BHP Billiton tries to defend its misguided coal expansion plans

THERE aren’t many connections between coal mining and cricket but when Hogsback read a recent interview with the man in charge of BHP Billiton’s coal business he experienced a moment of deja vu, the sensation that it’s all been said before.

Staff Reporter

What Mike Henry, the company’s top coal man said, was that the crash in coal prices had caught everyone by surprise.

Well, he actually used 10-times as many words to make that point which was boiled down into a headline in The Australian newspaper a few days ago which read: “Coal price slump caught BHP boss by surprise”

Really? Was the coal slump that much of a surprise given the signs emerging years ago of excess investment, slipping demand, government interference in the coal-mining industry, and environmental protests about coal.

Surely he could see what The Hog and friends could see, a clear picture of coal entering a difficult period, one where only the courageous would persist with expansion plans because they were confident of being the last man standing.

Henry’s words, as quoted, were: “Chinese growth has been at the lower end of the forecast range, you’ve seen global growth undershooting expectations, high-cost supply has been stickier than many people, including myself, expected it to be, and I think everybody under-estimated how much extra volume would come through everybody focusing on driving productivity,” he said.

Digest that lot and you see why the headline writer boiled it down to a few snappy words which convey the same meaning which might also be summed up as “we didn’t see it coming”

At risk of being rude to BHP Billiton and Henry, who is undoubtedly a fine fellow with impeccable qualifications, it is a surprise to read that a man in his position, armed with more coal-market research material than God, seems to be admitting that he got it wrong.

Confessions, it is said, is good for the soul but in this case it has come too late to do much for the BHP Billiton share price which has been in free-fall for the past few months, and could go lower as commodity prices linger in the basement.

What any of this has to do with cricket is what readers might now be wanting to ask The Hog.

The answer is not a lot except for an event which occurred back in 1999 in a Test played at Hobart’s Bellerive Oval between Australia and Pakistan.

It was during this game that an infamous criticism was heard of Scott Muller, a man who only played two tests for Australia, the Bellerive game being the second and last.

After a wayward bowling spell Muller lobbed a very inaccurate throw to the wicket-keeper, immediately after which television viewers heard someone say: “He can’t bowl, and he can’t throw”

Given his reputation for candid on-field comments the finger of guilt for that comment was pointed at Shane Warne, until a Channel 9 cameraman, Joe Previtera, admitted that he was Muller’s unkind critic.

The reason for reliving the infamous “Joe the Cameraman” incident is that Muller’s poor bowling and poor throwing reminded The Hog of Henry’s equally unconvincing claim about the coal slump catching him by surprise.

Surely there was a mountain of evidence that global steel demand was peaking, and even China was approaching its steel saturation point.

Or, as The Hog suspects, the highly-paid analysts in the backroom at BHP Billiton used their own forecasts for future Chinese steel demand and applied that to the company’s metallurgical coal investment plans.

It is history now that BHP Billiton’s forecasts, and those of fellow mega-miner, Rio Tinto, were hopelessly wrong.

In fact it’s worse than that, the BHP Billiton analysts were both wrong and arrived at numbers which were completely at odds with what the Chinese Government, and its tame lobby group, the China Iron and Steel Association had been saying for years – that steel production was peaking.

So, for BHP Billiton’s coal boss to now say (assuming he was reported correctly) that the coal slump came as a surprise was itself a surprise because so many people outside the cloistered world of the big mining companies could see it coming.

The same, it might be said, of Scott Muller’s cricket skills which were found wanting in the hothouse of a Test.

Surely someone on the Australian selection panel could see that Muller might have trouble in the big league, and surely it wasn’t up to Joe the Cameraman to deliver such a savage insult.

Today it is BHP Billiton which should be looking to its internal skills and questioning whether there are people employed to analyse markets who can’t read what other people are saying and can’t add up.

Where’s Joe the Cameraman when you need him?