Norilsk Shares Jump on Merger Report

VedomostiStrzhalkovsky, here with Kremlin chief of staff Sergei Naryshkin, said Wednesday that he would accept a Norilsk post.
Norilsk Nickel shares closed up 8.4 percent on Wednesday amid speculation that the company would enter merger talks with billionaire Oleg Deripaska's United Company RusAl.

Kommersant and Vedomosti reported Wednesday that Norilsk Nickel's largest shareholder, Vladimir Potanin, and Deripaska might have secretly signed an agreement late Tuesday to begin talks to merge their metals giants.

RusAl released a terse statement Wednesday saying: "Deripaska is not carrying out any talks with Vladimir Potanin about a possible merger of UC RusAl and Norilsk Nickel. No confidentiality agreement has been discussed or signed between them."

Interros, Potanin's holding company, also denied the report.

Potanin controls about 30 percent of Norilsk through Interros. RusAl bought a stake of 25 percent plus one share in Norilsk Nickel in April from Mikhail Prokhorov, Potanin's former business partner.

Analysts said the merger talks might still be in the cards with the possible appointment of an ally of Vladimir Putin's, former KGB official Vladimir Strzhalkovsky, as Norilsk's CEO. Interros said Tuesday that it backed Strzhalkovsky, head of the federal agency for the tourism industry, for the post.

"Strzhalkovsky's presence is a catalyst for the merger talks," said Marat Gabitov, a metals analyst with UniCredit Aton. "This is also a signal that, from now on, government interests in the company must stand above corporate conflicts or interests of individual shareholders."

He also said an appointment would guarantee state patronage and protection for Norilsk, the world's biggest nickel miner.

Strzhalkovsky said Wednesday that he had agreed to take up the post "after consultations with the country's leadership," Interfax reported.

"I accepted Norilsk Nickel's offer because it is a large, public and stable company that has no problems with the state authorities," he said.

Maxim Khudalov, metals analyst with AFK Metropol, said merger talks have become more urgent after Prime Minister Putin criticized steelmaker Mechel last week, reminding companies of their obligations before the state.

"It has been the Kremlin's intention all along to consolidate the ferrous and nonferrous metallurgy industry, and the merger of RusAl and Norilsk Nickel would be a step in that direction," Khudalov said.

"The government would also like to create a giant metallurgy company on a global scale by merging Norilsk Nickel and RusAl," he said.

Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov dismissed the suggestion of eventual state control of Norilsk, saying that Strzhalkovsky's appointment was purely a shareholders' decision.

Interros said Strzhalkovsky's appointment was linked to company plans to create a global mining giant by merging with other metals producers.

Metalloinvest, the iron ore and steel company owned by billionaire Alisher Usmanov, announced in February that it would consider merging with Norilsk.