* Oil imports hit record, coal shipments highest in 4-yrs
* Winter weather, pre-holiday stockpiling drive buying
* Overall figures reflect still solid demand - analysts
BEIJING, Feb 8 (Reuters) - China’s oil imports hit a record high in January and other key commodity shipments jumped, buoyed by freezing winter weather and stockpiling ahead of Lunar New Year celebrations later this month.
The boost came as China’s overall imports surged by 36.9 percent year-on-year last month, according to General Administration of Customs data, while exports were up 11.1 percent, both growing much more than expected.
While the big commodity gains were due mainly to the week-long holiday starting this year on Feb. 15, analysts said Thursday’s data still pointed to solid demand in the world’s second-biggest economy and the biggest consumer of commodities ranging from iron ore to soybeans.
“It’s always difficult at this time of year with the Spring Festival impacting these volumes, but I think it certainly suggests that there is some underlying strength in the market in China,” said Daniel Hynes, senior commodity strategist at ANZ in Sydney.
Crude oil imports soared to a record 40.64 million tonnes, or 9.57 million barrels per day (bpd) after the country’s independent refiners won bigger import quotas as Beijing looks to boost competition with its state-owned giants.
Coal imports rose to their highest level in four years at 27.81 million tonnes and natural gas imports of 7.7 million tonnes just missed December’s all-time high as snowstorms left utilities racing to fill supply.
The strength of demand was also reflected in China’s purchases of industrial metals and minerals last month.
Imports of unwrought copper - mainly used in the construction sector - fell from December but were still up 15.8 percent on a year ago, while imports of steelmaking raw material iron ore hit their second highest level of record at 100 million tonnes.
Steel mills are among a host of industrial facilities in northern China that were ordered to cut their output over the winter months, but which are now gearing up for the lifting of the curbs in mid-March.
While “domestic demand is still sound,” Helen Lau, analyst at Argonaut Securities, cautioned that the big jumps for some commodities were due to seasonal restocking and imports were likely to fall in February.
She also warned that high stockpiles of bulk materials – with iron ore inventories currently near record levels above 150 million tonnes – could dampen demand for imports going forward.
Reporting by Tom Daly; editing by Richard Pullin