* Antaike sees China importing 3 mln T of refined copper 2018
* Says labour talks in Chile, Peru create supply risk
* Forecasts 6 pct growth in China’s aluminium consumption
By Tom Daly
BEIJING, March 22 (Reuters) - China’s refined copper imports will fall for the third straight year in 2018 as domestic production picks up and consumption slows amid weaker demand from the real estate sector, an influential research house said on Thursday.
Antaike, research arm of the China Nonferrous Metals Industry Association, expects top copper consumer China to import 3 million tonnes of refined copper this year, down 7.5 percent from 3.243 million tonnes in 2017, He Xiaohui, an analyst with the agency, said in an industry outlook in Beijing.
Despite the import drop, China’s refined copper consumption will still rise this year, He said, although just 3.3 percent to 11.1 million tonnes, after growing 4.2 percent in 2017.
Domestic production is expected to increase by 4.3 percent to 8.35 million tonnes as new smelters start up. That has Antaike projecting China’s copper concentrate imports to rise by 3.7 percent to 4.5 million tonnes of metal equivalent this year.
Outside China, growth in consumption is set to accelerate, while the threat of mine strikes persists, especially in Chile and Peru as labour talks loom, He said. The potential supply loss could have a bigger impact on the refined copper market than disruptions did in the first half of 2017, when inventories were high, the analyst said.
Around 20 copper mines with labour negotiations pending will likely use the outcome of talks at BHP Billiton’s Escondida mine in Chile, the world’s largest, as their benchmark, said Fu Xiao, head of commodity markets strategy at Bank of China subsidiary BOC International.
BHP said last week it has invited Escondida’s workers’ union to start talks on a new collective labour contract.
Analyst He also warned China’s tighter restrictions on scrap copper imports could affect supply, forecasting that London copper prices, currently near $6,800 a tonne, would average around $6,900-$7,000 a tonne this year.
China’s aluminium consumption, meanwhile, is expected to rise by 6 percent to 37.6 million tonnes in 2018, according to Antaike aluminium analyst Yao Xizhi.
That is 2 percentage points slower than in 2017 as demand from key industries like the power sector cools, said Yao, who also forecasts that China’s exports of aluminium products would fall by 3.3 percent to around 4.08 million tonnes this year amid trade friction with the United States.
Aluminium output in China, biggest global producer of the metal, is set to rise 3.6 percent to 38 million tonnes in 2018, he said, as 2.7 million tonnes of new capacity comes on line.
Nearly 40 percent of China’s operating smelting capacity is losing money at current Shanghai aluminium prices of around 14,000 yuan ($2,200) a tonne, Yao said, forecasting a trading range of 13,000-16,500 yuan this year.
($1 = 6.3300 Chinese yuan)
Reporting by Tom Daly; Editing by Tom Hogue