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China adds coal to list of US products subject to 25% tariffs

China fired back in its growing trade dispute with the U.S., announcing 25% tariffs on $16 billion worth of American exports, including coal, oil products and liquefied petroleum gas.

Beijing's Aug. 8 announcement was likely a retaliation to the United States' Aug. 7 announcement of new duties on imported Chinese products, which also totaled $16 billion and go into effect Aug. 23.

The U.S. exported nearly 2.1 million tons of coal to China in the first quarter of 2018, a 6.3% year-over-year increase from 2017, according to data compiled by S&P Global Market Intelligence.

Ben Nelson, Moody's senior credit officer and lead analyst for its coal portfolio, said in an Aug. 8 interview with S&P Global Market Intelligence that the Chinese tariffs on metallurgical coal could have a negative impact on U.S. producers, but ultimately it's "too early to tell" how trade tensions will affect the coal industry.

"The magnitude of the impact depends on the level of the tariffs and what happens with trade flow," he said. "... We've seen a couple of early proposals, but we're still very much in the early innings, and so we'll have to see how this plays out over the next couple of years to get a better idea of what the real impact will be on the industry."

Nelson said he doesn't think the tariffs will be "the straw that breaks the camel's back" for rated companies, though they could be more problematic for unrated companies.

While the 25% tariff is meaningful, he said, it's not as meaningful "in the context of met coal volatility." The U.S. also exports met coal to Europe and South America, he said, which could be "logical markets" to absorb some of the coal that would be shipped to China.

"As long as trade tensions don't meaningfully impact global economic growth … I don't think this is something that would derail the industry," Nelson said. "Met coal prices are still pretty favorable."

Conor Bernstein, senior director of communications for the National Mining Association, wrote in an Aug. 8 email that the association is closely watching the moves, "particularly given what a bright spot exports have been for our industry of late."

"So anything that chips away at the appetite for U.S. coal abroad is of concern," he wrote. "At the same time, given that earlier this summer we were being asked about China's rumored plans to increase coal imports from the U.S., we recognize that this is a dynamic situation and one we are going to continue to monitor."

Only about 2% to 5% of U.S. coal exports are sent to China, said Vania Dimova, associate director of S&P Global Ratings' natural resources group, so the tariffs would have little impact on the market.

"This is not their focus destination anyway," she said. "It's not their market anyway."

Trump's administration is considering another 25% tariff on $200 billion of Chinese products. China has threatened to impose additional tariffs on $60 billion of U.S. exports in response.

S&P Global Ratings and S&P Global Market Intelligence are owned by S&P Global Inc.