Why Are the Chinese Buying Record Quantities of Gold?


This month, the Hong Kong Census and Statistics Department reported that China imported 102,779 kilograms of gold from Hong Kong in November, an increase from October’s 86,299 kilograms. Beijing does not release gold trade figures, so for this and other reasons the Hong Kong numbers are considered the best indication of China’s gold imports.

Analysts believe China bought as much as 490 tons of gold in 2011, double the estimated 245 tons in 2010. “The thing that’s caught people’s minds is the massive increase in Chinese buying,” remarked Ross Norman of Sharps Pixley, a London gold brokerage, this month.

So who in China is buying all this gold?

The People’s Bank of China, the central bank, has been hinting that it is purchasing. “No asset is safe now,” said the PBOC’s Zhang Jianhua at the end of last month. “The only choice to hedge risks is to hold hard currency – gold.” He also said it was smart strategy to buy on market dips. Analysts naturally jumped on his comment as proof that China, the world’s fifth-largest holder of the metal, is in the market for more.

There are a few problems with this conclusion. First, the Chinese government rarely benefits others – and hurts itself – by telegraphing its short-term investment strategies.

Second, the central bank has less purchasing power these days. China’s foreign reserves declined in Q4 2011, falling $20.6 billion from Q3. The first quarterly outflow since 1998 was not large, but the trend was troubling. The reserves declined a stunning $92.7 billion in November and December.

Third, the purchase of gold would be especially risky for the central bank, which is already insolvent from a balance sheet point of view. The PBOC needs income-producing assets in order to meet its obligations on the debt incurred to buy foreign exchange, so the holding of gold only complicates its funding operations. This is not to say the bank never buys gold – it obviously does – but there are real constraints on its ability to purchase assets that do not provide current income.

Apart from China’s central bank, there is not much demand from the country’s institutional investors for gold. There are industrial users, of course, but their demand is filled from domestic production – China is the world’s largest gold producer. Most of China’s gold demand from foreign sources, therefore, is from individuals.

So why are individuals now buying gold? The easy answer is that the demand is only seasonal, as Jeff Wright of Global Hunter Securities believes. The Chinese traditionally buy gold presents in the run-up to the Lunar New Year, which started a week ago. Yet gift-giving does not begin to explain the surge in gold purchases that started as far back as July. November was the fifth-consecutive month of China’s record gold purchases from Hong Kong.

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