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Copper off two-month high as China headwinds offset monetary easing hopes

Copper prices on Tuesday retreated from a two-month high hit on Monday as concerns over China's uncertain economic outlook offset expectations of additional monetary stimulus.

Three-month copper on the London Metal Exchange was trading around $4,855 a metric ton on Tuesday in Asia, after hitting $4,960 a ton in the previous session, the highest since May 3 .

The red metal is seen as an economic bellwether because it's used in a wide range of products and industrial applications.

Copper has risen recently due to hopes of further easing by central banks to help avert an economic downturn but some observers said the uptrend was unlikely to be sustainable due to weak fundamentals.

In a note last week, Goldman Sachs analysts said strong credit growth and the lack of dollar upside in the first half of the year had fueled demand for metals.

Copper imports into China rose 22 percent between January and May from the same period from a month ago, Reuters reported last month.

"Most market participants expect strong infrastructure activity to continue through the course of the year given that the Chinese government has been increasingly reliant on this to support economic growth, but they also expect a gradual slowdown of property development owing to the high property inventory level in the lower-tier cities," said Goldman.

"Copper bearishness remains intact. Most market participants we met expect China's copper demand to be moderately higher this year as a result of an uptick in property construction and demand from solar PV cable (photovoltaic cable) producers, as many domestic PV projects rushed to be commissioned before the subsidy policy adjustment on June 30, 2016," they added.

China's copper imports have jumped this year but the increase may not be sustainable due to economic headwinds.
Johannes Eisele | AFP | Getty Images
China's copper imports have jumped this year but the increase may not be sustainable due to economic headwinds.

JP Morgan said copper is the "the most visibly oversupplied market under our coverage" as the house predicted weakness in the second half of the year.

BMI Research, a unit of the Fitch Group also forecast a slowdown in copper imports.

"China's strong year-to-date copper imports will prove unsustainable, as the country's demand growth fails to keep pace with output growth," noted BMI.

BMI said the imports are pushing up stockpiles and leading to copper refiners ramping up output, but China's macroeconomic fundamentals point to lackluster demand growth with January to May fixed asset investment - a proxy for construction activity growth - growing by its slowest rate in 16 years.

"We expect to see China slowing down copper imports and begin to push out more copper exports to deal with domestic oversupply over the coming months," added BMI.

Some still see a light at the end of the tunnel.

"Oversupply is there in all commodities, let's be clear," new chief executive of mining giant Rio Tinto, Jean-Sébastien Jacques told Financial Times.

"The first one that may come out of the oversupply is copper. If you look at the others — iron ore, coal and so on — there is a long way to go."

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