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Coronavirus: a wildcard for bulks demand

A look at the potential impact of Covid-19 on steel, iron ore, metallurgical and thermal coal

1 minute read

The coronavirus is casting a shadow across commodity markets. It has undermined China’s economic sentiment, putting the country's growth outlook at risk. The full scale and impact of the outbreak remain to be seen, but it is certainly an unwelcome new wildcard for bulks demand. So, what is the potential impact on steel, iron ore, metallurgical and thermal coal?

What is already clear is that the coronavirus outbreak threatens an otherwise positive near-term outlook. A solid end to the year meant China’s economy secured annual growth of 6.1% in 2019. Metals demand was also showing signs of improvement – mainly on the back of accelerated Industrial Production (IP) and Purchasing Managers Index (PMI) indicators in November and December, an uptick of auto production in December, and a recovery in property completions across Q4.

China’s Phase One trade deal with the US also fuelled expectations that its macroeconomy would remain robust in H1 2020. The coronavirus outbreak has put this outlook at risk.

Steel demand will be affected

Consumer activity in China has been hit by the extended holiday period, transport bans and quarantines. The restrictions on the workforce have also delayed the restart of some construction projects – and as construction accounts for two-thirds of Chinese steel demand the implications are stark. Crude steel and hot metal demand – previously set to grow this year – are now facing a year-on-year decline.

China has felt the impact of a virus outbreak before. In 2003, SARS slowed construction activities, delayed the springtime peak for steel demand and put pressure on rebar prices.

Crude steel and hot metal demand – previously set to grow this year – are now facing a year-on-year decline.

How is the coronavirus outbreak affecting bulks?

Metallurgical coal

The direct impact on metallurgical coal imports has been relatively muted. Production at coastal mills is strong and we don’t expect the outbreak to drive a significant change in import trends – the high availability of stocks from the customs clearance delays in 2019 currently has a bigger influence.

In the very near term, the extended holiday period has meant that the impact on domestic metallurgical coal supply is greater than the impact on demand. Resultant coal shortages are pushing prices higher.

However, an inevitable decline in steel demand will affect steel prices and margins. Lower steel margins will ultimately impact on metallurgical coal markets. We expect metallurgical coal demand between March and May to be lower than it would have been as a result.

Iron ore

We expect a relatively low impact on iron ore demand. Chinese blast furnace (BF) and basic oxygen furnace (BOF) steel production should remain resilient, with most large integrated operations continuing to operate, if at a reduced rate. Iron ore prices have taken a hit, driven by uncertainty and a lack of volume during the holiday period.

Thermal coal

Thermal coal demand and domestic production will both be dented by weakening economic and industrial activity. Domestic supply is returning quickly, but demand is slower to recover – potentially leading to an oversupply situation in March. As the largest supplier of coal to China, Indonesia has the most to lose if the situation worsens.

The effect on international prices is likely to be volatile in the very short-term as the outbreak remains an emerging news story. Throughout the year though, the downside risk for prices is muted, given how significantly they fell in 2019 and that many producers are already in a negative margin situation. Market sentiment could certainly drive the price lower, but this would likely be a temporary drop until China’s imports picked up again towards the end of the year.


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