Since 2013 China continues to absorb physical gold from the rest of the world at a staggering pace. Worth noting is that gold imported into the Chinese domestic market is not allowed to be returned in the foreseeable future. Because ownership and the disposition of these volumes of gold likely will be of great importance next time around the international monetary system is under stress, it’s well worth tracking China’s progress of imports – especially because the mainstream media and most consultancy firms are in denial of these events.
Click on this link for an in-depth analysis of the structure of the Chinese gold market.
Below we’ll discuss what countries supplied gold to China in 2017, Singapore’s role not only in 2017 but in the past few years, and physical flows through the vaults of the Shanghai Gold Exchange International Board in the Shanghai Free Trade Zone (SFTZ). We’ll see that Singapore has been a major gold supplier to China since 2013, which was previously not publicly known. In addition, my theory is that physical flows through the SFTZ have recently increased, signaling the slow birth of an international gold trading hub in Shanghai.
Most readers will be aware that the easiest way to gauge Chinese wholesale gold demand is by the amount of metal withdrawn from the vaults of Shanghai Gold Exchange (SGE). The problem is that withdrawals from the SGE Main Board in the domestic market and withdrawals from SGE International Board (SGEI) in the SFTZ are published as a single figure: SGE(I) withdrawals. Accordingly, SGE(I) withdrawals are a handsome indicator for physical turnover in China, but don’t inform us on the details of what unfolds in the domestic market separately from the SFTZ. Any metal in the SFTZ is allowed to be exported and thus part of the world’s floating supply. To get the best understanding of physical flows in and through China we have to study international merchandise trade statistics, and add a few other data points, before we can put all pieces together.
SGE(I) withdrawals in 2017 accounted for 2,030 tonnes, which was up 6 % from 2016; my (provisional) estimate of Chinese net gold import for 2017 is 1,082 tonnes, down 19 % from 2016; the China Gold Association has disclosed domestic mine production at 426 tonnes, which was 6 % less than the year before. Effectively, in 2017 SGE(I) withdrawals increased while imports and mine supply declined. Either there was an increase in recycled gold flowing through the Main Board, or more metal was withdrawn and exported from the International Board. Let’s have a closer look at Chinese imports and exports.
Chinese cross-border gold trade is notoriously difficult to measure as these numbers are omitted from China’s customs data. The best approach is to sum up all the flows of the countries that trade gold with China. Traditionally, Hong Kong has been the main conduit to the mainland. Not many years ago most analysts simply used Hong Kong net exports to China as a proxy for total Chinese imports. Since 2013, however, Hong Kong’s market share has steadily declined. In 2017 Hong Kong net exported 628 tonnes to China, which was about 58 % of what the mainland net absorbed.
The second largest net exporter to China in 2017 was Switzerland. The Swiss delivered (29 % of the cake at) 316 tonnes, nearly 30 % less than in 2016. Needless to say, Switzerland is one the largest gold trading hubs globally and gold moving from the Swiss refineries directly to the mainland is supplied from a host of other sources.
Direct gold export from Australia has been released up until June by free data provider COMTRADE. Though provisional, Australia’s shipments account for 20 tonnes (which is 40 tonnes annualized).
This is the first time that I report on Singapore’s gold trade data, despite Singapore’s significant growth in market share in recent years. When BullionStar first purchased trade statistics from Statlink Singapore in 2015, the data contained mismatches between the value and the weight reported, which made us unsure about the accuracy of the numbers. And hence we refrained from publishing them. However, these figures have now been revised and we can finally analyze what happened all the way back to 2013.
I’ll start by showing the previous mismatches and then explain what has changed. The numbers we got in 2015 disclosed that Singapore exported gold worth 108 million Singapore dollars (SGD) and weighing 101 tonnes to China in 2014. 108 million SGD translates into 85 million US dollars, which can be computed into 2 metric tonnes when divided by the annual average USD gold price. The mismatch between the value and weight reported was thus 99 tonnes (101 – 2 = 99).
At free trade data provider COMTRADE the mismatch is still visible (late March 2018). About 85 million USD versus 101 metric tonnes. Mismatches of this magnitude render the data useless.
Although a report I got my hands on by the China Gold Association (CGA) disclosed China net imported 1,294 tonnes in 2014, and all data from gold exporters to China aggregated to 1,194 tonnes, I couldn’t proof how much came from Singapore.
Thereby, the data from Singapore in no way matched with the data from, for example, Switzerland. What the Swiss reported to have sent to Singapore didn’t match what Singapore reported to have received from Switzerland. Several inquiries from BullionStar at Singapore Statlink produced no results.
Earlier this year (2018) I read a comment by Thomson Reuters GFMS on the physical gold flows through Singapore. The report mentioned elevated throughput, especially to China, so I decided to purchase the Statlink numbers once again. What I found is that they revised their gold trade numbers denominated in SGD (while the revised data doesn’t include weights). From the looks of it everything makes a lot more sense now. If we compare the revised gold trade data from Singapore with Switzerland now the match is as good as it gets.
The revised data from Statlink with respect to Singapore’s exports to China looks reliable as well. When computing the tonnage from the SGD values, the new data suggests Singapore net exported 78 tonnes to China in 2014. When added to the net exports from other countries, the total (78 + 1,194 = 1,272 tonnes) comes close to what’s disclosed by the CGA as total imports (1,294 tonnes, exhibit 3). The residual gold can have been imported as a by-product in base metal ores and concentrates.
The revised numbers from Singapore shine a new light on Chinese imports. Tellingly, Singapore has been a massive exporter to China since 2013. According to Statlink, Singapore net exported 102 tonnes to China in 2017, a record year and up 177 % from 2016.
Chinese domestic mine output (426 tonnes) plus net imports (1,082 tonnes) plus scrap (estimated at 233 tonnes) for 2017 nearly match SGE withdrawals, as can be seen in the chart below. My theory is that the remaining deficit – in the chart displayed by the difference in heights of the left and middle columns – is related to the surplus in 2016. Allow me to explain.
One of the largest direct net exporters to China in 2014 and 2015 was the UK. Before that, the UK (LBMA) supplied gold to China only indirectly via Switzerland and Hong Kong. In April 2014 bullion banks commenced shipping bullion directly to China mainland, though in 2016 the flow not only stopped, it went into reverse. 2017 was the first year wherein China was a net exporter to London! No staggering numbers, but still, 11 tonnes were moved to the UK last year. To me this indicates activity at the SGEI.
Because gold can only be exported from Free Tarde Zones in China my guess is that since 2016 inventory in SGEI vaults has mushroomed (exhibit 5). Subsequently, in 2017 metal has been withdrawn from SGEI vaults as demonstrated by, (i) net exports to the UK and, (ii) a deficit between SGE(I) withdrawals and total supply somewhat larger than in 2013, 2014 and 2015, but right after a supply surplus in 2016 (exhibit 5). I also don’t rule out China is exporting small tonnages from the SFTZ to countries in Asia, trades that might not show up in global customs data.
I’m not expecting any explosive exports from the SFTZ, as the premium in Shanghai over London is mostly positive so it makes sense to ship it from West to East, not the other way around. In the next chart by Goldchartrus.com we can see the end of day premiums which have been positive all through 2017 (needless to say, intraday discounts can have occurred).
All in all, I would assess total Chinese gold demand in 2017 a tad lower than SGE(I) withdrawals, say at about at 2,000 tonnes, because there’s likely some inventory in the SFTZ. Although it’s unknown how much is in the SFTZ, my estimate for total above ground gold within the mainland stands at 21,021 tonnes as of December 31, 2017. This includes approximately 4,000 tonnes owned by the Chinese central bank. In this article I’ve demonstrated how I’ve computed these figures.
Trading volume at the SGE(I) continues its steady growth. In 2017 total gold trading volume, including OTC trading, accounted for 27,145 metric tonnes, 12 % more than the year before.
The launch of the SGEI in 2014 has greatly boosted total trading volume. Not because many foreigners are trading the International Board contracts, but because they choose to trade the Main Board contracts which are more liquid (foreigners are allowed to trade Main Board contracts but obviously are not allowed to withdraw metal from the vaults and/or export).
In the chart below you can view trading volume in the most popular International Board contract iAu99.99. Volume at the SGEI is not growing.
While the gold price is slowly crawling upward in the shadow of the current cryptocurrency boom, China continues to import huge tonnages of yellow metal. As usual, Chinese investors bought on the price dips in the past quarters, steadfastly accumulating for a rainy day. The Chinese appear to be price sensitive regarding gold, as was mentioned in the most recent World Gold Council Demand Trends report, and can also be observed by Shanghai Gold Exchange (SGE) premiums – going up when the gold price goes down – and by withdrawals from the vaults of the SGE which are often increasing when the price declines. Net inflow into China accounted for an estimated 777 tonnes in the first three quarters of 2017, annualized that’s 1,036 tonnes.
Demonstrated in the chart above Chinese gold imports and known gold demand by the Rest Of the World (ROW) add up to thousands of tonnes more than what the ROW produces from its mines. One might wonder where Chinese gold imports come from, which is why I thought it would be interesting to analyse as detailed as possible who’s supplying China. Is one country, or only the West, supplying China? Although absolute facts are difficult to cement, my conclusion is that China is supplied by a wide variety of countries on several continents this year.
China doesn’t publish its gold import figures so we have to measure exports from other countries to the Middle Kingdom for this exercise. This year the primary hubs that exported to China have been Switzerland and Hong Kong.
The Swiss net exported 18 tonnes to China in September, which brings the year to date total to 221 tonnes, down 4 percent year on year. Because Switzerland is the global refining centre, a storage centre and trading hub I’ve plotted a chart showing its gross imports and exports per region.
In the above chart we can see that Switzerland was a net exporter to China in all months, but in most months Switzerland in total was a net importer, displayed by the red line; for each of those months Switzerland itself was not the supplier to China.
Combined with data from Eurostat (on the UK’s total net flow) and USGS (on the US’ total net flow) the Swiss data tells me that gold moving from Switzerland to China had several sources this year. In January, for example, it was the UK that was supplying – being a net exporter in total and a large exporter to Switzerland. I must add that in theory little gold from the UK arrived in China via Switzerland, as the numbers don’t say which bar from whom was sent to who. But we can say “the UK made it possible China bought an X amount of gold in the open market at the prevailing price that month”. The same approach suggests that in June it was the US and Switzerland (Switzerland being a net exporter that month), and in September it was Asia (including the Middle-East) supplying gold to customers of Swiss refineries at the prevailing prices. There was not one source of above ground stock that exported to China (via Switzerland) as far as I can see.
The Hong Kong Census And Statistics Department (HKCSD) has recently published data indicating China absorbed 30 tonnes from the Special Administrative Region in September, down 8 percent relative to August and down 44 percent compared to September last year. A decline was expected because China has stimulated direct gold imports circumventing Hong Kong since 2014. Nevertheless, Hong Kong net exported 515 tonnes to the mainland through the first three quarters of 2017 (down 15 percent year on year).
Hong Kong is a gold trading hub too, though. If Hong Kong is a net exporter to China, the actual source can be any country. Have a look at the next chart that shows the net flows through Hong Kong per region: the West, East and ROW (1). I’ve also added the net flow with China.
First observe the red line, “Hong Kong total net flow”. We can see that in 2013 Hong Kong became a massive net importer until about half way through 2015. The major suppliers to Hong Kong during this period were Switzerland and the UK, next to the ROW. I’m not aware of what type of entities were accumulating in Hong Kong at the time. The largest net importer from Hong Kong was China (included in the East).
After 2015 supply from the West (through Hong Kong) has slowly dried up while demand by China continued, shown by the blue line coming to zero and the yellow bars remaining to trend sub-zero. And thus Hong Kong commenced net exporting gold itself as we can see the red line in the chart falling far below zero. Apparently, since 2015 Hong Kong is a net exporter.
How much gold is left in Hong Kong? Unfortunately, online data from the HKCSD goes back only to 2002. The HKCSD does keep physical records from its international merchandise trade statistics from before 2002 but strangely “gold export” from 1972 until 1998 is omitted in these books (2).
As you can see in this last chart Hong Kong has suffered net exports from 2002 until 2008 and after 2015. It’s possible there is still bullion in Hong Kong if it had been accumulated before 1998, but since 1998 Hong Kong already “net lost” 727 tonnes. Another possibility is that refineries in Hong Kong import a lot of scrap gold, which is nearly impossible to track in customs reports and is not included in any of my data, that is being refined into bullion and exported. In this case Hong Kong is not a net exporter, or less of a net exporter. We’ll see in coming months or years if Hong Kong can continue net exporting bullion.
In exhibit 4 we can see a vague correlation between “Hong Kong net export to the China” and “Hong Kong’s total net export” for 2016 and 2017. It looks like Hong Kong is feeding its big brother. Or is it?
There is a gold kilobar futures contract listed on the COMEX that is physically deliverable in Hong Kong. The trading volume of this contract is neglectable, and so is physical delivery, but remarkably the designated vault (Brinks) throughput is sky-high. When looking at a chart of kilobars received and withdrawn at the Brinks vault in Hong Kong, supplemented by cross-border gold trade, there is a pattern revealed: the amount of kilobars received and withdrawn, and Hong Kong’s gold total import and re-export to China are correlated.
The chart suggests that Hong Kong is mainly supplying China from its imports (and any gold supplying other countries than China was stored in Hong Kong in previous years or was sourced from scrap). As the imports are correlated to kilobars received in the Brinks vault and kilobars withdrawn are correlated to re-exports to China, both flows seem to be one and the same trade. I don’t know for sure, but I think this is largely true.
The next question is from what countries does Hong Kong import bullion to dispatch to China? From countries all over the world. Have a look.
The composition is quite diverse. From the first until the the third quarter of this year gold came in from Switzerland, South-Africa, the US, Australia and the Philippines, inter alia.
Next to gold flowing through Switzerland and Hong Kong to China, countries that supplied gold directly to China this year have been Australia at 20 tonnes (3), the US at 14 tonnes, Japan at 3 tonnes and Canada at 4 tonnes. The UK has practically exported zero gold directly to China this year.
In total Hong Kong (515 tonnes), Switzerland (221 tonnes), Australia (20 tonnes), the US (14 tonnes), Japan (3 tonnes) and Canada (4 tonnes) net exported 777 tonnes to China mainland in the first three quarters of 2017 (4).
It must be mentioned that in theory gold import by China arrives in the Shanghai Free Trade Zone (which is not the domestic market) where the Shanghai International Gold Exchange (SGEI) operates. As most of you know the SGEI can serve foreign customers that can import gold traded on the SGEI, for example into India. Hence, it’s possible not all gold imported into China mainland arrives in the domestic market but ends up in the Shanghai Free Trade Zone or abroad. Global cross-border trade statistics by COMTRADE, however, show that barely any country is importing from China.
Until new evidence shows up my best guess is that China net imported 777 tonnes in the first nine months of 2017, sourced from all corners of the world: the UK, South-Africa, Australia, Switzerland, the US, Middle-East and Philippines. It seems Chinese banks are active all over the world looking to buy gold on the dips. Snapping up physical metal when the time is right.
Chinese imports add to China’s domestic mining output. The China Gold Association disclosed on November 1 that mine production accounted for 313 tonnes, down 10 % compared to last year. Nearly all this gold (313 + 777) is sold through the SGE. Withdrawals from the vaults of the SGE accounted for 1,505 tonnes over this period, implying 415 tonnes (1,505 – 313 – 777) was supplied by scrap and disinvestment (or partially recycled through the SGE system).
Since all non-monetary gold imported and mine production ends up in the private sector, my estimate for total gold owned by the Chinese people now stands at 16,575 tonnes. Added by a more speculative estimate of 4,000 tonnes held by the PBOC makes 20,575 tonnes.
1) Hat tip to Nick Laird from Goldchartsrus.com for providing the HKCSD data from January 2002 until September 2017.
2) Huge hat tip to Winson Chik that went to the HKCSD office in Hong Kong for us to obtain the data from before 2002!
3) The Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) amended its gold export data to China and Hong Kong until August 2016. Before that I had my own way of computing direct gold export from Australia to China – which is now obsolete. A few days ago I got confirmed by ABS they stopped amending the data as China has allowed gold import bypassing Hong Kong. ABS data on gold export to China can now be taken at face value. On November 10, 2017, ABS wrote me:
Previously ABS amended exports of gold bullion going to Hong Kong to China as at the time the ABS had been provided with information to suggest that the majority of gold exports to Hong Kong ultimately ending up in China.
In 2016 a review of this methodology was undertaken, and it was determined that in recent years direct imports to the Chinese mainland have become increasingly common. by 2013-14, China eased restrictions on the direct importation of gold to ports outside of Hong Kong, and as a result users have abandoned using Hong Kong gold imports as an appropriate proxy measure for Chinese imports.
The ABS implemented improvements to more accurately reflect the country of final destination of gold bullion, non-monetary (excl. unwrought forms and coins of HS 7118 and HS 9705) (AHECC 71081324) exported to Hong Kong and China in August 2016. The series were revised back to January 2012, inclusive. This impacted the country series only, as published in tables 14a and 36a-36j of International Trade in Goods and Services, Australia (cat. no. 5368.0) and detailed country statistics available on request. Total levels were not impacted, nor will there be any implications for other ABS collections. The ABS defines the country of final destination for exports as ‘the last country, as far as it is known at the time of exportation, to which goods are to be delivered’. The ABS conducted a review of the country of final destination of gold bullion into China and Hong Kong. There was evidence that Hong Kong had ceased serving primarily as an intermediate shipping country of gold into China and was importing and transforming gold bullion in its own right.
4) Data from Australia and the US for September hasn’t been released yet, so the numbers disclosed are provisional.
My best estimate as of June 2017 with respect to total above ground gold reserves within the Chinese domestic market is 20,193 tonnes. The majority of these reserves are held by the citizenry, an estimated 16,193 tonnes; the residual 4,000 tonnes, which is a speculative yet conservative estimate, is held by the Chinese central bank the People’s Bank of China.
To substantiate my estimates on above ground gold reserves in China mainland, we’ll first discuss private gold accumulation in China through the Shanghai Gold Exchange (SGE), after which we’ll address official purchases by the People’s Bank of China (PBOC) and its proxies that operate in the international over-the-counter market.
The amount of SGE withdrawals provides a fairly good proxy for Chinese wholesale gold demand, although not all gold passing through the SGE adds to above ground reserves. In China, most scrap supply and disinvestment flows through the Shanghai bourse as well, next to mine output and imports. Needless to say, recycling gold within China doesn’t change the volume of above ground reserves. So, simply using SGE withdrawals won’t fly for calculating above ground reserves. What we’re interested in are net imports and mine production in the Chinese domestic gold market.
There is one region that is importing significant amounts of gold from China, which is Hong Kong, though, this likely isn’t exported from the SFTZ but from the Shenzhen Free Trade Zone. The vast majority of China’s jewellery manufacturers are in Shenzhen, and for quite some years gold jewellery, ornaments, industrial and semi-manufactured parts are being exported from this Chinese fabrication base to Hong Kong. These events haven’t got anything to do with the SGEI in my opinion. Thereby, Hong Kong exports far more gold to China than vice versa.
For computing net gold export from Hong Kong to China we’ll subtract “imports into Hong Kong from China” from “exports and re-exports from Hong Kong to China” (as you know China doesn’t disclose gold trade statistics itself). Imports into Hong Kong accounted for 23 tonnes, while exports and re-exports to China accounted for 333 tonnes. Accordingly, China net imported 311 tonnes from Hong Kong in the first five months of 2017.
If we apply the same math to Switzerland’s customs data, it shows China net imported 172 tonnes from the Swiss in the first six months of this year.
Most definitely Australia has exported gold bullion directly to China in 2017 as well, but the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) has changed its methodology regarding this data somewhere in 2016 and is reluctant to share the details with me. Using my old way to compute Australia’s export directly to China results in 23 tonnes (this number is provisional and will be amended).
The UK, a large gold exporter directly to China in 2014 and 2015, hasn’t shipped any gold directly to China year to date, according to Eurostat.
