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Fitch Ratings: China’s Growing Thermal Coal Supply to Pressure Exporters

Fitch Ratings-Shanghai/London-08 April 2019: Growing Chinese thermal coal supply is likely to lead to further tightening of import controls by the government, putting pressure on seaborne coal prices and adding order uncertainties for exporters, Fitch Ratings and CRU say. Miners from Australian and Indonesia are the most exposed, but the credit impact is muted thanks to sufficient rating headroom as we have already incorporated a downward pricing trend in our rating assumptions.

The Chinese coal market’s tightness has eased due to a combination of weaker demand and improved domestic supplies. Chinese coal demand has declined as residential power consumption reduced at the end of the winter heating season in mid-March and hydro supply increased in south China due to heavy rains. Chinese domestic coal supply has gradually improved in recent quarters as the pace of capacity closures has slowed and incremental capacity has been expedited to bring down fuel costs, according to CRU. Inventories at the six main power producing groups edged up to 16.0 million tonnes in late March, 13% higher than the average for 2018 of 14.1 million tonnes.

Growing domestic supply is likely to prompt the Chinese government to tighten control over thermal coal imports. This would imply higher order volatility and risks for seaborne coal suppliers targeting the Chinese market, which are mainly miners in Australia and Indonesia. The Chinese government appears to have adopted an on-and-off importing policy since 2017 by implementing stricter checks when domestic supply is sufficient and speeding up clearing when domestic supply is tight. Australian coal cargoes, for example, have been facing increasing delays clearing customs at Chinese ports since February, according to CRU.

While seaborne coal remains price competitive compared to domestic coal, risks of long clearing time and import bans may discourage Chinese consumers from using seaborne coal, especially when domestic supply is sufficient.

Australian coal producers are likely to face the risk of order cancellation, and to some degree, be forced to compete for sales in alternative countries. This may lead to weak prices in the seaborne market, especially for the mid-content-value coal of around 5,500kcal/kg that Chinese importers typically buy from Australia.

Imports from Indonesia have been less affected by the recent Chinese controls, according to press reports, although Indonesian producers are still likely to come under pressure to find new markets due to overall declining Chinese demand for seaborne coal, as well as increasing Indonesian domestic output, and weaker-than-expected domestic demand.

Click here to view our most recent metals and mining price assumptions, including thermal coal: ‘Fitch Ratings Raises Iron Ore Price Assumptions, Cuts for Copper, Aluminium’.
Source: Fitch Ratings, Inc.

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