Margareta Pagano: Blair - The 11th-hour rabbit out of Glasenberg's hat

It looked as if the mega-merger of Glencore and Xstrata was dead in the water, until the former PM was pulled in to sweet-talk the Qataris
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The Independent Online

You have to hand it to Ivan Glasenberg; the South African commodities trader has enough cunning to rival a cheetah in his native country.

It's not for nothing the former race-walking champion has a reputation as one of the most formidable, and unpredictable, deal-makers in the mining world. Those who know him aren't surprised that he ran up to the wire with Glencore's £55bn merger with Xstrata – that's his style. And, more tellingly, they say he was never going to give up this deal after five years of courtship.

In many ways getting full control of Xstrata – it already owns 34 per cent – has been Glasenberg's long-game since floating Glencore last year, if not one of the main reasons for the float. Glencore is big in logistics and trading but it needs Xstrata's mining assets to consolidate and own the supply chain. That's the key – and why the Qataris want to buy into what could be the world's fourth biggest mining group.

On past form, Glasenberg was also always going to pull a rabbit out of the hat at the 11th hour to save the deal – for starters, he never ruled out a higher offer than the original 2.8 new Glencore shares for one Xstrata share. That the rabbit would turn out to be Tony Blair, the former prime minister, is the bit of wizardry no one expected.

It's unclear who suggested bringing Blair in to negotiate, but it was smart; the Qataris like the personal touch and who better than Blair to provide this? Blair is an international adviser to JP Morgan, the bank that is advising Xstrata, so it was in the interests of both sides that a deal could be negotiated to placate the Qataris. (It was certainly in the interests of JP Morgan as it –like all the advisers – would have been paid only 10 per cent of its fees had the deal collapsed.)

Blair knows the Qatari rulers well from his other job as special envoy to the Quartet, the group of four nations working to bring peace to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. According to still unconfirmed reports, it was Blair who brokered the last minute meetings in London last Thursday night into Friday morning between Glasenberg and the Qatari prime minister, Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani.

Oh, to have been a fly on the wall. We can only imagine how Blair would have worked his charm on two equally stubborn men – both traders at heart; the commodities expert from South Africa and the oil to gas chieftain who had been haggling for 3.25 a share. But, by offering 3.05 new Glencore shares for each Xstrata, Glasenberg appears to have gone just far enough to win the support of the sovereign wealth fund with its 12 per cent stake.

Xstrata may have recommended the 2.8 offer, but that doesn't mean the board will back a higher one. So far, it has voiced concern that some changes, such as Glasenberg taking the top job at the merged company rather than Xstrata boss Mick Davis, could represent a takeover not a merger.

Have the two fallen out after eight months over what at times have seemed tortuous negotiations? Or is this what Glasenberg always wanted? Whatever the board might say, some shareholders who had been opposed to the original offer would be hard pushed to turn it down at this price; Standard Life was the first to say it supports the deal but we've yet to hear from Norges Bank and other investors which threatened to vote against.

Certainly, the deal will be easier to vote through now the original scheme of arrangement structure looks likely to be changed to an old-fashioned takeover offer that requires only 50 per cent majority.

But it's dangerous to predict what next in this soap opera that will keep the bankers – and Blair – in champagne for months. Expect some heads to fall, though, as there have been big mistakes on all sides.

Banks need to find ways to span the gap left by closed branches

Every Friday I receive a text from my bank telling me the state of the household balance. It's always a terrifying moment as, like George Osborne, it's easier to talk about slashing the structural deficit than doing so.

Even so there's no doubt this new text service is a brilliant way of keeping a closer eye on spending. It's also a glimpse into the future of retail banking, an industry that is going through its own cost-cutting revolution every bit as ferocious as UK plc.

According to a report from Piercarlo Gera, a banking specialist at Accenture, the world's 30 biggest banks spend a staggering $500bn (£313bn) a year on branch networks. He reckons that distribution costs make up 65 per cent of the cost base with the office network and staff making up two-thirds of these costs.

When growth was good before the boom, the banks could afford this. But no longer. With slow volumes, low interest rates and growing competition from new rivals such as Google and PayPal, keeping such an expensive network is no longer sustainable.

Gera predicts a bloodbath with banks cutting their branches by 15 per cent and staff by a third. If he is right, it's going to be a tough balancing act for the banks – which are already having to rebuild trust with their customers – as closing branches and cutting so many jobs will be hugely unpopular.

It's doubly difficult because while more people are turning to online and mobile phone banking, most claim they want a physical branch as well.

So, the challenge for the banks will be to come up with new services that give the public at bit of both; in Turkey, banks are opening kiosks that give teller services but also video ATMs where customers can talk to remote staff. UniCredit in Italy is making most of its branches cashless while ASB in New Zealand has the first virtual branch on Facebook.

Whatever Lloyds boss, Antonio Horta-Osorio, says, banking is not going to be boring in the next few years.