COLUMN-China commodities imports more robust than holiday stocking :Clyde Russell
--Clyde Russell is a Reuters market analyst. The views expressed are his own.--
By Clyde Russell
LAUNCESTON, Australia, Feb 8 (Reuters) - If you were looking to Chinese trade data to confirm that the economic rebound in the world's largest consumer commodity user is on track, then you have your answer: Yes, it is.
However, there are always caveats around trade numbers in the first two months of the year, namely the impact of the Lunar New Year holidays, which can either pull forward or delay imports, depending on its timing.
Given that the Year of the Snake starts next week, the chances are that some of the strength in January's commodity imports was the result of stocking up ahead of the holiday.
Once February numbers are available, a clearer picture will emerge, but the resilience of the January data was such that it is highly unlikely the new year effect was the defining influence.
Crude oil imports jumped 6.3 percent from December to reach 25.15 million tonnes, the second-highest monthly volume, and at 5.92 million barrels per day (bpd), they were the third-highest on a daily basis.
Iron ore imports fell 7.6 percent from December's record to 65.54 million tonnes, but this apparent weakness is misleading.
January's iron ore imports were the third-highest on record, after December and November last year, meaning the past three months have seen a significant gain in purchases of the steel-making ingredient.
Even copper, which has been a laggard in recent months, showed some signs of life in January, with unwrought imports rising 2.9 percent to 350,958 tonnes.
Taken together the commodity imports show that the economy is regaining momentum after the induced easing in the middle of last year raised fears that a deeper slowdown was imminent.
The gain in crude oil imports looks the most impressive, but in some ways is the least surprising, given that China has been starting new refining capacity in recent months, with about 540,000 bpd coming on line in the last quarter of 2012.
Crude imports averaged 5.4 million bpd last year, so January's 5.92 million bpd represents a 520,000 bpd increase, or roughly the same as the increase in capacity.
It's not that simple, of course, as Chinese refiners tend to run units at rates well below nameplate output, but the January numbers do support the view that crude demand has shifted structurally higher.
While net fuel imports have also been trending lower in recent months, it still appears that the increased refinery output is largely being used domestically, rather than being shipped overseas.
Unless large volumes are being stored, this is further support of an increase in actual consumption, a positive indicator for economic growth.
Turning to iron ore, while the record December imports were put down to traders and steel mills buying to take advantage of the earlier price collapse, the same can't be said of January's number.
By the time January cargoes were being booked in November, spot iron ore prices <.IO62-CNI=SI> were well on the way back up after falling to a three-year low in September last year.
The trough-to-peak rally that lasted until January saw iron ore prices rise by more than 80 percent, but this doesn't seem to have deterred Chinese buyers.
Again, the note of caution is that February data will have to be seen and averaged with January's in order to get a picture unaffected by the lunar new year.
The same holiday impact may have boosted copper imports in January, but given that China is supposed to be awash in inventories of the industrial metal, any gain in imports is a possible sign that actual demand is picking up.
This is supported by the overall trade data, which saw exports rise an annual 25 percent, beating the consensus 17 percent, while imports jumped 28.8 percent, ahead of the consensus 23.3 percent.
(Editing by Clarence Fernandez)