What’s remarkable is that Chinese true gold demand is far greater than what the World Gold Council (WGC) and GFMS are reporting as “Chinese consumer gold demand”. This is due to incomplete metrics applied by the WGC and GFMS. The immense tonnages imported by China have been waived in previous years, by the aforementioned Western consultancy firms, with dishonest arguments. (If you like to study the details regarding gold demand metrics read this.) In reality, thousands of tonnes are being imported into China and this metal is not coming back in the foreseeable future; causing a bull run on steroids if institutional interest for gold rebounds in the West. Ascending above ground reserves within China imply declining above ground reserves in the rest of the world. And the more scarce the metal in the West, the higher price when demand revives. I’ve described this phenomenon in my previous post How The West Has Been Selling Gold Into A Black Hole. In a forthcoming posts I will add more texture to my analysis.
Domestic mine production in China is not allowed to be exported, effectively all output can be added to above ground reserves. The China Gold Association (CGA) wrote on April 28, 2017, that Chinese domestic mine output in the first quarter accounted for 101 tonnes. Lacking the data for the second quarter, makes me estimate mine production from January until June by doubling 101, which is 202 tonnes. By the way, the CGA added:
Gold is a special product with the dual attribute of general commodity and currency. It is the cornerstone of important global strategic assets and the national financial reserve system. It plays an irreplaceable role in safeguarding national financial stability and economic security.
Based on data publicly available, in the first six months of 2017 China net imported at least 506 tonnes into the domestic market and mined 202 tonnes. An addition of 707 tonnes to Chinese private gold reserves.
Chinese Official Gold Purchases
I can be short on PBOC gold purchases: the Chinese central bank does not buy any gold through the SGE – its increments must be treated in addition to all visible flows – and it buys in secret not to disturb the global market. I’ve shared my analysis regarding the PBOC buying gold through proxies in the international over-the-counter (OTC) market for several years on these pages. Although, my reasoning has been confirmed countless times, it’s worth noting it was affirmed once more not long ago.
Early 2017 world renowned gold analyst Jim Rickards was in a meeting with the three heads of the precious metals trading desks of largest Chinese bullion banks. These gold dealers told Rickards that indeed the PBOC does not buy any gold through the SGE. Rickards stated in the Gold Chronicles podcast published January 17, 2017 (at 25:00) [brackets added by Koos Jansen]:
What I [J. Rickards] don’t know is about the Shanghai Gold Exchange sales, they’re pretty transparent, how much of that is private and how much of that is the government [PBOC]. And I was sort of guessing 50/50, 70/30, whatever. What they told me, and these guys are the dealers [the three heads of the precious metals trading desks], it’s 100 % private. Meaning, the government operates through completely separate channels. The government does not operate through the Shanghai Gold Exchange. … None of what’s going on on the Shanghai Gold Exchange is going to the People’s Bank Of China.
In fact, the PBOC uses Chinese banks as proxies to buy gold in countries like the UK, Switzerland and South-Africa after which the metal is transhipped to Beijing. Note, monetary gold shipments do not show up in customs reports of any country.
I haven’t come across any clues in the past months that have changed my estimate on the PBOC’s true official gold reserves. My best substantiated guess still is 4,000 tonnes (in contrast, the PBOC publicly discloses it holds about 1,840 tonnes). For more information on how and when the PBOC stacked up to 4,000 tonnes, continue reading at the BullionStar Gold University by clicking here.
Estimated Total Gold Reserves China 20,000 Tonnes
Let us put the pieces of the puzzle together. We know the PBOC doesn’t buy gold though the SGE, but prior to 2007 the Chinese gold market wasn’t fully liberalized and back then the PBOC was primary dealer in the domestic market. Any PBOC purchases prior to 2007 could have been from Chinese gold mines. What else do we know? China is said to be a gold importer since the 1990s, suggesting domestically mined gold was not exported after, say, 1994. In the next screen shot from the China Gold Market Report 2010 we can read “China has been a gold importer since the 1990s”.
For the sake of simplicity, we’ll calculate from 1994 onwards. Precious Metals Insights (PMI) has estimated that 2,500 tonnes of gold jewellery were held by the Chinese population in 1994. Furthermore, I have data on Chinese non-monetary gold import starting in 2001 – which started slowly but ramped up in 2010 (exhibit 2).
In 1994 PBOC official reserves accounted for 394 tonnes and Chinese domestic mine output accounted for 90 tonnes. So, our starting point in 1994 is:
From here, we can aggregate domestic mine output and net imports for every succeeding year. As stated above, my assumption is that the PBOC sourced its official gold from domestic mines prior to 2007, but shifted these acquisitions to the international market after 2007. The official gold increments in 2001 (105 tonnes) and 2003 (100 tonnes) I’ve subtracted from “aggregate domestic mine output”, the increments in 2009 (454 tonnes) and onwards I did not subtract from “aggregate domestic mine output”.
The previous calculation has resulted in the following chart:
In the chart the green, blue and grey bars represent private gold reserves, and summed up account for an estimated 16,193 tonnes at the time of writing. The red bars reflect the PBOC’s official gold reserves – I would like to stress this number is speculative – and currently account for 4,000 tonnes. My best estimate as of June 2017 for total above ground gold reserves within the Chinese domestic market is 20,193 tonnes.
The last bits of data are coming in from the countries that export gold to China, with which we can compute the total the Chinese have imported in 2016. There are four main gold exporters to China, which are Hong Kong, Switzerland, the UK and Australia (it’s not publicly disclosed how much South Africa exports directly to China ). Let’s start discussing the largest gold exporter to China.
Since 2011 when the gold price slowly started to decline and China embarked importing gold at large, Hong Kong has been the main conduit to the mainland. According to data by the Hong Kong Census And Statistics Department (HKCSD) the special administrative region net exported 771 tonnes of gold to China in 2016, ranking first once again. Net exports were down 10 % compared to 2015.
As I mentioned in November 2016 there were rumors that part of the bullion exports from Hong Kong to China were fake – over-invoiced to move capital out of the mainland – which overstated the flow of gold into China. Let’s investigate if the data by the HKCSD can substantiate this rumor. The net amount of bullion going from Hong Kong to China is the residual of exports (materials lastly fabricated in Hong Kong) plus re-exports (materials not altered in any way, shape or form but merely re-distributed by Hong Kong) minus imports (materials imported into Hong Kong from China through processing trade). If one is to engage in over-invoicing exports from Hong Kong are more suitable than re-exports, because the origin of exports are harder to track. For re-exports the origin of the material must be recognized by the HKCSD, which makes any illegal scheme more difficult to conceal.
Notable is that from February through August 2016 there was an increase of gold exports relative to re-exports from Hong Kong to China (see dark green bars in the chart above). Usually the shipments from Hong Kong to China are re-exports, so the increase in exports was remarkable. But the HKCSD data is no hard evidence any transfers were overstated.
In another example: if we look at the composition of Hong Kong’s export and re-export to the UK in 2016, we can see something similar, the majority were exports.
I doubt Hong Kong’s flow of gold to the UK has been overstated; UK residents have no motive to surreptitiously move capital abroad. And if the data on Hong Kong’s shipments to the UK are accurate, why can’t the data on Hong Kong’s shipments to China be accurate? Thereby, the Chinese customs department is not retarded. I’m quite sure the Chinese customs department is aware of over-invoicing schemes and as a consequence it can strictly monitor cross-border gold flows. My conclusion is that net shipments from Hong Kong to China in 2016 have likely been close to 771 tonnes. If I do ever find hard evidence it was less I will report accordingly.
Most likely Hong Kong’s position as the largest gold exporter to China will slowly fade in the coming years, as the State Council is stimulating gold freight to go directly to Chinese cities (hoping the Shanghai International Gold Exchange will eventually overtake Hong Kong’s role as the primary gold hub in the region). Consequently, gold exports to China are increasingly bypassing Hong Kong.
In December 2016 we got a preview of what is about to come: Switzerland net exported an astonishing 158 tonnes directly to China, up 418 % from November 2016, up 168 % from December 2015, and 106 tonnes more than what Hong Kong did.
It will take more time before Hong Kong’s role as supplier to China is fully over though. In the past years a significant part of gold exports to China has been used to quench Chinese jewelry demand. The core of the Chinese jewelry manufacturing industry is located in Shenzhen, which is right across the border from Hong Kong. But as far as I know there aren’t many flights going directly from Switzerland, Australia or the UK to Shenzhen yet. Hong Kong on the other is well connected; so in the near future Hong Kong’s airport is more convenient to supply gold from abroad to Chinese jewelry manufacturers.
In total the Swiss net exported 442 tonnes directly to China mainland in 2016, up 53 % from 288 tonnes in 2015.
The United Kingdom
Direct gold shipments from the UK to China have been tepid in 2016. Only 15 tonnes have been net exported to the mainland over this time horizon. Noteworthy though, in December 2016 the UK exported 172 tonnes to Switzerland, which in turn moved 158 tonnes to China – as I mentioned in the previous chapter. So although the UK didn’t directly export metal to China in December, it sure was the main supplier.
Not all data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) has been released for 2016, but from what we have Australia seems to have exported less to China than in 2015. From January through September direct shipments amalgamated to 53 tonnes, while Australia directly net exported 78 tonnes to China over the same months in 2015. (ABS has notified me they changed the way how they disclose gold export data, but they failed to clarify the details. Until I get more information I will stick to my own formula to compute Australia’s direct export to China, which was confirmed to be accurate by ABS early 2016.)
It can be Australia’s direct exports where strong in last three months of 2016 as the price of gold went down over this period and the Chinese increase gold purchases on a declining gold price.
Combining gold trade data by Hong Kong, Switzerland, the UK and Australia, reveals China has imported at least 1,281 tonnes in 2016. Though this figure excludes Australia’s exports for October, November and December, so I’m estimating total Chinese gold import will reach roughly 1,300 tonnes.
According to the data at my disposal there have been practically zero tonnes of gold imported from China by other nations across the globe than the ones discussed above. Signalling there is very little gold being exported from the Shanghai International Gold Exchange (SGEI) located in the Shanghai Free Trade Zone. Possibly foreign central banks buy gold on the SGEI and ship it home as monetary gold which doesn’t show up in any customs reports. However, in the history of the SGE/SGEI a mere 3 tonnes has been traded in 12.5 Kg bars, all the rest was in smaller bars, mainly 1 Kg. And I assume central banks would prefer large bars. All in all I think that up till now the SGEI has mainly been used by Chinese banks to import gold from the Shanghai Free Trade Zone into the domestic market.
A few weeks ago I estimated Chinese gold import 2016 would aggregate to 1,300 tonnes, to which I calculated 5,000 tonnes of gold have been moved into the Chinese domestic market from 2007 through 2016 on top op the imports to satisfy Chinese consumer demand. In my post The West Has Been Selling Gold Into A Black Hole I explain how I think this will strengthen a forthcoming gold bull market.
Last but not least: SGE withdrawals for January 2017 came in at 184 tonnes, down 18 % from January 2016.
In December 2016 Chinese wholesale gold demand, measured by withdrawals from the vaults of the Shanghai Gold Exchange (SGE), accounted for 196 tonnes, down 9 % from November. December was still a strong month for SGE withdrawals due to the fact the gold price trended lower before briefly spiking at the end of the month, and the Chinese prefer to buy gold when the price declines (see exhibit 1).
In total Chinese wholesale gold demand reached an astonishing 1,970 tonnes in 2016. But will these huge tonnages bought by China ever have an impact on the gold price? I think it will.
As in previous years, SGE withdrawals were mostly supplied through imports, in 2016 at approximately 1,300 tonnes. And as in previous years, SGE withdrawals were roughly twice the size of Chinese consumer gold demand. The latter is published by all “leading” consultancy firms, such as the World Gold Council and Thomson Reuters GFMS. Because these firms have systematically underreported and eclipsed Chinese gold demand since 2007, a significant share of the financial industry is unaware China has imported 5,000 tonnes in the past years, which is not allowed to be exported. My hypothesis is that this 5,000 tonnes decline in above ground gold reserves outside of the Chinese domestic market will make gold rally stronger in a future bull market than it did in previous bull markets. To the extent many investors are uninformed about the shrinking volume of troy ounces available outside of China, their ignorance will boost any price rally coming.
In this post I would like to share my thoughts on how the gold price is correlated to trade in above ground reserves, and how China has slashed these reserves to the tune of 5,000 tonnes, which will significantly impact the next leg up in gold.
Correlated: The Gold Price And UK Gold Trade
Since many decades large investors in the West set the price of gold. Ever since, the heart of the Western gold wholesale market has been London in the United Kingdom. There is thus a correlation between the gold price and the volume of gold net imported or exported by the UK.
In Asia, on the other hand, gold market participants are more price sensitive, implying they buy low and sell high (the opposite of Western investors). I’ve described this trend frequently on these pages, but the same can be read in books by gold author Timothy Green. In The Prospect For Gold from 1987 Green states:
Before we discuss the connection between Western supply and demand trends to developments in the Chinese gold market of the past decade, let me first recapitulate that global physical gold supply and demand is far in excess of the statistics the World Gold Council and GFMS publish. Below is a chart that shows the quarterly averages of all physical supply and demand categories as disclosed by the World Gold Council from Q1 2002 until Q4 2015. These numbers are more or less the same as figures by GFMS.
We can see that over the course of 13 years, the majority of supply consisted of mine output (73%) and the majority of demand consisted of jewelry consumption (64%).
(Note, the categories official sector, net producer hedging and ETFs can be either supply or demand and volumes can greatly vary per quarter. Though, only in 1 of 52 quarters examined has ETF demand been greater than jewelry consumption (Q1 2009). In all other quarters official sector, net producer hedging and ETFs supply or demand has not been greater than mine output or jewelry consumption.)
If the data by the World Gold Council regarding physical gold supply and demand would be exhaustive, mine output and jewelry consumption should have a positive correlation to each other and the price of gold. But they don’t. Have a look at the next chart.
During the bull market from 2002 until 2011 jewelry consumption decreased and it hardly ever transcended mine output. In turn, mine output gradually ascended over this time horizon while the gold price increased six fold! Are the forces between jewelry demand and mine supply driving the medium/long term price of gold? No, clearly not. This shows the data by the World Gold Council is incomplete.
(I should add that mine output does have a correlation to the gold price in the very long term as it can take more than ten years to setup a gold mining project. See the next chart.)
In contrast to the data by the World Gold Council, we can observe a strong correlation between the medium/long term gold price and institutional supply and demand flowing through London. View the chart below.
Strangely, institutional supply and demand are categories not included in the World Gold Council’s data – or in any other precious metals consultancy firm’s data that I’m aware of.
Because in the UK there are no refineries, no gold mines and local consumption demand and scrap supply is immaterial, all gold that is visibly (non-monetary) imported and exported must either relate to ETF holdings stored in London, or Western institutional supply and demand. When we compute the ratio between both, ETF flows compound to roughly 35 % of the UK’s net flow (import minus export) and as a consequence approximately 65 % is Western institutional supply and demand. Effectively the majority of the UK’s net flow is Western institutional supply and demand.
Hereby, consider that all supply and demand categories disclosed by the World Gold Council more or less equal each other (exhibit 4), so for the sake of simplicity we‘ll state that total mine output + scrap supply versus jewelry consumption + bar and coin + industrial demand meets outside the UK and doesn’t set the medium/long term price of gold.
The UK’s net flow, on the other hand, is highly correlated to the medium/long term price of gold. Note how nearly every month the change in net flow corresponds with the direction of the gold price (exhibit 6). Less granular, from the moment my data starts in 2005 the UK has been a net importer until 2012 on a rising price of gold. From 2013 until 2015 the UK was a net exporter on a declining price of gold. And in the first quarter of 2016, when the gold price saw its strongest move up since 1986, the UK was a net importer. Coincidence? I think not.
We can conclude that Western institutional supply and demand in above ground gold reserves is driving the medium/long term price of gold. As it’s likely the price of gold could not have gone up from 2002 until 2011 if there had been no UK net imports, and it’s likely the price of gold could not have gone down from 2013 until 2015 if there had been no UK net exports. (Short term the gold price is pushed around in the paper markets.)
We can think of Western institutional supply and demand (the UK net flow) like this: the majority of the gold gross imported into the UK is demand from above ground reserves outside the UK, and the majority of the gold gross exported from the UK is supply to above ground reserves outside the UK. When the UK is a net importer that means there is a net pull on above ground reserves outside the UK, which corresponds to a rising gold price. When the UK is a net exporter the inverse is true.
Here it becomes apparent that the amount of above ground bullion is essential for future price developments.
The Chinese Black Hole
Let’s turn to China. In the introduction I stated China is importing a lot more gold than is known in the financial industry because most investors base their knowledge on data by the World Gold Council. More precise, China has imported 5,000 tonnes from 2007 until 2016 in addition to what the World Gold Council has portrayed through their demand statistics.
Let’s get our minds around this through some charts. As an example, I’ve drawn a chart showing Chinese gold supply and demand for 2015 (last year I have complete data of).
We don’t know every exact data point for China, but we do know GFMSdemand (purple) and apparent supply, consisting of domestic mine output (green), scrap supply (yellow) and net import (blue). From here on we’ll use GFMS data, as GFMS publishes scrap supply numbers for China and the World Gold Council doesn’t.
According to GFMS Chinese consumer gold demand in 2015 was 867 tonnes. To meet demand GFMS presents 450 tonnes was domestically mined and scrap supply accounted for 225 tonnes. Indirectly GFMS states China net imported 192 tonnes to complete the supply and demand balance in the Chinese domestic market (exhibit 7). For the additional 1,383 tonnes imported GFMS has floated all sorts of excuses, which I‘ve debunked here and here.
The bottom line is, in addition to the 192 tonnes GFMS reports as imported in 2015 to meet consumer demand, China imported 1,383 tonnes to meet institutional demand and all this metal is not allowed to be exported.
If we repeat the same exercise for every years since 2007, the aggregated net imports by China that have not been included in the statistics by GFMS account for 5,000 tonnes. See the next chart.
You can see now, China has enormously diminished above ground reserves outside of the Chinese domestic market without all investors around the world being fully aware. In my humble opinion this will make the price of gold go up turbo charged next time the West shows interest in the metal.
In The Prospect For Gold Green states:
“Selling gold is not a one way street”, wrote Green in 1987. But guess what. Since a few years – from the moment China became an elephant player in the physical market – selling gold is a one way street! Western sell-offs are transhipped to China but do not return. The global gold game has changed.
The consequence is that there are less above ground reserves outside of China for Western investors to buy in a forthcoming bull market, which will elevate the dollar bid per unit gold – in other words the gold price measured in US dollars per troy ounce.
Keep in mind, this phenomenon (China importing vast quantities in addition to Chinese consumer gold demand as disclosed by GFMS) has greatly materialized in 2013, when gold entered a bear market after an 11-year run up. In the previous bull market (2002-2012) above ground reserves outside of China had not been slashed yet. So the ramifications of this phenomenon will only be felt during the next leg up.
Is there any proof to substantiate my hypothesis? I think so. Early 2016 there was some renewed interest in yellow metal from large Western investors. When the price of gold started to climb it went practically vertical ending the first quarter of 2016 up 16.7 %, the strongest quarter since 1986. Coincidence? I think not. It went up strong as it did because there were fewer ounces in above ground reserves available.
A study on how much above ground reserves there are outside China will be saved for a future blog post.
This post is part of the Chinese Gold Market Essentials series. Click here to go to an overview of all Chinese Gold Market Essentials for a comprehensive understanding of the largest physical gold market globally. This post was updated late 2017.
The main arguments presented by Western consultancy firms, such as GFMS and the World Gold Council (WGC), to explain the difference between SGE withdrawals and Chinese consumer gold demand relate to Chinese Commodity Financing Deals (CCFDs). However, this analysis is incorrect as I will demonstrate in this post.
CCFDs are used by Chinese speculators to acquire cheap funds using commodities as collateral. When it comes to using gold as collateral for CCFDs there are two options: round tripping and gold leasing. First we’ll discuss round tripping.
