Indians on the horizon but will they stay for long?

INDIANS love a bargain. You only have to spend a day in Mumbai or New Delhi to discover that the price you see is not the price you pay, a fact of life that caused Hogsback to wonder whether reports this week of Indian bids for Australian coal assets were true or false.

Tim Treadgold

One reason for wondering is that we have heard it all before with Indian mining and power generation companies promising the world and never quite delivering.

Another is that with so many Australian coal assets for sale thanks to low prices and high rates of production (which will keep prices low) it will be tempting for potential Indian buyers to drive such a hard bargain that the vendors will find it easier to mothball their assets rather than sell.

Both events, fresh Indian investment promises and high levels of Australian coal output, met head-on this week with the release of quarterly production reports and a claim that Coal India set aside more than $1 billion for acquisitions in Australia.

The quarterly data that caught The Hog’s eye came from BHP Billiton and Rio Tinto. Both miners show no sign of making major cuts to production of thermal coal despite every tonne being marginally profitable.

At 5.8 million tonnes in the June quarter just ended Rio Tinto’s output of thermal coal from its Australian mines was 22% higher than the same quarter last year. Meanwhile BHP Billiton’s output of thermal coal from its Australian mines was up 27% to 4.89 million tonnes.

The picture with metallurgical coal was different with Rio Tinto’s hard coking coal output down but semi-soft material up. BHP Billiton, which has a much larger coking coal business, lifted metallurgical coal production by 21% if you compare the latest June quarter with the previous March quarter, or by 33% when compared with the June quarter last year.

There are many reasons why the quarter-on-quarter numbers vary with weather a big factor.

However, what the latest production reports tell The Hog is that low prices are not causing the biggest coal producers to cut deeply into the rate at which they are churning out coal. If anything they are “sweating” their assets to get more material out for a lower unit cost.

From a business perspective producing more for less makes sense whether you are the low-cost leader or just a small miner trying to survive in a low-price environment.

What the big boys are doing in driving their assets hard is not good news for smaller rivals because it means they are using their size advantage to snatch a bigger market share, potentially forcing others out of business – and making it very difficult for newcomers.

Whatever plan BHP Billiton and Rio Tinto are following it was interesting to discover Indian coal miners were still keen to grow their presence in Australia as shown in two “Indian-related” developments.

The first event was news that Indian-owned Lanco Resources is pushing ahead with plans to export coal from WA through the port of Bunbury.

The second was a report in The Economic Times, India’s equivalent of the Australian Financial Review, that Coal India was back in the hunt for Australian coal assets with three targets being analysed.

Lanco’s plan, which involves exporting coal mined in the south-west Collie coalfield, has been floating around for decades under different owners. It has always failed in the past because Collie coal is relatively low-grade material best used in nearby power stations and not well suited for long-haul transport.

This time around, the Indians say, it is for real with the WA government’s environmental agency approving plans for a shipping facility in Bunbury harbour to handle up to 15 million tonnes of Collie coal a year.

Without raining on Lanco’s parade The Hog will believe it when he sees it.

As for Coal India’s plans The Economic Times reckons it has set aside more than $1 billion for possible coal asset acquisitions in Australia, quoting a spokesman who said the company had signed non-disclosure agreements with three firms with the proposed acquisitions being considered by a board sub-committee.

Interesting as the latest report of possible Indian investment in the Australian coal industry might be, it is hard to overlook so many previous promises and so little delivery.

This time it might be different, but with the coal market filled to overflowing it would be wise to regard both Lanco’s Bunbury export plan, and Coal India’s $1 billion investment plan, as dreams rather than reality.