Hogsback on triple trouble in the coal patch

ANGRY unions. Angry investors. Angry weather. Whichever way Hogsback looked this week he saw nothing but trouble in the world of coal. But it was the sort of trouble that could bring good news in the form of higher coal prices – despite predictions to the contrary.

Tim Treadgold

The first issue, and the one likely to win the most headlines over the next few days, is the threat of a strike by workers at BHP Billiton Mitsubishi Alliance mines in Queensland.

Second was a breakdown in relationships at the high-profile Indonesian coal-mining business Bumi, which has seen two famous families from different sides of the world launch a war of words which could derail grand mine development plans.

Third was the one that no-one can predict, the weather on Australia’s east coast which threatened to deliver a repeat of last year’s big floods which cut exports and pushed up the global price of coal.

Set against these three “supply” forces was a price-fall tip from McCloskey Group which reckons demand is weakening and coal prices will follow.

If demand was the only factor in a market, McCloskey would be right given the state of the global economy. But it’s not. Supply is of equal importance and that’s where the three issues seen by The Hog are important.

Of the three supply forces at work the most significant is the proposed industrial action at the BMA mines which, collectively, represent one of the world’s most significant sources of coal.

Because of the potential effect on coal supplies the breakdown in talks between management and unions over a new workplace agreement ought to be the issue which gets most attention from The Hog – but it’s not.

Why? Because industrial relations squabbles are industrial relations squabbles. They come. They go.

There’s an outbreak of name calling and then it settles down. Perhaps this time it will be different because of the delicate political conditions in Australia, and problems with the new Fair Work Australia rules.

Kicking off with a proposed overtime ban this latest outbreak of “workers versus bosses” should run its course until sanity prevails.

If it doesn’t then it will be worth a fresh look because of the potential for the BMA unions and management to create a Qantas-type stand-off with management closing the business, and creating a national political crisis at just the wrong time for the embattled Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard.

Until it gets to that point, the dispute boils down to unions wanting more power in the running of the BMA business in a process which will eventually lead to more money for union members – and there is nothing new in that type of dispute.

Bumi, however, is different because it is a case of boss v boss, and not just another old boss.

In one corner is the grandest banking family of Europe, the Rothschilds.

In the other corner we have one of the grand families of Asia, the Bakries of Indonesia. In the middle is a large chunk of coal mining country on the island of Kalimantan in Borneo.

Late last year, The Hog took his first look at the events swirling around Bumi (Hogsback on the trouble with Indonesian coal, November 4) because it seemed then that the Rothschilds and the Bakries were heading for a showdown of some sort.

The fireworks started in earnest last week when young Nat Rothschild lobbed a letter into the middle of the Bakrie family demanding better corporate governance at Bumi.

The Bakries fired back demanding the removal of Nat Rothschild and his associates from the Bumi board.

If the company in question was not listed on the London stock exchange, and did not involve one of Indonesia’s most important exports, the dispute might have been resolved in an amicable way.

That might still happen, but the more likely outcome is that the Rothschild family will be forced to back down or risk dropping a small fortune on a bold plan to become major coal producers.

The Rothschilds will not be the only losers if they are kicked out of a company they tried to rescue from under a crushing mountain of debt.

Other losers will be the Bakrie family which risks burning the bridges leading to the world’s financial capital, London, and Indonesia itself which will be hit by another embarrassing dispute between foreign investors and local businessmen.

The same can be said of the final potential coal price driver, the weather, an issue in the lap of the Gods, or nature, depending on your point of view.

It’s for those three supply factors that McCloskey’s gloomy outlook might be a bit too gloomy, especially if the BMA unions get really bolshy and BMA management does a Qantas and closes its mines until tempers cool – which could take some time.

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