PERTH, June 14 (Reuters) - Australia's thermal coal index slipped during the past week as lower liquidity in the coal market pushed prices lower, traders and analysts said on Tuesday.
Thermal coal on the globalCOAL Newcastle index for the week to date was $114.50 per tonne on Monday, down from $118.25 a week earlier.
A lack of demand from Japan, Australia's biggest coal customer, due to the March earthquake that shut some coal plants continued to keep trading thin.
Although some utilities have said they will face power shortages in the aftermath of the earthquake, so far liquefied natural gas and oil have been the primary substitutes for the nuclear plants that were shut due to the quake and tsunami.
Still, top thermal coal exporter Xstrata last week began negotiations with the Japanese utilities for annual coal contracts beginning in July.
Market sources said they expected the July contract settlement to come in below the key April contract, which settled at $129.85 per tonne, with some saying they expected a price as low as $125 a tonne.
As prices for Australian coal have declined, Chinese buyers have shown increasing interest in Australian steam coal and some buyers have been getting indirect discounts for standard-grade Australian coal as suppliers tried to avoid pulling down index prices.
Australian thermal coal prices could eventually get a lift from industrial actions at BHP Billiton and Mitsubishi in Queensland.
Union workers on Tuesday staged the first in a series of work stoppages planned at some of Australia's biggest metallurgical coal mines operated by BHP Billiton and Mitsubishi, a union official said.
Although the strike is unlikely to have an immediate impact on the thermal coal market, some portion of thermal coal exports can be upgraded to coking coal if prices rise high enough and could tighten the thermal coal market.
"If the strike continues for a while and coking coal spot values go even higher, then you'd see every thermal coal producer doing whatever they can to turn it into semi-soft coal," one market source said.
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