Shanghai/Mumbai: It’s taken all of recorded history, but this year China finally looks set to overtake India as the world’s number one gold consumer.
It may struggle to hold that position in the short term, as the one-off factors that have slowed India’s gold demand fade, but in the long term China’s rapidly growing economy and investment demand could see it add gold to the long list of commodities where it is the world’s largest buyer.
The story this year is mostly about falling demand in India -- down by more than half in the nine months to end-September, according to the World Gold Council.
Gold’s record-breaking run, that has lifted prices 28% this year in rupee terms, saw Indians cashing in jewellery and gold bars, while the weakest monsoon in nearly 40 years knocked incomes in the rural sector that is the bedrock of consumer purchases.
In contrast, China’s demand is up 8% in the same period.
“India has been the world’s largest gold consumer since time immemorial. In the Roman era, Indians bartered spices, cotton, jute for gold and precious stones,” Ajay Mitra, Indian subcontinent managing director of the WGC, said.
“China could be buying gold as they are not sure what the value of their currency would be against the dollar. But gold is not intrinsic to them as it is to Indians.”
Metals consultancy GFMS sees China’s gold demand at 432 tonnes this year, and India’s at 422 tonnes.
India demand may return
A severe monsoon and record prices were behind the drop in Indian consumption this year, while loose liquidity in China has driven a buying spree across a range of resources. These factors could easily reverse, allowing India’s broad base of jewellery demand to once again offset lagging investment demand.
“China may temporarily surpass India as the world’s largest gold consumer but it’s questionable whether that can be sustained,” said Xiao Minjie, senior economist at Daiwa Institute of Research in Tokyo.
Minjie said India’s growth rate is catching up with that of China, and appears to be entering the early stages of the high-growth era China saw back in the 1992-93, giving consumers more purchasing power.
The extent of the fall in purchases could be building pent up demand that may emerge at a big correction, analysts said.
Spot gold has risen by nearly a third this year, touching a record high of $1,226.10 an ounce last week as a weak dollar and worries about inflation drive investors towards the traditional store of value. “This year was an exception. Next year may be better provided prices are stable and there is no drought again,” said Bhargav Vaidya, a bullion analyst in Mumbai.
Dealers and analysts in India also said the drastic fall in demand must not be taken to mean India’s appetite for gold fell to the same extent, because a lot of consumers recycled old jewellery to buy new jewellery, while others sold gold bars to profit from high gold prices.
“India’s total demand may have fallen by 5 to 10% only,” when taking into account recycled gold, said Nayan Pansare, an analyst who works for jewellery exporters.
When Indians get used to new price levels, their traditional affection for gold may revive consumption as there is a huge latent demand in India that could explode if prices make a significant correction, GFMS’s executive chairman Philip Klapwijk said at the Shanghai conference.
“India’s affinity for gold is very strong and consumption in the retail level is far broader than in China where a limited number of wealthy people are buying gold,” said Shuji Sugata, manager at Mitshubishi Corp Futures in Tokyo.
China may get ahead in the future
In the long run, China may still pip India as economic and social indicators point to its greater affluence and spending capacity.
In the last decade India’s gold imports have remained capped under 800 tonnes despite a rising population and per capita income. Analysts said gold demand is failing to rise much as urban Indians are buying low-weight gold items and diamonds and rural Indians are taking to luxury goods such as automobiles and televisions.
“In the next 5 to 10 years, definitely yes, China could overtake India,” said a senior gold dealer in an international bank in the Middle East that is looking to start supplying gold to India. “That is because Indians have started diversifying to stocks and property and the fascination for white goods in the rural side has just started,” the dealer in the international bank said.
The opposite may be true in rural China, where people are showing more interest in gold.
“China is stepping up efforts to extend consumption in rural areas, including the newly wealthy people who are trying to own top brand gold for social status purposes,” said Cheng Binghai, Chairman of the Shanghai Gold & Jewellery Trade Association at the conference.
“Per capita in the rural area is increasing and as the growth rate of gold prices is behind the growth rate of disposable income in China, there is also a very good online shopping market,” he added.