Mar 09, 2012 BEIJING (Dow Jones)--Copper and iron ore imports in February reached their second-highest monthly volume on record, signaling China's buying appetite returning in strength after the Lunar New Year break amid a period of relatively stable prices, customs data showed Saturday.
China's appetite for imports is generally a proxy for the state of its industrial health.
Iron ore imports posted a robust gain of 34% on year and 10% on month to reach 64.98 million tons last month.
Some February ore imports were shipped to China after being delayed in January, analysts said.
"Some of the shipments from India and Brazil were delayed in January because of rainy weather, and were likely restored to China in February," said Li Bin, analyst with Minsheng Futures.
Importers had been encouraged to stock up because of a period of relative stability in prices that had come after months of high volatility in the second half of 2011.
Import prices for China delivery in the two previous months reached lows of $141/ton and highs of $146/ton.
The data, which bucked analysts' expectations, belied worries among top Chinese steelmakers over a contraction in domestic steel manufacturing and high port inventories.
Copper and copper product imports also rose strongly, nearly doubling in volume from the same month last year to 484,569 tons.
February imports were up 17% over January and imports in the first two months this year were 50% higher than the same time last year.
Still, analysts warned that the high import levels may be contributing to overly high inventories in China.
Copper stocks held at Shanghai Futures Exchange reached a record 224,781 tons Friday, up 3,294 tons compared to a week earlier. That doesn't include bonded warehouses, which don't officially report their inventories, where analysts project stocks could be double October levels.
"The currently ample availability of metals in China, which is also reflected in high inventories, could point to lower import levels in the coming months," Commerzbank said in a note.
While copper demand may see its weakest level since 2008 this year, consumption of the red metal is still likely to post a 6% rise, Wei Jianghong, chairman of Tongling Nonferrous Metals Group, China's second-largest copper producer, said Wednesday.
Natural rubber imports in February rose 36% on year to 150,000 tons, while soybean imports in February were 3.83 million tons, up 65% on year.