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Posts Tagged ‘Crown Ownership Monitoring Unit’

Solid Energy and LandCorp – debt and doom, courtesy of a “fiscally responsible” National Govt

28 December 2015 3 comments

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solid-energy-chief-executive-don-elder-and-hon-bill-english-at-mataura-9-sept-2011

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In May 2013, I first reported on National’s gutting of Solid Energy, detailing how Finance Minister Bill English and then-SOE Minister, Simon Power, had used the State Owned Enterprise as a cash-cow, to assist the government to balance it’s books;

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Solid Energy – A solid drama of facts, fibs, and fall-guys

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The story details National’s ministerial interference on Solid’s Energy’s financial affairs; under-mining (pun unintended) it’s bio-fuels programme; and extracting huge dividends, as well as taxes paid, to fill government coffers.

At the end, as Solid Energy teetered on collapse, National ministers did what National ministers do in time of crisis; they blamed others for the crisis;

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Prime Minister criticises Solid Energy

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Solid Energy was in debt. But not to “diversify” as Key claimed. The Prime Minister lied.

The debt was due in large part to Ministerial demands that Solid Energy borrow BIG, and pass those borrowings onto the government. This was a piece of accounting trickery, so National could claim, hand-on-heart, that it was not borrowing billions more. In actuality, the SOEs were doing the borrowing, and then passing the cash on to it’s shareholder, the government. This was borrowing-by-proxy by the government.

That is how desperate National was to claw back as much lost revenue due to the Global Financial Crisis/Recession, and unaffordable two tax cuts (2009, 2010) which they had promised during their 2008 election campaign and which has cost government an estimated $4.5 billion annually.

In 2009, English instructed all SOEs to increase their debt. This Statement of  Corporate Intent is clear in National’s expectations;

I would like all SOEs to increase their gearing from current levels, to a level more consistent with a BBB flat credit rating. In this regard, I have been advised by officials that Solid Energy may have the capacity to sustain a 40% gearing ratio.

I urge the Solid Energy Board to give serious consideration to this proposal, and to release all surplus capital to the shareholder as special dividends. “

Not only was National instructing SOEs (including Solid Energy) to borrow more (and then pass the cash on to the Government’s Consolidated Fund), it was also openly raiding their bank accounts by demanding “all surplus capital to the shareholder as special dividends“.

Furthermore,  not only were English and Power expecting higher profits diverted from SOEs, they  demanded two dividends per year instead of just one;

“I would also like to standardise and simplify the dividend policy for all SOEs, to ensure that a larger and more consistent share of profits is returned to the Crown as shareholder.

In this regard, I propose that the Solid Energy Board give serious consideration to adopting a dividend policy equal to 65% of operating cash flows (including net interest paid) from 1 July 2009.

Related to dividend policy, I wish to outline an expectation that all SOEs pay two dividends per year, an interim and a final dividend.”

On  18 August 2009, Bill English met with Solid Energy’s then-Chairperson, John Palmer. After that meeting, Solid Energy increased its gearing (borrowing/debt) from around 25% to 35%, and changed the way it  accounted for mine rehabilitation costs.

This was a cash-grab on an unprecedented scale, and one that went largely un-noticed by media, Parliamentary Opposition, and the public.

On 13 March 2013, soon after Solid Energy’s massive $389 million debt became public, English was forced to concede that  National has mishandled governance of Solid Energy;

“The decisions about how much debt to incur was made by the board.

In Solid Energy’s case it turned out that a company operating in the world coal market, which is now so volatile, would have been better off with no debt – in retrospect that’s easy to see, at the time it wasn’t.”

However, in claiming that “decisions about how much debt to incur was made by the board“, the Finance Minister lied.

Solid Energy had been directed to increase it’s debt by Ministers English and Power – not by the SOE’s Board. The Treasury document above are a paper-trail evidencing National’s determination to increase it’s revenue at any costs (literally).

Both Key and English have consistently lied on this issue.

More recently, on Radio NZ’s Morning Report, on Friday 14 August, Guyon Espiner interviewed Finance Minister, Bill English, on Solid Energy’s corporate demise.

At one point, under persistent questioning by ‘Checkpoint‘ host, Guyon Espiner, English admitted National’s role in Solid Energy’s financial woes;

Espiner: But I’ll tell you what you also did, and you’ll remember this well in 2009, you looked at the balance sheets of SOEs and you decided that many of them could carry more debt and in fact you presided over a massive expansion in Solid Energy’s debt and in formal letters your government encouraged them to significantly increase their debt. That was a mistake wasn’t it?

