BHP Billiton, Rio Tinto and the American Civil War

Let’s get the ugly part out of the way first. The S&P ASX/200 limped home yesterday to finish the fiscal year down 16.9%. Let’s call it 17. It was the first down year since 2002, or 1 BB (Before the Boom).

If not for the iron-ore solid performance of BHP Billiton (ASX: BHP)-up 24.7% on the financial year-it would have been much worse for the ASX 200. Rio Tinto (ASX: RIO) did its part to hold the line for the resource sector as well. Rio was up 38.2% for year, from $98 to $135.50.

But wait, why is BHP’s 24.7% gain more weighty than Rio’s 38.2%? Is this some weird new math? Some sleight of hand or trickery? No.

The ASX/200 is a market-cap weighted index. A stock is judged not by the colour of its performance but by the content of its market capitalisation. BHP’s market cap went from $194 billion to $244 billion in the last twelve months. Rio went from $98 billion to $135 billion.

You reckon Rio’s CEO Tom Albanese will not be happy to hear that BHP still means more to Australia-at least the performance of its share market index-than Rio. Yet Rio is not unattractive. The Financial Times reported yesterday that ArcelorMittal (AMS: MT)-the world’s largest steel company-may be interested in buying a piece of Rio.

Does that kind of deal make sense? Arcelor is trying to bring its resource supply chain back on to the balance sheet. Buying the world’s second-largest iron-ore maker sure would do that. But Rio’s biggest customer is China. So does Arcelor just want a piece of Rio’s growing earnings? Does it want the ore? Or does it want a piece of Rio’s assets in a post-BHP merger carve up?

Who knows? Lakshmi Mittal does probably. But he’s not telling.

Yesterday we mentioned we’d look at the markets geopolitically. What we meant by that is that most pundits are assuming the resolution to the credit crisis will come in form of a normal economic cycle or some change in monetary policy, or a currency readjustment. But maybe it will end in bullets.

This current state of affairs is not just a friendly tilt between inflating commodities and deflating financial assets. An allusion is in order. At the First Battle of Manassas on July 21st 1861 the American Civil War got underway. Everyone thought it would be a short, quaint affair. Manassas is not far from Washington D.C.

Today, you take Interstate 66 to Route 50 West, if memory serves (our brother used to live in the area). But back in 1861, day-trippers from DC took carriages out to watch the opening of the war. They brought picnic baskets and clapped. They anticipated a Union rout of the rebel troops led by Confederate General PGT Beauregard.

It was all going the Union’s way until a bunch of Virginians under General Thomas Jackson held the line at Henry House Hill. “There stands Jackson like a stone wall,” said Brigadier General Barnard Bee Jr. The Southerners rallied and won the battle and the war was much longer and bloodier than anyone expected.

We mention the battle for three reasons. One, it was a nice way to think of BHP and Rio in your portfolio, buttressing it against a larger route. Two, the Civil War was much worse than anyone expected because it was really the first war where industrial production mechanised warfare. You had tremendous firepower concentrated in large masses of men. The result was industrial scale slaughter and a preview of World War I fifty years later.

No one went into the war thinking it would be newer and deadlier. And no one has gone into globalisation believing that there were drawbacks as well as benefits. The obvious drawback now is that a synchronised global asset bubble has become a synchronised global asset bust, with falling asset values leading to reduced consumption, lower corporate earnings, and more falling asset values…all in a downward spiral.

The third reason brings us to Clausewitz, the German military strategist. He wrote many famous things. One of them is that, “war is a continuation of politics by other means.” Clausewitz used the German word Politik, which can mean either policy or politics.

One reader writes in that our theory of a seamless migration of wealth and capital from West to East is rubbish. “People never relinquish what they have easily,” he writes. “If Asia is to become rich and the West poor, we will see war, actually many wars, first. The history of man is war.”

This is the other possibility, then. The economic tensions created by globalisation turn into hot resource wars, via both politics and policy. It’s no coincidence that the oil price has gone up since the Iraq war began.

Will Americans under John McCain or Barrack Obama take their new position in the world with good grace? Or are they going to fight it? What is China’s ultimate resource policy? Does Australia even have one? Should it? Will markets take a back seat to geopolitics in the coming years?

Let’s not be so dire. We could be in the midst of a painful but necessary financial adjustment.

Dan Denning
Markets and Money

Dan Denning
Dan Denning examines the geopolitical and economic events that can affect your investments domestically. He raises the questions you need to answer, in order to survive financially in these turbulent times.

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Rio Tinto or BHP Billiton?

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