BEIJING: Global seaborne coal trade is currently projected to drop 1% y-o-y in 2015, which would be the first annual decline in almost three decades. The driving force behind the slump has been a collapse in Chinese seaborne coal imports, which fell 40% y-o-y in the first five months of the year. This month’s Commodity Countdown explores the cause and implications of the drop in Chinese coal import demand.
Global seaborne coal trade is currently projected to drop 1% y-o-y in 2015, which would be the first annual decline in almost three decades. The driving force behind the slump has been a collapse in Chinese seaborne coal imports, which fell 40% y-o-y in the first five months of the year. This month’s Commodity Countdown explores the cause and implications of the drop in Chinese coal import demand.
China’s role in recent global coal trade has been to hoover up coal output and provide a seemingly bottomless source of demand to exporters around the world. Chinese imports accounted for a 2015-07-21_upload_6876907_DBTO1507quarter of growth in seaborne coal trade in 2012 and 65% in 2013. However, as the graph shows, the country’s coal import demand has been in steady decline since the beginning of 2014 and with the acceleration of the downturn in the first half of 2015, China is likely to lose its leading position, while global seaborne coal trade is expected to record its first decline in decades.
The majority of coal consumed in China is sourced domestically, meaning that even a small change in the country’s coal use can impact heavily on seaborne imports. With that in mind, Chinese coal fired power generation dropped 3% y-o-y in the first five months of 2015 on the back of the government’s measures to tackle air pollution. There have been a number of power plant closures in recent months, while Chinese importers became increasingly particular about their coal purchases, due to the introduction of a series of coal quality regulations. Correspondingly, Chinese thermal coal imports dropped 39% y-o-y in January to May to the lowest level for the period since 2011. Similarly, coking coal imports dropped 41% y-o-y in January to May, coinciding with the 1.3% y-o-y drop in steel production in 1H 2015. The drop has been largely attributed to easing infrastructure development and sluggish construction activity.
As China’s coal imports from seaborne suppliers have dropped across the board in the year to date, coal miners have been put under severe financial pressure. Indonesian miners have taken a particularly severe blow, with a large number forced to cut output. Total Indonesian coal production dropped 19% y-o-y in January to May, while shipments to China halved y-o-y. Elsewhere, while Australian miners are likely to benefit modestly from a free trade agreement signed in June, forecasts still indicate a difficult remainder of the year, following the 15% y-o-y drop in exports to China in January to May. Finally, while India is on course to become the leading seaborne coal importer in 2015, it is likely to fall considerably short of filling the demand gap left by China. As such, the impact of collapsing Chinese coal import demand on global coal trade is likely to be significant.