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Booming thermal coal price on China demand cheers miners

[SINGAPORE] Australian thermal coal prices for spot cargoes above US$100 a tonne, lifted by reports of strikes and strong Chinese demand, are providing a boost in earnings and share prices for miners like Glencore and Whitehaven Coal.

A crackdown on illegal mining and pollution in China has curbed domestic supplies, just as a heat wave and lower hydro power output have boosted demand for coal for power generation, forcing up prices.

A similar squeeze in 2016 pushed prices to US$114 a tonne and miners are again eyeing windfall profits, despite warning that the market is volatile. "Coal demand remains strong, especially in Asia," said Paul Flynn, managing director of Whitehaven Coal. "Imports of thermal coal into China have been higher than anticipated, and when combined with weather related constraints on supply from Indonesia and some production issues in Australia, have pushed up the price of seaborne thermal coal."

Reports of more planned strikes at Australia's Hunter Valley mine, as well as weather-related supply disruptions in Indonesia, have also been pushing up prices, traders said.

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Adding fuel to the already hot market, a huge gas-fired power outage in Taiwan this week has triggered emergency orders from coal-fired power stations scrambling to fill the electricity production gap, traders said.

Australian thermal coal shipments hit a 2017 high in July of over 11 million tonnes, shipping and trading data in Thomson Reuters Eikon shows. Despite a dip in shipments earlier this month, traders say orders for the rest of August and into September are high.

Spot cargo prices for Australian thermal coal cargoes from its Newcastle terminal have jumped by over 40 per cent from their 2017 lows. Coal topped US$100 in early August and last closed at US$101.25 per tonne.

The soaring demand and prices are a boon for companies like global miner Glencore, the world's biggest exporter of sea-traded thermal coal, and Australian miners like Whitehaven, which profited from last year's spike and have seen their stocks rally since June.

Shares in Whitehaven hit their highest since 2013 on Thursday after it reported a near 20-fold full-year profit rise to A$405 million (S$435.55 million).

Glencore this month raised its earnings forecast for 2017, citing higher commodity prices, after it reported a 68 per cent surge in first-half earnings.

The key question is whether the current boom will last. "Chinese coal production continues to fall due to capacity closures ... stocking hopes that import demand will remain strong in China in coming months," ANZ bank said on Thursday.

Last year's rally caught the market by surprise and this year's spike has again defied forecasts, given ample coal supplies and a growing raft of alternative energy sources. "Will prices stay above US$100 forever? Certainly not. But given the spikes this year and last, I and many of my colleagues don't want to be caught short again," said one trader.