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Bullion-Buying in China and India, Part I

Articles & Blogs - Gold Commentary

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One persistent gripe I have with media analysis of economic issues is the extremely stunted perspective on news items. What I mean by this is that a news item will come out which suggests a particular trend (to greater or lesser degrees). What we will then see is a legion of media pundits jumping on this one inference – and then framing it as if it represents the only rational conclusion for this piece of news.

In fact, as anyone with a reasonable amount of imagination and/or analytical expertise can tell you, most news items are suggestive of at least two possible scenarios – and often more. This analytical ineptitude has resulted in a number of disparaging clichés. Sadly, most take aim at the numbers, themselves, instead of the people using/abusing these numbers.

Statistics can be used to say anything.” “There are lies, damn lies, and statistics.” “Numbers don’t lie, people do.” The first two expressions are common (but mistaken) adages in our society. The last one has perhaps not yet achieved the status of a “cliché”, but it is certainly an expression which can be found in the writing of an increasing number of authors. And unlike the first two clichés, the third expression is logically valid.

In fact, a “statistic” is a precise numerical representation of a particular item or event. By definition, it can only represent a single fact. Where statistics get their “bad name” is through utterly incompetent analysis. A writer takes a statistic, adds his/her own interpretation of that statistic, and then pretends that the statistic, itself represents the author’s conclusion – because the author refuses/fails to include the chain of logical deductions which leads from the original number to the author’s stated conclusion. For those more interested in this subject from an abstract perspective, I wrote a previous commentary on this very subject.

At present, I want to point out how such superficial (and erroneous) analysis can affect the precious metals sector – and the people whom report on it. In particular, I want to examine data from India and China’s bullion markets, and then explain how this data is more complex than it is currently being portrayed by most commentators in this sector.

Starting with China, recently released data from the World Gold Council shows that “retail investment demand” for gold continues to rapidly increase in China. Several reasons are put forth to explain this increased demand by precious metals commentators: rising wealth/income levels in China’s population, an increasing distrust of debauched paper currencies (or a concern about “inflation” – which is the same thing), and even the explicit endorsement of gold (and silver) as “desirable investments” by China’s government.

These are all valid reasons, and all “drivers” of current demand for gold in China. However, an even more important dynamic is either ignored, or simply unknown to most of these writers: the extreme “liberalization” of China’s bullion market. Ironically, precious metals writers have reported (in great detail) on the recent announcement by this government of significant moves to “open up” China’s precious metals market. Yet, the much more significant move by the Chinese government which preceded this has been almost completely ignored.

Starting with Mao, China’s citizens were prohibited from purchasing bullion. It wasn’t until 2002, that this total ban was partially lifted. However, small purchases of bullion were still not allowed. When you combine the (previously) small incomes of China’s population with an official ban on small transactions, the effect of this decree was that gold was still totally out of reach for well over 90% of China’s 1+ billion inhabitants.

It was only at the beginning of 2009 that all restrictions on bullion-buying by individuals in China were ended. From that time, it only took about one year for China’s gold-buying to surge to a level where (depending on whose numbers you look at), China is either tied with India as the world’s largest gold-consumer – or has already vaulted into top-spot.

Clearly, the single most-important driver for this demand was the lifting of prohibitions on bullion-buying, and yet that dominant factor has been almost completely overlooked by the precious metals community. Why do I continue to harp on this point?

Unlike the other drivers of demand mentioned (which are based upon current factors), the roughly 50-year ban on bullion-buying in China obviously created vast amounts of pent-up demand. Arguably, this pent-up demand must be satisfied first (since it predates those other drivers), before the Chinese market even begins to be driven by the other factors listed. However, even if you reject this “chronological” interpretation of Chinese demand, it clearly represents a major incremental addition to all the other demand-drivers.

