Tag Archives: Chinese gold demand

Chinese Gold Market: Still in the Driving Seat

With the first half of 2018 now behind us, it’s an opportune time to look at whats been happening in the Chinese Gold Market. As a reminder, China is the largest gold producer in the world, the largest gold importer in the world, and China’s Shanghai Gold Exchange is the largest physical gold exchange in the world.

For various reasons such as cross-border trade rules, VAT rules and deep liquidity, nearly all physical gold supply in China passes through the Shanghai Gold Exchange (SGE) vaulting network. These flows include imported gold, domestically mined gold, and recycled gold. Therefore, nearly all Chinese gold demand has to be met by physical gold withdrawals from the SGE, and SGE gold withdrawals are a suitable proxy for Chinese wholesale gold demand. Therefore, at a high level:

Physical Gold Supply to the SGE = SGE Withdrawals = Chinese Wholesale Gold Demand

Gold supply includes gold imports, mine supply, gold scrap / recycling and disinvestment. Disinvestment on the SGE is the reverse process of investment. Investment is when any institutional entity or individual purchases gold directly on the SGE. Disinvestment involves selling gold bullion which then goes to a refinery and re-enters the SGE vaulting network.

Wholesale gold demand includes consumer demand and institutional demand (direct gold purchases at the SGE). For a fuller explanation of this gold supply – demand equation as it applies to the Chinese gold market, see ‘Mechanics of the Chinese Domestic Gold Market’ on the BullionStar website.

Chinese Gold Market: Still Buoyant

SGE Gold Withdrawals in 2018

For the 6 months to the end of June 2018, physical gold withdrawals from the Shanghai Gold Exchange totalled 1038.4 tonnes. These flows represent gold which has actually been physically withdrawn from the network of SGE vaults across China. The monthly SGE gold withdrawal figures from January to June 2018 are as follows:

January 223.6 tonnes
February 118.4 tonnes
March 192.6 tonnes
April 212.6 tonnes
May 150.6 tonnes
June 140.6 tonnes

This withdrawal total, 1038 tonnes, is the third highest SGE withdrawal total on record for the first six months of any year of the SGE’s existence, only lower than the 1098 tonnes and 1178 tonnes recorded at the end of June 2013 and June 2015, respectively. The following chart highlights the cumulative Month 6 gold withdrawals from the SGE vaults, comparing all years from 2008 to 2018.

SGE Gold Withdrawals at Month 6 (YTD 2018 June): 2008 – 2018. Source: www.GoldChartsRUs.com

This year’s gold withdrawals to end of June, if annualised, would be 2076 tonnes, which would represent the fourth highest SGE gold withdrawals year on record after 2015, 2013 and 2014, in that order. All in all, SGE gold withdrawal figures year-to-date point to a very buoyant and healthy gold market in China and very strong wholesale gold demand, with volumes in line with the last 5 years.

SGE Annual Physical Gold Withdrawals, 2008 – 2017, including YTD 2018. Source: www.GoldChartsRUs.com

Imports of Gold into China

Around the world, monetary gold (i.e. central bank gold) is exempt from customs and trade reporting when it moves across borders. Given this exemption, it is difficult to really know how much gold central banks (including the Chinese central bank, the PBoC) actually have at any given time.

Non-monetary gold is any gold that is not classified as monetary gold. Normally, non-monetary gold flows are estimable since there is no general exemption from customs and trade reporting. However, China is the exception, as it does not publish its gold import or export statistics. Therefore cross-border non-monetary gold trade flows involving China are more difficult to gauge than most. But it is still possible to gauge gold imports into China by looking at other countries’ gold exports to China.

During the year to date, Hong Kong and Switzerland, as expected, remained the two primary suppliers of non-monetary gold to China. Smaller direct suppliers of gold to China include the UK, Australia and the US. While Hong Kong remains the largest supplier of gold into China, China has been for a few years now, sourcing more gold directly from other countries and less gold via Hong Kong,

Looking first at Switzerland, for the first six months of 2018 from January to  June, the Swiss supplied 274.7 tonnes of non-monetary gold into China. Specifically, 41.2 tonnes in January, a very large 67.2 tonnes in February, 39.6 tonnes in March, 26.6 tonnes in April, 38 tonnes in May and 62.1 tonnes in June. In fact, China topped the table as the largest single destination for Swiss non-monetary gold imports in every month from January to June 2018, ahead of India and Hong Kong.

