THERE are reasons why one of Australia’s most credentialed financial analysts, Tim Buckley, has almost replaced environmentalist Tim Flannery as the Tim the mining industry most loves to hate, despite Buckley being the Tim who owns shares linked to coal mines.
One of those reasons is comments like the following: “I’ve studied every industry in Australia and I’ve never seen collusion between governments and industry in the way I’ve seen in coal mining. It’s the revolving door of government and mining in Australia. They are just way too in bed with each other.”
Or this: “It’s a unique situation where foreign companies own 80 plus per cent of the Australian coal mining industry and have an inordinate amount of power. And how do they get that power? Political donations.”
Or maybe it’s this: “We own the coal, supposedly, and yet they get given it, and they’re then given special treatment to have access to it.”
Or finally: “The mining industry says renewable energy isn’t competitive, but it’s an absolute lie.”
For the past few years Buckley has been saying the above, and a lot more, after a career as a leading analyst with some of the world’s biggest financial institutions.
The mining industry says renewable energy isn’t competitive, but it’s an absolute lie.Tim Buckley
The NSW Minerals Council and the Minerals Council of Australia are not happy.
“Mr Buckley pretends to be a financial analyst but in reality he is an anti-coal activist who has regularly argued against the jobs of Hunter coal miners,” said Minerals Council chief executive Stephen Galilee, in response to Newcastle Herald questions.
“He is one of a small number of so-called 'experts' that are always ready with an anti-coal comment for the media, but his analysis of coal prices have been proven completely wrong and he has no credible claim to be an objective analyst or commentator.”
Galilee became NSW Minerals Council chief executive in January, 2012, after working as chief of staff for the then NSW treasurer Mike Baird and as chief of staff for Australia’s longest-serving federal resources minister and Liberal MP, Ian Macfarlane.
Macfarlane resigned in February, 2016 after he was demoted to the backbench. He controversially took up a position in September as Galilee’s equivalent in the Queensland Resources Council.
In 2014 Minerals Council of Australia chief executive Brendan Pearson rubbished an opinion piece by Buckley on the commercial viability of Queensland’s Galilee basin mines, saying: “The activist movement has turned the creation of spurious, pseudo-intellectual reports on the coal industry into high art.”
Pearson was appointed to his position in January, 2014. His previous jobs included senior officer at the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Minerals Council of Australia deputy chief executive from 2007-12 and vice president of government relations for Peabody Energy for 18 months before the Minerals Council’s top position.
Buckley joined the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA) as director of energy finance studies for Australasia in February, 2014. The US-founded institute’s mission is to accelerate the transition to “a diverse, sustainable and profitable energy economy”, and away from a dependence on coal and other non-renewable energy resources.
For more than two decades before that he was one of the most respected equities research analysts in Australia, with 17 years in senior positions at global investment banking and financial services corporation Citigroup, and two years leading Deutsche Bank’s institutional equities business from Singapore.
On a heritage train from Maitland to Gulgong in August, as it ran through the Upper Hunter’s coal fields, Buckley talked about how a finance man ended up branded an “anti-coal activist”, and why clashes with the mining industry are only going to intensify in a world coming to terms with climate change and the global Paris agreement to restrict global warming.
It starts with money.
Buckley credits former Colonial First State chief, investment industry veteran and philanthropist Chris Cuffe for an “awakening” a decade ago that put Buckley at the head of renewable investment fund, Arkx.
“Chris said there were three strategic themes he invested in – water, food and energy. He said energy drives politics and economies. It drives the world.
“He said ‘I don’t know about climate change but what I do know is energy security drives every decision in government so I’m chairman (of Arkx) to learn about energy’. I thought, well, that works for me.”
For the five years he was at Arkx, before Australia’s first clean investment fund was wound down in 2013, Buckley studied technological change as it applied to energy.
“I studied what China was doing in renewables, and how it was in fact transforming its economy, so I come at this issue from a technology perspective. You look at the rate of change in technology and it’s unstoppable, and the Chinese know that, and they’re going to dominate.”
China leads the world on solar modules, is close to leading on wind power, is world leader in the rare earth market, “they’re spending $100 billion a year on their grid and they know more about hydro power than anyone”, Buckley said.
“It’s about industry dominance. That’s economics. I can understand that.”
The Arkx experiment to establish a global renewable investment fund ended in 2013 when Westpac withdrew its support.
“We were unable to convince the Australian superannuation industry that there are real opportunities as well as threats arising from the move to a low carbon future, and that the issues of energy security and climate change are real,” Buckley said.
The mining and power generation industries had “a very visible lobby” saying it was too early and expensive to act by investing in renewable energy, and politicians “bought this despite the obvious self-interest”.
Three years and a Paris agreement on reducing global warming later, and the world’s biggest investment corporations are warning about climate change, stranded assets and the need for investment in renewable energy.
