Was the People's Bank of China really buying gold at the rate of one ounce in every eight sold worldwide last quarter . . .?
SO THOSE MILITANT crazies known to the mainstream media as "goldbugs"—and to the FBI as subversives—got the headline they've been longing for, apparently, last week.
"China central bank in gold-buying push," declared the Financial Times. "It does appear the People's Bank of China has been a significant buyer," agreed a Reuters columnist.
At last, rapture is upon us! Beijing is buying gold in the open market! The FT picks up the story. . .
"China's imports from Hong Kong, which account for the majority of its overseas buying, soared to 227 tonnes in the last three months of 2011, according to data published by Hong Kong. Mine production in the country, the largest gold producer, stood at about 100 tonnes in the quarter, implying total supply of at least 330 tonnes.
"That compares to demand of 191 tonnes for gold jewellery, bars and coins—which account for the vast majority of Chinese demand—reported by the World Gold Council (WGC) on Thursday."
With gold exports banned, you can see the gap right there. . .all 139 tonnes of it. The FT's conclusion? Courtesy of an "inference" and a "could be" from two leading analysts, that excess of supply over demand must have gone to the People's Bank of China (PBoC). Must have, right?
Well. . .
- The data came from 3 different sources, one of which is an official agency, another is the mining industry, and the third is trying to cover end-user sales in the world's second-heaviest gold market and most populous nation;
- Those demand figures in particular are likely to be revised—upwards—by Thomson Reuters GFMS (who supply the WGC). The best data available, they were certainly revised— upwards—quarter-on-quarter over recent years. And even on first release, China's retail jewelry and investment sales show average compound growth of 36% per year since 2001. That's one hell of a trend to keep count of in real time;
- No, a revision to end demand of 139 tonnes will not happen. But would a 75% hike be any less likely than the People's Bank of China growing its stated reserves (officially 1054 tonnes) by more than 13% inside three months? And inside three months that saw the gold price average $1,684 per ounce, (oz) its highest level in history outside the $1,702 record of July–Oct. last year?
Somehow, we doubt that China's central bank snapped up one ounce in every eight sold worldwide between October and Christmas. Most especially because, if Beijing's policymakers were the "mystery" buyer, why would they then go and make importing gold a little bit harder for China's bullion brokers?
Starting this month, China's wholesalers now need to seek permission, reports our friend Bruce Ikemizu at Standard Bank in Tokyo, for each inbound shipment of gold from not only the People's Bank of China, but also from the bureaucrats of the State Administration of Foreign Exchange (SAFE). "So it takes longer to import gold," notes Ikemizu.
Weirdly, SAFE was the agency that hoarded the 600-tonne addition of 2003–2009, officially switched to and reported by the PBoC three years ago in its last public update. So again, why would anyone buying gold—and already paying very nearly the highest prices in history—want to temper supply?
"In the medium term we do know the Chinese central bank and other Asian central banks with large foreign exchange reserves have been increasing their holdings of gold," as Marcus Grubb of the World Gold Council told the Financial Times. Plugging some of last quarter's gap "is consistent with that." But plugging the whole 139 tonnes as the FT's headline suggests?
Both the WGC and GFMS's Phillip Klapwijk—also quoted in the FT's report—in fact added that bullion banks and other stockpilers would be likely candidates, too. And that would make sense after the scramble to secure supplies in early 2011. Because gold imports through Hong Kong—well ahead of last month's 2012 Lunar New Year holidays—actually peaked in November. They then fell hard in December as the festivities drew closer.
Indeed, as the London gold price dropped late last September, the Hong Kong premium tripled to jump above $3/oz. So calling your UK supplier and booking new shipments would have been a natural response. Cheap prices, plus a fat mark-up if the metal arrives in good time? What trader wouldn't try to book that? October and November then saw record imports of gold through Hong Kong to China. But the premium had fallen quickly however (according to Reuters data), already back down to $1/oz in October.
That's the trouble with a physical market—delivery needs brokers and shipping, and wholesalers need stockpiles to draw on. Not much of a headline though, is it?
Stockpiling is common in base metals and oil. Standard Bank's commodities team now reckon silver stockpiles in China are equal to 15 months of fabrication demand. And if Beijing were really on the bid for imported metal, then why, immediately after January's Chinese New Year celebrations—the single biggest event on China's gold buying calendar—did it set China's gold importers a new hurdle?
Our guess? No doubt China is buying gold direct from its miners. That metal is then lacking for retail consumption. So to ensure lots of supply for what proved another strong Chinese New Year, importers booked early and often. But following that trebling of gold imports in 2011, the timing of SAFE's move, immediately after New Year—and only two weeks after India doubled its gold and silver import duties—suggests Beijing is live to the trade-balance risks posed by Chinese households' soaring demand.
"IMF slashes forecast for China current account surplus," announced the Wall Street Journal last week.
"China's current account surplus for 2011 shrank to $201.1 billion (B) ($187.37B), from $305.4B in 2010. More important, as a ratio of gross domestic product, the surplus fell to about 2.7%. . .close to a decade-low."
Now, "as China's trade surplus declines dramatically," reports University of Peking professor Michael Pettis, "more and more people within the country are calling for interventionist steps to halt the decline, including depreciating the [yuan], or at least halting its appreciation."
Pettis's comment should remind us that Beijing is a big bureaucracy, with lots of divergent views and voices. Devaluing the yuan would look a highly aggressive decision to its would-be friends in Washington, especially those U.S. politicians talking up China's "violations" of international law. But trying to stem—or rather slow—the pace of import growth wouldn't look quite so rude.
This new rule is already frustrating those banks importing gold, but it's likely only to delay, rather than deter, the flow of bullion. Still, it's a hat-tip to the potential drain on China's foreign currency holdings which gold has become for India—still the world's No.1 consumer, and importing twice as much as bullion as China in 2011 because it has no domestic mine output to help feed its consumption, whether central-bank or private.
India's hunger for a metal it does not produce is plain to see in its trade balance. The only current-account deficit in the region as Morgan Stanley notes, this gold-heavy outflow of cash also weighed on the rupee's exchange rate in 2011, down 15% versus the dollar as the currency markets tried to force an adjustment.
Because even then, and with rupee gold prices pushed to fresh record highs despite a 20% drop for U.S. investors after September's top, India's full-year 2011 gold demand still rose from 2010 in dollar terms, setting a fresh record of $46B on the World Gold Council's data, and equal to more than three-quarters of the country's current account deficit.
"[We hope to] discourage imports so that the rupee steadies against the dollar," admitted a senior unnamed official quoted by India Today after New Delhi raised import duties and handed a tax advantage to the domestic recycling lobby in January. Beijing's policy wonks are being equally coy about trying to dampen gold bullion imports just ever so slightly. But China's feint should remind precious metals bulls that Asia's massive demand growth can pose a risk to itself.
First, high prices could dissuade new buyers, as shown all too clearly by Western jewelry demand since 2005. A slowdown in GDP growth, worsened by a shrinking trade surplus, would make that risk worse. But for Asia's ravenous gold buying, state interference is perhaps the present threat, especially in a market averaging 36% compound growth by value each year since China began deregulating gold a decade ago.
China's gold buyers have needed no help from over-excitable headlines. But they have needed Beijing's blessing to date.
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Adrian Ash is head of research at BullionVault—the secure, low-cost gold and silver market for private investors online.
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