* Most commodity imports chalk up strong gains in 2013
* Coal, iron ore shipments climb by more than 10 pct
* But economic reform is curbing demand-growth
By Fayen Wong
SHANGHAI, Jan 10 Chinese commodity imports rose
strongly in 2013, with coal and iron ore climbing more than 10
percent, but efforts to reform the world's No.2 economy are
already taking the steam out of demand and are likely to drag
Despite the robust headline figures on Friday, annual
import-growth in crude oil, coal and soybeans slowed markedly
from 2012 as Beijing tightened credit to help shift its export-
and infrastructure-driven economy towards consumer-led
Tighter credit conditions, property controls, environmental
crackdowns on heavy industry and government pledges to tackle
overcapacity will curb appetite for commodities in 2014,
"We think the tougher regulatory environment, such as with
the financing and pollution crackdowns, is going to ... dampen
the pace of imports in 2014," said Helen Lau, senior commodities
analyst at UOB-Kay Hian in Hong Kong.
"There is overcapacity in nearly every sector of China's
commodities spectrum ranging from coal and copper to steel.
There is clearly enough capacity here to meet domestic demand."
Chinese steel production has already fallen sharply as the
government steps up its fight against air pollution, hurting
appetite for iron ore and dragging the price of the raw material
to a record-low on the domestic futures market.
Still, any slowdown in demand is unlikely to be drastic
since China's top leaders have pledged reasonable growth in
2014, and sources at top government think tanks told Reuters
they expect a growth target of 7.5 percent - the same as for
Data released on Friday showed China's export growth slowed
more than expected in December due to a higher comparison base a
year earlier and a clamp-down on speculative activities
disguised as export deals, missing the official target on
The government will issue fourth-quarter gross domestic
product data on Jan. 20. A Reuters poll showed annual GDP growth
could slow to 7.6 percent in the fourth quarter, putting 2013
growth on track for the weakest showing in 14 years.
CRUDE OIL, COAL
China's crude oil imports rose 13 percent in December from a
year ago to a record 6.31 million barrels per day as two big
refineries reopened, but growth for 2013 was down sharply from
nearly 7 percent in 2012 as demand cooled in the world's
second-biggest oil consumer.
Crude demand for this year could rebound slightly from last
year's 4 percent gain as new refineries open, although growth
may be capped by a lack of momentum in the broader economy.
Traders had hoped that more firms might be allowed to import
crude in 2014 under Beijing's push to open the market, but so
far no new quotas have been handed out. Such a decision would
normally need to be in place before the start of the new year.
For coal, import growth dropped by more than half from the
year before to 13.4 percent in 2013.
Industry watchers said the pace of growth would likely
weaken further as Beijing mulls setting higher standards on coal
China's copper imports inched up 1.3 percent in December on
a month earlier, propped up by contracted shipments even as a
cash crunch depressed spot purchases, but arrivals still fell
2.3 percent in 2013 due to lower term bookings of refined metal.
Higher-than-expected imports by China, the world's top
copper consumer, could support copper prices after they slid on
Thursday to their weakest since Dec. 19 on Thursday.
Arrivals of unwrought aluminium surged to 125,180 tonnes in
December, hitting the strongest since July 2009 and up 42.8
percent from the previous month, the data showed. But full-year
inflows fell 17.7 percent to 963,124 tonnes, from 2012.
A large global supplier of primary aluminium had sold tens
of thousand tonnes of spot metal to China in late November and
December 2013 at lower-than-market premiums, traders said.
Buyers had been mostly end-users in China's southern industrial
hub of Guangdong province, they said.
Looking ahead, analysts said Beijing's clampdown on shadow
financing may weigh on copper imports in 2014, while an
unfavourable price differential between the LME and
Shanghai <0#SCF:> would dent China's appetite in the near term.
Still, plans by the State Grid to boost its 2014 investment
by some 20 percent to 40.35 billion yuan would offer underlying
IRON ORE, SOY
China's iron ore imports in December dropped 5.7 percent
from the previous month's record high to 73.38 million tonnes,
as slowing steel demand towards year-end curbed purchases of the
raw material in the world's top consumer.
But surging steel output through most of the year in the
world's largest steel producer drove purchases of iron ore to a
record-high in 2013 of 820 million tonnes, up 10 percent from
China, the world's top soy buyer, imported a record volume
of the oilseed in 2013 as the crushing industry continued to
expand capacity to meet brisk domestic demand for protein-rich
China imported 63.38 million tonnes of soy in 2013, a rise
of 8.6 percent from the year before, the preliminary data
(Editing by Joseph Radford)