Chinese gold demand discrepancy explained?

The huge difference between what  the WGC/GFMS describes as Chinese gold demand and SGE figures, is all a question of statistics and how they are interpreted and what is actually classified as ‘consumption’ or ‘demand’

Lawrie Williams

For some time now there has appeared to be an enormous discrepancy between apparent Chinese estimated demand figures as calculated by bodies like the World Gold Council (WGC) and GFMS and the reality of Chinese gold withdrawals from the Shanghai Gold Exchange (SGE).  And it all seems to be down to the way the statistics are calculated and what is included in the words ‘consumption’ or ‘demand’ by the analysts.  To some extent this has been clarified in part by the latest Gold Demand Trends report from the WGC which comments as follows: “The flow of gold into China has far exceeded the amount needed to meet domestic jewellery and investment demand in recent years. The role of the commercial banks in using this gold for financing purposes has been well documented, including in our report, Understanding China’s gold market, and this activity expanded in 2014. To some extent, this helps explain why Shanghai Gold Exchange delivery figures are significantly higher than consumer demand.”

The apparent difference between what we will describe as Chinese ‘consumption’ and Chinese ‘total demand’ is thus huge.  WGC/GFMS calculates ‘consumption’ as being made up only of jewellery, technology and investment demand and in mainland China’s case this came to around 814 tonnes in 2014, around 38% down from that of 2013.  But with SGE withdrawals coming to a little over 2,100 tonnes in 2014 – which some equate to total Chinese demand – this leaves a tremendous gap of almost 1,300 tonnes in the two different calculations.  The WGC will tell you that there is an element of double counting in the SGE withdrawal figures, but admits this is probably small, only relating to some recycled gold,  and now suggests the balance is held by Chinese banks (which it classifies as stocks and therefore doesn’t include the figures in its demand classification).

So perhaps we should look at ‘gold flows’ rather than various definitions of ‘consumption’ or ‘demand’ and in this respect ‘gold flows’ from West to East – and into China in particular were very large indeed in 2014 – indeed may have been greater than in 2013 given the big recovery in Indian ‘demand’ which doesn’t appear to be distorted by bank inflows. If we use ‘gold flows’ as a measure the amount of gold ‘flowing’ into China hugely exceeds that ‘flowing’ into India, although on WGC ‘demand’ figures India seems to be interpreted by the media as having regained the world No. 1 spot.  In truth it probably hasn’t really been the No. 1 for three or four years already given this additional, but unconsidered, demand from the banks. Indeed even this year if one adds Hong Kong ‘demand’ into that of the mainland, Chinese demand as calculated by the WGC was still a little ahead of India’s.

The WGC is very excited by what it sees as a big turnaround in Indian jewellery demand, particularly in Q3 and Q4 last year.  It puts this very much down to a change in attitude in the Indian jewellery trade following the election of the Modi government which is, on the face of things, much more pro-gold than its predecessor.  There is a definite suggestion that gold import controls will be further reduced and there will have been some ability within the jewellery sector to respond ahead of likely tax changes.  There is also anecdotal evidence that the incidence of gold smuggling to avoid taxes and the prior 80:20 import restriction has fallen back too.

Speaking to the WGC’s Head of Communications, John Mulligan, at the big Cape Town Mining Indaba, and he was quick to point out that in addition to the big gold flows eastwards, an often overlooked statistic is that in Europe, German investment demand has been particularly strong.  He reckoned that, in fact, German gold investors have been buying more than their U.S. counterparts since 2008!

Other points from the latest Gold demand Trends report include comment that Central Bank purchases held up better than anticipated, largely due to buying from Russia and some other CIS states which between them accounted for around half of such purchases last year.

Sales out of gold ETFs were at a fraction of those of 2013 and while new mined gold production grew by a small 2%, the WGC thinks that this may well have now plateaued so perhaps peak gold is at last upon us.  There are few major new gold projects and expansions still in the pipeline, exploration has diminished drastically, while a number of older operations are facing closure through ore depletion, or because they can no longer mine profitably at current gold price levels and in many cases grades are falling.

To access the latest full 28-page Gold Demand Trends report click on www.gold.org

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