by Jan Skoyles
October 10, 2013 (TSR) – The Chinese government acknowledged gold as a strategic asset in 2000, when it included the establishment of an open gold market in its five year economic plan.
Since then China has come to play a significant role in the international gold market as it strives to develop and advance all aspects of the industry and gold’s role in the domestic market.
Why it has decided to focus on building and developing the gold industry from both a supply and demand perspective is a question that requires further investigation.
One gold bar at a time
The year 2013 in the gold investment market will be remembered as the year of China, so we’ve produced a stunning infographic detailing China’s great golden rise to power.
In just a few months the world’s largest country will overtake India as the biggest consumer of gold and its gold market continues to break records.
A country that already mines over 400 tonnes of gold a year, China still demands more physical gold no matter the price. Between January and July this year the Shanghai Gold Exchange delivered more than 1,333 tonnes to gold investors.
In the last 100 years China’s gold mine productivity has climbed from just 4 tons of gold in 1949 to an expected 440 tons this year, none of which is exported. Hong Kong imports have been over 600 tonnes this year alone, but still more gold is demanded.
Whilst it may appear that China has exploded onto the gold scene this is by no means the case. China’s ancient monetary history is well documented. They are the world’s oldest scientists when it comes to different forms of money, having being the first to experiment with paper money and different metallic standards. Therefore during an international financial crisis one would imagine that the country with the longest and most diverse monetary history would be the place to turn to for direction.
Global domination in less than a century?
Less than 100 years ago the Shanghai Gold Business Exchange was one of the biggest gold centres in the Far East. Since then gold has gone from being an almost illegal investment to a market that has become increasingly open in modern China.
Whilst the Western world works to keep the paper system upright, China’s experience with fiat money and its concomitant phenomena of debasement and inflation may mean that they are looking to diversify their monetary system. Their recent history certainly suggests as much, as they have been gradually opening themselves up to the world’s most precious marketplace.
Between 1950 and 1995 small changes in China’s gold market were made, a gold jewellery retail market was opened and the Gold Panda was launched. But the first indication that the government was looking to develop the gold market came in 1993. At this point the State changed the price-fixing method for gold from a state-determined price to a floating one.
Between 2000 and 2002 key measures were taken that would provide the foundations for the country’s power in the gold market. In 2000 the Chinese government included the establishment of an open gold market in its five year economic plan, indicating gold is a strategic market. Shortly after the PBOC abolished the monopoly of the gold market and announced a planning and management system to see it forward.
Just 18 months after the new weekly quotation system for the gold price was launched (opening up the gold price to international markets) the Shanghai Gold Exchange officially opened in 2002. It is this exchange that has grabbed the attention of the Western media this year.
The State has also worked hard in the last decade to encourage institutions to participate in the gold market. In 2010 the paper “Guiding opinions on promoting the development of the gold market” was co-authored by several senior figures in the gold market. Amongst other targets commercial banks were asked to be actively engaged in developing China’s national gold market. Bullion producers were targeted for strategic assistance, with banks instructed to offer finance for overseas gold mine purchases and innovation.
China gets modern with her gold investment market
Since 2004 China’s State Council has continued to push and encourage individual gold ownership. Just this week the PBOC announced that individuals could import seven ounces of gold tax free and without reporting to customs. Elsewhere gold savings accounts are offered in the majority of banks and have proved to be exceptionally popular. Between 2010 and 2011 ICBC , China and the world’s largest bank, saw over 1 million gold savings accounts open.
Just five years after it became legal to invest in gold and silver China’s Central Television began running news items encouraging citizens to invest in precious metals. At industry level, senior members of the gold market are almost of celebrity status. In 2011 Sun Zhaoxue, President of China National Gold Corporation and the China Gold Association, received the award for Economic Person of the Year on state television.
Over the coming weeks, we will be producing a series of reports that will provide a window into China’s gold market. The history of China and gold goes back thousands of years, but right now we have little doubt that we are seeing historical moves in both the gold and international monetary system.
What is the China Gold Market?
There are three main areas of focus for the State Council when it comes to the precious metal market. These are not exclusive areas and are, in many ways, interconnected. The point being however that the government has identified where and who is best to develop its gold strategy.
We look at them briefly below.
Shanghai Gold Exchange
The SGE is the poster child for the 2013 gold market. It is managed and supplied by the PBOC. Many expect it to represent the tipping point in a dichotomous two part gold market (paper vs physical) due to the vast number of physical deliveries made in the last year. At times delivery numbers have touched global mine supply figures and when they haven’t they remain stunningly high.
Numbers from the SGE this year suggested that there was a change in the manner in which the Chinese made investment decisions. Having previously bought when prices were climbing and during festival seasons, they took delivery of record amounts of gold in both April and July following significant drops in the price of gold.
Launched in 2002, it took just ten years for the SGE to become the biggest physical gold exchange in the world signalling the rise of China as a gold market leader. A quick glance at previous data released by the SGE shows that the three largest gold contracts traded on the exchange are as follows: Au 99.95 (3kg contract), Au 99.99 (1 kg) and Au (T+D) (also 1kg of 99.95).
