Who owns Whitehaven, Hogsback wonders

WHO owns Whitehaven Coal today and who will own it tomorrow? Those two questions have kept Hogsback guessing for much of the past year and they are also starting to interest a few other people who have been watching the decline of Australia’s most interesting coal mining company.

Tim Treadgold

The easy answer is that Whitehaven today is owned by 8191 individual investors with most holding less than 5000 shares each – numbers available on page 143 of the company’s latest annual report.

A more complicated answer, which gets a bit closer to the truth, is that five major investors own 48.05% of Whitehaven, with coal-asset trader Nathan Tinkler widely seen to be the largest individual shareholder, speaking for 21.38% of the company.

However, once Tinkler’s name is mentioned the picture becomes a little blurry because of evidence he gave last month at a liquidator’s examination of a Tinkler family company, Mulsanne Resources.

According to Tinkler it is his wife Rebecca who is the sole owner of the Tinkler Group Family Trust that ultimately controls assets such as the Whitehaven stake.

The clouds get a little thicker when the financial arrangements of the Tinkler family are probed further.

There are some people who believe a degree of control over the family’s Whitehaven stake lies with a private bank called Farrallon Capital Management, which has a direct 5.74% stake in Whitehaven as well as providing banking services to Tinkler.

Just so you don’t imagine that Farrallon and its subsidiary Noonday Asset Management are the real controllers of Whitehaven, there are two elderly gentlemen who everyone watching the Whitehaven ownership debate seems to have forgotten – Hans Mende and Fritz Kundrun.

For anyone unfamiliar with the coal world Hans and Fritz are billionaires who rank as two of the biggest players in the global coal game via a myriad of interests which are dominated by their jointly owned company American Metals and Coal International.

While their position in Whitehaven has been ultra low-key, they do rank as third and fourth-largest holders of the stock with 6.91% in Mende’s name and 6.85% in Kundrun’s name.

Over the past few years, along with everyone else in the coal business, Mende and Kundrun have watched their fortunes diminish substantially.

There is no doubt they will be particularly unhappy with their Whitehaven positions and the negative effect of the public brawls that have erupted over management matters.

To spell out precisely what Whitehaven’s share price retreat over the past 12 months has meant to Mende and Kundrun you have to start counting from April last year when the stock was trading as high as $5.62 and then roll forward to last week when Whitehaven traded down to a low of $1.88.

For both men, that 66% price collapse wiped $26 million off their personal stakes in Whitehaven.

Not nearly as much as for Nathan (or his wife or their bankers) but a painful loss that will have angered the AMCI duo and that is not a wise thing to do.

So, now we come to the second question posed in the first paragraph of these latest thoughts from The Hog – that is the one about who will control Whitehaven tomorrow.

As things stand there are too many unhappy investors in the stock for the situation to remain unresolved for much longer.

That is before even considering what stock exchange and corporate regulators might think about the uncertain shareholding structure and its interlocking banking arrangements.

Leaving any official probe aside, the position of Nathan and Rebecca Tinkler on the Whitehaven share register must be considered fragile, especially as Farrallon and Noonday are widely reported to have provided a large credit line of as much as $700 million to them, backed by their Whitehaven shares, which are worth about $450 million.

Mende and Kundrun are highly likely to have been included in talks designed to unravel the situation, which must be having an effect on day-to-day management at Whitehaven.

Tipping an outcome of a situation involving a number of very wealthy (and formerly very wealthy) people is never easy because of the combination of money and ego.

One thing is absolutely certain though – there can be no winners, just big and bigger losers.

Also becoming clearer is the likely role of Mende and Kundrun in triggering talks about a deal – if not forcing a deal in some way, in combination with Farrallon.

Many hurdles remain, not least being that big shareholders in a company have to be careful about working too closely together to avoid being treated as associates.

However, when all involved look at the 66% loss on their investment in just 12 months, it is in everyone’s interest to find a solution – and quickly.