Put another way, if you planned a banquet for a large group of people, and you examined their “likes” and “dislikes”, calculated the average amount of food desired/required per person, and then multiplied that by the number of people attending, you might think that you have correctly estimated the demand for food at this banquet. However, if (in fact) this group of people had been “fasting” for the last 50 years preceding the banquet, then obviously your estimate of total demand for food at this banquet would be a gross underestimate.

This is the reality with the gold market in China: factor-in all the current fundamentals which are spurring Chinese demand – and then adjust projections significantly higher, to reflect the 50 years of unsated “appetite” for gold. Obviously, I’m not implying that the 50-year prohibition on bullion-buying means that Chinese citizens will end up buying 50 times as much gold. Using the “fasting” analogy, when someone resumes eating after a fast, they don’t want/require enough food to make up for all of those missed meals plus that person’s normal appetite. But much like the person fasting, Chinese citizens will have a still-significant “residual appetite” from all those years they were locked-out of the bullion market.

Up to this point, I have only been examining the quantity of demand in China. However, analysis of the precious metals market in China also suffers from a failure to understand and identify the nature of that demand. We create and categorize Chinese (and world) gold-demand using Western categories for demand, and (more importantly) Western interpretations on how we analyze that demand.

Specifically, in the gold market, we focus on “jewelry demand” and “retail investor demand”. Of greatest significance is how we choose to define this demand. We define jewelry demand as an “industrial application” for gold, leading to the production (and sale) of a “luxury good”. In fact, arguably the majority of all gold jewelry ever produced in the world (throughout history) has been produced as instruments of “savings”, not as luxury goods.

Similarly, when we talk about “retail investment demand”, we are reducing gold (and bullion) to the status of nothing more than an ordinary commodity – something which we “buy low, and sell high”. Knowledgeable bullion-holders know that nothing could be further from the truth. It is the best “money” known to our species, and we will be extremely reluctant to swap it for grossly inferior, paper currencies (i.e. sell it) – irrespective of how large a stack of banker-paper we can get for it.

More generally, what people in affluent, Western cultures are oblivious to is that most of the world’s population has no access to banks or banking services. Perhaps another way of expressing this is to state that most of the world’s population has never seen a need or justification for creating banks? That general subject is (unfortunately) a discussion best left for another time.

For now, what is relevant is that most of the world’s population manages to function without banks, begging the question: what do these people do with the “savings” which they are able to generate? The answer (for thousands of years) has been for people to hold/carry their savings in the form of gold (and silver) jewelry.

This fact is of huge significance in analyzing demand. Gold-bashers have consistently engaged in the fear-mongering that ever-increasing prices for gold would “kill” demand for jewelry. While demand for jewelry in Western cultures shows considerable price-elasticity (i.e. demand falls as the price increases), this has been much less of a factor in Asian jewelry markets (which consume the majority of the world’s jewelry).

The reason for this is due precisely to the previous distinction I made in the nature of jewelry demand. In those cultures that use jewelry for savings, there is very little price-elasticity (except briefly, in any sudden spike in price). People without banks, who use jewelry for savings, are still going to continue to do so. The only thing that changes is that if their incomes don’t keep pace with the rate of increase in the price of bullion, then the quantity of bullion they buy (by weight) will decrease. However, the dollar-value of what they spend on (convert into) jewelry will continue to steadily increase over time – irrespective of the price of bullion.

Of similar importance is what this implies for the supply of gold (and silver). The other branch of fear-mongering preferred by the gold-bashers is to “warn” bullion-holders that vast amounts of “scrap” bullion (i.e. old jewelry) would soon “flood” the markets. I’ve covered this issue to a large extent in a previous commentary. What the empirical evidence shows is that during this quintupling in the price of bullion, there have been no “floods” of scrap entering the market – with the exception of the gullible dupes in North America who are being preyed-upon by the “we buy gold” vultures.

What the World Gold Council has consistently reported is there have been very brief surges in scrap-sales – but only at times when the price of bullion has spiked. Supply of scrap rapidly falls-off to previous levels, and there has been no long-term trend toward increasing supply in this area.

