Photographer: Brendon Thorne/Bloomberg

China Commodities Juggernaut Rolls Into 2017 as Records Tumble

The appetite for raw materials in the world’s biggest consumer keeps getting bigger.

China’s imports of crude oil and iron ore rose to records in 2016, while coal buying expanded for the first time in three years, according to government data released Friday. Growing domestic demand sent steel and aluminum exports down, while outbound shipments of oil products soared as the country sought to reform its refining industry and fuel specifications.

  • Iron ore imports surged to a record above 1 billion metric tons on unexpectedly strong steel production and lower local mine output. Meanwhile, exports of steel and aluminum ended years of expansion, with producers selling more at home as government stimulus sparked a surprise rebound in buildings, infrastructure and manufacturing.
  • Iron ore shipments are seen probably rising further as low-cost supply from countries including Australia and Brazil continues to grow. Demand from steel mills, however, could ease as the property sector softens and the government faces debt issues and looming trade battles over steel exports.
  • Crude imports last year rose at the fastest pace since 2010 as the cheapest crude in more than a decade triggered stockpiling and as independent refiners were allowed to purchase more supplies.
  • Import growth is seen slowing with reserves near capacity and as the government begins reversing some of the import freedoms it granted to smaller refiners.
  • Fuel exports surged as more crude processors were allowed to ship products abroad, new refining units came online and as stricter fuel standards forced companies that still produce lower-quality supply to find buyers overseas.
  • Refiners in neighboring South Korea and Japan are worried exports may rise further this year, forcing a fight for market share in the region.
  • Coal imports reversed two years of declines and expanded at the fastest pace in four years, offering global producers a respite after capacity cuts by the world’s largest consumer of the fuel lifted prices.
  • Prices surged after the government of President Xi Jinping last year ordered miners to cut capacity to ease a glut and help lift the industry out of crisis. Imports may ease again after regulators scrambled to reverse some production restrictions, helping output rebound to the highest in a year and cooling prices.

— With assistance by Martin Ritchie, Ranjeetha Pakiam, Jing Yang, and Ramsey Al-Rikabi

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