China now has a pawn inside the Australian iron ore industry: the shameless Andrew Twiggy Forrest and his Fortescue Metals Group.

You have to wonder how his big US hedge fund shareholders — Leucadia and Harbinger — feel because from now on the fortunes of these investments will be determined by what happens in China, not the market. That is going to cut the value of their holdings, with the Fortescue hostage to the whims of the Chinese Government and the Chinese economy.

The two hedge funds are among the original supporters of Twiggy’s iron ore ambitions and control more than 25% of his company. Collectively they outweigh the Chinese steel group, Hunan Valin with 17.3% (and which in turn has AreclorMittal, the world’s largest steel group as a frustrated minority shareholder).

The new ore contract price announced yesterday with its 35% cut means Fortescue has forsaken spot prices in the global iron ore market in excess of $US100 a tonne (around $US110 a tonne, cost, insurance and freight, ex India to China late last week), which is $US40 a tonne more than what Twiggy will be getting for the next six months.

By doing that he could have given up $US1 billion to $US2 billion in extra revenues this year (assuming the higher price continues at current levels, it won’t, not with the bloom going off China’s steel demand). But even so, there’s likely to be a substantial margin in the spot market over Twiggy’s sweetheart price with his Chinese mates because demand from other markets is starting to recover.

Along with the huge debt he is going to take on to finance his expansion plans, Forrest is going to be running an over-geared speculative miner producing just one commodity, servicing just one market and getting less than market prices.

The debt payments are going to chew up whatever cash is left over from operations, even if there’s a low interest, low repayment period at the start of the loan as Chinese banks loss lead on the deal to get market presence in the Australian resources industry.

There will be some tension in the share price as stockmarket speculators run the line that Twiggy has “the inside running” with China and will always get the best deal. Not so. He is now seen as China’s pawn in the Australian resources industry. Chinese companies won’t be able to increase their holdings in the company without running into FIRB problems, but Fortescue should be viewed with increasing interest at the highest levels of the Australian Government and its regulators.

China has been searching for a counterweight to BHP and Rio in the Australian iron ore industry and with this deal, and the promise of up to $US6.5 billion in finance, it has found it.

Peter Fray

Fetch your first 12 weeks for $12

Here at Crikey, we saw a mighty surge in subscribers throughout 2020. Your support has been nothing short of amazing — we couldn’t have got through this year like no other without you, our readers.

If you haven’t joined us yet, fetch your first 12 weeks for $12 and start 2021 with the journalism you need to navigate whatever lies ahead.

Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

JOIN NOW