Goldman Sachs (GS) has properly described the round tripping process in a report dated March 2014. We’ll start by reading a few segments from GS about financing deals [brackets added by me]:
While commodity financing [round tripping] deals are very complicated, the general idea is that arbitrageurs borrow short-term FX loans from onshore banks in the form of LC (letter of credit) to import commodities and then re-export the warrants (a document issued by logistic companies which represent the ownership of the underlying asset) to bring in the low cost foreign capital (hot money) and then circulate the whole process several times per year. As a result, the total outstanding FX loans associated with these commodity financing deals is determined by:
– the volume of physical inventories that is involved
– commodity prices
– the number of circulations
Our understanding is that the commodities that are involved in the financing deals include gold, copper, iron ore, and to a lesser extent, nickel, zinc, aluminum, soybean, palm oil and rubber.
…Chinese gold financing deals are processed in a different way compared with copper financing deals, though both are aimed at facilitating low cost foreign capital inflow to China. Specifically, gold financing deals involve the physical import of gold and export of gold semi-fabricated products to bring the FX into China; as a result, China’s trade data does reflect, at least partially, the scale of China gold financing deals. In contrast, Chinese copper financing deals do not need to physically move the physical copper in and out of China, so it is not shown in trade data published by China customs. In detail, Chinese gold financing deals includes four steps:
Onshore gold manufacturers pay LCs to offshore subsidiaries and import gold from Hong Kong to mainland China – inflating import numbers
offshore subsidiaries borrow USD from offshore banks via collaterizing LCs received
onshore manufacturers get paid by USD from offshore subsidiaries and export the gold semi-fabricated products – inflating export numbers
repeat step 1-3
Important to understand is that gold in round tripping needs to be physically imported into China and then exported, in contrast to copper. The reason for this, which GS fails to mention, is that the cross-border trade rules for gold in China are different than for all other commodities. Only through processing trade gold can be imported into China mainland by enterprises that do not carry a PBOC gold trade license. Round tripping by speculators can only be done through processing trade, as it’s not possible through general trade to ship gold into China without a PBOC license. Consequently, round tripping flows are completely separated from the Chinese domestic gold market where the SGE operates. And hence, round tripping cannot inflate SGE withdrawals.
Only by bending the rules – set up a fake jewelry enterprise in a CSSA – speculators can import gold to round trip. By using processing trade, in order to import gold into China, speculators are required to subsequently export the exact same amount of gold, because these speculators pretend to be jewelry manufacturers importing gold for genuine production, which upon completion must be exported. This is why the gold is round tripped. The requirement for export in processing trade can be read in the official PRC Customs Supervision and Administration of Processing Trade Goods Procedures (2004):
“Processing trade” shall refer to the business activity of import of operating enterprises of all or some raw and auxiliary materials, components, parts, mechanical components and packing materials (Materials and Parts) and the re-export thereof as finished products after processing or assembling.
Now we can understand why GS wrote [brackets added by me]:
Specifically, gold financing deals [round tripping] involve the physical import of gold and export of gold semi-fabricated products to bring the FX into China…
The speculators export semi-fabricated gold products to keep up the appearance they are genuine gold fabricators, for which the gold imported must be processed and exported.
On a side note, the amount of gold used in round tripping can be at most the amount of gold yearly exported from China (to Hong Kong). Though the total exported gold will also contain genuine processing trade, so round tripping will likely be less than this amount.
Round tripping does not inflate net export from Hong Kong to China, only gross trade. The net amount of gold imported into China is shipped through general trade, via the SGE, into the Chinese domestic gold market and is prohibited from being exported.
In the chart above we can see China exported 330 tonnes to Hong Kong in 2013. Let’s guess 200 tonnes of that was genuine processing trade (jewelry manufactured in a Chinese CSSA).
330 – 200 = 130 tonnes
Possibly, there was 130 tonnes imported into China for round tripping and subsequently exported back to Hong Kong. Or, 10 tonnes was imported into China for round tripping and subsequently exported to be round tripped an additional 12 cycles, making 13 rounds in total.
13 x 10 = 130 tonnes
In the latter scenario a lot less physical gold is involved (10 tonnes versus 130 tonnes). In reality it’s more likely a gold batch used in round tripping is making multiple rounds than one round.
The Chinese Gold Lease Market
The other gold financing deal that can be conducted by Chinese speculators is gold leasing (which is the same as gold lending). In general gold leasing is a normal market practice.
To become familiar with the lease market I have categorized all potential gold lessees (borrowers) in three groups for us to have a look at examples (with US dollars) of how gold lending is done in financial markets:
A gold miner needs funds to invest in new production goods. It can borrow dollars from a bank at a 7 % interest rate, or borrow gold at 2 % – the gold lease rate is usuallylower than the dollar interest rate. The miner chooses to borrow 10,000 ounces and sells it spot at $1,500 an ounce. The proceeds are $15,000,000 that can be used to invest in new production goods. In a years time the miner has mined 10,200 ounces to repay the principal debt plus interest (the interest on gold loans can be settled in gold or dollars, depending on the contract). Through gold leasing the miner has acquired cheap funding compared to a dollar loan.
A jeweler needs funds to buy gold stock for production. It can borrow dollars from a bank for 7 %, or borrow gold for 2 %. The jeweler borrows 10,000 ounces of gold, with which it can start fabricating jewelry. To hedge itself against price fluctuations the jeweler can sell spot, for example, 10 % of the 10,000 ounces it has borrowed (1,000 ounces at $1,500 makes $1,500,000) to buy gold futures contracts in order to lock in a future price. After a year the jeweler has sold the 9,000 ounces (as jewelry) for dollars and can take delivery of the long futures contracts to repay the gold loan.
A speculator is looking for cheap funds. It can borrow dollars from a bank for 7 %, or borrow gold for 2 %. He borrows 10,000 ounces and sells it spot at $1,500 an ounce. The proceeds are $15,000,000 and subsequently these newly acquired funds can be used to invest in higher yielding products (> 2 %). If the trader chooses to hedge itself in the futures market is up to him. After a year the 10,000 ounces plus interest need to be repaid, either the trader can purchase gold with the profits made on the higher yielding investment or from delivery of futures contracts.
…the SGE provides a crucial role in gold leasing. The SGE’s block trading system is the trading platform used by gold leasing participants; the SGE also provides transfer and settlement services.
China’s gold leasing does not involve the central bank. Gold leasing takes place between commercial banks and enterprises as well as between commercial banks, the former being key.…
An enterprise that intends to be a lessee approaches a branch office of a commercial bank with a rate request and application.
The commercial bank carries out due diligence and then submits a review to their head office for approval.
Upon approval the head office quotes a lease rate with the international gold lease rate as a benchmark plus additional basis points taking into account the potential lessee’s credit, physical gold management costs and other factors.
If the potential lessee accepts the offer, a commercial bank branch manager will sign a lease contract with the customer including the terms and conditions clearly laid out.
According to the “Shanghai Gold Exchange Lease Transfer Procedure”, after signing the lease, the head office of the commercial bank and lessee, or his agent, shall make a lease application through the exchange’s membership system. After verification, the SGE shall transfer the commercial bank’s gold from its SGE bullion account to the lessee’s SGE bullion account. The lessee can now trade the physical gold that it has leased or withdrawal the gold from the vaults.
Upon expiration of the lease the lessee shall deposit or purchase physical gold through the SGE to repay the gold. Corresponding physical gold will be transferred from the lessee’s SGE bullion account to the commercial bank’s bullion account. Leasing fees involved will be settled in currency. At this point, the lease is completed.
I would like to insert a comment supplementing the PBOC’s description of gold leasing in the Chinese domestic gold market. In the paper it says:
“After verification, the SGE shall transfer the commercial bank’s gold from its SGE bullion account to the lessee’s SGE bullion account. The lessee can now trade the physical gold that it has leased or withdrawal the gold from vaults.”
My source at ICBC’s precious metals trading desk told me ICBC has little gold of itself for leasing, most of the gold lend out is sourced from third parties. These parties are either SGE members or overseas banks that supply gold through the Chinese OTC market. ICBC operates in the lease market as an intermediary by connecting supply and demand, it can lease from international banks or local gold owners with an SGE Bullion Account and lend the gold to miners, jewelers or speculators. My suspicion is that the international gold lease rate is lower than the Chinese gold lease rate, which can attract gold from the international market into the Chinese domestic gold market.
The Chinese lease market in short: in China all gold leases are settled through the SGE (there can be an off-SGE lease market, but it would be highly illiquid). Both lessor (lender) and lessee (borrower) are required to have an SGE Account. If a lease is agreed between two parties gold is transferred from one SGE Bullion Account to the other, when the lease comes due the gold is returned. At SGE level it’s as simple as that.
There is a big difference between jewelers that lease gold in contrast to miners and speculators. Jewelers lease gold because they need physical gold for fabrication; miners and speculators lease gold because they are seeking cheap funds, they will always sell spot the leased gold (without withdrawing the metal) at the SGE to use the proceeds. Why would a speculator withdrawal the metal?
Therefor, if SGE withdrawals capture leased gold this is for genuine jewelry fabrication that eventually ends up at retail level. When a jeweler needs to repay the lease it simply buys gold at the SGE to subsequently transfer it from its SGE Bullion Account to the lessor’s SGE Bullion Account. It’s not likely a jeweler would buy gold off-SGE to repay a lease, which then would need to be refined into newly cast bars by an SGE approved refiner to enter the SGE vaults. Gold leasing by jewelers can increase SGE withdrawals (for genuine gold business) but not so much supply to the SGE.
… No statistics are available on the outstanding amount of gold tied up in financial operations … but Precious Metals Insights [PMI] believes it is feasible that by the end of 2013 this could have reached a cumulative 1,000t…
This 1,000 tonnes figure is based on a misunderstanding regarding the Chinese gold lease market. PMI assumed there was 1,000 tonnes of gold tied up in financing deals based on the yearly lease volume in China, which was 1,070 tonnes in 2013. However, the yearly lease volume is not the gold that is leased out at any point in time, but reflects the aggregated volumes disclosed on all lease contracts that are executed over one year’s time in the Chinese domestic gold market (turnover). Meaning, if 100 mining companies lease 2 tonnes of gold for 1 month in 2016 and all leases are rolled over 4 additional months, the yearly lease volume would be 1,000 tonnes (100 x 2 x (1 + 4)), while on 31 December 2016 the total amount of gold leased out could be nil. (It’s impossible there was 1,000 tonnes used in round tripping as gross export from China has never been more than 330 tonnes)
In addition, the WGC used the words ‘tied up‘ for the gold used in financing operations, which sounds as if the market will be flooded when the gold is untied. The words ‘tied up’ can be misleading, let me explain: If a speculator borrows gold he will promptly sell it spot, this gold will not leave the SGE system. During such a lease period there is nothing tied up, there is just a debt to be repaid. When the lease comes due the lessee has to buy gold in the market (SGE) to settle the debt, which is the opposite of what the WGC insinuates what happens when gold is untied. In case a jewelry company leases gold the words tied up are more appropriate, in my view, as the borrowed gold bars are in transit from being processed to being sold as jewelry. Gold involved (tied up) in these leases can only be a share of the total amount of gold leased out in any point in time, because we all agree most leases in China are done for financing. There is only a small percentage of total gold loans tied up by jewelry companies.
… a good part of the withdrawals represent gold that is used purely for financing and other end-uses that are not equivalent to real consumption.
Needless to say I don’t agree for the reasons just mentioned regarding gold leasing (speculators and miners borrowing gold will never withdraw the metal). Am I the only one? No. When Na Liu of CNC Asset Management Ltd, visited the SGE in May 2014 he spoke to the President of the SGE Transaction Department. From Na:
First, the withdrawal data reflects the actual gold wholesales in China. In 2013, the total gold withdrawal from the SGE vaults amounted to 2,196.96 tonnes. The President of SGE Transaction Department (The President) said: “This 2,200 tonnes of gold, after leaving our vaults, they entered thousands of Chinese households in the form of jewellery and investment purchases.”
… Second, none of the 2,200 tonnes of gold was bought by the Chinese central bank. The President said: “The PBOC does not buy gold through the SGE.”
… Third, the financing deals do not exaggerate SGE’s assessment of China’s gold demand. This is because “the financing deals do not take place after the gold leaves the vaults.”
The President of the SGE’s Transaction Department is clearly stating most leasing happens within the SGE system and this metal is not withdrawn. Therefor, gold leasing by speculators does not inflate SGE withdrawals and thus does not explain the difference between SGE withdrawals and Chinese consumer gold demand as disclosed by the GFMS.
Remarkably, when I asked the WGC about the details in 2014 they replied [brackets adde by Koos Jansen]:
Gold leasing: Banks have built up this business to support China’s burgeoning gold industry. Miners, refiners and fabricators all have a requirement to borrow gold from time to time.For example, fabricators borrow gold to transform into jewelry, sell and then repay the bank with the proceeds. It is an effective way for the fabricator to use the bank’s balance sheet to fund its business. Banks have strict policies in place for who they can lend to, and these have been tightened over recent years, but during PMIs field research it identified that, in some instances, organizations other than genuine gold business had used this method to obtain gold, which it would then sell to obtain funding [in this case the gold wouldn’t be withdrawn from the SGE vaults]. It would then hedge its position. According to PMI, this can generate a lower cost of funding than borrowing directly from the bank. Our colleagues in China think this would be a very small part of total gold leasing; the majority of it would be used to meet the demands of genuine gold businesses.
In their email the World Gold Council admits gold leases that are withdrawn from the SGE vaults are used for genuine gold business and being part of true gold demand. This is more confirmation gold leasing cannot explain the difference.
Over recent years we have observed a rising number of commercial banks participating in the gold leasing market. … It’s estimated that around 10% of the leased gold leaves the SGE’s vaults. The majority is for financing purposes and is sold at the SGE [and stays within the SGE vaults] for cash settlement.
In conclusion, (i) round tripping gold flows are completely separated from the Chinese domestic gold market (SGE) and therefor cannot have caused the difference. In addition, (ii) gold leasing only inflates SGE withdrawals when used for genuine gold business and therefor cannot have caused the difference either.
Last week the Shanghai Gold Exchange (SGE) launched a new English website to offer international customers more information and tools on trading gold in renminbi through its subsidiary in the Shanghai Free Trade Zone the Shanghai International Gold Exchange (SGEI). BullionStar took the opportunity to translate a speech by a Teng Wei, Deputy General Manager of the SGEI, named “How China’s Gold Market Can Help The RMB Achieve International Status” that was held at the Renminbi World summit in Beijing on the 29th and 30th of November 2016. In the speech Teng Wei outlined his vision for the SGEI going forward regarding renmibi (RMB) internationalization, connecting the onshore and offshore renminbi market and increasing gold market share.
My comment before you read the translation:
1) In the financial blogosphere the general perception is that the SGEI has been a failure since it was launched in September 2014. This analysis is based on the assumption that the trading volume of the most popular SGEI contract (1 Kg 9999 – iAu99.99) has been tepid for two years now. But this analysis neglects two important elements.
First, iA99.99 can be traded competitively “on Exchange”, but also in the OTC market. The OTC possibility is hardly known by commentators in the English world, though the related volumes are significant. Have a look at the next chart in which I’ve plotted iAu99.99’s weekly trading volume “on Exchange” and in the OTC market. Clearly iAu99.999 is traded mainly in the OTC market.
Second, international customers of the SGEI can not only trade the SGEI gold contracts, but they can also trade SGE (domestic) gold contracts. Logically, as at present liquidity on the SGE is much higher than on the SGEI, many international customer that seek to trade gold in renminbi, and don’t need to export the metal, will choose to trade SGE gold contracts.
When observing total trading of all SGE(I) gold contracts, there is a clear rise in volume since the SGEI was launched.
Up till now international customers are mainly trading SGE contracts. The significant rise in trading volume of all SGE(I) contracts since September 2014 is due to the inception of the International Board (SGEI). In the second week of November 806 tonnes was traded on the SGE(I), the highest amount ever.
So the launch of the SGEI has not been a failure in my opinion – it has elevated gold trading in (offshore) renminbi.
2) Teng Wei mentions that in 2015 gold demand in China and India was 985 and 849 tonnes respectively. In the case of China this refers only to consumer demand, not institutional demand. Chinese consumer and institutional demand in 2015 combined was well north of 2,000 tonnes.
3) A gold exchange doesn’t flourish overnight. The SGE was launched in 2002; in that year its total trading volume was 22 tonnes and withdrawals accounted for 16 tonnes. Ten years later total trading volume was 3,175 tonnes and withdrawals accounted for 1,138 tonnes. In 2015 total trading volume was 17,033 tonnes and withdrawals accounted for 2,582 tonnes. The development of the SGE, becoming the largest physical gold exchange globally, took time and it can be no different for the SGEI.
Document Translation [brackets added]:
Teng Wei: China’s Gold Market Opens Up To Boost RMB Internationalization
The 2016 RMB summit was held in Beijing on the 29th and 30th of November. Deputy General Manager of the Shanghai International Gold Exchange Center Teng Wei participated in the forum and discussion on “How China’s Gold Market Can Help the RMB Achieve International Status”. He expressed that using Shanghai’s free trade zone status, investors can open trading accounts denominated in RMB and participate in trading directly through the Exchange’s international board [SGEI] that allows access to most of the precious metal products that are traded in China. The international board has developed relatively well since establishment with active participation from international members and steadily increasing trading volume.
Gold on the international board is quoted and settled in RMB, which effectively connects the RMB onshore market and offshore market. This will extend the scope of RMB usage across borders and provide a new channel for inward capital flows. It is a move that is beneficial to expand the RMB usage to steadily promote internationalization of the RMB.
The actual speech:
Ladies and gentlemen, good afternoon, I am Teng Wei from the Shanghai International Gold Exchange. I am delighted to participate in this forum organized by the Asian Bankers Association to have a chance to speak and interact with everyone about opening China’s gold market to the world and how that can help the internationalization of the RMB.
This afternoon, I would like to touch upon on three topics. The first topic is the new pattern of the internationalization of the RMB and the global gold market. China’s gold market was established in 2002 with the launch of the Shanghai Gold Exchange. If anyone is familiar with the history of China’s gold market, you will know that before the year 2002 the Chinese gold market was entirely ran by the People’s Bank of China, including the process of purchasing, allocating and storing of gold. There wasn’t a single unified market where all participants could trade at the same time. Since the year 2002, with approval of the State Council, the People’s Bank Of China developed gold spot trading on the Shanghai Gold Exchange, as well as gold futures trading and over-the-counter trading via commercial banks, etc, which formed the basis for a multi-level diversified gold market system. While the Chinese gold market was developing rapidly, the pattern of the global gold market was also having a dramatic change. As time passed, the international gold spot market was heavily concentrated in London and the international gold futures market has been concentrated in New York. However, in recent years, with the rise of gold demand in China, India and other Eastern nations, and with the exit of European and American banks from the precious metals market, it’s clear that Western gold is moving to the East. In 2015 gold demand in China and India was at 985 tons and 849 tons respectively. These figures alone account for 45% of global [consumer] gold demand. With gold demand from other markets dipping to various levels, China is not only the world’s largest gold producer and importer of gold, but has also become the world’s largest gold consumer.
Just now, I mentioned that the two main centers for gold trading are London and New York, and the current situation is Western gold flowing to the East. Everyone, have a look at some statistics that I have here, showing that just China and India alone make up over 45% of global gold demand. This was last year’s data.
Since the year 2005, when the RMB exchange rate was reformed, international investors’ willingness to trade in RMB denominated assets has also increased. This has objectively enhanced the Chinese gold market’s international status and garnered attention. In recent years, the RMB exchange rate is expected to have some changes.
The Shanghai Gold Exchange provides the important infrastructure for China’s gold market. ECB officials have mentioned that an important part of promoting the internationalization of the RMB is having a good financial market infrastructure. The exchange is also an important “all-in-one” foundation for gold transactions, clearing, delivery and storage. It serves with the commitment to provide gold investors with efficient and convenient market services. It has been 14 years since establishment of the exchange in the year 2002 and development has been rapid with annual trading volumes increasing 40% on average.
At the end of 2015 there were over 8.6 million individual accounts, over 10,000 institutional accounts and the total gold trading volume for the year reached 17,000 tonnes. The exchange was ranked as one of the largest and we firmly grasped an important opportunity for the internationalization of the RMB with the profound changes happening in the gold market. At the same time, we want to build a harmonious ecological gold market that sets a new path for the global gold market and achieve the status of being a global gold power from a large gold holding nation.
