HONG KONG, Jan 10 (Reuters) - China's copper imports fell 6.6 percent in December on the month due to weak demand from plants which reduced purchases of metal at the end of the year due to low cash flows, but inflows increased 14.1 percent in 2012 from 2011 thanks to strong term bookings.
China, the world's top copper consumer, received 341,211 tonnes of anode, refined metal, alloy and semi-finished copper products imports in December 2012, the second-lowest monthly inflows of 2012 and down from 365,331 tonnes in the previous month, customs data showed on Thursday.
The arrivals dropped 33 percent from a record 508,942 tonnes seen in the same month in 2011.
Full-year copper imports rose to 4.65 million tonnes, reversing a 5.1 percent decline in 2011 when 4.07 million tonnes were imported, even though domestic demand was mostly moderate last year as the economic slowdown in China curtailed consumption.
"A fall in December copper imports was expected given Chinese firms in general tried to get their money back to help cash flows by the end of the year and did not want to spend," Yang Xiaoguang, analyst at Jinrui Futures said.
"Firms were cautious to buy copper in December."
Imports of refined copper in December were restricted by poor price differentials between the London Metal Exchange and the Chinese market, analyst Yao Yao at Maike Futures said before the data was released, adding that importers would face losses of more than 2,000 yuan ($320) per tonne had they imported spot refined copper cathodes in December.
Demand for spot copper from some plants that use refined metal to manufacture semi-finished and finished copper products such as rods was weak in December, cutting needs for imports, Yao said.
Chinese firms typically pay back loans by the end the year, reducing their cash flows that could otherwise be available for refined copper purchases.
The demand has stayed moderate so far this year, Yao added.
Banks tightened approvals of letters of credit for copper imports by China in the fourth quarter of 2012 due to high stocks in bonded warehouses and weak Chinese prices, and after some lenders struggled in the previous quarter to recover billions of yuan in loans made to the steel trade. ($1 = 6.2241 Chinese yuan)