Copper and iron ore eked out small price gains on Friday after customs data showed imports of raw materials by China improved during the first quarter.
In brisk trading New York Comex copper for delivery in May was exchanging hands for $3.07 a pound ($6,770 per tonne). Copper is down 7% year to date.
February customs data from China showed import volumes of unwrought copper bounced back sharply, totalling 436,000 tonnes in March. First quarter shipments came to 1.23m tonnes, up 7.3% compared to Q1 2017
Rising imports have coincided with a build-up of inventories however, with stockpiles on the Shanghai exchange nearly doubling since end-2017. Together with LME and CME inventories, copper in warehouses totalled 889,000 tonnes at the end of March – the highest since 2003.
Concentrate cargoes landing at Chinese ports also recovered, up more than 10% from February to total 1.6m tonnes in March. The total for the first three months puts China's copper concentrate imports on track to top the record levels of 2017 of 17.3m tonnes, boosted by a ban on most types of scrap imports which have fallen by 40%.
Iron ore imports stay on record-breaking pace
China's iron ore imports in March improved slightly in March from February thanks to the restart of steel mills that were idled during the winter months as part of a government drive against pollution.
Imports of high-grade iron ore fines and lump ore from Australia, Brazil and South Africa for the first quarter were flat at 271m tonnes. Total shipments for 2017 reached a new record of just over 1 billion tonnes.
The Steel Index benchmark price for Northern China 62% Fe ore was pegged at $63.25 a tonne on Friday, down more than 10% so far this year.
As with copper, the strong imports have caused growing stockpiles at Chinese ports which have remained near all-time highs. According to Custeel's survey of 42 ports in China, the total port inventory stood at 158.1m tonnes on Friday.
China consumes more than two-thirds of the seaborne iron ore market and produces as much steel as the rest of the world combined.