By Mike Stone and Jens Hack
NEW YORK/MUNICH (Reuters) - U.S. industrial gas supplier Praxair Inc <PX.N> and German peer Linde AG <LING.DE> are in early-stage talks about a merger to create a market leader with a value of more than $60 billion, Linde said on Tuesday, sending shares in both companies higher.
An agreement would accelerate consolidation sweeping the industrial gas sector where slower economic growth has weakened demand in the manufacturing, metals and energy sectors and put pressure on smaller players to compete.
A combination of Praxair and Linde, which supply gases such as nitrogen, argon and carbon dioxide, would face scrutiny from regulators after other major deals, such as U.S. oilfield services provider Halliburton Co's <HAL.N> $34.6 billion acquisition of Baker Hughes Inc <BHI.N>, were shot down due to antitrust concerns.
Linde has a strong position in healthcare in North America, where it supplies gases to hospitals and patients with respiratory disorders.
Praxair is more focused on industrial on-site production, which means a market share of close to 50 percent resulting from a merger should not spark opposition from U.S. anti-trust regulators, analysts said.
Linde said talks were ongoing and had not yet yielded any concrete results or agreements.
"Accordingly it is currently not foreseeable whether there will be any kind of transaction," it said in a statement.
VARIETY OF OPTIONS
Several people familiar with the matter had earlier told Reuters the two companies had held talks. One person had said Praxair was considering a takeover of Linde, while two other sources said Linde wanted a merger of equals.
One of the sources said a share swap was one possible structure of a deal but that talks were still very preliminary.
"A merger would be good for both companies, and for the sector as a whole," said Christopher Schaefer, a fund manager at Union Investment, a top-20 shareholder of Linde.
Shares in Linde were up 9.2 percent at 152.15 euros, an eight-month high, by 1346 GMT, making them the top gainer on Germany's blue-chip index <.GDAXI>, which was down 0.7 percent. Praxair was 4.7 percent higher at $123.58.
Linde has a market value of around 28 billion euros ($31.6 billion), compared with about $33.7 billion for Praxair.
Analysts said talks may have been spurred by French Air Liquide's <AIRP.PA> acquisition of smaller U.S. peer Airgas Inc for $10.3 billion this year, making the world's leading industrial gases group a strong second player in North America behind Praxair.
Union Investment's Schaefer said the two companies could be forced to sell some assets to win regulatory approval of a merger, for instance in Brazil, Germany and Canada.
"But not so much that it would hurt the merger partners," he added.
Baader Helvea analyst Markus Mayer said overlaps in the rest of the world could help generate synergies of up to 800 million euros in a merger.
Jefferies analysts said they estimated that Praxair could pay a 26 percent premium over Linde's market value to gain control of it and still achieve an 8 percent return on invested capital in the full year and improve its free cash flow per share by $1.70.
Perella Weinberg is advising Linde, while Credit Suisse <CSGN.S>, among others, is working for Praxair, sources said.
(Refiles to remove outdated reference to Linde declining comment)
(Additional reporting by Vishal Sridhar in Bangalore and Alexander Huebner, Jonathan Gould and Maria Sheahan in Frankfurt; Editing by Bernard Orr/Keith Weir)