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South African coal industry faces up to 14-year low prices

After trading at nearly $100/t over the winter, South African high calorific value (CV) coal prices fell to a 14-year low this week amid subdued demand caused by the Covid-19 pandemic.

This price plunge threatens producers’ margins but could also cause a shift in trade flows as opportunistic buyers take advantage of competitive prices.

On 20 April, Argus'; NAR 6,000 kcal/kg fob Richards Bay (RB) prompt assessment sank to $46.75/t, its lowest level since January 2006, and a fall of $30.37/t since 1 March.

A collapse in demand from India – which took 57.7pc of the Richards Bay Coal Terminal’s (RBCT) 72.2mn t exports in 2019 – is the key driver behind the low prices.

The low RB prices will squeeze producers’ margins, with one mining firm saying current prices are not sustainable and that mines will be “underwater.”

At fob prices of $45-50/t and an exchange rate of 18.50-19.00 South African rand to the US dollar, some producers’ margins are OK for high-CV coal, according to a trader. But he added that most sellers of lower-CV off-specification coal – which fetch lower prices but incur similar production costs to higher-CV products – would be facing a difficult situation.

Some smaller miners have already been forced to reduce exports and increase supplies to the domestic market, according to a second trader. Returns in the domestic market tend to be lower than for export, with utility Eskom procuring a large chunk of its low-CV supply on long-term contracts. Average realised domestic sales prices for some of South Africa’s large miners are around $14-24/t, according to Argus calculations.

Unit costs on a fob basis will vary considerably depending on the individual firm and mine. But some of the larger miners’ average costs are likely to be around $30-45/t, Argus estimates. By way of comparison, Argus assessed the weekly fob RB NAR 5,500 kcal/kg and NAR 4,800 kcal/kg off-specification prompt markets at $38.44/t and $31.49/t, respectively, on 17 April.

Diversification opportunity

The recent price fall has seen RB prices converge with other global markers (see chart) and, coupled with low freight rates, could allow suppliers to diversify sales while South Asian demand is subdued.

After trading at a significant premium over the winter due to high demand from the Indian sponge iron sector and supply tightness in India and South Africa, the Argus fob RB NAR 6,000 kcal/kg assessment was at a discount to comparable Australian, Indonesian and Russian fob prices on 17 April. It held only a slight premium to Colombian supply, against which South African coal has a significant freight advantage into south and east Asian markets.

South African coal is now more competitive on a delivered basis in many destination markets. This could see suppliers regain market share in some regions, but reduced demand from India could still weigh on overall exports in the near term.

Indian thermal coal imports could drop by 15mn t on the year to 170mn t in 2020, while South African exports could decline by 5mn t to 71mn t, according to the latest Argus Seaborne Coal Outlook

RBCT exports fell by 14pc on the year to 5.8mn t in March, as loadings for India dropped by more than 1mn t and the terminal briefly shut down at the end of the month.

South Korean buyers have already returned to the South African market, booking at least two cargoes of high-CV RB coal in the past week, at prices at or below $49/t fob.

Zero South African coal was shipped to South Korea in the first quarter of 2020, port data show. The last delivery was 155,583t in December 2019, while annual exports nearly halved on the year to 3.9mn t in 2019.

In South Korea, Argus estimates the theoretical generation cost for a 38pc-efficient coal-fired plant burning South African coal at $39.75/MWh, based on fob RB prices and April freight rates, and including South Korean consumption taxes. This is nearly $2/MWh less than the equivalent cost for plants burning high-calorific value Australian and Russian coal, reversing the respective $4.60/MWh and $7/MWh average premiums that South African coal held in November-February.

Low freight rates smooth changing trade patterns

Dry bulk freight rates from Richards Bay to key markets have also fallen sharply in recent weeks amid subdued demand for goods, falling bunker fuel prices caused by lower oil prices, and a seasonal slowdown following the Christmas period.

Rates on the Richards Bay-Krishnapatnam route were $5.85/t this week, down from around $10/t in January and a high of $14.95/t in July last year.

This has mirrored the trend seen on routes from the Americas to Asia, and low freight rates are one reason why coal supply from Colombia and the US made inroads into the south and east Asian markets at the end of the first quarter.

