SHANGHAI, Feb. 25 -- Copper imports by China, the world's largest consumer, fell for the first time in three months in January as domestic supplies improved and seasonal demand slowed.
Inbound shipments of refined copper were 196,926 metric tons last month, the Beijing-based customs office said today. That's 19 percent less than December and 9 percent more than the same period in 2009, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.
The country's copper imports advanced to a record last year, driving global prices up 140 percent. The country has been running down stockpiles in bonded warehouses, Macquarie Group Ltd. said this week. Traders store shipments in a bonded zone before paying duties.
"January purchases were lower-than-expected despite a premium of Shanghai prices over London, largely because of an increase in supplies from bonded warehouses," Zhou Qian, an analyst at commodities researcher CBI China Co., said from Shanghai today.
Chinese after-tax prices have traded at a premium to those in London since December, before the spring high-production season, according to Bloomberg calculations. That had spurred speculation that imports would be more than 300,000 tons last month, Zhou said.
"February shipments may continue to be constrained, given slowing demand from the Lunar New Year vacation," he added. The vacation started on Feb. 14 and lasted a week.
Copper stockpiles held in China's bonded warehouses might have surged to as much as 350,000 tons from almost none at the start of 2009, Xi'an Maike Metal International Group said in November. About a third of the estimate may have been released into the Chinese market since December, Zhou said.
Still, Chinese imports "may bounce back from March" as bonded inventories clear and price arbitrage remains, Xu Liping, an analyst at HNA Topwin Futures Co., said from Shanghai today.
"Investors probably won't read too much into the January numbers as Chinese purchases usually slow in winter and copper prices are driven by macro-economic factors right now," Xu said.
The June-delivery contract on the Shanghai Futures Exchange declined 1.2 percent to close at 58,320 yuan ($8,543) a ton. Copper for three-month delivery on the London Metal Exchange was little changed at $7,130 a ton by 5:21 p.m. in Shanghai.