The Global Price of Coal has Done a Hockey Stick

Source: SGX

Source: SGX

Guest essay by Eric Worrall

Coal, particularly “coking coal” used for smelting steel, has staged a tremendous comeback in the last few months, thanks to a large scale Chinese buying spree. The rise in coking coal in particular is dragging up the price of related products, such as iron ore. But what is driving this sudden surge in coal price?

Coking coal’s rally fires up iron ore

Chinese iron ore futures have surged 6 per cent to the highest in more than two years amid rising steel prices, playing catch-up with the strength in coking coal.

Firm steel demand in the world’s top consumer and producer and higher raw material costs are supporting prices of the commodity. A shortage in coking coal has driven prices higher, but iron ore is gradually keeping up.

The most-traded January iron ore on the Dalian Commodity Exchange climbed 6 per cent on Tuesday to hit the exchange-set ceiling of 471.50 yuan ($US70) a tonne, its loftiest since August 18, 2014. It is the biggest percentage gain since March 8.

The most-active January coking coal rose 4 per cent to a contract high of 1288 yuan a tonne. Coke soared as much as 5.9 per cent to 1662.50 yuan per tonne, the highest since December 5, 2013.

Read more:

According to a story published the start of October, the price rise is so sudden it is seriously disrupting normal market pricing mechanisms.

CHART: Coking coal surge could kill quarterly pricing

The stunning rise in the price of coking coal shows now signs of reversing, and the nearly three-fold rise in the price of the steelmaking raw material since hitting multi-year lows in November last year has pushed the quarterly benchmarking system to breaking point.

Metallurgical coal was exchanging hands at $213.40 on Tuesday according to data provided by Steel Index as it consolidates at higher levels following weeks of panic buying not seen since 2011, when floods in key export region in Queensland saw the price touching to $335 a tonne.

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What is driving this abrupt rise in the price of coal and iron ore?

Most pundits seem to assume the still ongoing Chinese housing and infrastructure boom is responsible.

Earlier this year I thought the price surge was simply a bout of tulip mania style market madness. China in particular seemed to be sitting on a very large stockpile of unprocessed iron ore.

But there is another explanation which, if correct, would neatly explain the recent global coal and iron ore price spike.

Both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton have promised to spend 100s of billions of dollars over the next few years repairing America’s crumbling infrastructure. To the Chinese this must seem like a sure thing – they are simply positioning themselves to be the main supplier of raw materials for the coming US infrastructure boom.

EW: The US infrastructure explanation is speculative – please don’t bet your shirt on it, then blame me if your bet doesn’t work out.

47 thoughts on “The Global Price of Coal has Done a Hockey Stick

      • IF you would be watching the factual existing numbers you would see such a big difference between China and India, and you would avoid this blind, traditional clubbing. It is as dumb as grouping the US with Russia because both are big in land mass, are in the Northern hemisphere and contain mostly Caucasian people.

    • ‘Here they just cancelled 30 large planned plants, which weren’t slated to be built for another few years anyway.’
      There, fixed it for you. Plants scheduled for years from now don’t mean Squat against the dozens of plants going up right now.

    • Coal plant capacity in China is entirely irrelevant. The existing fleet there has a ludicrously low 50% capacity factor, Compared to around 85% for similar plants in the rest of the world.
      They could increase coal consumption by about 50% without building a single new plant if electricity demand increases.
      If you’re wondering why they have so much excess capacity, the explanation is very similar to why they have empty cities. Central management is great at getting stuff done. It isn’t always great at deploying capital efficiently.

      • According to the China Statistical Yearbook, utilisation of thermal plants last year was 55%
        Capacity utilisation in China is generally much lower than elsewhere, even for wind and solar for a number of reasons, such as poor transmission networks, lack of maintenance and poor planning.
        This does not mean that the new coal plants will not add to electricity output

      • I believe that Part of China’s Excess Capacity is intended for resale to other countries that are falling short due to their own use of and dependence on renewables

      • If you’re wondering why they have so much excess capacity,
        One reason that I don’t wonder why, to wit:
        The Three Gorges Dam has a generating capacity of 22,500 megawatts.

