The Mining Finance Black Hole

Could this have worked out any better for China? We’re talking about the position Rio Tinto put itself in by taking on US$38 billion in debt to acquire Alcan—and stave off the unwanted advance of an amorous BHP. Now, in a world where refinancing that debt is near impossible for one of the world’s largest miners, it must sue for peace with a strategic partner.

The total value of the deal is $30 billion. Chinalco gets a minority stake in some of Rio’s crown jewels, including the iron ore project in the Pilbara. It’s not cheap. Chinalco is paying a US$12.34 cover charge to get into the Pilbara, according to today’s Australian. But it’s oh so worth if it if you’re looking to source your steel industry’s long-term ore requirements.

You know for a fact that Rio’s directors did not wake up in July of 2007 and ask themselves, “How can we destroy shareholder value, imperil our jobs, and transfer ownership of our prized assets to our customers today?” Nobody entrepreneur waked up in the morning wanting to make the biggest mistake of his life.

Rio got caught in what Murray Rothbard called the “cluster of errors” that appears at the end of a credit boom. Normally, entrepreneurs make their mistakes discretely, in an uncorrelated fashion. One man correctly reads the emerging need for overnight transport of goods (FedEX) while another man opens a steakhouse in a neighbourhood full of vegans.

But in a credit boom, the abundance of money causes everyone to miscalculate at the same time. Entrepreneurs—who as Rothbard points out are in the business of forecasting future demand and meeting it with new supply—misread the market based on demand that has been falsely stimulated by the availability of cheap credit. When the credit goes, the businesses find they’ve expanded for a demand which was never really sustainable.

Of course it’s easy to say all that with the advantage of hindsight. If they knew then what they know now, Rio’s directors probably wouldn’t have saddled the company with $40 billion in debt on the eve of a credit depression. But then, we can never know then what we know now. As investors, all you can do is look for management team’s whose assumptions about the future are not “excessively forward looking.”

Rio will just be fine, one way or another. What’s really disturbing at the moment is how many economic mining projects are in danger of shutting down because finance is drying up altogether. And we’re not talking about greenfield mines or exploration projects. We’re talking about mines that are already mining ore or have completed all the necessary permitting.

Financing is now a critical problem. Hmm. Do you think there’ll be a government bailout for miners with economic projects who simply can’t refinance their loans? Probably not.

Over in New York, the Dow Jones did its best Lazarus imitation and rallied nearly 200 points in the last fifty minutes of trading. It still finished about seven points down on the day. But that’s better than 200 points down.

Is it over yet? No. Not yet. The Financial Times reports that, “Almost half of all the complex credit products ever built out of slices of other securitised bonds have now defaulted, according to analysts, and the proportion rises to more than two-thirds among deals created at the peak of the cycle.”

“The defaults have affected more than $300bn worth of these collateralised debt obligations, which were built from bits of other asset backed securities (ABS) such as mortgage bonds, other CDOs and structured bonds, or derivatives of any of these, according to analysts at Wachovia and Morgan Stanley.’

What about the other half? Uh oh…

Our old London desk mate Adrian Ash at Bullion Vault writes in…

Hey Dan loved your man’s story about the Kiwi gold dealer who went bust in the late ’80s. GoldCorp cost some 1,600 private buyers their entire “investment” after BNZ demanded (and was awarded) what little gold there was.

Like several other local titans blown up by the ’87 crash, Ray Smith the man behind Gold Corp even wrote a book about it in the mid-90s, trying to downplay his role in the scandal, entitled Where’s the Gold? Must’ve had balls of brass. Try blaming the private-investor losses on BNZ instead, I’m told. But the key point for gold investors came right at the top of your reader’s story, when he refused to accept Goldcorp’s certificate in lieu of gold.

Your reader said the secretary told him, “Oh no. Nobody does that nowadays [takes physical delivery]. It’s much too risky. We store all our customers’ gold in our vault. And it’s a free service”.

