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Australian lithium developer Liontown backs $4.3 billion Albemarle bid

A sign at the approach road leads to Albemarle's lithium evaporation ponds at its facility in Silver Peak

By Scott Murdoch and Poonam Behura

(Reuters) - Shares of Australia's Liontown Resources shot up 11.5% after the lithium developer's board backed on Monday a refreshed A$6.6-billion ($4.3-billion) bid from Albemarle Corp, the world's biggest producer of the battery material.

Emerging Australian lithium companies are experiencing a surge in buyouts as their lower valuations and cash needs lure some of the world's top producers of lithium and others racing to secure supplies.

The new cash offer of A$3 a share represents a premium of 14.5% to Liontown's last close of A$2.62 on Sept. 1 and is 20% higher than Albemarle's offer of A$2.50 a share made in late March that the target had rejected as too low.

"The waiting game looks to have paid off," Citigroup analysts said.

"We see the offer as bullish for lithium, signalling that the largest producer is keen to secure more supply at a premium, or has a bullish view on long-term price with low jurisdictional risk."

The offer was Albemarle's fourth, after it proposed A$2.20 a share on Oct. 20 last year and A$2.35 in March, before the rejected offer of A$2.50 was made public.

Monday's news drove Liontown shares to their highest since July 14, to stand at A$2.92.

Liontown said its board intended to unanimously recommend shareholders vote for the new offer in the absence of a superior proposal, and after completion of an independent expert's report to examine the deal.

Albemarle has been granted a limited period of exclusive due diligence as well as to enter into a mutually acceptable scheme implementation deed, Liontown said in a statement.

Lithium is in hot demand for electric vehicle batteries, and projects in top supplier Australia have become more attractive than those in other major producer Chile, which detailed in April a plan to nationalise its industry.

Liontown controls two major lithium deposits in Western Australia, with first production set for mid-2024 from its flagship Kathleen Valley project, which is among the world's largest and highest-grade hard rock lithium deposits.

Liontown also has supply deals with Ford Motor, Tesla and the battery unit of South Korea's LG Chem.

Liontown said Greenhill & Co and UBS would act as financial advisers and Allens as its legal adviser for the revised proposal. JPMorgan and Barrenjoey are advising Albemarle.

($1=1.5504 Australian dollars)

(Reporting by Scott Murdoch in Sydney and Poonam Behura; Editing by Christopher Cushing and Clarence Fernandez)