China January-February copper imports rise on restocking; virus sinks aluminum exports

BEIJING (Reuters) - China’s unwrought copper imports rose 7.2% year-on-year in the first two months of 2020, customs data showed on Saturday, as a restocking drive before Lunar New Year offset the impact of the coronavirus, which nonetheless sent aluminum exports plunging.

The General Administration of Customs said last month it would combine preliminary trade data for January and February instead of releasing data for individual months. Early-year data in China is typically distorted by the week-long Lunar New Year holiday, while this year the coronavirus epidemic has also widely disrupted business.

Imports of unwrought copper, including anode, refined and semi-finished copper products into China, the world’s biggest copper consumer, came in at 846,107 tonnes in January-February, up from 789,358 tonnes in the year-earlier period. The previous period had one less day due to 2020 being a leap year.

December imports had been 527,000 tonnes, the highest monthly total since March 2016.

The rise in imports came even as factories and construction work ground to a halt from late January as China sought to stop the spread of the virus that has now killed more than 3,000 in the country. China’s manufacturing sector contracted at the fastest pace ever last month.

As a result of this slack demand, copper inventories in Shanghai Futures Exchange-registered have risen to a four-year high and bonded warehouses have also risen sharply this year.

Imports of copper concentrate, or partially processed copper ore, fell 1.2% year-on-year to 3.77 million tonnes in January and February combined, underscoring smelters’ reduced need for raw material as they cut back production amid the conronavirus outbreak.

Meanwhile, exports of unwrought aluminum - including primary metal, alloy and semi-finished products - crashed by 25.3% year-on-year to 669,208 tonnes in the first two months of this year, the data showed.

As with copper, China’s aluminum processing plants have been slow to return to work after the extended Lunar New Year break due to staff having to self-isolate in an attempt to stop the spread of the virus, resulting in less product to export from the world’s top producer of the metal.

Reporting by Tom Daly; Editing by Tom Hogue & Shri Navaratnam