While low freight rates allowed this Atlantic to Pacific basin arbitrage window to open, high RB prices during the first quarter — the Argus fob RB NAR 6,000 kcal/kg assessment averaged $78.40/t in 1Q20 — prevented South African supply from competing in certain markets.

In any event, Covid-19 presents significant challenges for the South African coal sector. Ironically, the easing of coronavirus-related restrictions governing coal production in South Africa comes when the market is already oversupplied. Coal stocks at the RBCT terminal are 5.1mn t, up from 3.5mn t at the start of April.

The extent to which Indian industrial demand recovers following its nationwide lockdown is likely to be the crucial factor driving RB prices in the near term.

Published by Argus Media, 21 April 2020

This month's top international coal headlines

  • South Africa to deliver 0.5Mt to Europe in Jun, highest in a year
    — McCloskey Coal Report
  • Richards Bay prices extend gains; NW Europe flat at 17-yr lows
    — McCloskey Coal Report
  • Poor Eskom demand opens export door for lower CV coal
    — McCloskey Coal Report
  • Med-delivered thermal coal imports fall by half amid ongoing pandemic
    — Platts CTI
  • Vietnam’s appetite for South African coal surges — Platts CTI
  • EU coal demand to fall as imports reach 30-year low — Argus Media
  • South African coal industry faces up to 14-year low prices — Argus Media
  • Crisis-hit global power sector spend heads for 10% decline: IEA — Platts CTI
  • Japan Races to Build New Coal-Burning Power Plants, Despite the Climate Risks — NY Times
  • Unions fear big job losses as junior miners struggle
    — Southern African Coal Report
  • Will the World's Biggest Carbon Capture Facility Work? — Popular Mechanics
  • Eskom must tackle the cost of its coal contracts — Fin24
  • Atlantic thermal coal markets look to Asia for support — Platts CTI
  • Mining production up in February, stats yet to show Covid-19 impact
    — Mining Weekly
  • South Africa's Eskom power load reduction initiative shows positive trend
    — Platts CTI
  • Global wind, solar growth to slow 2020 on corona crisis to 143 GW: IEA
    — Platts CTI
  • Eskom unlikely to impose force majeure on coal suppliers
    — Southern African Coal Report
  • South African utility Eskom allowed to raise tariffs — Platts CTI
  • Japan slides into recession, with forecasts of worse to come — The Jakarta Post
  • US thermal coal faces sharp declines in 2020, but a major rebound is coming in 2021 — IHS Markit
  • Asia's pandemic stimulus may slow the demise of coal — Reuters
  • Atlantic thermal coal markets remain suppressed as European prices tumble — Platts CTI
  • Vietnam’s April coal imports jump to record high — Argus Media
  • Indian cement producers raise prices despite lockdown — Argus Media
  • South Africa’s Eskom to target repairs at coal-fired power plants — Platts CTI
  • Seaborne thermal coal prices rise amid increasingly bullish sentiment
    — Platts CTI
  • Mining industry faces a new reality amid and beyond Covid-19
    — Mining Weekly
  • India lockdown extension pressures coal import outlook — Argus Media
  • Australian coal heading into loss-making territory — Argus Media
  • Covid-19 crushes global power demand and coal consumption in April
    — Argus Media
  • Med coal demand recovery slow amid COVID-19, uncertain production cuts
    — Platts CTI
  • Anglo American to exit coal operations in South Africa within the next 3 years — Platts CTI
  • Govt a step closer to easing municipalities' reliance on Eskom — fin24
  • China is virtually alone in backing Africa’s dirty coal projects — Bloomberg
  • MC Mining restarts coal production in South Africa — Platts CTI
  • The Next Normal for Oil and Gas Is Unfolding — Rigzone
  • How a R10.7bn ‘zero waste’ megaproject was buried by Limpopo’s Chinese deal — Daily Maverick
  • SA coal mines can operate at full capacity from 1 May
    — Southern African Coal Report
  • RBCT prices to steady, seek signs of Indian demand revival
    — Southern African Coal Report
  • Eskom's faces hurdles in long-term CSA due to COVID-19 crisis
    — Southern African Coal Report
  • SA rebounds from 14-year lows, NW Europe weak — McCloskey Coal Report
  • South Africa March thermal coal exports down 19% at 5.75Mt — Platts CTI
  • South Africa eases lockdown rules; mining industry to benefit — Platts CTI
  • Atlantic thermal coal prices fall to record lows across basin — Platts CTI

