May 21, 2013 / 9:36 AM / 5 years ago

METALS-Copper dips on China imports, Grasberg limits losses

* China April refined copper imports down 33 pct from year ago

* Freeport’s Grasberg mine could face long closure

* Traders await Thursday’s flash PMIs from U.S., Europe, China

By Maytaal Angel

LONDON, May 21 (Reuters) - Copper dipped on Tuesday after disappointing import numbers from top consumer China, but losses were capped by a protracted production outage in Indonesia.

Benchmark three-month copper on the London Metal Exchange closed at $7,375 a tonne from $7,399 at the close on Monday.

Copper has rebounded from 18-month lows hit earlier this month below $6,800 a tonne on growing confidence that the U.S. recovery is on track, but the metal is still down some 7 percent this year.

Data out earlier this session showed China’s April refined copper imports fell 33 percent from a year ago to hit 183,023 tonnes, while refined copper exports rose 6 percent to 29,072 tonnes.

Investors have been disappointed by recent data in China, and are nervous ahead of Thursday’s release of manufacturing data from China, the U.S. and the euro zone.

“Maybe we’ll get to $7,500 a tonne (in copper) but that will just prompt selling. China net imports were down again in April which doesn’t really show China has much appetite for copper,” Citi analyst David Wilson said.

On the production side, Freeport McMoRan Copper & Gold Inc’s Indonesian mine could face a prolonged closure and scrutiny over its underground mining plans after one of the country’s worst-ever mining disasters.

Freeport operates the world’s second-largest copper mine, Grasberg, in Indonesia.

“The incident’s impact on the supply chain and prices have both been limited so far, as the stockpiles in reserve could tide the company over,” Edward Meir at INTL FCStone said in a research note.

“But that could change if the closure drags on, or if labour strife follows, both of which are distinct possibilities at the moment.”

Global copper mine output is also on track to rise rapidly for a second successive year, despite the tunnel collapse at Grasberg and a recent landslide at Rio Tinto’s Bingham Canyon mine in the United States.

“Higher production should add to the growing stockpiles of copper and to the downward pressure on the price of the red metal, which we expect to fall from around $7,250 per tonne currently to below $6,000 in 2014,” Ross Strachan, commodities economist at Capital Economics, said in a note.

On the plus-side for copper, Yunnan Copper Industry Company , the fourth-largest producer in China, has shut a 100,000-tonne-a-year unit due to a shortage of raw material scrap, an executive said on Tuesday.

Nickel, the worst performer on the LME this year, closed at $15,075 per tonne from $15,115 at the close on Monday. Nickel is down some 12 percent this year.

In March, the global nickel market was in surplus by 9,800 tonnes, down from 10,200 tonnes in February, the International Nickel Study Group said.

Aluminium closed at $1,860 a tonne from $1,861 at the close on Monday, lead at $2,038 from $2,040, zinc at $1,851 from $1,853 and tin at $21,270 from $21,355.

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