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Free Cable TV Remains Unplugged for Aussie Coal Miners

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  • Producers remain focused on cost reduction despite price surge
  • Some perks used to retain workers during last boom are gone

The price of coal has returned after five years in the doldrums. The perks used to lure and retain the workers mining it haven’t.

Producers are keeping the purse strings tight even after prices exploded back this year as China restricted domestic output in a country that buys more than any other. For example, a once weekly feast of seafood is still rationed to a monthly affair at some Australian mines, according to ESS Support Services, which runs mining camps for companies including BHP Billiton Ltd. and Glencore Plc. Cable television, available at no cost during the boom, has been disconnected and replaced by free-to-air services.

With doubts remaining about the longevity of coal’s recovery, some producers may be reluctant to reinstate the employee benefits that were abolished as the last boom turned to bust. They remain focused on the sort of cost-cutting that helped BHP, the world’s biggest miner, cut expenses by a quarter over five years.

“Over the cycle there has been a very strong focus on removing costs and excess,” said John Sheridan, an executive director with ESS Support, which caters for as many as 28,000 workers at coal to iron ore operations. “Things are better now, everyone appreciates that environment, but it doesn’t necessarily translate into an immediate change in service offering. We haven’t seen our clients increase scope.”

Spot hard coking coal, used to make steel, is one of the best performing commodities this year after nearly quadrupling above $300 a metric ton. Newcastle thermal coal, used in power stations, climbed to $110.40 earlier this month, the highest level in more than four years.

Prices surged in the second half of 2016, snapping five years of declines, as China ordered miners to cut output to ease a glut and help lift its domestic industry out of crisis. The country’s imports during the first ten months of the year are up 18.5 percent to 201.74 million tons.

Stretched Miners

Liberum Capital Ltd. predicts the spike will add billions to the underlying earnings of BHP. That’s after the company has already reduced absolute cash costs by a quarter since July 2011, according to a June presentation. Glencore estimates its thermal coal costs will be $39 a ton this year, a 17 percent reduction from 2014 when it was $47, according to a May presentation.

“Producers have been focused on cutting costs and improving efficiencies within the system over the past few years,” said Daniel Hynes, an analyst at Australia & New Zealand Banking Group Ltd. “There hasn’t been any significant new investment going into capacity.”

Liberum estimated in September, when coking coal prices were below $200 a ton, that almost $5 billion would be added to BHP Billiton’s underlying earnings before interest, tax, depreciation and amortization in the year ending June 30. While the world’s biggest shipper benefits from the advance, the company sees prices drifting lower.

‘Kidding Themselves’

Miners’ operating margin, a measure of profitability after subtracting cash costs, soared to $178 a ton when coking coal prices hit $290 a ton Nov. 7, Robin Griffin, a research director at Wood Mackenzie Ltd. in Brisbane, said in an e-mail. The price of $200 a ton struck for the last quarterly contract delivers coking coal producers an operating margin of $103 a ton, according to the energy consultant.

“People are still not going to lose track of the fundamentals in making sure they are managing their production levels and cost structures," said Cameron McRae, chairman of TerraCom Ltd., a miner with assets in Australia and Mongolia. “People won’t lose focus on that but will certainly welcome the current price tick which is significant.”

Goldman Sachs Group Inc. to RBC Capital Markets predict coking coal prices will ease next year, with RBC estimating an average of $165 a ton. That will still be the highest in at least three years. Wood Mackenzie Ltd. sees most thermal coal exporters avoiding a return to the doldrums that saw widespread job cuts and the shelving of projects.

Canadian producer Teck Resources Ltd. has used the “significant amount of additional cash” generated to repay debt after producing a record 7 million tons of coking coal during the third quarter, President and Chief Executive Officer Don Lindsay said in a statement last month. The volume of coal sold during the period was the second highest on record for the company.

Hard coking coal is holding gains above $300 a ton, while Newcastle prices trade near $92 after dropping below $90 this month for the first time since mid-October as China ramps up efforts to cool the runaway market. Citigroup Inc. still sees Newcastle coal averaging $72 a ton in 2017, the highest since 2013 when it averaged about $85.

“Anyone who says they are not surprised by this is kidding themselves,” said Brendon Pearson, chief executive of the Minerals Council of Australia, referring to the price surge. “We shouldn’t assume that these high prices will persist and I know the industry is not going to take its eye off the productivity focus in getting costs down.”