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So farewell, then, Rio/Chinalco. Few tears will be shed for the demise of this “pioneering strategic partnership”.
The venerable Anglo-Australian miner needed almost $20bn to pay off debt due this year and next. The thrusting Chinese metals group would provide it – but in exchange would enmesh itself in almost every tier of Rio’s business, and take nearly a fifth of the shares.
Both sets of Rio Tinto shareholders instinctively flinched. Australians suspected that regulators would demand big concessions. UK shareholders balked at being denied the chance to take part.
But as time went on, both could see that this was a deal struck by a damaged management team at Rio’s darkest hour, with commodity prices languishing, credit markets largely unavailable and asset sales faltering.
As Rio’s shares touched the conversion price of the first tranche of the convertible debt, the writing was on the wall for China’s largest outbound investment. By last week, when Rio was announcing iron ore price settlements with every nation bar the Chinese, it was finished.
Plan B, at last, is becoming Plan A. Some combination of rights issue and cash injection from BHP Billiton was always a better solution.
The future of Rio chief Tom Albanese, co-architect of the Chinalco deal with ex-chairman Paul Skinner, looks gloomy. The $195m break fee was a reasonable price for renting China Inc’s balance sheet, but the damage to Rio in China is incalculable.
Having knocked back a generous offer from BHP Billiton when metals prices and markets were through the roof, Mr Albanese and new chairman Jan du Plessis are back at the negotiating table with BHP’s Marius Kloppers and Don Argus. BHP, as it did when it pulled its takeover bid last November, holds all the cards.
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