China ended 2009 with record monthly imports of crude oil and soybeans and a strong appetite for iron ore and copper, while its aluminum and steel sectors saw a welcome increase in export volumes.
Crude oil imports averaged more than 5 million barrels per day for a month for the first time in December, up by more than a fifth from November at 21.26 million tons, while the total for 2009 rose 13.9 percent to 203.4 million tons.
The return to double-digit annual growth followed a 9.6 percent rise in oil imports in 2008 when prices rose beyond $100 per barrel. In 2009, China's refineries racked up processing volumes to power a recovering economy, aided by a fuel pricing regime that largely guarantees a fixed margin.
But in a sign the volume of oil imports might not reflect real demand, the country, traditionally an importer of refined fuel, flipped to being a net seller as a 64 percent leap in exports outstripped a 39 percent rise in imports.
The glut of fuel could be set to increase -- trade sources have told Reuters that China has lined up more crude from Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Iraq this year, and a Reuters poll found refiners planned to start the new year with record crude runs to embrace market optimism.
The question mark over 'real' demand for oil in a year of stockpiling and rampant production in China, has made it harder for traders and the government to judge the level of real economic activity.
Copper, another material China traditionally is short of, flooded back in December after the window for arbitrage trade with London reopened. Imports of unwrought copper rose 27 percent from November to 369,368 tons, more than expected, while copper scrap imports jumped an even bigger 46 percent.
Soybean imports hit a record 4.78 million tons in the month, as expected after U.S. cargoes rushing to cash in on Chinese prices were delayed due to bad weather.
Traders say that party will come to an abrupt end because large imports expected this month will pressure domestic Chinese soymeal prices and hurt crushing margins for soy plants.
China's overall trade in December, according to figures published on Sunday by China's Customs office, showed a stunning 17.7 percent year-on-year jump in exports, well above a forecast for 4.0 percent growth.
But imports jumped by an even bigger 55.9 percent, pushing China's overall trade surplus in the month down by 4 percent from November instead of up by an expected 3 percent.
China did manage to increase exports of unwrought aluminum by 70 percent increase from November, but the 65,000 tons shipped was still below December 2008 when the global financial crisis was in full flood.
Exports of steel products rose 17 percent on the month and, at 3.34 million tons, were 5 percent higher than in December 2008. Exports also outpaced 15 percent growth in imports, meaning China's net exports of steel products -- which have spurred U.S. anti-dumping cases -- grew to 1.86 million tons in December from 1.56 million tons in November.
China's steel mills undertook a massive production drive in 2009, partly in response to a $585 billion government stimulus plan. Disregarding a 60 percent collapse in the market for their exports, they produced almost half the world's steel in 2009.
With only low quality iron ore at home, mills have been forced to accept ballooning imports of the main ingredient for their blast furnaces, which reached 62.2 million tons in December, the second-highest monthly total ever, for an annual total of 627.8 million tons.
That figure, a 42 percent on 2008, will grate with Chinese firms trying to negotiate term prices for the year with the world's big iron ore miners.
Last year's price negotiations collapsed without agreement after China arrested four employees of Rio Tinto
(Additional reporting by Jim Bai, Niu Shuping and Rujun Shen; Editing by Dan Lalor)