SHANGHAI (Reuters) - China’s crude steel output and refinery throughput rose in September, with higher fixed asset investments and industrial output signaling that appetite for bulk commodities and energy in the world’s leading buyer is on the mend.
Although annual growth of 7.4 percent in the July-September quarter represented a seventh straight slowing in the world’s second-largest economy, analysts said a modest recovery in the last quarter was in sight and China’s appetite for raw materials would keep growing, though at a slower pace.
Average daily steel output in China, the world’s top producer of the metal, rose 2 percent to 1.932 million tonnes in September from year ago, while refinery throughput was up a solid 7 percent to a record daily rate of 9.43 million barrels per day (bpd), data from the National Bureau of Statistics showed on Thursday.
Implied oil demand also rallied 8.3 percent to hit a record high in September as refiners ramped up production ahead of the peak consumption period in October.
“The steel data, along with the broader economic figures, show China’s economy is bottoming out. Its demand for commodities should pick up from here ... as the government’s recent stimulus filters down to the economy,” said Helen Lau, a senior analyst at UOB-Kay Hian.
“But the recovery will be gentle and gradual. There are still a lot of external risks and we need to keep a close watch on the exports and manufacturing sector.”
To preserve jobs and market share, many state-linked Chinese steelmakers have, in the past, ramped up production despite anemic demand, a move that typically swelled inventories.
But falling stockpiles, with total stocks of steel down about 8 percent from mid-September to 13.1 million tonnes by month-end, show the production uptick was indeed met with better demand.
A sustained recovery in domestic prices of steel rebar, which has rallied 12 percent from a record low in early September, along with declining stocks and rising prices of cement, add to evidence that the government’s infrastructure investment has gathered momentum.
Steelmakers would continue to raise output in October, to between 1.95 million and 2 million tonnes per day, Henry Liu, head of commodity research at Mirae Asset Securities in Hong Kong, said.
“There’s still demand out there, but it’s not exciting so we won’t see the run rate exceeding this year’s high,” he added.
The recovery bodes well for iron ore miners, including Brazil’s Vale SA, Australia’s Rio Tinto and BHP Billiton, whose share prices have dropped sharply on the back of falls in commodities.
A sharp rise in railway fixed asset investment (FAI) growth, which jumped to 79.6 percent in Jan-Sept from a decline of 24 percent in the first eight months, has helped offset slowing investments in real estate and manufacturing, analysts said.
While slackening growth in manufacturing will be a drag on commodities consumption, Beijing’s recent approval of $157-billion worth of infrastructure projects, most of them urban rail projects, should help put a floor under demand.
“We see an improvement in demand for raw materials due to inventory restocking and stronger capex growth in infrastructure,” Jun Ma, chief economist at Deutsche Bank, told clients in a note that gave an outlook for the next few months.
China’s iron ore imports jumped to a 20-month high of 65 million tonnes in September, while copper shipments rebounded by 9 percent from a month ago to around 400,000 tonnes even as annual growth struck a 13 month low.
The full suite of commodities production data, including base metals and crude oil, will be released on October 22.
The jump in China’s refinery throughput was bolstered by a hike in state-controlled fuel prices, analysts said, with many independent plants ramping up production to meet a demand spike in October, when millions of people travel during a week-long national holiday.
“The main driver of crude runs in September was teapot refineries because refining margins improved a lot after the government raised fuel prices twice,” said Dai Jiaquan, an oil market researcher with CNPC, the parent of PetroChina.
He was referring to the small refineries independent of state-owned refiners that make up about a fifth of China’s total capacity.
Additional reporting by China C&E team;Editing by Clarence Fernandez