Chinese Buyers Defaulting On Commodity Shipments As Prices Plunge

One can come up with massively complicated explanations for why the Chinese commodity bubble is popping including inventory of various colors, repos, etc, but when all is said and done, the explanation is quite simple, and is reminiscent of what happened in the US with housing back in 2007: everyone was convinced prices would only go up, and underlying assets was pledged as debt collateral at > 100 LTV... and then everything blew up. Precisely the same thing is happening in China right now, where buyers of commodities thought prices could only go up, up, up and instead got a nasty surprise: prices went down. Big. As a result, many are not even waiting for their orders to come in, but are defaulting on orders with shipments en route.

From Reuters: "Chinese buyers are deferring delivery or have defaulted on coal and iron ore deliveries following a drop in prices, traders said, providing more evidence that a slowdown in the world's second-largest economy is hitting its appetite for commodities. China is the world's biggest consumer of iron ore, coal and other base metals, but recent data has shown the economy cooling more quickly than expected, with industrial output growth slowing sharply in April and fixed asset investment, a key driver of the economy, hitting its lowest in nearly a decade. "There are a few distressed cargoes but no one is gung-ho enough to take them. Chinese utilities aren't buying because they have a lot of coal and traders are also afraid of getting burnt. It's very bearish now," said a trader. The defaults in thermal coal over the past week has come after a fall in prices over the past 1 1/2 months, with key coal prices indices in Australia, South Africa and Europe all having fallen around $10 a tonne since early April." And this is the country that over the weekend was rumored to be bailing out the world again? We wonder: will China also bail out FaceBook longs, or will it merely focus on preventing a collapse in its own various commodity bubbles which are starting to pop one after another?

More from Reuters:

At least six defaulted thermal coal cargoes were being re-offered at a discount, traders said, including contracts for shipments from the United States, Colombia and South Africa.


"Many of them signed for the spot cargoes in early April and prices have fallen around $10 a tonne since then. Say if the Chinese traders were buying a cape-sized shipment, they'd be suffering a loss of nearly $1.5 million alone," said a trader at an international firm who has been offered defaulted cargoes.


"That doesn't even take into account the losses on freight rates. So rather than being bankrupted by these deals, they would rather dishonour the contract to survive."


China's premier called for additional efforts to support growth on Sunday, signalling Beijing's willingness to take action to bolster its sagging economy.

And if the Chinese commodity appetite is over, that means very bad news for commodity exporters the world over:

Reflecting greater caution, BHP Billiton, the world's biggest miner, has put the brakes on an $80 billion plan to grow the company's iron ore, copper and energy operations.


Slumping commodity prices and escalating costs have squeezed cash flows, pushing BHP to join rival Rio Tinto reconsidering the pace of their long-term expansion in countries such as Australia and Canada.

For another perspective of just how stuffed to the gills with commodity inventory is we again go to Reuters, which gives us the following scary summary:

When metals warehouses in top consumer China are so full that workers start stockpiling iron ore in granaries and copper in car parks, you know the global economy could be in trouble.


At Qingdao Port, home to one of China's largest iron ore terminals, hundreds of mounds of iron ore, each as tall as a three-storey building, spill over into an area signposted "grains storage" and almost to the street.


Further south, some bonded warehouses in Shanghai are using carparks to store swollen copper stockpiles - another unusual phenomenon that bodes ill for global metal prices and raises questions about China's ability to sustain its economic growth as the rest of the world falters.


Commodity markets are used to seeing China's inventories swell in the first quarter, when manufacturing slows down due to the Lunar New Year holidays, and then gradually decline during the second quarter when industrial activity picks up.


This year, however, is different.


Copper stocks in Shanghai's bonded storage, the biggest in China, are now double the 300,000 metric tons (330,693 tons) average of the past four years and iron ore stocks are about a third more than their 74 million metric tons average.

This time may be differernt indeed:

Four years ago, however, the global financial crisis triggered by the collapse of Lehman Brothers broadsided the economy: factories shut down suddenly, millions of workers got laid off, ports ground to a halt. The situation only perked up after the government introduced a $600 billion stimulus scheme.

Probably the biggest difference is that back then Europe wasn't broke and the US debt/GDP was well below 100%. Both of those are no longer the case.

And to think we were wondering just last week if the biggest construction bubble in history was sustainable.