Copper price drops to 8-week low after Chinese data dump

The copper price is having a torrid 2014 as the economic news out of number one consumer China continues to rattle investors.

In New York trade March copper dropped nearly 3c in early trade at $3.211 a pound, after Thursday's final Chinese manufacturing purchasing managers' index (PMI) revised downward the already dismal numbers in the preliminary or "flash" report.

The HSBC/Markit manufacturing PMI for January fell from December's 50.5 to 49.5 this month, the weakest reading since July. A reading below 50 indicates a contraction.

China, the world's second largest economy, is responsible for 42% of total global copper demand of some 21 million tonnes and the country's PMI data is particularly closely correlated to the copper price.

Copper futures clawed back some of the losses in afternoon trade, changing hands at $3.224, but is still down more than 6% so far this year, trading at levels last seen at the beginning of December.

Official economic figures from China show a still robust 7.7% growth in GDP in 2013, but skepticism about the data abound given that other indicators which are more difficult to massage – industrial output, real retail sales and tax revenues – all pointed downward last year.

Trade figures were also disappointing with cargoes at China's 31 largest ports contracting month on month in December and compared to 2012 growth slowed to less than 5%.

The engine of China's $9.4 trillion economy over the past decade – fixed investment – was also flat in 2013.

For 2014 economists are predicting 7.4% which would make it the slowest nominal growth since 1990.

While that number may seem alarming, to put it in perspective in absolute terms China would add $700 billion to its gross domestic product in 2014.

That's more than the size of its entire economy in 1994, when growth rates peaked at a stunning 30% year-on-year.

China is grappling with overproduction in a number of industries including steelmaking, severe environmental degradation across large swathes of the country and pollution problems in all its cities and towns.

In November the so-called Third Plenum of the top leaders announced steps to liberalize the financial sector, reform state-owned enterprises to move the country from an investment to consumer-led economy as growth slows from the rapid pace of recent years.

Given its widespread use in transportation, manufacturing and construction the copper price is sensitive to any economic slowdown.

Image of Dongtai Lu antique market figurines in Shanghai, 2007 by claudio zaccherini / Shutterstock.com