Once we understand jewelry (and bullion, in general) as a form of “savings”, then we should not be surprised by this trend. With our own “money” (i.e. the paper currency which we pretend is “money”) in our savings accounts, we never contemplate “selling” our money – since the very concept is ludicrous. We spend our money, when and if we need to, otherwise we simply retain it.

With most of the world’s peoples being much, much more prudent with their money (or savings-oriented) than the spend-aholics of Western cultures, these people are not suddenly going to go on spending-sprees simply because the purchasing power of their savings (i.e. their bullion) has increased.

Instead, what the empirical evidence has shown in the economies of the world’s two-largest populations (and two largest gold-buyers) is that spending correlates closely with increases in income rather than increases in wealth. Indeed, people in North America used to embrace the same ethos – before being brainwashed by the saturation-advertising of bankers.

A “second mortgage” used to be a subject of shame, something which no one would willingly admit to – and was generally seen as a last-resort, source of “emergency funding”. Even a generation ago, people who contemplated using their “home equity” as some sort of “chequing account” for frivolous spending would be looked upon with disgust by the vast majority.

What this leads to is a fundamental truth in the precious metals market: because most of the “physical” gold and silver purchased in the world (by the vast majority of our population) is being purchased as “savings” (whether in the form of jewelry or bullion), there will be very little decrease in demand for bullion even at extreme multiples of current prices.

Similarly, this same dynamic means that there will never be any meaningful surge in “scrap sales” of bullion – apart from the small “blips” previously acknowledged. Together, this directly implies that most of the forecasts for bullion-demand by “experts” will consistently underestimate that demand, while their estimates for scrap-supply will consistently overestimate real supply – for the same reasons.

In Part II, I will shift my analysis to India, and also spend a bit more time on the silver market – and the different dynamics in effect there.


Comments (15)Add Comment
Hank Harrington
written by Chad McNamara, August 30, 2010
Thank you VERY much to Bullion Bulls Canada member TGR for the personal picture he sent in, that we used for the feature image!

written by apberusdisvet, August 30, 2010
Jeff: in your response to Null, some additional thoughts. First, the Chinese have always held the long view, no day-to-day for them. Next, they have 1000s of years with a cultural fondness of gold as a store of wealth. It's almost in their DNA. Third, there are already signs that the USD may be losing its role as the preferred trade currency; witness MacD's (and others) willingness to trade in the Rmb instead. Third, the Euro seems to be on its last legs; how can the Germans allow a dependence on a currency conflicted with PIIG virus? While the US/European Progressives/Marxists would love to form their own new currency, the Chinese will stand in the way. Everyone, except the average American, knows that the USD is toast; how can it not be when the total liabilities (actual, not the obfuscations published) are approaching 600% of annual revenue. Ulimately (perhaps within 5 years), a new currency, based upon a basket of commodities will arise. You can bet your last nickel that the basket will include gold.
Jeff Nielson
written by Jeff Nielson, August 30, 2010
Null, some very good points. Yes, just because China CAN survive a USD/U.S. Treasury implosion does NOT mean that they are planning on CAUSING such an event.

You are correct that it's in China's interests to allow the U.S. to continue to play its games: prop up the dollar and bond market; push down gold and silver.

As for China's gold holdings, there are a couple of points to be aware of. China has clearly established itself as the world's largest gold-producer. In fact, we could describe their ramping-up of gold production as nearly "fanatical".

There are TWO very good reasons for this. One, it's more gold for ALL of the gold-buyers out there to buy (except NONE of it is leaving the country). More specifically, the international rules on reporting gold reserves do NOT require China to acknowledge ANY of the gold acquired domestically.

When it made a disclosure (more than a year ago)that it's gold reserves had risen by more than 75%, that was an entirely VOLUNTARY disclosure. More importantly, China could already have MUCH MORE gold than it has admitted to, because of this voluntary/optional reporting rule.

Thus, we are in the very strange position of the U.S. government (which hates gold) PRETENDING that it has the world's largest "gold reserves". Meanwhile, we have China's government (which LOVES gold) very likely pretending to have LESS than it admits to.

