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Chinese demand key uncertainty for seaborne coal market in 2020
February 3, 2020, 5:27 pm

Demand expected to decline by 3 million tonnes (Mt), but it could drop by 20 Mt

Coal trader Noble Resources head of research Rodrigo Echeverri Cardozo had penciled in a 3 Mt drop in Chinese import demand for 2020, but it could drop by 20 Mt depending on how long the disruption caused by the so-called “Wuhan flu” continued, he told the 15th Annual Southern African Coal Conference in Cape Town, South Africa.

“I normally have my presentation ready at least one week before the conference, but this time, I have had to update on a daily basis, as the number of cases is spreading so fast. The bad news is that the first quarter of 2020 is going to be pretty poor, because Chinese traders hold back from buying as they wait for the economic impact to stabilize,” he said.

The coronavirus outbreak, which originated in Wuhan, China, has exceeded a grim comparison milestone, as the number of confirmed cases in mainland China has now surpassed that of the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) during the 2002-2003 epidemic.

It took six months for the number of SARS cases to exceed 5,000 in mainland China and the coronavirus surpassed that in just one month. SARS infected more than 8,000 people and killed some 800, resulting in estimates of global economic costs from disrupted trade and travel of R400 billion to R1.4 trillion.

“European coal burn has been on a downward trend for more than three years and this will continue in 2020, so the only good news is that we are unlikely to see the export supply surge from Indonesia that we saw last year, as domestic demand ramps up, so there will be less extra supply coming for that quarter,” he added.

“From my point of view, South African exports are the easiest to forecast as they have been flat for the past few years. I have got a small 0.4 Mt increase for this year,” he concluded.

The South African coal industry mines some 260 Mt of which some 72 Mt is exported and employs more than 86,000 miners who get R25 billion in salaries.

Richards Bay Coal Terminal (RBCT) achieved an annualised throughput of 95 Mt in December 2018 when they loaded 105 vessels, even though for the year, RBCT coal exports fell to 72.15 Mt in 2019 from 73.47 Mt in 2018 and a record 76.47 Mt in 2017.  The rail line to RBCT has a current capacity of 81 Mt, while the port has a capacity of 91 Mt.

South African coal producers will need to boost productivity as competition intensifies in coal export markets, Mike Teke, CEO of coal mining company, Seriti Resources, said.

“The drive to be efficient and best in class regarding exporting coal is imperative,” he said.

Helmo Preuss in Cape Town, South Africa for The BRICS Post