Red mettle: Has China cornered the copper market?

Due to its widespread use in construction, communication and transport, copper consumption is considered one of the best indicators of economic activity.

At best, what is going in the global copper market seems to be counterintuitive.

At worst, it looks like market manipulation with serious consequences for consumers of the red metal worldwide.

The metal is up 6% since Monday last week and now trades at over $8,500 a tonne ($3.84 per pound).

Better manufacturing data from China and the US out on Tuesday is one explanation for the recent rise (although two surveys do not make a trend).

So is the rate at which copper held in LME warehouses around the world is being drawn down. Yesterday inventories were down to just 250,000 tonnes, the lowest since October 2008 and at levels that can only be described as very tight.

In contrast Chinese warehouses are bulging as construction slows and economic growth tapers off.

Which is why the country's number one producer is gearing up to export large quantities of the metal according to a Reuters report on Monday and bonded warehouses in Shanghai recently started re-exporting some of the 600,000 tonnes held there.

About a fortnight ago – before the latest numbers were released – China's stockpiling was already drawing attention during Cesco, the copper industry's annual talk shop.

Financial Times (sub required) quoted data from CRU, a London-based metals researcher, that shows "58 per cent of the world’s refined copper is now being held in China" and including strategic government stocks China now sits on some 3 million tonnes – 40% more than just six months ago.

On top of that "traders say that China may hold as much as three quarters of the “spare” stock that is actually available to the market."

A further complicating factor in judging where the copper price is heading is supply.

Supplies in the industry have been largely flat for a number of years. But according to the International Copper Study Group based on existing plants and announced project developments, annual mine production capacity is expected to grow at a 6.6% a year clip to to reach 26.2 million tonnes in 2015.

That's up 30% from last year's levels and should, all things being equal, wipe out any market deficit.

But there are also those who are saying this promised new supply – mostly from South America – will never materialize.

Apart from rising labour and electricity costs, political problems (vide Argentina’s seizure of energy firm YPF), and a scarcity of project finance, acute engineering skills shortages and tough environmental regulation are also hampering the industry.

Unthinkable not very long ago, a situation could now arise where the rest of the world has to import copper from China at inflated prices to meet rising demand.