For the second point, I would like to explain how opening up China’s gold market externally to the world can help the internationalization of the RMB. To further promote and innovate China’s gold market, on 18th September 2014, the Shanghai Gold Exchange set up an international board [SGEI], open directly to foreign investors. This move has effectively connected China’s domestic gold market and the international gold market. Using Shanghai’s free trade zone, investors can open trading accounts denominated in RMB and participate in trading directly through the exchange’s international board that allows access to most of the precious metal products that are traded in China. The international board has developed relatively well since establishment with active participation from international members and steadily increasing trading volume.
As of now, the exchange has 67 international members, including most of the world-renowned gold suppliers and traders like Mr Thomas McMahon, who is also our Exchange’s member. At the end of the third quarter of 2016, the international board had recorded a total of 7,837 tonnes of gold traded, with a turnover valued at nearly 200 billion RMB. The Shanghai International Gold Exchange is the test pilot and pioneer for opening up China’s gold market to the world. It is significantly important for further increasing the capacity, expansion and international influence of China’s gold market. In addition, the international board uses RMB for settlements, producing an effective convergence of the RMB offshore and onshore markets, expanding the cross-border use of the RMB and providing a new channel for return of funds. All these points steadily promote the internationalization of the RMB and serve as a useful exploration.
For RMB denominated gold products to gain popularity outside of China, we think the prerequisite is to provide a fair offering for global gold market transactions, with reliable gold benchmark pricing in RMB, using the Shanghai Gold Exchange benchmark pricing mechanism [Shanghai Fix] for our trading platforms. The weight of the gold traded is 1 kilogram, with a fineness of no less than 99.99%. Using a price inquiry method and market volume, a balance is reached to form the benchmark price of gold measured in RMB. The price announcements will be released externally each trading day at 10:15 and 14:15.
At present, the Shanghai gold benchmark price is being used by domestic gold producers and suppliers for hedging and settlements. More and more commercial banks are also using the Shanghai gold benchmark price for gold leasing and financing as the standard. More and more products linked to the Shanghai gold benchmark will be made available.
Other than domestic usage, the Shanghai gold benchmark price is also being actively studied more and more by external markets regarding its application. In October, the exchange signed an agreement with Dubai for the right to use the Shanghai gold benchmark price and authorization was given for the Dubai gold exchange to use the Shanghai gold benchmark price as the standard for offshore RMB denominated futures. The signing of this agreement marks the use of the Shanghai gold benchmark price in international financial markets for the first time. This greatly helps to elevate the international influence of the exchange in global markets and improves the image and reputation of the RMB abroad.
For the third point, I would like to share with everyone how the Shanghai Gold Exchange acts as an important infrastructure for internationalization in three steps. As the forerunner for opening domestic markets and innovation, the Shanghai Gold Exchange cannot forget its historical mission. We are determined to take the international and market-oriented strategy.
Overall, for the internationalization process, we have three steps to take. The first step is to be open and inclusive, actively inviting foreign investors to come in. Just now, we have introduced our international board after the establishment of the Exchange and we will continue to increase publicity efforts. In accordance to high standards and multifaceted principles, we will continue to increase and expand international membership of the Exchange. Accordingly, we have carried out a variety of promotional activities in major financial hubs and countries and regions along the new Silk Road to allow more international market participants to hear the sound coming from the Chinese gold market. The exchange also takes the opportunity to actively learn from the experience of advanced international markets in the optimization of various trading systems and innovation of all kinds of trading products.
For the second step, since we have invited guests inwards, we also have to step outwards. Through cooperation and win-win situations, the gold Exchange can be promoted and step out of China. The Shanghai gold benchmark price has now taken a first step with the Dubai Gold Exchange agreement. This can be considered an ice-breaking move and serve as a cooperation model for other overseas markets and improve the recognition, branding and acceptance of the Shanghai gold benchmark price. Taking this as an opportunity, the Shanghai Exchange, together with the Chicago Mercantile Exchange (CME, COMEX), the Hong Kong Stock Exchange, the Malaysian Stock Exchange and a number of foreign exchange markets explored on long-term cooperation mechanisms that will allow foreign investors to directly participate in our gold market, in RMB denominated gold trading, standard gold settlement, and many other aspects and modes of cooperation that will increase the Shanghai Gold Exchange’s international market influence.
The third step is to realize RMB internationalization and increase global transaction on the exchange through integration and upgrades. As the international financial markets continue to merge and develop, market boundaries are increasingly blurred and we believe that market fragmentation will be removed gradually. In recent years, we can all notice that there are more and more mergers and acquisitions among major exchanges in the world. We hope to learn from the experiences of such joint stock mergers and acquisitions between global exchanges and explore the different modes of industry integration with overseas exchanges. By offering a wide range of local and overseas products through an open platform [SGEI], we hope to create a world class exchange group. The journey of the internationalization of the Shanghai Gold Exchange will epitomize the opening of China’s financial markets to the outside world and play an important part in the internationalization of the RMB. With Shanghai becoming the third most important market in the world after London and New York, the Chinese gold market will make a great contribution to the internationalization of the RMB. Thank you everyone.
From the moment Donald J. Trump got elected as the next President of the United States, on November 8, 2016, the price of gold tumbled 8 % in the remainder of the month – from $1,282 USD/oz to $1,178 USD/oz. Usually these cascades in the gold price go hand in hand with physical sell-offs in the West and strong demand Asia. It appears November has been no exception. The volume of physical gold withdrawn from vaults of the Shanghai Gold Exchange (SGE) in November accounted for 215 tonnes, the highest amount in ten months. Year to date SGE withdrawals have reached 1,774 tonnes.
There have been rumours in the gold space about the People’s Bank Of China (the PBOC) curbing gold import into the Chinese domestic market in response to capital flight. Although my sources have confirmed these rumours, Chinese gold import in November was still very strong at an estimated 140 tonnes. I don’t expect the PBOC will halt gold import all together.
The first mention of the rumour was by Reuters on November 25. By then the premium on physical gold trading at the SGE, which more or less reflects the strength of local demand versus international supply, had reached 2 % (from ~ 0.2 % on November 1). Reuters wrote:
“While we don’t have the exact numbers, we hear that they (Chinese government) have limited the number of importers,” said Dick Poon, general manager at Heraeus Precious Metals in Hong Kong.
In a previous blog post I stated the quote from Poon was not likely to be accurate, because there are 15 banks that have PBOC approval to import gold, but for every shipment a new License must be requested at the central bank. This protocol is referred to as “one batch one License”. Bullion cannot cross the Chinese border without a License. From the PBOC:
There shall be one Import … License of the People’s Bank of China for Gold … for each batch … and the License shall be used within 40 work days since the issuing date.
If the PBOC desires to curb gold import it can simply hand out less Licenses to approved banks, instead of deleting banks from the approved list. The former has happened as far as I can see. The next mention was by the Financial Times on November 30 [brackets added]:
Some banks with licences [approval] have recently had difficulty obtaining approval [Licenses] to import gold, they said — a move tied to China’s attempts to stop a weakening renminbi by tightening outflows of dollars, the banks added.
Although the Financial Times exchanged the terms “approval” and “License”, this is what I thought that was happening: banks are obtaining less import Licenses from the PBOC, which is obstructing supply, pushing up the SGE premium.
Either way the PBOC effort has not severely impacted the volume of Chinese gold demand as SGE withdrawals set a ten-month record at 215 tonnes in November, up 40 % from October. Premium or no premium the Chinese still ‘accumulate on the dips’. Additionally, mainlanders buy gold in Hong Kong where jewelry is cheaper as it doesn’t enjoy VAT. From Live Trading News we read:
“Gold sellers in Hong Kong, where mainland Chinese often buy gold, report an increase in purchases, …” according to published reports. “Some of the buying is also because of the Lunar New Year period next month, a time when buying normally picks up.”
How much of SGE withdrawals were supplied by import? Let’s make an educated guess. In the first nine months of 2016 SGE withdrawals accounted for 1,407 tonnes and China net imported 908 tonnes over this period, implying 65 % of SGE withdrawals was imported. If we use the past months as a reference China imported 140 tonnes of gold in November (=0.65*215). Year to date (-November) China has imported and estimated 1,147 tonnes.
An other possibility would be that elevated SGE withdrawals in November were supplied by scrap and disinvestment from within China (domestic mine output is fairly constant at 38 tonnes per month). Though this is not very plausible because the renminbi gold price went down in November (red line in exhibit 1). Normally scrap supply increases on a rising gold price. And hence, I assume the majority of SGE withdrawals in November were supplied by imports.
There have been concerns in the gold community with respect to a full stop on Chinese gold import. In my humble opinion the PBOC will not completely block imports for a number of reasons:
Despite the rumours of obstructed imports SGE withdrawals were strong in November.
The PBOC hasn’t released an official statement to curb imports.
The PBOC has just spent decades to develop the Chinese gold market in order to strengthen the Chinese economy and internationalize the renminbi. Why cancel the project for problems that can be solved differently?
Curbing gold imports would improve China’s current account. But China has a current account surplus; the capital account is in deficit. Why doesn’t the Chinese government tighten the capital account? In Q3 2016 China’s capital flow was minus 71 billion US dollars. In the same quarter gold import was valued at an estimated 13 billion US dollars. The problem is in the capital account.
SGE premiums started to rise on November 8 exactly when the gold price went down (which SGE premiums often do when the price goes down, exhibit 5). So are these elevated premiums of late fully caused by curbed imports, or simply strong demand? It’s probably a mix of both; in any case there is no full stop on imports. What probably happened is that imports exploded when the price tanked after November 8. As a result the PBOC decided to block shipments.
What came to light as on odd discrepancy between GFMS’ Chinese gold demand and “apparent supply” has proven to be a tenacious cover-up by the oldest consultancy firm in the gold market. And not only does GFMS publish incomplete and misleading data on Chinese gold demand, all its supply and demand data is incomplete and misleading. As a result, the vast majority of investors across the globe has been brainwashed to believe total gold supply and demand mainly consists of global mine output and jewelry demand. In reality, the supply and demand data GFMS publishes is just the tip of the iceberg. But the firm is reluctant to admit this publicly, lest their business model would be severely damaged.
GFMS has denied all allegations about their incomplete Chinese gold demand statistics by continuously making up false arguments. Therefore, BullionStar will debunk, once more, such arguments spread by GFMS – which are supposed to explain how from January 2007 until September 2016 the difference between GFMS’ Chinese gold demand and apparent supply reached over 4,500 tonnes – in order to expose true Chinese gold demand.
Since 2013 I’ve witnessed GFMS shamelessly present nine arguments in their Gold Survey reports, but along the way abandoned the arguments that I had debunked on these pages. Indeed, few of all these arguments have ever proven to be valid, illustrated by the fact that GFMS perpetually keeps making up new ones. What’s left is to disparage are the final three arguments from GFMS’ most recent annual report: the Gold Survey 2016 (GS2016). Because GFMS chooses their arguments to be ever more complicated, I’ll have to be precise in my wordings not to allow any margin for interpretation errors. For detailed information regarding the mechanics of the Chinese gold market and supply & demand metrics readers can click the links provided.
Debunking Final GFMS Arguments
In the Chinese domestic gold market nearly all supply (import, mine output, scrap supply) is sold through the Shanghai Gold Exchange (SGE), and so Chinese wholesale gold demand can be measured by the amount of gold withdrawn from the SGE vaults; data published on a monthly basis. As I’ve been reporting on withdrawals from the Chinese core exchange since 2013, the debate between me and Western consultancy firms like GFMS with respect to true Chinese gold demand has centered around these infamous SGE withdrawals (exhibit 1). Per mentioned above, GFMS has put out nine arguments in recent years explaining their reader base why SGE withdrawals do not reflect gold demand. Firstly, let us have a look at the five arguments now abandoned by GFMS:
Chinese commercial bank assets to back investment products. “The higher levels of imports, and withdrawals, are boosted by a number of factors, but notably by gold’s use as an asset class and the requirement for commercial banks to hold physical gold to support investment products.” (Gold Survey 2015, page 78).
Defaulting gold enterprises send inventory directly to refiners and SGE (Gold Survey 2015 Q2, page 7)
No need to discuss these anymore, as GFMS dedicated a full chapter in the GS2016 report titled, “A Review And Explanation Of How China’s SGE’s Withdraw Numbers Are Impacted By Other Trading Activities”, in which the arguments above are not listed, implying GFMS ceased to recognize them as relevant. However, there are three new arguments listed, and one old one, that will be discussed in this post:
Gold leasing activities and arbitrage opportunities (in China gold is money at lower cost) (Gold Survey 2016, page 57, Gold Survey 2015, page 78)
Because gold leasing is an old argument it will only briefly be addressed here.
1. Tax Avoidance
This argument entails an illegal Value-added tax (VAT) invoice scheme. Although this scheme exists, it can not have the impact on SGE withdrawals like GFMS wants you to think.
GFMS introduces its special investigation chapter by stating:
The first and foremost factor behind why we believe the SGE’s withdrawal number differs from the country’s total gold demand is related to China’s current tax system, with some people exploiting this grey area.
… the number of industry participants mushroomed in 2014 and 2015 as other traders became aware of the potential loophole.
The GFMS team uses the terms “tax avoidance” and “loophole”. For the ones that don’t know, tax avoidance and tax evasion are two opposing practices. Tax avoidance is the legal usage of a tax regime to one’s advantage in order to reduce the amount of tax payable by means that are within the law (Wikipedia). Tax evasion is the illegal evasion of tax payable (Wikipedia). In other words, tax avoidance is legal while tax evasion is illegal. In the introduction the GFMS team pretends the tax scheme is legal, while this is anything but true. In China one can risk life imprisonment or the death penalty when caught for tax evasion:
Whoever forges or sells forged special invoices for value-added tax shall, if the number involved is especially huge, and the circumstances are especially serious so that economic order is seriously disrupted, be sentenced to life imprisonment or death and also to confiscation of property.
Then, to add to the confusion, further down the GFMS team writes, “of course, all of the activities are considered illegal by the Chinese government.” Maybe GFMS doesn’t understand the difference between tax avoidance and tax evasion, two diametrically different practices, which makes their professionalism highly questionable.
GFMS writes, “the first and foremost factor behind why we believe the SGE’s withdrawal number differs from the country’s total gold demand is related to China’s current tax system”. So we’re supposed to believe that after all these years – GFMS is operational for decades – and all that has been written on the Chinese gold market, now GFMS has finally found the “first and foremost reason” why SGE withdrawals do not reflect demand? Or did it recently stumble upon this scheme to use in its defence? I think the latter.
Regarding using VAT invoices for tax evasion, the GFMS team must have read this news article by the Shenzhen Municipal Office. In the news, a company called Longhaitong used SGE VAT invoices for tax evasion. How does it work? For example: the prevailing spot gold price on the SGE is 234 CNY/gramme. Company X tells a mom-and-pop jewelry fabricator that they can supply good quality cheap gold, say the SGE spot price minus 2 CNY/gramme, but without a VAT invoice. The mom-and-pop fabricator wants to buy 1 Kg so it gives 232,000 CNY to company X (the mom-and-pop shop will fabricate jewelry from the gold to be sold covertly without VAT to consumers). Company X buys 1 Kg of gold on the SGE at the spot price of 234 CNY/gramme, paying 234,000 CNY. Then company X gives the gold to the mom-and-pop fabricator but keeps the VAT invoice. Up till now, company X has incurred a loss of 2,000 CNY (bear in mind, because of China’s VAT system buyers pay the spot price at SGE which doesn’t include any VAT, but when companies withdraw the metal they receive a VAT invoice from the tax authority that describes 17 % of the all-in price is VAT, because the gold leaves a VAT exempt environment). However, company X can then sell the VAT invoice for 4,000 CNY to, in example, a brick trader. Company X effectively makes 2,000 CNY. If the brick trader alters the subject header on the invoice from “gold” into “bricks” he can tax deduct 34,000 CNY (234,000 / (1+17%) * 17%) from his VAT payable. In this scenario, the brick trader effectively makes 30,000 CNY (34,000 CNY minus the 4,000 it paid to company X). Naturally, all exemplar numbers can vary.
For sure this illegal VAT scheme exists and has been used. But, only to a limited extent – in my conclusion I will tell you the upper bound. Mind you, in the scenario I just described the gold does meet demand, albeit through an illegal scheme!
In addition, the discrepancy between the GFMS Chinese demand figures and SGE withdrawal numbers first appeared in 2008, and have exploded since 2013.
In the GS2016 GFMS writes:
We initially became aware of the scheme in 2013 when it first emerged, but based on information gathered from our contacts, the number of industry participants mushroomed in 2014 and 2015 as other traders became aware of the potential loophole.
The GFMS team wants readers to believe that it was the tax scheme that caused the discrepancy between GFMS Chinese demand and SGE withdrawals since 2013, but the VAT regulation regarding gold has remained unchanged since 2002. Is it believable that criminals found the possibility of these illegal practices 11 years later, exactly when Chinese demand exploded? No. If you click this link, you will see a similar incident that happened in 2010 and was reported at the end of 2011. The VAT scheme has existed for many years and crime incidents happen, but not like GFMS wants you to think.
If the GFMS team was indeed aware of the illegal practices as late as 2013 and thought that was the year when these practices first emerged, then GFMS is not properly informed in the Chinese gold market.
More from GS2016:
One of our contacts with some understanding of this activity estimated that just from Shenzhen alone, such trading activities could have possibly impacted the SGE’s withdrawal volumes by a few tonnes per day. Approximately half of the gold being sold in the black market at discounts would eventually flow back to the SGE.
In my opinion this is speculation. According to the news available, buyers in the black market are those who want the gold to fabricate jewelry that eventually is being met by true demand. In contrast, GFMS wants readers to believe half of the gold involved in the scheme flows back to the SGE. But bars withdrawn from the SGE vaults are not allowed to re-enter, only if they’re recast into new bars by SGE approved refineries (the gatekeepers of the Chinese chain of integrity). For gold involved in VAT invoice schemes to flow back to the SGE, technically SGE approved refineries would be complicit. Though the SGE conducts a campaign to crack down on such illegal tax activities.
As stated above, the VAT scheme is real, though it can not involve as much gold as GFMS wants you to believe. Unfortunately we can’t compute the exact amount recycled through the SGE through this practice, we can only identify the upper bound, which we’ll do in the conclusion.
As background information: when gold is withdrawn from SGE vaults and promptly flows back to the SGE, this overstates withdrawal numbers as it creates equal demand and supply that has no net effect on the price. Therefore, such recycle flows should not be counted in supply and demand statistics. Readers can click this post for more information.
Financial Statement Window Dressing
The GFMS team writes:
Some companies attempted to build up their revenues by merely trading and withdrawing physical gold from the SGE vault so it would appear they have a high level of business activity, while in reality there is no real genuine demand behind this.
Trading can build up revenues but why do these companies withdraw gold? That doesn’t make economic sense. If a company buys gold on the SGE and leaves the gold in the SGE vault, the gold will be recorded as “inventory” on the company’s balance sheet. If the company then withdraws the gold, the gold is still regarded as “inventory”, so what’s point of withdrawing gold? Changing the location of the gold doesn’t change the accounting nature of the gold.
It is technically possible to buy gold on the SGE, withdraw, refine it into new bars, redeposit the bars into SGE vaults and sell the bars. However, this will incur expenses. When the point is “window dressing”, why incur unnecessary expenses? More logic would be to leave the gold in the SGE system. This argument is false.
Retailers Selling Unsold Inventories Directly to Refiners
In this section, the GFMS team writes:
Retailers often prefer to sell a portion of their working stock at a discount directly to refiners in order to maintain inventories at a desirable level.
Why waste the fabrication costs of jewelry when retailers can sell the products at a discount to customers?
By selling to refiners, even if such a transaction may result in a financial loss, it still counts as revenue; but doing the latter only increases the expense category and provides no benefits to the company’s revenues or asset value.
