LAUNCESTON, Australia - China’s imports of coking coal staged a strong comeback in March after a weak start to the year, and may be poised for further strength as steel output rises.
Imports of coking coal, used to make steel, jumped to 4.02 million tonnes in March, up 38 percent from the 2.91 million tonnes recorded in February, according to customs data released on April 24.
However, the robust outcome in March went only some way to reversing the weaker trend so far this year. Imports for the first quarter as a whole totalled 12.05 million tonnes, a drop of 28 percent on the same period last year.
In some ways the decline in first-quarter coking coal imports isn’t that surprising, given the winter restrictions placed on steel production as part of the authorities’ efforts to limit air pollution.
However, steel production in China wasn’t actually weak over the first quarter, with output rising 5.4 percent from the same period in 2017 to 212.2 million tonnes.
In fact, March’s production of 74 million tonnes was the most since September, according to data from the National Bureau of Statistics.
What is the likely explanation is that steel production was curbed in the north of country, where winter pollution concerns are most acute, but mills in other parts of China were able to increase their output to take advantage of good prices.
The higher steel output in the first quarter doesn’t fit well with the lower imports of coking coal, but there are some factors that may help explain some of the issues.
The first is that steel mills have been using higher quality iron ore, therefore requiring less coking coal to produce the same amount of raw material. Certainly, recent months have seen widening premiums for higher-grade iron ore and traders have reported mills have been preferring quality over quantity.
A switch to quality probably isn’t enough by itself to explain lower coking coal imports, and it’s doubtful that domestic production has been making up the shortfall.
China’s total coal production, including both thermal and coking grades, fell to the lowest in five months in March, totalling 290 million tonnes.
First-quarter output was up 3.9 percent on the same period in 2017 to 804.5 million tonnes, suggesting that, if anything, there was only a modest increase in domestic supply of coking coal.
It’s likely that steel mills and producers of coke - which is made from coking coal and used in blast furnaces - have been running down inventories.
Coking coal prices in the first quarter certainly wouldn’t have been encouraging additional buying beyond what was absolutely necessary to sustain operations.
The main domestic price, Dalian Commodity Exchange futures, hit the highest in a year in late January, closing at 1,511 yuan ($238.70) a tonne on Jan. 30.
However, recently the price has been in retreat, with the contract dropping to 1,213 yuan a tonne at the close on Wednesday - down almost 20 percent from the January high.
Coking coal futures on the Singapore Exchange, which track the free-on-board price in Australia, the world’s largest exporter of the fuel, have also declined in recent weeks, ending at $191 a tonne on Wednesday.
This is down almost 28 percent since the January peak of $265 a tonne, a nine-month high.
Lower prices may well encourage steel mills and coke producers to restock, especially if steel prices and demand hold up in the coming months.
Both of China’s largest providers of coking coal, Australia and Mongolia, have the capacity to supply more and competition between the two is somewhat limited, given they largely supply different steel-making regions.
Both Mongolia and Australia have seen volumes supplied drop in the first quarter at a rate just below the overall drop of 28 percent.
However, third-ranked supplier Russia has bucked the trend, with China’s imports increasing 0.4 percent, as buyers take advantage of the price advantage of Russian cargoes over those from Australia.
Editing by Kenneth Maxwell