In the UK there is an expression, coined by former Prime Minister Harold Wilson, that a 'week is a long time in politics.' While the week he was referring to has long since been forgotten, this refrain has since been repeated to the point of cliché by the mainstream media and is often used in the context of rapidly-changing political news stories. Regardless of its origin, this expression could well be used to accurately describe the current situation in France and Switzerland, where the past week has seen a number of serious and unpredictable developments in the preparation of the anticipated LafargeHolcim mega-merger.
Disgruntlement from 'those close to the deal' first surfaced as a 'wild rumour' a few weeks back but, in the past seven days, several of Holcim's shareholders, including the influential Thomas Schmidheiny, have questioned the contribution that can now be made by Lafarge. Holcim shareholders claim that the group has out-performed Lafarge in the 12 months since the deal was announced and they feel that this should be recognised financially. The abandonment of the Euro1.20 cap on the Swiss Franc by the Swiss National Bank (SNB) on 15 January 2015 has loaded the dice even further in Holcim's favour.
This is how the situation has deteriorated in the past seven days. Late last week, we had confirmation that Holcim was seeking to renegotiate the terms of the merger. On Monday we heard what at least part of those terms were, including an assertion that each Lafarge share was now worth just 0.875 of a Holcim share. Lafarge's main shareholders, accepting that their position was compromised to an extent, suggested that each Lafarge share was worth 0.93 of a Holcim share. Since then, it has become apparent that Bruno Lafont, the proposed leader of LafargeHolcim, has also put Holcim in a spin, as he is perceived to have presided over Lafarge's poorer performance.
Then, just yesterday, it was announced that the two current group boards had met separately in an attempt to arrive at new conditions with which to re-start negotiations. Commentators think that Holcim is holding all of the Aces but Lafarge has made it clear that it cannot accept a lower valuation and a CEO from Holcim. Discussions that take place 'in the dark' like this will do little to build confidence between the merging parties and infers that communication has become strained. There are twinges of antagonism in the releases that are not going to be solved by the boards sitting in separate rooms and whipping themselves into a frenzy.
Also caught up in this, like the child of a divorcing couple, is CRH. It only announced its purchase of Holcim and Lafarge divestments in February 2015. It stands to gain a joint Euro158m from Lafarge and Holcim if they fail to merge, but this will not make up for the loss of the many high-quality cement assets it otherwise stands to gain.
What will happen in the coming weeks? You have to be brave to predict how this will turn out, but our LinkedIn Group is a great place to discuss this rapidly-changing story. One thing we can be sure of is that there will be a lot to write about in another seven days. After all, a week is a long time in the cement industry!