Miners' woes make asset sales harder

21:06, Feb 23 2013

Has National's asset sales programme got a hex on it? Bill English must be starting to wonder.

He had the look of a man who didn't get much sleep in the 24 hours before he outlined the full scale of the Solid Energy train wreck.

Yes, he conceded, it's effectively bust. No, he pledged, the Government won't let it fall over.

As to what the one-time jewel in the crown of the Government's asset sales programme might be worth now? Maybe nothing.

It is not so long ago that the Government hoped to raise $1 billion-plus from Solid Energy as part of its $5b to $7b capital-raising plan. That prospect disappeared months back as it became increasingly clear the state-owned coalminer was in trouble.

But even so. It will do nothing to restore confidence that the Government's reliance on the sale of shares in the remaining state- owned power companies doesn't rest on equally shaky foundations.


Even the usually chipper Tony Ryall, the state owned enterprises minister, looked sombre at Mr English's side.

As finance minster, Mr English is well used to presiding over bad news. His is the face of finance company bailouts, a multibillion- dollar earthquake recovery bill and credit company downgrades.

On the sliding scale of financial calamity then, Solid Energy might sit nearer the lower end of the scale. But it still carries a big human cost.

There have already been 450 job losses, as the precarious state of Solid Energy's books emerged. Now the company's remaining 1200-strong workforce faces an uncertain future. For the West Coast, where the brunt of any job cuts will be felt most, it spells economic and personal disaster.

The political cost could be just as calamitous to National.

That cost is not just about the potential job losses - though that is a big enough political headache on its own for this Government, whose economic management will be measured against the yardstick of jobs and growth, neither of which has blossomed after four years under the shadow of the global financial crisis.

There is also likely to be a hardening of public attitudes against the Government's asset sales programme. Their unpopularity has always rested on more than just general antipathy toward asset sales.

Scratch beneath the surface - as we did with a Fairfax Media- Ipsos political poll last year - and it is clear that most voters are unconvinced by the Government's economic arguments.

To put it even more succinctly, many of them think it is economic lunacy, including plenty of National voters.

But the punters swallowed it as a necessary evil back in 2011 either because it was accepted as the price they had to pay for re- electing a popular government, or because debt was an even bigger bogey than asset sales.

HOWEVER, as the programme is increasingly beset by delays and problems, the debt argument seems less and less compelling.

Strip away Solid Energy and Air New Zealand shares - which, given the ongoing global downturn, is also off the block for now - and the upper end of the Government's $7b estimate of the return on shares looks heroic.

Mighty River Power is still not out of the woods yet on a Maori Council legal challenge over water rights, though a resolution in the Government's favour is looking more likely than six months ago.

Uncertainty hangs over Meridian and the wider electricity market face, meanwhile, till negotiations over the Tiwai Pt aluminium smelter are resolved. If it pulls the plug on New Zealand, there will be an immediate oversupply of power.

And it is against this backdrop that the Government continues to talk about kicking off an aggressive share float programme this year. It risks looking like political imperative overriding common sense.

But with an economic programme that looks increasingly adrift, National is in desperate need of a win on asset sales this year. It expects the popularity of Trade Me and Fonterra shares to be replicated in the demand for blue-chip energy stocks. It had better hope it is right. Because it will take a couple of stratospheric share floats to quell the rumbling unease.

As far as the asset sales programme goes, there is, of course, a glass-half-full scenario in Solid Energy's demise.

That scenario goes something like this: Solid Energy is only in this mess because of a culture of excess and lack of commercial oversight. Mr English started down that track on Thursday, suggesting the true scale of Solid Energy's problems emerged once Treasury put it under the microscope in preparation for its partial sale.

That process revealed a company with over-ambitious expansion plans, hefty overheads, runaway capital expenditure and pumped-up salaries and bonuses for the senior management team.

Chief executive Don Elder, who has since departed along with chairman John Palmer, was getting $1.36 million a year, according to the 2011 annual report, and the state coalminer had 20 staff on its books earning more than $300,000. Nearly 400 staff were earning more than $100,000.

The organisation's financial woes, meanwhile, did not appear to stand in the way of staff receiving generous bonuses of $23.5m over the past two years, all while the company racked up debts of $389m.

Leaving aside the questions about what Treasury and the shareholding ministers were doing while management ran amok, those with long memories will recognise the ring of the 1980s.

Remember I've Been Thinking, the book written by former Labour Cabinet minister Richard Prebble, which laid bare the failings of an unwieldy and inefficient public service? His book preceded a round of privatisation started by the then Labour government, and continued by National.

The waste and bureaucracy Mr Prebble exposed were real, but that did nothing to sweeten the pill of the selloff of the likes of NZ Rail and Air New Zealand. And the experience since - of NZ Rail being run into the ground by its commercial operators, and the Government being forced to buy back Air New Zealand - is what lies behind the continuing unease over asset sales.

The Government may not be perfect at running essential infrastructure, but the alternative has not always been convincing

That is what National is up against now. And the unfolding disaster at Solid Energy doesn't make the sales pitch any easier.

The Dominion Post