Barrick Gold Corp. has turned a takeover brawl into geopolitical theatre by challenging one of China's largest resource companies for control of Equinox Minerals Ltd .
Barrick's $7.3-billion bid to acquire Equinox and its coveted assets in Africa's copper belt unseated China's Minmetals Resources Ltd. just as it was putting the finishing strokes on financing for its three-week-old quest to acquire the Toronto-based company for $6.3-billion.
Competing takeover offers are standard fare in the booming mining sector. But Barrick's rival bid pits it against a state-controlled company pursuing China's most aggressive resource play in years. The Equinox bid is the largest hostile takeover play since 2005, when China National Offshore Oil Corp. lost its unsolicited $18.5-billion (U.S.) bid to acquire U.S oil-and-gas giant Unocal Corp.
Barrick's bid for Equinox will test China's resolve to be a player in the sharp-elbowed world of mergers and acquisitions. China has mostly been a friendly contender to avoid stirring political resistance, but its huge appetite for energy and mineral resources is pushing it to adopt more aggressive strategies.
The Equinox battle could help to shed light on how China plans to play the global takeover game. While Minmetals has the ability through its state-controlled parent to secure additional capital to sweeten its bid, it is less clear whether it is prepared to enter a potentially fractious bidding war with Barrick, which is one of Canada's biggest companies.
An expensive bidding war by Minmetals could substantially raise Equinox's price tag - and could also bruise Barrick's relations with China. Indeed, the prospect of alienating China was seen as a deterrent for other mining giants who eyed Equinox's lucrative copper assets, according to takeover experts familiar with the situation.
Some Barrick shareholders are worried about a potentially costly battle ahead. "You don't want Barrick entering a bidding war. Minmetals can pay whatever they want to make a political statement," said Andrew Martyn, president of Falcon Asset management, a Barrick shareholder.
Barrick has limited business dealings with China, but the prospect of a bidding contest with a deep pocketed rival helped contribute to a 6.7-per-cent drop in Barrick's stock Monday after the bid was announced.
Barrick chief executive officer Aaron Regent said in an interview that going up against China is "something that we looked at seriously. They can be formidable." Despite potential pitfalls, he said, Barrick has "to pursue opportunities that we think are in the best interests of our shareholders and position ourselves as best we can to be successful."
What makes Barrick's aggressive strategy so intriguing is that Barrick's Mr. Regent has been in the takeover arena before with Minmetals.
In 2004, Mr. Regent was CEO of Falconbridge and the lead negotiator in talks with China Minmetals Corp. to acquire the Toronto company and its parent Noranda. The talks foundered after months of difficult negotiations when Minmetals was unable to secure financing in China.
"I have a certain familiarity with China and how transactions like this are likely managed," Mr. Regent said. "They are a very quick learner and I'm sure their capabilities have improved a lot … since back then."
The pace may have quickened, but China is still working on its deal prowess. Financing delays appear to have cost Minmetals the upper hand on the Equinox bid. According to sources familiar with Minmetals Resources, the company and its advisers had finished most of the paperwork on financing arrangements late last week but they were unable to close debt deals with banks and investors because of holdups with regulators in China and Hong Kong.
China's government-controlled resource firms have struggled to close acquisitions of major Western mining firms because of political backlash. Indeed, Minmetals confronted complaints from parliamentary backbenchers about China's labour practices during its aborted Noranda talks.
The Chinese mining company appears to have muted potential controversy by launching its bid for Equinox through a publicly traded subsidiary in Australia with Western management. Equinox is also a less politically sensitive target because, although it is based in Toronto, its senior executives are based in Australia and its assets are outside Canada.