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China’s Copper : Domestic Boom Creates Global Market Mystery

Domestic Boom Creates Global Market Mystery

by Victor Adetimilehin

The global copper market is in a state of flux. Prices are skyrocketing due to a perceived shortage, with a recent surge pushing them to record highs. This has sparked a frantic scramble for the essential metal, even fueling a $49 billion takeover battle. However, in China, the world’s leading producer and consumer of refined copper, a different story is unfolding. Here, smelters are humming with activity, churning out copper near record levels despite a global scarcity of raw materials.

This apparent contradiction lies in China’s unique approach to copper production. While the rest of the world grapples with limited supplies, China’s domestic strategy is defying expectations. At the heart of this strategy lies a surge in readily available scrap metal. Driven by the high copper prices, a significant increase in discarded pots, pipes, and wires are being recycled and feeding the ever-expanding Chinese smelter industry.

This unexpected development throws a wrench into the global copper market. Initially, Chinese smelters faced a different reality. A decline in imported copper ore, the traditional feedstock, squeezed their profits and forced them to consider production cuts. However, these cuts never materialized. Further complicating the picture, China’s own economic slowdown has dampened demand for domestically produced copper.

The result is a growing surplus of copper within China’s borders. This imbalance is starting to show in the price trends. The record highs have receded in recent days, with copper currently hovering around $10,300 per ton. This suggests that as long as China remains awash in copper, a further price increase is unlikely.

Scrap Metal to the Rescue

Analysts point to the significant rise in scrap metal as a game-changer for China’s copper production. The allure of high prices has incentivized the recycling of discarded copper, providing a readily available domestic source. This scrap metal is then converted into blister copper, a semi-processed form, and fed back into smelters as a substitute for the limited imported ore.

The abundance of scrap metal is further underscored by the significant price discount it commands compared to refined copper. Last week, the gap reached a staggering 4,615 yuan ($637) per ton, the widest in at least eight years. This substantial discount highlights the vast quantities of scrap currently feeding China’s smelters.

Another key factor in this situation is the behavior of China’s smelter industry. Driven by the profit motive, individual smelters prioritize maintaining market share over reducing their margins. This strategy keeps them operating at near capacity, even in the face of a global shortage. Local governments further incentivize this behavior, as continued production helps them achieve economic growth targets and maintain employment levels.

However, this prioritization of production over market realities creates a complex scenario for the global copper market. While China remains largely self-sufficient thanks to its domestic copper boom, the rest of the world continues to face a genuine shortage. This situation raises questions about the long-term sustainability of China’s approach and its potential impact on the global copper market. Will China eventually face a depletion of its scrap metal reserves? How will the global market adjust to China’s unique position? These are just some of the questions that remain unanswered as the copper market navigates this unusual situation.

Source: Mining.com


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