Remember that China's previous disclosure was seen as "very bullish" for the gold market. As you point out, yourself, China does NOT want to be sending even MORE bullish signals - while it tries to acquire vast amounts of gold.

This is why I have suggested to readers to try to "think like" the big-buyers (i.e. China): be patient, look at the delayed rise of bullion as an "opportunity" to acquire more (cheaply), and understand the REAL motives of the players in this market.
written by Null, August 30, 2010
In an earlier commentary you explained that China is well prepared to dump its treasuries and become the new reserve currency, without as many negative economic consequences as is often portrayed. But at the same time, the Chinese central bank also does not have very much gold. If and when they dump their treasuries and force a collapse of the US dollar, I would presume this would also take down the gold suppression scheme of western bankers, and then the problem is that China would be left stuck with little gold to its name to back its currency, and significantly higher gold prices for purchase. I wonder if this is a factor in the continuation of the US / China debtor / creditor gridlock game. On the other hand, China is a big area and it may be that they will be able to find their own good deposits, and are not revealing this info to the rest of the world?
Jeff Nielson
written by Jeff Nielson, August 29, 2010
TGR, it's too bad that I can't simply tack-on that wonderful narrative to my own piece as an "appendix". Thanks again for the detailed observations, and I will certainly file them away for future reference.

Your comments about current, per capita bullion-holdings are also very astute, and something on which I can hopefully obtain more detailed information - as it is certainly another "piece in the puzzle" in trying to gauge real demand.

written by TGR, August 29, 2010
Hi Jeff,

My tone may have been mistaken as I did not wish to appear as wanting to correct; your article is very informative, enlightening and overall the gist is spot on. I just thought I could add some ‘tweaking’ to a couple of points to put things more in perspective from this side of the fence.

On your question, when official investment grade bullion was made available in 2001/02 that was really the start of more wide-spread buying, as what happened is general entrepreneurs were then allowed to sell gold. So, there were more shops in malls, corners, everywhere – selling gold. The very fact it was available, in a more professional manner with safeguards as to the source and quality, and in much greater numbers was sufficient to get the buyers in. Basically, it became a lot more ‘visible’.

If you look at the graph of demand in China, it has grown ever since then, continues to, and will continue likewise into the future I believe; as even just over the past couple of years, the number of gold outlets across the country has grown exponentially. This includes more banks coming online selling gold and its various paper derivatives, making it very easy for anyone to invest when they get a hankering for gold.

So yes, the full liberalization, with no bans anywhere, has certainly made a huge difference.

On the rumored belief China was telling its citizens to buy gold and silver, that was simply one individual blogger (who doesn’t live in China, is a greenhorn to PMs, and whose supposed ‘inside source’ simultaneously thought 2009 was the first year ever Chinese could own gold; along with various other grossly inept claims. The story got picked up by others, and it worked like a Chinese whisper around the blogosphere – even Jim Sinclair posted a dubious article on the rumor).

I think it is important to remember, these gold initiatives were planned a long time ago; China has just been honoring its plan in incremental steps and would be doing so even if gold were still languishing in the 200-300s.

There has been the odd objective news piece in the Chinese press on developments in the gold industry, but certainly no direct encouragement as such in any way. I have, in fact, seen one article aimed at the wealthier side of the Chinese population which was out just this February prior to Chinese New Year (the peak buying time for gold) which actually was more ‘dis-encouraging’ if anything, saying gold could be in a bubble. And this was from a civil aviation (government owned) magazine. I have a hard-copy of the article.

Anyway, there really doesn’t need to be any official ‘endorsement’ or direct encouragement as such, as the very fact the number of products and outlets are growing across China exponentially is sufficient in itself. The Chinese are very shrewd investors overall, and have a long affinity with gold as a race/nation. They are also much more internationally aware in terms of markets than many might believe.

