Three’s a Crowd

Phelps Dodge's attempt to merge with a pair of other companies — again — shows why such triple plays are rare.

In planning their mining-company megamerger, Phelps Dodge Corp., Inco Ltd., and Falconbridge Ltd. thought they had hit a rich vein with this June’s $40 billion, stock-and-cash proposal to combine all three into a new company called Phelps Dodge Inco Corp.

The idea seemed solid. If approved by shareholders, the resulting “industry-transforming” giant would rank first in nickel production and second in copper at a time when prices for both metals are surging in markets heated by Chinese demand. Promising $900 million in synergies by 2008, the Phelps/Inco/Falconbridge combination would forge a North American powerhouse that could also withstand the advances of merger-hungry smaller players. In fact, before Phoenix-based Phelps approached Inco and Falconbridge, both Toronto-based, the two Canadian companies had proposed merging themselves to defend Inco against a hostile bid from Vancouver-based Teck Cominco Ltd. Meanwhile, Switzerland-based Xstrata Plc went after Falconbridge with an all-cash bid.

But in mining terminology, Phelps’s three-way deal played out early. Falconbridge shareholders rejected the transaction’s first stage — Inco’s purchase of Falconbridge — in late July, leaving Xstrata as the likely buyer. Analysts and investors who had questioned the complex “triple play” were left to wonder about a Phelps/Inco deal that Phelps previously rated as second-best. Also, Teck Cominco sweetened its Inco offer, and Phelps itself was mentioned as a potential target, boosting its shares and turning even more holders against a Phelps/Inco combination.

“Exponentially More Complex”

When more than two players formulate a grand merger strategy, complications multiply. Harvard Business School professor Stuart Gilson, noting how few three-way mergers there are, suggests that they are rare because adding a second target makes a deal “exponentially more complex,” from the sharing of executive power to deciding which jobs will be eliminated to integrating IT and other systems.

PricewaterhouseCoopers merger expert Mark Sirower guesses that Phelps/Inco/Falconbridge was the invention of investment bankers “who are often more focused on imagining the evolution of an industry than on the pure economics of a single transaction.” (Phelps’s financial advisers were Citigroup Corporate and Investment Banking and HSBC Securities.)

From the beginning, hedge fund Atticus Capital, one of Phelps’s largest shareholders, said it preferred other options, including the sale of Phelps. And analysts expressed frustration, noting that they had to sort out too many scenarios. Negative reviews of the original three-way started coming in early from the global press, too. A columnist for Melbourne, Australia’s Herald Sun accused the companies of “trying to be too clever, and on the cheap.” (Phelps, Inco, and Falconbridge later sweetened their price, which confused the situation even more, since two separate scenarios had to be recalculated.)

Carol Levenson, director of research for bond analysis firm Gimme Credit, says Phelps’s triple trouble might have started when it envisioned “a white-knight suddenly swooping to the rescue” of Inco and Falconbridge. In June she wrote of concerns that pro forma debt would surge “from less than $1 billion to a staggering $20 billion,” and complained of an initial lack of detail about plans for reducing leverage.

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