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Glasenberg the hunter becomes the hunted

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November 24, 2016 23:19

At lunchtime on the first day of Rosh Hashanah, a man arrived at our front door loaded down with a magnificent bunch of white flowers from a fashionable Knightsbridge florist. The present, replete with New Year greetings, was from billionaire Ivan Glasenberg, chief executive of the global commodity trading and mining concern, Glencore.

It came as something of a surprise. Just 48 hours earlier, my paper, the Daily Mail, had published a long article (written by me) under the arresting headline the ''Humbling of a Master of the Universe.'' What was unusual about this was that, prior to publication, I had engaged extensively with Glasenberg on the telephone and the South African born entrepreneur seemed genuinely unperturbed that the article, focusing on his fast-vanishing wealth, was likely to be negative.

Many a corporate baron would have declined to talk, passed the call to a highly paid communications adviser or threatened us with the law courts. That is not Glasenberg's way. He rapidly answered questions, assured me that he was preparing the company to withstand a ''doomsday'' scenario and finished the conversation with a traditional New Year's greeting.

The Glencore chief executive could not have imagined how quickly doomsday might arrive. In May of 2011, when the Swiss-based mining and commodity group floated on the London Stock Exchange, Glasenberg was top of the world. Launched with the assistance of Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley, the Glencore initial public offering (IPO) was the biggest ever undertaken in the City. It valued Glencore at £37bn, Glasenberg's own stake was worth a cool £6bn and instantly turned four of his senior colleagues into paper billionaires.

Buoyed by the strength of natural resource markets around the world and Chinese demand for raw materials, the company looked a sure bet as an investment. Moreover, the share quote gave it the confidence to go on a buying spree. The purchases included the Canadian grain handling business Viterra bought for shade under £4bn. In May 2013, Glencore took full control of the mining group Xstrata, created by another South Africa, Mick Davis, for the grand sum of £26bn, in a deal that finally was brokered by none other than former Prime Minister Tony Blair. By July 2014, Glencore looked to be top of the world and Glasenberg imagined he might be in a position to take over or merge with Britain's most venerable mining company, Rio Tinto, with a history that can be traced back to the early 19th Century.

It all looks very different now. The slowdown in China and Beijing's switch from a focus on manufacturing to consumption has led to a catastrophic collapse of commodity prices. We are all familiar now with how the oil price has dipped below $50-a-barrel falling more than 50pc. But similar or even greater falls have been recorded in all the major commodity groups from iron to coal and copper to wheat. And the assumption that Glencore, with its trading skills, could insulate itself from this, has proved hopelessly wrong. The mighty have fallen and Glencore's shares are the biggest losers on the FTSE100 this year collapsing 80pc and cutting Glasenberg's personal fortune dramatically.

Glencore's main problem is the £20bn debt mountain built up as it snapped up commodity assets around the world. In response to pressure from outside shareholders to reduce debt levels Glasenberg moved rapidly to raise cash through a £1.6bn placing of new shares to favoured investors. Glasenberg personally put in £140m and also promised to forgo his dividend pay-out as an 8pc shareholder. He also mothballed copper plants in Zambia and the Democratic Republic of Congo and put his agricultural interest up for sale with a price tag of £6.5bn.

But while much of the Jewish community was enjoying the Succot holiday, Glasenberg received a further shock. A note from investment analysts at the South African investment bank Investec suggested that the shares in the company might now be worthless.

The result was a 30pc plunge in the price, the kind of fall not seen since the height of the financial crisis, and fears that it might become insolvent. Within 48 hours, several other broker notes suggested that Glencore was not in such a bad way and that its trading skills - on which it had grown - were still highly valued.

Nevertheless, Glasenberg who for four years was hunter supreme, buying everything in sight, had become the hunted. The purchase of Xstrata at a time when the natural resources boom was coming to an end looks like a profound mistake. One possibility is that Glasenberg might use his personal fortune to take Glencore back into private hands leaving the big investors, such as the Qatar Sovereign Wealth Fund, nursing big losses.

What is certain is that Glasenberg, a champion hill walker, who once came close to representing Israel in the Olympics will not relinquish control of the empire he created without a battle.

The Glasenberg I know is pugnacious and a fighter with a great deal of personal charm. He is also a generous philanthropist. One hopes he survives but in the City of London - especially when investors have lost money - there usually is little room for sentiment.

November 24, 2016 23:19

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