In February copper hit a 21-month high on the back of optimism that Donald Trump’s $500 billion-plus infrastructure plan would add fuel to the fire of Chinese economic stimulus already working its way through commodity markets.
While US stimulus now appears further in the distance, Chinese support for the sector has stayed surprisingly strong with imports of the metal, widely used in the construction, manufacturing transportation and power industries, surging in May.
Official customs data from China, responsible for some 45% of global copper consumption, show the country’s refined copper imports in May increasing by 30% to 390,000 tonnes compared to the previous month. Year-on-year import volumes were down 9% however. For the whole of 2016 imports were at record levels of 4.95 million tonnes.
The copper imports rebound in May is more than market expectations, especially in the off season for copper, (suggesting) markets had overestimated the slowdown in China’s economic growth and sluggish domestic demand,” Helen Lau, an analyst at Argonaut Securities in Hong Kong told Reuters.
In a sign that disruptions at some of the world’s biggest mines including BHP’s Escondida mine in Chile and Freeport’s Grasberg operations in Indonesia is having an impact on mine supply concentrate imports declined by more than 15% in May compared to April. Cargoes were down 20% compared to a year ago reaching the lowest levels since October 2015. 2016 was a banner year with volumes gaining 28% over 2015 hitting an all-time high of 16.96 million tonnes for the full year.
Chinese imports compare to global mined production of an estimated 20.5 million tonnes per year.
Copper futures trading on the Comex market in New York reacted positively to the import data adding more than 2% from Wednesday’s close trading near its day high of $2.6105 per pound ($5,755 a tonne) in afternoon dealings. Copper is up 3.5% year to date.