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Mining boom teeters in 2012

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MELBOURNE, AAP

December 13 2012, 1:30PM

Did the mining boom end in 2012, or didn't it? Either way, the record prices are gone and the industry's billionaire moguls stumbled. BHP Billiton and its chief executive Marius Kloppers also had a few hiccups during the year, but both retained number-one status at the end of 2012.

BOOM OR BUST?

The year was tough for Australia's resources companies - and anyone relying on them for income.

The boom was declared over by federal Resources Minister Martin Ferguson and iron ore and coal prices crashed, hitting the major miners' and the national bottom line.

Those two products had been Australia's biggest exports in 2011, earning $110.9 billion or 35.4 per cent of the nation's export income.

Shareholders spoilt by record profits in recent years sent mining and energy stocks tumbling.

An economic slowdown in an overheating China caused demand and prices to fall as costs in Australia soared and new supply came on after years of investment by miners keen to cash in on the boom.

As Pengana Capital fund manager Tim Schroeders puts it: "The inventory cycle moved the wrong way in terms of growth being less than expectations and people having to de-stock as a consequence."

Things came to a head in August when BHP Billiton pulled $50 billion of investment in Olympic Dam's expansion and the Port Hedland Outer Harbour, while the highly-geared Fortescue Metals refinanced its $10 billion debt.

Thousands of people lost their resources jobs, including 5,000 in Queensland's coal space and 1,000 Fortescue Metals workers.

PRICE FALLS

The consensus is that while the days of record high commodity prices are gone, the resources boom is not over.

Miners have committed $268.4 billion to new Australian projects, with more than half for liquefied natural gas (LNG) and most of the rest in iron ore and coal.

BHP Billiton and Rio Tinto have multi-billion dollar expansions of their Pilbara iron ore output, thus keeping the faith in Chinese demand.

Commodity prices remain high despite falling below last year's record $US190 per tonne.

Commonwealth Bank's Global Markets Research team expects iron ore, oil, gold, coking and thermal coal, copper and aluminium prices to keep falling until 2020.

However, China's economy is getting so large that the volumes of demand will remain substantial, the researchers said in November, supporting the Reserve Bank of Australia's view that there'll be a third-phase resource volumes boom.

Pengana Capital fund manager Tim Schroeders sees encouraging signs for the industry, including an economic recovery in the US.

Mine Life senior resources analyst Gavin Wendt said resource company shareholders should see the easing in commodity prices as adding to the sustainability of the boom.

BILLIONAIRE WOES

The mining industry's billionaires stumbled in 2012.

Coal mining entrepreneur Nathan Tinkler, 36, appears to have fallen to his knees, with creditors including electricians claiming thousands of dollars to coal junior Blackwood Corporation wanting $28.4 million for a failed land sale.

Liquidators moved in on two of his businesses, and his private jet and helicopter were seized.

Multi-billionaire Andrew "Twiggy" Forrest's Fortescue Metals got into trouble when falling iron ore prices made it almost unprofitable as it laboured under $US12 billion in debt.

Even the world's richest woman Gina Rinehart had trouble financing for her $10 billion Roy Hill iron ore project.

Mr Tinkler's debt is believed to be higher than the $560 million his 20 per cent Whitehaven Coal stake is worth, with it and his wealth having plunged by 56.5 per cent in value since it merged with his company Aston Resources in April.

The cases highlight the dangers and difficulties of being asset rich and cash poor and monetising or realising assets, says Pengana Capital fund manager Tim Schroeders.

Mine Life senior resources analyst Gavin Wendt said Fortescue's debt problems showed how it was almost impossible to compete against BHP Billiton, Rio Tinto and Vale, which control 83 per cent of global iron ore trade.

"It's a high risk game that requires billions of dollars to be a player in and if the underlying commodity price falls as it has done for iron ore, well Rio is still superbly placed with the best quality operations and not carrying the levels of debt Fortescue is," he said.

BHP BILLITON

There is an argument that 2012 has been disappointing for The Big Australian.

Net profit dived 35 per cent to $US15.4 billion, the share price is down in a year the overall market is up, it shelved $50 billion expansion projects at Olympic Dam and Port Hedland and booked a $US3 billion writedown on US shale assets.

Those events were made public in August with key executives, including chief executive Marius Kloppers, forgoing their annual bonus.

BHP has hired a firm to find a replacement for Mr Kloppers, who remains in the position for now.

However, within a month of the writedowns, iron ore prices plunged and BHP's costly investment in shale began looking shrewd, with Standard and Poor's hailing BHP for having the best diversity of its peers.

Management expects iron ore prices to drop in line with less Chinese demand longer term, but BHP would become a bigger producer of middle-income commodities shale gas and potash.

Pengana Capital fund manager Tim Schroeders said there was tension between investors not wanting capital deployed in marginal projects that could be returned to them, while boards had to invest for the future including in exploration.

"You don't want to see them just curtail capital investment and pay big dividends to satiate shareholders for the near term, then fall in a growth hole down the track," he said.

LNG

Australia looks set to become the world's second-biggest exporter of liquefied natural gas (LNG) after Qatar.

But it's not all smooth sailing as the anticipated construction boom leads to potential cost blowouts and heavy competition leaves local consumers with hefty power bills.

The government believes Australia could be the world's largest producer of LNG within five years if the current boom continues.

With 14 LNG projects worth more than $170 billion under way, Australia is the world's third-largest LNG exporter and aims to lift export capacity by 60 million tonnes.

"Based on these proposed and committed projects, our capacity could quadruple by 2017," Energy Minister Martin Ferguson says.

However spiralling costs, including those for labour, have prompted some analysts to lift their cost estimates for major upcoming projects, including Chevron's Gorgon project which has blown out by $9 billion to $52 billion.

The final cost of the nation's most controversial development, Woodside's $40 billion Browse project near Broome, is also under the microscope as major joint venture partner Royal Dutch Shell angles towards developing the project offshore using floating technology.

Woodside and its partners, BHP, Shell, BP, Mitsubishi and Mitsui, will decide by mid-2013 whether it's economically viable to bring gas ashore at James Price Point.

By Greg Roberts and Kim Christian