AMSTERDAM (Reuters) - Swiss specialty chemicals maker Clariant AG CLN.VX on Wednesday joined the list of possible targets for Solvay SA (SOLB.BR) after the Belgian company’s deal to sell its drugs unit to Abbott Labs (ABT.N).
Shares of Clariant rose as much as 4 percent to be the top gainer in a negative DJ Stoxx European chemicals index .SX4P as traders cited talk of possible interest from Solvay.
By 1235 GMT the stock was up 1.1 percent at 9.41 Swiss francs while Solvay shares were down 0.9 percent at 71.99 euros.
Clariant declined comment on the outbreak of bid speculation.
Solvay agreed to sell its drugs unit to Abbott on Monday for 4.5 billion euros ($6.6 billion) cash with the aim of reinvesting in its chemicals and plastics operations, but stressed it would wait until the drugs unit deal closes first before spending the proceeds.
Solvay plans to reinvest the cash from its pharma sale in businesses with similar characteristics to its drugs unit: low cyclicality, less exposure to energy costs and high added value.
“But it takes two to tango. It’s one thing to list your criteria and another thing to get it at a good price,” analyst Jan Van den Bossche at brokerage Petercam said.
Shares in Belgian metals and specialty materials group Umicore NV/SA (UMI.BR) have also been supported this year on talk of a possible bid from Solvay. Its shares were boosted again on Monday by news of Solvay’s Abbott deal.
Some analysts were skeptical about whether Solvay would be interested in Clariant, at least in the short term.
“I don’t think it would exactly fit the criteria that the company recently announced,” ING analyst Jan Hein de Vroe said.
Van den Bossche said any major acquisition by Solvay was unlikely until mid 2010, leaving plenty of time for speculation on its possible target. “It will be ... months of name dropping,” he said.
Solvay’s transaction with Abbott is expected to close in the first quarter of 2010, pending competition approval, and Solvay Chief Executive Christian Jourquin said he would not target hundreds of small projects and will not rush any acquisition.
Bank Degroof analyst Bernard Hanssens said he expects Solvay will not return much of the divestment proceeds to shareholders and instead use much of the 4.5 billion euros in cash to make acquisitions and keep its debt levels unchanged.
His estimated war chest is in contrast to estimates from BofA Merrill Lynch Global Research last week suggesting Solvay could have potentially up to 7.7 billion euros of firepower available for acquisitions, implying 30 percent net gearing.
But Hanssens said a deal worth that much would double Solvay’s size and would be unusual given the cautious, long-term approach taken by both the firm and major shareholder Solvac.
“It’s clear they don’t want to make many acquisitions, but one big acquisition and maybe two or three smaller ones,” Hanssens said.
Solvay’s decision to sell its drugs unit is a continuation of a trend of hybrid chemicals-drugs companies divesting their pharma units in a process dating back to 2000 when BASF BASF.DE sold its pharma unit Knoll to Abbott for $6.9 billion.
Abbott, involved at the start of that trend, is now taking an active role toward the end of the process as Solvay -- one of the last hybrids along with German firms Bayer BAYG.DE and Merck KGaA (MRCG.DE) -- also exits the drugs business.
Fitch ratings agency said most companies active in the pharma and chemical industries lack the resources to be strong players in both sectors, due to the different challenges of their respective industries and their limited synergies.
As a result, chemical companies such as Solvay, Altana ALTG.DE and Akzo Nobel (AKZO.AS) have divested their pharma units while Bayer and Merck have opted to invest in them.
(Editing by David Holmes and David Cowell)