China imported 62.1 tonnes of gold from Switzerland in June 2018, Source: www.GoldChartsRUs.com

If extrapolated on an annual basis, the 6 month flows would suggest Swiss gold exports to China of 274.7 tonnes from January to June would be roughly 550 tonnes for the full year. Comparing this to the full year 2017 when China imported 299.8 tonnes of non-monetary gold directly from Switzerland would suggest that a major change has occurred this year in the way the Chinese are sourcing their gold imports, with far more direct imports and less indirect imports from the interpot of Hong Kong.

Swiss Gold Exports by Country Destination, 2017, Source: www.GoldChartsRUs.com

According to Hong Kong’s Census and Statistics Department (HKCSD), Hong Kong net-exported 144.2 tonnes of gold to mainland China during the first 3 months of 2018. Extrapolating this on a 6 months basis would be about 290 tonnes, and 580 tonnes on an annualised basis. This would be a 7.5% drop compared to 2017 full year net gold exports from Hong Kong to China, but such a drop is to be expected as there is a trend of China is now engaged in more direct gold imports from destinations other than Hong Kong.

Chinese Gold Imports from Hong Kong, Source: www.GoldChartsRUs.com

China sources gold directly from a number of other countries such as the UK, Australia, US and Canada. Together these other sources are still relatively insignificant as gold exporters to China compared to Hong Kong and Switzerland, but based on 2017 figures, together they may have sent about 30-40 tonnes of gold to mainland China during H1 2018.

Gold Production in China: 2018

Beyond gold imports, gold sourced from mining remains a critically important source of gold supply in China. According to the China Gold Association (CGA), China produced 98.22 tonnes of gold from mining in the first quarter of 2018, which was down 3 tonnes on Q1 2017. This comprised 80.8 tonnes from direct gold mining and 17.4 tonnes from extracting gold as a byproduct of other mining.

While the CGA has not yet published a gold mining output total for the second quarter of 2018 and its website has not yet been updated with such a news release, extrapolating the first quarter figure would suggest a Chinese domestic mining output figure of just less than 200 tonnes of gold for the first half of 2018 and about 400 tonnes for the full year.

Given that China produced 426.14 tonnes of gold during 2017, and the 2017 gold output total of 426.14 tonnes was itself 27.3 tonnes, or 6%, less than in 2016, it looks like 2018 will see another year of reduced gold production from the world’s number one gold producer. With continued buoyant demand from the Chinese gold market, these relative production shortfalls will have to be made up by larger gold imports or increased volumes of gold recycling.

SGE Premiums

Premiums of the Shanghai gold price to the international gold price have remained positive and steady throughout 2018, and generally low, except for a short period at the end of March. In price terms, SGE premiums during the year-to-date period have been recorded at between 1-2 Yuan per gram , or in percentage terms between 0.3% and 0.8%.

The positive premiums point to the attraction of sending gold from West to East, while the generally sedate levels of these premiums during 2018 indicate that there are currently no major supply constraints, such as tighter gold import rules, that could send the premiums higher into positive territory. Contrast this to late 2016, when the SGE gold price traded 2-3% higher than the international gold price, on the back of rumoured PBoC restrictions on gold import quotas and consignments that were said to be an attempt to control capital outflows.

SGE Premiums on Gold 2018. Source: www.GoldChartsRUs.com

With Chinese wholesale gold demand running at over 1000 tonnes for the first six months of 2018 as indicated by SGE gold withdrawals, China’s gold market has to principally meet this gold demand from the key supply sources of domestic mine production, gold imports and gold recycling and disinvestment.

For the year to date to end of June, we can assume that Chinese gold mining contributed about 200 tonnes to Chinese gold supply. Non-monetary gold imports, principally from Switzerland and Hong Kong, contributed another 560-580 tonnes. This would leave about 250 – 300 tonnes to be sourced from gold recycling and scrap through the SGE system and from disinvestment.

