TORONTO ArcelorMittal (ISPA.AS), the world's largest steelmaker, is exploring the sale of a minority stake in its Canadian iron ore business, sources familiar with the situation said.
The company has retained RBC Capital Markets and Goldman Sachs to assist in the process, which has been ongoing for a few months, said one of the sources, adding that a deal is likely to be announced before the end of the year.
ArcelorMittal is one of Canada's top exporters of iron ore to steel markets around the world and its operations account for about 40 percent of Canada's iron ore output. It operates two large open-pit mines in the province of Quebec, where it also owns the Port-Cartier industrial complex that includes a pellet plant, storage areas and port facilities for shipping.
ArcelorMittal Mines Canada, which traces its origins back to the Québec Cartier Mining Co, produces some 15 million tonnes of iron ore concentrate and over 9 million tonnes of iron oxide pellets annually.
The sources familiar with the situation said the stake sale process is generating a lot of interest from Asian steelmakers that are keen to lock in off-take agreements to secure their own future supplies of the raw material crucial to the steelmaking process.
ArcelorMittal had been expanding its iron ore resource base in an effort to reduce its dependence on miners like Vale SA, Rio Tinto and BHP Billiton. Last year it even acquired the huge Mary River project in the Canadian Arctic.
But the bleak economic situation in Europe and lackluster growth in steel demand in the aftermath of the financial crisis have forced ArcelorMittal and its rivals to rethink plans. The company has been cutting steel output in Europe for more than a year, even as iron ore prices recently fell to a three-year low, as China's slowdown hurt demand.
Despite the bleak outlook in the sector, the sources said the scarcity value of world-class producing iron ore assets and the chance to own a stake in assets in a politically safe jurisdiction make the deal attractive to potential buyers.
ArcelorMittal could not be reached for immediate comment.
Earlier on Thursday the Financial Times, citing sources familiar with the matter, reported that ArcelorMittal's entire Canadian business could be worth $8 billion to $10 billion.
But others said those numbers were highly inflated and unrealistic given current iron ore prices.
Since ArcelorMittal is only interested in selling a minority interest in the Canadian assets at this time, this offers foreign buyers a chance to buy assets worth billions of dollars without the deal having to go through an Investment Canada review process, said one source.
Under the Investment Canada Act, the Canadian government has to review all major deals to ensure they are of "net benefit" to the country.
Ottawa last blocked a foreign takeover deal in 2010 when it stunned markets by preventing Australia's BHP Billiton Ltd (BHP.AX) from buying fertilizer producer Potash Corp (POT.TO).
The Canadian government is currently reviewing Chinese state-owned oil major CNOOC Ltd's (0883.HK) $15.1 billion bid to acquire oil and gas explorer Nexen Inc NXY.TO, a deal that has raised fears about opening the Canadian energy sector to the Asian power's state-owned companies.
(Reporting By Euan Rocha in Toronto, Paritosh Bansal in New York and Stephen Mangan in London; Editing by Steve Orlofsky and Chris Gallagher)