LAUNCESTON: Seaborne thermal coal prices in Asia climbed to fresh record highs last week, with early signs of rising exports not enough to eclipse concerns over coal shortages in top importers China and India.
The benchmark price for Australian high-grade thermal coal at Newcastle Port, as assessed by commodity price reporting agency Argus, jumped to $229.11 a tonne for the week to Oct. 8, a 12.5% increase on the prior week’s close.
The index has risen by almost 160% since the week to April 30, when it ended at $88.52 and was the last week the price fell from the prior seven-day period.
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The benchmark 6,000 kilocalorie per kilogram (kcal/kg) coal, most popular with Japanese and South Korean utilities, has now gained almost 400% since September last year, when it slumped to a 14-year low at the height of economic lockdowns across Asia to combat the coronavirus pandemic.
It’s not just Australian thermal coal that has surged, with lower-quality 4,200 kcal/kg Indonesian supplies actually outperforming, with the index reaching a fresh record high of $122.08 a tonne in the week to Oct. 8.
This is up 439% since the 2020 low of $22.65 a tonne, with China being the driver of the strong gains after traders and utilities switched to Indonesian cargoes after Beijing imposed an informal ban on buying from Australia amid an ongoing political dispute with Canberra.
For thermal coal, Australia used to be China’s second-biggest supplier behind Indonesia, with the most popular grade being 5,500 kcal/kg cargoes.
With China effectively halting imports from Australia but boosting from Indonesia, a switch happened in Asian markets, with Australia supplying more of the 5,500 kcal/kg grade to India, the world’s second-biggest importer behind China.
But India is a more price-sensitive buyer than China, and Australian 5,500 kcal/kg coal hasn’t performed as strongly, even though it has rallied to an all-time high as well, ending last week at $138.60 a tonne.
This is up 295% since the 2020 low of $35.06 a tonne in the week to Sept. 9 of that year, and while this is a strong rally, it’s not of the same magnitude for higher-quality Australian coal, or the lower-grade Indonesian cargoes.
This is perhaps a reflection of the reluctance of buyers in India to pay high prices for coal, with history suggesting that utilities that run on imported supplies would rather cut back on generation rather than sell electricity at a loss in regulated power markets.
India’s imports slip
Certainly, India’s imports have been trending lower since June, and recent weekly figures from commodity consultants Kpler show volumes being discharged well below the same period a year earlier.
India’s imports of thermal coal were assessed by Kpler at 2.67 million tonnes in the week started Oct. 4, which is up from the lowest week this year of just 1.46 million in the week beginning Sept. 13.
However, India’s imports of thermal coal in the same week last year stood at 3.99 million tonnes, and the strongest week this year was 3.83 million for the seven days that started May 3.
In contrast to the demand destruction likely being seen in India, China’s imports have been stronger in year-on-year terms in recent weeks, even if they are still below the peak from last winter and during the peak summer demand period.
China’s imports of thermal coal were 3.29 million tonnes in the week started Oct. 4, according to Kpler, which was up from 1.47 million in the same week last year.
Kpler is forecasting that China’s imports will rise to 4.50 million tonnes in the week starting on Monday, which if realised would be the strongest weekly outcome since early September.
But for both China and India, imports play very much a secondary role in their coal supplies, with the performances of their vast domestic mining sectors a far more important determinant of the volume of fuel available for generation.
Both countries are trying to ramp up domestic output, with China ordering the re-opening of mines it had previously closed on safety grounds and India’s state-controlled mining giant Coal India trying to recover from lower production caused by a renewed surge in coronavirus cases in recent months.
The success of these endeavours will do more to determine the level of imports required in coming months, although seaborne prices are likely to remain elevated until there is evidence the domestic output is actually rising and the coal is reaching power plants in both countries.