London: Indian demand for South African coal is set to drop, threatening sharply lower prices, as iron makers there cut back, hit by falling prices in the steel market they supply and rising costs for imported coal.
India’s sponge iron makers, who use coal as part of a process to make iron from ore, have relied increasingly on imported South African coal in recent years. “We are in a situation of steel oversupply at present. At the same time the sponge iron plants who sell to the steel makers are being squeezed and trying to buy as little imported coal as they can,” an Indian trader said.
Sponge iron is created by reducing iron ore to metallic iron using coal as a reductant.
End-users in the sponge iron and cement sector are trying to eke out their imported coal stocks as long as possible, but will have to come back to the market by September.
India bought more than four million tonnes (mt) of South African coal in the first-half of the year, compared with 3mt for 2006 as a whole. The quantity imported in second-half had also been expected to be around 4mt, but the total is likely to be less unless prices fall, traders said.
On Tuesday, the Steel Authority of India Ltd (SAIL), said it was cutting some products by Rs500-1,000 with effect from 1 July to compete with lower-priced imports. Other steel makers such as Tata Steel, JSW Steel and Ispat Industries Ltd are expected to announce similar cuts, traders said. “Steel prices for some flat products have fallen by around $50 a tonne (Rs2,000) from around $650 during the past three months,” another Indian trader said.
Delivered spot coal prices have been in the range $84-90 cost, insurance and freight (c.i.f.) for the past few weeks. During this time there has been limited Indian buying.
Indian coal traders said they have kept their spot buying to a minimum because they cannot sell to end-users at prices of?$84.?Traders?who bought and shipped South African coal when prices were at around $52 are able to undercut their competitors trying to sell fresh cargoes at $84 and above.
“The whole situation has slowed down. The sponge plants are struggling to sell to the steel mills and they’re being paid late. So they pay us late for coal. So we’re only giving them the minimum,” the first trader said.
Indian end-users in the cement and sponge iron sectors have been saying for two months that South African coal is uneconomical for them at $85 a tonne c.i.f. or more.
Current free on board (f.o.b) coal prices plus freights indicate spot c.i.f. prices of around $90. Indian spot buying of South African coal has been the main reason prices rose from $47 f.o.b. in January to a high of $60.50 recently.
Spot demand from Europe, which consumes the vast majority of South Africa’s coal, is expected to remain scant at least until the end of the European summer. If Indian buyers stay out of the market in the meantime, South African prices are likely to fall sharply, traders said.