English: Well, at the time it was valued, well actually that time, was valued about $3 billion and they took debt up to $300 million. It was a… As it turned out it was the pressure that put on the cash flow, well, the issues it raised, that got the government and, ah, the officials differing with the Board and that’s all on the record.

Espiner: Yes, so why did you, because you took their gearing ratio from about 14% in 09 up to 35% in 2010, 41% in 2012. So you presided, in fact, encouraged Solid Energy to take on the debt that they have eventually drowned in.

English: Well we worked with the Board over , over making sure the Crown was actually getting something out of the business. Um, certainly, in retrospect the debt levels got too high [garbled].

Espiner: So do you take the blame for that? Because, you failed there. You encouraged them to take on more debt and they’ve drowned in it.

English: Ahh, between us and the company, yes, we’re responsible for that.

There we have it. Under Espiner’s persistant questioning and quoting of facts, English had no place to hide; no one else to blame; and no lies he could resort to.

English had admitted that his government had gutted Solid Energy, and used it as a proxy for borrowing.

Then, under further questioning, English made one of the more bizarre assertions ever made by a politician (incest, chem-trails, and  moonlanding hoaxes notwithstanding);

Espiner: What about the dividend programme? You stripped more than $160 million in dividends out of this company over four years. Was that a good thing to do, given the state of the company, and couldn’t if they’d reinvested that money in the company been in some sort of position to keep the thing afloat?

English: Ah, no, precisely the opposite. And this has been the case with SOEs for years. If you leave the cash in there, generally, ah, they waste it. And, ah, in fact, one of the interactions here was we required a dividend because it was a company that was making money –

Espiner: Well hang on. Sorry to interrupt you but that’s an extraordinary statement to make, ‘You leave the cash in there and they waste it’?

National, of course, never wastes money. They never waste money on subsidising Rio Tinto; subsidising SkyCity; subsidising Charter Schools; subsidising Hollywood corporations like Warner Bros; subsidising Saudi businessmen to the tune of $11.5 million. Nor does National waste money on two tax cuts which were utterly unaffordable, being funded by  heavy overseas borrowing.

Espiner quite rightly mocked English’s ludicrous justification for government looting of Solid Energy;

Espiner: So it was better for you to take the money out, put it in the Consolidated Fund, let the company take on more debt, and they’ve eventually blown up.

This is the party that many New Zealanders believe is a “fiscally responsible manager of our economy”?!

Unfortunately, National’s mis-management does not end there.

The latest SOE to disclose financial difficulties is Landcorp;

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Landcorp in 'pretty tight situation' – English

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Landcorp’s current liabilities amount to $359 million, whilst it’s assets amount to $1.846 billion, according to the company’s half-yearly statement.

What is not mentioned anywhere is that, according to a document from Treasury’s Crown Company Monitoring Advisory Unit (CCMAU), the National Government sent a letter to Landcorp’s Board  making similar demands for higher dividends that it made to Solid Energy;

Firstly, as the CCMAU chart below shows, National’s expectations were that Landcorp increase its “gearing” (borrowed funds against a company’s equity) from 11% to 20% – a near doubling;

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CCMAU - SOE gearing and dividend expectations - national government

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Note also that National demanded 75% of Landcorp’s net operating profit as a dividend; two dividend payments per year;  and  as much as  100% of operating cash flow.

In a 2009 letter to Landcorp, Ministers Bill English and Simon Power demanded the following from the SOE’s Board;

“I am minded to increase the gearing of all SOEs from current levels, to a level more consistent with a BBB flat credit rating. In this regard, I have been advised by officials that Landcorp may have the capacity to sustain a 20% gearing ratio. I urge the Landcorp Board to give serious consideration to this proposal, and to release all surplus capital to the shareholder as special dividends.

I am also minded to standardise and simplify the dividend policy for all SOEs, to ensure that a larger and more reliable share of profits is returned to the Crown, as shareholder. In this regard, I propose that the Landcorp Board gives serious consideration to adopting a dividend policy equal to 100% of operating cash flows (including net interest paid) from 1 July 2009.

Related to dividend policy, I wish to outline an expectation that all SOEs pay two dividends per year, an interim and a final dividend.”

In the same letter, English and Powers  outlined revising “the land sale moratorium imposed on Landcorp as part of the Protected Land Agreement (PLA)“.

The letter to Solid Energy followed the same pattern;

I would like all SOEs to increase their gearing from current levels, to a level more consistent with a BBB flat credit rating. In this regard, I have been advised by officials that Solid Energy may have the capacity to sustain a 40% gearing ratio. I urge the Solid Energy Board to give serious consideration to this proposal, and to release all surplus capital to the shareholder as special dividends. I note that Solid Energy currently has a gearing target of 35%, including the company’s rehabilitation liability as if it were debt.

