Opinion

China’s bulks: the sentiment gap between steel and coal widens

The coronavirus outbreak means the outlook is evolving quickly. Here’s this week’s view from our analysts.

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China seems to be containing its local coronavirus situation, with imported cases now posing the greater threat. While quarantine measures remain tight in cities such as Beijing and Shanghai – China’s busiest points of entry – economic activity is resuming in lower-risk regions.

Market sentiment for steel is optimistic, with production picking up and inventory finally running down. However, the coal market remains gloomy with weak market fundamentals, bringing both thermal and metallurgical coal prices down.

In this article, analysts Nuomin Han, Zhai Yu, Simon Wu and Ti Guo bring you an update from across China’s bulks sector.

Coal supply: import disruptions continue

Domestic coal supply has already returned to normal, but disruptions remain on the import side. Mongolian coal supply took another twist when border crossings didn’t reopen as scheduled on 16 March – precautionary measures were not well prepared amid confirmation of further coronavirus cases in Mongolia. The reopening of border crossings is now rescheduled for 1 April.

Thermal coal: weak demand adds to an unfavourable outlook

The Qinhuangdao 5,500 price has slid further in the past week, due to weak demand. Daily coal consumption by the six largest gencos in the coastal region remains at 80% of last year’s level. In addition, heating supply in many provinces has ended. The National Bureau of Statistics issued its macroeconomic indicators for the first two months of the year: the slump in figures and the global spread of coronavirus suggest an unfavourable outlook for the coal market.

With no change in the fundamentals, we expect the Qinhuangdao price to keep falling this week.

Metallurgical coal: price pressure won’t ease quickly

While finished steel stockpiles have started to fall, they remain at high levels. As such, coke prices were cut for a fourth time by RMB50/t, despite resistance from coke makers. Some coking plants in northwest China have reported losses after prices have quickly declined by RMB200/t in recent weeks.

Stagnant coke demand has enhanced the fall in coking coal prices in Shanxi, with Liulin #4 dropping RMB70/t in the week and Anze low-sulphur premium HCC falling by RMB110/t.

The price arbitrage between domestic and imported coking coal has narrowed under the weak demand picture, further eroding the price advantage of imported coking coal and ramping up pressure on prices.

We expect downstream industries to continue to recover in the coming weeks, helping steel demand to pick up. However, the pressure on coking coal prices is unlikely to be relieved quickly, as the destocking of steel will take some time. As such, prices will remain weak for a short while.

Visit our Coal Research Suite for more of our integrated outlook on thermal and metallurgical coal markets, as well as detailed mine-level analysis.

Steel and iron ore: as downstream operations resumed, inventory started to fall 

Just as the market expected, finished steel inventory started to fall as more stable downstream operations resumed. Steel production is also picking up, as more electric arc furnace steelmakers resume operations on improved margin conditions. Rebar spot and futures are particularly firm among other commodities that have been freefalling amid the global financial shock.

Market sentiment shows strong confidence in China’s property sector and the government’s efforts to leverage the economy through infrastructure. Most Chinese-made rebar is consumed domestically. However, oversupply remains a risk – apart from the high finished steel inventory, we shouldn’t forget semi-finished, which isn’t included in the inventory statistics. Official data shows production of crude steel grew 3.1% year-on-year in January and February, but finished steel production dropped 3.4%.

Visit our Steel Research Suite for more on the costs and availability of raw materials to global demand for finished products.

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