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[LONDON] Coal prices' downward trajectory shows no sign of reversing as a supply glut, combined with expectations that demand from top consumer China will shrink more, paint a bleak outlook for the fossil fuel which generates nearly half the world's electricity.
Global coal prices have fallen by around 10 per cent this year bringing pain to top producers including Indonesia, Australia and South Africa. They now stand at their lowest in nearly a decade, extending losses from a bearish trend since 2011, as incremental growth in supply has outstripped demand.
The falling prices could particularly benefit emerging economies relying on coal as a cheap form of power.
Political pressure is growing to curb greenhouse gas emissions from coal-fired power stations, however, before United Nations climate change talks in Paris at the end of the year.
"We fear that global coal prices have not yet reached their bottom. Maybe it'll be next year," said Erich Schmitz, managing director of Germany's coal importers association VDKi. "But for that to happen, capacity would have to be removed from the market," he said.
European API2 2015 coal futures closed near a nine-year low of US$55.50 a tonne on Monday.
The biggest problem coal has faced this year has been China, where coal imports between January and June were down 37.5 per cent from a year earlier.
China's drive to cut imports is both environmentally driven, while also being motivated by a desire to help domestic producers, as most have been losing money.
"China has invested on incremental coal production on the basis of the very high prices they were having in the domestic market a few years ago and that is coming on stream at the same time, so they're swamped in coal which has caused a collapse in domestic pricing," a mining industry source said. "The view for the second half of the year could be quite dire."
China's energy consumption tripled in just two decades but growth slowed to just 0.7 per cent year on year in the first half of 2015. In terms of power generation, coal lost market share to increased oil, natural gas and renewables.
A sharp sell-off in Chinese stocks, posting their biggest monthly loss in July in nearly six years, also cast a shadow over the demand outlook for commodities, including coal.
"The big question ultimately is will any of the turmoil on China's equity markets filter through to the real economy?" said an analyst at an European utility. "I expect Chinese coal imports to continue to weaken in 2016 but not at the pace of this year."
Coal miners have been slow to cut production in response to lower prices, with weakening domestic currencies versus the dollar shielding producers to some extent in export markets including Australia.
Top thermal coal exporter Indonesia has curbed its production but analysts said that is not enough to change the market's fortunes.
"Indonesian exports have probably fallen faster than we previously imagined they would, but that's not enough to turn things around," said Stefan Ljubisavljevic, analyst at Macquarie Bank.
Indonesia's May exports were down by just under 20 per cent from a year earlier and year to date their exports are down around 9 per cent, Mr Ljubisavljevic added.