Those extra purchases beyond China’s daily needs have helped reverse the price collapse in commodities that followed the economic downturn, but could also limit the scale of the rebound.
Moody’s Investors Service announced on Wednesday that it was putting a negative outlook on the base metals, mining and steel industries in Asia and the Pacific, having previously done so for these sectors elsewhere.
“China’s strategic stockpiling and replacement of lower-quality domestic production with higher-quality imports have supported the recent rally in prices for many base metals, but we will not see a sustainable turnaround in demand until the major economies of the U.S., Europe, and Japan recover,” said Terry Fanous, a senior vice president in Sydney for Moody’s, adding that the leading economies were not likely to recover until next year.
In the latest sign of weak overseas demand, the Chinese government announced on Thursday morning that the country’s exports fell 26.4 percent in May from a year earlier. Imports were down 25.2 percent from a fairly weak level a year ago, as China’s overall trade surplus continued to narrow, to $13.39 billion.
The Standard & Poor’s GSCI, an index of global commodity prices, has risen 42 percent from its low on Feb. 18, but is still less than half its record, set on July 3.
One of the best leading indicators of international trade in commodities is the Baltic Exchange Dry Index, which measures the daily cost of chartering a large freighter. While the GSCI has continued to rise in the last week, the freight index has fallen by a fifth in that period.
Richard S. Elman, the chief executive of the Noble Group, Asia’s largest diversified commodities trading company, bounced up from the conference table in his office here when asked about freight rates during an interview on Tuesday morning. He walked over to his desk, dominated by three computer screens that partly obscure a perfect view of Hong Kong’s harbor, and quickly punched up on one screen a list of daily charter rates for large bulk carrier freighters.
The list showed ship owners charging $58,000 a day now but just $24,000 a day for charters next year or in 2011 — an indication that there will be more ships than cargoes in the years ahead, particularly with shipyards still finishing vessels ordered during the recent boom.
Pointing to the rates for the next two years, he said, “That’s the real market” for ships.
From an immense new sugar mill in Brazil to an extensive coking coal operation in Australia, Noble is active in commodities around the globe, and its stock has nearly quadrupled since its low on Oct. 24. Mr. Elman voiced optimism about the future of the Chinese economy and of worldwide demand for commodities, but cautioned that for some commodities, “the futures prices have gone ahead” of the prices for physical delivery.
According to J.P. Morgan, China’s iron ore imports were 33 percent higher in April than a year earlier. Crude oil imports were up nearly 14 percent, aluminum oxide imports climbed 16 percent and refined copper imports jumped 148 percent.
Imports of coal soared 168 percent as Chinese utilities bought more foreign coal while trying to negotiate better prices with domestic producers.