Mining tycoons turn up heat at lithium junior Azure

6th November 2023

By: Bloomberg


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Two of Australia’s best-known mining entrepreneurs are set to determine the future of lithium junior Azure Minerals, having built stakes that add up to a combined 30% — enough to threaten an agreed A$1.6-billion cash bid from Chilean giant SQM.

The lithium industry has seen a flurry of acquisition offers and deals over the past months, highlighting the crucial role of the battery metal in the energy transition and optimistic expectations around long-term demand. Interest in small and mid-sized producers in Western Australia, one of the world’s most promising new lithium regions, has surged.

Heavyweights who have long dominated the iron-ore region have taken note. Immediately after Azure agreed to a sweetened offer from SQM late last month, Australia’s richest woman, iron-ore billionaire Gina Rinehart, announced an 18% stake. On Friday, she was joined by Mineral Resources, led by mining veteran Chris Ellison, which now holds a 12% share in the lithium miner.

MinRes, which has built up strategic minority stakes in a number of small lithium producers, declined to comment on its plans or on potential conversations with Rinehart’s Hancock Prospecting. Azure, Hancock and SQM did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Shares in Azure, which holds a majority stake in the Andover lithium project, were trading around A$3.9 by mid-afternoon Sydney time on Monday, slightly lower than Friday, when the stock touched A$4. It remains well above SQM’s offer of A$3.52 (and an alternative A$3.5 under a different takeover structure) — indicating the market still expects an improved offer or a more lucrative alternative structure.

“In theory, that A$3.5 off-market offer from SQM should still stand, and with SQM keen to diversify away from Chile, there could possibly be a bidding war,” said Samson Li, analyst at Commodity Discovery Fund.

Alternatively, he argued, the two new heavyweight shareholders could strike a deal: “A joint venture could work well with Mineral Resources’ experience in Australia’s lithium space and Gina Rinehart’s capital.”

Rinehart has already caused waves in the lithium sector, forcing top global producer Albemarle to abandon its bid for another Australian lithium junior, Liontown Resources, by building a 19.9% stake in the Perth-based miner. Her ultimate lithium gameplan remains unclear.

SQM, the world’s second-largest lithium producer, is Azure’s top single shareholder, having built up a stake amounting to nearly a fifth of the company. It hopes to expand in Australia as part of efforts to secure new supply, partially because of the risk to its Chilean contract, expiring in 2030.

Australia’s dealmaking excitement comes even as prices for lithium have slumped this year, along with other battery materials. A wave of new production and a growth slowdown in electric-vehicle sales in China have left the market oversupplied in the short term.

Edited by Bloomberg



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