A fall in South African thermal coal prices to $113 a tonne this week has started to draw out Indian buyers who have been sidelined since November, Indian traders said on Thursday.
Spot coal prices topped $120 a tonne in December from $90 in October on strong Chinese spot imports and spiked again in January after disastrous Australian floods.
During this period, Indian end-users stayed firmly out of the market and relied on stockpiles, deliveries of term contract coal and cheaper coal from Indonesia instead.
India's share of South Africa's coal exports has risen from almost nothing five years ago to an average of 30 percent a month.
The participation of these buyers and the Indian traders who supply them is also a crucial element of the global spot market - their withdrawal usually triggers a fall in prices but panic-buying and bullish sentiment was overwhelming last month.
At these prices of around $113, $114 a tonne FOB Richards Bay some more people are looking to buy South African coal now, it's not a bad price, one of India's biggest trader importers said.
Between December and February there were no physical demand reasons for prices to up $24 and then down $20, it was all artificial, he said.
India's Binani Cement Ltd this week bought a March loading South African cargo at $114 a tonne FOB, traders said.
A few of the smaller to medium-sized cement makers are likely to issue tenders now to take advantage of falling coal prices and extremely weak freight, traders said.
Indian end-users tend to focus on the delivered cost of coal and their trader suppliers are constantly comparing the cost plus freight of South African versus Indonesian coal.
There had been some fairly active re-selling of South African cargoes back to the original suppliers in January by Indian traders who replaced these cargoes with Indonesian material but this has dried up now, Indian traders said.
We did see some of that last month but nothing much now, one South African producer said.
It did make sense to take cheaper Indonesian. The freight was also more stable but current South African prices are not bad and the market looks like it's going to fall further anyway, another Indian trader said.
South African coal is preferred by many Indian end-users in the sponge iron and cement sectors for its consistent quality but because the market is so price-driven, consumers will switch quickly if delivered costs rise to unacceptable levels.
Prices are expected to come under further downward pressure as Indonesian exports start to flow again following confusion over export licences.
Around 3.5 million tonnes of mostly low-grade coal was held up but this is starting to move again.