Local officials are saying that the floods in the northern Australian state of Queensland have reached “biblical proportions.” The floods, a result of the wettest spring on record, have struck an area bigger than France and Germany combined. Flooding from six rivers in the area has forced the evacuation of tens of thousands of people.
The flooding is hitting coal mines too. “Some open-cut pits are now looking more like dams than mines,” Michael Roche, head of the Queensland Resources Council, told Bloomberg. With railroads under water there wouldn’t be any way to get the coal to ships for transport to markets in Asia even if companies could get it out of the ground.
Which is a big deal for Asia’s steelmakers.
Australia is the largest producer of the kind of coal (coking or metallurgical coal) used in steelmaking, accounting for about 40% of the world’s seaborne shipments. Most of that, about 100 million metric tons of annual capacity, is either under force majeure or is on the verge of that declaration. By declaring force majeure a coal company is saying that events beyond its control make it impossible for the company to meet its supply contracts.
The last time the industry saw a comparable disruption in March 2008, coking coal prices tripled to $300 a metric ton.
This time is different because the industry has moved away from annual negotiations that set prices for the coming twelve months to quarterly pricing. That should give the market more flexibility: Prices are likely to climb in the short-term but also to fall more rapidly once the crisis is over. Contract prices for the January-March quarter were set at $225 a metric ton, the second highest ever, and Wall Street analysts expect that second quarter prices will be set much higher.
If you want to make a trading profit from the current extreme scarcity of supply—and the likely jump in prices for the second quarter—I think you can buy shares of Walter Energy (WLT) and ride the stock’s current momentum. Thanks to the company’s recent acquisition of Western Coal, Walter has become the fifth largest producer of metallurgical coal in the world. The company’s reserves are in Alabama and British Columbia, and that Canadian supply is positioned to replace Australian coal in Asian markets during this crisis.
Be sure, however, that you remember that this is a trade and that you’re riding momentum here. The stock has been on fire and the flooding is near a peak.
If you want to invest in the long-term growth of Asian steelmaking—and in the Australian mines that will supply those nearby markets with coal—think about buying the shares of the Australian coal miners that have been hit most heavily by the flooding. That includes MacArthur Coal (MCC.AU in Sydney or MACDY in New York) and Whitehaven Coal (WHC.AU in Sydney or WHITF in New York). U.S.-based coal miner Peabody Energy (BTU) has been busy expanding into Australia.
Full disclosure: I don’t own shares of any of the companies mentioned in this post in my personal portfolio. The mutual fund I manage, Jubak Global Equity Fund, may or may not now own positions in any stock mentioned in this post. The fund did own shares of MacArthur and Whitehaven Coal as of the end of November. For a full list of the stocks in the fund as of the end of November see the fund’s portfolio at http://jubakfund.com/about-the-fund/holdings/ I will post the fund’s holdings as of the end of December in a few days. You can use the same link then.