Seaborne trade is dependent a few big customers. In 2013, China was responsible for about 30% of Asian coal imports, followed by Japan and India at around 15% each, and Korea at 12% (from BREE - p55). But even though China is the worlds largest importer, only about 8% of its thermal coal is imported. So graphs like this, showing China's coal imports steadily rising year after year are misleading,
3024 mt in 2013. The imports are only at the margins. A small change in demand or supply could reduce or stop imports. Or even lead to China exporting coal again.
The reason for that China imports is that bad railway infrastructure makes it expensive to carry the coal to the coastal cities. This makes it the same to ship Indonesian coal to them:
So Indonesia's low cost advantage is also only at the margins. They can only sell coal to the China's coastal cities, not to the western provinces. And improvements in train size or railway infrastructure may make it possible for coastal cities to buy from local mines instead. There are also plans to build power stations near the mines inland and transmit power to coastal cities.
The next largest buyer, Japan, is easier as they don't produce any coal themselves. They are expected to reduce coal imports from 142mt to 127mt in 2019 as they restart nuclear reactors and (p51). They have 4.8GW of coal fired stations scheduled to start next decade, which may add 10mt. This report gives more optimistic estimates.
India is widely expected to replace China as a leading importer of coal. But, like China, India has large reserves of coal. Unlike China, they cannot mine them fast enough - their state owned coal company has missed targets for the past 6 years. It is politics, not economics that will determine if their coal industry can be consolidated enough to improve efficiency, if foreigners can invest, and if required railways and power transmission can be built.
South Korea is next: additions of 12GW in 2015/16 expect to add 25-30mt coal per annum.
I expect ASEAN to grow coal consumption dramatically. From around 70-90mt of imports now, to 210-279mt mt in 2035 in 2 scenarios (pp124-125). Makes sense, as some of these countries do not have full electricity coverage yet, and coal is the cheapest and most reliable option. Adaro expects ASEAN consumption (not just imports) to rise from 214mt in 2013 to 600m in 2035.
Worldwide, growth in coal use is undergoing structural slowdown:
- Coal use has declined, due to cheap natural gas in the US
- The US and China have agreed to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. China agreed to cap emissions by 2030. They also released plans to cap coal consumption at 4.2bn tons by 2020. I am surprised, I thought there was no way they would do it. They have also implemented local carbon trading schemes, mostly in coastal areas, in preparation for a nationwide scheme, possibly in 2016.
SummaryThermal coal is trading below its marginal cash-cost in the cycle. Credit Suisse says that "when there is oversupply of a commodity, typically 40% falls below the cash cost." They say that 40-50% of thermal coal production is currently below cash cost.
Thermal coal is expensive to transport, thus seaborne coal is a small part of the thermal coal trade. The cost curve shown in my first post is only for seaborne thermal coal only (graph B4).
I can't tell if long-term overall Asian thermal coal usage will rise or fall. You can construct plausible scenarios either way.
Even though we are probably at the low point in the cycle, I won't look at Indonesian thermal coal because:
- China and India may use their own coal
- There is a structural decline in coal growth. So the next up cycle may be smaller.
- Potential changes in regulations make it risky for Indonesian coal companies.
- Commodity down cycles are usually very long. Newcastle coal fell from 1995 to 2003. Due to the above risks, I would not be comfortable holding an Indonesian coal company for another 4 years while waiting for a payoff.