Jim Armitage: It’s an intriguing tale of the Israeli billionaire, the mining rights, George Soros and the President of Guinea’s adviser, Tony Blair

According to Beny Steinmetz’s team, he is being royally stitched up by the government of Alpha Condé

Jim Armitage
Saturday 15 March 2014 02:45

Is Beny Steinmetz the most maligned billionaire in history?

Anyone spending time with his many paid advisers would certainly come away with that impression. The Israeli tycoon, whose Africa-focused mining interests are headquartered in London and Geneva, has been the subject of numerous corruption allegations – all vigorously denied – in the iron-rich country of Guinea.

This week, on the recommendation of a committee investigating bribery and kickbacks, the government of Guinea stood poised to strip his BSGR mining group of its ownership of a chunk of iron-ore mining rights granted by the previous president.

At the same time in the US, an associate who had worked as an agent for BSGR in Guinea pleaded guilty to obstructing a corruption investigation by the FBI, who pounced after he bribed a Guinean woman to hand over potentially incriminating documents relating to mining deals done in the country.

According to Mr Steinmetz’s team, the billionaire has done nothing wrong, and is being royally stitched up by the government of President Alpha Condé. Not only that, but the President is being steered by investigations from Global Witness, a non-governmental organisation which is heavily reliant on funding from George Soros, the billionaire who was awarded saintly status and acres of free publicity on the BBC’s Today programme earlier this week. Mr Soros, Mr Steinmetz’s friends claim, has got it in for the diamond tycoon, due to an ancient enmity over a telecoms deal in years past. Some even direct journalists to the fact that the former prime minister Tony Blair, a reputed friend of Mr Soros, is an adviser to the Condé regime and could also be urging him to act against Beny.

Global Witness, Mr Soros and the Blair charities furiously reject such allegations. Global Witness challenges many wealthy targets around the world, it points out: are all of them supposed to be personal enemies of Mr Soros?

This week, another minerals company hit the headlines for exploration rights granted by the pre-Condé regime. The US oil explorer Hyperdynamics Corporation is being investigated by the US Justice Department and the Securities and Exchange Commission for alleged corruption in the winning of a Guinea licence to drill for oil offshore. It’s assumed that the US is acting following general calls for help from Mr Condé.

Hyperdynamics had been under investigation for more than a year, but the inquiry leapt to the world’s attention on Wednesday, when London’s Tullow Oil put its recent partnership with the firm on ice. Tullow declared it would not be carrying out any more activity on the Guinea project until the investigations into Hyperdynamics were complete. In the trade, this is known as declaring “force majeure”, which stops the clock ticking on the licence due to events beyond the explorer’s control.

Doubtless, the Steinmetz team would argue that this only serves to highlight how there are plenty of other companies operating in Guinea for Mr Soros’s NGOs to go after, so why pick on him unless it’s a personal attack.

But does it not equally suggest that the much-persecuted Mr Steinmetz is not being cruelly singled out at all?

$3.5m after you’ve left the job – nice work, Tom

Rio Tinto’s Tom Albanese quit as chief executive after the mining giant was forced to slash $14bn (£8bn) from the value of its aluminium and coal businesses.

His final day in the post was 17 January last year. Foolishly, I’d expected that to be the end of the matter.

However, the annual report out yesterday showed that, having earned $82,000 for the first three weeks in January as chief executive, he stayed on at the company as a humble employee for a further seven months. I say “humble” but his pay showed little humility. From the middle of January to July he received a further $3.5m – almost as much as his successor, Sam Walsh, got in salary and bonuses for the whole year.

Don’t weep too much for Mr Walsh, though. His bed was further feathered with long-term awards of a potential $4.6m.

Tucked inside his package was $871,000 of “non-monetary benefits” including the cost of moving home from Australia to London and his wife’s travel to the company’s AGM. In what manner Mrs Walsh was delivered to the meeting – a golden carriage, perhaps – was not detailed.

Top bananas merger, but does it take two to contango?

There’s a phenomenon in the financial world exotically entitled “the Contango”. This is where the current price of something is below its value in the futures market.

It became extremely visible to the public in the oil markets during the worst of the financial crisis.

The price of crude collapsed so far that bargain-hunting banks such as JPMorgan and Goldman Sachs bought millions of barrels of oil and parked it in tankers off the coast of Norfolk and the quieter corners of the Gulf of Mexico, safe in the knowledge that the contents would soon be worth twice the price they paid.

With the forthcoming merger of the Fyffes and Chiquita banana giants to create a monopolistic behemoth that can only push prices in one direction, surely a contango situation could be looming there too. Particularly if, as the speculation has it this weekend, the proposed tie-up leads to more banana mergers.

Trouble is, if my fruit bowl is anything to go by, keep them on a ship in the English Channel for more than a week and you’re left with millions of tonnes of brown sludge.

Still, I bet some investment banking whizzkid is finding a cunning way around it with a banana contango equation right now.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

View comments