Hogsback on the man who would be 100% politician

IF CLIVE Palmer has retired as a businessman, which he says he has, then Hogsback wonders who is going to raise the $6.4 billion needed to develop his China First coal project in Queensland’s remote Galilee Basin?

Tim Treadgold

So far, none of the big name media outlets have followed up this glaringly obvious question, which flows easily from Clive’s comments to a number of publications this week including this direct quote carried by the Sydney Morning Herald newspaper: “I’m a retired person in business. I’m a politician now”

And this comment was carried by the national broadcaster, the ABC when Clive was quoted saying he was: “fully retired from business … 100% politician”

He said it. And who is The Hog to doubt it.

However, even if business is off the Palmer agenda and politics is what stokes his fire there are some outstanding matters that need to cleaned up, such as China First, a legal dispute over unpaid iron ore royalties, and the day-to-day running of tourist hotels and a dinosaur theme park – not to mentioned overseeing construction of the Titanic replica.

Sticking with what The Hog knows best, coal, there seem (at first blush) to be four possibilities in regard to China First and who picks up where Clive says he is leaving off. They are:

  • China itself, or a syndicate of Chinese companies keen to secure another source of coal to feed the power stations of China
  • one of the emerging private equity investors, such as X2, the comeback vehicle for former Xstrata chief executive, Mick Davis
  • an existing Queensland producer keen to expand into the Galilee as a future replacement source of coal for material extracted from the Bowen Basin
  • the GVK Hancock alliance, which is planning to open a mine close to the China First project which is led by Palmer’s Waratah Coal.

There are fifth and sixth possibilities, but they are best discussed in hushed tones because they are a little controversial and might upset Palmer if anyone was to speak too openly about: (a) no-one picking up the China First challenge, or (b) the retirement claim being playful banter on the part of fun-loving Clive.

Because there is so much money potentially involved (a $6.4 billion capital budget seems a heavy lift even for The Hog) the question of a new owner for China First is tricky, not just because the price of coal is in the cellar (always a good place for coal) but banks have been a little loath to lend great wads of dosh over the past few years.

China, of course, is a bank unto itself and if $6.4 billion is required to fund a mining project in Australia it is the one country likely to have that amount of spare cash lying in a savings account somewhere.

If that sounds unlikely consider the $8 billion China Incorporated, via Sino Iron, has sprayed around on an iron ore project in WA that is running three years late, 200% over-budget and yet to ship a tonne of end product – much to Clive’s annoyance.

In fact, Sino Iron is another of those topics best not discussed in the presence of the member for Fairfax because it is the mob that owes him a few hundred million dollars in overdue royalties.

Mick Davis, or a private equiteer like him, could be interested, if only because coal is a terrific place to start building an integrated resource house, which is what Mick seems to be intent on doing in his drive to replicate Xstrata, and prove to his former friend, Ivan Glasenberg, that they should have remained a team in the morphed Glencore Xstrata.

As for an existing Bowen Basin producer moving further east into the Galilee there are a few problems there, such as the price of coal, which most investment banks do not see picking up quickly.

Credit Suisse, a reputable investment bank with deep Swiss roots, said in set of commodity price forecasts published on Tuesday that the price of thermal coal shipped out of Newcastle in NSW would probably rise by $US1 a tonne next year to a nevertheless lowly $US85/t. Hard metallurgical coal should add $US6/t to average $US165/t – which is also not worth writing home about.

So what, wonders The Hog are we left with if potential buyers or joint venture partners for China First seem to be thin on the ground and a lot of work remains to be done to be confident that the project can clear all of its hurdles, such as government approvals for the rail route and port, together with debt and capital funding.

It is the daunting total of the challenges ahead for China First that makes it seem possible Clive was pulling the legs of his friends in mainstream media.

Full time politics might beckon, and could provide a useful speakers platform for Clive to point out a few of Australia’s failings. However, as for walking away from a multitude of business interests and becoming 100% politician The Hog has one final thing to say: “Ho ho Clive, good one, you almost had me fooled that time”