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Directory of Coal Business in Indonesia, July 2017
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Coal Business in Indonesia, April 2017

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Transfer Pricing in Indonesian Coal Business

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Coal Business in Indonesia, April 2017
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Don’t Fight China, the Federal Reserve of Coal

Coal is exhibit A for the dangers of playing in markets where China holds outsize influence on pricing

Dark Days
Chinese coal imports by country (metric tons)

Source: CEIC
Note: 3-month moving average.

By Nathaniel Taplin
June 29, 2017 4:05 a.m. ET

Imagine you live in a village where one very large and powerful family both farms and eats half of the grain, and has massive tracts of unused, fertile land. Is the grain business one you would want to get into?

This is roughly the situation the world’s coal producers find themselves in with China, far and away the world’s largest producer and user of coal, and which has been struggling with excess capacity at home for nearly half a decade. After warping global coal markets with ill-timed supply curbs in 2016, China is now poised to curtail coal imports. That could be bad news for commodities companies, particularly trading firms.

The extent of the curbs remains unclear. Chinese state-owned media said Wednesday that many of China’s small or midsize ports were already refusing imported coal shipments, although major ports appear to still be open. Even so, prices are already reacting: Asian benchmark coal futures are down around 4% over the past 10 days, while Chinese domestic prices have risen 2% to 4%.

The Wujing Coal-Electricity Power Station by the Huangpu river in Shanghai. China both mines and burns half the world’s coal and has been struggling with excess capacity for nearly half a decade. Photo: johannes eisele/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

The Chinese authorities appear to be targeting dirty, low-quality coal with the import limits. State media said regulators want any benefit from its “supply side reforms”—that is supply curbs—to remain in China. Translation: higher coal prices and profits at home, not abroad. The Chinese coal sector is a major employer and a big source of bad debt, making its health a matter of national concern.

Among commodity-producing nations, Indonesia will be the biggest loser. It sent piles of low-quality coal into China in late 2016 after China restricted its own mines’ output. But coal traders like Glencore and Noble could also be vulnerable: Noble’s misreading of the market after last year’s Chinese supply cuts is one reason the firm is now staring into the abyss.

More generally, China’s cavalier attitude toward the global consequences of its domestic policy-making for industries it dominates—think steel, shipbuilding, solar panels and, increasingly, oil refining—shows the danger of getting involved with any sector that China decides is strategic.

China’s environmental worries are real, and firms like Glencore may be smart to eye high-quality deposits like the ones it is currently bidding to buy from Rio Tinto—which could pass muster with customs in both China and Japan—if they want to stay in the coal business.

But being in coal to begin with is a risky proposition these days: not just because of political risk related to climate change, but because of unpredictable Chinese regulators.

An American Treasury secretary once said that the U.S. dollar is “Our currency but your problem.” China is essentially the Federal Reserve of coal—everyone else is just a price taker both as a buyer or seller. For any business, that’s an insecure position to be in.

Write to Nathaniel Taplin at

curtail coal imports
remain in China
misreading of the market
decides is strategic
bidding to buy