It’s not shaping up as a merry Christmas for coal exporters to Asia as the region’s top buyers, China and India, pull back from the recent trend of strong imports.
The Chinese authorities appear to be making good on a commitment to try and limit the country’s imports of the polluting fuel to levels the same as 2017.
The restrictions have led to a sharp drop in the daily import of coal so far in December, according to vessel-tracking and port data compiled by Refinitiv.
Seaborne imports in the first five days of the month stood at 1.5 million tonnes, or a daily rate of just 300,000 tonnes.
This compares to total seaborne imports of 226.2 million tonnes in the first 11 months of 2018, a daily rate of about 677,000 tonnes.
The authorities in Beijing have told coal traders and utilities they want imports for the whole year to be similar to the 279 million tonnes in 2017.
This is likely going to be a challenge since customs data showed imports for the first 10 months of the year were 252 million tonnes, up 11 percent from the same period in 2017.
With vessel-tracking data pointing to November seaborne imports of about 18.3 million tonnes, this would in theory leave only about 9 million tonnes available for December.
At the rate of imports for the first five days of December, this may just be possible, as it suggests about 9.3 million tonnes for the month as a whole.
However, the ship-tracking data doesn’t cover overland imports, mainly from neighbouring Mongolia, meaning it’s likely that 2018 imports will probably exceed those of 2017.
But the sharp reduction in imports so far in December shows Beijing’s message to the industry is being heeded.
INDIA SLOWS IMPORTS
India, the second-largest coal importer behind China, also appears to be cutting back in December, with a mere 755,535 tonnes discharged in the first five days, a paltry daily rate of 151,107 tonnes.
The daily rate of imports for the first 11 months of the year was 534,000 tonnes, according to the Refinitiv data.
The lower imports so far in December are at odds with recent developments in India, as utilities and steel makers have resorted to buying more from overseas to overcome domestic transport bottlenecks.
It’s possible that India’s December imports will be boosted by arrivals from Indonesia, given that it takes about two weeks to sail from the coal-producing region of Kalimantan to India’s west coast.
Indeed, the vessel-tracking data shows 10.7 million tonnes of coal is likely to be imported by India in December, a figure certain to increase as more cargoes from Indonesia are fixed.
However, even if the number does rise in coming days, it’s likely December will be below the 17.3 million tonnes imported in November and the 17.9 million in October.
The weaker imports by both China and India are being reflected in coal prices in Australia and Indonesia, the world’s two largest exporters.
Benchmark thermal coal at Australia’s Newcastle port, as assessed by Argus Media, rose slightly in the week to Dec. 2 to $97.94 a tonne.
This was up from the seven-month low of $97.50 a tonne in the week to Nov. 25, but also 18.2 percent below the 7-1/2 year high of $119.74 reached in late July.
Indonesian thermal coal with an energy rating of 4,200 kilocalories per kilogram has fared even worse than its higher-quality Australian counterpart, dropping to $28.85 a tonne on the week to Nov. 30.
This is down 43 percent from its seven-year high, and is the lowest price since July 2016, according to pricing agency Argus Media.
If there is a positive for coal exporters it’s that the lower prices should act as a boost for India’s imports from Indonesia, and China’s restrictions may lead to pent-up demand in the early months of 2019.