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BHP, Worth $201 Billion, May Lure Private Equity
By Tan Hwee Ann and Stuart Kelly
May 4 (Bloomberg) -- BHP Billiton Ltd., the world's biggest mining company, could be stripped and sold for $201 billion to provide a 34 percent return to any private equity groups that make a takeover bid, according to Merrill Lynch & Co.
Any bid would likely be at a 30 percent premium to Melbourne-based BHP's market value of $140 billion, analysts Vicky Binns and Duncan Hay said in a May 3 report. That would be more than three times the record $44 billion buyout offer made for TXU Corp. by a group led by Kohlberg Kravis Roberts & Co. and TPG Inc. this year.
Buyout firms have announced $312 billion of transactions this year. Commodity prices will likely stay high for ``years to come,'' ensuring mining companies such as BHP and rival Rio Tinto Group maintain the steady cashflows that attract private equity groups, the Merrill Lynch analysts said.
``It's not inconceivable that BHP and Rio could become takeover targets,'' said Tom Murphy, who manages $1 billion in Asian assets at Deutsche Bank AG in Sydney. ``What's new is that private equity players are able to band together and put together some very large deals. BHP and Rio are no longer considered to be too big to be taken over.''
Shares of BHP rose 71 cents, or 2.4 percent, to A$30.60 on the Australian Stock Exchange at the 4:10 p.m. close in Sydney, giving them a 21 percent gain for the year. Shares of Rio Tinto rose A$3.82, or 4.6 percent, to A$86.85.
Samantha Evans, a spokeswoman at BHP, said the company doesn't comment on rumors and speculation.
``We are not proposing that BHP will be an imminent target of a private equity bid -- the risks may be too great,'' said Sydney-based Binns and Hay. ``However, our scenario analysis does illustrate that a private equity bid for the largest stock in our sector can deliver attractive returns.''
Smaller companies including Anglo American Plc., Rio Tinto, Freeport-McMoRan Copper & Gold Inc. could be more realistic targets, as a bid for BHP could involve too much debt and cash, Merrill Lynch said. Other targets could include Newcrest Mining Ltd. and Alumina Ltd.
Merrill Lynch listed five options for a buyout of BHP, assuming any bid would require $124 billion of debt and equity requirement for a further $54 billion. The private equity firms would likely put up only $4 billion in equity, they said.
Another mining company would likely need to join the bid to provide the equity, the analysts said, suggesting Xstrata Plc. and Cia. Vale do Rio Doce, the world's largest producer of iron ore, could be interested.
The private equity groups could sell BHP's mines and oilfields for $201 billion over three years, they said. The oil unit, which has a net present value of $20.3 billion, could fetch $47.3 billion, and the base metals unit, valued at $25.4 billion, might sell for $58.2 billion, the analysts said.
``The analysis illustrates than even a $140 billion market capitalization stock is not untouchable by the leveraged buyout craze,'' they said.
A five-year rally in commodity prices has swelled the coffers of BHP and Rio Tinto, spurring more than $123 billion of acquisitions last year.
Any private equity bid could face opposition from the Australian government as BHP is an ``iconic brand'', and the potential involvement of rivals could also raise anti- competition issues, Merrill Lynch said.
Buyout groups may also be deterred due to a lack of experience with the mining industry, the brokerage said. That could change though as the chief executives of the three largest mining companies are retiring or have retired, providing a potential pool of expertise, the brokerage said.
Tony Trahar retired as chief executive officer of Anglo American, the world's second-largest miner, in March, and in February said he may want to work in private equity and venture capital companies.
BHP, which is dual-listed in Australia and London, posted a 41 percent gain in first-half profit to a record $6.2 billion in February, and said it will buy back $10 billion of shares.
Merrill Lynch is acting as a financial adviser to Kohlberg Kravis Roberts over two possible offers by the buy-out group made to Alliance Boots Plc. and First Data Corp., the report said.
To contact the reporter on this story: Tan Hwee Ann in Melbourne at firstname.lastname@example.org
Last Updated: May 4, 2007 03:00 EDT