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Exclusive: China's base metals output in December
iconJan 8, 2020 18:52iconCST
This is a roundup of China's base metals output in December 2019, from an SMM survey of major producers

SHANGHAI, Jan 8 (SMM) – This is a roundup of China's base metals output in December 2019, from an SMM survey of major producers.


China’s production of copper cathode rose in December for a third straight month, as newly-commissioned projects such as Yunnan Copper’s phase two in Chifeng and Zijin Mining’s smelter in Heilongjiang ramped up. The gain in output, however, was limited by curtailments at some fund-strapped smelters.

SMM data showed that China produced 805,500 mt of copper cathode last month, up 0.83% from November and 5.77% from December 2018. Production for 2019 came in at 8.94 million mt, up 2.41% from 2018.

In December, copper output produced from copper scrap increased as scrap discounts against refined material widened after copper prices rallied. Refining charges (RCs) for blister copper rose from November as increased seaborne supply eased shortages domestically.

Prices of sulphuric acid, meanwhile, remained weak, with northern regions seeing substantial declines, due to continued weakness in demand. This has yet to materially affect smelter operations, but clouded the outlook for the year ahead. 

China’s copper cathode production is estimated to slip to 734,900 mt in January, as cash flow issues and environmental restrictions lead to production reduction at some smelters. January’s output will dip 0.18% from a year ago.


China produced 5.87 million mt of alumina in December, with metallurgical-grade materials accounting for 5.62 million mt.

This brought China’s alumina production in 2019 to 70.42 million mt, down 2.47% from 2018.

Last month, production of metallurgical-grade alumina averaged 181,000 mt per day, down 9.01% from December 2018 and 0.26% from November as Luoyang Wanji cut its capacity in operation to 800,000 mt/year.

Alumina refineries that suspended or trimmed output in November due to bauxite supply shortages, environmental woes or losses did not recover in December, while the Jingxi Tiangui project failed to see production ramping up as expected.

As of early January, alumina capacity in operation in China reduced to 66.19 million mt on an annualised basis, as Guangxi Xinfa and Xinghua Technology curtailed production.

With average daily production shrinking to 180,000 mt, China’s production of metallurgical-grade alumina is likely to slip to 5.58 million mt in January. Jingxi Tiangui, however, will likely help limit the decline.


China’s primary aluminium output climbed to 3.04 million mt in December, to produce a year-over-year increase of 1.47%.

In the full 2019, production dipped 1.84% from 2018 to 35.43 million mt, and consumption slipped 1.4% to 36.11 million mt. Inventories, meanwhile, declined 686,000 mt.

Primary aluminium capacity in operation in China is expected to expand to 36.4 million mt on an annualised basis in January, as new projects including Zhongfu’s in Guangyuan of Sichuan, Shenhuo’s in Yunnan, Yunnan Aluminium’s in Heqing county and East Hope’s in Guyang of Inner Mongolia will ramp up and also some facilities will resume.

Production is estimated to extend its increase to 3.06 million mt in January. This would rise 3.07% from January 2019, marking a second straight month of year-on-year increases.


China’s zinc output extended its increase to a record high in December, showed an SMM survey, as some smelters recovered from maintenance and also enticing profits kept smelters operating at full capacity.

About 537,000 mt of refined zinc was produced in China last month, up 1.18% month on month and 19.76% year on year. This brought full-year production to 5.84 million mt, up 9.64% from 2018. Capacity covered in the SMM survey amounted to 6.09 million mt on an annualised basis.

In December, Henan Yuguang Zinc Industry and Yunnan Hualian Zinc & Indium recovered from maintenance, while Luoping Zinc & Electricity began its annual overhaul.

China’s production of refined zinc is expected to dip 1.53% to 528,900 mt in January, as some smelters in Hunan, Qinghai and Yunnan will shut down or reduce production during the Chinese New Year holiday.

With most large-scale smelters maintaining production during the holiday, the month-on-month decline in zinc output would be moderate and produce an increase of 21.8% from January 2019.


China’s production of refined nickel continued to rise by 13.52% on the month to 16,000 mt in December, driven by year-end accelerated production at a smelter in Gansu. On a year-on-year basis, the domestic output was 10.42% lower.

