March 18, 2019 / 11:01 AM / a month ago

Column: Chinese go-slow on Australian coal imports may be starting to show

LAUNCESTON, Australia (Reuters) - China’s unofficial go-slow on clearing Australian coal through customs didn’t show up in the first two months of this year, but it may now be starting to have an impact.

Coal is unloaded onto large piles at the Ulan Coal mines near the central New South Wales rural town of Mudgee in Australia, March 8, 2018. REUTERS/David Gray

Chinese coal traders are reported to have cut back on buying from Australia, the world’s largest exporter of the fuel, after the length of time taken by customs to clear cargoes reportedly doubled to at least 40 days.

The Chinese customs administration said earlier this month that it has made no changes to coal import policies nor its inspection of foreign cargoes, although a foreign ministry spokesman said environmental and safety checks have been stepped up.

The concern that China was restricting Australian coal imports led to a drop in the Australian dollar and weaker coal prices at the main export port of Newcastle.

But an analysis of China’s imports of Australian coal for the first two months of 2019 doesn’t show any dramatic changes in volumes from the same period last year.

A total of 13.9 million tonnes of Australian coal arrived in China in the January-February period, up 4.5 percent from the 13.3 million in the same period last year, according to vessel-tracking and port data compiled by Refinitiv.

The data does show that February’s arrivals of 5.83 million tonnes were well below January’s 8.07 million, but that could be ascribed to the week-long holiday Lunar New Year holidays that fell in early February.

What may be more concerning is that up to March 17 only 2.5 million tonnes of Australian coal was discharged at Chinese ports, according to Refinitiv.

The data also shows that 7.89 million tonnes is expected to be offloaded during March, meaning that customs clearances and offloading would have to accelerate significantly in the last two weeks of the months compared to the first two.

VESSELS LINE UP

A total of 17 ships carrying Australian coal are currently awaiting discharge at Chinese ports, according to the data, a figure that is slightly higher than normal.

By comparison, there are 13 vessels carrying Indonesian coal currently awaiting discharge outside Chinese ports, according to Refinitiv.

Indonesia, which is the world’s largest exporter of thermal coal and the biggest supplier to China, has also seen largely steady shipments to China in the first two months of the year.

China imported 21.2 million tonnes of Indonesian coal in the January-February period, slightly below the 21.9 million from the same period last year.

The fairly steady imports by China of Australian and Indonesian coal in the first two months of the year has largely been reflected in the price moves.

The price of Australian thermal coal at Newcastle port, as assessed by Argus Media, did take a hit when the concerns over the slowing of customs clearances were first raised, but it has since recovered somewhat.

The price was $92.53 a tonne for the week to March 17, which was down from the prior week’s $95.18, but up from $89.46 in the week to Feb. 17, which was a 19-month low.

Indonesian coal with an energy value of 4,200 kilocalories per kilogram, as assessed by Argus Media, was at $39.76 a tonne in the week to March 15.

This was down from the eight-month high of $40.32 a tonne the prior week, but still well above the $28.85 recorded for the week to Nov. 30.

Overall, both the vessel-tracking and port numbers, and the pricing isn’t suggesting a major slowing of China’s coal imports.

However, the softness so far in March of actual cargoes discharged is a potential source of concern, assuming the trend is confirmed when final data for the month is available.

 The opinions expressed here are those of the author, a columnist for Reuters.

Editing by Richard Pullin

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