2020 archive

April 2020
  • Indian power demand down by 20% amid lockdown — Argus Blog
  • Reports of UK coal’s demise are mildly exaggerated — Argus Blog
  • Glencore's Q1 coal output drops 4% amid 'operational challenges' — Platts CTI
  • Global electricity demand set to fall 5% in 2020: IEA — Platts CTI
  • India's reliance on imported thermal coal unwavering in near-term: sources
    — Platts CTI
  • China's listed coal cos profit slide in Q1 on falling prices & sales — sxcoal.com
  • Richards Bay coal prices lowest since 2013 — Platts CTI
  • US NAPP coal market currently 'not very pleasing' to Indian buyers: sources
    — Platts CTI
  • South Africa to reduce lockdown to Level 4, coal price recovery anticipated for 2021 — Platts CTI
  • Global demand for coal imports may decline 7% – Noble
    — Hellenic Shipping News
  • No Need for Energy Poverty — RealClearEnergy
  • Med thermal coal imports to fall heavily in 2020 amid COVID-19, cheap gas
    — Platts CTI
  • Atlantic thermal coal markets pressured to historic low prices — Platts CTI
  • What is Lower Than Zero? COVID-19 Impacts Drive Oil Futures to the Lowest Price in History of the Industry – WTI Falls to -$37.63 Per Barrel — IHS Markit
  • Sasol cuts output as Covid-19 eats into fuels and chemicals demand
    — Mining Weekly
  • Anglo American cuts 2020 thermal coal output forecast 15% on coronavirus
    — Platts CTI
  • European power prices won't recover 'until 2022 at the earliest': Aurora
    — Platts CTI
  • Indian seaborne thermal coal imports unlikely to diminish despite excess domestic supply — Platts CTI
  • South Africa stockpiles surge on dwindling demand, prices tumble
    — IHS Markit
  • As Oil Crashes, Iron Ore’s Still Rocking — Bloomberg
  • Interactive Brokers Issues Statement on Crude Oil Contracts and Margin Loss — Business Wire
  • S. Africa’s Exxaro to challenge Eskom force majeure on coal supply agreement — Platts CTI
  • Why the next recession won't break the world's largest carbon market
    — Platts CTI
  • South32's Jan-Mar thermal coal production, sales fall on year — Platts CTI
  • Coronavirus accelerates decline of slumping coal industry — Associated Press
  • Fearful Banks Spurn Asia Commodity Traders in Credit Squeeze — Bloomberg
  • Little activity in Atlantic thermal coal markets as demand slumps — Platts CTI
  • RBCT exports slow amid demand-side cuts — Argus Media
  • March thermal coal derivatives down 23% on year at 67.5 million mt: LEBA
    — Platts CTI
  • The Indian Imperative — World Coal
  • Ending coronavirus lockdowns will be a dangerous process of trial and error
    — Platts CTI
  • Another significant fuel price drop expected for May — IOL
  • SA's extended lockdown ripples through mining industry
    — Southern African Coal Report
  • Amid Large Inventory Pressure at End Users, Thermal Coal Prices Continue Moving down — CCI Daily
  • To Fight The Coronavirus, The World Returns To Fossil Fuels — Forbes
  • In oil market sunk by coronavirus, giant output cuts make ripple, not big waves — Reuters
  • India Coal Minister asks chief ministers to not import coal, source domestic fuel — Economic Times
  • We don’t need a World Bank loan — we need a Medupi write-off
    — Daily Maverick
  • India's coal ministry wants power plants to keep buying coal despite weak demand — Reuters
  • Global coal production will grow this year despite Covid-19 — Mining.com
  • Atlantic thermal coal markets slump as supply and demand both greatly impacted — Platts CTI
  • South Africa’s Richards Bay Coal Terminal allows exports at reduced rate
    — Platts CTI
  • India halts 40 thermal coal units as lockdown batters demand: sources
    — Platts CTI
  • Tata Power completes sale of Cynnergi joint venture in South Africa to Exxaro — Platts CTI
  • South32 declares force majeure on South Africa coal operations — Platts CTI
  • Forty Thermal Power Units Stop Lifting Coal as Demand Sees Sharp Drop
    — ETEnergyworld
  • Hopes fade for Waterberg coal boom as few projects remain
    — Southern African Coal Report
  • Coal demand eases as power usage drops in lockdown
    — Southern African Coal Report
  • Atlantic thermal coal markets reel from demand loss — Platts CTI
