June 13, 2013 / 5:45 AM / 4 years ago

COLUMN-Market appears too relaxed about China copper outlook: Clyde Russell

5 Min Read

By Clyde Russell

LAUNCESTON, Australia, June 13 (Reuters) - The market may be too sanguine about the outlook for copper prices, as import demand in top consumer China shows signs of increasing just as an anticipated global supply surplus is looking vulnerable.

Shanghai copper fell on Thursday when trading resumed after a three-day holiday, with the most active October contract dropping by as much as 3 percent to 51,350 yuan ($8,354) a tonne in early trade.

While the decline was largely a catch-up to weakness in London earlier this week, it's indicative that traders aren't overly concerned about the supply outlook.

The Shanghai slump came a day after Freeport-McMoRan Copper & Gold Inc declared force majeure on deliveries from its Grasberg operation in Indonesia, the world's second-largest copper mine.

The legal clause allowing the company to miss contracted shipments comes after the mine was shut indefinitely after two accidents in May claimed the lives of 29 workers.

Indonesian authorities want the mine closed until investigations into the incidents are completed, a process that may take several months.

So far about 36,000 tonnes of copper output at Grasberg has been lost. For every month mining remains suspended about 42,000 tonnes will be added to the current figure.

The Grasberg shutdown follows the disruption to output at Rio Tinto's Bingham Canyon mine in the U.S. state of Utah after a landslide.

A third factor for refined copper supply is the loss of output from Chinese scrap processors, who are battling supply shortages, leading to the shutting of some processors.

As much as 600,000 tonnes of copper may be lost from the market this year because of these and other disruptions, Morgan Stanley analysts estimated in a June 10 note.

While this doesn't completely erase Morgan Stanley's forecast global copper surplus of 930,000 tonnes for 2013, it goes a long way toward making the market tighter than most had anticipated at the start of the year.

The threat to copper supply should be enough reason not to get too bearish on prices over the next few months, but other factors also suggest the market may be tightening faster than anticipated.

Inventories in Chinese bonded warehouses are reported to have fallen quite dramatically since April, down about 250,000 tonnes to around 450,000-500,000 tonnes.

At the same time, stocks in warehouses monitored by the Shanghai Futures Exchange have also been declining, from 247,591 tonnes at the end of March to 181,742 tonnes as of June 7.

While these are still comfortable inventory levels, the trend has been clear insofar as China's mountain of copper stocks is eroding rather quickly.

What this points to is a likely uptick in Chinese imports of copper in coming months, especially with benchmark London copper prices still soft.

London three-month copper, at $7,165 a tonne in Asian trade on Thursday, is 14 percent below its 2013 peak of $8,346 reached on Feb. 4.

China brought in 358,672 tonnes of unwrought copper in May, up 21.3 percent on the prior month. However, year-to-date imports are still almost 25 percent lower than for the same period in 2012.

Another factor worth noting is the decline in treatment and refining charges, with BHP Billiton agreeing a rise of about 3 percent in the fees it will pay Japanese smelters to process copper concentrate in the second half.

The miner has agreed terms with Japan smelters at $72 a tonne, and 7.2 cents a pound, up from the January benchmark of $70 a tonne and 7 cents a pound, two sources told Reuters .

However, the charges are lower than the $75 per tonne and 7.5 cents per pound that prevailed in April, indicating the tighter supply is strengthening the hand of miners in negotiating with smelters.

Taken together, the supply disruptions, rising Chinese imports amid falling inventories and lower treatment and refining charges suggest that copper prices should be biased higher over the next few months.

But for the moment it appears global markets are more focused on the possible withdrawal of quantitative easing in the United States and the less-than-stellar economic growth in China.

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