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Gold grand prix – The Chinese challenge


Total Gold demand - Top world markets (Image courtesy 0 ft.com). Click for a larger copy.

Total Gold demand - Top world markets (Image courtesy - ft.com). Click for a larger copy.

Golden ambitions

Western media has breathlessly announced that India’s leadership of many centuries as the largest buyer of gold has been broken by the Chinese. What does this mean for India and China? Not to forget the rest of the world. In the last few months,

India and China combined to contribute 63 percent of the total gold jewelry demand in the world in the first quarter.

Investment demand has grown (in China) by an average 14 percent a year since deregulation of the market in 2001, “a trend that has continued with the strong growth momentum witnessed in the first quarter,” it said. China’s investment demand jumped 123 percent to 90.9 tons in the first three months, compared with an 8 percent rise to 85.6 tons for India.

The country’s total (investment + jewelry)  gold demand in the first quarter jumped 47 percent from a year ago to 233.8 tons, the council said. That still lags behind Indian consumption of 291.8 tons, according to the council. (emphasised text in brackets supplied.)

Gold-to-silver ratios in the past few decades. Image courtesy - wsj.com. Click for larger image.

Gold-to-silver ratios in the past few decades. Image courtesy - wsj.com. Click for larger image.

Law abiding citizens

International regulatory damping of gold demand – especially in USA, India and China eased from 1975 onwards – from December 31st, 1974, with Executive Order 11825 by Gerald Ford.

Unlike India, which was well serviced and supplied with gold by the Indian underworld, China and the USA were deprived of gold supplies during this regulatory blackout of nearly 50 years. Current growth in demand for gold in China is building on a

low base which means that the investment demand and demand for an inflation hedge from 1.3 billion increasingly wealthy Chinese people is more than sustainable.

The not realized important fact that the people of China were banned from owning gold bullion from 1950 to 2003, means that the per capita consumption of over 1.3 billion people is rising from a tiny base. Gold ownership by the Chinese public remains minuscule. Especially when compared to other Asian countries such as Vietnam and India.

Should the Chinese economy crash as some predict, demand could fall. However, sharp declines in Chinese equity and property markets and a depreciation of the yuan would likely lead to significant safe haven demand for gold. Chinese demand alone likely puts a floor under the gold market at $1,450/oz.

It is worth noting that the People’s Bank of China’s gold reserves are very small when compared to those of the U.S. and indebted European nations. China appears to be quietly accumulating gold bullion reserves. As was the case previously, they will not announce their gold purchases in order to ensure they accumulate sizeable reserves at more competitive prices.

China – Biggest gold producer and consumer

China is already the world’s largest producer of gold from 2007, for four years now. China has captured the top position from

South Africa, which was producing as much as 1,000 tons of gold in 1970, (but) has seen its mining production decline for five straight years.

Accelerating a drop in output last year, the country’s mining authorities started a crackdown on unsafe mines after 3,200 workers were trapped at Harmony Gold Mining Ltd.’s Eldestrand mine in October.

Following an order by President Thabo Mbeki, the mining commission in the last three months started to requiring gold mines that suffer a fatal accident to suspend operations while a safety audit takes place. (emphasised text in brackets supplied.)

In 2010 Chinese gold production was

340.88 tonnes of gold in 2010, retaining the position of the world’s largest producer of the precious metal, the China Gold Association said. The number of domestic gold producers shrank to around 700 at the end of 2010, from 1,200 in 2002, through mergers and acquisitions

Further recently, the Chinese Government, through public sector companies, bought South African gold mines from the Australian owner.

Citic Group, China’s biggest state- owned investment company, and partners agreed to buy Gold One International Ltd. (GDO) for about A$444 million ($469 million), gaining gold assets in South Africa.  China Development Bank Corp. and Long March Capital Group are the other members of the bidding group, which is seeking as much as a 75 percent stake and plans to keep the company trading in Australia and South Africa, with a potential listing in Hong Kong. Citic is bidding through its Baiyin Non-Ferrous Group Co. unit and China Development Bank through its China-Africa Development Fund.

