Mixed imports data at top two buyers leaves coal prices poised, says Russell

Mixed imports data at top two buyers leaves coal prices poised, says Russell

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While July’s imports mark a significant recovery, and were the highest since April, it’s worth noting that they were still 22 per cent below the 15.3 million tonnes recorded in July last year.

It appears to be a case of one step forward, one step back for Asia’s seaborne coal exporters in July, with signs of a tentative recovery in Indian imports, but a drop in those by China.

The bulk of the weakness so far this year in Asia’s seaborne markets for both thermal and coking coal has been in India, the world’s second-biggest importer, where demand has been hit by the economic lockdowns enforced in efforts to combat the spread of the novel coronavirus.

India’s imports of both types of coal in July were estimated by Refinitiv at 12 million tonnes, up 36.4 per cent from June’s 8.8 million, which was the weakest month since Refinitiv’s vessel-tracking and port data commenced in January 2015.

While July’s imports mark a significant recovery, and were the highest since April, it’s worth noting that they were still 22 per cent below the 15.3 million tonnes recorded in July last year.

And while India may be showing some early signs of recovery, the news from China, the world’s biggest coal importer, producer and consumer, was less encouraging for exporters.

China’s seaborne imports of all types of coal were estimated at 20.6 million tonnes in July, down from June’s 25.2 million and also weaker than the 26.5 million from July 2019.

It’s not so much that China’s coal demand is weak, with official figures showing a rebound in electricity consumption in June, it’s more that Beijing is seeking to limit coal imports in order to protect its domestic mining industry.

Thermal coal at Qinhuangdao, a domestic benchmark, was at 572 yuan ($81.95) a tonne on Monday, slightly down from the recent peak of 592 yuan on July 10, but well up from the trough so far this year of 467 yuan on May 9.

While China doesn’t have formal coal import quotas or restrictions, it’s understood by industry participants that the authorities prefer to see domestic coal prices in a range between 500 and 580 yuan.

Given the domestic price is now closer to the top of the range, it’s possible that imports may rise in coming months, especially if the Chinese economy continues its recovery from the first quarter coronavirus lockdowns.

Another factor worth noting is that while China’s seaborne coal imports slipped in July, they are more or less steady for the year so far.

China’s seaborne imports for the first seven months are about 163.9 million tonnes, down slightly from 164.6 million for the same period last year, according to Refinitiv data.

The same cannot be said for India, with January to July imports coming in at 99.7 million tonnes, down from 123 million in the same period in 2019.

Outside of Asia’s top two coal importers too, the picture is mixed.

Number three Japan imported 96.1 million tonnes in the first seven months of 2020, in line with 96.0 million in the same period last year.

South Korea, the fourth-ranked importer, saw imports of 61.3 million tonnes of coal in the January-July period, down from 70.7 million in the same period in 2019.

Overall, the top four Asian importers brought in 421 million tonnes in the first seven months of the year, down 7.3 per cent from the 454.3 million in the same period of last year.

PRICE RECOVERY?

The weaker import performance certainly justifies lower coal prices, but it is debateable as to whether the sharp declines in coal prices are warranted.

Benchmark Australian thermal coal at Newcastle port , as assessed by commodity price reporting agency Argus, ended at $47.95 a tonne in the week to July 31, up slightly from the 13-1/2-year low of $47.49 in the week to July 3. The grade is down 31 per cent from its peak so far in 2020 of $69.59 a tonne in the week to Jan. 17.

Lower-rank Indonesian thermal coal, with an energy rating of 4,200 kilocalories per kilogram, ended at $25.48 a tonne in the week to July 30, up from $23.39 in the week to July 9, which was the lowest price since Argus started assessments in 2008.

Coking coal, used to make steel, is also weak, with Singapore Exchange futures ending at $111 a tonne on Monday, only a slight recovery from the four-year low of $106, hit on June 1.

If China does ease some of its informal restrictions on imports, and India continues to show some recovery, it’s possible that coal may recover somewhat from what looks like an oversold position.

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