative government gave way to Harold Wilson in 1964, 42 per cent of households were owner-occupiers.

That kicked off a long period – from the mid-50s right until the fall of the Berlin Wall – in which home ownership increased, before staying roughly flat at 70 per cent of the population from 1991 to 2001.

But over the course of the next decade, for the first time in over a hundred years, the proportion of owner-occupiers went to into reverse. Just 64 percent of households were owner-occupier in 2011. No-one seriously believes that number will have gone anywhere other than down by the time of the next census in 2021. Most troublingly, in London – which, for the most part, gives us a fairly accurate idea of what the demographics of Britain as a whole will be in 30 years’ time – more than half of households are now renters.

What’s gone wrong?

In short, property prices have shot out of reach of increasing numbers of people. The British housing market increasingly gets a failing grade at “Social Contract 101”: could someone, without a backstop of parental or family capital, entering the workforce today, working full-time, seriously hope to retire in 50 years in their own home with their mortgage paid off?

It’s useful to compare and contrast the policy levers of those two Old Etonians, Eden and Cameron. Cameron, so far, has favoured demand-side solutions: Help to Buy and the new Help to Buy ISA.

To take the second, newer of those two policy innovations first: the Help to Buy ISA. Does it work?

Well, if you are a pre-existing saver – you can’t use the Help to Buy ISA for another tax year. And you have to stop putting money into any existing ISAs. So anyone putting a little aside at the moment – not going to feel the benefit of a Help to Buy ISA.

And anyone solely reliant on a Help to Buy ISA – the most you can benefit from, if you are single, it is an extra three grand from the government. This is not going to shift any houses any time soon.

What it is is a bung for the only working-age demographic to have done well out of the Coalition: dual-earner couples with no children earning above average income.

What about Help to Buy itself? At the margins, Help to Buy is helping some people achieve completions – while driving up the big disincentive to home ownership in the shape of prices – and creating sub-prime style risks for the taxpayer in future.

Eden, in contrast, preferred supply-side policies: his government, like every peacetime government from Baldwin until Thatcher’s it was a housebuilding government.

Why are house prices so high? Because there aren’t enough of them. The sector is over-regulated, underprovided, there isn’t enough housing either for social lets or for buyers. And until today’s Conservatives rediscover the spirit of Eden, that is unlikely to change.

I was at a Conservative party fringe (I was on the far left, both in terms of seating and politics).This is what I said, minus the ums, the ahs, and the moment my screensaver kicked in.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.