UPDATE 4-Chinese bond default shakes global copper market

Wed Mar 12, 2014 5:02am EDT

* Financing demand for copper ebbs on credit fears

* Up to 80 pct of copper imports could be for financing demand

* Oil, equities unscathed by bond default

By Melanie Burton and Susan Thomas

SYDNEY/LONDON, March 11 (Reuters) - China's first domestic bond default has shaken the foundations of the copper market, stoking investor worries that financing deals that have locked up vast quantities of copper could unravel.

This anxiety has led to three days of heavy selling in copper, while having little noticeable effect on other global financial markets.

The Shanghai Futures Exchange's most-traded copper contract reached its lowest level in more than four years on Tuesday, and the London copper benchmark fell to its lowest in more than three years later in the day.

"A lot of that is linked to the financing deals and you start to wonder are they at risk, and I think that is what the market is indeed worried about, and that's why copper has taken the brunt," BNP Paribas analyst Stephen Briggs said.

The default on a bond payment by China's Chaori Solar last week signalled a reassessment of credit risk in a market where even high-yielding debt had been seen as carrying an implicit state guarantee.

On Tuesday, solar panel maker and power company Baoding Tianwei Baobian Electric Co Ltd announced a second straight year of net losses, leading to a suspension of its stock and bonds on the Shanghai Stock Exchange and stoking fears that it, too, may default.

The metals markets saw the default as a sign of tighter credit to come for users of metals and for financiers that have used the metal as collateral for borrowing, analysts said.

If their loans are not renewed and financing deals start to unravel, the investors could unload their metal supplies on to the market.

Similar financing deals are in place using metals such as zinc and iron ore, but copper has been the preferred choice for the Chinese trade and finance community.

"If there are worries in a general sense about financial conditions in China, copper is perhaps more exposed to that than other metals, because we've seen a substantial rise in inventories in China this year," Briggs said.

At least one U.S. scrap copper trader has suffered "large" losses after the Chinese default, one of the first signs that sinking prices and tightening credit are taking a toll on the physical market.

Some analysts and traders estimated that 60 to 80 percent of China's copper imports in recent years may have been used as collateral, although none of them could give a definitive figure for how much copper is now tied up in deals.

The mainland's imports of copper products hit a record 536,000 tonnes in January, up 53 percent year on year, customs data showed. The inflow slowed in February to 379,000 tonnes but was still higher than in February 2013.

NO REAL DEMAND

Copper stocks in warehouses monitored by the Shanghai Futures Exchange are bulging, up 65 percent since early January to around 200,000 tonnes .

Another 745,000 tonnes of the metal is held in bonded warehouses, minerals consultancy CRU estimated. No official figures are available.

"Given rising inventories, a negative arbitrage and a seemingly soft post-Lunar New Year increase in activity, we doubt that real demand lies behind the strong copper numbers," Credit Suisse said in a research note.

Benchmark Shanghai and London Metal Exchange copper prices have been falling steadily this year mostly because of tepid economic growth in China, which accounts for more than 40 percent of global demand for the metal.

But after the sharp price drops in recent days following the bond default, would-be importers in China are finding it tough to get credit.

"Right now it is very difficult for clients to issue an LC (letter of credit) to import copper because the bank loan is very tight. Also if you import the copper in China, you will lose a lot of money," one trader in Singapore said.

A lot of the money raised in the financing deals has been invested in China's real estate market.

But the falling yuan and China's cooling property prices have already started to eat into profits of some financing deals, analysts said. The yuan fell by 1.42 percent from mid-February to March 5, when it hit its lowest in more than six months. It has since pared some of the losses.

Some economists say that by letting interest rates fall and simultaneously forcing the yuan down, Beijing is conducting a short-term attack on speculators, who have been pouring money into China to cash in on a rising yuan and high yields on debt.

"People appear to be worried that China is getting real about credit and that in such an environment, industrial demand growth for copper will be less," said an analyst at a global commodity trading house who declined to be named.

"With slower demand growth and possible liquidation of surplus metal units from financial arrangements, people are worried about the short-term demand outlook for copper."