Indian imports of South African coal in 2009 could be considerably higher than last year's 10 million tonnes because many buyers who formerly favoured Indonesian coal are switching to currently cheaper South African material, Indian trade importers said.

South African cargoes are about $4 a tonne cheaper than Indonesian coal.

It's too early to predict accurately how much more South African coal will come to India this year but I can say that most of my clients who always took Indonesian coal are asking for South African instead, one of India's largest trader importers said.

India is expected to import over 40 million tonnes of coal in 2009 in total, most of which will come from Indonesia to supply power plants. The remainder will be from South Africa and Australia with a few cargoes from Russia.

India has become a vital buyer of South African coal in 2009 because demand in South Africa's major market, Europe, has shrunk due to falling industrial power consumption.

South African producers have more coal for export than forecast in January and are heavily dependent on Indian buying to absorb spot cargoes, producers admit.

Power generators have been taking lower energy content, lower-priced Indonesian coal under term contracts for a few years but surging demand for power has forced them to increase spot buying.

ALL ABOUT PRICE

Until two months ago, generators bought spot Indonesian coal because it was the cheapest option on a delivered basis. Some recent tenders by state utilities saw Indonesian offered CIF at prices below $50.00 a tonne.

Now, South African coal is $4.00 or more a tonne cheaper and state utilities and private power plants are seeking Richards Bay cargoes, traders said.

The Indonesian prices are not competitive into India from most suppliers right now, another Indian trader said. They are getting very good prices from China and focussing on that market, he said.

There are two basic types of Indonesian coal sold into India - bituminous and sub-bituminous. The highest-cost, highest energy-content Indonesian bituminous coal is being offered at $55.00-$56.00 a tonne FOB plus freight of around $15.00, traders said.

This coal typically has a higher moisture content than South African coal of a similar calorific value so it is more economic to ship South African rather than pay freight to ship water, traders said.

Prompt South African cargoes are currently bid at $52.50 a tonne FOB Richards Bay for June loading.

The Indian market is all about price rather than quality, one trader said. While South African can be delivered more cheaply than Indonesian the end-users will keep switching but as soon as the situation is reversed they will change again.

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