(Recasts, adds comment, background)
* Commodities whose inventories are low to benefit from 2013
* Base metals import recovery to lag other commodities
* China Dec iron ore imports top 70 mln T, up 7.8 pct on mth
* Dec oil imports up 8 pct to 5.57 mln bpd, up 7 pct in 2012
* Soy imports up 11.2 pct on yr, Dec at 2nd highest ever
By Fayen Wong and Ruby Lian
SHANGHAI, Jan 10 China's imports of iron ore
roared to a record high in December and for the full year, while
crude imports also climbed, boosting hopes that a recovering
economy in the world's top commodities consumer will lift its
appetite for imports.
Robust Chinese trade data, which saw December exports
trumping expectations to rise 14.1 percent to a seven-month
peak, also gave further evidence that a demand recovery was well
under way in the world's second-largest economy.
"For energy, agriculture and some bulk commodities, we saw
an increase in December imports that is led by an underlying
demand recovery," said Sijin Cheng, an analyst at Barclays
"We see December's numbers as setting the tone for 2013 and
that is one of a steady recovery in demand."
China's economic outlook has improved markedly since the
government announced a slew of approvals for railway
investments, highway projects and other infrastructure projects
in September worth an estimated $160 billion.
Industry participants also hope Beijing will roll out more
details of its new urbanisation plan when the new government
takes over in March.
Hopes of a demand revival, along with falling inventories of
steel and iron ore, have sent mills scrambling for the raw
Iron ore imports by China, the world's top steel producer,
surged to 70.94 million tonnes in December, up 7.8 percent from
the previous month, official customs data showed.
Total iron ore imports for 2012 hit a record of 743.6
million tonnes, rising 8.4 percent from a year earlier.
The jump in Chinese demand has helped drive up iron ore
prices by a quarter in December alone, with spot prices
.IO62-CNI=SI touching a 15-month high of near $160 a tonne
this week. Prices have also spiked 80 percent since September,
when ore prices hit a three-year low.
"The fall in iron ore prices during the third quarter
certainly resulted in a return of the Chinese buyers to the
market. I think it's very opportunistic in terms of the price
action, and also partly reflects greater confidence in the
Chinese economy, given improving data," said Nick Trevethan,
senior commodity strategist at Australia and New Zealand Bank.
"We might see some strength continuing into January as well,
but not at the same tempo as in December."
By the end of December inventories of iron ore at ports had
fallen to about 73 million tonnes, the lowest level since Jan
2011, versus about 90 million tonnes for most of 2012, data from
industry website Mysteel showed.
Separately, China imported a record 58.38 million tonnes of
soybeans in 2012, up 11.2 percent from the previous year, as
growing demand for livestock products supported imports into the
world's largest buyer of the oilseed.
Imports in December were 5.89 million tonnes, the
second-highest monthly total after June 2010, as crushers
stepped up imports ahead of the Lunar New Year holiday in
February, figures from the General Administration of Customs
CRUDE OIL, BASE METALS
China imported 5.57 million barrels per day of crude oil in
December, up 8.0 percent from a year earlier, as new refining
capacity came on stream over the final quarter of 2012.
China, the world's largest crude oil buyer after the United
States, imported 23.67 million tonnes of crude oil last month,
up 1.3 percent from November. However, the figure slipped 2.1
percent on a daily basis, affected by seasonal destocking.
For the whole of 2012, imports rose 6.8 percent from 2011 to
271.02 million tonnes, or 5.42 million bpd. In 2011, imports
grew 6.05 percent.
Still, the positive trade numbers were marred by a monthly
fall of 6.6 percent in imports of copper, as sluggish demand
from end-users and swollen port inventories kept buyers at bay.
China, the world's top copper consumer, received imports of
341,211 tonnes of anode, refined metal, alloy and semi-finished
copper products in December, the second-lowest monthly inflows
of 2012 and down from 365,331 tonnes in the previous month.
However, full-year copper imports rose to 4.65 million
tonnes, reversing a decline of 5.1 percent in 2011, when 4.07
million tonnes were imported.
"A fall in December copper imports was expected, given that
Chinese firms tried to hold 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.
While China's consumption of physical copper was gradually
recovering, analysts said import demand would only come when
there was a significant fall in bonded warehouse stocks, which
surged in December to a near record high of more than 1 million
(Reporting by Fayen Wong; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)