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

ELLIE FOREMAN-PECK FOR NEW STATESMAN
Show Hide image

Craig Oliver, Cameron's attack dog, finally bites

A new book reveals the spiteful after life of Downing Street's unlikely spin doctor.

It must be hard being a spin doctor: always in the shadows but always on-message. The murky control that the role requires might explain why David Cameron’s former director of communications Craig Oliver has rushed out his political memoirs so soon after his boss left Downing Street. Now that he has been freed from the shackles of power, Oliver has chosen to expose the bitterness that lingers among those on the losing side in the EU referendum.

The book, which is aptly titled Unleashing Demons, made headlines with its revelation that Cameron felt “badly let down” by Theresa May during the campaign, and that some in the Remain camp regarded the then home secretary as an “enemy agent”. It makes for gripping reading – yet seems uncharacteristically provocative in style for a man who eschewed the sweary spin doctor stereotype, instead advising Cameron to “be Zen” while Tory civil war raged during the Brexit campaign.

It may be not only politicians who find the book a tough read. Oliver’s visceral account of his side’s defeat on 24 June includes a description of how he staggered in a daze down Whitehall until he retched “harder than I have done in my life. Nothing comes up. I retch again – so hard, it feels as if I’ll turn inside out.”

It’s easy to see why losing hit Oliver – who was knighted in Cameron’s resignation honours list – so hard. Arguably, this was the first time the 47-year-old father-of-three had ever failed at anything. The son of a former police chief constable, he grew up in Scotland, went to a state school and studied English at St Andrews University. He then became a broadcast journalist, holding senior posts at the BBC, ITV and Channel 4.

When the former News of the World editor Andy Coulson resigned as No 10’s communications director in January 2011 because of unceasing references in the press to his alleged involvement in the phone-hacking scandal, Oliver was not the obvious replacement. But he was seen as a scandal-free BBC pen-pusher who exuded calm authority, and that won him the job. The Cameron administration, tainted by its association with the Murdoch media empire, needed somebody uncontroversial who could blend into the background.

It wasn’t just Oliver’s relative blandness that recommended him. At the BBC, he had made his name revamping the corporation’s flagship News at Ten by identifying the news angles that would resonate with Middle England. The Conservatives then put this skill to very good use during their 2015 election campaign. His broadcast expertise also qualified him to sharpen up the then prime minister’s image.

Oliver’s own sense of style, however, was widely ridiculed when he showed up for his first week at Downing Street looking every inch the metropolitan media male with a trendy man bag and expensive Beats by Dre headphones, iPad in hand.

His apparent lack of political affiliation caused a stir at Westminster. Political hacks were perplexed by his anti-spin attitude. His style was the antithesis of the attack-dog mode popularised by Alastair Campbell and Damian McBride in the New Labour years. As Robert Peston told the Daily Mail: “Despite working closely with Oliver for three years, I had no clue about his politics or that he was interested in politics.” Five years on, critics still cast aspersions and question his commitment to the Conservative cause.

Oliver survived despite early wobbles. The most sinister of these was the allegation that in 2012 he tried to prevent the Daily Telegraph publishing a story about expenses claimed by the then culture secretary, Maria Miller, using her links to the Leveson inquiry as leverage – an accusation that Downing Street denied. Nevertheless, he became indispensable to Cameron, one of a handful of trusted advisers always at the prime minister’s side.

Newspapers grumbled about Oliver’s preference for broadcast and social media over print. “He’s made it clear he [Oliver] doesn’t give a s*** about us, so I don’t really give a s*** about him,” a veteran correspondent from a national newspaper told Politico.

Yet that approach was why he was hired. There was the occasional gaffe, including the clumsy shot of a stern-looking Cameron, apparently on the phone to President Obama discussing Putin’s incursion into Ukraine, which was widely mocked on Twitter. But overall, reducing Downing Street’s dependence on print media worked: Scotland voted against independence in 2014 and the Tories won a majority in the 2015 general election.

Then came Brexit, a blow to the whole Cameroon inner circle. In his rush to set the record straight and defend Cameron’s legacy – as well as his own – Oliver has finally broken free of the toned-down, straight-guy persona he perfected in power. His memoir is spiteful and melodramatic, like something straight from the mouth of Malcolm Tucker in The Thick of It. Perhaps, with this vengeful encore to his mild political career, the unlikely spin doctor has finally fulfilled his potential. 

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories