The great mining CEO purge

Just how much capital do you have to misallocate — to use the management euphemism du jour — to be fired as a mining CEO these days?

We are not even past February and just a handful of companies — Kinross, Barrick, Anglo, Rio and BHP — have already managed to impair (or to use the more technical term, piss away) $30 billion.

Vale’s 2012 Christmas present for investors was $4 billion down the drain and Glencore will any day now announce asset write downs at newly-acquired Xstrata.

It could be anything between $5 billion and $7 billion. My bet is on $7 billion — Ivan Glasenberg always thinks big.

Go back a little further and the billions keep piling up.

What a way to squander money during the greatest period the mining sector has experienced in history (I’m excluding Roman salt mining for argument’s sake).

The mining and metals supercycle made the dotcom bubble era look calm by comparison and the amounts involved were only topped by the sub-prime banking crisis.

This parade is now passing.

Marius Kloppers, Tom Albanese, Cynthia Carroll and Mick Davis are out on their ears.

And that’s just within the last six months.

But are they really to blame?

Winner of the write-down superstakes Albanese graduated to CEO when the Alcan deal was well advanced.

Few CEOs would go against board benefactors at that late stage, especially since Rio was the white knight who saved Alcan from Alcoa.

The Mozambique coal business was a clear miscalculation but the Rio exec in charge of the project was fired over it.

Perhaps Rio could have allowed Albanese a more graceful exit and not try to pin all the blown billions on him.

Even Gina Reinhart — who’s never had to suffer the indignity of listening to a board tell her what to do — has come out in support of Albanese.

Albanese gets chunks of Hancock to run? Banish the thought.

Carroll may also have been judged too harshly.

As the first order of business at Anglo, Carroll was told by the board to pursue iron ore.

Anglo saw how Rio and BHP’s quarries in the Pilbara had them printing money and Minas Rio would give them a new Sishen in one go.

Carroll was told to go for it and she went for it.

$15 billion later she’s taking the blame for what will forever be known as the planet’s most expensive iron mine.

But maybe the board could have to told her five years ago never buy what Eike Batista is selling, especially not a greenfield project in Brazil.

Kloppers is an odd case.

His failure to bag Potashcorp is put forth as an example of his failures, but if he was successful BHP would now be dealing with a stinking pile of fertilizer write-offs.

The deal also fell through not because of a misstep by Kloppers, but Canada’s government blocking the deal. (Canada prefers to sell strategic assets to China, but that’s another story…)

Two tie-up attempts with Rio also failed, but when Kloppers called off the deal at the end of 2008, boomtown Australia was already going bust.

And if the Rio bid succeeded, BHP would’ve had to absorb the Alcan losses.

As for Petrohawk, at least incoming oil man Andrew Mackenzie has something to do.

The most hard done by victim of the great mining CEO purge must be Big Mick.

Davis seemed to have been blindsided by Glasenberg who snatched the top job when the Glenstrata merger was looking at its most shaky.

The looming reassessment of Xstrata’s assets will add insult to injury for the Davis camp and justification for Glasenberg to have thrown his buddy under the bus.

Harsh.

The implausible projects, the M&A madness and the supercycle silliness of the outgoing gang are now being replaced by promises of creating shareholder value above all else, responsible capital allocation, capex caution and opex discipline.

How boring.

We’re talking about mining after all not bookkeeping.

It’s played out on the frontier not in back offices.

You’re constantly making big bets with billions and the gaps between risk and reward are huge.

In mining you’re always between a rock and a hard place.

As the new guard at the top will find out soon enough.