Given that the nature of the rehabilitation liability is significantly different from debt, I am sceptical that this is an appropriate treatment. I have asked my officials to engage with you on this issue.

I would also like to standardise and simplify the dividend policy for all SOEs, to ensure that a larger and more consistent share of profits is returned to the Crown as shareholder.

In this regard, I propose that the Solid Energy Board give serious consideration to adopting a dividend policy equal to 65% of operating cash flows (including net interest paid) from 1 July 2009.

Related to dividend policy, I wish to outline an expectation that all SOEs pay two dividends per year, an interim and a final dividend.

Almost identical letters. Except for the 20% gearing ratio, which differed from Solid Energy’s more onerous 40%, the demands placed on Landcorp were the same; high gearing (borrowing); higher dividends; and all surplus cash to be paid over to the Crown.

National was looting every SOE of every spare dollar.

The questions now demanding  answers;

  • How many other SOEs have been left in a similar parlous state to Solid Energy and Landcorp?
  • How much damage has been caused to SOEs due to unreasonable dividend and cash demands made to their Boards?
  • How much longer are New Zealanders willing to maintain the fiction that National is a “prudent fiscal manager of the economy”?

And the last question;

  • Which SOE will be next to disclose a dire financial state?

For Bill English and John Key, a whole bunch of chickens have suddenly come home to roost.

Some very, very expensive chickens.

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References

Radio NZ: Prime Minister criticises Solid Energy

Green Party: Asset sales bring in less than cost of National’s tax cuts to top 10%

Treasury: Solid Energy Information Release March 2013 (Document 1875419)

Treasury: Solid Energy Information Release March 2013 (Document 1732352)

TV3 News: Solid Energy was allowed to increase debt

Radio NZ: Morning Report – English defends Govt’s record over Solid Energy (alt. link)

TV3 News: Landcorp in ‘pretty tight situation’ – English

New Zealand Farming Landcorp Farming Limited: Half year report for the six months ended 31 December 2014

Additional

Radio NZ: When is an asset sale not an asset sale?

Previous related blogposts

The real cause for Solid Energy mass redundancies?

Dirty Dealings with Solid Energy

That was Then, This is Now #18 (Solid Energy)

Dear Leader Key blames everyone else for Solid Energy’s financial crisis

Dear Leader Key blames everyone else for Solid Energy’s financial crisis (Part Rua)

Mediaworks, Solid Energy, and National Standards

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A Clear Warning to Investors in SOEs…

11 March 2013 12 comments

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soe powercos

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The recent financial crisis and near-collapse of Solid Energy – one of the five, state owned enterprises planned for partial-privatisation – should serve as a warning for those investor-vultures circling to buy shares in any of the SOEs.

In fact, recent history regarding Air New Zealand, Kiwiwail, and (non-privatised) BNZ in 1991,  are indicators that privatisation of state assets is not a guaranteed roadmap to wealth,

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The Air New Zealand crash

Source

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It is noteworthy that one of the cause of Air New Zealand’s collapse was it’s foolhardy buy-out of Australian airline, Ansett,

First, the decision by Air New Zealand to pay dividends and second, the decision to buy the second half of Ansett. Both moves turned out to be considerably more beneficial to the interests of Brierleys than those of Air New Zealand.

Take the Ansett purchase. In early 1999, Cushing announced that Air New Zealand was vetoing Singapore Airline’s bid to buy News Corp’s 50% of Ansett Holdings (Air New Zealand had held the other 50% of Ansett since September 1996). Instead, it decided to pay News Corp $A580 million and get 100% control.

It’s most likely true that Air New Zealand paid too much for the stake and that directors had too little information about Ansett’s financial and engineering state. These are well-aired opinions, but are secondary to the main question that should be asked: Why did Air New Zealand buy the second half of Ansett at all? It’s not just that it was hopelessly out of its depth buying an airline twice its size. It’s just hard to see any benefits – to Air New Zealand, that is.

Source: IBID

On top of that were big dividend demands from one of Air Zealand’s major shareholders, Brierley’s,

The at times cash-strapped investment company held between 30% and 47% of shares over the period so, based on the total dividend of $765 million, Brierley reaped an estimated $250 million to $380 million from the airline. And Air New Zealand’s decision to buy the second half of Ansett, cutting Singapore Airlines out of the deal, contributed to Brierleys being able to do its own deal with Singapore.

In April last year, two months after Air New Zealand bought Ansett, Brierleys sold Singapore Airlines all its Air New Zealand “B” shares for $285 million, or $3 a share. It was arguably the last exit option for Brierleys from these shares, and, apart from a spike at the end of last year, Air New Zealand shares have largely tracked downwards ever since – they were trading around 30 cents as Unlimited went to press.

