Copper price at fresh high as satellite data shows sharp Chinese smelter cutbacks

Copper closed regular trading hours Monday at $4.38 a pound or $9,656 a tonne, up 2% on the day bringing year to date gains to more than 12%. Copper is now trading at levels last seen early June 2022. 

The run up over the past few weeks was sparked by pledges from Chinese smelters to cut output by 5%-10% in the face of tighter-than-expected concentrate supply and overcapacity after years of relentless expansion.

New satellite data appears to show China’s so-called Copper Smelter Purchase Team is making good on those promises. 

Latest data from high frequency data provider Earth-i global copper monitoring index shows smelter inactivity in China rose to an average of 8.5%, compared with 4.1% in the first quarter of 2023 and 4% in the same quarter the year before. 

In March inactivity levels in China reached 9%, lifting the gauge to nearly 18% on a global basis. Earth-i points out that inactivity in China jumped sharply in the final days of March indicating the possible impact of CSPT members’ actions, ending the month at 12.8%, according to the UK-based company: 

“Significantly, we are now entering a period of several scheduled maintenance closures, and this is expected to help ease the tight concentrate supply situation which has helped to depress smelter treatment charges (TCs) and by extension smelter profitability.”

Evidence of how desperate Chinese refiners are to source raw material was a recent report that BHP sold concentrate cargoes from Escondida, the world’s largest copper mine, at treatment charges as low as $3 per tonne and refining charges of 0.3 cents a pound to at least one Chinese smelter. 

When prices declined to below $8,000 a tonne in 2023, treatment and refining charges – paid by miners to refiners to convert concentrate into metal – were north of $90 a tonne. 

Shanghai stockpile

Separately Shanghai Metals Markets estimates China produced an annualised 26 million tonnes of semi-wrought copper and copper alloys in March but producers’ operating rate declined to 69.8%, down nearly 7% compared to March 2023 with the rise in copper prices impacting downstream consumption, according to the market data firm.

China was responsible for more than half the world’s 2023 refined copper output of 27 million tonnes and customs data showed strong numbers for unwrought copper and copper concentrate imports in March.   

China imported 1.38 million tons of unwrought copper in the first quarter, up 6.9% from the same period in 2023 while imports of copper concentrate came in at 2.3 million tonnes for March, up 15.3% over March 2023 lifting Q1 cargoes to a shade under 7 million tonnes, up a more modest 5.1% year on year.

Other indicators coming out of China have not been an unalloyed good for the global copper market however. Shanghai Futures Exchange inventory data shows copper stocks continuing to rise with a 2.7% gain over the past week to around 300,000 tonnes. 

BMO Capital Markets cautions bulls saying given the counter-seasonal increase in stockpiles in China the investment bank “feels spot copper prices have moved a little above current fundamentals” and it “would want to see more evidence of underlying Chinese demand to backstop price gains.”