(Changes story link at end of paragraph 8)
* March oil imports 5.43 mln bpd, up 0.2 pct m/m, down 2.1
* March copper imports up 7.2 pct m/m, down 30 pct y/y
* Iron ore imports up 14.4 pct m/m, up 2.7 pct y/y
* Soybean imports up 32.4 pct m/m, down 20.5 pct y/y
By Fayen Wong
SHANGHAI, April 10 (Reuters) - Chinese imports of key
commodities rebounded in March from the month before as hopes of
a strengthening economy encouraged end-users to ramp up output
and cautiously replenish stocks.
With broader trade data also signalling domestic demand is
gathering the steam needed to drive a recovery in the world's
No.2 economy, analysts said China's appetite for commodity
imports should continue to see a modest recovery through the
second quarter, when manufacturing and construction typically
Copper imports climbed 7.2 percent in March from February,
iron ore increased 14.4 percent, while crude oil eked out a 0.2
percent rise, data from the General Customs Administration
showed on Wednesday.
"We should see a modest recovery as economic activity picks
up. We've already begun to see downstream industries start up
more perceptibly in late March compared to earlier months," said
Cheng Sijin, a commodities analyst at Barclays Research.
"But reality will struggle to match hyped up expectations of
a strong recovery. We expect to see a slow grind up in demand."
China is the world's top buyer of copper, soy, iron ore and
its second-largest importer of crude oil after the United
States. All eyes have been on the pace of its economic recovery,
with investors hoping it can offset resurgent worries over
Europe's debt crisis.
Cooling China inflation on Tuesday reinforced hopes for an
extended period of easy monetary policy, but uncertainty about
the latest bird flu outbreak in the country could offer some
headwinds to demand.
China's daily crude oil imports in March fell 2.1 percent
versus a year earlier, however, as some refineries started
maintenance programmes amid high fuel stocks. They dropped in
line with expectations to 23.05 million tonnes, or 5.43 million
barrels per day (bpd).
Chinese refineries processed close to 10 million bpd in the
first two months of the year, a level just a touch off the
record rate of 10.15 million bpd in December, as newly started
refining facilities ran at high rates.
IRON ORE, COPPER
Iron ore imports grew 14.4 percent from the previous month,
but shipments were still at their second-lowest in five months
amid a tepid recovery in the country's appetite for steel.
Compared to a year ago, March imports were up 2.7 percent.
Total imports in the first quarter were flat from the year
before at 186.5 million tonnes.
But with March being a longer month, analysts said the
average daily increase for iron ore shipments worked out to be a
mere 3 percent.
"This shows that steel mills are not significantly
restocking and are just purchasing what they need despite
inventory at ports having fallen to about 68 million tonnes from
a high of around 97 million tonnes last year," said Helen Lau,
senior commodities analyst at UOB-Kay Hian.
"Mills have been quite cautious in importing iron ore
because steel demand didn't recover as expected in the first
quarter and steel product inventories are still high at around
21 million tonnes."
Elsewhere, copper imports rose 7.2 percent from February to
319,603 tonnes on hopes factories would ramp up output after the
Lunar New Year break, but fell by a sharp 30 percent from a year
The mild recovery in March arrivals came even though the
price arbitrage for imports had improved, suggesting domestic
demand remained sluggish.
Traders cautioned that April imports could come under
pressure due to a drop in term shipments of the refined metal
from key suppliers Chile and India.
Separately, China imported 3.84 million tonnes of soybeans
in March, up 32.4 percent from February but down 20.5 percent
from a year ago as port congestion in Brazil delayed some
Imports are expected to pick up from March after a seasonal
slowdown in the first two months, but outbreaks of the new
strain of bird flu in some areas could hurt restocking of
soymeal for feed for poultry, traders said.
The commerce ministry has forecast April imports at 5.7
million tonnes, the highest so far this year. Meanwhile, imports
could rise to more than 6 million tonnes in May and June,
according to estimates by the China National Grain and Oils
Information Centre (CNGOIC).
(Reporting by Fayen Wong; Editing by Joseph Radford)