While a sharp decline in European imports is a key driver of the expected fall in steam coal trade this year, China and India remain leading actors, together accounting for a third of global seaborne steam coal imports.
In recent years the two have alternated between the ‘hero’ and ‘villain’ roles in coal trade, with either firm import growth supporting volumes, or a decline stifling steam coal trade growth.
China: From Hero To Zero
China has enjoyed a lead role in steam coal trade in recent years, accounting for 32% of global seaborne import growth in 2010-14. However, the country’s slowing economic growth, stricter coal quality regulations and an 11% y-o-y rise in domestic steam coal output to 3bn tonnes triggered a 33% drop in Chinese steam coal imports to 128mt in 2015. This represented a five year low and a change in China’s role in steam coal trade.
India: A New Hope?
Meanwhile, Indian steam coal imports rose 13% y-o-y in 1H 2015 and it briefly seemed that India might fill the void left by China’s shrinking imports. However, an 8% y-o-y rise in Indian steam coal output to around 0.5bn tonnes in 2015 drove a 3% drop in Indian steam coal imports in the full year. This has continued into 2016, with a 13% y-o-y fall in imports to 64mt in January-May. It seems that hopes of a new steam coal ‘hero’ emerging might have been premature.
The Return Of The King?
The drop in Indian steam coal imports in early 2016 coincided with a recovery in Chinese imports. Beijing introduced strict policies to cut coal output in March, capping coal mining activity at 276 days pa, leading to a 10% y-o-y decline in Chinese steam coal output in January-July 2016 and a significant increase in coal prices and imports. The 5,550 kcal Qinhuangdao FOB spot price hit a 20 month high of $82/t in early October, while Chinese steam coal imports rose 12% y-o-y to 98mt in the first eight months of the year.
An Uncertain Future
However in October, Beijing loosened its coal output regulations to help stabilise coal prices. While the full impact of this measure is unclear, it poses a downside risk to China’s future steam coal import demand. Nevertheless, an atypically cold winter is currently expected to help support an 8% rise in Chinese steam coal imports to 138mt in full year 2016. Meanwhile, Indian steam coal output fell 8% y-o-y in August-September 2016, largely due to poor weather conditions and destocking at Indian power plants. While reports indicate limited Indian steam coal import demand in recent months, domestic output disruptions present a potential upside for imports in the near future. However, given the downturn in the year to date, Indian steam coal imports are still projected to drop 6% to 157mt in 2016.
So, China and India have recently alternated between the ‘hero’ and ‘villain’ roles in global steam coal trade. The countries’ combined steam coal imports are expected to increase marginally in 2016, as Chinese import growth is expected to offset a drop in Indian imports. However, given the decline in European steam coal imports, even a situation with both India and China playing the hero may not suffice to save the day this year.