  • Atlantic coal markets remain depressed with supply disruptions — Platts CTI
  • More pain for Eskom as electricity demand plummets — Business Maverick
  • European thermal coal demand erodes, downside risk to South African exports — Platts CTI
  • Column: LNG's plummeting price in Asia should drag down thermal coal
    — Reuters
  • Atlantic thermal coal pressured lower by falling demand — Platts CTI
March 2020
  • Atlantic thermal coal pressured lower with weak Asian demand — Platts CTI
  • Coal power generation is booming in China and Japan — ESI Africa
  • Lockdown sparks widespread confusion in the coal industry
    — Southern African Coal Report
  • China's Fujian Guohai cancels up to 1 mil mt seaborne coal arriving in Apr
    — S&P Global
  • Mining could be enormous post-virus stabiliser – MCSA — Mining Weekly
  • COVID-19: Global coal demand to take major hit, while SA halts exports
    — POWER Technology
  • COVID-19 could give coal an unforeseen boost — World Coal
  • How will the mining industry invest over the next five years? — CRU
  • Lockdown in South Africa and suspension of coal production — World Coal
  • Anglo American sees lower 2020 South African thermal coal output on
    COVID-19 — Platts CTI
  • Global mining suspensions lead to tight supply, lends support for Atlantic thermal coal prices — Platts CTI
  • Most mining stops, but Old King Coal rolls on — Daily Maverick
  • South Africa's Richards Bay Coal Terminal to shut amid nationwide lockdown — Platts CTI
  • COVID 19: Virus pandemic upends global coal industry — POWER Technology
  • Atlantic thermal coal finds support from supply tightness — Platts CTI
  • South32 withdraws 2020 market guidance for S Africa on nationwide lockdown — Platts CTI
  • Nationwide lockdowns add more pressure to Atlantic thermal coal markets
    — Platts CTI
  • The days the Earth stood still: Global oil markets face reckoning — IHS Markit
  • Indian coking coal imports hit by port closures — Argus Media
  • South Africa orders mines to close in 21-day virus lockdown — Bloomberg
  • India's Feb thermal coal imports rise 22% on year to 17.3Mt — Platts CTI
  • Southstone plans to sell interest in South Africa’s Kwena Group — Platts CTI
  • Coal Is Now the World’s Most Expensive Fossil Fuel — Bloomberg
  • India starts COVID-19 shutdown, with 'big hit' on coal expected — GlobalCOAL
  • Who cares if Standard Bank won’t stop funding coal mining? — Moneyweb
  • Richards Bay at 6-mth low on weak India demand, coronavirus fallout
    — McCloskey Coal Report
  • Eskom talks to get coal for Kusile plant drag on for 13 years — Bloomberg
  • Coal exceeds gas in Pakistan's power mix for third month: NEPRA — Platts CTI
  • Atlantic thermal coal markets face pressure from macro environment
    — Platts CTI
  • The global economy is headed for recession: Updated IHS Markit Economic Forecast on Impact of COVID-19 — IHS Markit
  • SA off-specs differentials to API4 widen — Argus Media
  • Weaker Indian demand for South African tons — Platts CTI
  • Higher Coal India supplies to help plants cut imports — The Economic Times
  • Developing nations may lose up to 85% of oil and gas income this year: IEA, OPEC — Reuters
  • Is coal the safe haven right now? It’s outshone gold in 2020 — Stockhead
  • Atlantic thermal coal markets expect weak pricing to remain for foreseeable future — Platts CTI
  • RB prices plummet to 6-month low on ample Indian supplies
    — Southern African Coal Report
  • South Africa experiencing 'national disaster' — Platts CTI
  • Coronavirus outbreak: Coal import declines 14% in Feb — Bloomberg Quint
  • Atlantic thermal coal falls further on plummeting oil prices, coronavirus; outlook bearish — Platts CTI
  • Oil price turmoil: How Saudi Arabia’s $100bn gambit could backfire
    — Middle East Eye
  • OPEC+ crude output: Who blinks first? — Argus Media
  • Exxaro says there’s value yet in holding the rights to export coal through RBCT — MiningMX
  • South African load shedding to continue indefinitely: Eskom — Platts CTI
  • Atlantic thermal coal prices remain steady despite the effects of coronavirus, downturn in crude oil — Platts CTI
