* Talks failed to lead to suitable offers
* Bidders thinned as debt markets tightened - sources
* State political controversy weighed on sale - analyst
* Yanzhou-Gloucester, Whitehaven-Aston deals still on
* New Hope shares slump 11%, recover to close down 4.9% (Adds detail on New Hope shareholders)
By Sonali Paul
MELBOURNE, March 1 (Reuters) - Coal miner New Hope Corp has scrapped plans to sell itself for more than $5 billion after a five-month sale process failed to seal a deal, a sign that tighter credit has taken the sizzle out of Australia’s hottest deal sector.
New Hope’s shares slumped as much as 11 percent after it called off the sale, but clawed back half the losses to trade above where it was before the auction.
New Hope reluctantly put itself up for sale in October after being approached by potential suitors, with Indian conglomerates Tata Group and Aditya Birla, a Korean consortium and China’s Shenhua Group among those who had expressed interest, hungry to fill coal demand for power plants and steel mills.
“We were never really willing sellers. With A$1.5 bln in the bank, I don’t think we’re distressed in any way whatsoever,” Managing Director Robert Neale told Reuters.
New Hope put itself up for sale under pressure from its 60 percent shareholder, Washington H Soul Pattinson and Co . Soul Pattinson itself was being pressured by its own shareholders, including Perpetual, to unlock value.
Portfolio managers at Perpetual, which also owns a 7 percent stake in New Hope, were not available for comment on Thursday.
Investors had considered a New Hope sale unlikely in light of the company’s high price target for its unique mix of assets, local opposition to the expansion of its main coal mine, at least one suitor turning to another target, and debt drying up for deals.
New Hope Chairman Robert Millner said access to debt and controversy over its Acland mine expansion turning into an issue in the state of Queensland’s upcoming elections, may have been factors that put off bidders.
“Obviously around the world, money’s getting harder to get your hands on,” Millner told Reuters.
Millner and Neale declined to comment on how much the company had expected to fetch for its assets.
Analysts have said a price of up to A$5.8 billion for its coal assets alone would have been fair as the coal is high-quality thermal coal for power stations and the company has coveted port access.
“That’s not over the top. They are really good assets. They’ve got a dedicated port, which these days is worth an awful lot,” said Peter Arden, an analyst at broker Ord Minnett.
“They’ve also been unfortunately caught up in a bit of a political storm over their main coal asset. I think that would have been a really difficult scenario to conduct a fair sale under,” he said.
Arden also said the company’s coal-to-liquids technology and other alternative energy assets would be worth a further A$830 million.
‘NO DEFINITIVE PROPOSAL’
The Queensland-based miner, one of the last substantial coal companies left after a string of takeovers, said it had been in discussions with third parties on a number of incomplete proposals right up to Wednesday.
“Discussions with those parties did not produce a definitive proposal which appropriately reflects New Hope’s strategic value and growth prospects and therefore the process has been terminated,” the company said in a statement to the Australian stock exchange on Thursday.
One of the key potential bidders, China’s Yanzhou Coal Mining Co, chose instead to bid for Australia’s Gloucester Coal in December, combining assets in an A$700 million deal.
People close to the New Hope talks told Reuters earlier this month bidders pulled out partly due to the size of the deal, which, at more than $5 billion, would have required sizable debt raisings at a time when European credit markets were drying up.
Some bidders had explored buying individual assets rather than the whole company, but it was never clear whether New Hope was willing to consider that route.
Millner and Neale declined to comment on any aspect of the discussions with the bidders or say how many bidders were finally in the frame, except to say they were major overseas companies.
New Hope’s open-cut New Acland mine, west of Brisbane, produces thermal coal, with about 65 percent of its coal going overseas and the rest to the domestic market. The company also has another mine called Colton and some exploration assets.
Unlike many other Australian miners desperate to raise funds for their projects, New Hope has A$1.5 billion in cash and does not need a partner to finance its expansion program.
Two further Australian coal takeovers in process are expected to go ahead, with Yanzhou due to release a bidder’s statement for Gloucester soon, at the same time that rival Whitehaven Coal releases deal documents on its A$2.7 billion takeover of Aston Resources.
New Hope shares touched a high of A$6.42 in October after it put itself on the block, but earlier this week were only 10 percent higher than before the auction, in line with the broader market’s gains over the same period, indicating investors doubted a deal would go ahead.
Its shares ended down 4.9 percent at A$5.43, after hitting a low of A$5.11 immediately after Thursday’s announcement.
Chairman Millner, who is also chairman of Soul Pattinson, said he expected coal assets would remain in demand and did not rule out considering a sale later this year.
“If someone comes back with an indicative offer -- who knows?” he told Reuters.
He pointed to rising thermal coal prices underpinning demand for coal assets.
“So there’s no reason for the heat to come out of (the sector). If you read and hear around the world, people are still very, very positive on thermal coal, copper and a couple of other commodities,” Millner said. ($1 = 0.9255 Australian dollars) (Editing by Lincoln Feast and Muralikumar Anantharaman)