Back when Glencore was in extremis last year, I noted that although the company could do some things on its own (e.g., sell assets, cut dividends, reduce debt) to address its problems, its fate was largely out of its hands. Further, its fate was contingent on what happened to commodity prices–coal and copper in particular–and those prices would depend first and foremost on China, and hence on Chinese policy and politics.
Those prognostications have proven largely correct. The company executed a good turnaround plan, but it has received a huge assist from China. China’s heavy-handed intervention to cut thermal and coking coal output has led to a dramatic spike in coal prices. Whereas the steady decline in those prices had weighed heavily on Glencore’s fortunes in 2014 and 2015, the rapid rise in those prices in 2016 has largely retrieved those fortunes. Thermal coal prices are up almost 100 percent since mid-year, and coking coal has risen 240 percent from its lows.
As a result, Glencore was just able to secure almost $100/ton for a thermal coal contract with a major Japanese buyer–up 50 percent from last year’s contract. It is anticipated that this is a harbinger for other major sales contracts.
The company will not capture the entire rally in prices, because it had hedged about 50 percent of its output for 2016. But that means 50 percent wasn’t hedged, and the price rise on those unhedged tons will provide a substantial profit for the company. (This dependence of the company on flat prices indicates that it is not so much a trader anymore, as an upstream producer married to a big trading operation.) (Given that hedges are presumably marked-to-market and collateralized, and hence require Glencore to make cash payments on its derivatives at the time prices rise, I wonder if the rally has created any cash flow issues due to mismatches in cash flows between physical coal sales and derivatives held as hedges.)
So Chinese policy has been Glencore’s best friend so far in 2016. But don’t get too excited. Now the Chinese are concerned that they might have overdone things. The government has just called an emergency meeting with 20 major coal producers to figure out how to raise output in order to lower prices:
China’s state planner has called another last-minute meeting to discuss with more than 20 coal mines more steps to boost supplies to electric utilities and tame a rally in thermal coal prices, according to two sources and local press.
The National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC) has convened a meeting with 22 coal miners for Tuesday to discuss ways to guarantee supply during the winter while sticking to the government’s long-term goal of removing excess inefficient capacity, according to a document inviting companies to the meeting seen by Reuters.
What China giveth, China might taketh away.
All this policy to-and-fro has, of course is leading to speculation about Chinese government policy. This contributes to considerable price volatility, a classic example of policy-induced volatility, which is far more common that policies that reduce volatility.
Presumably this uncertainty will induce Glencore to try to lock in more customers (which is a form of hedging). It might also increase its paper hedging, because a policy U-turn in China (about which your guess and Glencore’s guess are as good as mine) is always a possibility, and could send prices plunging again.
So when I said last year that Glencore was hostage to coal prices, and hence to Chinese government policy–well, here’s the proof. It’s worked in the company’s favor so far, but given the competing interests (electricity generators, steel firms, banks, etc.) affected by commodity prices, a major policy adjustment is a real possibility. Glencore–and other major commodity producers, especially in coal and ferrous metals–remain hostages to Chinese policy and hence Chinese politics.