We have covered the trade in Chinese steel and iron ore in considerable detail here in the past but ISSB also monitors the trade in some other products and today we are looking at the Chinese coal and coke trade. China is the world’s largest producer and consumer of coal but the country only became a net importer in 2009. Since then, Chinese imports of coal increased by over 150% to peak at 327 million tonnes in 2013 with internal production estimated at around 3.7 billion tonnes. Since 2013, however, it has been a familiar story with reduced industrial demand leading to falling imports, which in 2015 were down 36% from the peak just two years prior, and an over capacity situation which is estimated by Reuters as being an astonishing 2 billion tonnes last year.
China imports most of its coal from Australia and Indonesia and the price of Australian hard coking coal has nearly halved since the end of 2013 to just over $76 per tonne as of the end of last week. The Chinese Government has responded by stopping approvals for new coal mines for three years but given the current huge overcapacity, this is unlikely to make much of a dent on falling prices. In addition, however, there are plans within China to reduce capacity by some 70 million tonnes internally but again, given the estimated 2 billion tonnes of overcapacity, it is hard to see this having much of an effect either given the predicted fall in industrial demand for the raw material in 2016.
One option for China to use this excess coal being produced is to turn it into coke, subject to coke oven capacity, and in contrast to coal, China is a net exporter of coke and is the largest supplier in the world. Last year Chinese exports increased further, up more than 11% when compared to 2014 and represented close to a nine-fold increase in exports since 2012. At the start of 2013, the 40% tax on metallurgical coke exports from China was removed, despite the detrimental effect on air quality on production of the material, opening the door for supply to enter the already oversaturated global market with predictable consequences on prices as export prices fell by 47% over the past three years. The largest markets for Chinese coke are India, Japan and Brazil but as with steel, there is evidence that in some of these countries measures are being taken to protect domestic producers with India initiating anti-dumping procedures against imports of coke from China.
Going forward, it is hard to see any of the government initiatives having much of an effect on the coal producing overcapacity situation in China and as with coal, global demand for coke is weak. Unless the export tax is reinstated or markets are successful with their anti-dumping initiatives, downward pressures are likely to remain on the price of coke as well as coal, with fundamentals which closely mirror those that we have seen in iron ore and steel.