Fortescue Metals Group Ltd, Australia's third-largest iron ore exporter, has appointed JPMorgan Chase & Co, Azure Capital Pty and Grant Samuel & Associates Pty as advisers to review the proposals it had received from various companies.
Earlier, there were reports that the London-based Anglo American Plc and China Investment Corp, a $200-billion sovereign wealth fund, are in discussions with Fortescue for acquiring a majority stake in the Australian mining giant. Anglo American controls the world's biggest platinum producer.
The appointment of investment bankers is seen as a definite move on Fortescue's side to continue with the smooth selling of resources to a foreign firm.
In a letter to the Australian Stock Exchange on Tuesday, Fortescue confirmed that it has held talks with Anglo American plc and China Investment Corp, but reiterated that the talks are preliminary and incomplete.
The move by China Investment Corp is seen as the latest one by Chinese firms for Australian resource companies. China, the biggest buyer of raw iron ore, has already acquired $22 billion worth of commodity assets this year. Rio Tinto Ltd, the world's third-biggest mining company, and Aluminum Corp of China (Chinalco) are about to sign a $19.5-billion deal for sharing some of its mining sites (See: Chinalco invests $19.5 billion in Rio Tinto to raise stake to 18 per cent), while Oz Minerals Ltd, the second-biggest zinc producer, has received a $2.6-billion takeover offer from China Minmetals Corp
The Chinese companies planned entry into Australia's iron ore, copper and aluminium operations has alarmed many of the metal companies' institutional shareholders in Australia and Europe.
"The Chinese are definitely looking for opportunities," said John Veldhuizen, a mining analyst. Fortescue "will need capital down the road to develop and expand and if there is an opportunity I can't see why that wouldn't be pursued" he said.
Fortescue wants to boost exports after a slump in sales last year, delaying expansion amid frozen credit markets and a sluggish demand. Fortescue sells all its iron ore to more than two dozen steel mills in China.
The entry of foreign players to control local resources is likely to create a big political headache for the Australian government.
The government is under pressure to block the deal, with opposition parties arguing that it gives Beijing significant influence over Australia's resources.
Treasurer Wayne Swan said last week the government would be introducing new legislation to tighten some controls on foreign players buying local assets.
There were rumours that the foreign company officials have visited Fortescue mines. However, the company spokesman Cameron Morse declined to comment on the tours saying that numerous personnel visit them from a range of companies and groups, and he is not in a position to comment on their motives.
Meanwhile, Fortescue chief executive Andrew Forrest has complained to Prime Minister Kevin Rudd that federal government bureaucrats are creating roadblocks for his plans to make 50,000 jobs for indigenous people.
In a letter to the Rudd, Forrest says employers would not sign up to the Australian Employment Covenant unless they know there are improvements in the way the government system for training and support and that the AEC was involved through the whole process.
Andrew Forrest, who recently reduced his stake to 35 per cent, has repeatedly said he would welcome Chinese investment.
Forrest told reporters in Melbourne earlier this month that "if an opportunity comes across our table which really locks in long-term customer supply, which really locks us further and deeper into China, of course we will look at it seriously."
In 2008, BHP Billiton pushed for a US$66 billion hostile bid for Rio, which it later on abandoned. The combination of BHP and Rio's mines in the ore-rich Pilbara region in Western Australia will unlock billions of dollars in cost savings for the mining major.
Rio Tinto and Fortescue are currently trading well below their 12-month peaks because of their heavily geared balance sheets and sliding commodity prices. Fortescue, which sold shares in December to pay bills, wants to boost exports.
This means the foreign predators could pick up key assets at bargain-basement prices, an analyst opined.
Fortescue, which has US$1.9 billion of debt, rose 67 cents to A$3.33 on Wednesday, giving the stock a market value of A$9.4 billion. The shares fell 74 per cent last year after reaching a record of A$12.78 on June 24.