  • Kenya presses on with coal energy despite mounting concerns — Platts CTI
  • Turkey thermal coal imports up 16% on year; South African share plummets 88%: Turkstat — Platts CTI
  • Atlantic thermal coal prices rebound after losses, outlook still bleak — Platts CTI
  • RB prices eye fresh 5-month lows on pressure from oil crash
    — Southern African Coal Report
  • Atlantic thermal coal prices sink on Saudi-Russia oil price war, COVID-19
    — Platts CTI
  • COVID-19 a "major economic shock" for China and Asia-Pacific — Platts CTI
  • SA coal output could flatline amid underinvestment
    — Southern African Coal Report
  • Moody's cuts Sasol to junk on rising debt — Company News
  • Atlantic thermal coal prices drop on macro-weakness related to coronavirus: sources — Platts CTI
  • Coal to remain key in Vietnam power expansion — World Coal
  • Which countries are planning a coal phase-out? — World Coal
  • South African thermal coal export output down 25% to 13 mil mt — Platts CTI
  • High-quality coal to remain in overall energy mix well into the future: Glencore — Platts CTI
  • Pakistan shipments 'halted on maintenance' — Platts CTI
  • Atlantic thermal coal prices bearish on cheap gas and resold ARA coal stocks
    — Platts CTI
February 2020
  • Sasol confirms making 600 MW own-gen proposal in response to DMRE RFI
    — Engineering News
  • Global coal majors set to exit SA, lack of funding leaves junior minors 'stuck': sources — Platts CTI
  • Atlantic thermal coal markets remain bearish as sellers look to remove oversupply — Platts CTI
  • Seaborne thermal coal prices head south as demand fades in Northern Hemisphere — Platts CTI
  • Some South African sellers offering “deeper” discounts on spot cargoes
    — Platts CTI
  • Atlantic thermal coal prices inch up despite limited spot demand, coronavirus fears — Platts CTI
  • South African coal losing to Russian on price basis — Platts CTI
  • European thermal coal prices fall to nearly multi-year lows — Platts CTI
  • India buyers favor South African coal as prices dip — Platts CTI
  • Falling prices to bring South Africa back into favour — Platts CTI
  • Indian sponge iron buyers in search of alternatives to 'overpriced' SA coal: sources — Platts CTI
  • RB prices set to fall further as Indian demand yet to recover
    — Southern African Coal Report
  • SA coal output could flatline amid underinvestment
    — Southern African Coal Report
  • Northwest Europe weak, Richards Bay trade volumes pick up
    — McCloskey Coal Report
  • Atlantic thermal coal prices slide as sources discuss ARA reloads — Platts CTI
  • Indian buyers support low-CV South African coal — Platts CTI
  • Atlantic thermal coal markets oversupplied as prices fall again — Platts CTI
  • Coal analysts questions Glencore's pledge to reduce Scope 3 emissions
    — Platts CTI
  • Eskom pricing puts domestic coal in 'direct competition' with export
    — Platts CTI
  • Tight supply, overvaluation by state utility, inflate South African coal prices
    — Platts CTI
  • Atlantic thermal coal prices remain flat on declining prompt demand, cheap gas — Platts CTI
  • RB prices eye fresh six-week lows — Southern African Coal Report
  • Glencore provides update on its transition to low-carbon economy
    — Mining Weekly
  • Coal futures rise sharply in afternoon session — Platts CTI
  • European thermal coal price rises, players predict correction lower
    — Platts CTI
  • South32’s Seriti deal at risk if Eskom fails to renegotiate underwater Duvha coal contract — Miningmx
  • Two coal producers look to help the state with Eskom — BusinessLIVE
  • South African coal maintains strong premium — Platts CTI
  • European thermal coal prices rise as long term outlook remains bleak
    — Platts CTI
  • Rising South African thermal coal prices suggest potential change in buying: trade — Platts CTI
  • 'New wave' of junior minors enter SA export market — Platts CTI
  • RB prices likely to come under pressure this week
    — Southern African Coal Report
  • SA producers pushing more supplies into export market
    — Southern African Coal Report
  • Structurally cheaper LNG should displace coal from Japan, and broader Asia: Russell — Reuters
