Malaysia was the largest supplier of alloy to China in 2021


LONDON: China imported a file quantity of major and alloy aluminium in 2021, the world’s largest producer tapping the worldwide marketplace for the second consecutive yr.

Imports of refined nickel doubled year-on-year and the nation continued to step up purchases of a widening vary of nickel uncooked supplies.

Refined copper imports dropped from the earlier yr’s file highs however remained sturdy with flows of “scrap” accelerating after a leisure of purity thresholds.

But 2021 was a yr of two-way circulation in China’s commerce with the international metals market.

Exports of each refined lead and tin surged to multi-year highs as provide shortfall in Western markets pressured open the arbitrage window between Shanghai and London costs.

Such divergence in China’s refined steel commerce patterns is very uncommon however displays the equally uncommon mixture of pandemic restoration and supply-side constraints.

Here are some key take-aways.


China’s web imports of unwrought major aluminium reached 1.57 million tonnes and people of unwrought alloy 1.00 million tonnes final yr.

Volumes have been up by 24% on 2020 and eclipsed the 1.43 million tonnes imported in 2009, the solely historic precedent for the world’s largest producer needing extra aluminium in such portions.

That, nonetheless, was a worldwide monetary disaster one-off. Two consecutive years of excessive imports communicate to the structural provide pressures in the home market attributable to power-related manufacturing curtailments

Indian steel accounted for 54%, or 855,000 tonnes, of final yr’s major imports. Malaysia was the largest supplier of alloy, transport 321,000 tonnes. The nation has change into a significant recycling and processing hub, a shift in international “scrap” flows that has generated a step-change in China’s imports of alloy.

China is sucking in extra major aluminium however it is usually exporting extra semi-manufactured merchandise. Shipments have been up by 18% final yr with December’s exports of 553,000 tonnes an all-time month-to-month file.

The unfold of energy curtailments to Western smelters and the ensuing tightening in availability might properly intensify this commerce anomaly.


China’s import dependency has outlined the copper market this century and final yr was no exception.

Refined copper imports fell by 25% to 3.3 million tonnes relative to 2020 however the earlier yr had shattered the file books. Last yr’s tally was really up marginally on 2019.

The decline in refined steel imports should even be seen in the context of “scrap” imports.

These slumped from over three million tonnes in 2017 to simply 944,000 tonnes in 2020 as China tightened purity guidelines. A final-minute coverage change has reopened the door to higher-grade recyclable materials and imports jumped 80% to 1.7 million tonnes in 2021.

Just as a shortfall of secondary copper meant extra urge for food for refined steel in 2020, final yr’s import wave of recyclables would have dampened that demand.


China’s imports of refined nickel doubled to 261,000 tonnes with a marked acceleration over the second half of final yr.

Tightness in the battery-grade nickel provide chain is driving the surge in imports of so-called Class I steel, which in flip is feeding by to low shares and flaring time-spreads on the London Metal Exchange (LME).

The strengthening demand pull from the electrical automobile sector can also be evident from fast-growing imports of nickel sulphate, a chemical precursor for battery manufacture. Volumes mushroomed from 5,600 tonnes in 2020 to 44,700 in 2021.

China additionally imported extra ore, matte, intermediate product and extra ferronickel final yr, testifying to its large urge for food for nickel at each stage of the course of chain.


China’s web imports of refined zinc slid by 16% to 429,000 tonnes final yr, the lowest annual tally since 2016.

This multi-year development has mirrored the build-out of home smelter capability – manufacturing hit a contemporary file excessive of 6.56 million tonnes in 2021 – however it appreciably accelerated in the fourth quarter of final yr.

December’s imports of 10,334 tonnes have been the lowest month-to-month whole since 2008 and mirror shifting bodily market dynamics. The London-Shanghai arbitrage is shifting in favour of exports as smelter closures in Europe open up supply-chain gaps and ship premiums hovering.

There isn’t any signal but of the export gates opening however that will change. There is a precedent in lead, zinc’s sister steel.


China exported 95,000 tonnes of refined lead final yr, the highest annual whole since 2007, which was the yr when Beijing imposed an export tax on refined lead, since then outbound flows have been understandably muted.

That all modified in 2021, nonetheless, as China shipped surplus to a deficit Western market characterised by traditionally excessive bodily premiums and excessive time-spread tightness on the LME.

Export volumes grew over the second half of the yr with shipments heading as far afield as the United States (37,000 tonnes in October and November) and the Netherlands (11,000 tonnes in November).

There is the potential for extra export flows, given continued low LME shares and protracted excessive bodily premiums.


The Western tin market was even tighter than lead final yr with super-high LME money costs and bodily premiums.

China got here to the rescue of beleaguered consumers all over the place else. Exports of 14,320 tonnes have been additionally the highest since 2007, some of them even making their manner to Europe, which attests to the scale and extent of the squeeze on bodily availability.

China had been a major importer in 2020 to the tune of 13,200 tonnes, which made final yr’s flip to web exporter all the extra dramatic.

More flip-flop is feasible with imports rising once more over the fourth quarter of 2021. Both China and the relaxation of the world appear to be struggling to safe sufficient of the soldering steel, China’s commerce patterns fluctuating in accordance to who wants tin most at anyone time.- Reuters

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