Source: IBID

In other words, Air New Zealand had over-extended in unwise investments (as has Solid Energy), and was bled dry by rapacious demands for dividends (as did Faye Richwhite in NZ Rail in the early 1990s).

How does this relate to the upcoming partial-sale of Mighty River Power?

Recent revelations that Mighty River Power has shaky investments on Chile, should cause potential investors to pause for thought,

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Key struggles to push Chilean investments

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According to the TV3 story above, “Mighty River Power has spent $250 million at the geothermal plant in southern Chile, but has just written off $89 million as the investments struggle“.

To which Key responded casually,

There is always risk.”

Dear Leader  seems somewhat blase about investors’ risks? Of course he is. It’s not his money.

The Crown Ownership Monitoring Unit (COMU) reported,

Impairments

During the period, the Company recognised $91.4 million of impairments principally reflecting its investment in the GeoGlobal Partners I Fund (GGE Fund), and its greenfield explorations for potential developments in Chile and Germany.

This impairment followed higher than expected costs at the Tolhuaca project in Chile due to the worst winter in 40 years adversely affecting drilling performance and only one of the two wells having proven production capacity. The value of GGE’s investment at Weiheim in Germany, has been impacted by increased costs due to required changes in the drilling location following the 3D seismic surveys and delays from environmental court challenges which have been resolved post balance date.

The GGE Fund had not raised capital from other investors by the end of the 2012 and Mighty River Power made the decision not to invest further capital into the existing structure. Overall, the impairment charge of $88.9 million for the German and Tolhuaca assets and the management company of GGE LLC leaves a residual book value of $91.8 million.

Source: Mighty River Power LtdResults for Announcement to the Market

On top of  Mighty River Power’s dodgy investment in Chile, New Zealand is now experiencing what is being called the worst drought in seven decades  (see:  North Island’s worst drought in 70 years). As Climate scientist Jim Salinger said about New Zealand’s current weather patterns continuing, and becoming  similar to the Mediterranean,

What it means is that if it just doesn’t rain for at least four months of the year, it means you have to bring in your water from elsewhere.”

Source: IBID

As all investors should bear in mind; most of our power generation is generated from  hydro stations. Mighty River Power, especially, derives most of its electricity from eight  hydro-electric stations on the Waikato River.

Mighty River Power CEO, Doug Heffernan has given a clear warning,

Following the lower than average inflows into the Waikato catchment during the last quarter [to December 31], Mighty River ended the half year at just 69 per cent of historical average [hydro storage].”

And Equity analyst Phillip Anderson of Devon Funds stated,

The same period last year they got really strong inflows, and this is the exact opposite . . .

In the second half of this reporting year they’re going to have to buy a lot more electricity to feed their customers, either on the spot market at a lot higher cost or use their [Southdown] gas plant.

We expect the second half of this year is going to be a lot tougher for them, they should get their margins squeezed if that all plays out.”

Source: Parched Waikato could hit Mighty River Power

The equation is blindingly simple,

Less rain = less water = less electricity generation

The question that begs to be asked is; where does the risk of investing in SOEs fall – private investors, or the State?

The answer I submit to the reader is, that like Air New Zealand, it will be private investors who bear the brunt of all risk. The State will simply pick up the pieces,  buying up shares at bargain basement prices, should anything go wrong.

Electricity generators like Mighty River Power will simply never be allowed to fail. Had the Labour government in 2001 allowed Air New Zealand to collapse, the fall-out to the rest of the reconomy would have been too horrendous to contemplate, and flow-on effects to other businesses (eg; exporters and tourism) and the economy would have been worse than any bail-out.

But any bailout will involve a massive loss for investors, as their share-value plummets. Again, Air New Zealand was an example to us all.

As the impact of climate change creates more uncertainly for our state power companies, investors need to think carefully before committing one single dollar toward buying shares,

Do I really want to bear all the risk?

Those who lost out on their investments in Air New Zealand in the 1990s will probably answer,

No.

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References

The Air New Zealand crash (1 November 2001)

A history of bailouts (7 April 2011)

Foreigners important for SOE sell-downs: Treasury (30 June 2011)

No law stopping foreign investors (16 Dec 2011)

Parched Waikato could hit Mighty River Power (22 Feb 2013)

Mighty River Power shares float mid-May (4 March 2013)

Taking the plunge in Mighty River (9 March 2013)

Key struggles to push Chilean investments (9 March 2013)

North Island’s worst drought in 70 years (10 March 2013)

Other blogs

Seemorerocks: An Appeal for a New Zealand Risk Assessment

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