Members of the SGE, of which there are over 160, are heavily represented by commercial banks (domestic and Chinese branches of foreign banks) and firms involved in gold production and investment.
Shanghai Futures Exchange
The Shanghai Futures Exchange, controlled by China’s Securities Regulatory Commission, launched its first 1kg gold contract in 2008. This was a major step in the sophistication of the China gold market.
In terms of open interest the SHFE is the second largest gold futures exchange in the world. Despite this, the largest contract on COMEX (100 troy ounce) is over 11 times larger by volumes traded than the SHFE 1kg contract.
As we found, the 100 ounce gold futures contract on COMEX dominates this market and accounts for 82% of gold futures trading. This has fallen since we last looked at this area, by 3%. Neither the SHFE nor TOCOM have had any issues picking up more demand in the market.
The SHFE has taken a further 2% of market activity, from 7% since May 2013. TOCOM, in contrast has grown by just 1%.
This isn’t surprising given the increasing popularity of the 1kg gold futures contract on the SHFE, since January 2009 open interest has increased by 430%. In contrast, activity on COMEX has increased by just 116%.
Commercial banks in the gold market
The 2011 China Market Gold Report states that there are four pillars of gold market activity in which commercial banks are involved; physical gold, gold for trading, gold for financing and gold for wealth management. Through these activities commercial banks are members of the SGE and SHFE.
Commercial banks also play a key role in the financing of gold-orientated businesses. This was a feature of the 2010 report, “Guiding opinions on promoting the development of the gold market”, that instructed commercial banks to be actively engaged in developing China’s national gold market. Bullion producers are targeted for strategic assistance, with banks instructed to offer finance for overseas gold mine purchases and innovation.
Commercial banks operating in the gold market own proprietary gold businesses. These subsidiaries are involved in a variety of areas from account gold business, to gold depository plans to gold leasing. In 2011 the paper gold sector, the account gold business, experienced the lowest growth. Whilst the gold depository plans as offered by institutions such as ICBC have proved popular between small and medium-sized investors.
Commercial banks and their proprietary gold businesses are the key to gold market development, providing the link between the gold exchanges, gold supply and the domestic customer. It is through these institutions that the government can encourage and facilitate gold investment.
For instance it is through commercial banks that individual investors can buy gold on the SGE. Banks provide individual investors with a trading number which allows them to trade.
Banks also sell branded gold bars, said to be of a higher quality than those sold in other commercial gold outlets. Making physical gold available to individual investors through this route improves the accessibility for the smaller saver and means the government can ensure the quality of gold being bought.
Who controls the gold market?
Above all else in the China gold market is the State Council. In recent five year plans the role of gold has featured heavily as the Council instructs banks and other major institutions to develop the gold market. The 2010 Twelfth Five-Year plan (2011 – 2015) urged on-going development of the gold market both domestically and abroad and showing China is want to affirm her strategic interest in gold.
Below the State Council is the PBOC which probably plays the largest role in China’s developing gold market.
Former member of the PBOC’s MPC Yu Yongding, is just one of a few PBOC staff who are vocal about the role gold should play in the China’s international strength, “China should use its foreign-currency reserves, the world’s largest, to buy gold and oil as a hedge to guard against the risk of a sudden drop in the U.S. dollar.”
Not only does the PBOC manage gold-based products offered by banks but they also manage and supervise the supply of gold through mining and import to the Shanghai Gold Exchange.
The China Gold Association acts as the industry body, or the trade organisation. With interests in every corner of the gold market it ensures the government’s policies are put into action within the world of the yellow metal. Senior staff of the CGA are vocal supporters of building up China’s gold reserves and critics of the US. Expert member of the China Gold Association, Zhang Jie, is an exceptionally vocal critic of the US Dollar’s dominance and the Fed’s actions to manipulate the gold market.
“For the Fed, it is crucial that the dollar dominates the world and so the Fed will store gold reserves from countries all over the world to control the gold settlement system.”
There are several other government departments and key individuals who drive the gold market development, from all aspects including gold reserves and international gold trading. Look out for our ‘Who’s Who’ infographic in the coming weeks.
This year many gold article headlines have told us that this year China will overtake India as the world’s largest consumer of gold. This is according to the World Gold Council who have highlighted China’s rapid gold demand growth through theirs and GFMS’ data. It is these figures gold market participants and observers use to watch the race between India and China for the top spot in gold demand.
However, 2011 data from the SGE suggests otherwise. China may have taken over India a while back.
In 2011 the WGC stated that China’s gold demand stood at 769.8 tonnes. However the 2011 China Gold Market report (as published by the PBOC) states that demand reached 1043 tonnes. As Koos Jansen recently illustrated, this was the exact amount delivered by the SGE in the same year.
Koos Jansen found this same method of data reporting was duplicated in 2010, when SGE deliveries equalled the gold demand reported by the PBOC that year. If this is the accepted way to report gold demand in China’s data collection then total gold demand for the first eight months of 2013 is 1600 tonnes.
