BHP story that almost never was

by | May 19, 2012 | Business

Ladies and gentlemen, we have the great pleasure to unveil today a landmark charitable initiative that will assist the underprivileged in their fight for survival.

Many of you will already have heard the heart-wrenching tale of a poor miner under vicious and unconscionable attack.

This very week, as his audience laboured away over their filet and shiraz in the Westin hotel ballroom – mindful of the dangers of enduring a garment stain from the red wine jus – the BHP chairman, Jac Nasser, revealed how he and his freedom fighters had been “fighting for our survival” as the government sought to “nationalise the mining industry” in 2010.

And even now, against a backdrop of waning demand in China, the company remains under attack from the unions and government.

Dear readers, please do not let BHP die. Help in the fight against poverty. Donate today to the “Save a Scurvy Miner” fund.

It was just after lunch that the real news came. Until then, Nasser had been right on message, hammering the unions and government.

These lunches often finish with an impromptu “doorstop” press conference as reporters gather for a few questions afterwards.

Things were going to script until the veteran Reuters reporter Jim Regan chipped in with this little gem: “Does the BHP board intend to stick with its five-year $80 billion capex [capital expenditure] program?”

This was way off-message. His back to the wall, the chairman shot Regan the evil eyeball, snapped a terse “No”, and turned away to take another question.

Regan had an open line to the newsroom. Within seconds, the headline was flashing on screens around the world.

The world’s biggest miner had jettisoned the world’s biggest capital expenditure program. It was further evidence the biggest boom in history was over.

And the question that remained, as ever, was: soft-landing in China, or hard-landing?

The political theatre played out all week, culminating in Bill Shorten labelling the chairman of BHP a liar, a ministerial action previously unthinkable.

But it’s too late for the government anyway, a fact that made Nasser’s publicity campaign such a masterstroke: that is, make enough fuss about class warfare to divert attention from the company’s latest strategic failure.

First came the Rio Tinto takeover, then the $40 billion Potash play in Canada, next the aborted Pilbara iron ore venture, followed by the US shale oil debacle, and now, the Taj Mahal of capex programs has met its end.

Nasser had nothing to lose by whacking a zombie. This government is the walking dead. And the media obliged by going big on the politics and missing the main story.

Incidentally, this same Jim Regan reported to your humble correspondent the other day that the Opposition Leader, Tony Abbott, had walked into Ash’s Table, a restaurant in Manly, attired only in his speedos.

As if the Coalition with its “small target” tactics was not already poised to romp into government, Abbott has raised the bar again.

Attending the beach in speedos is one thing. Actually crossing a road and sauntering into a dining establishment, even if it is your local cafe … it nearly defies words.

Abbott must be sworn in for this act alone. Dissolve Parliament!

Canning the Taj Mahal capex program is a good thing. A handful of BHP’s top shareholders, BlackRock’s Evy Hambro the most vocal, had been agitating for just this: more capital return, less expansion.

In short, they do not trust BHP to spend the money efficiently. And why would they? China is coming off the boil. There is a fair chance of a hard landing. Best course of action? Save the money to pounce on distressed assets when things get bad. Survive.

BHP’s huge $20 billion profits had derived entirely from the good fortune of rising commodity prices, not from its strategic management.

Apart from the failure to execute mergers and takeovers such as Rio and Potash, BHP is suffering buyer’s remorse for sinking $20 billion into US gas assets – Petrohawk and Chesapeake – just before gas prices fell off a cliff last year. Now, with the prospect of a glut in commodities, and further price falls, is hardly the time to be spending $80 billion bringing on new supply.

It should be said that, when it comes to corporate strategy, the funds management community is about as “visionary” as its next quarterly return. They could be wrong on BHP.

But the China story is looking stronger no longer. The funds will be right even in a soft-landing scenario. The more plausible outcome though – despite the herd consensus for a mere slowing in growth – is for a pretty rough landing.

When was a big boom not followed by at least a bit of a bust?

The tickler for Nasser is that BHP has struck a lot of deals and won special dispensations for its assorted projects.

Take, for instance, the concessions from South Australia for the expansion of the Olympic Dam project. Was that a $10 billion, or a $30 billion spend? Thankfully, BHP never quite put a figure on it.

And there, ladies and gentlemen – apart from the late-breaking industrial relations headline “Strippers in Paris go on strike – wages miserable” is the business story of the week.


Michael West

Michael West

Michael West established to focus on journalism of high public interest, particularly the rising power of corporations over democracy. Formerly a journalist and editor at Fairfax newspapers and a columnist at News Corp, West was appointed Adjunct Associate Professor at the University of Sydney’s School of Social and Political Sciences. You can follow Michael on Twitter @MichaelWestBiz.

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