Hogsback and the saga of Wilkie Creek

IF a TV network can win ratings with a weight-loss show called The Biggest Loser, Hogsback was wondering whether the coal industry could replicate the gig with its own biggest-loser competition, starting with players in the attempt to sell Queensland’s Wilkie Creek mine.

Tim Treadgold

Money, rather than kilograms, is the yardstick to be used by the judges, partly to avoid The Hog himself being mistaken as a participant, and partly to save the same mistake being made about a serious player in the game, the irrepressible Nathan Tinkler.

While The Hog has little in common with Nathan, he does have a similar build which would probably qualify him for the early stages of the TV version of The Biggest Loser.

Wilkie Creek, obviously, is a different sort of competition but it is possible to see the sales process as a guide in how not to go about selling a coal mine at a time of low prices.

For readers who have not followed the Wilkie Creek saga, it started two years ago when US-based Peabody Energy decided to cut its exposure to Australian coal, preferring to focus on assets closer to home.

From comments made by people involved in the sales process, it seems that the Swiss-based investment bank, UBS, was first handed a mandate by Peabody sometime in 2012 to find a buyer.

The initial asking price was said to be around $700 million with half-a-dozen potential buyers invited to the take a closer look at the assets, including a number of private equity syndicates which had been circling the coal industry in the hope that bargains might be snapped up from distressed sellers.

Peabody is a keen seller, but not distressed, with the early sales attempt failing when nobody offered anything close to the $700 million, leaving the way open for Nathan to see Wilkie Creek as a way back into the industry after his spectacular exit from Whitehaven Coal.

Nathan’s offer is reported to have been pitched at $150 million with funding to come from US sources, including an investment bank called Jefferies, which is owned by the private equity firm Leucadia National, the same firm which bankrolled iron ore magnate, Andrew Forrest, at the start of his iron ore adventure with Fortescue Metals.

Unfortunately for everyone involved, it seems that deal between Nathan and his financiers has hit a sticky patch and while a deposit has been paid, the first substantial payment of a reported $70 million has not been forthcoming.

Talks to salvage the sale are continuing and perhaps a deal will proceed and Nathan will be able to reclaim his position as a player in the Australian coal industry.

But if this latest attempt to sell Wilkie Creek does not succeed, there will be a lot of people on the losing side of the ledger, including:

• Peabody Energy, which presumably received offers in the early stages of the sales process but deemed none to be acceptable.

• UBS, which had a mandate to handle the deal, but failed to line up the vendor with a buyer.

• Several hundred Wilkie Creek miners who lost their jobs when the sale failed and the mine was mothballed.

• Nathan Tinkler, for failing to finalise funding for his proposed purchase of the mine.

• The Australian coal industry for losing another project.

Some people will see Nathan as the biggest loser in the Wilkie Creek situation, though it is still possible for him to emerge a winner if funding can be secured and Peabody is prepared to accept an additional discount on the already discounted price.

UBS is also a contender for losing most heavily in the failure to sell Wilkie Creek because it is likely that the non-sale means it has not earned its full fee, which would probably have been a percentage of the sales price.

If The Hog was judging what’s happened so far at Wilkie Creek, he would note that no one is a winner, and that Peabody is the biggest loser because it failed to meet the market which was already falling in 2012, and has fallen much further this year.

Nobody, other than Peabody and its advisers, know exactly how much was offered for Wilkie Creek back in 2012 but the gap between that offer and the likely sale price today, if it can be achieved, will be quite substantial.

As The Hog has seen many times in his 40-plus years of observing the mining industry knowing when to sell is generally more important than knowing when to buy.