Hogsback and the curious case of coal bashing by banks

IF half the world’s coal is being produced at a loss, as Moody’s Investors Services claims, then Hogsback wonders which half?

Staff Reporter

There is no answer to that question because all that Moody’s has done is analyse a spreadsheet to discover that at current coal prices 50% of global output is below the average cost of production.

Blind Freddie, with the aid of his dog, could have told Moody’s that, and saved them a fortune in analyst fees.

The real point about the news from Moody’s is that it represents another example of the financial world joining the environmental lobby in attacking coal, and that leads to another question, why now?

What caused the ANZ Banking Group and Citigroup to join the campaign against coal because it seems odd that banks would single out a particular type of client – that is until you look at the timing of their announcements.

That’s when you discover that there is a business reason behind the bank’s coal announcements, along with a dash of political cunning.

Before the long explanation of what that means there is the short version – the banks reckon it’s safe to kick a man when he’s down.

In more detail the banks have decided that there’s something to gain by attacking coal, and that something is called profit.

Consider the upside for the banks. In one move they please the environmental lobby, they please left-wing politicians, and they market their Green credentials, with all of that achieved by actually doing nothing.

Think about it! Are banks really rushing about looking for coal clients to lend them money at a time when the entire is struggling to make profits? Of course not.

Bankers can read the signs as clearly as anyone else. Coal prices are in the cellar, profits are hard to earn, development projects are stalled, and there’s hardly a conga-line of coal developers outside bank offices seeking capital to start new mines.

The Adani Group reckons it is seeking capital but The Hog suspects that there’s little chance of that company pushing ahead with its Carmichael mine in Queensland’s Galilee Basin for several years.

ANZ and Citi know that, and they know that no-one with a marginal coal project would even bother to ask for credit at this stage of the coal-price cycle.

But what will the banks be saying if the second part of the Moody’s assessment of coal is correct and more mines are closed as the industry works towards aligning supply with demand.

That’s when the bank view of coal will become much more interesting because while it’s a no-brainer to say that lending to coal today is off, will the same thing be said by the banks when profitability is restored?

No prize for guessing that some banks will be rushing bank to the coal industry to carve off a slice of the profits.

The attack from the banks is one of the less pleasant developments for the coal industry because it reeks of insincerity.

Saying you will limit lending to an industry which isn’t interested in borrowing because new projects are uneconomic and 50% of the existing mines are unprofitable is simply the banks playing to the audience.

The same can be said of comments made a few days ago by the Governor of the Bank of England who donned his green jacket to join the anti-coal crusade.

In a speech which almost parroted the words of the environmental lobby Mark Carney said that much of the world’s fossil fuels risked being left in the ground thanks tightening pollution regulations.

Using terms as “unburnable” and “stranded” Carney aired the beliefs of a man living a comfortable life in a fully electrified house, in a fully electrified city.

Ignored by Carney, and the other bankers who have decided (for now) that coal is not a good lending risk, is the fact that more than 50% of the world lives in a state of energy poverty.

And that’s the nub of the matter. The western world, having grown rich thanks to the low-cost energy provided by coal has decided that it will not permit the poorer half to enjoy the same benefits.

Much of what’s being discussed by the bankers has been debated before but it all comes back to the same point, coal does its job exceptionally well and while it does need the pursue technologies to make it cleaner the world must continue to have access to coal.