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[MELBOURNE] Fortescue Metals Group said on Tuesday it was not aware of any parties seeking permission from Australia's regulators to take a stake in the company, after its shares jumped 15 per cent on a media report that Chinese firms had applied to buy a stake.
The Australian Financial Review reported that Chinese-linked companies had sought permission from the Foreign Investment Review Board (FIRB) to invest in Fortescue, Australia's third-largest iron ore producer. "Fortescue is not aware of FIRB applications by third parties and is in compliance with its continuous disclosure obligations," the company said in a statement to the Australian stock exchange.
Fortescue's shares touched a two-week high of A$2.495 after the report, which said Fortescue had held talks with China's Baosteel and CITIC about a recapitalisation of the company.
One or both had applied to FIRB to proceed with an investment, following discussions with Fortescue that only concerned buying a stake or increasing an existing stake, not a full takeover, the paper cited unnamed sources as saying.
Baosteel and CITIC could not immediately be reached for comment. FIRB declined to comment.
Fortescue has been struggling to manage its debt following a 55 per cent slump in iron ore prices over the past year and a half and its executives have said they would be willing to sell down stakes in mines.
Fortescue is the only major iron ore producer that does not have any partners in its mines.
The company built itself from scratch with the help of Chinese funding, as Beijing wanted to ensure that its steel makers would not be wholly dependent on the mega miners, Brazil's Vale, Rio Tinto and BHP Billiton.
China is unlikely to let Fortescue sink, but any Chinese move to gain more influence over such an important player would be sensitive and regulators would scrutinise it carefully.
China's Hunan Valin is already Fortescue's second-largest shareholder with a 14 per cent stake, while Baosteel has a joint venture with Fortescue on undeveloped magnetite iron ore assets.
Fortescue founder Andrew Forrest has accused Rio and BHP of over-producing to drive out competitors despite Fortescue having quadrupled its own production in the last seven years.
Mr Forrest ran a campaign over the past month trying to get the Australian government to hold an inquiry into the impact of the iron ore price slump on the economy.
After Prime Minister Tony Abbott and Treasurer Joe Hockey initially signalled support, Hockey last week announced that there would be no parliamentary inquiry.
According to another media report, they backed down because they had become aware of pending FIRB applications that could significantly change the ownership of the iron ore industry.
Fortescue declined further comment, saying it did not comment on speculation.