Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Best Way to Ensure Competition

A deal long in the making, the acquisition of one global mining company by another, won't happen. It has been sideswiped not so much by the credit markets (just two weeks ago BHP insisted it was going forward notwithstanding) -- it has been sideswiped by the competition policy of the EC.

I refer of course to BHP Billiton, the Anglo-Australian company that had planned to buy the Rio Tinto Group with a share swap at 3.4 to 1.

As I noted back in June, when world credit conditions looked a lot better than they do now, even then the stock of the target company was trading at a level below that suggested by the 3.4 to 1 ratio suggesting that even then the market was concerned that regulators would scuttle the deal.

BHP is the larger of the two concerns, but Rio has the more illustrious history. Rio traces its origins to Spanish mines so old the ancient Roman empire had minted coins from the metal taken from that earth. In 1873, two Rothschild firms -- the Parisian and the London -- joined with other investors to buy the Spanish government's interest in these mines. They restructured the company and turned it into a profitable business run from London.

At any rate, the deal faced scrutiny from regulators in several of the countries in which both companies did business, including South Africa and Australia. But it was the EU that did the scuttling, by making unexpectedly severe demands in terms of the assets that would have to be sold off by the combined entity.

I'll use my humble blog to express baldly an opinion. Scuttling mergers is NOT the best way to ensure competition. There are several reasons for this. One of them is that the predictable action of authorities along such lines preserves incumbent managements against the threat of takeover -- and that the threat of takeover is a valuable deterrent to laziness or self-dealing by incumbents. I'm not making any such charge against the Rio Tinto management, by the way. I'm only saying that in general when authorities act as those in the EU have done, they remove a worry from corporate managers -- and the public needs to have corporate managers worry. Takeovers are among the things they should be worried about.

The best way of ensuring competition is to look for barriers to entry and then lower them. Why is some well-capitalized industrial company somewhere not even now putting money into a start-up iron ore mine? Because the market demand for iron ore doesn't make it profitable? or because there are administrative barriers? If the latter, then the EU might look into how those barriers can be lowered. That would give existing managements more, rather than less, to worry about

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