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January 10, 2011 9:37 am
For many investors, oil and natural gas are the only energy commodities.
But thermal coal, used to fire power stations, is also important even if it is often overlooked.
Don’t get me wrong, oil is still the most important source of energy, but rather than concentrating only on whether its price its $100 a barrel, investors should also pay attention to whether thermal coal prices continue their climb up towards records.
Thermal coal is still the main source of electricity around the world. For example, China, the world’s biggest energy consumer, relies on it for more than 80 per cent of its electricity supplies; Japan, around 65 per cent, and the US, for nearly 40 per cent.
The cost of thermal coal in the Australian port city of Newcastle, a benchmark in the coal-dependent region of Asia, has risen above $130 a tonne, the highest in two years.
Worse, senior mining executives and traders say that annual contracts, which run April-April because they are set on the basis of the Japanese fiscal year, could rise as high as $140 a tonne, an all-time high, above the record of $125 a tonne set in 2008.
The chatter about record prices is well above the forecast from most City of London analysts, who are forecasting annual contract prices of $115-$125 a tonne. The negotiations for the 2011-12 year with Japan, South Korea and Taiwan are about to start and traders believe they are going to be one of the most difficult ever.
The increase in thermal coal annual prices, which affect around 40-50 per cent of the seaborne trade of coal, will put pressure on electricity prices across the world, particularly in Asia, where coal is the main energy commodity to fire power stations.
The flooding in Queensland state in Australia is partly behind the spike, but there are other elements at play related to unusual heavy rains. Wet weather in Colombia, South Africa and Indonesia has also curtailed production in those key exporters. Meanwhile, demand is strong, with China and India buying more and more overseas.
For investors, a lack of thermal coal futures means that it is difficult to gain exposure easily to rising prices.
True, sophisticated investors could turn to thermal coal swaps, with several banks involved in the trade of private, bilateral over-the-counter financial contracts.
Beyond, equities are the only source of exposure, with companies from London-listed Xstrata to New York-listed Peabody. But the array of equity investment will increase this year with the arrival of two key companies to the London market: Bumi, the Indonesian thermal coal exporter, which is listing in the UK through Vallar, the London-listed cash shell founded by financier Nat Rothschild; and the flotation mid year of Glencore, the trader which is a powerhouse in coal.
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