Opportunities will be there when coal dust settles

NATHAN Tinkler, at least, can see the light at the end of the coal tunnel with his $4 billion plus offer for Whitehaven Coal, but many cannot, with coal stocks hitting their lowest values in years.

NATHAN Tinkler, at least, can see the light at the end of the coal tunnel with his $4 billion plus offer for Whitehaven Coal, but many cannot, with coal stocks hitting their lowest values in years.

The Tinkler question led this columnist to ask whether there may be value at the smaller end of the spectrum.

After all, most junior coal companies have been hit hard as the coal price has fallen to its lowest in years too. They have been caught in a three-way pincer movement of increasing uncertainty about global economic growth, the shale gas phenomenon in the US and the green movement.

Australian junior producers are not helped when the big producers, such as Rio Tinto and BHP Billiton, talk down coal's prospects in attempts to get projects rushed through. On top of that is the realisation that infrastructure is taking longer than anticipated to put in place, or being abandoned.

This year Queensland's LNP government scrapped a $9 billion expansion of the Abbot Point coal terminal near Bowen in the state's north.

So, what to do?

Patersons Securities analyst Matthew Trivett says the answer for investors lies offshore: "Opportunities in the sector are in companies that have projects in Indonesia and Mongolia, where the operating costs are much lower."

Under the Radar has previously tipped one of his favourites, Altura Mining (ASX: AJM), which is developing the Tabalong mine in South Kalimantan, Indonesia.

It will cost Altura $40 million to develop its mine, while an underground coalmine in the Surat Basin in Australia would set you back at least $600 million.

Altura managing director James Brown previously ran Adaro, New Hope's multibillion-dollar coal project in Indonesia.

He doesn't mess around when explaining why it's so important to be a low-cost producer of high-energy, meaning high-grade, coal: "It costs the same to produce a tonne of low-grade coal as it does high-grade."

Australian coal producers need to process coal through wash plants, which is one reason costs are so high, says Brown. Altura's coal is simply crushed and sold raw.

"What about the sovereign risk?" you may ask.

There is sovereign risk in every country. Just look at the political conflict involving the carbon tax and the mining tax in Australia.

But in Indonesia, where many may have such a concern, coal has been excluded from a recent export tax. The export bans relating to the coal sector have been mooted only for low-calorie producing coal.

So, the bans would not affect Altura, as Tabalong produces high-calorie thermal coal which is used to generate electricity.

Nor would the bans affect Trivett's other favourite in Indonesia, Cokal (ASX: CKA), which is looking to get a metallurgical coal project off the ground. Its site in Central Kalimantan is next to the giant PT Juloi Coal mine owned by BHP and Adaro Energy.

Trivett also likes Guildford Coal (ASX: GUF) in Mongolia.

This is a very low-cost operation because its mine is close to the Chinese border.

It costs Guildford about $25 a tonne to produce the stuff, while it can sell it at about $50 a tonne. Economics in the sector don't get much better than that.

All three Altura, Cokal and Guildford are trading at about half of Trivett's valuations, and all have different factors that could propel their shares higher. All are definitely worth keeping an eye on at the very least.

You can bet Nathan Tinkler is watching them.

Richard Hemming (r.hemming@undertheradarreport.com.au) is an independent analyst who edits a fortnightly newsletter www.undertheradarreport.com.au

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