HONG KONG, April 19 (Reuters) - Chinese importers of refined copper have rushed to buy the metal from bonded warehouses in Shanghai and the international market following a near 6 percent fall in London Metal Exchange prices this week, pushing spot premiums to 16-month highs.
Importers in China this week have paid spot premiums of about $115-$135 per tonne over cash LME copper prices -- the highest since late 2011 -- for metal in bonded warehouses in Shanghai and forward shipments due to arrive in the coming few weeks, traders said, and premiums are expected to rise further.
"The price falls have brought business to us," a trader at an international trading house said. The trader declined to be named because he was not authorised to talk to the media.
"Many buyers started buying when the LME price fell below $7,000. We are looking around to buy more to resell," he said.
Benchmark three-month copper on the LME touched a 1-1/2 year low of $6,800 per tonne on Thursday. It is trading around $7,000 a tonne on Friday.
The most-traded August contract on the Shanghai Futures Exchange briefly dropped below the 50,000 yuan ($8,100) mark on Friday for the first time since June 2010. The prices were headed a drop of more than 8 percent this week.
Rising demand from the world's top copper consumer could help cushion LME prices, which have fallen more than 11 percent so far this year.
"We resold all (our) bonded stocks this week ... more than 10,000 tonnes. We are looking to import spot copper but the problem is there is not much available," a trader at a Chinese trading house said.
"Global producers did not offer spot ... Japanese producers said they did not have any and a large South Korean producer said they are doing maintenance," he said, adding that he thought premiums would rise to $150 over LME prices.
Chinese fabricators, which buy refined copper for manufacturing of semi-finished or finished copper products, held low inventories of the metal and would need to buy spot metal if their orders rose, the trader said.
A purchaser for a large copper tube producer said his company was looking to import spot copper in May and June due to low prices and having received more orders than expected.
"This is a good time to import," said the purchaser. But the company's term suppliers so far have not offered spot copper for May and June shipments, he added.
Traders said importers were unwilling to take copper stocks from the LME warehouses in Asia because premiums were high, at about $150 a tonne for metal from South Korea to Shanghai.
Falling bonded stocks in Shanghai are forcing Chinese imports to look for spot copper in the international market.
Bonded stocks in Shanghai have fallen below 600,000 tonnes, from 600,000-700,000 tonnes last week, traders estimated. That would put the stocks down more than 40 percent from a record of about 1 million tonnes in late January and mark the lowest amount since the third quarter of 2012.
The bonded stocks are expected to fall further to 400,000-500,000 tonnes in May.
($1 = 6.1813 Chinese yuan) (