Hogsback on the best and worst times to invest in coal

IF YOU believe one of the Australian government’s top advisory agencies there has never been a worse time to investment in coal. This caused Hogsback to wonder why a US investment bank is happy to pay a 33% premium for a big slice of Whitehaven Coal.

Tim Treadgold

The two events, while not directly linked, are part of the mixed picture painted over the past few days by different players in the coal business.

For investors the biggest development was the exit of one-time high-flyer, Nathan Tinkler, from the Whitehaven share register in a widely-anticipated deal with his primary banker, Farallon Capital.

However, the day before Farallon and its associates agreed to pay $2.96 a share for Tinkler’s stake in Whitehaven when the ruling market price was around $2.20 the government’s Climate Commission called for the closure of all Australian coal mines.

Interesting times indeed. A private deal that puts a higher than expected value on a prime coal asset while an arm of government says the industry should be killed, which means it is theoretically worth nothing/zero/zilch.

Thankfully for all Australians the country’s political masters told the Climate Commission to stop being so silly because closure of the coal industry would decimate the national economy.

Energy Minister Gary Gray, summed it up well when saying that: “There is no solution to global base-load energy generation that does not figure a big contribution from coal”

He added the usual rider that smart technologies were required to removed carbon dioxide in the flue of power stations.

Nothing new in any of that though it did cause some people to wonder about the real agenda of the Climate Commission and whether it has become a captive of the political wing of the environmental movement because to even suggest the Australian coal industry be closed verges on the daft.

What the commission actually suggested was the all of Australia’s coal would have to be left in the ground if the world was to avoid catastrophic global warming.

Not said, but we can only wonder why, is whether the same argument could be applied to the world’s oil industry because while coal undoubtedly produces carbon dioxide when burned, so too does oil.

If saving the planet is the key theme of the Climate Commission, and why not make world peace another objective, then surely the oil industry should be closed too.

Perhaps The Hog is being provocative in suggesting the end of oil production but just think of the lives that would be saved if we put cars off the road.

Anyway, suggesting the closure of the oil industry is no sillier than suggesting the closure of the coal industry.

As a final thought about the Climate Commission and coal it is interesting to wonder whether this is the organisation’s final shot before its inevitable neutering after the September 14 poll, which is widely expected to lead to the election of a different government.

Whatever the outcome of the election, there seems little doubt the “keep it in the ground” recommendation was a case of left-green politics charging up a blind alley while hard-nosed businesspeople considered the numbers and placed a big bet on coal having a bright future.

The “big bet” view can be seen in the price Farallon paid Tinkler for his Whitehaven shares, because if there is one thing bankers work hard to avoid it is over-paying for an investment and when the market is $2.20 and the agreed price is $2.96 there is a story behind the deal.

In Tinkler’s case the story could be as simple as he had no choice other than to sell because of debt pressure. But if that is the case then surely Farallon only had to pay him $2.20?

In Farallon’s case the $2.96 means it either wanted to bring closure to a weeping sore in its loan book, or it can see a bigger deal further down the track at a price higher than it paid.

In other words, Farallon and friends were prepared to cough up about $600 million to achieve a dominant position on the Whitehaven share register because there is a secondary deal brewing in the background and the first step was to remove Tinkler from the equation because the next party to step up preferred to not deal with him.

Whether there will be a second leg to the Tinkler/Farallon deal is not the issue for The Hog.

It is just a question of when because it is impossible to imagine an investment bank that is in the business of fast trades and high-priced loans is keen to remain a long-term shareholder of an Australian coal business.

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