September 25, 2018 / 7:33 AM / 3 months ago

UPDATE 2-China copper smelters set Q4 treatment/refining charges lower than a year earlier

* Q4 TC/RC floor at $90 per tonne and 9 cents per pound -sources

* Miners and smelters to start talks on 2019 benchmark next month

* Annual TC benchmark will be above 2018 level -analyst (Adds analyst comment)

By Tom Daly

BEIJING, Sept 25 (Reuters) - China's top copper smelters have set their floor treatment and refining charges (TC/RCs) for the fourth quarter at $90 per tonne and 9 cents per pound, two sources with direct knowledge of the matter said on Tuesday.

The floor charges, the minimum miners pay smelters to process their copper concentrate into refined metal, were agreed at a meeting of the 10-member China Smelters Purchase Team (CSPT) on Friday, the sources said. China is the world's top copper consumer.

The group set no floor for the third quarter. One year ago, the fourth-quarter TC/RCs were set at $95 per tonne and 9.5 cents a pound.

The fourth-quarter rates are more significant since they influence the negotiations for global TC/RCs for 2019 which will start next month at the LME Week conference in London. The global price greatly determines the profitability of both miners and smelters.

CSPT member Tongling Nonferrous Metals Group and miner Freeport-McMoRan Inc agreed last December to set the 2018 TC benchmark at $82.25 a tonne.

The fourth-quarter charges are "on the high side every year," said Xu Maili, director of non-ferrous metals research at Everbright Futures in Shanghai. TC/RCs were at $87 in the first quarter and $78 in the second quarter.

But a TC of $90 a tonne for the fourth quarter is not high compared with the previous years, Xu said.

A trader who supplies copper concentrate to the members of the team said the charges were "in line" with his expectations, adding that smelters currently had enough ore for their needs.

TC/RCs fall when concentrate supply declines or smelting capacity rises. Chinese smelting capacity is set to grow by around 1 million tonnes per year in 2018, meaning greater demand and competition for ore.

However, the shutdown of Vedanta Ltd's smelter in southern India in May has also meant there is more concentrate to go around and spot TC/RCs in Asia have risen.

Xu said he expected the 2019 TC/RC benchmark to be higher than what was agreed for 2018. A year ago, there were strong expectations of strikes by workers at South American copper mines in 2018, potentially disrupting supply, he noted.

BHP last month averted a strike at the Escondida copper mine in Chile, the world's largest, when it agreed terms on a new labour contract.

The actual number of strikes this year has been significantly lower than anticipated and "there are no such expectations for next year," Xu said.

Chinese research house Antaike's view earlier this month was contrary to Xu's outlook, with it saying the 2019 TC/RC benchmark would fall from this year's levels. (Reporting by Tom Daly; editing by Richard Pullin and Christian Schmollinger)

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