Let’s assume an unsold jewelry stock is worth of 1,000 CNY. The retailer sells it to a refiner at 800 CNY, which results in a loss of 200 CNY. The inventory item on the retailer’s balance sheet is reduced by 1,000 CNY and the cash item increases by 800 CNY. The net result is that the total asset value of the retailer decreases by 200 CNY, then how can this practice provide benefits to the asset value?
As an example, during a field research trip earlier this year, a local refiner indicated that one jewellery retailer has sold approximately 40 tonnes of unsold jewellery pieces to them in a single two month period.
But this quote doesn’t mention what the unsold jewelry pieces become in the end. Possibly, these pieces become gold wires, which might be used by jewelry fabricators instead of becoming gold bars that flow back to the SGE. GFMS pretend the majority of gold in China is continuously recycled through the SGE, which is not true. Many refineries are note even approved by the SGE to supply gold bars.
Gold Leasing Activities And Arbitrage Opportunities
This argument is one of the oldest and most persistent. But we can be short about this; in the Chinese gold lease market nearly all trades are conducted within the SGE system. Any speculator borrowing gold for cheap funding will not withdraw his metal loan, as his incentive is to sell spot for the proceeds. GFMS fools readers by mentioning high leasing activity, but it neglects to mention leases aren’t withdrawn from the vaults. Only a jewelry fabricator would withdraw borrowed gold because he wants to fabricate products to meet demand. For more information you can read this post on the Chinese gold lease market.
Over recent years we have observed a rising number of commercial banks participating in the gold leasing market. … It’s estimated that around 10% of the leased gold leaves the SGE’s vaults. The majority is for financing purposes and is sold at the SGE [and stays within the SGE vaults] for cash settlement.
This argument is false.
Furthermore, it’s noteworthy that GFMS writes:
From the perspective of the bank, lending physical gold is an off-balance sheet item,…
But as I’ve demonstrated in this and this post the majority of the “precious metals” on the Chinese bank balance sheets reflects back-to-back leasing. Meaning banks borrow gold in the SGE system to subsequently lend out at a higher lease rate. So neither do the Chinese bank balance sheets influence SGE withdrawals. What withdrawals largely reflect are direct purchases by individual and institutional investors at the SGE. True demand.
There is a very limited extent to which the VAT scheme can explain the difference between GFMS’ demand and SGE Withdrawals. I wrote previously that indeed there is certain amount of gold being withdrawn from SGE vaults, which, for various reasons, finds its way back to the SGE in newly cast bars – overstating SGE withdrawals as a proxy for wholesale demand. Unfortunately nobody knows exactly the volume flowing through the SGE that distorts withdraw data. But, we do know the upper and lower bound. The upper bound is the difference between SGE Withdrawals and apparent supply, the lower bound is zero.
GFMS only measures consumer demand (jewelry, retail bar and coin, and industrial demand) and not institutional demand (direct purchases at the SGE). This is not speculation this is a fact, and in China everyone can buy gold directly at the SGE so this explains the immense withdrawals. GFMS is fully aware of this but refuses to acknowledge it – because that would ruin their business model. Instead GFMS pretends that the difference between consumer demand and SGE withdrawals is all caused by gold being recycled through the central Chinese exchange. But how is this possible? If the Chinese gold market would simply be a merry-go-round fest, how come the Chinese import thousands of tonnes of gold that are not allowed to be exported? What GFMS suggests is not possible. The fact China keeps importing reveals demand. Another chart:
Theoretically the upper bound for the VAT scheme to have recycled gold through the SGE equals the difference between SGE withdrawals and apparent supply (the difference in exhibit 4 between the red and center columns). That’s the sole leeway we can debate about. As supply equals demand, demand cannot be lower than apparent supply. I should add, not unimportant, we know GFMS’ scrap supply data does not include disinvestment (institutional selling directly to refineries). So disinvestment must be included in the difference between SGE withdrawals and apparent supply as well. Have another look at exhibit 3. But, because we don’t know the amount of disinvestment, neither do we know the amount of distortion (VAT scheme and other recycling flows).
That’s why in exhibit 1 I’ve disclosed the aggregated difference between apparent supply and GFMS demand. There can be no mistake about this volume, it reflects true demand and it has mushroomed into +4,500 tonnes since 2007. GFSM can present many more arguments in future reports, but it won’t change the fact that true demand is at least equal to apparent supply.
This post is part of the Chinese Gold Market Essentials series. Click here to go to an overview of all Chinese Gold Market Essentials for a comprehensive understanding of the largest physical gold market globally. This post was updated in 2017.
In the Gold Survey 2016 by Thomson Reuters GFMS there is a complex illegal scheme described whereby criminals obtain VAT invoices from the Shanghai Gold Exchange (SGE) for tax evasion. According to GFMS this scheme is one of the reasons why SGE withdrawals are significantly higher than “Chinese consumer gold demand”. To be able to properly clarify this scheme I will expand in this post on the workings of the VAT system in China’s Gold Market. The scheme has certainly existed for years, but not anywhere near the volume and frequency GFMS portrays.
The Current VAT system in China was adopted in 1994 as part of the economic reform and is often regarded as one of the most complex systems in the world. Here the discussion is simplified somewhat, not to get entangled in details that are not important. Be aware this article does not discuss income tax.
The General VAT System In China
China’s VAT is chargeable on the sale of goods, provision of processing and repair services, and the importation of goods. The standard VAT tax rate is 17 %, a couple of household necessities enjoy a preferential 13 % VAT rate. When visiting any shop or supermarket in China, you will never see any VAT disclosed separately from the unit price. In China it’s common practice to show customers VAT-inclusive prices. In addition, all the prices listed on China’s Commodity Exchanges, the Shanghai Futures Exchange, Dalian Commodity Exchange, Zhenzhou Commodity Exchange and Shanghai Gold Exchange, are VAT-inclusive prices. As a result, if you see a notepad computer priced at 3,510 CNY (onshore renminbi) in China, the VAT is 510 CNY and the VAT-exclusive price is 3,000 CNY.
The “VAT-liable entities” are responsible for collecting the VAT and hand in the money to the tax authority. The VAT-liable entities in China are divided into two categories: general VAT taxpayers and small-scale VAT taxpayers. General VAT taxpayers are large firms that have annual sales large enough and the ability to maintain an accounting system sophisticated enough to accurately calculate output VAT and input VAT. Small-scale VAT taxpayers are firms that don’t satisfy these criteria. Since small-scale VAT taxpayers are not relevant to our discussion, so the focus will be put on general VAT taxpayers.
The formula for computing the VAT payable to the tax authority for a general VAT taxpayer is:
VAT payable = output VAT – input VAT
Output VAT = current period taxable sales * applicable VAT rate
Input VAT = current period costs of eligible purchases * applicable VAT rate
Here is a small example to illustrate VAT computing. Suppose company A is a laptop wholesaler that purchases laptops from Dell, and re-sells them to local retailer B. Company A buys 100 laptops from Dell at the VAT-exclusive unit price of 3,000 CNY. The total VAT-exclusive amount for the goods is 300,000 CNY and total VAT is 51,000 CNY.
Dell then issues a VAT invoice on which the 300,000 CNY and 51,000 CNY are recorded.
From Dell’s perspective, the 51,000 CNY is Dell’s output VAT, but from company A’s perspective the 51,000 CNY is its input VAT.
After having bought the laptops from Dell, company A then re-sells them to retailer B at the VAT-exclusive unit price of 4,000 CNY. Implying, the total VAT-exclusive amount for the laptops is 400,000 CNY and the total VAT is 68,000 CNY.
Company A then issues to retailer B a VAT invoice on which the 400,000 CNY and 68,000 CNY are recorded. From company A’s perspective, the 68,000 CNY is its output VAT but from retailer B’s perspective the 68,000 CNY is its input VAT.
At the end of the month, the VAT payable by company A is 17,000 CNY, which is to be paid to the tax authority.
VAT payable by company A = output VAT – input VAT = 68,000 – 51,000 = 17, 000 CNY
Company A has to keep Dell’s VAT invoice safe and demonstrate the invoice to the tax authority. If company A couldn’t produce Dell’s invoice to the tax authority, then the 51,000 CNY wouldn’t be allowed to be deducted and company A would have to pay the tax authority 68,000 CNY.
They are four kinds of receipts and invoices in China we will discuss:
Special VAT invoice (SVI)
Customs office special receipt for the payment of import VAT
General VAT invoice
Shanghai Gold Exchange invoice (SGE invoice)
1. Special VAT invoice (SVI). In order for input VAT to be used as a tax credit to offset the output VAT, the input VAT must be substantiated by a “special VAT invoice” (SVI) or “customs office special receipt for the payment of import VAT”. SVIs are issued when a general VAT taxpayer sells taxable goods and services. General VAT taxpayers must purchase blank SVIs from the tax bureau. In China, entities can’t produce any VAT invoice of their own – or it will be fake – but all transaction need to be recorded through an invoice. An SVI looks like this:
2. Customs office special receipt for the payment of import VAT. A “customs office special receipt for the payment of import VAT” is used for imported goods. Suppose company A buys a computer from Australia at the price 10,000 CNY, assuming no tariffs. The exporter in Australia can never give company A a Chinese SVI, but the imported computer does enjoy VAT. Therefore company A must pay the Chinese Customs Office 1,700 CNY (10,000 CNY * 17 %). Upon receiving the money, the Chinese customs office will issue a “customs office special receipt for the payment of import VAT”. With this special receipt, company A can obtain the tax credit (input VAT) from the imported computer.
3. General VAT invoice. A general VAT invoice looks like this:
A general VAT invoice looks very similar to an SVI, though a general VAT invoice cannot be used in obtaining VAT credits when calculating payable VAT. In other words, if you declare to the tax authority that you have 1,000 CNY input VAT but can only produce a general VAT invoice to substantiate your declaration, the tax authority will not recognize the invoice. General VAT invoices are issued by general VAT taxpayers strictly for accounting purposes when they make sales to consumers that will not use the purchase for input VAT. Effectively, general VAT taxpayers issue SVIs for sales to other general VAT taxpayers, and general VAT invoices for sales to consumers.
4. Shanghai Gold Exchange invoice (SGE invoice). The “Shanghai Gold Exchange invoice”, or SGE invoice, is designed by the Shanghai Gold Exchange under the supervision of the national tax authority. It’s a pity I can’t find an image of a SGE invoice.
VAT Policy For Gold In China
In China, gold is divided in several categories. There are gold,gold products and ore, and gold is subdivided in standard gold and non-standard. Gold is unwrought/unforged gold, like bars and ingots (HS code 7108120000 and 7108200000). Standard gold refers to gold bars or ingots having a fineness of 9999, 9995, 999 or 995, and a weight of 50g, 100g, 1kg, 3kg or 12.5kg. On the Shanghai Gold Exchange and the Shanghai Futures Exchange (SHFE) only standard gold can be traded. Non-standardgold includes any gold that doesn’t satisfy standard gold criteria, in example 200g ingots. Gold products mean semi-finished gold and finished products of gold, like coins, jewelry and ornaments.
When gold producers and gold traders (general VAT taxpayers and small scale VAT payers) sell non-standard gold off-SGE the VAT is exempt. Gold imported into the domestic market (non-standard and standard gold), for the ones that have an import license, is also VAT exempt.
If standard gold is not sold through the Shanghai Gold Exchange (or Shanghai Futures Exchange), a 17 % VAT tax rate will apply. If standard gold is sold through the Shanghai Gold Exchange (or the Shanghai Futures Exchange), then the VAT is exempt. But it’s the invoicing procedure that is quite complex. An example will follow to illustrate the whole process.
Let’s tie everything together. Suppose the following trades occur. ICBC imports 1 kg of Au99.99 (SGE 1 Kg 9999 gold ingot), which is standard gold, from Switzerland at the price of 230 CNY/gramme (around 1,033 USD/oz). ICBC then sells the gold on the SGE at the price of 234 CNY/gramme. Jewelry manufacturer Laofengxiang is on the other side of the trade. Laofengxiang then withdraws the gold, makes it into gold ornaments, and sells all of them to a retailer at the VAT-exclusive price of 300 CNY/gramme. The VAT payable and receipts and invoices of different parties are as follows:
When ICBC imports the gold, it receives a “customs office special receipt for the payment of import VAT”. On this receipt the total VAT-exclusive amount for the gold is 230,000 CNY and the VAT is 0 (ICBC’s input VAT), because imported standard gold is VAT exempt. When ICBC sells the gold at the price of 234 CNY/gramme on the SGE, it needs to issue to the SGE a general VAT invoice, on which it’s recorded 234,000 CNY for the gold and 0 VAT (ICBC’s output VAT), because selling standard gold on the SGE is also exempt from VAT. Upon issuing the general VAT invoice, ICBC will receive an SGE invoice from the exchange.
After ICBC and Laofengxiang have concluded the deal, the SGE will issue both ICBC and Laofengxiang an SGE invoice respectively. After Laofengxiang withdraws the gold from the vault, the tax authority will issue a SVI on behalf of the SGE, which the SGE distributes to Laofengxiang. On the SVI, the total VAT-exclusive amount for gold is 200,000 CNY and the amount of VAT is 34,000 CNY. The tax authority decides these two numbers using the following formula:
The total VAT-exclusive amount for gold on the SVI = SGE transaction price * quantity / (1+17%) * 100 % = 234 * 1,000 / (1+17%) * 100% = 200,000 CNY
The VAT amount for gold on the SVI = SGE transaction price * quantity / (1+17%) * 17 % = 234 * 1,000 /（1+17%）* 17 % = 34,000 CNY
To understand the reasoning behind this calculation, please note that after withdrawing the metal, this standard gold leaves a VAT exempt environment (the SGE system), for an environment that is not exempt from VAT, and hence VAT is born into existence. When Laofengxiang doesn’t withdraw the gold, the SGE invoice is the only invoice it will receive for accounting purposes – Laofengxiang needs some evidence for accounting entries. If it withdraws the gold, then it will receive an SVI because the standard gold withdrawn can be manufactured into new gold products and sold off-SGE. Therefore Laofengxiang will need to claim input VAT. General VAT taxpayers that withdraw will get a SVI, individuals that withdraw from the SGE will not. The input VAT noted on Laofengxiang’s SVI from the SGE is not an amount Laofengxiang paid to ICBC as VAT, but Laofengxiang is allowed to deduct this amount from its output VAT.
As mentioned, after concluding the purchase of 1kg 9999 gold on the SGE at the price of 234 CNY/gramme, Laofengxiang receives an SGE invoice and also an SVI after it withdraws the gold. The input VAT is 34,000 CNY, which is described above. Laofengxiang then fabricates and sells all the gold ornaments made from the 1kg of gold at the VAT-exclusive price of 300 CNY/gramme. Therefore the output VAT is 51,000 CNY.
Therefore, the VAT payable for Laofengxiang is 17,000 CNY. Since Laofengxiang has the SVI from the SGE, the tax authority will accept the 34,000 CNY input VAT as a tax credit to deduct from the output VAT.
Up till now, readers will have a general idea on how the VAT system works in China’s gold market.
Core Supply & Demand Data Chinese Gold Market Q1-Q3 2016
Chinese gold demand is still going strong this year, albeit less than in 2015. The most likely reason for somewhat lower demand has been the strength in the price of gold in the first three quarters of this year, to which the Chinese reacted by subduing purchases. From 1 January until 30 September 2016, the gold price went up 24 % in US dollars per troy ounce, from $1,061.5 to $1,318.1; measured in renminbi the price went up 28 % over the same period.
Now I have proven the gold on Chinese commercial bank balance sheets has little to do with physical gold ownership of these banks, but mainly reflects back-to back leases and swaps, we can be positive that data on withdrawals from the vaults of the Shanghai Gold Exchange (SGE) roughly equals Chinese wholesale demand. For now that is, as future developments can always alter our metrics.
Below is a chart showing withdrawals from the vaults of the SGE and the price of gold in yuan per gram. The most significant trends of recent years are still in effect; in the short term, when the gold price is falling Chinese demand increases (2013 and 2015), when the gold price is rising Chinese demand declines (2016). This trend is supported by SGE premiums that have an inverse correlation with the price of gold, when the price of gold declines, SGE premiums escalate and vice versa – I will show charts below. Furthermore, in the long term we can observe consistent growth in Chinese gold demand due to the opening up and development of the domestic market.
SGE withdrawals in the first three quarters of 2016 accounted for 1,406 tonnes – still impressive – down 29 % from 1,986 tonnes in 2015, which was a record year. Annualized SGE withdrawals are set to hit 1,877 tonnes in 2016.
Notable, “known net import” by China is relatively strong compared to SGE withdrawals in 2016. Total net import in the first three quarters of this year has aggregated to 905 tonnes – annualized 1,206 tonnes – or 64 % of SGE withdrawals, versus an import/withdrawals ratio of 53 % in 2015. As mine supply to the SGE is fairly constant, recycled gold through the SGE must be lower this year than last year. As a rule of thumb, we use the equation:
The largest net exporter to China is still Hong Kong, having transhipped 608 tonnes to the mainland from January until September 2016, up 5 % compared to 2015. The volume Hong Kong exports to the mainland has been quite constant since 2014, while in 2013 China’s special administrative region was a substantial larger supplier.
(There have been rumors that Hong Kong ’s export to China is overstated in the official data by the Hong Kong Census & Statistics Department, caused by fake exports. In the chart below you can see that the share of exports relative to re-exports from Hong Kong to China this year has increased from previous years. Potentially this signals fake exports, as it’s easier to over invoice an export than re-export, though I haven’t found hard evidence for this scheme. When I do I will report accordingly.)
The second largest exporter to China is Switzerland, having supplied a net 229 tonnes so far this year, which is 22 % more than last year. Clearly, direct shipments from Switzerland to China have replaced shipments via Hong Kong.
Direct net exports by the UK to China mainland have collapsed by 92 % this year compared to 2015, from 210 tonnes to a mere 18 tonnes. The reason being, the UK has been the largest net importer globally this year, which is related to the strength in the gold price early this year. UK net gold trade is a proxy for Western institutional supply and demand.
Australia’s direct export to China is down this year as well (in the first eight months, data for September has not yet been released). I’ve computed the data as described in my post Australia Customs Department Confirms BullionStar’s Analysis On Gold Export To China. Following this method, the land of down under has sent 50 tonnes of gold directly to China during the first eight months of this year, down 23 % from 65 tonnes in 2015.
Despite press releases suggesting Russian gold enterprises are strengthening ties with the SGE, I have identified only one shipment of 30 Kg by the Russian Federation directly to China in 2016. In 2013 the Russians directly net exported 50 Kg to China.
Data on gold export from South Africa to China is not publicly available.
Since 2014, when the Shanghai International Gold Exchange (SGEI) was erected, there is a possibility “SGE withdrawals” are inflated by withdrawals from vaults in the Shanghai Free Trade Zone; gold that is allowed to be exported abroad – the free trade zone is not part of the domestic market. But as far as I know any activity on the SGEI lacks foreign enterprises that buy gold to withdraw and export. A couple of months ago a source at a large Chinese bank told me the SGEI is mainly used by Chinese banks to import gold into Chinese domestic market. In addition, I haven’t bumped into any large importers from China. Occasionally India imports a few hundred Kg, but that’s it.
The emblematic difference between “Chinese gold demand as disclosed by GFMS” and SGE withdrawals – displayed in exhibit 7 – is due to GFMS’ incomplete metrics. For decades this consultancy firm has been denying the existence of institutional supply and demand in above ground gold, which is far more important to price formation than retail sales and mine supply, the predominant flows published by GFMS. The essence of this swindle can be read in my blog post The Great Physical Gold Supply & Demand Illusion. I also have a few more blog posts in the pipeline that discuss GFMS’ most recent gold supply and demand data.
I expect November to be a very strong month for SGE withdrawals. Mentioned in the introduction segment of this post, there is a trend in Chinese wholesale gold demand in relation to the gold price. Whenever, the gold price is climbing, Chinese demand is subdued, accompanied by low SGE premiums; when the gold price is decreasing, SGE withdrawals and premiums in China shoot up. The relationship between the gold price and SGE withdrawals can be viewed in exhibit 1. Below in exhibit 8 & 9, readers can see the relationship between “SGE end of day prices and premiums”.
Note, the gold price on the SGE and the premium have an inverse correlation.