“Investors can no longer ignore climate change. Some may question the science behind it, but all are faced with a swelling tide of climate-related regulations and technological disruption,” said the world’s largest asset manager – sometimes referred to as the world’s largest shadow bank - BlackRock, in a September report, Adapting Portfolios to Climate Change.
“Investing with the aim of mitigating climate change may be a matter of choice for most investors. Yet we see climate-aware investing, incorporating climate considerations in the investment process, as a necessity,” BlackRock said.
Buckley’s job, through IEEFA, is to provide evidence of “the magnitude of the global transformation underway due to a combination of technology change, economies of scale, financial market capital flows and global climate policy evolution”, against a “sector dominated by groupthink and one-dimensional analysis”.
He compares the Australian thermal coal industry with Telstra a decade ago when it had a near monopoly on fixed line communications, and struggled to cope with the need to compete.
“Our coal companies will wait until it is too late, and that will cost Australia’s economy dearly, particularly due to the missed opportunity cost in terms of jobs and investment in industries of the future,” Buckley said.
He dismissed Stephen Galilee’s recent criticisms as “conflating price and volume” after thermal coal prices rose in 2016 after a slump in previous years.
Buckley pointed to a major 2014 IEEFA report examining the global coal industry, which concluded China’s coal consumption would peak up to two decades earlier than expected, and decline to potentially zero by 2020. IEEFA was largely on its own with that forecast.
It is now accepted that China’s thermal coal consumption peaked in 2013, and production declined in 2014, 2015 and by 10 per cent in volume terms in 2016.
“Given china produces half the world’s coal, this is a massive achievement,” Buckley said.
In 2015 IEEFA forecast India’s thermal coal import volumes would peak in 2015/16 and decline to zero by 2022, in contrast to the prevailing view that India would be the saviour of the world’s struggling coal companies.
Indian coal imports declined, as IEEFA forecast, and in late 2016 the country’s coal and power minister Piyush Goyal repeatedly said he expected India’s coal imports to cease in two or three years.
“IEEFA doesn’t forecast the price of seaborne thermal coal, we forecast volume demand,” Buckley said.
“If India and China’s demand for thermal coal imports declines to zero, then 40 per cent of the global import market disappears in the coming decade.
“Given this volume forecast, the price is an outcome of the decisions by key coal export nations like Australia and Indonesia to curtail supply into a declining volume demand environment.
“Indonesia has cut back export volumes 10-20 per cent from their peak two years ago. Australia, by comparison, seeks to flood the global seaborne thermal coal market with ever more volume. This strategy is contrary to Australia’s national interest. A smart export industry would curtail supply and avoid pushing down the price we as a nation receive.”
Rod Campbell is an economist with the Australia Institute who is happy to include himself in Stephen Galilee’s “small number of so-called ‘experts’” challenging the mining industry. Campbell’s work dissecting mining industry finance documents has been used in successful appeals against mine expansion proposals.
Campbell believes Buckley is the subject of particularly strong attacks from the mining industry because of his finance background, and “industry groups aren’t used to having to fight publicly over finance issues”.
“They think of finance types as either their allies or at worst commercial rivals. Any public fights with financial rivals are restricted to the gentlemanly confines of the business section of the newspaper and focus strictly on money, never dragging in environmental issues,” Mr Campbell said.
“Tim’s work changes this. He helps people to link financial issues with climate, water and indigenous issues. Critics aren’t used to this and don’t quite know how to respond other than ad hominem attack.
“Tim’s expertise is undeniable, based on decades in investment banking. The fact that he is able to communicate this to new and different audiences really is something new and is very valuable for Australian debate around energy and climate.”
Tim Buckley isn’t anti-coal.
He owns shares in Wesfarmers which has a 40 per cent stake in the Hunter’s Bengala coal mine, but also owns Bunnings, Australia’s most powerful and profitable business.
“Wesfarmers is almost 100 per cent Australian-owned, its management is here, and you can’t say that about Glencore, Peabody, Rio Tinto or Anglo American. They do things pretty well compared to other coal companies,” Buckley said.
In interviews in the past he has said that coal is a low-cost energy source to help India’s emerging economy, but India’s new draft National Electricity Plan released in late December shows the country “is moving beyond fossil fuels at a pace scarcely imagined only two years ago”.
Under the plan India does not require any new coal-fired power plants.
“The stark reality is the economics of renewable energy make it irresistible to a growing country aiming to put an end to expensive energy imports,” Buckley wrote in response to the plan’s release.
What’s missing in Australia is political will and putting a price on carbon, which “will play a critical role in accelerating finance and realizing the targets outlined in the Paris Agreement”, he said.
In the meantime “We’re walking off the cliff with our eyes open.”