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Listen: Volatility increases in Asia-Pacific thermal coal market on China's imports restriction

China's stop-go imports market has spread uncertainty and price volatility across the Asia-Pacific seaborne market, impacting prices for Australian, Indonesian and even for Chinese domestic coal, which enjoyed a small boost with less competition from import cargoes. Against this backdrop, vessel freight for seaborne coal cargoes has lifted from lows, and Japan has started its talks to price Australian deliveries for the year starting April 1, 2019. S&P Global Platts thermal coal market editors Michael Cooper, Hui Min Lee, Jenny Ma, and Fred Wang examine the latest developments in the Asian markets.

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Volatility increases in Asia-Pacific thermal coal market on China's imports action

Michael Cooper: Hello and welcome to this episode of Commodity Spotlight podcast. I am Mike Cooper, and work in Platts' thermal coal team in Australia as a senior editor focusing on the Asian-Pacific market. Today I am joined by our Singapore editors, Hui Min Lee, Jenny Ma, and Fred Wang, who cover the China and Indonesian markets, respectively, to discuss some interesting developments in the Asia thermal coal markets.

Hui Min, what has happened to import prices at Chinese ports for thermal coal?

Hui Min Lee: South China prices for imported cargoes of thermal coal have been in a prolonged down trend since June 2018. Three factors have been at play in this according to market sources. Firstly, China has steadily tightened its restrictions for imported cargoes thereby limiting the amount that can come in. Secondly, domestic prices in China have steadily marched downwards as production and supply have risen. Thirdly, China's increased imports of LNG have reduced its demand for imported thermal coal.

Platts PCC 8 price for 5,500 NAR Australian thermal coal delivered into south China dropped to a two and a half year low of $67/mt CFR in December, from $90/mt back in June. It has now edged up a little but remains at just under $70/mt. While the PCC 7 price for the 4,700 NAR grade of Indonesian coal shipped to China had dropped to as low as $53/mt in late December, from $77/mt in June. The PCC 7 price recovered to $60/mt in February.

Chinese authorities have kept a tight grip on the volume of imports they allow into the country in 2019. But coal imports flooded China in January, with the resetting of import quotas at the start of the year. Yet we have seen Chinese authorities putting in place import curbs for Australia coal, dampening Newcastle prices. And though there have been news about curbs on Indonesian cargoes, import flows into China have been unpredictable this year so far.

Michael Cooper: Jenny, turning to domestic prices for China, they have been moving up recently. Can you tell us why?

Jenny Ma: Yeah. Domestic prices for 5,500 NAR grade coal had been pushing lower throughout 2018 since hitting 700 yuan per metric tonne in June, and slipped below the critical level of 600 yuan per metric tonne in late December, dropping to about 580 yuan in December. Now we are seeing a strong rebound after the Lunar New Year, hitting 603 yuan currently. The price level of 600 yuan is important as Beijing has pledged to intevene in the local coal market if prices go over this level by a significant amount, and they have done so in the past.

Meanwhile, prices for the 5,000 NAR grade of domestic coal have twice found support last year at 500 yuan per metric tonne in August and December, and are currently holding at around 527 yuan. The rebound was likely due to the return of buying interest as well as the current import restrictions. However, market players are skeptical if uptrend will persist stay for too long as there are still high coal stocks at power utilities and lower than usual coal burn for power generation in China.

Michael Cooper: Thanks, Jenny. And now over to you Fred, what has been happening in the Indonesian thermal coal market lately?

Fred Wang: The 4,200 GAR grade of Indonesian thermal coal has sprung up to $37/mt FOB Kalimantan from a near two-and-a-half year low of $28.50/mt in November 2018. But these prices are a long way down from the highs of $50/mt achieved last June. Indian buyers are currently showing lower bids than China for this popular grade of Indonesian thermal coal. China's seaborn demand has picked up after coming back from its Lunar New Year holidays, and with rising bids day on day.

For the 5,000 GAR grade of Indonesian thermal coal, spot prices have also recovered to $55.50/mt FOB Kalimantan from a low of $46/mt at the beginning of January 2019. But these prices are still a long way off from the recent high point for the market of $68/mt in June 2018.

Meanwhile, the market is experiencing increasing tightness as rains have reduced shipments from Kalimantan. Indian demand has shown inclination towards mid CV coals, showing interest especially in the 5,000 GAR grade of Indonesian thermal coal, which rose by more than $3/mt over the last week of January. The high seaborne demand was a result from restocking activities by the brick and tile industries, where poor inland logistical infrastructure proved hard for buyers to tap into domestic thermal coal supplies. However, in view of the recent Chinese import restrictions, seaborne traders noted a slight dip in the buying interest from India in early February.

Finally, how has the Platts NEAT price assessment for Japan and Korea been performing Mike?

Michael Cooper: Thank you, Fred. The NEAT coal index which stands for Northeast Asia Thermal coal price hit a high of $103/mt in June 2018, as negotiations in Japan to settle benchmark prices for April annual contracts hit a roadblock. The NEAT index price is based on prices for the Newcastle 5,500 NAR grade, and the price sits at just over $77 CFR Japan currently.

Panamax freight to Japan which is also part of the NEAT index price peaked at $15.80/mt in October, then the highest seen since Platts started covering this shipping route in January 2017. They slumped to a low of $8.80/mt in February, although they have now rebounded slightly to around $10/mt.

An interesting point to mention, is the very wide spread or differential between prices for the two different grades of Newcastle thermal coal, 5,500 and 6,000 NAR. This ballooned out to $56 in August as the Japanese supply talks for April annual contracts dragged on into the northern hemisphere summer. It has since narrowed slightly to $30, which is still high by historic standards, when typically the gap is about $5 or $10.

The main reason for the wide price differential in Newcastle 5,500 and 6,000 NAR prices is that Newcastle 6,000 prices jumped to a six-year high of $125/mt FOB in July, but recently this price has fallen to $89.25/mt on a lack of Japanese spot demand, which has been lacking.

What is noticeable this year, is that Japanese buyers including large power companies have largely refrained from floating spot tenders in January and February to test spot Newcastle prices ahead of their annual round of talks for April term contracts. This lack of activity is affecting market and price transparency.

Fred Wang: Thank you, Jenny, Hui Min, and Mike. You can read more about the latest developments in the Asia-Pacific thermal coal markets in Coal Trader International and on the Platts website. Until next time, goodbye.