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Debt before dividends in Whitehaven plan

AAP logoAAP 27/10/2016 Prashant Mehra

Whitehaven Coal will consider reintroducing dividends at the end of the financial year as shareholders question a resumption of payouts in the face of rising coal prices.

The miner has made debt reduction its short term priority but managing director Paul Flynn told shareholders at the company's annual general meeting on Thursday dividends would be revisited.

"By the back-end of this fiscal year, we will see the financial circumstances of the business change markedly, and that will give us a better context in which to re-examine this important question," Mr Flynn said.

Chairman Mark Vaile said deleveraging the balance sheet was the immediate focus.

"The stated objective in the short term is to continue to reduce debt. We haven't arrived at an absolute target of commercial debt we want to carry," he said.

The east coast miner returned to profitability in 2015/16, helped by additional output from its new Maules creek mine in NSW, which was commissioned in July 2015.

The company, which carried net debt of $859 million on its books at the end of June, has said it is focused on reducing this to a more manageable level.

But a sharp run-up in coal prices in recent months has prompted questions on resuming shareholder payouts.

Whitehaven last paid a dividend in 2012.

Mr Flynn told the meeting Whitehaven plans to grow the proportion of its metallurgical coal sales to 40 per cent over the next four years, from the current level of 16 per cent.

The miner has been looking to boost its output for the higher-margin coal - used in steel making - on the back of a ramp up in production from Maules Creek as well as its underground Narrabri mines in NSW.

Currently 40 per cent of its metallurgical coal output is shipped to India, and another 26 per cent to Japan.

Spot prices for metallurgic coal have more than doubled since June to over $US200 a tonne, on the back of supply cuts in Asia.

Thermal coal, used to generate electricity, currently accounts for 84 per cent of the miner's total sales.

Whitehaven posted a 20 per cent jump in September quarter coal production and has forecast lifting overall saleable coal output to between 21 to 22 million tonnes in 2016/17.

Whitehaven shares, which have more than trebled this year, on Thursday closed down 6.2 per cent at $2.90.

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