in early february, rumors were circling that gabon was thinking about handing over the belinga iron ore project to bhp billiton after mines and oil minister alexandre barro chambrier met with bhp’s senior management in south africa. now it seems like this transfer may come to fruition, with a number of winners and losers.
in 2007, gabon gave the belinga project to the china national machinery & equipment import and export corporation (cmec) to develop it over a 25 years. cmec promised the government that it would begin mining belinga’s high grade iron ore reserves (64%) by 2011, at a rate of 30 million tons per year under a $3.5 billion investment program. the infrastructure plan included constructing a 500km railway, a hydropower dam and port. ever since china began to drag its feet on the 1 billion ton project, the gabonese government has become increasingly impatient with its suitors from the far east. bhp, who had long been waiting in the wing, had been courting the government in the event that china could not fulfill its obligations.
i am confident that the government will formally approve bhp’s acquisition of belinga, and that a number of winners and losers will emerge. bhp will have to manage expectations with the gabonese government on their ability to quickly build out enabling infrastructure. lower commodities prices have accelerated bhp’s slowdown in earnings growth so far this year, even though the company’s most recent interim earnings before interest and tax are expected to rise to $15.7 billion from $14.8 billion in 2011. the company’s full year earnings are forecast to drop by approximately 10%, but if one were to use spot commodity prices in calculating the company’s profitability, earnings would slump even further. given the company’s challenging financial situation, the question remains whether or not bhp will cut capital expenditure spending, and/or how it will prioritize investing in these new projects. in brief, bhp has to recover from its disastrous $20 billion shale gas plays, and belinga is one important piece of the puzzle.
although belinga is positive for gabon’s macroeconomic outlook, the country’s microeconomic outlook—employment and income distribution—will not improve because the quality of iron ore mined from belinga does not need to be beneficiated. in the absence of targeted social spending programs, gabon—which has a relatively low yielding, $1 billion eurobond—like nigeria, will continue to see growth without development. nevertheless, another indication as to why there is likely to be minimal governmental interference in bhp’s acquisition of belinga is that the australian giant’s investments squares nicely with president ali bongo’s desire to break the commercial ties of françafrique that marked his father’s administration. ali’s grip on the country is stronger than that of his father, as he has further personalized his family rule, divided the political opposition, and has skilfully walked the country’s ethnic tightrope by appointing a diverse group of individuals in his government. the centralization of political power in gabon allows for bongo to fast-track many of his preferred investor’s projects through the corresponding ministries.
belinga is one such project that bongo prioritizes given the profile of investors. bhp is partnering with indian abhijeet infrastructure ltd., who will link the project to the trans-gabon railway at booué. if the railway is quickly constructed, sundance resources, which is waiting for the cameroonian government to approve the terms of sale of its mbalam iron ore project to china’s hanlong mining investment, could choose to connect with the trans-gabon railway. although the cameroonian government recently declared the proposed land in rail corridor from mbalam to lolabé port for public utility, it is possible that hanlong (or sundance) could change its mind and decide that exporting iron ore through gabon. after all, the distance from mbalam to booué is about the same from mbalam to lolabé. in this scenario, whose likelihood increases in the event china abandons or brings in an outside partner to develop mbalam, gabon and cameroon would likely run in to the same squabbles as liberia and guinea are having over exporting iron ore from simandou. similarly, bhp could choose to connect export its iron ore through cameroon, especially given that sundance has recently signed a memorandum of understanding with equatorial resources to share iron ore infrastructure resources.
while bhp, gabon, and possibly cameroon could benefit from belinga, china certainly does not emerge a winner, as losing the mine is a further blow to its plan of diversifying its sources of iron ore. about 85% of china’s iron ore comes from australia, brazil, india, and south africa, and the government does not want to be too dependent on a handful of countries. the chinese government has embarked on a flurry of joint ventures and partnerships across west africa—in guinea (chinalco’s simandou), in sierra leone (shandong iron and steel group’s tonkolili), and in liberia (wisco’s bong mines)—with the intention of providing its own domestic steel producers with a stable and diverse supply of iron ore that would ultimately allow them to be self-sufficient. along with mbalam, belinga was to be completed owned by chinese interests (a first in its african iron ore expansion), giving it license to some of the world’s largest iron ore projects. ownership of projects with high-grade iron ore would permit it to skip the expensive process of beneficiation, which would allow it to bypass much of the local content pressures that would ultimately be demanded by host governments. further, direct access and control to some of the world’s best quality iron ore would allow china to challenge the oligopolistic pricing of iron ore by rio tinto, vale, and bhp. despite the shift from an annual to quarterly system that more accurately reflects global trends, china remains uncomfortable being at the whim of the big three. although west and central african iron ore projects will not be the catalyst for china to lead the change in the structure of global iron ore markets, the setback in gabon will certainly prompt it to look more aggressively for new sources of the strategically important resource.