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Who is to blame for Solid Energy’s failure

Written By: - Date published: 9:52 am, August 16th, 2015 - 63 comments
Categories: accountability, bill english, national, political parties, same old national - Tags:

Solid Energy missing report

In writing this article I had a read of Frank Macskasy’s excellent blogpost which is here.  Regrettably the earlier annual reports that were available on Solid Energy’s website appear to have been removed.  What gives?  Is a state owned entity hiding information which is important for us to understand what happened?

So Bill English is denying Government responsibility for Solid Energy’s problems.  I hope that this gets analysed more carefully by the mainstream media.  Because it is clearly not correct.

The Herald has reported on a recent Bill English interview:

The continuing slide in the price of hard coking coal on the international market has been blamed for the decline of the debt-laden company, but Opposition parties have pointed the finger at the Government, saying it must take some responsibility for Solid Energy’s current misfortune.

But Finance Minister Bill English today dismissed those accusations, saying it was not bad management on National’s part that pushed the company over the edge.

“No I don’t agree with that,” he said on TV3’s The Nation this morning. “It’s the coal price that’s sunk this company, and the assumptions it made five or six years ago about where their coal price would be.

They thought it would be twice as high as it is now, in fact their estimates were higher than the market. So as the Government came to grips with what the company’s plans were there was disagreement between the company and the Government and the Treasury, there were changes in the board, changes in the management, and we’ve been in a process ever since dealing with this ever dropping coal price.”

But did Solid Energy have such a bullish view of the world?

I wrote this post in March 2013 where I went through Solid Energy’s problems at the time.  I thought the Government’s insistence on increasing dividends were a major factor.

The final claim about the company’s woes being related to risky investments directly contradicts a letter that Labour unearthed whereby in [May] 2009 Solid Energy was instructed by then Minister Simon Power to increase debt and the payment of dividends.  Key has claimed that Solid Energy’s view of the future price of coal was bullish and out of kilter with the Government’s view but if this is so then you really have to wonder about why the Government still insisted on increased debt and dividends. Interestingly the letter reinforces this and in the letter Power says the following:

“I am disappointed with the forecast decline in Solid Energy’s financial performance over the next three years, in particular the dramatic decline in profitability and dividends.  While this is understandable, given the significant decline in forecast coal prices, it is far from clear why Solid Energy forecasts [redacted].”

Solid Energy was telling the Government its financial performance was going to worsen but the Government still insisted on increasing dividends.

Over the next four years $130 million in dividends were paid to the Crown while at the same time Solid Energy’s position worsened.  When you allow for compounding interest those payments represent a significant amount of the company’s debt.  And requiring a $30 million dividend to be paid in the year that a substantial loss was made was always going to cause problems.

And the cost so far?  There was the payment of $100 million by the Government from the Future Investment Fund.  I do not think that it was intended that the fund would be used in this way.  There are also the $25 million worth of redeemable preference shares the Government owns which appear to be worthless.  And there is the shell of a company that was previously thought to be worth in the vicinity of $2 billion dollars.

Ministers are meant to be in control of things and have some oversight of and management of State owned entities.  Solid Energy suggests that English and co have failed miserably in discharging their obligations.

63 comments on “Who is to blame for Solid Energy’s failure”

  1. les 1

    Don Elder is to blame….the remuneration he recieved was apparantly the prevailing market rate to attract people of his ….calibre! 😉

  2. Lanthanide 2

    That’s interesting, because on Friday morning Bill English admitted some culpability for Solid Energy’s predicament: http://www.radionz.co.nz/national/programmes/morningreport/audio/201766467/english-defends-govt's-record-over-solid-energy

    Guyon: Do you take a share of the blame for this?
    Bill: …as a shareholder of course you have responsibility… [Tries to blame Labour]
    Guyon: But I’ll tell you what you also did and you’ll remember this well in 2009, you looked at the balance sheets of SoEs and you decided that many of them could carry more debt, and in fact you presided over a massive expansion in Solid Energy’s debt, and in formal letters your government encouraged them to significantly increase their debt. That was a mistake, wasn’t it?
    Bill: Well at the time it was valued about $3 billion, and they took debt up to $300 million. As it turned out, it was the pressure that put on the cash flow, well the issues it raised, that got the government and the officials differing with the board, and that’s all on the record…
    Guyon: You took their debt gearing ratio from about 14% in ’09 to 39% in 2010, 41% in 2012. So you presided, in fact encouraged Solid Energy to take on the debt that they have eventually drowned in.
    Bill: Well, we worked with the board over making sure the crown was actually getting something out of this business. Certainly, in retrospect the debt levels got too high
    Guyon: So do you take the blame for that. You failed there. You encouraged them to take on more debt, and they’ve drowned in it
    Bill: Between us and company yes, we’re responsible for that
    Guyon: Thank you.

