BREAKFAST DEALS: Star-crossed stations

Nine looks set to take a stand on 'reach rules' ahead of a possible Southern Cross tie-up, while Rio Tinto apparently gives Guinea an ultimatum.

This morning the battle of the media titans has moved to a new front, and it's threatening a possible $4 billion merger between Nine Entertainment and Southern Cross Media. Elsewhere, Ramsay Health Care is looking for partners in Malaysia, while Rio Tinto might be considering an exit from Guinea. And despite speculation to the contrary, the Australian Stock Exchange appears to have missed its opportunity in Singapore.

Nine Entertainment, Southern Cross Media

Nine Entertainment and Southern Cross Media are fighting to keep their widely-speculated $4 billion merger alive in the face of the government's fiercly opposed media reform propositions. 

While industry chiefs shout down Labor's plans for tighter media supervision, Nine is said to be preparing to pledge to maintain regional weekday television news bulletins of one hour in an effort to overturn the so-called 'reach rule', which prohibits broadcasters from reaching more than 75 per cent of the Australian population.

Changes to the reach rule have been referred to a parliamentary committee, to which Nine chief David Gygnell will make his case – perhaps as soon as tomorrow. 

Already, Nine and Southern Cross are taking heat from Ten Network and Seven Network, which are arguing against the removal of the rule in the name of protecting regional coverage (and, just maybe, their own ratings).

Shareholders are also spooked. Southern Cross Media shares fell close to 7 per cent on Wednesday, amid fears the reach rule will remain intact if the government's broader media package fails to pass. Speculation about unconfirmed talks with Nine has sent the broadcaster's share price up about 50 per cent since the start of the year.

The government wants the issue resolved as soon as possible, although the parliamentary committee is not required to release its final report until June 17.

And so we wait.

Rio Tinto

From one fight to another. Rio Tinto has intensified its battle with the Guinea government, reportedly threatening to halt work on the $US10 billion ($A9.7 billion) Simandou project unless the West African nation's political leaders quickly sign an investment agreement and lock in their share of the funding for the project.

Rio, which has denied reports it has already stopped work on the project, is believed to have warned Guinean president Alpha Conde it will cut staff and freeze spending if his government does not produce funding and an investment framework, according to The Australian.

For its part, the Guinean government says it is making progress.

“The government mobilised necessary means and expertise to be able to hold its commitments and move forward on the investment,” government spokesman Albert Damantang Camara told Bloomberg.

“The project is not frozen," he said. “Simandou is a highly strategic project for the future of the Guineans, as it has to allow populations to take advantage finally of the exploitation of their natural resources."

Rio's new chief Sam Walsh, who is in negotiations with Conde, does hold a powerful bargaining chip. Since promising shareholders a new age of austerity, Walsh has given himself the option of mothballing the project and blaming any losses on his big-spending predecessor Tom Alabanese.

Given the miner's ongoing troubles in Guinea, it must be tempting.

Ramsay Health Care, Sime Darby

Now to a much less dramatic deal. Ramsay Health Care is said to be in talks with Malaysia's fast-growing Sime Darby about forming a joint venture that would combine a number of hospitals in Southeast Asia in a bid for greater scale in the increasingly profitable region.

The tie-up proposal, which would merge Sime Darby's healthcare unit with Ramsay's Indonesian division, is being considered by the boards of both companies, an unnamed source told The Wall Street Journal.

The plan is to establish a new healthcare vehicle, which would include seven of Sime Darby's Malaysian hospitals plus Ramsay's three in Indonesia, in order to pursue more acquisitions in the region. The combined entity, with as estimated market value of more than MYR1.55 billion, might even be listed on the Kuala Lumpur Stock Exchange further down the track.

Ramsay intends to pay Sime Darby up to MYR400 million to ensure the joint venture is split evenly, according to the source. The Australian suitor is said to have discussed the payment with its banking syndicate, which includes ANZ Banking Group, Westpac Banking Corp and National Australia Bank.

While neither party is commenting on the deal specifically, a Sime Darby spokesperson told The Australian Financial Review the company is open to "viable partnerships" and that it is "in discussions with various potential partners in the healthcare business".

All signs point to Ramsay.

Australian Securities Exchange, Singapore Exchange

The boss of Singapore Exchange has shooshed murmurs the company might dust off its failed bid for the Australian Securities Exchange, even as planned financial reforms are set to make it easier for the local bourse to merge with an overseas partner.

The federal government rejected SGX's $8.4 billion merger proposal two years ago on national security concerns – particularly, the loss of control over ASX's system for clearing and settling trades.

But now the Council of Financial Regulators has put forward plans to strengthen regulation of the country's financial market infrastructure by keeping oversight in domestic hands, even if the exchange were operated by a foreign company.

Even so, SGX boss Magnus Bocker told The Australian he is focused on organic growth, including the development of new contracts and services, which he sees as a "better allocation of capital" than reviving the Aussie tie-up.

That's not to say the ASX will be left without a partner. Last month, chief Elmer Funke Kupper was talking up the chances of a future bid, telling Dow Jones Newswires "the regulatory problem has been fixed".

While he wouldn't name names, he said there was still strong business logic behind the international consolidation of exchanges.

Wrapping up

Elsewhere, Fortescue Metals Group is said to have narrowed the field of potential buyers of a $US3 billion stake in its port and rail infrastructure, in the hopes of cementing a deal by June 30.

While it's unclear how many names appear on the shortlist, The Australian Financial Review believes Brookfield and one or more Middle Eastern funds made the cut.

Also in the mining sector, Sydney-based Blackthorn Resources has received an $US80 million cash injection from commodities giant Glencore, saving the smaller company from a dilutive equity raising.

The deal will see Glencore take another 12.6 per cent of Blackthorn's Perkoa zinc project in Burkina Faso for $US35 million as part of a broader investment package.

Meanwhile, it's shaping up to be a tense Easter for Billabong – the surfwear company has told its two bidders to submit their final offers on March 28, according to The Australian Financial Review.

Partners VF Corp and Altamont Capital Partners are competing with Billabong director Paul Naude, who has teamed up with Sycamore Partners, in the tussle for the struggling surf brand. While both groups have made indicative offers worth $1.10 a share, there is speculation they may be cut as low as 80 cents per unit.

The new timetable, put together by Goldman Sachs, will allow negotiations to continue over the long weekend, The Australian Financial Review reports.

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