Given that per capita gold buying in China is horrendously low compared to that of US and Europe, there is way way more segments of the population yet to really come in. And there is significantly more wealth in China than many also might believe; in fact I’d say it is almost staggering. It won’t take much to put continued up pressure on the gold price.
Jeff Nielson
written by Jeff Nielson, August 29, 2010
Yes, SilverGoldBull, that was my thinking in doing the recent commentary "Bullion As A Superior Investment".

While "insurance" should be our primary focus in such turbulent times, we can't forget that relative scarcity SHOULD result in a REAL appreciation in the value of bullion, above-and-beyond merely tracking inflation.
written by, August 29, 2010
With regards to the dynamic of Gold and Silver sales changing, moving from the conservative investors to the main stream demand will be present everywhere India,China, Brazil, Russia,and North America etc.. It sometimes surprises me that people are still so concerned with demand with less of a focus on supply. Supply is finite and if ones purchasing lanes are not solid, the greater crunch will form when people become desparate to buy or find a repudible source.

Jeff Nielson
written by Jeff Nielson, August 29, 2010
Apberusdisvet, I hope you don't think I'm "bobbing and weaving" here, but I always answer questions like that with the same, general reply.

We can NEVER predict when "the dam will burst", because that event is still at the discretion of the manipulators. While "one day" (and it could be tomorrow) we will experience a direct "delivery" default - because the cupboards are bare - that day does not SEEM to be imminent.

This is why their ability to "fudge" the inventory numbers is so crucial to their schemes. Given the number of "big players" who just want to make money, and don't care WHOSE money they take, if we KNEW that inventories were almost gone, someone would "break the bank" today.

As long as their "smokescreen" persists, THEY choose the day when they capitulate. The SOONER they concede, the less their total losses will be. However (as we all know), holding down gold/silver is a big part of their much larger, money-printing scam. So IF "defending" their bullion manipulation to the absolute extreme (where they don't CARE how horrible the implosion is) is their top priority, then maybe we still have to wait 5 years?

However, that presumes that Western economies don't implode before that, since as soon as we get CLOSE to hyperinflation, they will get ANNIHILATED in the bullion market...
written by apberusdisvet, August 29, 2010
Jeff: do you think that the demand push from Asia this fall will force the hand of the silver manipulators, or will gold rise and silver follow, but only at the existing 60-65X ratio?
Jeff Nielson
written by Jeff Nielson, August 29, 2010
Null, as I've mentioned before in comments on other articles, another way of putting what you said is to observe that simply ATTEMPTING to express the value of gold (or silver) in the banksters' fiat-paper is becoming increasingly difficult/nebulous.

To me, this is the surest "warning sign" that the banksters' fiat-currency empire is ready to crumble.
Jeff Nielson
written by Jeff Nielson, August 29, 2010
TGR, thank you very much for your detailed comment. We are always pro-enlightenment here - so corrections are appreciated.

Your observation about jewelry in China is especially useful. While writing this piece, I (briefly) had that on my mind too, but by the time the piece was completed, it had slipped away from me (lol). Yes, clearly the Chinese people could buy jewelry, and thus bullion (in that form).

I'm a little more embarrassed by your debunking of the Chinese government "officially" endorsing gold to its citizens. I try not to report "news" until it is PAST the level of a "rumor" - so I'm disappointed not to have met that standard here.

If you have the time for a further reply, did the removal of the ban still have a significant impact on the Chinese gold market, or do you believe the huge surge in gold-buying was coincidental?

written by lyleric, August 29, 2010
Great article and comments! Thanks guys!
written by TGR, August 29, 2010
Hello Jeff,

I, like you, am very bullish on gold in China - and for good reason.

However, as someone who has been resident in China for many many years, has bought gold in China, has been involved in the industry to some degree and has followed this specifc sector for many years, my take may be slightly different to yours.

