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China’s net imports of refined copper surged by 38% to 4.4 million tonnes last year, breaking all historical records.

The country’s call on metal from the rest of the world was a million tonnes higher than the previous peak in 2018 and 1.2 million tonnes more than was imported in 2019.

This extraordinary buying spree has propelled the London Metal Exchange (LME) copper price from its COVID-19 low of $4,371 per tonne in March last year to above $10,000 per tonne, last trading at $9,985.

It has also reshaped the copper market’s statistical landscape, judging by the latest forecasts from the International Copper Study Group (ICSG).

The Group suggests the global market will record modest supply surpluses of 79,000 tonnes and 109,000 tonnes this year and next respectively.

If that seems a bit at odds with the bullish exuberance currently washing around the copper market, it’s because of what happened last year.

China sucked so much metal out of the global market-place that copper recorded a deep 600,000-tonne statistical supply-demand deficit, according to the ICSG. That black hole looms large over the Group’s outlook.

However, Chinese imports are now slowing and the big question is what happens when the big copper driver stops driving.

YEAR OF DEFICIT?

Copper usage outside of China collapsed by 9% last year with pandemic lockdowns having “a notable negative impact on the world economy and subsequently on key copper end-use sectors in all regions,” the ICSG said in its latest twice-yearly assessment of the market.

Such a demand implosion should have resulted in a massive surplus of unsold metal and a big rise in inventories.

That didn’t happen, however, thanks to China removing a record 4.7 million tonnes of metal from the international market with only a trickle of offset from exports.

This import strength radically affects calculations of global market balance.

Calculating usage in the copper market is challenging because copper is continuously being melted into different forms for myriad end-products. The statistical problems are compounded when it comes to working out what is happening in China’s massive, geographically dispersed manufacturing sector.

That’s why the ICSG and other analysts use an “apparent” calculation of demand, based on relatively hard data such as domestic production, visible stocks changes and, of course, net trade.

Factor last year’s enormous net imports into that statistical equation and “apparent” usage in China jumped by 13% last year. That more than offset the demand collapse everywhere else and generates the ICSG’s assessment that the global market was in a supply-usage deficit to the tune of 604,000 tonnes last.

Moreover, the import-distortion effect permeates the forecasts of surplus this year and next. China’s “apparent” usage is expected to drop sharply as imports tail off, a statistical quirk that will reduce the impact of actual demand recovery in the rest of the world.

The key takeaways from this blurred statistical landscape are that the size of expected surplus - a cumulative 188,000 tonnes over this year and next - is marginal in the context of a 25-million-tonne market and modest relative to last year’s calculated deficit.

SWITCH TO RAW MATERIALS

China’s imports of refined copper are already showing signs of plateauing. Net imports totalled 853,000 tonnes in the first quarter, which was up by 5% on last year but 19% lower sequentially than the fourth quarter of 2020.

There is a broad analyst consensus that last year’s imports were boosted by one-off government stockpiling. Estimates of how much vary from half a million to a million tonnes but no-one knows for sure apart from the secretive state entities in charge of the country’s strategic reserves.

That impulse should fade this year. Commercial stock-building will also diminish sharply as industrial buyers balk at high prices.

China’s import appetite is now shifting to the raw materials segment of the market.

Constrained supplies of copper concentrates and copper scrap were also major contributors to China’s stepped-up purchases of refined metal last year.

The concentrates market remains tight as mine supply recovers from COVID-19 lockdowns. Global mine production flat-lined for the third consecutive year in 2020 but is expected to rise by 3.5% this year and by 3.7% in 2022, the ICSG said.

Improved availability is starting to feed through into China’s imports of mined concentrates. These fell by 1% last year even as the country’s smelting capacity grew but volumes jumped by 7.5% over the first quarter of 2020. Indeed, March’s tally of 2.17 million tonnes was a monthly record.

A simultaneous rebound in copper scrap imports is also playing out after the Chinese government relaxed its import purity rules late last year.

After sliding by 37% to 944,000 tonnes in 2020, imports of copper scrap have rebounded by 73% to 364,000 tonnes in the first quarter of 2021.

With high prices incentivising recycled metal supply and China now allowing imports of the reclassified “resource,” scrap flows can be expected to continue trending higher.

That will alleviate the materials pressure on both China’s secondary refining plants and on the many manufacturers who melt scrap directly into the product mix.

More scrap will dampen demand for refined metal even as more concentrates feeds through to higher domestic production, both trends feeding back into reduced import needs.

PASSING THE BATON?

China is the single most important reason why copper is challenging the $10,000 per tonne level.

Consider how different market optics would be if the country’s hadn’t imported an extra 1.2 million tonnes last year. Much of that metal would have found its way into LME or CME warehouses, acting as a visible dampener on price.

Instead LME and CME inventory combined is less than 200,000 tonnes with both exchange contracts prone to time-spread tightness.

Commodity super-bulls contend that this cycle will not be defined by China alone but by a metals-intensive recovery in the rest of the world.

Copper is shaping up to be an interesting test of that theory because China’s import appetite will lessen over the coming months as raw materials markets loosen up and restocking, both commercial and state, fades.

How the price reacts will tell you whether the rest of the world is ready to take the copper baton from China.

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