Red-hot white-goods demand stokes China manufacturing, metals use

(Reuters) - Booming sales of fridges, toasters and microwaves to households across the locked-down world have helped propel China’s mammoth manufacturing engine back to life, super-charging demand for key metals like steel, copper and aluminium.

FILE PHOTO: A worker is seen during a government-organized tour of the Mengniu Dairy factory in Beijing, China, February 27, 2020. REUTERS/Thomas Peter/File Photo

This jump in COVID-19 demand, along with rebounding production of cars, trucks and other products, has revived manufacturing in the world’s second-biggest economy, sharply boosting metals consumption in the top steel, copper and aluminium market.

The manufacturing rebound marks a turnaround from the first half of the year, when the response to the pandemic that emerged in central China was a stimulative building and infrastructure boom that propelled construction-grade steel to a rare price premium over costlier manufacturing products. (Graphic: China steel rebar prices vs Hot-rolled coils prices, )

With the global shift to the needs of people hunkering down and upgrading kitchen equipment, China, accounting for 60% of global white goods output and 30% of exports, has seen shipments of small appliances surge this year.

China’s factory activity jumped the fastest in nearly a decade In October, according to a private business survey, with nearly one-third of surveyed companies expecting further improvement in 2021.

The official manufacturing Purchasing Manager’s Index rose to a three-year high 52.1 in November from 51.4 in October, data from the National Bureau of Statistics showed on Monday.

“The manufacturing sector is having a cyclical recovery, which could last one to two years,” said analyst Tang Chuanlin at CITIC Securities, noting that some major Chinese steel mills have full order books from white-goods makers until May.


Both domestic production and exports of home appliances are running ahead of year-ago levels, and have jumped since the third quarter on widespread restocking in major global markets like the United States and Europe. (Graphic: China's monthly output of home appliances, )

Since China ended its lockdown in May, China’s output of fridges jumped by 25% from the same period last year and freezer output soared nearly 80%, according to National Bureau of Statistics data. Washing machine, TV and vehicle output also increased.

Exports have leaped since June, with shipments of refrigerators up 40.5% and microwaves 22.1% from a year earlier, according to the General Administration of Customs. (Graphic: China home appliances exports, )

Sales of all home appliances on a cross-border business-to-business marketplace under Alibaba Group tripled in the third quarter from a year earlier, led by air purifiers, freezers and cookers, a spokeswoman told Reuters.

There has also been a surge in demand for steel-heavy containers for shipping appliances, with the order books for top container producer China International Marine Containers Group Co full through the first quarter of 2021.

“Manufacturing is in a stable recovery from the sluggishness earlier this year,” said Zhilu Wang, research associate at Wood Mackenzie, who expects steel demand from manufacturers to rise 3% in 2021.

(Graphic: China's container output & freight index, )


Rebounding automobile purchases have been another metal-demand driver.

Vehicle sales in China have jumped for seven straight months to October amid a broader economic recovery and as more customers opt for luxury upgrades rather than splashing out on expensive European holidays. (Graphic: China's monthly vehicles output, )

The Ministry of Industry and Information Technology said China’s vehicle sales could return to annual growth for the first time since 2018 next year, further boosting sentiment in upstream supply chains.

Truck sales in the first 10 months of 2020 rocketed almost five-fold from a year earlier, as logistics firms scrambled to keep up with the pandemic’s booming e-commerce demand and goods deliveries.


China’s output of crude steel and primary aluminium struck daily record highs in September, with daily refined copper production matching its pre-pandemic peak, as metal makers rushed to meet the robust demand from manufacturers.

The near-term outlook for both base metals is positive despite high production, with low inventories driving copper prices to a more than seven-year high above $7,500 a tonne on Friday and Shanghai aluminium prices hitting their highest in more than three years.

China’s plans for 5G networks, ultra-high-voltage power transmission, urban infrastructure and big-data centres are “good news” for aluminium, ANZ said in a note. The bank also expects U.S. President-elect Joe Biden’s $2 trillion plan to tackle climate change to lift demand for copper.

The juiced-up factory orders also reversed the steel product price trend seen through the first half of 2020, with manufacturing-grade coils now trading at a premium to construction-grade rebar. (Graphic: Prices of key manufacturing ingredients in China, )

Reporting by Min Zhang and Tom Daly, additional reporting by Sophie Yu and Yilei Sun; Editing by Shivani Singh, Gavin Maguire and William Mallard