* Collahuasi force majeure underlines tight copper supply
* Chinese import data points to robust demand in 2011
* Copper ETP sees 850-tonne increase (Recasts, changes dateline to NEW YORK, adds analyst comments)
NEW YORK, Dec 21 (Reuters) - Copper prices charged to an all-time high on Tuesday as shipment delays in top producer Chile and robust demand prospects in China further felled demand from investors, who have started buying into a new exchange fund.
Slow production growth after the recession and unrelenting consumption from emerging markets has made copper one of the best-performing industrial commodities of the second half of the year, boosting it by nearly 45 percent as exchange stockpiles fell by a third from their February peaks.
Threats to the metal's already tight supply chain escalated Monday when the world's No. 3 copper mine, Chile's Collahuasi, halted shipments of copper concentrate. On Tuesday the mine's operators were still scrambling to find alternative export routes after declaring force majeure. [ID:nN21235654]
And China's imports of refined copper rose nearly 37 percent in November from a year earlier, reversing a nearly 30 percent fall in October and showing no let-up in demand from the world's top consumer. [ID:nTOE6BJ06G]
"It's a tight market ... It's probably the tightest metals market out there from a supply-demand balance," said Evan Smith, co-manager of the U.S. Global Investors Global Resources Fund, with about $850 million in assets under management.
On the London Metal Exchange, benchmark copper for three-month deliverysoared $191 to a record $9,392 a tonne. It went untraded on the kerb, but was last bid at $9,365/9,370, up from Monday's close at $9,201.
On the New York Mercantile Exchange, COMEX copper for March deliveryclosed up 7.00 cents, or 1.7 percent, at $4.2760 per lb, near an earlier record at $4.2895 per lb.
Copper has risen 4 percent over the past three days, its biggest rally since Dec. 3, although trading volume has dimmed to around 40 percent below its 30-day average this week, according to Thomson Reuters preliminary data.
ETF BUILT, INVESTORS COME
The latest gains have been given extra kick by the advent of new exchange-traded funds that could open up the copper market -- now dominated by the London Metals Exchange -- to more retail and institutional investors who welcome the ease and simplicity of buying shares on an exchange.
The first of three new such funds, run by ETF Securities, registered a 850-tonne increase in the amount of copper backing its ETF, taking holdings to their highest level at 1,445.50 tonnes. That is a fraction of the 363,000 tonnes in LME stocks, but enough to encourage bigger players to pile into the market, anticipating more to follow. [ID:nN21439955]
"There has been CTA/fresh fund buying again in copper, but the market hasn't got much to sell," said one London metals trader.
Global Investors' Smith agreed, pin-pointing ETF investment demand as the driver for the next leg up in copper in 2011.
The gains came despite a mixed showing across the commodities markets on Thursday, as expectations of Federal Reserve stimulus aiding gains next year outweighed modest risk aversion tied to a warning over Portuguese debt.
Instead copper-specific fundamentals were deemed paramount, with Collahuasi in talks with officials of the nearby Patillos port to resume copper shipments from there. [ID:nN21251785]
Some traders played down the potential impact of the disruption, given good supplies of concentrate stocks, but it still boosted sentiment. [ID:nTOE6BK04P][ID:nN21235654]
"It's temporary, but it seems like many of these temporary disruptions are keeping a lid on supply while demand continues to rebound from the 2009 lows," Global Investors's Smith said.
Among other metals, aluminiumclosed up $57 at $2,435 a tonne, having hit its highest level in more than one month. LME stocks for the metal slipped 3,325 tonnes to 4.27 million tonnes.
Aluminium is the top base metal pick for the next six months, Castlestone Management said late on Monday, with prices likely to hit $2,500 a tonne next year as Chinese smelters cut output. [ID:nLDE6BJ1PP] Metal Prices at 2035 GMT COMEX copper in cents/lb, LME prices in $/T and SHFE prices in yuan/T Metal Last Change Pct Move End 2009 Ytd Pct move COMEX Cu 427.60 7.00 +1.66 334.65 27.78 LME Alum 2420.00 42.00 +1.77 2230.00 8.52 LME Cu 9250.00 49.00 +0.53 7375.00 25.42 LME Lead 2434.00 -6.00 -0.25 2432.00 0.08 LME Nickel 24600.00 50.00 +0.20 18525.00 32.79 LME Tin 26890.00 700.00 +2.67 16950.00 58.64 LME Zinc 2330.00 41.00 +1.79 2560.00 -8.98 SHFE Alu 16630.00 80.00 +0.48 17160.00 -3.09 SHFE Cu* 69250.00 610.00 +0.89 59900.00 15.61 SHFE Zin 18960.00 270.00 +1.44 21195.00 -10.54 ** Benchmark month for COMEX copper * 3rd contract month for SHFE AL, CU and ZN SHFE ZN began trading on 26/3/07 (Additional reporting by Michael Taylor, Melanie Burton and Silvia Antonioli; editing by Jonathan Leff and Walter Bagley)
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