The great other coal inquiry

IF YOU, like Hogsback, are curious about who did what and when in the curious case of White Energy, Cascade Coal and the Obeid family in New South Wales, then be prepared for an even more confusing case involving disputed coal-related transactions.

Staff Reporter

Though it is an over-used expression, it seems that untangling the intricate connections behind London-based Bumi PLC and the Indonesian-based Bakrie family is shaping as the mother of all messy coal deals.

As with the issues swirling around the Obeid family in Sydney, the Bumi affair also involves a famous family, the Rothschilds, with both situations swinging on the lure of the high coal prices of a few years ago, and the problems caused when prices fall and friends fall out.

In Australia, most interest is in the White/Cascade/Obeid situation, where remarkable testimony is being given at a hearing conducted by the NSW corruption commission.

In London, where the Hog is a temporary resident, all eyes (and ears) are on the Bumi situation, partly because it is local and partly because the dollar figures are much bigger, the players equally prominent and the consequences far more explosive.

The common thread linking events on either side of the world is coal, and the measures taken to get a slice of what was once the hottest ticket in town – but which is now struggling to attract the attention of most investors, but not some of the best connected players in world finance.

What caught The Hog’s eye this week was news that Nathaniel Rothschild, a junior member of the famous European banking family, has been putting together a restructuring team to buy back part of the Bumi asset portfolio.

Members of the Rothschild group allegedly include another famous mining investor, Canadian billionaire Robert Friedland, who is said to be chipping in a healthy $US50 million to buy a seat at the table.

In total, Nat Rothschild reckons he has assembled about $US342 million to undertake the Bumi restructuring.

Meanwhile, in the other corner the Bakrie family is preparing to mount its own buyout group, with a twist. Their proposal is to buy all of Bumi’s operating assets for about $1.4 billion, which includes Kaltim Prima, an asset originally developed by Rio Tinto but sold in 2003.

Refereeing the standoff between the families is London law firm Macfarlanes, which has been working on a report for the Bumi board for the past few months.

The lawyers’ brief was to unravel the inner structures of Bumi and associated companies that are being referred to as irregularities, and appear to involve a series of transactions such as those covering infrastructure assets used to transport Bumi’s coal and created less than a year before the Rothschilds and other European associates bought into the deal.

As with the NSW coal inquiry, the Bumi affair involves sudden and spectacular increases in value once a deal is done. One of the most interesting is in a business sold just before the Rothschilds joined the party for about $US190 million, which was later refinanced for $US1 billion.

At this stage, it is impossible for an outsider to understand how the Bumi deal ran off the rails so rapidly. It is a fair bet that the collapse in the world thermal coal price put pressure on cash flows inside the business, which, in turn, caused players to start counting the cash much more closely.

But where the sorry tale of friends falling out gets really interesting is in the emergence of a mole in the Bumi business, who blew a whistle on internal dealings, alarming the Rothschilds and helping crash the Bumi share price.

It is information from the whistleblower that has put Macfarlanes on the trail of the cash and which will be at the heart of the lawyers’ report due to be received soon.

There is, however, a fresh twist already emerging. The Bakrie family is starting to mount a defence before the Macfarlanes/Rothschild attack is officially launched.

First counter-move by the Bakries was reported on ILN earlier this week with the resignation of Indra Bakrie as co-chairman of the London-listed Bumi PLC.

A second front was opened when a Bakrie spokesman told British media that documents used by Macfarlanes as part of its investigation had been “stolen and/or the subject of illegal hacking”.

Just to round off the claim, it was also suggested that the documents had been “doctored” to give a purposely misleading impression.

Times might be tough for everyone in the coal business, but there is no denying the entertainment value of a coal deal unravelling.

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