03/12/2012 05:21 EDT | Updated 05/12/2012 05:12 EDT

Potential Viterra takeover deal would have to pass net benefit test: Wall

CALGARY - Viterra Inc. does not fit Saskatchewan's definition of a strategic asset, but the province would need to weigh the fiscal and economic impacts of a potential takeover of the Prairie grain handler, Premier Brad Wall said Monday.

Wall made his remarks amid reports Swiss commodities trader Glencore PLC and U.S. agribusiness Cargill were among the possible bidders for Canada's biggest publicly traded grain handler (TSX:VT).

"Should there be a takeover, friendly or otherwise, we will conduct a thorough analysis on behalf of the province of Saskatchewan using the net benefit measure," Wall told reporters in Regina.

Saskatchewan undertook such a review of Anglo-Australian miner BHP Billiton's hostile $40-billion bid for Potash Corp. of Saskatchewan (TSX:POT) in 2010, and decided it was not of net benefit to the province on all three counts: strategic, fiscal and economic.

"The strategic resource was part of our Potash analysis, but only one of three parts," said Wall.

Although Viterra "doesn't fit our own definition of a strategic resource that we would offer up to the feds," Saskatchewan would examine a takeover's potential impact on provincial royalty and tax revenue, as well as on jobs and the wider economy.

Saskatchewan would then make its recommendation to Ottawa, which eventually blocked the Potash deal under provisions of the Investment Canada Act.

In Ottawa, Industry Minister Christian Paradis said Monday: "Our government will continue to welcome investment that benefits Canada."

Viterra, which has executive offices in Calgary and Regina, had initially denied on Friday it had been approached, but later confirmed that it had received "expressions of interest from third-parties."

The takeover talk comes as Viterra stands poised to benefit from the end of the Canadian Wheat Board's long-running monopoly on the marketing of barley and wheat.

The opposition critic for the Canadian Wheat Board said Prairie farmers would suffer if Viterra were to fall into foreign hands.

"I'm concerned that the independent Prairie farmer will turn into more of a serf to international agrifood giants, and that we will no longer be price setters of our commodities, we will be price-takers as dictated by someone else," NDP MP Pat Martin said in an interview from Ottawa.

Martin and others had predicted it was only a matter of time before big international players looked to snatch market share that the Wheat Board used to dominate.

"This market share was delivered on a silver platter to these international agrifood giants," said Martin, referring to the Conservative government's move to abolish the Wheat Board's monopoly late last year.

He said the country's grain industry ought to be considered a "strategic economic sector" that should remain in Canadian control.

Saskatchewan Liberal MP Ralph Goodale called the Harper government "negligent" in its promise to better clarify its foreign investment rules in light of the earlier Potash takeover battle.

"Not a wheel has turned on these issues since 2010, and now there's the potential loss of Canada's largest grain company, plus other deals looming in natural resources, the high tech sector and others," he said in a written commentary.

In a note to clients, CIBC World Markets analyst Jacob Bout cited Bunge, Kuok, Archer Midland Daniels, ConAgra, Noble Group, Wilmar International and Toepfer International as other potential bidders.

"Cargill did not make this list given the current overlap of Western Canadian Assests (and would be subject to anti-compete regulation)," he wrote.

Bout said Viterra is unlikely to fail the net benefit test, as grain elevators and port facilities are not a scarce resource, and there's a lot of spare capacity in the marketplace. It could be subject to competition concerns, though.

Viterra's shares surged nearly 25 per cent on Friday after the news was announced. Monday afternoon, its shares were up another 6.4 per cent, or 87 cents, to $14.45 on the Toronto Stock Exchange.

Viterra, formed by the merger of the Saskatchewan Wheat Pool and Agricore United, is a grain handler, marketer and food processor with operations across Canada, the United States, Australia, New Zealand and China.

Alberta Investment Management Corp. is the company's largest shareholder with a roughly 16 per cent stake or about 60 million shares. AIMCO declined to comment on Monday.