Is China Replacing India as the World's Premier Gold Consumer?

Includes: FXI, GLD
by: Jeff Nielson

For several decades, Indian gold demand has dominated the global gold market, to the point where its own consumption-cycle became the “seasonal” indicator for gold. As Indian “wedding season” began in the fall, gold typically experienced a surge in the price. Then, in the spring, as wedding season drew to a close, gold would reach its seasonal peak.

In late April or May, as Indian demand dropped off, so too would the price of gold (usually) begin to swoon. The price would bottom in June or July, trade sideways for a period of weeks or months, and then begin to show strength again as Indian demand returned, to begin a new “season”.

However, over the last year, the picture of global demand for gold has changed radically – in several ways. To begin with, apart from the 3rd quarter of last year (when Wall Street's take-down of global markets resulted in even gold going briefly lower) Indian gold imports have virtually disappeared.

Indian gold-buyers are notoriously price-sensitive (as are their retail customers). With gold prices being at or near record-highs, with the exception of that one quarter, the Indian buyers have simply waited – presumably for the usual, spring sell-off – and relied upon domestic “scrap” sales to cover domestic demand. But there has been no sell-off in the gold market this year.

In the first quarter of 2009, Indian gold imports fell 83%, at a time when Indian demand normally drives the gold market. True, there was no significant rally – but no weakness either, despite Indian abstinence. Indeed, I commented on this startling change several months ago (“Is India now IRRELEVANT to the gold market?”).

There have been two other important changes in the global gold market, which have completely offset the stunning change in Indian consumption. The first change is gold's official metamorphosis from a “jewelry” market to an “investment” market. As noted several months ago, in “Gold demand driven by investment...PERIOD”, in 2008 for the first time in decades, “investment” demand exceeded “jewelry” demand.

This was primarily due to a huge jump in investment demand, rather than declining jewelry demand, as in the fourth quarter of 2008, retail investment demand was a stunning 400% higher than the same period a year ago. Overall, investment demand more than doubled last year. However, even that overstates the importance of jewelry demand to the gold market.

The majority of retail consumption in the world is based in Asia. In part, this is “cultural heritage”, but it is also a practical matter. For example, of the hundreds of millions of Indian “peasants”, only a small percentage have access to banking services. Thus, the “savings accounts” for these people is their gold (and silver). It is typically fashioned into jewelry, so that it can be worn (a convenient means of carrying it), but this “jewelry” is all about financial security rather than ornamentation.

The importance of this reality is that while Indian buyers may stay away from the gold market over the short term, over the longer term, Indian peasants must have additional gold and silver to store their wealth. Already, indications are that Indian demand is shifting somewhat into cheaper silver (yet another future drive for that market).

Two further anecdotes indicate the increasing desperation of India to find new (and preferably cheaper) sources for gold. In “Indian gold-buyers DESPERATE for new supply”, I pointed out how India had been talking-up the idea of mining its own gold “reserves” - with a recent estimate released stating that the Indian government believed there were 20,000 tons of gold and diamonds that could be mined in India.

Of course, with any actual production of such resources at least a decade away, this appeared to be more an attempt to “jaw-bone” the price of gold lower rather than a realistic solution to come up with a new gold supply, without driving the price of gold even higher.

The other anecdote was a public declaration (along with China) that the IMF should sell all of its thousands of tons of gold, rather than merely the few hundred tons that has been announced (and re-announced) by the Manipulators on at least a half-dozen occasions. Presumably, China and India were both eager to lay their hands on thousands of tons of gold “in one gulp” - and without pushing up the price of gold, directly.

This brings us to the last major change in gold demand fundamentals: the rise of China as a dominant, international “player” in gold. It began with China rapidly expanding its gold production, in order to become the world's largest producer – the only large producer in the world which has been able to expand its production. Indeed, most other large, global producers are seeing steady declines in their own production, despite record nominal prices for gold (see “Peak Gold: the new paradigm”).

However, instead of Chinese gold becoming a rare, new source of supply for the globalvcgold market, it now appears that China was secretly purchasing most (if not all) of that new gold for itself. The Chinese government recently announced that in just six years, it had increased its official, national gold reserves by 76% - as of the end of 2008 (see “China now has 5th largest gold reserves”).

Meanwhile, as China became the world's largest producer of gold, while the Chinese government has been the biggest, national acquirer of gold, now individual Chinese investors appear to be following its government's example. In a recent Bloomberg article, the World Gold Council reported that China was poised to overtake India this year, as the world's largest gold-consumer.

In the first quarter of this year, Indian domestic demand was only two tons greater than that of China – little more than 2%. This means that China will likely pass India next quarter, and barring a significant reversal in India, become the new permanent leader in global gold consumption. India's bullion dealers must now begin to contemplate this new paradigm for the global gold market: that they are now competing for available supply with 1.2 billion Chinese consumers (along with other retail investors all over the world).

Once that realization sinks in, it must result in a change in the psychology of Indian buyers (at both the wholesale and retail level). As the fantasy of “cheap gold” becomes nothing but a memory from the past, Indian gold demand will change from providing primary support for the price of the gold, to becoming another major driver in higher gold prices.

Thus apart from the ever-present monetary/economic arguments for holding gold (and silver), the supply/demand fundamentals for the precious metals market continue to be among the strongest (if not the strongest) for any commodities on the planet. With China having clearly begun another strong, economic growth-cycle, and with economies such as the that of the U.S. still a grave concern, gold demand can only continue to soar.