I already mentioned that SGE withdrawals in the first nine months of 2016 have been subdued due to a rally in the gold price. However, high premiums at the SGE in November forecast elevated withdrawals for the month. Since Trump got elected on November 9, and price of gold started tumbling, SGE premiums have broken a three-year record. This signals strong demand.
In the next chart from Goldchartsrus.com we can see the premium on the SGE’s most traded physical contract Au99.99 has risen since November 9 and reached 3 % by 24 November. Levels not seen since 2013 (exhibit 8).
Although the relationship between the gold price and SGE premiums has been in place for years, Reuters reports the high premiums in November are caused by worries on import restrictions. From Reuters:
Gold premiums in top consumer China jumped to the highest in nearly three years this week on worries over a supply shortage that traders said were due to Beijing’s efforts to restrict import licenses.
“While we don’t have the exact numbers, we hear that they (Chinese government) have limited the number of importers,” said Dick Poon, general manager at Heraeus Precious Metals in Hong Kong.
To me this statement doesn’t make sense. At this moment that are 15 banks approved by the PBOC to import gold. Limiting the number of importers would cause less importers to import more gold in order to balance the domestic market (supply gold from abroad when necessary). In the Measures for the Import and Export of Gold and Gold Productsdrafted by the PBOC in March 2015 it states:
… An applicant for the import … of gold … shall have corporate status, … it is a financial institution member or a market maker on a gold exchange [SGE] approved by the State Council.
… The main market players with the qualifications for the import … of gold shall assume the liability of balancing the supply and demand of material objects on the domestic gold market. Gold to be imported … shall be registered at a spot gold exchange [SGE] approved by the State Council where the first trade shall be completed.
The Chinese government could lower imports by distributing less “import licences” to approved banks. As, every approved bank still needs to submit for a license for every gold import batch. Logically, lowering imports would be done by the PBOC through handing out less licences.
In the Netherlands we have a financial newspaper that prints on pink paper and is named “Het Financieel Dagblad”. Basically it’s the Dutch equivalent of the Financial Times. A few weeks ago I was interviewed by two of their reporters, Joost van Kuppeveld and Lenneke Arts. Today the interview was published as part of a series of interviews with gold experts, among others, with myself and Aerdt Houben, Director Financial Markets at the Dutch central bank (DNB). Perhaps not surprisingly I disagree with several statements of Houben in his interview, to which I would like to respond in a forthcoming post. For now, you can read my interview below. In case readers didn’t know my real name is Jan Nieuwenhuijs, and Koos Jansen is my Internet alias. Het Financieel Dagblad preferred to disclose my real name.
“The whole world is now in the same boat. Everywhere there are low interest rates and on all continents money is printed. Only the United States has paused printing for the moment.
There are many flaws in fiat money. You can print it without limitations, which is politically too tempting. Fiat money printing was used to save the financial system in 2008, but since then nothing has changed. Banks are not split. In a next crisis it’s going to end badly with paper money. There will be significant inflation.
Gold is a hard currency. It can’t be printed – like fiat money. It is divisible and it does not perish. It retains its purchasing power in the long term. If it’s in the center of the monetary system, it will also be more stable in terms of purchasing power in the short and medium term. That has to do with economic principles; it is a commodity. In that respect I feel safe by keeping a portion of my savings in physical gold. I am protected from economic shocks. If the euro falls gold rises, and so my purchasing power is maintained.
Something has to happen in the international monetary system. It cannot stay centred around the dollar. Since 1971 – when the dollar was detached from gold – the United States has an exorbitant privilege. Most trade in the world is settled in dollars. Therefore, there is a huge demand for dollars in the world, and the US can simply print these dollars.
In the new system gold is going play a role. Look at the developments in Europe. The Netherlands and Germany get their gold back from America. Austria and Belgium are also repatriating. Russia and China buy a lot of gold. The Chinese have too many dollars in foreign exchange reserves and are therefore at the mercy of the whims of US policy. The transition to a new system will be gradual. No one wants a new shock.
With my blog I try to fill the gap between mainstream media, who do not understand gold, and conspiracy theorists. I always try to seek the truth. Because if we get a new financial crisis, we must know the truth. The Dutch central bank shouldn’t state it holds 600 tonnes if it can’t show us the audit reports and gold bar list. That’s why I’m pushing for the audit reports and gold bars list to be publicly released, but those requests find a lot of resistance at my national bank. While you would think they can be fully transparent. What’s there to hide?”
Gold supply and demand data published by all primary consultancy firms is incomplete and misleading. The data falsely presents gold to be more of a commodity than a currency, having caused deep misconceptions with respect to the metal’s trading characteristics and price formation.
Numerous consultancy firms around the world, for example Thomson Reuters GFMS, Metals Focus, the World Gold Council and CPM Group, provide physical gold supply and demand statistics, accompanied by an analysis of these statistics in relation to the price of gold. As part of their analysis the firms present supply and demand balances that show how much gold is sold and bought globally, subdivided in several categories. It’s widely assumed these balances cover total physical supply and demand, which is incorrect as the most important category is excluded. The firms though, prefer not to share the subtle truth or their business models would be severely damaged.
The supply and demand balances by the firms portray gold to be more of a commodity than a currency, as the gist of the balances reflect how much metal is produced versus consumed – put differently, the firms mainly focus on how much gold is mined versus how much is sold in newly fabricated products. However, in reality gold is everlasting and cannot be consumed (used up), all that has ever been mined is still above ground carefully preserved in the form of bars, coins, jewelry, artifacts and industrial products. Partly because of this property the free market has chosen gold to be money thousands of years ago, and as money the majority of gold trade is conducted in above ground reserves. Indisputably, total gold supply and demand is far in excess of mine production and retail demand.
As most individual investors, fund managers, journalists, academics and precious metals analysts consider the balances by the firms to be complete, the global misconception regarding gold supply and demand is one of epic proportions. Physical gold is a profound anchor in our global financial system and thus it’s of utmost importance we understand the fine details of its trading characteristics.
Supply & Demand Metrics By The Firms
The firms can argue that the difference between what they present as supply and demand (S&D), as opposed to what I deem to be a more unadulterated approach of S&D is due to contrasting metrics. Accordingly, we’ll discuss their metrics to reveal their infirmity. In a nutshell, the firms only count the physical gold S&D flows that are easy to measure, while leaving out the most important part: institutional supply and demand.
Although the firms all have slightly different methodologies to measure S&D, from comparisons the numbers appear to be quite similar. For our further investigation we’ll spotlight the metrics and models by GFMS. The reason being, GFMS has been the only firm that was willing to share a full description of their methodology for publication – to be viewed here. Metals Focus (MF) provided a partial methodology, the World Gold Council and CPM Group declined to comment.
Let’s have a look at GFMS its S&D categories. On the supply side is included:
Mine supply (newly mined gold)
Scrap supply (gold sourced from old fabricated products)
On the demand side is include:
Jewelry demand (gold content used in newly manufactured jewelry products bought locally at retail level, adjusted by jewelry exported and imported).
Industrial demand (the volume of gold used in industrial applications, for example bonding wire, products used in semiconductors/electronics and dental alloys).
Retail bar investment (the net volume of bars that are purchased by individual investors through retail channels).
Coin investment (a combination of published data from mints and also a proprietary survey conducted by GFMS detailing where coins are sold).
The above four demand categories summed up are often referred to as “consumer demand” by the firms.
Furthermore GFMS includes:
Net hedging (change in physical market impact of mining companies’ gold loans, forwards, and options positions)
Net official sector (total central bank selling or buying)
ETF inventory build (change in ETF inventory)
Exchange inventory build (change in exchange inventory)
The last four categories can be either supply or demand. In example, when central banks (the official sector) in total are net sellers this will be listed as a negative demand figure, as is shown in the S&D balance by GFMS below from 2006 until 2009, when central banks in total are net buyers this will be listed as a positive demand figure, as is shown in the balance from 2010 until 2015. For a clear overview of the GFMS S&D balance please have a look at all line items below.
According to GFMS Supply consists of Mine production, Scrap and Net Hedging. In turn, Demand consists of Jewelry, Industrial Fabrication, Retail Investment, and Net Official Sector. After balancing Supply and Demand this results in a Physical Surplus/Deficit. Then, ETF Inventory Build and Exchange Inventory Build are added/subtracted from the Physical Surplus/Deficit to come to a Net Balance.
GFMS likes to pretend their balance is complete and occasionally articulates any surplus or deficit arising from it is positively correlated to the price of gold, which is anything but true, as I will demonstrate step by step.
The Firms Exclude Majority Gold Supply & Demand
Most important what’s excluded from the balance is what we’ll refer to as institutional supply and demand, which can be defined as trade in bullion among high net worth individuals and institutions. Usually the bullion in question comes in 400-ounce (12.5 Kg) London Good Delivery (GD) bars having a fineness of no less than 995, or smaller 1 Kg bars having a fineness of no less than 9999. In addition, bullion bars can weigh 100-ounce or 3 Kg, among other less popular sizes, generally having a fineness of no less than 995. Bullion can be traded without changing in weight or fineness, but it can be refined and/or recast for transactions as well, in example from GD bars into 1 Kg bars. In some cases institutional supply and demand involves cross-border trade, when bullion is sold in country A to a buyer in country B, in other cases the bullion changes ownership without moving across borders.
Provided are two exemplifications of institutional S&D:
An (institutional) investor orders 400 Kg of gold in its allocated account at a bullion bank in Switzerland – which would be purchased in the Swiss wholesale market most likely in GD bars. This type of S&D will not be recorded by GFMS.
A Chinese (institutional) investor buys 100 Kg of gold directly at the Shanghai Gold Exchange (SGE), the Chinese wholesale market, in 1 Kg 9999 bars and withdraws the metal from the vaults. Neither this transaction will be registered by GFMS – or any other firm.
These examples show the S&D balances by GFMS are incomplete.
For illustrational purposes, below is a chart based on all S&D numbers by GFMS from 2013, supplemented by my conservative estimate of institutional S&D. Including institutional transactions total S&D in 2013 must have reached well over 6,600 tonnes.
GFMS Covers The Tracks With Help From The LBMA
Although GFMS intermittently admits their number are incomplete (they have to), at the same time they’ve been battling for years to eclipse apparent institutional S&D for its audience.Dauntless tactics were needed when in 2013 institutional demand in China reached roughly 1,000 tonnes and over 500 tonnes in Hong Kong. Institutional demand in the East was predominantly sourced through GD bars from the London Bullion Market, which were refined into 1 Kg 9999 bars that are more popular in Asia. For the cover up GFMS went to great lengths to refute the volumes of gold withdrawn from SGE vaults, and accordingly have the London Bullion Market Association (LBMA) adjust statistics on total refined gold by its member refineries. Remarkably, the LBMA cooperated. Allow me to share my analysis in detail.
In 2013 something unusual happened in the global gold market as Chinese institutional demand exploded for the first time in history. Hundreds of tonnes of institutional supply from London in the form of GD bars were mainly shipped to Switzerland to be refined in 1 Kg 9999 bars, subsequently to be exported via Hong Kong to meet institutional demand in China. From customs data by the UK, Switzerland and Hong Kong the institutional S&D trail was clearly visible. From 2013 until 2015 there was even a strong correlation between the UK’s net gold export and SGE withdrawals. Demonstrated in the chart below.
Stunningly, since 2013 GFMS has tried to convince its readers through numerous arguments why SGE withdrawals crossed 2,000 tonnes for three years in a row, while Chinese consumer demand reached roughly half of this. Yet the arguments have failed miserably to explain the difference – they rationalize only a fraction, read this post for more information.
And GFMS did more to eclipse apparent institutional S&D. They colluded with the LBMA.
To be clear, I cannot exactly measure global institutional S&D. However, let me make an estimate of apparent institutional demand for 2013. Notable, in 2013 a flood of gold crossed the globe from West to East. Chinese institutional demand accounted for 914 tonnes and Hong Kong net imported 579 tonnes – the latter we’ll use as a proxy for additional Asian institutional demand, as Hong Kong is the predominant gold trading hub in the region.
In total apparent institutional demand in 2013 accounted for (914 + 579) 1,493 tonnes. If we add all other demand categories by GFMS shown in exhibit 1, total demand in 2013 was at least 6,619 tonnes. Be aware, this excludes non-apparent institutional demand.
Because nearly all wholesale gold demand in Hong Kong and China is for 1 Kg 9999 bars, the global refining industry was working overtime in 2013, mainly to refine institutional and ETF supply in GD bars coming from London. In December 2013 I interviewed Alex Stanczyk of the Physical Gold Fund who just before had spoken to the head of a Swiss refinery. At the time Stanczyk told me [brackets added by me]:
They put on three shifts, they’re working 24 hours a day and originally he [the head of the refinery] thought that would wind down at some point. Well, they’ve been doing it all year . Every time he thinks it’s going to slow down, he gets more orders, more orders, more orders. They have expanded the plant to where it almost doubles their capacity. 70 % of their kilobar fabrication is going to China, at apace of 10 tonnes a week. That’s from one refinery, now remember there are 4 of these big ones [refineries] in Switzerland.
As a consequence, statistics on “total refined gold production” in 2013 by “LBMA accredited gold refiners who are on the Good Delivery List”, which the four large refineries in Switzerland are part off, capture the immense flows of institutional S&D – next to annual mine output and scrap refining. On May 1, 2015, the LBMA disclosed total refined gold production by its members at 6,601 tonnes for 2013 in a document titled A guide to The London Bullion Market Association. It’s no coincidence this number is very close to my estimate on total demand (6,619 tonnes), as apparent institutional demand in Asia was all refined from GD into 1 Kg bars.
Here’s exhibit 2 from another angle.
In the table below we can see the LBMA refining statistics for 2013 at 6,601 tonnes.
After this publication GFMS was trapped; these refining statistics revealed a significant share of the institutional S&D flows they had been trying to conceal. What happened next – I assume – was that GFMS kindly asked the LBMA to adjust downward their refining statistics. First and painstakingly exposed by my colleague Ronan Manly in multiple in-depth posts, the LBMA kneeled and altered its refining statistics to keep the charade in the gold market going.
On August 5, 2015, the LBMA had edited the aforementioned document, now showing 4,600 tonnes in total refined gold production. (Click here to view the original LBMA document from the BullionStar server, and here to view the altered version from the BullionStar server.) Have a look.
In the altered version it says:
Total refined gold production by the refiners on the List was estimated to be 4,600 tonnes in 2013, owing to recycling of scrap material, above world mine production of 3,061 tonnes (source Thomson Reuters GFMS).
A few important notes:
In the altered version the LBMA mentions “an estimate” for “total refined gold production”, while it doesn’t need to make an estimate as all LBMA accredited gold refiners who are on the Good Delivery List are required to provide exact data to its parent body. The exact data was disclosed in the first version of A guide to The London Bullion Market Association, and it stated, “total refined gold production by the refiners on the List was 6,601 tonnes”.
In the altered version the LBMA states the refining statistics were sourced from Thomson Reuters GFMS, but the LBMA doesn’t need GFMS for these statistics. The fact they mention GFMS, though, suggests a coordinated cover up of institutional S&D. Not only the firms, also the LBMA publishes incomplete and misleading data.
The altered version stated refining production totaled 4,600 tonnes, which is a round number and obviously quickly made up. A few weeks after the numbers were adjusted, the LBMA adjusted the numbers again, this time into 4,579 tonnes (click here to view from the BullionStar server).Clearly, on several occasions there has been consultation with the LBMA to get the statistics in line with GFMS.
In the original document the LBMA states, “Total refined gold production by the refiners on the List was 6,601 tonnes in 2013, more than double world mine production of 3,061 tonnes”, while in the altered version they state, “Total refined gold production by the refiners on the List was estimated to be 4,600 tonnes in 2013, owing to recycling of scrap material, above world mine production of 3,061 tonnes”. Notable, GFMS prefers to have total supply focused around mine and scrap production, instead of including institutional supply.
The original refining statistics (6,601 tonnes) are still disclosed in the LBMA magazine The Alchemist (#78 on page 24), to be viewed from the LBMA server here.
And so nothing is spared in trying to uphold the illusion of the GFMS S&D balance to be complete. In another example GFMS excluded gold purchases by the central bank of China from its S&D balance. In June 2015 the People’s Bank Of China (PBOC) increased its official gold reserves by 604 tonnes, from 1,054 tonnes to 1,658 tonnes. During that quarter (Q2 2015) all other central banks worldwide were net buyers at 45 tonnes. Thus, in total the Official Sector was a net buyer at 649 tonnes. Now, let’s have a look at GFMS’ S&D balance for Q2 2015:
Net Official Sector purchases are disclosed ay 45 tonnes. GFMS decided not to include the 604 tonnes increment by the PBOC simply because it didn’t fit their balance model. A 604 tonnes increment in would have set the “net balance” at -480 tonnes. Readers would have questioned the balance from this outlier, and so GFMS decided not to include the tonnage.
According to my sources PBOC purchases were sourced from institutional supply (from abroad and not through the SGE), which is a supply category not disclosed by GFMS and therefore the tonnage was a problem. (Note, GFMS disclosed the PBOC increment in text, but not in their balance.) For more information read my post PBOC Gold Purchases: Separating Facts from Speculation.
Gold Is More A Currency Than A Commodity
The biggest flaw of the balance model by GFMS is that it depicts gold to be more of a commodity than a currency. It’s focused on mine output and gold recovered from old fabricated products on the supply side, versus retail sales of newly fabricated products on the demand side. In parlance of the firms, how much is produced (supply) versus consumed (demand). Official sector, ETF and exchange inventory changes are then added to the balance. This commodity S&D balance approach by GFMS has caused deeply rooted misconceptions about the essence of gold and its price formation.
The price of a perishable commodity is mainly determined by how much is annually produced versus how much is consumed (used up). However, gold is everlasting, it cannot be used up and its exchange value is mainly based on its monetary applications, from being a currency, or money if you will. Logically the best part of its trading is conducted in above ground reserves. From my perspective the impact of global mine supply, which increases above ground stocks by roughly 1.5 % annually, and retail sales have less to do with gold’s price formation than is widely assumed.
Back to GFMS. Have a look at the picture below that shows their S&D flows for 2015.
GFMS pretends total supply is mine production plus some scrap, which is then met by jewelry demand in addition to retail investment, industrial fabrication and official sector purchases. The way they present it is misleading. These S&D flows are incomplete; they suggest gold is traded like any other commodity. But what about institutional S&D in above ground bullion? Trades that define gold as an international currency.
Let’s do another comparison; this time between what GFMS calls Identifiable Investment demand, consisting of…
Retail bar & coin
…versus my what I deem to be a more unadulterated approach of investment demand, consisting of…
Total [global] Identifiable Investment, … posted a modest 5 % increase in 2015, to reach 990 tonnes.
That’s quite a tonnage between global Identifiable Investment by GFMS at 990 tonnes and apparent Chinese institutional demand at 1,400 tonnes. We should also take into account non-apparent institutional demand, gold that changes hands in trading hubs like Switzerland. Unfortunately we can’t always measure institutional S&D, but that doesn’t justify denying its subsistence.
Have a look at the chart below that shows the large discrepancy. In the next chapter we’ll specifically discuss the significance of investment demand in relation to the price of gold.
My point being: what many gold market participants and observers think is total supply and demand is just the tip of the iceberg.This truly is a staggering misconception created by the firms.
When observing the GFMS balance in exhibit 1 its incompleteness is self-evident. At the bottom we can see the line item “net balance”, which reflects the difference between total supply and total demand. According to GFMS, if the “net balance” is a positive figure there was a surplus in the global gold market, and if “net balance” is a negative figure the market has been in deficit. In the real world this figure is irrelevant. Gold supply and demand are by definition always equal. One cannot sell gold without a buyer, and one cannot buy gold without a seller. Furthermore the gold market is deep and liquid. So how come there is a difference between total supply and total demand in the GFMS balance? As I’ve demonstrated before, because GFMS doesn’t include institutional S&D that in reality makes up for the difference and far beyond. In all its simplicity the “net balance” item reveals their data is incomplete.
