Surging demand for high-performance batteries triggered the largest-ever deal for lithium, the lightweight metal that’s a key component of the power systems in smartphones, electric cars and cordless screwdrivers.
Consumption of lithium doubled in the decade through 2012, and is growing even faster now. Albemarle expects demand to increase as much as three times faster than the global economy, with consumers demanding more mobile devices and electric vehicles becoming more common.
“The growth of lithium, if you look at the proliferation of electronic materials, it’s powered by the lithium-ion battery,” Albemarle Chief Executive Officer Luke Kissam said in an interview. “And certainly automotive will be a big growth opportunity.” He expects a sharp increase in demand starting in about 2017.
Rockwood is the largest of four companies that control about 90 percent of the market for lithium, and they’re all bullish. Chile’s Soc. Quimica & Minera de Chile SA, known as SQM, expects demand to grow at 7 percent to 10 percent a year.
Batteries in cars and trucks will be one of the key drivers. Fully electric vehicles contain 44 pounds of lithium carbonate in their battery packs, compared with just one ounce in a notebook computer, Rockwood said in March.
Rapid adoption of electric vehicles may double lithium sales for batteries between 2013 and 2017, then double them again by the end of the decade.
Tesla Motors Inc. the electric vehicle maker led by billionaire Elon Musk, is planning a battery “gigafactory” that may consume as much as 17 percent of current lithium output, Goldman Sachs Group Inc. said in February. The $5 billion plant will double global production of lithium-ion batteries using raw materials sourced in North America, according to Tesla.
Rockwood produces lithium by evaporating brine from salt ponds in Chile and Nevada, the only U.S. source of the metal. Albemarle, based in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, has been working since 2011 on cost effective ways to extract as much as 20,000 tons of lithium a year from its bromine salt ponds in Magnolia, Arkansas. The acquisition may accelerate its efforts to start up a second U.S. source.
“To have the world’s leader working with your team certainly will expedite that process,” Kissam said.
The acquisition is the latest example of consolidation in the highly concentrated lithium industry. It outpaces Chengdu Tianqi Industry Group Co.’s C$673 million ($624 million) purchase last year of Australia’s Talison Lithium Ltd., owner of the world’s largest open-pit lithium mine.
After Chengdu Tianqi outbid Rockwood to buy Talison, it agreed to sell a 49 percent stake in the mine to Rockwood.
Talison, Rockwood, Philadelphia-based FMC Corp. and SQM control about 90 percent of worldwide lithium production, according to Jefferies & Co.
Albemarle agreed to pay $50.65 in cash and 0.4803 of a share for each Rockwood share. That values Rockwood at $85.53 a share, or 13 percent more than the July 14 closing price, the companies said in a statement.
This deal is the largest takeover of a diversified chemicals company since Solvay SA bought Rhodia SA in 2011, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. It will add to Albemarle’s cash earnings per share in the first year, according to the statement. Albemarle expects about $100 million in cost savings by 2016.
“It appears that Albemarle shareholders are getting a deal,” John McNulty, a New York-based analyst at Credit Suisse, said in research note yesterday. “With no exclusivity agreement in place and a ‘for sale’ sign officially on Rockwood with only a minimal premium, we believe there may be other potential bidders.”
McNulty, who recommends buying Rockwood shares and doesn’t rate Albemarle, didn’t identify any companies that may make competing bids.
BASF SE, the world’s largest chemical maker, would find Rockwood an attractive target as a pure-play lithium company, Jana Partners LLC and First Analysis Corp. said separately last year. DuPont Co. also would be interested, First Analysis has said, as would SQM, according to Jana.
DuPont declined to comment on bid speculation, while SQM and BASF didn’t respond to requests for comment.
The deal undervalues the lithium business, James Sheehan, an Atlanta-based analyst at Suntrust Robinson Humphrey Inc., said in a report today. Still, antitrust concerns make a competing bid from others in the industry unlikely, as Rockwood controls more than half the lithium supply, said Sheehan, who rates Rockwood hold and doesn’t rate Albemarle.
There’s also a risk that shareholders could reject the deal because Rockwood may have gotten a higher price if it had held an auction, Mike J. Ritzenthaler, a Minneapolis-based analyst at Piper Jaffray Cos., said in a note today.
“We would not be surprised to see the more activist-minded holders of Rockwood shares campaign for a competing bid, thereby complicating, and potentially elongating or aborting, the process,” said Ritzenthaler, who rates Albemarle hold and doesn’t rate Rockwood.
Rockwood, under former CEO Seifi Ghasemi, sold assets that make titanium-dioxide pigment, clay-based additives and ceramics to focus the company on lithium as well as surface treatments used to clean metal and prevent corrosion. Ghasemi stepped down last month to lead Air Products & Chemicals Inc.
“As we watched them continue to divest those businesses and become a pure-play lithium and surface-treatment company, it became increasingly interesting,” Kissam said.
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