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Analysis: Indonesian coal prices seen set to remain firm as supply tightens

Singapore — Indonesian thermal coal prices are likely to remain firm in coming weeks as Chinese utilities lap up cargoes while supply typically tightens during Ramadan, market sources said this week.

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The price of Indonesian 4,200 kcal/kg GAR coal has jumped 4% to date in April amid a spate of Chinese tenders seeking lower grade coal. It was assessed Wednesday at $38/mt FOB Kalimantan, S&P Global Platts data showed.

China's lowering of its value-added tax to 13% from 16%, as well as a slight strengthening of its currency versus the US dollar, were among the reasons for the recent buying spree, market sources said.

"Particularly the adjustment of the VAT has lowered the cost of imports," a south China-based trader said at an industry gathering in Shanghai this week.

Indonesian supply was also in the spotlight as the government tightens its stance on domestic market obligations, or DMOs, and sets the production quotas for the year.

"We understand the government is now very strict in carrying out checks on the DMO to ensure producers meet their quota," an Indonesian producer said on the sidelines of the industry gathering.

In an interview last month with S&P Global Platts, Indonesia Coal Mining Association executive director Hendra Sinadia said the Indonesian government was adopting a firmer approach to ensure producers met their DMOs.

Market sources expect the DMO to be increased to around 28% of annual coal production this year from the current requirement of 25%.

During the month-long Ramadan period that starts on May 6, coal production in Indonesia is expected to fall 10%-20% from the month before, which may also help to keep thermal coal prices firm, market sources said.

POWER PLANTS' BUYING STRATEGY

Market sources in China said demand for low CV Indonesian coal was expected to remain strong but any further price hike may put off buyers.

"Most power plants are more likely to consider entering the market when prices are below $37/mt FOB [for 4,200 kcal/kg GAR] and will be more cautious if prices go above that level," a major power utility source said.

Chinese power plants are also seen to be adopting strategies this year to avoid purchasing during the peak season, especially during the seasonal restocking period in the fourth quarter, and are instead start restocking much earlier in the year.

"Though power plants are well-stocked, they may still enter the market again with tenders for large volumes when conditions are right," a trader said.

BEARISH SECOND HALF

However sentiment among Chinese buyers was more bearish for the second half of the year as domestic production was expected to return to full strength by June.

"If not for the two mine accidents earlier this year leading to mine shutdowns, we would have already been seeing domestic prices of 5,500 kcal/kg NAR at the level of Yuan 550/mt FOB," another trader said.

Disruption of domestic high CV thermal coal supply led to a price surge after the Lunar New Year holidays, and came amid import curbs on Australian coal that in turn pushed up demand for Indonesian material.

The price of spot domestic 5,500 kcal/kg NAR grade of coal was assessed Wednesday at Yuan 630/mt FOB Qinhuangdao, up from Yuan 622/mt FOB on April 1 and Yuan 580/mt FOB on January 2.

-- Hui Min Lee, hui.min.lee@spglobal.com

--Edited by Wendy Wells, wendy.wells@spglobal.com