By Frik Els
July 16, 2017 - The price of coking coal jumped on Friday with the industry benchmark price tracked by the Steel Index up 2.8% to $167.60 a tonne. Premium hard coking coal prices (FOB Australia) are now at the highest level since mid-May.
According to preliminary Chinese customs data released this week, the country imported 21.6 million tonnes of coal (both thermal and metallurgical) in June. Volumes were down 2.7% from May and on par with June last year. Total import for the first six months of 2017 rose 23.5% compared to the same period last year to 133.3 million tonnes.
Chinese import volumes are up despite a 75% drop in coal shipments from North Korea. Following UN sanctions imposed in February, Beijing halted all cargoes from the totalitarian state and during the first six months the country imported just 2.7 million tonnes from its neighbour. In the past China skirted embargoes against North Korea on humanitarian grounds, saying a ban would hurt ordinary citizens of the impoverished country.
Last year China imported 22.4 million tonnes of anthracitic coal that can be used as an alternative to coking coal in the steelmaking process from North Korea, a nearly 15% rise from 2015. That places the Asian country just behind in Australia as China's number two supplier of met coal.
Coking coal is trading nearly $150 a tonne below its mid-April peak when the price of jumped to highest since the second quarter of 2011 due to disruptions related to cyclone Debbie in the state of Queensland.
But most producers would probably be happy with a price around of $160. In November 2015, the spot price fell to a record low of $73 a tonne.
A survey of economist and investment bank analysts by FocusEconomics show prices are expected to moderate through to the end of the year.
The median forecast is for met coal to average $146 per tonne in Q4 2017 and $133 during the final quarter next year. Coking coal averaged $121 a tonne in 2016 and $90 the year before.