May 2, 2019 / 5:11 AM / 25 days ago

COLUMN-Poor April for global seaborne coal exporters masks overall resilience: Russell

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

* GRAPHIC: Australian coal exports vs. Newcastle price: tmsnrt.rs/2VD3hdn

By Clyde Russell

LAUNCESTON, Australia, May 2 (Reuters) - Coal exporters suffered a poor April with seaborne volumes dropping from the previous month amid slack demand, but the overall picture for the industry so far this year isn’t quite as gloomy as it may appear.

April is not traditionally a strong month for coal demand as it falls between the winter and summer power demand peaks - declining seaborne volumes are to be expected.

It’s also worth noting that the world’s top coal exporters have managed to boost shipments on a year-on-year basis, not just in April but also for the first four months of the year.

The strength in export volumes so far in 2019 hasn’t been matched by prices, with benchmark Australian thermal coal trending weaker since reaching a seven-and-a-half-year peak of $119.74 a tonne in July last year.

However, it’s worth noting that the Newcastle weekly price , as assessed by Argus Media, has rebounded in recent weeks, lifting from a 22-month low of $74.57 a tonne in the week to April 5 to reach $86.19 as of April 26.

It’s possible the move higher in prices is because Australian export volumes have been somewhat resilient, despite April’s numbers being lower than those for March.

Australia exported about 31.8 million tonnes of all types of coal in April, according to preliminary figures based on vessel-tracking and port data compiled by Refinitiv.

This was down from 32.8 million tonnes in March, but was up from the 29.6 million tonnes achieved in April last year.

For the first four months of the year, Australian exports were about 123.9 million tonnes, up from 118.4 million tonnes in the same period last year.

It’s worth noting that this improved export performance so far in 2019 comes against a backdrop of concerns that China, the world’s biggest coal importer, was imposing a go-slow on customs clearances.

The increase in clearance times for Australian coal, initially reported in mid-February, led to weaker coal prices, a drop in the Australian dollar and a scramble by Australian politicians to reassure that all was well with the country’s largest trading partner.

Indonesia, which vies with Australia for the title of world’s biggest coal exporter, also saw shipments drop in April, to 33 million tonnes from 35 million in March.

But that April figure was higher than the 28.9 million tonnes recorded in the same month in 2018, and - similarly to Australia - volumes for the first four months were also higher, up to 130.1 million tonnes from 117 million last year.

RUSSIA, U.S. SHINE

Among other significant coal exporters Russia managed to buck the trend of a weaker April, but only marginally.

Russian exports were 14.95 million tonnes in April, a fraction higher than March’s 14.94 million, and also slightly above the 14.8 million recorded in April last year.

In the first four months of the year Russia exported 55.9 million tonnes, up from 52.6 million in the same period a year earlier.

Despite effectively being locked out of China by the ongoing trade dispute, the United States boosted coal exports in the first four months to 34.2 million tonnes from 31.3 million tonnes.

Colombia and South Africa are the laggards so far in 2019, with the South American nation seeing its exports for the first four months drop to 22.2 million tonnes from 26.1 million, while South Africa’s slipped to 22.2 million from 26.2 million.

But the loss of about 8 million tonnes from Colombia and South Africa pales when compared to the gain of 24.8 million from the world’s four biggest coal exporters.

This gain in seaborne volumes stands in contrast to a market narrative of weak demand for the polluting fuel that has been used to explain weaker prices over the first quarter.

China’s seaborne imports were 19 million tonnes in April, and for the first four months they stood at 82.8 million, down only slightly from 84.6 million for the same period last year.

Number two importer India took 19.2 million tonnes of coal in April, the highest since June 2016, according to Refinitiv data.

Imports for the first four months were 68.4 million tonnes, up from 60.9 million for the same period in 2018.

Taken together, China and India’s coal imports have risen in the first four months of the year - another indicator that the coal export industry is having a solid start to the year.

Editing by Kenneth Maxwell

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