Monday, September 8, 2014

China’s Copper Imports Slow Due to Probe

By Chuin-Wei Yap

China’s commodity imports in August mostly softened, led by a 12% decline in the volume of copper shipments from a year earlier due to the fallout from a government probe into metal financing at Chinese ports.

Copper imports fell to 340,000 metric tons, according to customs data Monday.

Chinese authorities earlier this year launched investigations into alleged fraud involving aluminum and copper stocks used as collateral for loans in China. Commodity-backed financing has fueled imports of copper in recent years, but this appears to be ebbing due to the investigations.

“Banks became much more cautious” after the probe, said OCBC economist Xie Dongming. “They don’t want to give financing with that sort of collateral anymore.”

There were other factors at play. Local copper processing mills that had shut down for maintenance or due to breakdowns restarted operations in August, adding to local supply and reducing the demand for imports. These included Jinchuan Group’s 400,000-ton Gansu province smelter and Dongying Fangyuan Co.’s in Shandong province.

Still, copper import volumes were largely unchanged in August from the previous month. Demand will likely be underpinned in the second half of 2014 by China’s spending on its power grid, a top demand source for copper, according to Barclays Research.

In the longer run, tight supply globally could lend support for copper prices despite China’s anemic demand, analysts said. Barclays pointed to supply disruptions in Indonesia, which has put bans on the export of unprocessed copper.

By comparison, iron ore imports rose 9% on year in August. The relatively high levels of purchases were likely due to the lowest iron ore prices in five years. Ore prices last Friday reached $83.6 a ton, down 38% from the start of this year – a level not seen since August 2009, according to data provider The Steel Index.

Low global iron ore prices put the squeeze on China’s fragmented and small marginal producers, which is likely to sustain China’s demand for foreign ore, Gavekal Dragonomics said. Customs data Monday showed iron ore imports between January and August were up 17% on year.

Soybean imports last month fell from a record-high volume set in July, a widely expected adjustment amid relatively low global soy prices. Shipments totaled a relatively high 6.03 million tons.

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