BHP’s Potash bid seen running into next year

BHP Billiton’s $39-billion battle to take control of Canada’s Potash Corp is expected to drag on into next year after it failed to win immediate backing from Canadian authorities.

The Anglo-Australian miner, which wants to use the world’s largest fertiliser-maker as its entry into the global food industry, also said it had no plan to change its $130-a-share offer and shrugged off talk of a China-backed rival bid emerging.

Potash said Tuesday an extension of BHP’s offer by a month to November 18 did not change its position and again urged its shareholders to reject the “wholly inadequate” offer.

The offer was extended after Canada’s competition regulator sought more information. However, investors said on Tuesday the delay was expected and could work in the miner’s favour unless a serious rival offer comes up.

“There was always the impression it was going to be a long-winded process and at this point in time we have not had any competing bids yets,” said Peter Chilton, an analyst at Constellation Capital Management, which owns BHP shares.

“To some extent the longer it drags on, it might be better for BHP because it reduces the tension, although if someone else comes in like the Chinese it is another game.”

A source familiar with the transaction did not rule out further extensions to the offer period if they were necessary to clear regulatory hurdles. There have been indications from some BHP executives that the deal could drag out as far as Easter.

A company with a takeover offer on the table, however, does not want the proposal to sit for too long, as it not only lengthens the time for a rival bid to emerge but also invites added regulatory red tape and shareholder fatigue.

BHP’s Australian listed shares were flat by 4.41am GMT in a steady broader market. On Monday, Potash’s US-listed shares closed at $148,5, a 14,2% premium to BHP’s offer of $130-a-share.

There has been speculation of a rival offer after the bid process began. Media reports early this week included one bolstering the case that China’s Sinochem Group is still hot on the trail.

Another report said Sinochem executives visited London last week seeking financing for a bid and that Beijing was nearing a decision on whether to make a rival offer.

Analysts and investment bankers say it is still unclear whether a rival bid will emerge. If China does make a run for some kind of offer, it would likely involve a consortium of bidders, which would only add layers of complications that could impede a successful bid.

The premier of Potash’s home province of Saskatchewan failed to give his seal of approval to the deal on Monday, after talks with BHP Billiton chief executive officer Marius Kloppers.

“We’re going to be very careful and deliberate about this,” Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall said after meeting with Kloppers.

“As of today, I don’t see how Saskatchewan is better with this deal, or frankly a subsequent deal.”

Wall will advise Canada’s federal government on whether to approve a Potash takeover on the basis of net benefit to the nation. Potash employs thousands and produces royalties for the province from sales of potash, a fertiliser that China, India and other emerging economies need to feed growing populations.

“I would not read too much into it,” Tim Schroeders, fund manager at Australia’s Pengana Capital, said of the regulator’s request and consequent offer extension. “I don’t think we will be putting this [deal] to bed this side of Christmas.”

No plan to alter offer
Kloppers said BHP Billiton had no intention of changing its $130-a-share takeover offer for Potash Corp. At $39 billion, the offer’s value is the highest in any industry this year.

He also brushed aside reports that China was attempting to assemble a rival bid.

“We have no plans to change what is currently the only offer on the table,” Kloppers said. “I’ve seen a lot of speculation and rumours [about a China-backed offer] but the reality is there is only one cash bid on the table and that’s ours at the moment.”

In Canada, BHP Billiton may need to address concerns over its potash marketing plans before it can gain political support for its bid.

Saskatchewan province’s chief concern is BHP Billiton’s preference to market its commodities independently, rather than through the Canpotex consortium which sells the province’s potash in foreign markets. Saskatchewan fears this would lower prices and thus the royalties the province makes on potash sales.

Saskatchewan Premier Wall said Kloppers had repeated his past position on Canpotex in their meeting. Earlier, Kloppers told reporters BHP Billiton preferred to market its own products but “nothing is static forever”.

Kloppers said he would meet Canadian politicians this week as he sought to build support for his move on Potash Corp. – Reuters

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