      • Bryan A – I don’t think so: China isn’t yet grid connected to other countries…. but it plans to be, to increase its use of renewables…
        “With the connection of grid networks, the abundant solar and wind power resources in Central Asian countries – Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan – could be transmitted to China through the ultra-high voltage (UHV) technology, and these countries can benefit from the rise in investment and economic gains, Shu said.”

      • “Indian coal plant capacity recently has been around 65%.”
        Which would explain why they are slowing down the building of new plants.

    • Their rate of economic growth has slowed way down. As a result, plants that aren’t going to be needed anyway are being cancelled.
      This has been explained to you over and over again.

    • China is just balancing what they already have against what the currently need. They have overbuilt at this time.
      Don’t worry Griff, China, India and several other countries will be EXPANDING their coal/gas fired electricity fleet for many years to come, so there will continue to be increased emissions of CO2 for as long, long time into the future.
      Increasing atmospheric CO2 for the world’s plant life is guaranteed.
      And guess what, Griff, there is absolutely NOTHING you and your fellow anti-CO2, anti-LIFE scammers can do about it. 🙂
      So… BE HAPPY !! 🙂

      • India is certainly massively expanding its renewables – well on course for its 175GW target for 2022. The cost of new solar is well below fossil fuel in India already…
        I think you need to look at what’s happening on the ground.

    • As you read this garbage, the volume of coal being shipped into China continues to increase and coal mining productivity in China continues top improve.
      Same is happening in India.
      However, the left wing media seems content to report data which is blatantly incorrect.

  1. Coke demands due to steel demands indicate a rising economy? All commodities will rise, copper, wood, silver,OIL. Are you suggesting that the Obama recession of negative growth is over?

  2. This type of thing has happened before, the good news is that it doesn’t seem to impact long-term contracts. Shortly before the Beijing Olympics China was stock-piling diesel and fuel oil, the near term contracts went crazy, but once China had a strategic reserve they backed-down to replacement buying. They’re actually pretty smart about developing these reserves, they jump into the market, big time, before others can react. I’m sure the Chinese aren’t paying the near-term contract price, they’ve just forced everyone else to pay it. I won’t be surprised to see it happen again for other resources.

    • This is similar to what the Chinese did with phosphate fertiliser as well. Because they act at the entire national level , they become the single largest player in the market and move prices by themselves.

  3. “But there is another explanation which, if correct, would neatly explain the recent global coal and iron ore price spike.
    Both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton have promised to spend 100s of billions of dollars over the next few years repairing America’s crumbling infrastructure. To the Chinese this must seem like a sure thing – they are simply positioning themselves to be the main supplier of raw materials for the coming US infrastructure boom.”
    My guess is if Trump gets elected he will want American companies to reap the most benefits from any infrastructure project. I know that’s what the American people want.

    • My guess is if Trump gets elected he will want American companies to reap the most benefits from any infrastructure project. I know that’s what the American people want.

      I fully agree. My worry is that trade agreements will prevent us from favouring our own industry and workers.
      The Chinese want to send their cheap workers over to Canada to work in Chinese owned mills and mines. No Canadians need apply. link Trudeau Junior seems to think that’s a good thing.

      • We had all hoped that Justin would get his dad’s brains and his mom’s looks but it appears he got everything from mommy. We are so screwed 🙁

      • We are so screwed 🙁

        Have a care for your poor American cousins who are screwed way worse*. At least Trudeau Junior supports some pipelines.
        *Unless Hillary starts WW3, in which case everyone is in the same boat.

      • When American companies are forced to pay more than the world price for raw materials, exports become even more uncompetitive. Which in turn forces even more US companies to quit the US, or go out of business.

    • So Americans should pay more than the world price for products, so that politicians can feel good about themselves?