  • Atlantic thermal coal prices fall on gas glut, redirected LNG cargoes
    — Platts CTI
  • Bad weather and falling demand put a damper on coal exports
    — BusinessLIVE
  • CRU: how the coronavirus affects global commodity markets — World Coal
  • Atlantic thermal coal prices fall at end of week — Platts CTI
  • Transnet plans to boost the volume of coal transported by rail to Eskom
    — Mining Weekly
  • South African, Botswana coal producers outline prospects for the industry
    — Mining Weekly
  • Chinese demand key uncertainty for seaborne coal market in 2020
    — Hellenic Shipping News
  • SA market sees ‘less and less’ production due to lack of investment
    — Platts CTI
  • SA coal market continues to be premium origin — Platts CTI
  • South African coal remains premium origin in seaborne market — Platts CTI
  • Atlantic thermal coal prices rise although market remains oversupplied
    — Platts CTI
  • European thermal coal prices edge upward with energy complex — Platts CTI
  • Richards Bay prices set to rise on India buying — Southern African Coal Report
  • Minister keen to get generation outside of Eskom going soonest
    — Mining Weekly
  • South African 6,000 NAR coal trades at large premium — Platts CTI
  • Atlantic thermal coal markets remain pressured by gas, oversupply
    — Platts CTI
January 2020
  • Minerals Council calls for coal advocacy group to be established
    — Mining Weekly
  • Govt urges coal sector to step up pace in rolling out clean technologies
    — Mining Weekly
  • Investments in clean coal could save South Africa's coal sector
    — Consultancy.co.za
  • South African thermal coal mood ‘bearish’ amid production drop, rising prices — Platts CTI
  • Cheap Natural Gas Is About to Kick More Coal Out of Europe — Bloomberg
  • NW Europe falls to 7-month low, Richards Bay also down
    — McCloskey Coal Report
  • Coal futures climb, South African prices still well supported — Platts CTI
  • India’s thermal coal imports extend fall as economy slows — World Coal
  • Unprecedented Industrialization Responsible for Uptick in Coal Trading Activities — Coal Trading Market
  • RBCT looks to increase exports from junior miners in 2020 — Miningmx
  • RBCT coal exports decline again — Mining Weekly
  • Gas Exports Have a Dirty Secret: A Carbon Footprint Rivalling Coal’s
    — Bloomberg
  • India cautious over volatile South African coal — Platts CTI
  • "Overvalued" SA begins retreat — Platts CTI
  • RB prices at one-year highs, buyers eye cheaper option
    — Southern African Coal Report
  • South Africa physical keeps firm premium to futures — Platts CTI
  • FOB Richards Bay OTC drops 3% on year — Platts CTI
  • Richards Bay corrects — Platts CTI
  • Indian seaborne interest — Platts CTI
  • US Department of Energy announces funding for fossil energy research and training — World Coal
  • Arbitrage to remain open in SA — Platts CTI
  • BlackRock Inc. will cut exposure to thermal coal — Bloomberg
  • SA prices -- correction in the offing? — Platts CTI
  • Indian thermal coal buyers keep eyes peeled on arbitrage opportunities
    — Platts CTI
  • India looks to replace up to 135Mt of coal imports with domestic output: minister — S&P Global
  • SA prices ease — Platts CTI
  • Atlantic thermal coal markets relatively static amid ‘retreating’ South Africa market — Platts CTI
  • South Africa price stable even with vessel backlog — Platts CTI
  • Richards Bay discounts — Platts CTI
  • SA 'overpriced' bids continue to rally — Platts CTI
  • South African prices a key factor — Platts CTI
  • Colombia-Asia thermal coal arbitrage widens on high South African prices
    — Platts CTI
  • South Africa bids 'aggressive' once more — Platts CTI
  • Tightness heard in South Africa — Platts CTI
  • South African coal remains premium origin — Platts CTI
  • High-CV blending in India — Platts CTI
  • SA bids start to 'roof' again — Platts CTI
  • SA market relatively static — Platts CTI
  • Atlantic physical thermal coal markets quiet with slight price falls — Platts CTI
  • European thermal coal markets begins year with 'no movement': sources
    — Platts CTI

2019 archive



To be announced





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