Hogsback and why coal and money don't mix

IF SOMEONE hadn’t already observed that oil and water don’t mix then Hogsback suspects we might have seen a variation of the same theme about incompatibility, along the lines of “coal and money don’t mix”.

Staff Reporter

The obvious reason for making that suggestion is that low coal prices have driven a lot of money out of the coal sector, a fact which falls into the bleeding obvious category given the rate of pit closures, mothballed development plans and job losses.

But there are far more interesting and possibly even amusing examples of the mismatch which can be coal and money, though to have a bit of a wry laugh you actually have to go back a few years to when there was a coal boom – remember that?

Back in the good old days, when coal prices were surging higher, projects were racing off the drawing board and anyone with a pulse could get a job in the industry, there were deals being made which even then fell into the utterly astonishing category.

Today, as you look back on those boom-time deals, you really have to wonder what on earth was going through the minds of the people who conceived them.

The two which are causing The Hog the most enjoyment are poles apart, in that they occurred in totally different countries linked by three common threads: coal, money and the boom – when deals were done on the assumption that mineral prices would rise forever and a vast flow of future money would wash away any mistakes made in the early years.

In Sydney, the view of a brilliant future that did not arrive can be found in the fabulous saga of Cascade Coal, White Industries and the Obeid family.

In Ulan Bator, capital of Mongolia, there is the even more fabulous saga of Tavan Tolgoi and the vote-buying (country destroying) exploits of the Mongolian government.

Sydney first, if only because its closest to the home of The Hog but also because the Cascade/White/Obeid situation is what you might call “hot and happening”, with a corruption inquiry in full swing and outsiders being treated daily to the taped phone call evidence gathered by investigators.

This week’s hearing included a couple of classic quotes from John McGuigan, a man at the centre of the deal which involved selling a coal lease for $500 million about 18 months after it had been acquired for $1 million.

About fellow director Graham Cubbin, McGuigan was heard to say on a tape played to the inquiry that he was “going to have his nuts on the f***ing quartermast”

And that was the mildest comment, causing inquiry head David Ipp to suggest suppressing disparaging remarks about Cubbin – only to be told by a player assisting the inquiry that Cubbin regarded them as a “badge of honour”

Some badge but anyone following the situation knows how pleasurable it feels to be the good guy in a messy situation.

In Mongolia, there is no good guy on the scene yet and unlikely to be as the Tavan Tolgoi disaster is played out with potential repercussions for everyone involved in that country’s mining industry and the financial stability of the country itself.

Two days ago the state-owned coal miner started what could be a slash-and-burn exercise, dumping two of its most senior executives, chief financial officer Angus Caithness and chief operating officer Graeme Hancock.

Their sackings follow the discovery that Tavan Tolgoi is broke, unable to even pay for trains to carry coal to its customers across the border in China.

The reason Tavan Tolgoi is broke – and has abandoned plans for a $US3 billion public float – is that the Mongolian government saddled it with an unexpected and totally politically motivated debt of $1 billion.

Astonishing as it sounds, the government embarked on the destruction of its most valuable mining business by issuing 1072 shares in the company to every Mongolian citizen – followed last June in the lead-up to a national election with an offer to buy back the shares at a fixed price of $760.

The cost of the vote-buying buy-back was forced onto Tavan Tolgoi which has scrambled to find the $1 billion, which is equivalent to 10% of the entire Mongolian economy.

Everyone is now a loser from this mixing of coal, money and politics.

Tavan Tolgoi is broke.

Chinese customers aren’t getting their coal.

The government of Mongolia is panicking and there is talk of higher taxes on other mining companies in the country, or demands for a higher government share of every mine.

Coal. Money. Politics.

It’s a deadly combination, in Australia and Mongolia.