Let’s have another stab at this. How can “net balance” exist in the real world, for example in 2009? According to GFMS the gold market had a 394 tonnes surplus in 2009. But how? Were miners left with 394 tonnes they couldn’t sell? Or some supranational entity decided to soak up the surplus to balance the market? Naturally, this is not what happens. Total supply and total demand are always equal, but GFMS doesn’t record all trades.
Moreover, in my opinion the words “surplus” and “deficit” do not apply to gold. There can be no deficit in gold; there will always be supply. At the right price that is. Sometimes Keynesian economists claim there is not enough gold in the world for it to serve as the global reserve currency. Austrian economists then respond by saying that there will always be enough gold at the right price. I agree with the Austrians and their argument also validates why there can be no deficit in gold.
There is more proof the “net balance” item presented by GFMS is meaningless. Although according to GFMS the market had a 394 tonnes “surplus” in 2009 the price went up by 25 % during that year. This makes no economic sense. A surplus suggests a declining price, not the other way around. Tellingly, S&D forces presented in GFMS balances are often negatively correlated to the gold price, as was the case in 2005, 2006, 2009, 2010 and 2014 (exhibit 1). In conclusion, GFMS S&D balances are not only incomplete, the resulting “net balance” items are misleading with respect to the price. Below are a few charts that demonstrate this conclusion.
If we plot “net balance” versus the end of year price of gold we can see the correlation is often negative. Have a look below. Green “net balance” chart bars show a positive correlation to the gold price, red chart bars show a negative correlation (note, the left axis is inverted for a more clear overview between any “deficit/surplus” and the price of gold). As you can see nearly half of the “net balance” chart bars are negatively correlated to the price of gold.
Mind you, although the “net balance” item is often negatively correlated to the gold price, in the Gold Survey 2016 GFMS states on page 9:
In terms of the Net Balance, 2015 marked the third year in which the gold market remained in surplus, and therefore it is not surprising that the bear market continued.
And on page 14:
The forecast reduction in global mine output and a gradual recovery in demand will see the physical surplus narrow in 2016, providing support to the gold price and laying the foundation for better prospects.
GFMS likes to pretend any “surplus” or “deficit” arising from their balance is correlated to the price, but the facts reveal this is not true.
Let us plot the “physical surplus/deficit” line item by GFMS (exhibit 1) versus the gold price. This results in even more negative correlations.
This exercise reveals that a positive correlation between either a “surplus” or “deficit” arising from a GFMS balance and the price of gold is just a coincidence. No surprise when one is aware their S&D data is incomplete.
Remarkably, the last chart was also published in the Gold Survey 2016, but GFMS chose not to invert the left axis and doesn’t disclose what we see is a surplus or deficit. As a result the largest surpluses (2006, 2007, 2009, 2010) seem to correlate with a rising price, though in reality they did the opposite. Compare the chart below with the one above.
GFMS also publishes S&D balances for silver (a monetary metal that is comparable to gold). For silver the presented correlations by GFMS between a “surplus” or “deficit” in relation to the price are even weaker.
According to GFMS the silver market is always in deficit, but the price goes up and down. Obviously GFMS neglects to measure institutional S&D for silver.
In my opinion, when Gold Fields Mineral Services (GFMS) was erected many decades ago they made a mistake to adopt a commodity S&D balance approach.Surely with the best intentions they gather intelligence and retrieve data from the market. But we must be aware this is not the full picture. The most significant data is not disclosed by GFMS.
When it comes to what drives the price of gold GFMS and I agree it’s determined by gold’s role as a currency in the global economy. When reading the chapter PRICE AND MARKET OUTLOOK in the Gold Survey 2016, GFMS shares its insights with respect to the gold price. Factors mentioned are:
Turmoil in global stock markets
A Chinese hard landing
Geopolitical tensions in the Middle-East
Central bank stimulus (QE)
Global economic weakness
Interest rates policy by central banks
Low risk asset / safe haven demand
So if these factors drive the gold price, in what S&D category would this materialize? Would (large) investors buy and sell jewelry? Or bullion bars? I think the latter. According to my analysis the price of gold is largely determined by institutional demand, and to a lesser extent ETF and retail bar & coin demand.
Let’s do an exercise to see what physical gold S&D trends correlate to the price. The majority of supply on the GFMS balance consists of mine output and the majority of demand on the GFMS balance consists of jewelry consumption. But if we plot these volumes versus the price of gold in a chart, there is no push and pull correlation*. For example, when the gold price surged from 2002 until 2011 jewelry consumption was not rising. Neither was it outpacing mine supply. The opposite happened, to be seen in the graph below. This is because jewelry demand is price sensitive – when the price goes up jewelry demand goes down, and vice versa. Jewelry demand is not driving the price of gold.
I also added retail bar & coin demand. Interesting to see is that retail bar & coin demand is on one hand a price driver, moving up and down in sync with the gold price, on the other hand it can be price sensitive having brief spikes when the price of gold declines.
The best correlation between physical S&D in relation to the gold price can be seen in institutional and ETF S&D. One of the largest gold trading hubs in the West is the UK, home of the London Bullion Market that also vaults the largest ETF named GLD. The UK has no domestic mine production, no refineries and national gold demand is neglectable in the greater scheme of things. Therefore, by measuring the net flow of the UK (import minus export) we can get a sense of Western institutional and ETF demand and supply. For example, if the UK is a net importer – import demand being greater than export supply – that signals a net pull on above ground stocks. Approximately one third of the UK’s net flow corresponds to ETF inventory changes, the other two thirds reflect pure institutional S&D.
In the charts above we can observe a remarkable solid correlation between the UK’s net flow and the gold price. The UK is a net importer on a rising price and net exporters on declining price. The shown correlation can’t be a coincidence, though there’s no guarantee it will prevail in the future.
The two charts above show the (medium/long term) gold price is mostly determined by institutional supply and demand in above ground reserves. Effectively, GFMS is hiding the most important part of global physical gold flows.
When I asked an analyst at one of the leading firms why his company doesn’t measure institutional S&D he told me candidly, “becauseit’s extremely difficult to accurately estimate it”. And it is. As I wrote previously, I can’t exactly measure global institutional S&D either. However, very often publicly available information gives us a valuable peek at it, and it shows to be more relevant to the gold price than what the firms keep staring at. Not knowing exactly what institutional S&D accounts for doesn’t mean GFMS shouldn’t pay attention to it.
But the firms keep trying to uphold the illusion the data they’ve been selling for decades is complete. For if they would plainly confess it was incomplete, future business could be severely damaged.
What I blame these firms is that they’ve created a meme that the gold market is as large as annual mine supply. This has caused all sorts of misconceptions. Often I read analyses based on a comparison between quantitative demand and mine output. Such analyses are likely to jump erroneous conclusions.
This post is part of the Chinese Gold Market Essentials series. Click here to go to an overview of all Chinese Gold Market Essentials for a comprehensive understanding of the largest physical gold market globally. This post was updated in 2017.
In 2013 we’ve witnessed the inception of the Chinese gold ETF market. At first demand for the gold ETFs was neglectable, as investors mostly preferred to buy the physical gold directly at the Shanghai Gold Exchange (SGE) or buy jewelry or investment bars through retail channels. In 2016, however, there has been a major shift towards gold ETF demand in China.
The physical holdings of Chinese gold ETFs have surged five-fold from 7 tonnes at the end of January 2016, to 35 tonnes at end of August 2016. The Huaán Yifu Gold ETF, which was holding 23 tonnes in August 2016, even entered the global top 15 list. Since 2016 total Chinese gold ETF holdings (all stored within SGE designated vaults) have dwindled to an aggregated 25 tonnes in September 2017.
The interest in China’s gold ETF market was even mentioned by the World Gold Council in a Gold Demand Trends report. In this post, we’ll add some texture to China’s gold ETF market; how are the gold ETFs constructed and how can they be compared to the largest Western gold ETF, the SPDR Gold Trust. At this moment the market share of Chinese gold ETFs is small – within China as well as globally, but knowledge about the workings of these ETFs will be valuable if they acquire significant market share in the future.
Kindly note, all mechanics and examples presented in this post are simplified.
What Is A Gold ETF?
ETF is short for Exchange Traded Fund. ETFs trade like stocks and its price usually tracks an underlying asset or index. Like stocks, ETFs have a primary market and a secondary market. The secondary market is the stock exchange where most ETF investors trade. What makes ETFs special is the primary market where ETF shares are created and redeemed. Let us use the SPDR Gold Trust (symbol: GLD) to illustrate how the primary market works. Mainly through the creation and redemption process of shares, the GLD share price tracks the gold price.
The Authorised Participants (the institutions which are authorised to create and redeem GLD shares, at this moment the Authorised Participants are Barclays Capital, Inc., Credit Suisse Securities (USA) LLC, Goldman Sachs & Co., Goldman Sachs Execution & Clearing, L.P., HSBC Securities (USA) Inc., P. Morgan Securities Inc., Merrill Lynch Professional Clearing Corp., Morgan Stanley & Co. LLC, RBC Capital Markets, LLC, Scotia Capital (USA) Inc., UBS Securities LLC and Virtu Financial BD LLC).
If an Authorised Participant (AP) wants to create GLD shares, it needs to deposit gold into the account of the Trust and subsequently the Trustee will provide the AP with GLD shares. The creation application must be made in multiples of 100,000 shares (a block of 100,000 shares is called a basket). Since every GLD share represents approximately 0.1 ounce of gold, in order to create 100,000 GLD shares the AP needs to deposit 10,000 ounces of gold into the account of the Trust. (In reality, 1 GLD share actually represents a little less than 0.1 ounce of gold, the reason for this will be explained later on in this post.)
The redemption process works the other way round. If an AP wants to redeem GLD shares, it deposits 100,000 GLD shares at the Trust and subsequently the AP receives 10,000 ounces of gold.
The purpose of APs creating and redeeming GLD shares is usually arbitrage. As previously mentioned the gold equivalent of 1 GLD share is roughly 0.1 ounce, nevertheless GLD shares and actual gold are traded in two different markets. As a consequence, the price of 1 GLD share can differ from the price of 0.1 ounce of gold. If the price of GLD and the price of gold diverge, this is where arbitrage comes into play for the APs. Accordingly, the arbitrage by APs through creation and redemption of shares contributes to GLD’s price tracking the gold price.
Suppose (simplified), the price of 1 GLD share is $110 – caused by supply and demand for GLD shares at the NYSE Arca – while the price of 0.1 ounce of gold is $100 in the gold market. An AP can grasp this opportunity by buying (or first leasing) 10,000 ounces of gold to deposit in the GLD Trust account after which the Trustee will create 100,000 GLD shares for the AP. The new shares created are then sold by the AP on the stock market, which will cause the price of GLD to go down. The arbitrage opportunity will be used by APs until it’s closed.
If the price of GLD shares is lower than the price of gold, the arbitrage opportunity works the other way around, APs can buy shares, redeem them for gold at the Trustee and sell the gold.
In the aforementioned example trade when the AP (via the Trustee) created 100,000 GLD shares his investment was $10,000,000 (10,000 ounces at $100 per 0.1 ounce). The AP’s revenue was $11,000,000 (100,000 GLD shares worth $110 a piece). The AP’s profit in this exercise was $1,000,000.
($110-$100)*100,000 = $1,000,000
As readers can see from the example, the holdings of GLD were increased by 10,000 ounces of gold. Almost every day the holdings of GLD vary and the change is often caused by arbitrage of APs.
One theory is, when demand for GLD shares is strong (usually by Western investors) and the share price is trending higher than the price of the gold equivalent, the APs jump the arbitrage, create shares and GLD inventory swells. Then, if growth in GLD inventory correlates to a surging gold price (which can be observed in exhibit 3 below) we can speculate the gold bull market in part has been caused by Western investment demand in GLD.
Now we have established the workings of the largest Western gold ETF, we will have a look at how the Chinese gold ETFs are constructed, and compare them to GLD.
China’s Gold ETF Market
Below are the 4 Chinese gold ETFs currently in existence that we’ll discuss.
– Bosera Gold Exchange Open-Ended Securities Investment Fund
– Guotai Gold Exchange Open-Ended Securities Investment Fund
– Huaán Yifu Gold Exchange Open-Ended Securities Investment Fund
– Efund Gold Exchange Open-Ended Securities Investment Fund
In China every gold ETF share represents approximately 0.01 gram of gold. By creating or redeeming gold ETF shares (Chinese) APs receive or deliver a basket of 300,000 shares, which equals to 3Kg of gold. This threshold is much lower than that of GLD, of which a basket equals to 310Kg of gold. The gold acceptable for Chinese ETFs are the spot (physical and spot deferred) gold contracts listed on theSGE – for example Au99.99. Therefore, all the physical holdings of China’s gold ETFs are stored within SGE designated vaults.
Moreover, there is a range of features that make China’s gold ETFs quite different from GLD.
1. Chinese Gold ETF Shares Can Also Be Created Or Redeemed Through Cash
Unlike GLD, which only allows the use of gold to create shares, and only allows the use of shares to redeem gold, China’s gold ETFs also allow shares to be created and redeemed through cash in the primary market. An AP can present cash to the Fund Manager who handles the creation and redemption process for a Chinese gold ETF. The Fund Manager is comparable to the Trustee of GLD. Thereby, through an AP individual investors can create or redeem gold ETF shares with cash as well.
Suppose, a Chinese investor wants to arbitrage the difference between the price of a gold ETF and the price of gold. In this example the price of the gold ETF is higher than the price of gold, so the investor want use cash to create shares to sell on the stock market. The investor can present cash to an AP who in turn will create shares via the Fund Manager. The amount of cash used in this transaction to create shares is equal to the cash value of the spot gold contracts that are needed to create the shares without the use of cash.
Vice versa, in case an investor wants to arbitrage the price of a gold ETF when it’s lower than the price of gold, the investor can present shares to an AP to redeem for cash.
In China the APs can be securities firms and commercial banks. The securities firms are often not SGE members. Therefor, the number of APs that support gold ETF shares creation and redemption through cash is often larger than the number of those that support shares creation and redemption through spot gold contracts. For example, in the case of Efund Gold ETF, the fund has authorised 13 securities firms (APs) to process creation and redemption through cash, but only 2 banks (APs) to process creation and redemption through spot gold contracts (Industrial and Commercial Bank of China and Bank of Communications).
2. The Flexibility Of The Fund Manager
The Trustee of GLD doesn’t have much flexibility in managing the assets. Its duty is mainly processing the creation and redemption orders of GLD shares. Therefore, the gold holdings of GLD are mainly allocated gold and according to the prospectus [brackets added by me]:
Gold held in the Trust [GLD]’s allocated account is the property of the Trust and is not traded, leased or loaned under any circumstances.
In China, the Fund Managers of the gold ETFs have more flexibility. The gold contracts that China’s gold ETFs hold include not only spot physical contracts like Au99.99 and Au99.95, but can also be spot deferred contracts like Au (T+D), and notable all these “spot contracts” may be leased (sometimes swapped) within the SGE system. Additionally, every Chinese gold ETF can invest 10% of its fund assets (5 % of net fund assets in case of Efund Gold ETF) in “other financial instruments” allowed by the China Securities Regulatory Commission (CSRC).
For example, the excerpt below is from the Efund Gold ETF’s prospectus [brackets added by me]:
The investment scope of the Fund [Efund Gold ETF] is liquid financial instruments, including gold physical contracts (including spot physical contracts, spot deferred contracts, etc), bonds, asset-backed securities, bond repos, bank deposits, money market instruments, and other financial instruments which laws, regulations or the CSRC allow the Fund to invest in the future (but these have to satisfy the relevant rules of the CSRC).
If laws, regulations or regulatory institutions allow the Fund to invest in other instruments (including but not restricted to gold derivatives like forwards, futures, options and swaps), after necessary procedures, the Fund Manager will include them into the investment scope.
The portfolio percentage: The fund asset invested in gold spot contracts is not lower than 95% of the net asset value of the Fund.
All the 4 gold ETFs in China can participate in gold leasing. Some can participate in gold swaps and some can pledge the gold to borrow money.
The excerpt below is from the Huaán Yifu Gold ETF Prospectus:
The Fund can do gold lease and pledge gold to borrow money.
Effectively the Fund Manager of the Huaán Yifu Gold ETF can make money by, for example, leasing the fund’s assets.
The excerpt below is From the Guotai Gold ETF Prospectus:
The Fund can do gold lease, gold swap and invest in gold spot deferred contracts, etc, in order to lower the operating expenses and lower tracking error. The Fund does margin trade only for the purpose of risk management and enhancement of the efficiency of the asset allocation.
As a result, the Fund Managers of Chinese gold ETFs have significant flexibility in handling the fund assets. Please remember that all gold leasing, swapping, etc. has to be done within the SGE system and the gold cannot leave the SGE designated vaults.
Article 4. Gold ETFs may not deposit physical gold into the [SGE] vault or withdraw physical gold from the [SGE] vault. Margin trade is only for the purpose of risk management and enhancement of the efficiency of the asset allocation.
3. NAV Per Share Recalculation
Since the inception of GLD in 2004 its share gold equivalent is steadily declining lower than 0.1 ounce of gold. That’s because the Sponsor, Trustee and Custodian don’t provide services for free. They need to earn money and their earnings must come from the Net Asset Value (NAV) of the ETF. In other words, the gold in the Trust is gradually sold to pay for operational expenses. From the GLD prospectus:
The amount of gold represented by the Shares will continue to be reduced during the life of the Trust due to the sales of gold necessary to pay the Trust’s expenses irrespective of whether the trading price of the Shares rises or falls in response to changes in the price of gold.
Each outstanding Share represents a fractional, undivided interest in the gold held by the Trust. The Trust does not generate any income and regularly sells gold to pay for its ongoing expenses. Therefore, the amount of gold represented by each Share has gradually declined over time. This is also true with respect to Shares that are issued in exchange for additional deposits of gold into the Trust, as the amount of gold required to create Shares proportionately reflects the amount of gold represented by the Shares outstanding at the time of creation. Assuming a constant gold price, the trading price of the Shares is expected to gradually decline relative to the price of gold as the amount of gold represented by the Shares gradually declines.
On November 18, 2004, 1 GLD share exactly equaled 0.1 ounces of gold, but by now (September 2016) 1 GLD share equals 0.09542 ounces of gold, a decline of almost 5 % over the course of 12 years. This explains why currently the amount of ounces needed by an AP to create a basket of shares has become less than 10,000 ounces, and continues to decline.
In China’s gold ETF market, although the gold represented by the ETF instruments also decline as with GLD, the share values are periodically re-adjusted to ensure the NAV per share remains (roughly) 0.01 gram of gold.
For example, from the Bosera Gold ETF prospectus:
Fund share re-calculation means the fund manager based on the necessity of the operation of the fund, under the premise that the total NAV is unchanged, adjusts the total fund shares outstanding and NAV per share.
There is nothing complicated about the re-calculation. There are simply periodic adjustments when the Fund Manager sets the value of the shares (in yuan) higher because the gold content equivalent is elevated, from below 0.01 gram to 0.01 gram, whereby the Fund Manger “adjusts the total fund shares outstanding” downward.
4. Linked Funds
In China, every gold ETF is accompanied by a Linked Fund. The Linked Fund mainly invests in the Target Gold ETF as can be seen in the list below. The Linked Fund is usually a common open-ended mutual fund. While 90 % of the assets under management of the Linked Fund must be invested in its Target Gold ETF, the Fund Manager still has some room for managing the remaining 10%.
For example, from the Bosera Gold ETF-linked Fund’s prospectus:
The Fund mainly invests in Bosera Gold Exchange Open-Ended Securities Investment Fund, gold contracts listed on the Shanghai Gold Exchange, gold futures contracts listed on the Shanghai Futures Exchange, bonds and other financial instruments which the CSRC allows the fund to invest, like securities lending and borrowing, gold lease, etc.
For more clarity I’ve drawn a graph to illustrate the ratios of investment allocation by the Guotai Gold ETF and the Guotai Gold ETF-linked Fund.
Although, at this stage it’s not completely clear to me what would be the benefit for investors to invest in the Linked Fund, as opposed to the Target Gold ETF.
