Australian miner Whitehaven falls victim to hoax news release

SYDNEY Mon Jan 7, 2013 4:26am EST

A Whitehaven Coal logo is displayed on the front of a lectern at the company's annual general meeting in Sydney November 1, 2012. REUTERS/Tim Wimborne

A Whitehaven Coal logo is displayed on the front of a lectern at the company's annual general meeting in Sydney November 1, 2012.

Credit: Reuters/Tim Wimborne

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SYDNEY (Reuters) - A hoax media release on Monday that said Australia and New Zealand Banking Group Ltd (ANZ.AX) had withdrawn a A$1.2 billion ($1.25 billion) loan to Whitehaven Coal Ltd (WHC.AX) sank the miner's shares by as much as 9 percent at one stage.

The ANZ financing is critical to Whitehaven's plans to develop a new colliery in eastern Australia's Maules Creek region.

Whitehaven shares recovered after Australian environmental activists claimed responsibility for distributing the fake media release.

This is the third time in the last six months that false statements aimed at undermining Australian-listed companies have been released. Monday's hoax caused Whitehaven to voluntarily suspend trading in its shares, but not before they fell after Australian media published the false statement.

Investors sold Whitehaven shares on concerns that the Whitehaven project will bite the dust just like other mining investments in Australia. The likes of BHP Billiton Ltd (BHP.AX) and Rio Tinto (RIO.AX) are freezing or delaying tens of billions of dollars of planned mining investments in Australia due to sliding demand and rising costs.

ANZ Bank and Whitehaven each issued statements saying the release was a hoax.

Whitehaven shares recovered, rising 0.14 percent to A$3.52 a share after the hoax was exposed and trading in its stock resumed.

Jonathan Moylan told Reuters by telephone he was head of a little-known group called Frontline Action on Coal that has been camped out near the proposed mine for five months to protest its development and would continue to pressure ANZ Bank over financing of coal mines.

"The future of our farmlands, our forests, our health, our climate, these are the biggest threats humanity faces and they are far more important than concerns over liability," Moylan said.

The hoax statement issued by Frontline Action on Coal went out on ANZ letterhead and was used as the basis for a news story by the domestic newswire, Australian Associated Press, which subsequently issued a "kill" notice, saying the story may potentially cause publishing of "extremely erroneous material."

At least one major Australian news website carried the story, but later removed it.

Two other companies in Australia have found themselves the victims of hoaxes in recent months. Trading in shares of Macmahon Holdings (MAH.AX) was halted in October 2012 when fake emails prompted takeover speculation. The mine construction firm became aware of the issue after it was contacted by media.

Retailer David Jones DJS.AX was also the victim of a hoax in July 2012 when a group called "EB Private Equity" launched a supposed takeover bid from Britain. The initial news of the bid drove up David Jones shares by 20 percent before it was revealed to be lacking substance.

($1 = 0.9566 Australian dollars)

(Additional reporting by Jane Wardell; Editing by Matt Driskill)

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