* Dec customs data due on Thursday, Jan 10
* Iron ore imports to hit new high after buying spree
* Crude deliveries expected to rise on capacity additions
* Copper likely to decline as demand dips, domestic
production holds up
* Soybean deliveries up as margins turn positive
By David Stanway
BEIJING, Jan 8 China's imports of crude oil,
iron ore and soybeans are expected to have risen in December as
confidence in the economy grew and buyers stocked up for 2013,
but copper purchases likely fell as year-end demand dwindled
while local output stayed strong.
China, the world's biggest consumer of most commodities, is
due to release December trade data on Thursday.
A pick-up in manufacturing activity last month to its
strongest since May 2011 added to signs that the world's second
biggest economy was recovering after slowing down for seven
consecutive quarters, and that has boosted the appetite for a
range of commodities.
Crude oil deliveries are likely to inch up as refining
capacity rises, while iron ore imports may have risen to a
record high as steel mills prepared for a surge in demand and
decline in supplies going into the new year.
"We are quite confident about the Chinese economic recovery
and we believe demand has improved quite a lot since the third
quarter," said Henry Liu, senior analyst with Mirae Asset
Securities in Hong Kong.
"China is buying much more iron ore right now but it depends
what's available on the market -- everyone has been desperately
looking for sources," he said.
Arrivals of delayed soybean cargoes were expected to push
imports up by more than 30 percent compared to November. With
the fall in Chicago prices, crushing margins have turned
positive ahead of the peak demand season before the lunar
Chinese New Year which begins in February.
Overall trade is expected to recover slightly in December,
with exports likely to rise 4 percent from a year ago, up from
2.9 percent in November, and imports likely to rise 3 percent
after remaining flat in the previous month.
December crude imports by the world's second biggest oil
consumer are expected to rise slightly from November, with crude
throughput rising as a result of new refining capacity coming
onstream over the past two months.
November imports reached 5.69 million barrels per day, the
joint third highest daily rate on record, and one trader said
that figure was likely to rise 2 to 3 percent in December.
Two new crude units with a combined capacity of 240,000 bpd
started operation in October, and in early December, Sinopec
Corp also started up a 200,000-bpd crude unit at its
subsidiary plant in Maoming in southern China.
Energy consultancy CI forecast that crude runs at Chinese
refineries were 7.3 percent higher year-on-year in December.
China, the world's biggest buyer of iron ore, is likely to
set a new record high for imports in December, exceeding the
previous record of 68.97 million tonnes set in January 2011.
November imports, at 65.78 million tonnes, were the second
highest on record.
There have already been strong indications of a surge in
deliveries over December, with exports from Australia's Port
Hedland reaching a record 20.23 million tonnes, up a quarter
compared to November.
Supplies sourced from Port Hedland accounted for nearly a
quarter of the November total.
Global iron ore prices, currently at around 15-month highs,
rose substantially over December, with many Chinese buyers
expecting not only an improvement in demand in the new year but
also a supply crunch as seasonal bad weather disrupts deliveries
from Australia and Brazil.
The benchmark index for 62-percent grade iron ore
.IO62-CNI=SI ended the month at $144.90 per tonne, up nearly
$30 from the end of November.
Copper imports by the world's top consumer of the metal are
expected to inch down in December from the previous month as
demand for spot metal fell due to plants winding down operations
at the end of the year and as domestic production stayed strong.
"Fundamentally, imports in December should not be higher
than November given that the price ratios were bad," said
analyst Yao Yao at Maike Futures, adding that importers would
face losses of more than 2,000 yuan per tonne had they imported
spot refined copper cathodes in December.
Arrivals of anode, refined metal, alloy and semi-finished
copper products rose 13.5 percent month-on-month to 365,331
tonnes in November, boosted by the arrivals of delayed shipments
after a week-long holiday in the previous month.
But traders warned that some importers might have received
extra 2012 term shipments in December after they delayed imports
due to arrive earlier due to weak domestic demand.
The China National Grain and Oils Information Center, a
government think tank, estimated that December soy imports would
exceed 5.5 million tonnes, up from 4.2 million tonnes in
November and slightly higher than the 5.4 million tonnes
imported in December 2011.
"Crushers, which were worrying earlier about the drought and
supply shortage in the United States, purchased many cargoes in
September and October, and many have tried to delay the cargoes
to December and January after a subsequent fall in Chicago
prices," said an industry analyst at the center.
Rising demand ahead of China's lunar new year holidays has
improved crushing margins for soy plants, which turned
profitable in December after months of losses, traders said.
(Reporting by David Stanway, Niu Shuping and Judy Hua in
BEIJING, Polly Yam in HONG KONG; editing by Miral Fahmy)