    There’s some other interesting stuff in this interview but I don’t have time to type out the transcript. Bill says that they could have left cash in the SoEs instead of taking dividends, but the SoEs simply waste the money if they’re allowed to keep it.

    • dukeofurl 2.1

      Lo and behold exactly the same is happening in Fontera- not a government company though- they are being encouraged by the government to take on more debt to keep farmers afloat. See also the revelations Fonterra ‘overpaid’ its farmers last year which was also election year.

      • tc 2.1.1

        Can’t see that happening, fonterra is a coop not an SOE or company.

        Much as the Nats would like an off govt books event like that farmers ain’t that stupid.

    • mickysavage 2.2

      Thanks Lanth. Interesting indeed. I cannot think of another example where one of this Government’s ministers accepted responsibility for something …

      • tc 2.2.1

        I reckon bills been given the bad cop role right through to his departure in 2017.

        Watch for more bad news bill so shonky, Joyce and crew can divert away on flags etc.

        • hoom

          Props to Guyon for that.
          Blinglish should be quitting.

          Its clearly on the record that Labour encouraged SoEs to be run conservatively with relatively small profit/dividends but low debt & low risk.

          Nats came in and fucked it all up encouraging incautious debt based expansions, large executive salaries and large Dividends.
          Its their fault.

    • I’m surprised nobody mentions the fact that Pip Dunphy, the new Solid Energy chair, resigned in February as her and Bill English (presumably and Treasury) differed in their views as to the viability of the company.

      How much more into debt did Solid go in the five months between then and when English et al finally realised she was right?


  3. Smilin 3

    The govt says the market is the indicator for their management of the economy
    How come they didnt read the signs from China about the world coal price was it to quick a change or were they just playing Dirty Politics which consumed all their time over the2 yrs prior the last election and trying to create an illusion that we are in a better than average economic position that our trading partners
    It applies now to dairying

  4. vto 4

    The owners of a company are responsible.

    As such, Bill English and the government are to blame.

    It is very very simple. There is no need to look elsewhere.

    But you see, what they did was pull all the equity out of the company by way of debt, then dividends to the government. Then the owner has let the company fail.

    This is a common model oft used to pull equity out of a company that the owners know will eventually fail. This model that Bill English has used, has also been used by Hotchin and Watson at Hanover Finance, Fay & Richwhite at NZ Rail, and many many corporate raiders over the decades and generations….

    It is very very simple

    • Graeme 4.1

      But hasn’t Bill effectively stiffed the banks that are now holding Solid Energy debt with those “dividends”. Could get interesting

  5. Weepus beard 5

    Jordan Williams on the radio the other day thinks it is entirely the fault of…wait for it…


    Meanwhile, it beggars belief than a government hell bent on increasing mining activity in this country wouldn’t want a piece of that action.

  6. ropata 6

    National has zero concern for the Labour voters of West Coast-Tasman.
    Key and English needed cash to temporarily balance the budget, the real economy can go hang.

    • Draco T Bastard 6.1

      National has zero concern for the majority of people. Their only concern is for the rich and how to make them richer. This always involves taking the countries wealth and giving it to the rich.

  7. Draco T Bastard 7

    Solid Energy suggests that English and co have failed miserably in discharging their obligations.

    I suppose that depends upon which obligations – the ones that they have to the people of NZ not to screw them over or the ones to their donors who want NZ state owned assets at fire-sale prices.

  8. Macro 8

    On Friday’s Open Mike I made this comment:

    Guyon Espiner interviews Blinglish today on the imminent demise of Solid Energy, and at 2.30mins starts to rip into him calling him out on his asset stripping of Solid Energy…
    [audio src="http://podcast.radionz.co.nz/mnr/mnr-20150814-0817-english_defends_govts_record_over_solid_energy-00.ogg" /]
    An extraordinary statement from English:
    “If you leave the cash in there they waste it!”
    Having driven Solid Energy to borrow heavily and taken cash out of the SOE at an ever increasing rate, it is clear English is as much to blame for the sorry state of the SOE as the equally incompetent Elder.

    One of Guyon’s best interviews I have heard. Well done.

    Open mike 14/08/2015

    I believe both English – for his “cash stripping” of all SOE’s in the patent transference of wealth from the people to the 1% (by lowering upper tax rates to ridiculously low levels) – and Elder for his incomparable mismanagement of the company are both to blame. However it may well be argued that this sell off to mates at “mates rates” was the plan all along and they have been very successful at it.

