China's thermal coal imports are likely to remain strong ahead of the Chinese New Year in mid-February on robust demand, high utilisation at domestic suppliers and exceptionally high local prices, says Fitch Ratings. Indonesian coal miners are benefitting as the country is the biggest exporter of thermal coal to China. This also comes amid China's political tensions with its second-largest supplier Australia.
China's coal imports surged to 39.08 million tonnes in December 2020 from 2.77 million tonnes a year earlier, as Beijing relaxed a soft cap on import restrictions to ease supply constraints domestically amid an unusually cold winter, an uptick in economic activity, permit inspections in Inner Mongolia, and a soft cap on Australian coal imports. China's 2020 coal imports rose 1.4% to 304 million tonnes, the highest since 2014. Total thermal power generation rose by 6.6% and 9.2% yoy in November and December 2020, respectively.
China's coal production dropped by 0.1% yoy in 2020. Production in Inner Mongolia, the country's largest coal-producing province in 2019, fell by 3% yoy in 2020 despite the government's policy reversal in October to boost output ahead of the winter. Inner Mongolia's output subsequently rose by 9% yoy to a record high of 97.8 million tonnes in December 2020. The government in January 2021 also urged all coal producers to operate at maximum capacity as long as they can ensure mine safety.
We expect China's coal demand and imports to weaken after the Chinese New Year as temperatures rise and coal production normalises. CRU's analysis of vessel data shows that China's thermal coal imports in the first two weeks of January were already close to 70% of the volume in December 2020. CRU said the seaborne Newcastle 5,500kcal/kg free on board (FOB) coal price rose to a two-year high of USD62 by 26 January 2021 and the Chinese import price for thermal coal, 5,500kcal/kg CFR China, was USD85/tonne, a deep discount to the domestic Qinhuangdao 5,500 kcal/kg FOB price of USD131. Fitch remains bearish on the long-term coal price outlook amid the global push towards carbon neutrality.
More stringent Covid-19 containment measures amid the resurgence of infections in northern China may raise seaborne demand by slowing the shipment of coal from central China to the Bohai Rim ports, according to CRU. Some cities have been asking truck drivers to provide negative Covid-19 test results several days before arriving. That said, we do not expect a repeat of the logistical disruption in early 2020 as local governments have become more sophisticated in implementing control measures to minimise the impact on economic activity.
There may also be a regional supply-demand imbalance, keeping coal prices elevated in the short term. The Chongqing municipal government recently ordered a permanent shutdown of local coal mines, including 11.5 million tonnes of capacity owned by Chongqing Energy Investment Group Co., Ltd. (BBB/Stable), by mid-2021. This is likely to tighten coal supply in the southwest region.
Indonesian coal miners are the major beneficiaries of strong Chinese imports. The Indonesian 4,200kcal/kg coal index rose to USD45/tonne in January 2021 from an average of USD26/tonne in the seven months to November 2020. The surge is likely to be short-lived, although Fitch expects a 2021 average price that is higher than 2020 at USD32.5/tonne.
Fitch also expects most Indonesian coal producers to ramp up 1Q21 production in response to the better demand and pricing as they had curtailed production or ceased operations in costlier mines in 2H20. However, the heavy rains and floods in some parts of Kalimantan - Indonesia's key-coal producing region - may hamper the efforts of some coal miners.