London copper rose marginally on Thursday, underscoring caution among investors amid an uncertain global demand outlook, while top consumer China was also hesitant to snap up the metal aggressively unless prices fall sharply.
Tight world supplies have helped fuel a 9% jump in copper prices this year, but investors are wary of pushing prices up further unless Chinese demand perks up.
Three-month copper on the London Metal Exchange (LME) gained 0.3% to $8 319/t by 0334 GMT, below the 200-day moving average of $8 373.
'Copper is grappling between two forces,' said Natalie Robertson, analyst at Australia and New Zealand Bank.
'The positive force is the supply tightness in the market and that's why we're seeing copper prices holding up, but the negative force is the fact that since prices are holding up at higher levels, that's making Chinese buyers reluctant to buy copper from the international market.'
With three-month LME copper still trading at a $300 premium to the May copper contract on the Shanghai Futures Exchange, including China's 17% value-added tax, there remains no incentive for the Chinese to import. The arbitrage window has been shut since early January.
'Copper needs to fall to at least $7 500 before we can see significant increase in Chinese buying,' said Robertson. 'The demand story in China is still a blurry picture.'
The most-traded May copper contract on the Shanghai Futures Exchange rose 0.3% to 59 640 yuan a ton.
There will be a clearer view of China's copper appetite when Beijing releases commodity import numbers on Saturday.
Concern about China's raw material appetite grew louder after the government cut its 2012 economic growth goal to an eight-year low of 7.5% on Monday, although many analysts were not too worried since Beijing has well exceeded its conservative targets in the past years.
Friday's US non-farm payrolls report should provide fresh guidance to the market, and a higher-than-forecast increase in US private-sector hiring in February bodes well for a strong number.
Economists polled by Reuters expect a 210 000 increase in nonfarm payrolls last month, versus a 243 000 rise in January.
Technical charts show LME copper may rebound to $8 365 and could extend gains to $8 423, having hit a three-week low of $8 176.75 on Wednesday.
Tight supplies globally should keep copper prices supported, with major copper miners Freeport-McMoRan Copper & Gold Inc and Codelco flagging lower output.
'The physical copper market balance is set to remain tight going forward, which should - at least limit the downside risk to prices from here,' Credit Suisse said in a note.
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