Oslo (AFP) Jan 10, 2011
Norwegian conglomerate Orkla said Monday it was in talks to sell its metals company Elkem to a Chinese silicon company, reportedly for up to two billion euros ($2.6 billion), a sign of easing tensions between the two countries since the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize.
"Orkla ASA hereby confirms that it is in negotiations with China National Bluestar regarding a possible sale of Elkem AS' silicon-related operations, including Elkem Solar," the industrial conglomerate said in a statement.
The announcement confirmed a report Monday in Norway's financial daily Dagens Naeringsliv (DN) stating that China's leading silicon producer was on the verge of buying Elkem.
"Orkla, which has controlled Elkem since 2005, appears to have been in agreement with the Chinese on the principal points of the deal for some time, but the (Norwegian Nobel Committee's) awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo seems to have delayed the agreement," DN reported. Liu, a writer and one-time professor, was sentenced to 11 years in prison on in 2009 on subversion charges after co-authoring Charter 08, a bold petition calling for political reform in one-party Communist-ruled China.
Beijing, which considers Liu a "criminal", has reacted with fury at his prize, calling the Nobel Committee members "clowns" and threatening the move would harm its ties with Norway.
Since the award announcement in October, China has put on hold talks towards a free trade agreement with Norway, which had been expected to be the first between a European country and the Asian powerhouse.
"Today however all seems set for a final accord (on Elkem) and the Orkla board of directors has been informed it should be prepared to meet soon" to finalise the deal, DN wrote.
In its statement, Orkla said only it would "make a further announcement as and when appropriate".
According to DN, Elkem was valued at around 12 billion kroner at the end of the second quarter of 2010, but its value may have swelled to 15 billion kroner (1.9 billion euros) due to the market upswing and soaring silicon price. Nordea analyst Tore Oestby said anything above 14 billion kroner would be a good price.
"Elkem's performance has been strong recently, so the timing makes it (the deal) reasonable," Ostby was quoted as saying by the Dow Jones Newswires, adding that the current high silicon prices also made it a good time to divest the subsidiary.
Orkla, which is in the middle of a massive restructuring of the business which today ranges from food to solar power, refused to comment on the amount under discussion.
"If this goes through, I think it shows that the Chinese position is that it's 'business as usual'," Norwegian Trade and Industry Minister Trond Giske told the commercial TV2 News Channel.
Giske has been in charge of negotiating a free trade accord with China, which had been expected to be the first between a European country and the Asian powerhouse before Beijing put the talks on hold after the announcement of Liu's prize in October.
China National Bluestar, which is 80-percent owned by public Chinese company ChinaChem and 20-percent held by the Blackstone investment fund, has in recent years purchased a number of European companies, including French Rhodia's silicon subsidiary in 2007, DN reported.
According to media reports, several other groups have expressed interest in buying Elkem, including US Globe Specialty Metals and South Korean Posco.
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