LafargeHolcim finances and rumours down-under

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This week we got our first real sense of how things are going at the new global cement leader LafargeHolcim. The group released its first 'combined' results, which cover the third quarter of the year and the nine month period to 30 September 2015.

First impressions are that LafargeHolcim is having a tough time of it, struggling, as many cement industry players are, with an increasingly tricky and uneven global market. It reported a fall in net sales and adjusted earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortisation (EBITDA) for the first nine months of 2015, compared to the same period of 2014. Cement sales were also down by 1.3%. The group said that lower than expected demand was the reason behind lower sales, particularly in China and Brazil, which continue to struggle economically. It also picked out India as a country where momentum was lacking.

Of course, it's not all bad. While net sales were down, they were only down very slightly, by 0.6% year-on-year in the first nine months. Many a cement producer would love to pull in Euro20.4bn in sales and ship 189Mt of cement in just nine months! And, after a sticky start to the year, the picture is improving in some regions, with third quarter performance buoyed by improving fortunes in Asia, excluding China and India. LafargeHolcim was able to continue banking on the strong recovery in North America and parts of Europe, where some markets, such as the UK, continue to buck the otherwise depressing trend.

While these results will be a concern they are by no means horrific. However, they have already given rise to (or at least sped up) LafargeHolcim's future divestment plans. According to Dow Jones, LafargeHolcim plans to raise Euro3.23bn in 2016 from selling off assets, around half as much as Lafarge and Holcim had to sell to allow the merger to go through. The company has reportedly started discussions with interested parties, including private-equity firms and industry rivals about some of the assets. The proceeds will be returned to shareholders through dividends or share buybacks, according to CEO Eric Olsen.

Which assets will be divested remains to be seen. However, it reportedly won't involve LafargeHolcim's assets in Australia and New Zealand, at least in the short term. In the past week or so local media has reported that LafargeHolcim's assets in the two countries were to be sold off. However, since then Holcim Australia's Chief Executive Mark Campbell said the company was 'not currently being sold.' Campbell also added that he couldn't rule out a possible sale in the future.

So, while being clear that LafargeHolcim has no plans to sell its Australian and New Zealand assets at the moment, what could happen if it did? The starting point is complex, especially in Australia. According to the Global Cement Directory 2016, there are six operational integrated cement plants and 12 grinding plants in the country, which share a combined 13.9Mt/yr of cement capacity. LafargeHolcim has a 50% interest in Cement Australia's 4.0Mt of cement capacity, giving it 2Mt/yr of capacity and around 14% of national capacity. The other 50% of Cement Australia is owned by HeidelbergCement. Other major players include Adelaide Brighton, which has 2.3Mt/yr in its own name and a 50% stake in Independent Cement, and Boral Cement, which owns 2.3Mt/yr of capacity outright and 50% of SunState Cement's 1.5Mt/yr of capacity. In New Zealand there are two integrated plants, one operated by Golden Bay Cement and one by LafargeHolcim. The latter, however, is due to be closed in 2016.

If LafargeHolcim was to leave the mix in Australia, it is possible that neither Adelaide Brighton nor Boral would be able to take over its share, due to their already-large market presences. This may leave the door open for other regional players, perhaps a Chinese player looking to exit that country's rapidly-declining domestic market? Cemex is contracting and still heavily indebted, leaving it out of the running. While it is also possible that assets could be sold to private equity firms, another interested player could be Ireland's CRH, with 'cash to burn' and recent disappointment from its failure to buy Lafarge and Holcim's former assets in India.

Of course, if the assets aren't for sale, it won't be possible to buy them, meaning that for now the above is just speculation. However, the quick analysis above does highlight the relative lack of viable cement industry suitors in this region. If LafargeHolcim does ever decide to sell in this region, it might find the assets hard to shift.

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