  9. Ad 9

    The main culprits are the State Owned Enterprises Act, the Public Sector Finance Act, and MBIE.

    The SOE Act, because it treated jobs that the government provided for the public good as merely a business which, although they were 100% shareholder, failed to call a shareholder meeting on. This government has deliberately trashed the SOE model.

    The Public Sector Finance Act, because it has continued to treat the relationship between the Minister and its Departments that supposed to govern things as one of merely contractor- contracted. That little Crown Owned Monitoring Unit they used to have within Treasury deliberately had no teeth, and simply didnt shout loud enough to get the Ministers’ attention.

    And finally, despite amalgamating every possible economic development function under one roof in MBIE,there was no cross-government plan to address the situation of Solid Energy, Kiwirail, the west coast economy, and electricity generation. Wilful inability to do the job of government.

    IMHO, Ministers are only partly to blame. Most of it lies within Treasury, MBIE, and DPMC.

    • dukeofurl 9.1

      Contrast the heaven and earth that happened ( flying sheep!) with a shitty little farm in Saudi Arabia.

      English knows all the ways to get around the rules, he was putting square pegs in round holes for Donna Awatere along with the connivance of Tau Henare back in 88-89. They broke all the rules in the book to funnel money to entities controlled by Awatere who used them to pay for her lifestyle. She is still in the scam business with the failure of her ‘school’ ,Jireh International Academy Limited in 2010.

    • RedbaronCV 9.2

      Civs only doing what ministers tell them to..

      • Ad 9.2.1

        Cosgrove was right on point in Parliament the other day:
        Not a single Minister, or Board member, or Solid Energy Executive, or good old public servant, has been held to account over the entire thing.

        Even within the pathetic confines of the SOE Act, pretty much everyone failed to use the instruments they had to turn the damn thing around.

        Trashing the SOE model is scorched-earthing any future incoming government with an activism]t commercial inclination: National from Opposition benches will say “told you it doesn’t work, the public sector should continue their retreat, the market rules supreme.”

        In particular any activist commercial model to build new affordable houses and sell them cheap to citizens.
        – Trash Housing Corporation
        – Decrease corporate state control of remaining power companies to mere majority holder
        – Trash Solid Energy
        – Starve the CRI’s and Universities
        – Get Landcorp ready for sale
        – Watch out Kiwibank and NZPost
        – Repeat

        Goes directly to English’s clear intent to sell off many other activities, including National Radio, TVNZ, Metservice, and more. Do nothing, proclaim failure as inevitable, and retreat the state again and again.

        • Colonial Viper

          so we know National’s strategy clear as day and have seen it operation for decades. What is the counter-strategy Labour is bringing to the table to advance the state and create an activist industrial and commercial public sector.

          • millsy

            Find any blank piece of A4 paper and you will get it..


          • Ad

            At least on housing, I have a sneaking suspicion you will get a sense of that in the Labour leaders’ speech to the Labour Party conference coming up.

    • mickysavage 9.3

      Labour managed to run the SOEs without too much damage being inflicted. The problem seems to be with the personnel involved.

      • Ad 9.3.1

        That’s a whole bunch of layers of people to root out and replace when an alternative government comes in.

        Could Labour call for the Serious Fraud Office or Audit Office to have a look at this debacle?

    • Weepus beard 9.4

      Wilful inability to do the job of government.”

      – Ad

      Agree. This government simply refuses to do the job they are paid for, which is to govern.

  10. RedbaronCV 10

    Paying dividends and potentially trading whilst knowing they were possibly insolvent – oops! Companies Act ?

    • dukeofurl 10.1

      I think they had a letter of comfort from English, which most likely was withdrawn leading to the current situation

      • RedbaronCV 10.1.1

        Aha – so now they are left holding the responsibility – much like Christchurch builders now that the middlemen facilitators are off the hook.

    • keyman 10.2

      i think we will need a royal commission with real power to probe the national party for corruption something like the pecora commission that FDR set up serious fraud office the police are to contaminated by national party links the crooks will need to be smoked out of there rats holes and proceeds of crime confiscated(nationalised )

  11. RedbaronCV 11

    How much – if anything – are the remains worth. Can we crowd source a few dollars to buy it up, keep the few bits that are generating actual west coast jobs- not overpaid senior managers, and sell the carbon reductions acheived on the international market

  12. millsy 12

    “There was the payment of $100 million by the Government from the Future Investment Fund. I do not think that it was intended that the fund would be used in this way.”

    Off topic, but the only thing worse than selling an SOE is pissing away the proceeds.

    • mickysavage 12.1

      Totally on topic and amazing that Key’s lies about what the proceeds were going to be used for are not hurting more than they are.

