* ADM aiming for year-end completion for $2.8 bln takeover
* New Australian govt seen approving plan despite opposition
* Australian regulator seldom blocks deals,
By Tom Polansek and Jackie Range
CHICAGO/SYDNEY, Sept 26 (Reuters) - Archer Daniels Midland Co said it expects to complete its acquisition of Australian grain handler GrainCorp Ltd by the end of the year, as it hangs on approvals from Australia’s new government and other regulators.
Australia’s Foreign Investment Review Board is expected to approve the A$3.0 billion ($2.8 billion) deal after it had been held up by the country’s general election earlier this month, which was won by the business-friendly conservative opposition.
The deal is the first test of new Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s commitment to keep Australia “open for business” in the face of strong opposition from some of his rural-based colleagues, who fear the country is selling off the farm.
“We’re very anxious to put that (GrainCorp) as part of our family and part of our portfolio,” ADM Chief Executive Patricia Woertz told business leaders in Chicago on Wednesday, reiterating the previously announced timeline.
ADM’s planned purchase of GrainCorp, announced in April, is the latest move in the rapid consolidation of the global grains sector amid intense competition to feed fast-developing countries like China.
Global expansion is central to ADM’s long-term growth strategy, with the GrainCorp deal expected to increase exports to China and the Middle East, Woertz said.
Doubts about the deal being completed linger, however.
Abbott’s investment friendly rhetoric had been undercut by agitation from his Liberal Party’s junior coalition partner, the rural-focused National Party, which has voiced concern about GrainCorp’s sale and led a push for tighter rules on foreign investment in farms and agricultural businesses.
But in a clear sign the new leader is prepared to drown out the internal opposition, Abbott last week named one of his senior Liberal Party colleagues as trade minister, a position that has traditionally gone to a Nationals lawmaker in Coalition governments.
“I can’t really see on what grounds they would stop (the deal) without in doing so foreshadowing a massive change in the hospitality of Australia to foreign investment,” said Alan Moran, director of the deregulation unit of the Institute of Public Affairs, a Melbourne-based think tank.
Only a handful of foreign investment deals are rejected by Australian authorities each year and ADM’s tilt at GrainCorp is far from the first foreign deal in the agriculture sector.
Other precedent-setting approvals include Canadian company Viterra’s acquisition of ABB Grain Ltd for $1.4 billion in September 2012, and Japanese trading house Marubeni Corp’s $5.6 billion purchase of U.S. grain merchant Gavilon, which also had Australian assets.
Prospective deals are examined by the Foreign Investment Review Board to determine whether they are contrary to the national interest. Given that relatively light regulatory requirement, Australia is generally seen as more open to foreign investment than some other countries such as Canada or New Zealand.
Any potential delay or block to the GrainCorp-ADM deal is considered to be more likely to come from China, whose Ministry of Commerce must also approve the deal because of the Australian company’s ownership of a bulk liquid port terminal in Shanghai.
The sweetened A$13.20 a share offer from ADM that won over in April came with a pledge to pay GrainCorp shareholders a 3.5 cent per share dividend for each full month from Oct. 1 until the deal is approved or rejected.
That clause was viewed as a buffer against any delays from Chinese regulators, while a 4.1 percent fall in GrainCorp’s shares from a high of A$12.83 when deal was announced reflects both the likelihood of a delay and some concerns the deal might not go through.
ADM, meanwhile, has been working hard to market the new business to grain growers, a key rural constituency for the Nationals, by promising to support the Australian supply chain.
“It is frustrating that this is being pitched as a foreign investment thing,” said Daniel Cooper, a farmer in New South Wales. “For us, it is about what is the benefit in the transaction? Looking at it, I just don’t see how any politician can see a reason to give it the green light.”
East coast grain farmers fear an ADM-owned GrainCorp will squeeze them on price and doubt the U.S. agribusiness firm’s commitment to maintaining Australia’s vast supply network.