5. Voting Rights
GLD holders only have limited voting rights. The excerpt below is from the GLD prospectus,
Under the Trust Indenture, Shareholders have no voting rights, except in the following limited circumstances: (i) shareholders holding at least 66.66% of the Shares outstanding may vote to remove the Trustee; (ii) the Trustee may terminate the Trust upon the agreement of Shareholders owning at least 66.66% of the outstanding Shares; and (iii) certain amendments to the Trust Indenture require 51% or unanimous consent of the Shareholders.
In China’s gold ETFs shareholders have more voting rights and can vote to decide on a lot of important issues. The excerpt below is from the prospectus of Bosera Gold ETF:
In one of the following circumstances, based on the consent of the fund manager, the fund custodian or the fund shareholders who hold 10% (including 10%) of the fund shares outstanding, it is mandatory to hold fund shareholders’ meeting:
1. Termination of the fund contract;
2. Change of the operation of the fund;
3. Increase of the remuneration of the fund manager or the fund custodian, but excluding the circumstances in which the increase of the remuneration is mandatory by the requirements of laws or regulations;
4. Replacement of the fund manager or fund custodian;
5. Amendment of the fund category;
6. Amendment of the fund investment target, scope or strategy (excluding the circumstances in which laws, regulations or the CSRC have other relevant requirements);
7. Amendment of fund share holders’ meeting proceedings, voting methods and voting procedures;
8. Termination of listing but excluding circumstances in which the fund no longer satisfies listing requirements and the listing is terminated by the Shenzhen Stock Exchange;
9. Merger of the fund with other fund(s);
10. Other items that have material influence on the rights and responsibilities of the parties to the fund contract and necessitate the fund share holders’ meeting to amend the fund contract;
11. Other items that are required by laws, regulations, the fund contract or the requirements of the CSRC to hold the fund share holders’ meeting.
Even the Linked Fund shareholders of China’s Gold ETFs can participate in voting:
The fund shareholders of the linked fund of this fund can attend or send representatives to attend the fund shareholders’ meeting and participate in voting, based on the share holding of the linked fund. The equivalent number of fund shares with voting rights and correspondent votes are: the product of the total shares of this fund held by the linked fund multiplied by the linked fund shares held by the respective link fund share holder as a percentage of the total linked fund shares outstanding. The result of the calculation is rounded to the nearest whole number.
Ironically, to me there seems to be more democracy and openness in China’s gold ETFs than in GLD. On the other hand, Chinese gold ETFs have a fundamentally different foundation, a hybrid design I would say.
China’s gold ETF market was erected in 2013 and is still evolving. In the future, there may be more complex gold ETF related financial structures that have a big impact on China’s overall gold market. I shall follow it closely.
This post is part of the Chinese Gold Market Essentials series. Click here to go to an overview of all Chinese Gold Market Essentials for a comprehensive understanding of the largest physical gold market globally. This post was updated late 2017.
There has been much conjecture since 2014 about the increasing numbers in the “precious metals” category on the balance sheets of Chinese commercial banks. By the end of 2015 China’s largest banks were holding RMB 598 billion in precious metals, which translates into approximately 2,682 tonnes of gold – if all the precious metals were gold related, which is very likely.
Some analysts think that the precious metals on Chinese commercial bank balance sheets are gold reserves purchased on behalf of the Chinese central bank (I don’t agree), while others surmise that Chinese banks buy gold at the Shanghai Gold Exchange (SGE) and then lend it out, so the precious metals on the balance sheets solely represent leased gold. In the latter analysis it’s then assumed the leasing inflates the amount of gold withdrawn from SGE designated vaults. Most certainly there is leased gold on Chinese banks’ balance sheets, but this can hardly influence SGE withdrawals, as I have previously explained.
What do we know beyond the gossip about the precious metals holdings on Chinese commercial bank balance sheets?
From studying the annual reports of the respective banks and additional documentation we know the precious metals can be the following things:
Gold savings that belong to the banks’ customers (GAP)
Gold inventory for the banks’ retail gold business
Since the Chinese silver market was liberalized much earlier than gold I don’t think there is any edge for Chinese commercial banks to have a predominant role in the silver market. So, probably most of the precious metals on the balance sheets in question are gold related.
Below is an overview of the precious metals holdings of listed Chinese commercial banks as of 31 December 2015, measured in yuan (RMB). There are 16 listed Chinese commercial banks on China’s A-share market but Huaxia Bank didn’t disclose its precious metals holding in its annual report. If all aggregated precious metals holdings relate to gold, the upper bound is approximately 2,682 tonnes of gold.
1. Customers’ Gold Savings (GAP)
A substantial amount of the precious metals reflect (fully backed) customers’ gold deposits in the form of Gold Accumulation Plans (GAP), recorded as an asset and a liability on the balance sheets of the banks. However, to me it’s unknown how much gold is exactly accumulated in China through GAPs.
Let’s go through the annual reports of the Chinese banks having the largest precious metals holdings, seeking for information with respect to GAPs.
Precious metals comprise gold, silver and other precious metals. The Group retains all risks and rewards of ownership related to precious metals deposited with the Group as precious metals deposits, … and it records the precious metals received as an asset. A liability to return the amount of precious metals deposited is also recognized.
From the BOC website its GAP seems to be in its infancy, so I don’t expect it to comprise much gold. ICBC on the other hand, introduced a GAP in 2010 and is thought to be largest in China.
Seizing the opportunities arising from customers’ wealth increase and capital market growth, the Bank made efforts to establish a mega asset management business system across the whole value chain and enhance its specialized operating capabilities on the strength of the Group’s asset management, custody, pension and precious metal businesses, …
The [ICBC] Group records the precious metals received as an asset. A liability to return the amount of precious metals deposited is also recognized. …
While consolidating our traditionally advantageous businesses in housing finance and cost advisory service among other things, we actively expanded our presence in … precious metals.
The Bank supported product innovation, provided and optimized new products such as … gold purchase and saving.
The Bank proactively responded to changes in the precious metals market via pursuing marketing expansion, enlarging customer base and enforcing product innovation. The Bank launched innovative products and business models, including gold accumulation plan ….
To me it’s unknown how much gold CCB’s GAP comprises.
All in all, part of the precious metals on the listed Chinese commercial banks’ balance sheets are gold savings held on behalf of clients instead of reflecting the banks own metals. (By the way, gold saved in ICBC’s GAP is partly stored in SGE designated vaults.)
2. Bank Retail Gold Inventory
Chinese banks offer a wide range of retail gold investment products for sale at local branches and through internet order. Naturally, any gold inventory for this business is recorded on the balance sheets. From ICBC’s 2015 annual report:
To echo the changes in market demands, the Bank developed a variety of new brands on assorted themes and introduced a slew of products, e.g. Chinese Zodiac Coins and Panda Gold and Silver Coins, under agent sales. The Bank expanded the online channels, through which the flagship store “ICBC Gold Manager” witnessed substantial growth of sales, and it also piloted the direct distribution of logistics suiting to the characteristics of e-commerce.
According to the World Gold Council roughly 60 % of Chinese retail gold investment demand is supplied through commercial banks. Consequently, Chinese banks’ own gold inventory for retail business (showing up on their balance sheets) can not be neglectable.
Additionally, the gold inventory in the vaults of the SGE does not appear on the Chinese custodian bank balance sheets (unless it’s part of GAP gold).
China’s commercial banks offer derivatives to retail and institutional customers. Bank of China’s Qi Jin Bao is an example. Qi Jin Bao is in fact gold option business. The retail customer pays a certain amount of money (option premium) and buys a gold call option or put option.
For example (simplified): suppose the current gold price is $1300/oz and a retail customer is bullish on gold and believes that the gold price will rise in 3 months time. Therefore, the retail customer buys a 3 months call option with a notional amount of 100 oz of gold at the strike price of $1300/oz from Bank of China and pays an option premium of $35/oz. If the gold price indeed goes up in 3 month’s time, the retail customer will make money. However, derivatives are a zero-sum game. If the retail customer makes money, then the Bank of China definitely loses money. If the gold price goes up to $2000/oz, Bank of China will lose big time. In order to mitigate this risk, Bank of China will (borrow money to) buy gold to hedge the short call position and the gold purchased will appear on the balance sheet.
4. Gold Held Outside China
Gold on the balance sheets of Chinese commercial banks doesn’t necessarily have to be gold held in China. Chinese banks like ICBC, BOC and Bank of Communications have direct access to the LBMA. As a result, gold on the balance sheets of Chinese commercial banks can be located outside China mainland.
On January 29, 2014, ICBC bought 60 % of the existing shares in Standard Bank Plc from Standard Bank London Holdings Limited. After completion of the acquisition, Standard Bank Plc was renamed as ICBC Standard Bank on 27 March 2015. In the 2015 annual report of ICBC (Group), which includes ICBC Standard Bank data, we see that ICBC Standard Bank held RMB 18,426,000,000 in precious metals assets (equivalent to 83 tonnes of gold) on December 31, 2015.
In the chapter “Some Of Chinese Banks’ Gold Is Indeed Outside China” of this post we can read that also smaller banks like Ping’ An are likely to hold gold outside of China.
5. Back-to back Gold Leasing
Probably the largest share of the precious metals on the balance sheets have to do with gold leasing. At the moment, there are no standard accounting rules or guidelines related to how to record bank’s gold leasing activities. (In this post, I don’t distinguish between gold leasing and gold lending because the essence is the same.) However, most banks seem to still put gold leasing activity in the precious metals category of their balance sheet.
If you have little knowledge on accounting rules please read this crash course before continuing.
According to the A-share annual report of the Bank of Communications [brackets added by me]:
Precious metals that are not related to the Group’s trading activities including coins and medallions sales are initially measured at acquisition cost and subsequently measured at the lower of cost and net realizable value. Precious metals that are related to the Group’s trading activities including precious metals lease and [precious metals] interbank lending are initially and subsequently recognized at fair value, with changes in fair value arising from re-measurement recognized directly in profit or loss in the period in which they arise.
Apparently, the Bank Of Communications has its gold leasing business disclosed on its balance sheet in the precious metals category.
Below is from the 2015 annual report of Shanghai Pudong Development Bank (page 17):
Shanghai Pudong Development Bank saw its precious metals holdings grow from RMB 11,707,000,000 on December 31, 2014, to RMB 28,724,000,000 on December 31, 2015. As the main cause for the growth in precious metals is considered to be “increased physical gold leases”, we must conclude in the case of Shanghai Pudong Development Bank nearly all precious metals on its balance sheet relate to gold leasing. But does this mean Chinese banks buy gold on the SGE and then lease it out? Not necessarily.
Chinese banks mainly do back-to-back gold leasing – simply connecting supply and demand. Banks don’t have much money of their own. They need to borrow money or gold either from savers or in the interbank market. Would it make sense for banks to borrow money in order to buy gold to subsequently lend out gold? Or would it be more logic for banks to borrow gold to subsequently lend out gold (striking a small fee)?
ICBC operates in the lease market as an intermediary by connecting supply (lessors) and demand (lessees), while striking a fee. ICBC can borrow gold from international banks or local gold owners with an SGE Bullion Account, and lend the gold to miners, jewelers or speculators. My assumption is that the international gold lease rate is lower than the Chinese gold lease rate, which attracts gold from the international market into the Chinese domestic gold market. (Whenever a gold loan is to be repaid from the Chinese domestic gold market to an international lender, not the physical metal is exported, but funds cross the Chinese border, as physical gold export is prohibited from the Chinese domestic gold market.)
Also note, if banks would buy the gold to lend out, they are exposed to the price risk of gold. In order to cover this risk, banks need to hedge but this will involve additional costs. The logical solution is for banks to do back-to-back gold leasing.
The Bank of Beijing is a good example to illustrate back-to-back gold lending. Unlike other Chinese banks, the Bank of Beijing does not put gold leasing in the precious metals category. It has a separate line in its books for gold leasing.
According to the 2015 annual report of the Bank of Beijing (page 123 and 132):
As readers can see from the excerpts above, the Bank of Beijing indeed does back-to-back gold leasing as precious metals “leased in” (RMB 1,400,000,000) are equal to precious metals “leased out”(RMB 1,400,000,000). I suspect most gold leasing by Chinese banks is back-to back leasing.
Because the Bank of Beijing has its leasing business noted in a separated line than its “precious metals”, we can see a huge discrepancy between the Bank of Beijing’s precious metals holdings in exhibit 1 (RMB 55,000,000) and its back-to back leasing business in exhibit 6 (RMB 1,400,000,000).
Other banks don’t have a separate line for the gold leased out but as mentioned before, they put it in the precious metals category. A widely-accepted method to treat borrowed gold is to include a liability called “financial liability at fair value through profit and loss”. Readers who can understand Chinese are recommended to click this and this link. The ICBC annual report provides an example of how the liability is recorded.
In conclusion, back-to-back gold leasing will result in an asset and a liability on the banks’ balance sheets, for most banks highly “overstating” the precious metals category. When looking at exhibit 8 we can see the enormous growth in yearly Chinese gold leasing turnover, which must have enlarged Chinese banks’ balance sheets.
According to my analysis a large portion of the precious metals on the balance sheets of Chinese banks is back-to-back leasing, which, by the way, is nearly all gold that stays inside SGE vaults, and thus does not impact SGE withdrawals.
6. Synthetic Leases
Additionally, Chinese banks conduct synthetic leases – in other words: swaps. By performing synthetic leases, Chinese banks can show “precious metals assets” but no “precious metals liabilities” on their balance sheets. Then, at the very surface it seems these banks own gold, while in reality they own zero gold.
Also note, swaps can be executed with foreign banks, through which gold is subsequently imported into the domestic market. And because the Chinese banks have been importing thousands of tonnes in recent years, it should come as no surprise these trades have influenced the “precious metals” line item on their balance sheets.
From the previous chapter, we know that gold leasing – mainly back-to-back borrowing and lending – overstates the precious metals assets and liabilities of Chinese banks. However, what was not mentioned in the previous chapter was that banks do synthetic back-to-back leasing through swaps. This way, it’s possible that banks that are active in the gold lending market, will show precious metals assets on their balance sheet, though not owning a single gram of metal. The bank syntheticallyborrow gold through a swap, and lend it out for a few extra basis points. The result is synthetic back-to-back leasing.
From a Chinese bank’s perspective a synthetic gold lease is conducted by borrowing RMB to buy spot gold, lend that metal to a customer, and at the same time sell short a forward contract. When the gold loan to the customer comes due the metal is returned to the bank, which then will be sold through the forward contract to repay the bank’s RMB loan. That’s the definition of a swap: buy spot and sell forward (sell spot and buy forward for the counterparty).
In my previous post GOFO And The Gold Wholesale Market we could read about the relationships (and the exact workings of swaps) between fiat interest rates, swap rates and the Gold Lease Rate (GLR).
Fiat interest rate – swap rate = GLR
Effectively, by borrowing RMB for a swap the bank pays GLR to synthetically borrow gold.
As the international gold lease rate is likely lower than the gold lease rate in China, Chinese banks can make a profit by (synthetically) borrowing gold abroad, import the metal and lend it through the SGE system at a higher GLR. (Whenever a gold loan is to be repaid from the Chinese domestic gold market to an international lender, not the physical metal is exported, but funds cross the Chinese border, as physical gold export is prohibited from the Chinese domestic gold market.)
For example, Minsheng Bank can synthetically borrow gold for 3 months from HSBC at GLR in the interbank market. When Minsheng lends the gold for 3 months to a jeweler at GLR + 30 BPs, then Minsheng earns 30 BPs in this trade.
In the real world, this is exactly what banks have been doing. Let’s still use Minsheng Bank as an example. Please view the table above. We can see Minsheng’s gold lease volume jumped from 13 tonnes in 2013 to 101 tonnes in 2014, and the precious metals assets surged from 2,913 million RMB in 2013 (~12 tonnes) to 25,639 million RMB in 2014 (~107 tonnes). The surge in precious metals assets was fully caused by the increment in the gold lease business, as can be seen in the excerpt below from Minsheng Bank’s 2014 annual report. All the numbers are in millions of RMB.
It’s disclosed the precious metals assets jumped from 2,913 million RMB in 2013 to 25,639 million RMB in 2014, due to a 22,726 million “increase in precious metals lease business”.
But note we can only see an increase in “precious metals assets” on Minsheng’s balance sheet (exhibit 9), there are no “precious metals liabilities”. This is because the gold lend by Minsheng was sourced through swaps. Minsheng didn’t literally borrow gold (which would have caused a precious metals liability), it swapped gold for RMB collateral.
This is how it works in Minsheng’s case. When it enters a swap transaction these are the spot and the forward legs to be recorded in the financial statement. Minsheng borrows RMB and buys spot gold to lend out to a customer at GLR plus a few basis points. At that moment a precious metals asset (the gold loan) is recorded on the balance sheet, but not a precious metals liability (the related RMB liability is not disclosed in exhibit 9). Simultaneously, Minsheng sells short a forward contract that is recorded off-balance sheet. In due time the gold loan is repaid, the forward settled, etc.
The off-balance activities are shown in exhibit 9, additionally they’re disclosed in Minsheng’s financial statement to be viewed below. Again all numbers are in millions of RMB.
We can see that the large increase in precious metals derivatives trading from 2013 to 2014 was mainly caused by “3 months to 1 year” “forwards and swaps” – of which most have been swaps used for synthetic back-to-back leasing.
Exhibit 10 shows there was a 22,726 million RMB (~ 94 tonnes) increase in leases from 2013 to 2014. Exhibit 11 shows ~ 24 billion RMB (~ 100 tonnes) in “3 months to 1 year” swaps have been executed in 2014, over zero in 2013. Likely, the majority of the swaps have been in tenors close to 1 year, as by 31 December 2014 roughly 107 tonnes in precious metals assets were on the balance sheet.
In 2014 the “3 months to 1 year” “cash inflow” (Minsheng’s sell forward leg) transcended the “cash outflow” (buy spot leg) because gold was in contango that year in China. (Exhibit 11.)
Minsheng Bank counts only 1 leg of the gold swap off-balance sheet. If we compare the total “precious metals forwards and swaps” “cash outflow” 32,865 million RMB (exhibit 11) with the total notional amount in precious metals derivatives off-balance sheet, 32,844 million RMB (exhibit 9), the two numbers are roughly equal.
All in all, at the surface it seems Minsheng Bank was holding/owning approximately 100 tonnes in precious metals assets late 2014, in reality this was merely reflecting synthetic back-to-back leasing through swaps.
As long as Chinese annual lease turnover grows, the commercial bank balance sheets can mushroom as a consequence. (See exhibit 8.) For more data on the “precious metals” on Chinese bank balance sheets read the chapter “III Data”of this post.
From the descriptions above, the precious metals holdings on the balance sheets of Chinese commercial banks are quite complicated to decipher. One thing is for sure, it’s not all gold owned by banks and leased out, neither is it gold purchased by banks on behalf of the Chinese central bank. In my opinion it’s a mixture of GAP gold, retail inventory, gold held for hedging, gold outside China, and back-to-back leasing and synthetic leasing.
In order for us to learn exactly what the precious metals on the balance sheets represent we need more information, more investigation is needed by gold analysts. Hopefully this blogpost can serve as a springboard to a better collective understanding.
In addition to Gold Accumulation Plans many Chinese banks offer a variety of (paper) gold hedging and speculation broker services to their clients, but these are recorded off-balance sheet. For example, in the annual report 2014 from Agricultural Bank of China (ABC) we can read:
… Precious metals
… As a major precious metal market maker in the PRC, the Bank provided customers with precious metal trading, investment and hedging services through … trading of precious metal derivatives … and trading … the Shanghai Futures Exchange and the London precious metals market.
So, through ABC clients can trade paper gold, but these derivatives would be recorded off-balance sheet, or in a separate line next to “precious metals”. More from the ABC annual report 2014:
Our off-balance sheet items primarily include derivative financial instruments, contingent liabilities and commitments. We enter into currency rate, interest rate and precious metals related derivative financial instruments for the purposes of trading, asset and liability management and business on behalf of customer.
Off-balance sheet items include derivative financial instruments, …. The Group entered into various derivative financial instruments relating to … precious metals and other commodities for trading, hedging, asset and liability management and on behalf of customers.
Implying, from my judgement, all the precious metals on-balance sheet are not (customers’) paper gold.
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