Solid Energy and $1 billion

The Herald reports:

Newly released papers raise fresh questions over Prime Minister ’s claim that asked for $1 billion of taxpayers’ money to fund its transformation into a massive resources company.

Mr Key made the claim earlier this year when it was revealed the state-owned coal miner was on the verge of collapse under the weight of almost $400 million in debt.

Former chairman John Palmer, who approached the Government with the plan in 2010, denied asking for the money but later said he understood why Mr Key might have said the proposal involved “those sorts of costs”.

But Solid Energy documents released by Treasury yesterday detailing the proposal contain noreference to a request for the money.

Solid Energy’s business proposal said the Government’s willingness to forgo dividends from Solid Energy and Kupe were essential for the project to proceed, and it would require extra equity of up to $1 billion on top of that to fund the expansion.

However, it did not seek that from the Government in the proposals, saying: “All this can be achieved … without requiring a direct Government equity contribution (other than forgoing dividends from Solid Energy and Kupe for up to 5-10 years).”

This is being pedantic, and the PM’s interpretation of Solid Energy seeking $1 billion (in fact up to $3 billion) of equity is entirely consistent with being interpreted as a potential call on taxpayers. The difference between not taking dividends and a capital contribution is semantics. Both increase the Crown’s equity in the company.

Thank God, the Government said no.

Also interesting to note in the released papers that what forced out into the open the lack of substance to Solid’s forecasts was in fact the mixed ownership model preparation. It was only the preparation for potential partial float that got the detailed coal price forecasts out of Solid Energy. Without that policy, the extent of their optimism may have gone unnoticed for much longer.

Solid Energy is a superb example of why the Crown should not be the sole shareholder of a risky commercial business. The transparency and discipline you get from being listed on the NZX is significant.

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