Central bank gold reserves
When it comes to reserves, very few believe that the PBOC has not increased the amount of gold since 2009 when the official reserves were announced to be 1,054 tonnes. It has been said recently by Zhaoxue Sun, Head of the China Gold Association and China’s biggest mining company, that gold reserves that account for 1.6% of total reserves are too low compared to other developed countries.
A 2012 paper, ‘A Study on Optimal Scale of China Gold Reserves’ co-authored by the Vice-President of the China Gold Association recommended that by 2020, China’s optimal reserves should be 5,787 – 6,750 tons. If the State Council has followed this recommendation then the PBOC should currently hold between 2,947.2 tons and 3332.4 tons of gold in reserve.
Western central bank gold sales have become a source of gold supply, this does not appear to be the case in China. In the 2011 Gold Market Report the SGE provide a breakdown of gold supply for the year, no gold had been supplied by the central bank.
How much gold is in the country? The graph below provides a wide estimate of the total gold held in China – both domestically and institutionally. However this does not include private gold holdings prior to 2001 or imports via ports other than Hong Kong.
Where does the gold come from? As we will explore further in this research project the supply of gold is coming under closer scrutiny. China National Gold is the largest supplier of gold to the country and the only Chinese member of the World Gold Council. The country’s gold mining production is now second to none, having risen from 4 tonnes 60 years ago to an expected 440 tonnes in 2013.
The 2011 Annual Gold Report state that ‘The country’s proven gold reserves in 2010 consisted of 4,898.09 tons of rock gold reserves in independent gold mines, 512.86 tons of placer gold and 1,468.03 tons of associated gold reserves.’ A total of 6864.79 tons of gold is waiting to be mined.
But this cannot be mined fast enough to meet day-to-day gold demand, a trend unlikely to subside given the ongoing development of gold investment products. The previous graph showed the growth of imports but recycled gold always plays a major role. Recently the PBOC highlighted the need to modernise and finance gold recycling and processing plants. In 2011 this source of gold accounted for 39% of total supply to China’s gold market.
The role of Hong Kong
Hong Kong’s gold imports and exports to mainland China have provided a window into the amount of gold being absorbed by the Chinese.
Since mid-2010 the net inflow of gold from Hong Kong to mainland China has increased significantly. Prior to 2012 very little gold was imported via Hong Kong, however in the last 18 months import levels have increased enormously.
The import and export numbers through Hong Kong show not just a growing demand for gold in China but also a growing presence of China’s gold on the international market.
Published plans for the Chinese gold market
As we have shown, China’s quest to open up the gold market has been moving quickly since 2000.
In the 2013 China Financial Stability Report, the PBOC reaffirmed their commitment to the gold market stating they would, ‘Promote the steady development of the gold market, improving the service system of the gold market, improving storage, transportation, delivery and account service system of the gold market.’
One of the most recent developments was the launch of the country’s first gold ETFs in July 2013. Neither ETF, from HuaAn Asset Management Company and Guotai Asset Management Company, are backed by gold. Instead the funds mirror the domestic spot price by purchasing futures contracts on the Shanghai Gold Exchange.
Because of the nature of these ‘paper’ ETFs it is not impossible to understand why neither managed to raise the expected initial amount. If China is to become the next centre of price discovery it is unlikely to be driven by their ETF offerings.
Whilst the Western world watched the gold price fall at the beginning of October 2013 the PBOC floated the idea of the easing of gold trade restrictions for both firms and individuals. Bank members of the SGE will be able to apply for import and export licenses, as will gold producers with an annual output exceeding ten tonnes. Individuals will be able to bring in seven ounces of gold, without being required to pay tax or report to customs.
What China means for the gold market
Advancing and opening up the gold market to both domestic and individual participants is clearly a top strategy for the government of China. However gold market observers in the West merely acknowledge gold import numbers and, more recently, SGE delivery numbers. Many dismiss this year’s record gold figures as a provincial approach to investment. However, as we have shown, the Chinese gold market is far more complex and strategic than many would give it credit for.
The Chinese authorities recognise gold as an asset with two purposes. One for investment, the other as sound money. Not only are banks and institutions able to invest in gold as an asset, citizens are encouraged to use gold as money as they are offered savings accounts in gold.
As stated, the legitimacy and transparency of COMEX and the London Gold Market are being called into question. We have found a market, driven by the world’s most populous nation, which is transparent and eager to encourage gold’s role in the international investment and monetary system.
As much as the West may like to ignore it, China is the face of the modern gold market. And we believe, the soon-to-be-face of the modern monetary system. Look out for our upcoming research as we investigate this further.
Jan Skoyles is Head of Research at The Real Asset Company, a platform for secure and efficient gold investment. Jan first became interested in precious metals and sound money when she met Ned Naylor-Leyland whilst working alongside him in the summer of 2010. Jan then went on to write her undergraduate dissertation on the use of precious metals in the monetary system. After graduating from Aston University Jan joined The Real Asset Co research desk. Her work and views are now featured on a range of sites including Kitco, GATA and The Telegraph. She has appeared on news channels including Russia Today to discuss the gold price and gold investing.