The fading fortunes of coal's super-rich

COAL has two faces and they share a common problem. The face we all know best is that of a dirty miner at the end of a shift, looking worried about keeping his job. The other, as Hogsback will explain, is not worried about keeping his job but he is certainly dirty about the price of coal.

Tim Treadgold

Money is what separates the human faces of coal.

While much has been written about mine workers losing their jobs, less has been written about rich owners and investors who have been losing a fortune.

The name most followers of the industry are familiar with is that of Nathan Tinkler, major shareholder in Whitehaven Coal and a man who once ranked as an almost-billionaire on assorted lists of Australia’s richest people.

Last May, before Whitehaven’s shares skidded from more than $5.50 to their recent low of $1.88 (a 66% skid for anyone without access to a calculator), Tinkler was said by BRW magazine to have a fortune valued at $915 million – a handsome pile that ranked him as the country’s 34th richest person.

Today, most readers of Hogsback are probably richer than Tinkler, who claims his wife actually controls the family’s Whitehaven stake and he gets an allowance from her.

Whether you accept that as being the true state of the Tinkler fortune is irrelevant because whether it is the husband or wife on top, the real point is that the family’s big stake in Whitehaven is worth a lot less today than it was 12-months ago.

That is before we even consider the question of banking arrangements and whether it is the banks that speak for the Whitehaven stake.

Boiled down, The Hog reckons that by the time BRW publishes its next rich list Tinkler (husband or wife) will not get a mention, except in the column headed “vale” (Latin for farewell).

Perhaps even more interesting than considering the obvious exit of the Tinklers from the list of the richest is what the tumbling coal price is doing to other “coal fortunes”

Chris Wallin, one of the mystery men of Australian coal, will certainly struggle to hang onto BRW’s ranking of him as the country’s ninth richest person with a fortune estimated at $3.78 billion, a number The Hog considers rubbery in the extreme.

The problem with valuing Wallin – and a few other coal richies – is that no one on the outside can get a clear look at exactly what they own and an even less clear view of what they owe their bankers.

The Tinkler case is instructive when it comes to the question of debt because from evidence given at a recent court case in Sydney there is a very large pile of debt underpinning their corporate interests, perhaps as much as $700 million.

When asset values (and coal prices) are rising a heavy debt load is not a significant problem.

When asset values fall (but the debt does not) there is a very unpleasant pincer squeeze on a fortune.

Wallin’s wealth, which is based on deals involving the Coppabella, Sonoma and other mines, must have taken a significant hit over the past few months thanks to the pincer effect of falling coal prices and asset values – and the great unknown of how much debt he is carrying.

The fate of Wallin’s fortune might be known soon but if The Hog was valuing the man he would at least cut him in half, leaving the poor chap with just $1.89 billion and a ranking of 19th.

Sam Chong is another mystery coal richie who has a fortune estimated by BRW at $1 billion, which puts him at 32nd on the rich list. This year, Chong could also be cut back by half with $500 million leaving him at 83rd.

There are other members of the rich list with fortunes built on coal who could also have their estimated wealth slashed to recognise what has been happening in the coal market, both for the price of the material itself and the value of coal assets.

Tony Haggarty, a man said to be the 87th richest in Australia with a fortune valued at $470 million last year, can expect a severe haircut, as can Tony Poli (61st with $635 million).

As for Mr Queensland, Clive Palmer, it will be very interesting to see how BRW deals with the effect of low coal prices on his mine development plans, plus the effect of a complex legal argument with a Chinese company which should be paying him iron ore royalties but isn’t.

Ranked eighth last year with a fortune said to stand at $3.85 billion, Palmer could be in for a severe haircut, along with everyone else heavily exposed to coal and other resources – though The Hog is very pleased that someone else can break the bad news of his fading fortune to the big man.

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