Gold One operates the Modder East mine in South Africa and also has projects in Mozambique and Namibia.

A frothing-at-the-mouth FT.com found many reasons to critique the deal.

China and silver

The other big story is silver. Why this sudden spurt in prices? How sustainable is price increase in silver?

Silver is down nearly 30% this month in volatile trading. Such a move in the Dow Jones Industrial Average would equate to an eye-popping drop of more than 3,700 points. Tony Crescenzi of Pacific Investment Management Co. called silver’s parabolic rise and subsequent skid a “tulip mania-style move.”

Silver backers counter that even with its recent drop, the lesser precious metal has retained a nearly 80% gain over the past year.

While gold supply is well understood, silver bulls and bears argue about just how much silver is out there. Some analysts make the case that silver in batteries and photographic film is “recycled” back into the market, reducing scarcity. Silver bulls, of course, think that’s a bunch of poppycock.

More important, the gold-silver price ratio has gotten out of whack. During most of the past 10 years, the ratio hovered around 60, meaning gold was 60 times more expensive than silver. Silver’s incredible surge over the past year has pushed the ratio down to 43, a level not seen since silver’s last crazed phase in the early 1980s. At its peak, back on April 29, the ratio narrowed to 31, a level not seen in three decades.

Silver bulls will argue that the gold-silver price ratio should reflect the 15.5 level authorized by France in 1803, or the 15 level outlined in the U.S. Coinage Act of 1792. It’s more likely that the ratio will revert to modern-era norms rather than race back to the Napoleonic era. And that means that gold, more than silver, looks like the solid store of value today.

Behind this huge spike in silver prices

The Chinese.

As 2ndlook has pointed out earlier, Chinese love silver – and Indians love gold. Most of Chinese consumption of gold is by a few well-heeled elites with guanxi.

But only look at the Chinese trading frenzy in silver.

Chinese speculators have emerged as a big driver of silver’s spectacular rally and subsequent crash with trading in the metal in Shanghai soaring nearly 30-fold since the start of the year.

The commodity, nicknamed “the devil’s metal” for its wild price swings, surged 175 per cent from August to a peak of almost $50 a troy ounce two weeks ago. Since then, it has plummeted 35 per cent, hitting a low of $32.33 on Thursday.

At the same time, silver turnover on the Shanghai Gold Exchange, China’s main precious metals trading hub spiked, rising 2,837 per cent from the start of this year to a peak of 70m ounces on April 26, according to exchange data.

The number of contracts outstanding, an indicator of investor exposure, doubled over the same period.

Silver trading in Shanghai remains below the levels in London and New York, the two main global hubs, but its rapid growth means its has become increasingly significant in driving prices.  “I’m pretty certain it’s the Chinese retail [investment] that is driving this move,” one senior precious metals banker said. “There’s an enormous amount of speculation going on out there, they’ve got the bit between their teeth.”

The Chinese gorilla

Looking at the reports of the market and commodities, it is plain that the Chinese Government is an interested player in gold acquisition – something that 2ndlook projected nearly 4 years ago. And the Chinese consumer is behind the rise in silver prices.

Since China is anyway the world’s largest producer of gold, disruption in gold supplies has not highly marked. If other Governments follow the Chinese example, gold prices could explode. If Chinese buying gets very aggressive, again, prices could spike.

The only cloud on the horizon could be some kind of consensus to bring some undeclared quantities of gold into the market – like the Central Banks Gold Agreement (CBGA). Is that likely? The only such seller could be EU members? With the Euro-zone and the Euro-currency itself in such trouble,  would ECB members dare to sell gold?

Especially, if the Chinese Government is ready to buy?

Top national central bank gold holdings. (Image courtesy - FT.com.). Click for larger copy.

Top national central bank gold holdings. (Image courtesy - FT.com.). Click for larger copy.

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