China has long sought more pricing power in commodities as it is the largest consumer of many resources, including copper and iron ore, but does not produce enough and must import at global prices. Mainland firms are now aiming to cut out middlemen and connect with a wider array of producers and users.
As Western banks have ditched their commodities divisions due to mounting regulatory costs after the financial crisis, Chinese trading firms have seized the chance to build their trading muscle in the international hub right at their doorstep.
Chinese firms backed by sprawling metals conglomerates, including top mainland trading house Maike Metals Group, are among those that have set up a base in Singapore.
Awin Resource International, owned by a Chinese billionaire, and Kyen Resources, backed by four mainland firms active in the metals industry, have launched offices in the city-state over the past one year.
While the Chinese metals trading firms in Singapore will face stiff competition from established traders such as Glencore and Trafigura, analysts expect them to be able to profit from their mainland connections.
The firms will be able to procure for themselves and exploit pricing gaps between China and global markets. They will also be able to use their home-ground advantage to connect Chinese buyers with sellers in South East Asia and other regions, financed by banks in Singapore.
"There are some significant Chinese traders, and they're definitely moving more of their business overseas. They have size and capital to compete, certainly versus regional players," said Ivan Szpakowski, Citi commodities strategist in Shanghai.
The Chinese firms are looking beyond the staple arbitrage trades that rely on interest rate differentials, leveraging instead their shareholder heft to build their business. And they have hired specialist physical metal traders for the purpose.
Awin, for instance, has taken on former Xstrata employees Felipe Williams, who is now Awin's head of base metals, and Javier Gausachs as head of mergers and acquisitions. It has also hired a senior trader from Louis Dreyfus.
A unit of Amer International Group, Awin now has 30 staff in Singapore compared to just one a year ago. Amer is owned by Wang Wenyin, one of the 20 wealthiest people in China with a net worth of around $5 billion, according to Forbes.
The firm is targeting growth through acquisitions, particularly to build its copper supply, a person familiar with the matter said. The company declined to comment.
Maike, which has annual sales of 83 billion yuan ($13.39 billion), is ramping up its activities in Singapore, two sources said. Its joint venture with China's third-largest copper producer, Jinchuan Group, was set up there last year. Maike did not respond to requests for comment.
GT Metals & Investment, backed by copper product maker Jiangsu Jinhui Group, launched its business in the city-state late last year.
New commodities landscape
The Chinese metals trading boost in Singapore comes as the global commodities trade is being transformed, with easy credit drying up and trade houses benefiting from lighter regulation and lower capital-holding requirements compared to banks.
Credit Suisse last month became the latest major bank to wind down its commodities trading.
Besides metals, China has also sought to build trading heft in agriculture. Chinese trader COFCO earlier this year bought majority stakes in Dutch grains trader Nidera and Noble Group's agriculture businesses.
A big draw for commodities firms in Singapore is what executives at these firms say are generous tax concessions offered on a case-by-case basis by the government, as well as the presence of major banks, producers such as BHP Billiton and local legal firms that facilitate trading.
From just a handful five years ago, metals and mineral traders based in the city-state have grown to more than 100 now, Satvinder Singh, Assistant Chief Executive Officer of government agency International Enterprise Singapore, told Reuters.
"There are a lot of opportunities within the region that would be very interesting for smaller, more nimble outfits to profit from," said Mark Keenan, analyst at Societe Generale in Singapore.