The West lost at least another 1000 tonnes of large gold bars in 2015

Over the last number of years, one of the most interesting trends in the physical gold world is the ongoing conversion of large 400 ounce gold bars into smaller high purity 1 kilogram gold bars to meet the insatiable demand of Asian gold markets such as China and India.

This transformation of 400 ounce bars into 1 kilogram bars is an established fact and is irrefutable given the large amount of evidence which proves it is happening, as has been documented on the BullionStar website and elsewhere.

It is also something which causes plenty of excitement in the gold world as it underscores the huge movement of physical gold from West to East, and the continual depletion of gold inventories from locations such as the London Gold Market.

The general movement is one of 995 purity 400 ounce gold bars coming out of gold-backed ETFs, central bank gold holdings and other wholesale gold holdings, and these bars making their way to the Swiss refineries where they are transformed / smelted / recast into smaller 9999 high purity gold bars. The smaller gold bars are then exported from Switzerland to India, China, Hong Kong, and the Middle East.

At the same time as the wider gold market acknowledges and publicises this trend, the establishment gold world and bullion banks (as represented by the London Bullion Market Association) tend to downplay this conversion of 400 ounce gold bars into 1 kilogram bars, presumably because it directly highlights the continual drain of real physical gold out of the London vaults into China and India, gold which has little chance of ever coming back again.

For an example of significant downplaying of conversion of 400 ounce gold bars into kilogram gold bars, see BullionStar post from September 2015 titled “Moving the goalposts….The LBMA’s shifting stance on gold refinery production statistics” which documents how a mammoth 2000 tonnes of LBMA gold refinery output attributed to the year 2013, mysteriously disappeared from the LBMA’s publications in early August 2015, after the original figure of 6,601 tonnes had been highlighted on this website, with the original figure being replaced by a far lower 4600 tonnes.

While gold refineries in countries other than Switzerland may be involved in these 400 ounce to 1 kilogram gold bar transformations, the Swiss refineries are the big players in this area, as they say so themselves. The names in question are Valcambi, PAMP, Argor Heraeus and Metalor. For a full understanding of the extent to which these large Swiss gold refineries process 400 ounce gold bars into kilobars and the importance that they attribute to this specific category of refinery activity, please see BullionStar blog from November 2015 titled “From Good Delivery bars to Kilobars – The Swiss Refineries, the GFMS data, and the LBMA“.

But if you thought the massive conversion of large gold bars into kilogram bars that occurred in years such as 2013 and 2014 was an anomaly or a one-off, then think again. Because it also happened in 2015, and in a very big way.

kilobars

LBMA Update – 2015 Gold Refinery Statistics

In early May 2017, the London Bullion Market Association published a revised version of its 4 page ‘LBMA Overview Brochure’, the most notable update of which was that it revealed refinery production statistics for 2015 for the gold and silver refineries around the globe that are on the LBMA’s Good Delivery List.

LBMA gold and silver refinery output 2015. Source:
LBMA gold and silver refinery output, updated for 2015. Source: LBMA Overview Brochure, May 2017

A table in the updated brochure states that in 2015, the “total refined gold production by the refiners on the List was estimated to be 5,034 tonnes”. The corresponding figure for gold in 2014 was 4921 tonnes.

At some point each year, the LBMA will invariable release such refinery statistics, however, the lag in publication is inexplicably long, for example, 2015 data only gets released in May 2017. Why 2016 data is not released in 2017 remains a mystery. This length of lag would not happen in any other industry. Leaving aside this mystery, the 2015 statistics are interesting and worth analysing for a whole lot of reasons, which are discussed below.

This year the LBMA update – of the 2015 data – was a very low-key affair indeed and did not even, in the LBMA’s eyes, merit a press release. This differs to May 2016, when the LBMA published 2014 gold and silver refinery statistics and at least accompanied the announcement with a press release which it titled “4,921 tonnes of gold production in 2014 – LBMA GD refiners”.

