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
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Theresa May's "clean Brexit" is hard Brexit with better PR

The Prime Minister's objectives point to the hardest of exits from the European Union. 

Theresa May will outline her approach to Britain’s Brexit deal in a much-hyped speech later today, with a 12-point plan for Brexit.

The headlines: her vow that Britain will not be “half in, half out” and border control will come before our membership of the single market.

And the PM will unveil a new flavour of Brexit: not hard, not soft, but “clean” aka hard but with better PR.

“Britain's clean break from EU” is the i’s splash, “My 12-point plan for Brexit” is the Telegraph’s, “We Will Get Clean Break From EU” cheers the Express, “Theresa’s New Free Britain” roars the Mail, “May: We’ll Go It Alone With CLEAN Brexit” is the Metro’s take. The Guardian goes for the somewhat more subdued “May rules out UK staying in single market” as their splash while the Sun opts for “Great Brexpectations”.

You might, at this point, be grappling with a sense of déjà vu. May’s new approach to the Brexit talks is pretty much what you’d expect from what she’s said since getting the keys to Downing Street, as I wrote back in October. Neither of her stated red lines, on border control or freeing British law from the European Court of Justice, can be met without taking Britain out of the single market aka a hard Brexit in old money.

What is new is the language on the customs union, the only area where May has actually been sparing on detail. The speech will make it clear that after Brexit, Britain will want to strike its own trade deals, which means that either an unlikely exemption will be carved out, or, more likely, that the United Kingdom will be out of the European Union, the single market and the customs union.

(As an aside, another good steer about the customs union can be found in today’s row between Boris Johnson and the other foreign ministers of the EU27. He is under fire for vetoing an EU statement in support of a two-state solution, reputedly to curry favour with Donald Trump. It would be strange if Downing Street was shredding decades of British policy on the Middle East to appease the President-Elect if we weren’t going to leave the customs union in order at the end of it.)

But what really matters isn’t what May says today but what happens around Europe over the next few months. Donald Trump’s attacks on the EU and Nato yesterday will increase the incentive on the part of the EU27 to put securing the political project front-and-centre in the Brexit talks, making a good deal for Britain significantly less likely.

Add that to the unforced errors on the part of the British government, like Amber Rudd’s wheeze to compile lists of foreign workers, and the diplomatic situation is not what you would wish to secure the best Brexit deal, to put it mildly.

Clean Brexit? Nah. It’s going to get messy. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.