  13. Nic the NZer 13

    In the excitement at the Governments monumental screw up, we should notice that the big picture this is a fantastic turn of events because,

    1) Solid energy was mining coal, and putting upward pressure on NZ fossil fuel emissions (or contributions to them).
    2) The government doesn’t need the income (or any of its lost money) anyway, it doesn’t lose anything by losing this profit making enterprise.

    The left should not start promoting either coal mining or government being run on a for profit basis as neither of these is necessary or a good thing.

    • Weepus beard 13.1

      The government doesn’t need the income…

      Say what?

      • Nic the NZer 13.1.1

        The losses from Solid Energy have in no way impacted the governments capacity to spend what ever it desires to spend. The government doesn’t need the income.

        • tricledrown

          so it just borrows another $billion intead aye Nic!

          • Nic the NZer

            Yes, if they know whats in the interests of the country then maybe so (e.g if they are not running government as a business).

            • Weepus beard

              Well, Nic, this lot is not very good at business, that much has been proven by the demise of Solid Energy and by the dead-of-the-night capitulation payment to South Canterbury Finance investors. That is no reason to prevent future, more capable governments from running SOEs for the benefit of the country.

              One wonders whether Bill English lost his mentor with the death of Allan Hubbard…

        • Frank Macskasy

          Nic, you’re missing the point entirely.

          In 2009, English and then SOE Minister, Simon Power, instructed all SOEs to increase their gearing (borrowing/debt) levels – some by up to 40%.

          Then National demanded;

          1. Higher dividends,
          2. Two dividend pays per year instead of one,
          3. All surplus cash.

          This was a raid by government, on SOEs.

          Why did National do this?


          Instead of borrowing the money themselves (which would have pushed government accounts further into the red, plus invite a further Credit down-grade), National did the borrowing through it’s “subsidiaries” the SOEs.

          That pushes SOE books into the red; gives government extra cash; and prevents a major blow-out of government books.

          In effect, to put it simply, National borrowed-by-proxy.

          And in the process, wrecked an SOE that was already facing a down-turn in the price of coal.

          If that is not economic mis-management on a Lehmann Bros-scale… well, I don’t know what is.

          The story I wrote on this (back in 2013), relies on data from government and Solid Energy. The truth is there; one only has to bother to find it.

          • Nic the NZer

            “Nic, you’re missing the point entirely.”

            Yes, I am. If there is a point to what you are saying I don’t see it (though I was well aware of all those facts you raised). It looks like you and a few other commentators are looking for better business managers to run the country more profitably. Because of the unique nature of a countries finances this is largely irrelevant, and the government should not be run as a business, so I don’t see this as a good thing myself.

            “which would have pushed government accounts further into the red, plus invite a further Credit down-grade”

            As I indicated national finances don’t work the way business finances do at all. Countries do significantly influence their own interest rates, including the rates they pay on their own government debt when they borrow it from the bond markets. That ought to tell you something about how relevant a credit rating down-grade is or the books being ‘in the red’. The governments books will always be ‘in the red’ that’s the only way that the monetary system functions.

            All that your sovereign debt pedantry does is focus peoples attention onto a trivial issue, which is exactly what the National government and neo-liberal political elements want to happen.

  14. Jim 14

    Its called Agenda 21 – UN dictated “smart growth” – and anyone on the so called left who is not stating that – is helping cover it up.

    • Ad 14.1

      How? Show the links.

    • Draco T Bastard 14.2

      Oh god, another idiot who hasn’t got a clue as to what they’re they’re talking about. I can only assume that the idiot has been listening to the Koch Brothers and their psychopathic angst against living sustainably – again .

  15. John 15

    Once Solid Energy goes into liquidation with the liquidators go the directors for the very clear offending of trading while insolvent, because it is very clear they have been for sometime.

  16. Tracey 17

    ““I am disappointed with the forecast decline in Solid Energy’s financial performance over the next three years, in particular the dramatic decline in profitability and dividends. While this is understandable, given the significant decline in forecast coal prices, it is far from clear why Solid Energy forecasts [redacted].””

    Power should be sacked for misleading Bill and John. It is obviously HIS fault, and had he not resigned all those years ago John would be considering standing him down if, after an inquiry (which he is sure would absolve him) he was found wanting. In the meantime he has all confidence in the former Minister.

  17. rhinocrates 18

    1. Underinvest and set up to fail.
    2. Watch performance crash.
    3. Leverage public anger at poor performance.
    4. Sell-off and asset strip for your mates citing 3. as justification.
    5. Get rewarded by mates with seats on boards after leaving parliament.
    7. Repeat.

  18. philj 19

    And can anyone explain why financially failing Solid Energy bought up Pike River when it was literally a disaster? …..

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