Now that the Olympics are over, let the real games begin. All the medals have been handed out. No more swimming, diving, juking and jiving. We can finally get back to the real international competition that matters: the race for ownership of the world’s tangible assets.
This is a multiplayer game, being played at the highest and humblest levels. It’s played in Melbourne boardrooms, Beijing backrooms, and even in your living room! Big fish chase big fish. Sharks circle in the water. And the little fish watch it all hoping to catch a wave, and not get eaten.
Australian Treasurer Wayne Swan announced this weekend that Chinalco is more than welcome to 11% of Rio Tinto (ASX:RIO). He made it sound like there were some caveats, provisos, and addendums. But at the end of the day the Treasurer said, “I have decided to raise no objections under Australia’s foreign investment policy.”
Okay. There are just two conditions that apply, though. Chinaclo has to reapply for Federal permission if it wants more than 15% of Rio and Chinalco said it won’t ask for a seat on Rio Tinto’s board. Does it even need one?
It depends on what Chinalco (and China Inc.) wants from the whole deal. Does Chinalco simply want to own a big enough stake in Rio Tinto that it can block the merger with BHP Billiton and prevent the formation of an Asia-Pacific iron ore titan? Or does it reckon that in order for the merger to go through with the regulators, Rio will have to carve itself up into various base metal pieces, aluminium being the juiciest?
Besides, there’s always the chance that a Rio Tinto – BHP Billiton merger will be thwarted right here at home by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC). On Friday the ACCC raised some doubts about the whole OPEC-of-Iron-Ore vision.
The ACCC said that, “To the extent the proposed acquisition lessens the competition in the global seaborne supply of iron ore, it would be likely to have the effect of increasing global iron ore prices, which would in turn increase prices paid by steelmakers in Australia.”
Hmm. Well, isn’t that the whole point? BHP Billiton wants to shift pricing power in the resource sector away from the consumers (China) and towards the producers (Aussies). Global ore prices are going up because steel production and consumption are going up. Does the ACCC want to favour Australian steelmakers over ore sellers? And if so, on what grounds?
And another thing. Has the Treasurer really sorted out what’s in Australia’s best interests? For example, he delayed by 90 days a ruling on Sinosteel’s bid to takeover Murchison Metals (ASX:MMX) in the Midwest. While delaying a takeover, the inaction also pummeled Murchison’s share price, not exactly a desirable result for Murchison shareholders.
And what was the point of the delay anyway? Was it to hope that Sinosteel would somehow change its strategic objectives by sending it to the corner for 90 days? Or does the Federal government have any idea how to confront the reality that many foreign interest are keen to take ownership of Aussie mineral deposits are willing to pay for it?
Is Australia for sale or not? And if not, who’s going to develop all those mineral deposits and turn them into wages, income, capital, and rising standards of living? If not now, when? We’re headed out to Geraldton tomorrow to give a speech on the state of play in the Midwest. We’re also sticking around for a day to hear from miners who have projects in the region. We’ll let you know what we find.
As you can see, we have more questions than answers this morning. But now that China has emerged onto the global stage with a splash, the simple question is “what next?” One way of looking at it is that you’re seeing what happens when demography and geology collide.
China’s extraordinary growth rates have thus far been driven by a huge advantage in cheap labour. But that growth is resource intensive. If China (and India, and Brazil and other emerging economies) keep increasing per capita incomes, they’re going use more energy and resources than ever.
For example, today’s Wall Street Journal reports that the average American consumes the equivalent of 7.82 tonnes of oil per year to meet his energy requirements. By comparison, a single Chinese man uses just 1.4 tonnes of oil per year to meet his total energy requirements.
Rising standards of living are resource intensive. One good thing is that more developed economies tend to use energy and resources more efficiently. But is there enough oil in the world for six billion people to live at the same energy intensity as homo Americanus? We doubt it, which will make watching geopolitics and the great contest for energy very interesting over the next ten years.
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