Viterra not a strategic resource, Wall says

Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall says Viterra Inc. does not fit the province's definition of a strategic resource, but that the fiscal and economic impacts of a potential takeover of the grain handler must be analyzed.

Grain company a possible target of multiple takeover offers

Viterra is a grain handler, marketer and food processor with operations across Canada, the United States, Australia, New Zealand and China. (Troy Fleece/Canadian Press)

Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall says Viterra Inc. does not fit the province's definition of a strategic resource, but that the fiscal and economic impacts of a potential takeover of the Regina-based grain handler must be analyzed.

The premier said Ottawa would need to determine if any Viterra takeover would be of net benefit to Canada and Saskatchewan, but noted that it's different from PotashCorp because it doesn't involve a strategic resource.

Wall's comments in Regina on Monday came as several foreign bidders were reportedly lining up to make takeover offers.

Viterra's shares gained another six per cent Monday on continued speculation that a suitor is close to making a takeover bid.

Viterra stock closed up 87 cents, or 6.4 per cent, at $14.45 on the Toronto Stock Exchange, after surging nearly 25 per cent on Friday when it confirmed that it had received "expressions of interest from third parties."

"The strategic resource was part of our potash analysis, but only one of three parts," Wall told reporters in Regina.

"Our position is simply this: If there is to be a takeover, we would undertake the same very deliberative, very thorough analysis of the takeover, and the measure we would use before coming to any conclusion, before making a recommendation to the federal government, is 'is this a net benefit to Canada and to the people of Saskatchewan?"

Glencore's bid reported to be $5.5B

Viterra, he said, "doesn't fit our own definition of a strategic resource that we would offer up to the feds."

Earlier, Switzerland's Glencore PLC declined to comment on a report in Britain's Sunday Telegraph that it has made a $5.5-billion bid for the company. That would be a 35 per cent premium over its share price before the recent run-up.

The newspaper did not identify its sources.

Glencore would be a logical possibility, Taylor Cope, an analyst with Chicago-based investment bank William Blair, told CBC News.

Cope said Glencore is a "global titan" which aims to not only produce commodities, but also to market and distribute them so Viterra, which does the same with grain — although on a smaller scale — and "therefore would be a complementary asset for them to potentially acquire."

Meanwhile, the Wall Street Journal reported that U.S. agribusiness Cargill Inc. was also one of the groups interested in buying Viterra, also citing unidentified sources familiar with the matter.

Analysts have suggested offers might also come from Calgary-based fertilizer producer and farm supply retailer Agrium, as well as U.S. agricultural interests Bunge or Archer Daniels Midland Co.

There could be a bidding war, Cope said.

"To the extent that this asset is in play, there's always the chance that another bidder who doesn't want to lose the potential to own this very unique, this very attractive asset takes the opportunity to come in with a higher bid," he said

Wheat Board's monopoly to end

The potential for bids comes as Viterra is poised to benefit from the end of the Canadian Wheat Board's long-running monopoly on the marketing of wheat and barley.

Cope said the end of the wheat board's monopoly opens up the opportunity for Viterra to take advantage of the expected rapid growth in demand for grain.

"The emerging world is seeing incomes rise," he said.

"As incomes rise, people consume more food generally, but also more protein particularly. That increases the demand for grain exponentially."

An offer — if there is one — might force the federal government to revisit the issues raised by the hostile takeover offer for PotashCorp two years ago and choose between encouraging investment in Canada and defending the country's strategic interests.

In November 2010, Ottawa rejected Anglo-Australian miner BHP Billiton's $40-billion US bid for the world's biggest fertilizer company, following stiff opposition by Wall, several other provinces and Potash itself.

Federal Industry Minister Tony Clement said at the time "some decisions can only be made once … and there's no turning back, ever."

Earlier on Monday, Manitoba NDP MP Pat Martin — the opposition critic for the Canadian Wheat board — warned that Prairie farmers would suffer if the firm were to fall into foreign hands.

"I'm concerned that the independent Prairie farmer will turn into more of a serf to international agrifood giants, and that we will no longer be price-setters of our commodities; we will be price-takers as dictated by someone else," Martin said.

Martin and others had predicted it would be only a matter of time before big international players looked to snatch market share that the Canadian Wheat Board used to dominate.

"This market share was delivered on a silver platter to these international agrifood giants," said Martin, referring to the Conservative government's move to abolish the wheat board's monopoly late last year.

Grain sector should be considered 'strategic'

Martin said the country's grain industry ought to be considered a "strategic economic sector" that should remain in Canadian control.

"I hope the government looks long and hard at whether it's in the best interest of Canadians to lose domestic control over what is our oil in the Prairie farming region," he said.

The only tests Ottawa should weigh in reviewing a potential takeover of Viterra is whether it leaves more money in farmers' pockets and enhances Canada's food security, he said.

"Is it in the best interest of Canadians or not? And I argue that there is no upside for ordinary Canadians to allow this foreign takeover of our grain production," he said.

Viterra, formed by the merger of the Saskatchewan Wheat Pool and Agricore United, is a grain handler, marketer and food processor with operations across Canada, the United States, Australia, New Zealand and China.

Alberta Investment Management Corp. is the company's largest shareholder with a roughly 16 per cent stake or about 60 million shares. AIMCO declined to comment on Monday.

Glencore extracts, ships and refines raw materials from coal to corn. It is based in the Swiss town of Baar but has its main listing in London.

Last month, Glencore agreed to a merger deal with Anglo-Swiss mining group Xstrata PLC in a move that will create the world's fourth largest natural resources group.

The combined company, to be called Glencore Xstrata with a combined market value of $90 billion, will control a chain of businesses from mining to refining, storage and shipping of basic commodities like coal, copper and corn.

Its properties would also include major nickel mining and refining businesses in Canada, where Xstrata subsidiary Xstrata Nickel owns the former Falconbridge nickel company in Sudbury, Ont.

With files from The Canadian Press