The following photos are from Australia's Isaac Plains coking-coal mine.
Why is Isaac Plains relevant? Well, in 2011 at the height of the Australian mining boom, Japanese conglomerate Sumitomo thought it has spotted a bargain, and a SMH reports, it approached Tony Poli, the founder of mid-tier miner Aquila Resources with an offer: it would buy its 50% stake in Isaac Plains, at the time Aquila's only producing mine, for $430 million.
Market participants thought Aquila's stake might fetch $300 million at best but Sumitomo was confident it would make a strong return, and offered almost 50% above fair value, especially since Brazil's legendary mining company Vale owned the other 50% stake.
Net, the total value of the Isaac Plains mine in 2011 just just about $630 million.
It turns out Sumitomo was very, very wrong, and within a few years the writing was on the wall. In September 2014, Sumitomo and Vale shuttered the mine citing the downturn in the international coal market. Sumitomo said it would also take a writedown worth ¥30 billion ($11 million) on its Australian coal investments.
And as SMH tongue in cheekly adds, Isaac Plains was added to the long list of coal mines up for sale – but at a price. That price was finally revealed on Thursday: the princely sum of $1.
Why the complete collapse in price of the mine? Simple: blame China.
As Bloomberg explains, "a slump in the price of coking coal, used to make steel, to a decade low is forcing mines to close across the world and bankrupting some producers. Alpha Natural Resources Inc., the biggest U.S. producer, plans to file for bankruptcy protection in Virginia as soon as Monday, said three people with direct knowledge of the matter. It was valued at $7.3 billion in 2008."
At the peak of the Chinese commodity bubble, which in turn resulted in a golden age for Australia's mining companies, production from Isaac Plains hit a peak output was 2.8 million tons a year, with coal sold to steelmakers in Japan, South Korea and Taiwan.
However, in the past year, with the bursting of the Chinese housing bubble, and the dramatic cooling off of China's shadow banking system, the commodity demand of Chinese ghost cities has gone on hiatus, and so has the production of mines such as Isaac Plains:
Coal’s demise is just part of a broader slump in commodity prices, which fell to the lowest in 13 years this month. The benchmark price for coking coal exported from Australia has slumped 24 percent this year to $85.40 a ton on Friday, according to prices from Steel Business Briefing. The quarterly benchmark price peaked at $330 a ton in 2011, according to Bloomberg Intelligence.
The closing of Isaac Plains and a second mine in Australia shut last year, Integra Coal, led to a 7.2 percent reduction in Vale’s total coal output in the first half of 2015. It took a $343 million writedown on its Australian coal assets, part of total impairments of $1.15 billion last year, Vale said Feb. 26.
Still, Vale's and Sumitomo's complete wipeout loss is someone else's gain, in this case the new owner of Isaac Plain, which acquired the assets for a nominal tip, and merely had to fun ongoing spending and any debt obligations.
The new owners of Isaac Plains, Stanmore Coal, hope to restart production in the first half of 2016 and estimate the mine could operate for another three years.
The market took notice when the news of the dramatic purchase hit: Stanmore remains a minnow with a market capitalization of just $30 million. But with its shares up nearly 70 per cent on Thursday, investors have taken to the deal.
Still, as SMH adds, sluggish coking and thermal coal prices will continue to weigh heavily however regardless of how quickly they can restart production. Metallurgical coal has fallen another 25 per cent since January to about $US82 a tonne, from more than $US300 in 2011, while thermal coal has lost 8 per cent since January to languish around $US59 a tonne, compared to about $US150 three years ago.
Then again, with Stanmore's cost basis virtually nil, it would be a fool not to take the discarded assets. As Kiril Sokoloff's 13D wrote recently, "Buy when they give it away. What are they giving away now?" and recount how in 1977, "we were walking uptown in New York City with a friend who worked for a prominent trust company. He told us that the trustees of an estate had just sold a triplex on East End Avenue for $1. The reason? The $3,000 per month maintenance was “depleting the assets of the estate”.
Last week, Glencore sold the Cosmos nickel mine for AU$24.5 million. In 2008, Xstrata Plc paid AU$3.1 billion for Jubilee Mines to gain control of Cosmos—the Perth-based company’s flagship operation.
For what it’s worth, Javier Blas tweeted this week that, based on data from Citi Research, 90% of all M&A that miners did since 2007 has been written off. Makes you wonder about the current M&A boom…
All of which makes the researcher wonder if investors are missing the big picture:
There is a giant infrastructure investment boom just getting started in Asia and along the Silk Road. Wasn’t the whole commodity boom of the last decade based on infrastructure investment in China? Now, it will expand to all of Asia and beyond.
It is interesting to note how little is being written in the West about One Belt, One Road (see related themes). China Development Bank notes that the number of cross-border projects underway in the Silk Road effort already amount to $980 billion. Reportedly, Asia’s infrastructure needs are close to $8 trillion by 2020.
It remains to be seen if China can rebound, and if purchases such as Stanmore's $1 acquisition of a site that has a resource of 30 million metric tons will be lucrative. At current prices, every incremental ton produced loses money. But maybe prices will rebound.
For now, however, one thing is certain - the biggest winner is not Stanmore despite its suddenly soaring stock price, but Tony Poli, the person who sold Issac Plains at the absolute top to the naive Japanese conglomerate:
[Poli] could barely believe his luck when Sumitomo came knocking. Then in 2014 Aquila was acquired by Baosteel and Aurizon for an eye watering $1.4 billion. It gave the two companies access to Aquila's West Pilbara iron ore project, but the timing could barely have been worse. Iron ore prices have slumped by more than half in the last 12 months leading to speculation Aurizon may be forced to eventually take a writedown on the value of the Aquila deal on its balance sheet.
All of which is a very timely reminder: it is never an actual profit, until it has been booked. And as noted above, for 90% of all M&A deals in the past decade, the only thing booked is 100% losses.