I would just like to offer up a few points which to my understanding are a little different from the standard take on the liberalization of the Chinese gold sector currently doing the rounds. This is not to be anything other than helpful to those who really wish to understand the Chinese gold market, and why in fact the reality is more bullish than what most commentators from abroad are suggesting. If you wish to refute any facts, I would be happy to provide further information and links.

First, Chinese citizens have been able to buy gold since the early 1980s. However, it was only really available in jewelry format, not bars or coins. And it wasn't widely available, but it was available.

In 2000, the Chinese announced in its regular 5-year plan that it would be opening the gold sector further via a series of steps, along with the liberalization of other financial and commodities markets. This was to bring overall financial reform up to international standards, with the ultimate aim of having a mature, functioning international financial market where investment could flow in and out of all market sectors with ease.

Investment grade bullion was openly available in China in 2001 (some vendors jumped the official starting date of 2002) and this proved quite popular even then. Of course, YoY demand continues to increase - but the point being gold has long been available, and whether there was a bull or bear market in gold, these reforms and the liberalization of the gold sector would still be ongoing.

There was a rumor erroneously started last year that went semi-viral in the blogosphere that the Chinese government was aggressively telling its citizens to buy gold. It is the same article in kind you refer to on the mineweb site, but if you trace the source of the article, the suppposed source also tries to erroneously claim 2009 is the first year Chinese citizens have been aloud to buy gold. The claims are wrong on both accounts.

2009 is the first year that citizens can trade on futures on the exchange, but far from anything to do with being the first time citizens can hold gold.

Over the past several years, four main Chinese banks have offered physical (and not all branches, only some) - but, what is becoming more popular and what commentators in China on the gold market see as the growth area is the increase in gold-backed savings and trading schemes, as opposed to the physical itself. The number of banks offering gold though, just recently, has been widened too.

What, however, is the real bullish factor here is not that the government is 'pushing' gold onto the citizens (because they aren't - no more than they are pushing anything else in the market that is going through the liberalization process) but that people are taking to it organically.

I agree with you there is to some degree a pent-up demand, but the real demand is coming from increasing wages, increasing superfluous cash, rising inflation, and the fact the domestic property and stock markets are showing signs of stress.

Rising prices too in gold, are actually beneficial in the fact that gold is becoming a status buy too, and anything that is known to be expensive in general in China can also equate to high demand due to status and the widely-practised art in China of conspicuous consumption. That is why alot of the physical gold products in China are actually ornaments, with bars and coins taking second-place. Browse through any gold shop in China and you will see that 80 to 90 per cent of the gold on sale is anything from large buddhas, ships, abacuses - you name it - as it can be put on display in ones home. The ultimate display of wealth, with the added bonus of being an investment for the long-term.

Anyway, just saying there is a long, long way to go for the gold bull in China, and the fact that there is in fact no widespread media campaign or anything even remotely close to it in China on gold is encouraging in itself.
written by Null, August 29, 2010
It's interesting to think about how high the "ceiling" is for gold, and really there isn't one. Precisely because gold has no intrinsic value or use other than for money, it can't be overvalued. It is desirable simply because of its physical properties and scarcity. Would you pay $1200 for gold? Sure, why not, if you believe that its value is going to hold or go up. $5000? Why not, if you believe that it will hold its value or go up. At what price does someone decide that its value will not go up anymore or even go down? What happens when the entire western world comes to the realization that all western fiat currencies are going down the tube? How much would you be willing to spend on an ounce of gold in order to protect your fiat wealth? $100,000? $500,000? If that was the only reasonable way to store your wealth until the storm is weathered and new currencies are put in place, and you believe that gold will hold its value for the reason that every other person with paper money is thinking the same thing, then why not? The price per ounce is irrelevant; all that matters is whether the investor believes that gold will hold its value. So then you have to ask, with all the western world's financial wealth facing destruction over a very short time frame, how much will gold rise given the very short supplies of physical metal? It is almost mind boggling to think about it. As George Soros said, it is the ultimate bubble, although it isn't technically a bubble because there is nothing that gold can be inflated relative to, other than people's expectations of future gold price.

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