Everything you needed to know about Goldcorp’s business and risks was spelled out right there:

#1. Title was vested in that piece of paper “your proof of ownership” rather than in the gold. That’s the problem, legally speaking, with certification. The more persistent risk, physically, lies in over-issuance…selling more certificates than there’s gold in the vault [ed note sounds like fractional reserve banking]. Which is why, here at BullionVault, we publish a central register of all customer property instead. Anyone visiting the site can then prove it against the full list of all gold bars held by our vault operators.

#2. The gold “sold” to the buyer wasn’t necessarily in the vault anyway. That’s made clear by storage being “a free service”. Because just like several of the leading gold programs running today, storage can only be free to the buyer if the gold doesn’t actually belong to him or her. It’s what’s known as “un-allocated” making the buyer an unsecured creditor, in the same way that cash depositors are unsecured creditors of commercial banks.

The final judgment in the Goldcorp case realized this, over-turning a previous decision that said non-allocated gold could be subject to a proprietary claim by unsecured creditors. But it can’t, firstly because it won’t necessarily exist (!) and secondly because that free storage proves they don’t actually own anything.

Goldcorp was no more a custodian of physical property than your bank when it accepts a cash deposit. So whatever gold might have been in the vault could then be lent out or sold with or without the customer’s explicit knowledge because s/he was only an unsecured creditor, not an owner of physical property left in safe-keeping.

The moral? Always take DELIVERY if you want to get yourself off risk. Possession, on the other hand along with all the extra costs, hassles and lack of liquidity is another matter entirely.

And finally, this conversation from the pokey in the hotel we’ve been staying at this week on the Gold Coast. It was the end of a long week and your editor sat down to finish a glass of red wine over a bizarre looking game that had a giant red kangaroo on it. It was called “Big Red.”

“How can three eagles not win a hand,” we asked the stranger to our right, trying to figure the game out?

“I don’t know. What kind of eagles are they?”

“I don’t know. I think they’re brown eagles. There’s no gold on them.”

“Maybe it’s a sea eagle.”

“Maybe. But…shouldn’t three eagles win something.”

“Not necessarily. It looks to me like you’ve got eagles there. But you’ve also got crocodiles…boars…let’s see…I think that’s a dingo…some gum trees…a queen…and a king. So they have to fit together somehow, or else you don’t get anything.”

“It sounds like a synthetic CDO?”


“Nothing…really. Nothing. Never mind.” And off to bed we went.

From Dan Denning on the Gold Coast
for 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.

Leave a Reply

4 Comments on "The Mining Finance Black Hole"

Notify of
Sort by:   newest | oldest | most voted

I really enjoyed reading the article Dan.
Nice to know that there are journalists/authors that like to get into the nitty gritty. (FRB etc)

The rio tinto deal with chinalco is wrong what happened to our goverment ruling no more then 15% could be owned or sold to china. you stupid fools rio and all you investers, just think now they can get cheaper ore less profit for share holders, can employ there own staff good bye ausi jobs and best of all take all our australian profit out of australia and spend it in china, china will own this country and rio just let not a foot a leg in. on ya rio hope your proud… its a sad sad day for australia… Read more »
Mining is a very high risk activity. You also have market risk and sovereign risk amongst a host of risks.In Australia, resource nationalism is conducted at the State level, e.g. 13,000 applications logjammed in W.A. & 1600 in QLD. The QLD govt. last year increased the tax on coal over $100/tn from 7% to 10%. This is an increase of over 42%, owing to budget balance incompetence. Try pulling that one on the non productive public services payrolls. Australians don’t like to invest in jobs for themselves and wealth for the nation, they like housing with the holy grail being… Read more »
I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about the legal similarities between that non exisitant gold ( Gold corp) and mortgages sold onto Trusts after the orignal finance companies went belly up. You probably know about the legal challenges that are going on in the States about ‘who owns the mortgage?’ I was first alerted to it by an email I had from Sharecafe. The principle seems to be the same to me only in this case the mortgage is ‘unallocated’whereas the gold was ‘unallocated’ in the Goldcorp case. If the investors couldn’t get the gold or sue for damages… Read more »
Letters will be edited for clarity, punctuation, spelling and length. Abusive or off-topic comments will not be posted. We will not post all comments.
If you would prefer to email the editor, you can do so by sending an email to