Maintenance at a smelter in Jilin continued in December, and the production may resume partly in January. It remains to be determined when the ongoing overhaul at a smelter in Guangxi will conclude. Other nickel smelters cut production slightly and there was limited impact on overall output.

SMM forecasts China’s refined nickel production to dip to 14,000 mt in January, affected by output cut at Gansu smelters and the holiday lull.

Nickel pig iron (NPI)

Output of NPI in China slipped 10.36% month on month but climbed 14.91% year on year to 47,600 mt in Ni content in December. High-grade NPI accounted for 39,900 mt in Ni content last month, down 11.9% from November, while production of low-grade material fell 1.38% to 7,600 mt in Ni content.

Some large-scale NPI producers slashed production in December, and are expected to maintain current output in January. Scheduled NPI production was affected as there was no new supply of feedstock nickel ore in the Chinese market a month before the Indonesia ore export ban taking effect on January 1. Greater production cut of stainless steel amid falling demand also slowed the destocking at NPI sellers.

On the profit front, major NPI producers were mostly break even. High-cost plants that produce with electric furnaces saw losses, but it remained economical to continue operation than to reopen after suspension. This kept production at most plants limitedly changed in December.

China’s NPI production is expected to hold flat at 47,600 mt in Ni content in January, with output of high-grade material rising 0.79% to 40,300 mt while production of low-grade NPI dipping 4.1% to 7,300 mt.

Most high-grade NPI producers plan to maintain their production capacity in January from a month ago, while production of low-grade NPI will be weighed by cutbacks at #200 series integrated stainless steel mills.

Nickel sulphate

China produced 47,400 mt of nickel sulphate in December, down 3.85% on the month but up 9.62% on the year. This included 42,930 mt of battery-grade nickel sulphate and 4,500 mt of galvanising-grade materials. Total output in December translated to 10,435 mt in Ni content.

Subdued downstream demand and greater cutbacks at precursor plants accounted for the decline in nickel sulphate output last month.

SMM estimates a sharp month-on-month decline of 15.5% in China’s production of nickel sulphate in January, on the prospects for Chinese New Year holiday and continued impact from subsidy cuts on the demand for battery-grade nickel sulphate.

Production in January is forecasted at 40,100 mt, or 8,818 mt in Ni content, 17.81% lower from a year ago, the first decline on a yearly basis.


Primary lead output in China extended its increase in December as most smelters ramped up production on the back of the continued increase in treatment charges (TCs) of lead concentrate.

SMM data showed that domestic output of primary lead stood at 280,000 mt in December, 3% higher from a month ago. The full-year production was up 0.86% from 2018.

Resumption of Henan Xinling and Jiangxi Jinde from maintenance also contributed to the higher output in December. Frequent occurrence of smog alert in Henan province slightly impacted output at some plants, but production at large smelters was unaffected given sufficient stockpiles of crude lead.

SMM assessments indicated that the monthly TCs for domestic 50% Pb lead concentrate have climbed for the fourth consecutive month, to 2,300 yuan/mt in January, 150 yuan/mt higher from a month ago (both on a metal content basis).

SMM expects China’s production of primary lead to fall more than 20,000 mt on the month in January as medium-scale and small smelters will shut down for about a week for the Chinese New Year holiday, even as large-scale producers will maintain normal operation during the period. Smelters including Hunan Yuteng and Yunnan Zhenxing planned for equipment maintenance during the holiday, which will also weigh on overall output in January.


China’s production of refined tin rebounded 34.6% from a month ago to 10,123 mt in December, as Yunnan Tin, the world’s largest producer of such material, resumed normal production since mid-December.

Some other smelters in Yunnan cut output slightly in December due to tight supply of tin concentrate and pre-holiday suspension. Tin production in Jiangxi province remained at normal levels.

SMM expects China’s refined tin output to stabilise at around 10,000 mt in January as most smelters will maintain regular operation during the Chinese New Year holiday, with only some producers closed for the holiday.


Production data
Nickel pig iron
Nickel sulphate

For queries, please contact Michael Jiang at michaeljiang@smm.cn

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