Chinese scrap ban won't do much for copper price

On Monday copper for delivery in July fell back in the red on the Comex market in New York at $3.088 per pound or $6,800 a tonne as traders ponder rising trade tensions between the US and China, the globe's number one metals consumer.

The industry is gathering in Hong Kong for LME Asia Week, but spirits may be dampened somewhat by a new report giving a muted assessment of the effects of Beijing's ban on certain types of copper scrap imports.

The overall net impact on the supply of copper scrap in China will be much smaller at around 100 kiltonnes

The price of copper rallied from the mid $2.60s when rumours of a ban first emerged in August-September last year, but last month's official confirmation from Beijing has done little for the price.

Yanting Zhou and Sifang Liu, senior consultants for Wood Mackenzie, a research house, says while the ban only comes into effect at the end of the year most of the impact will be felt in 2018.

China's so-called category 7 scrap which includes electrical cables and motors with as little as 5% copper content need processing before it can be used in smelters and refineries and imports have already plummeted this year.

Category 6 imports (average 95% copper content) can be fed directly to refineries and are not banned. Processors outside China have sprung up in anticipation of the ban, and together with rising Chinese domestic scrap supply, would fill most of the shortfall says Wood Mackenzie:

Although import volumes of category 7 copper scrap will decrease in 2018, we anticipate that imports of category 6 copper scrap will rise as scrap-processing capacity is built up outside China. Meanwhile, domestic scrap supply is also expected to accelerate this year.

Overall, we believe the import ban will lead to a loss of around 300 kt of copper contained in imported scrap in 2018. The overall net impact on the supply of copper scrap in China will be much smaller at around 100 kt given the anticipated increase in domestic scrap supply this year.

The authors believe in 2019, Chinese copper scrap supply would return to positive growth again, rising by roughly 70kt.

Sentiment sours

After a 30% price jump in 2017, copper is down 6% so far in 2018 and the shift in sentiment is evident on derivatives markets with changes in the positioning of large-scale derivatives speculators such as hedge funds.

After hitting an all time record in September last year amid the excitement around the Chinese import ban, a month ago net long positions –  bets on higher prices in future – fell to the lowest level since October 2016 (copper was trading around $2.20 a pound then).

While bullish positioning has improved, according to the CFTC's weekly Commitment of Traders data, so-called managed money investors were back in selling mode last week reducing net longs by 22%.