      • They won’t. Over time everyone’s wage will approach their productivity.
        The reason why Chinese workers are paid so little is because their productivity is so low. As China improves it’s economy, productivity and wages will increase.
        It’s what happened every single country that you doomsters claimed would destroy US wages.
        The balance of payments problem is caused by the budget deficit. Foreigners are buying US debt instead of US products.
        Until the budget is balanced, the balance of payments problem can’t be solved.
        Once the budget is balanced, the balance of payments problem will solve itself.
        Trying to fix the balance of payments problem while we still have a budget deficit is an exercise in futility.

    • TA saidith: “and Hillary Clinton has promised to
      Shur nuff she did and ………….
      Do ya wanna know why Hillary Clinton made a political stop in Appalachia (WV) for the sole purpose of promising the lefty liberal Reporters and her lefty liberal “greenie” wacko supporters that if she is elected POTUS the 1st thing that she was going to do would be to “close down all coal mining operations” …… and …. “put all the coal miners out of work”?
      Read this and you will for sure know “why”, to wit:

      More than one-third (1/3) of the coal produced in the United States comes from the Appalachian Coal Region. West Virginia is the largest coal-producing State in the region, and the second largest coal-producing State in the United States. Coal mined in the Appalachian coal region is primarily used for steam generation for electricity, metal production, and for export.
      Read more @

  4. Also, China cut their coalworkers to a 5 day week, from, I think, a 6 day week. This cut their domestic production.
    Another also, I don’t think they have much metallurgical(coking) coal.

    • I think it may be correct – that China’s coal is mostly younger and lower quality, and the high prices are principally for the higher quality metallurgical (coking) coal. By cutting back on their own production and expanding imports, the chinese aim is to improve the quality of the coal they use and hence produce steel more efficiently. Also, they can rationalise an inefficient industry (coal mining) and cut pollution. They have presumably worked out that a higher price is worth paying.
      NB. I’m not sure about this, others may provide better explanations.

  5. Nothing to do with fundamental supply and demand issues. Strongly suspect a speculative bubble driven by smart money cornering the market and creating a crisis through forward contracts.

  6. An article last week (can’t remember where I read it) detailed the concern of mining companies that the spike in prices would not last and went on to detail just why it had happened. If memory serves, the Chinese government had ordered a cut back domestic coal production by something in the range of 20-30% . The reasons they gave by way of explanation for that action did not make much sense, but then making sense of government action has proven to be a particularly fruitless endeavor, irrespective of whose government it is.

    • See my comment below. It was 27% starting in February. Intent was to firm thermal coal prices so the bloated coal mining sectormcould start to earn enough to pay down its bloated debts. The aim was thermal coal, which is more than 90% of all Chinese coal production. Coking coal hit was an apparently unintended side effect tomyhemmuch smaller market thatnwas already running almost 10% imports before the mandated supply reduction.

  7. No.
    Only the metallurgical coal has seen a recent price increase. That coal is approximately one-eighth of world production tonnage. (983 million of 7.8 billion tons per year, approximately)
    Thermal coal for electric power plants continues its low price and therefore scarcity.
    WUWT readers may want to read this metallurgical coal assessment from 2013; it contains facts. In particular, pages 19 and 20 with recent price history.

    • Actually thermal coal is way up as well – term is at~$75 (from $40 earlier this year) and spot is in the high $90s!

  8. Nothing magical here. In Feb China ordered a reduction in working days at all coal mines from 330 to 276, or 27%. This was to reduce bloated oversupply from domestic coal miners, firm prices, so they could start to repay bloated debts. Was intended mainly for thermal coal, as China was already short and importing 3 million tons of coking coal per month, about 9% of annual coking coal consumption. This met coal cutback caused China to have to more than double monthly met coal imports in less than 6 months. That caused a spot market scramble. Financial Times has a good article explaining the unintended consequences of this top down economic diktat.

    • Exactly this. The price is up because China has limited it’s coal mining activities. It’s like the author saw the price was up and just guessed at a couple reasons why without looking into it.

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