Coal outlook clouds Whitehaven future

Cooling coal prices have dampened demand for Whitehaven despite a solid production report

Nathan Tinkler may be gone. But now the outlook for coal prices is clouding the future for Whitehaven.

Its production report this morning was greeted with a wave of selling, falling 1.9% almost immediately after the numbers dropped.

From a production viewpoint, everything seems finally to be going right for the company (see Tim Treadgold's Black clouds clear over Whitehaven). Its Maules Creek development has been given the green light while the longwall operation at Narrabri helped lift output dramatically.

Saleable coal production jumped 48% on the June quarter last year. But prices have now slumped just as the company needs as much cash flow as possible to fund its massive new development.

Newcastle semi soft coking coal prices have plummeted in the past year, now fetching $US113.50, well short of the $US260 peak in 2009 and 2011 when Nathan Tinkler was considered a billionaire and was borrowing to the hilt.

Whitehaven now expects prices to drop to just above $US100 a tonne.

Thermal coal no longer is throwing off the kind of cash it once was either.  At $US55 a tonne, thermal coal has dropped 10% in the past month and the days when it appeared on the verge of breaching $US150 are now just a wistful memory.

While the drop in the Australian dollar has been a welcome development, it has not been enough to offset the price declines nor the discount for the lower energy levels for Narrabri thermal coal.

Maules Creek is on track for first production in the December quarter of 2014 but to get there, the company may need to tap the $770 million in undrawn debt facilities, a decision that could strain its balance sheet and create some heartache within its banking syndicate.

Most analysts value the company at well above the current share price of $2.10. But it is a group that suffered significant damage from the farce of the Tinkler years in an industry that has been battered by sentiment that can no longer simply be described as negative.

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