The LBMA’s May 2016 press release stated that 2014 refinery gold production by the refiners on the LBMA’s Gold Good Delivery List for gold totalled 4921 tonnes, and importantly, it attributed the excess over ‘world mine production of 4,394 tonnes‘  to be due to “recycling of material by LBMA GD refiners converting large 400 oz bars into kilobars“.

Excerpt from LBMA May 2016 press release
Excerpt from LBMA May 2016 refinery production press release

This reference to ‘world mine production of 4,394 tonnes‘, which was itself attributed to Thomson Reuters GFMS, is incorrect, and the LBMA should have said that “world mine production + scrap recycling + net hedging supply” was 4394 tonnes, as is clear in the Thomson Reuters GFMS table from which the figure of 4394 tonnes was taken. This table is as follows:

GFMS
GFMS global gold mining production + Scrap Recycling + Hedging, 2014 and 2015. Source: GFMS World Gold Survey 2015 (published in 2016)

The ‘net hedging supply’ category can be ignored as it is not relevant for gold-laden material arriving into gold refineries for processing. What the LBMA should have said in its 2016 press release is that in 2014, the gold refineries on its list (which generate 85% – 95% of world gold refinery output) produced 4921 tonnes of gold, which was in excess of combined gold mining production and scrap recycling i.e. in excess of  3131 + 1158  = 4289 tonnes. This excess was due to “recycling of material by LBMA GD refiners converting large 400 oz bars into kilobars”.

AH-graphic
The Swiss Argor-Heraeus refinery identifies Good Delivery gold bars as one of the 3 sources of gold coming into its refinery
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Argor-Heraeus – Gold arrives at refinery from mines, scrap and ‘Good Delivery’ gold bars

Given that the LBMA gold refiners only represent 85% – 90% of world gold refinery output, and not 100%, the mine and scrap material that they process is only 85% – 90% of global mine production and scrap production. Therefore, the GFMS figures should be scaled back to represent this 85% to 90% range.

It is however not realistic to expect that bullion banks which supply large 400 ounce gold bars to gold refineries for conversion into smaller gold bars would use non-LBMA accredited gold refineries to do so, since a) bullion banks are all members of the LBMA, and b) the London bullion banks use Swiss gold refineries which are all on the LBMA good delivery list. They would therefore not use a more obscure non-LBMA gold refinery, such as one of the smaller Indian gold refineries, to convert large wholesale / central bank gold bars into smaller gold bars.

Therefore, what the LBMA press release in May 2016 should really have said is as follows:

“In 2014, the gold refineries on the LBMA Good Delivery List (which generate 85% – 95% of world gold refinery output) produced 4921 tonnes of gold. This  was in excess of the 85% – 90% of combined gold mining production and scrap gold recycling that these refineries are known to process. The LBMA refineries’ 4921 tonnes of refinery output in 2014 in excess of their mine and scrap processing of 3646 – 3860 tonnes (85% and 90% of combined mine and scrap supply) was due to recycling of material by LBMA GD refiners converting large 400 oz bars into kilobars.”

Such a statement would then put conversion of large 400 ounce gold bars into kilogram gold bars by LBMA gold refineries in 2014 at between 1060 and 1275 tonnes of gold (4921 – 3860, and 4921 – 3646). It would also mean that large 400 ounce gold bars from existing above-ground stockpiles were topping up ‘normal’ physical gold supply (gold mining output and scrap recycling) by between 25% and 30% during 2014.

These 2014 refinery figures have previously been covered in a BullionStar posting in June 2016. See BullionStar blog “An update on LBMA Refinery Statistics and GFMS”. The important take-away point here is that in 2014 the gold refineries on the LBMA good delivery list generated refined gold output in a distinct category attributed to recycling of material by LBMA good delivery refiners converting large 400 oz bars into kilobars.

2015

Fast forwarding now to the 2015 LBMA figures and the 2015 Thomson Reuters GFMS figures, and repeating the above calculations:

For 2015, the LBMA states that the gold refineries on its list had total refined gold output of 5034 tonnes. In 2015, according to Thomson Reuters GFMS, gold mining production was 3158 tonnes, while scrap gold supply was 1173 tonnes, i.e. a combined mine and scrap gold supply of 4331 tonnes.

Since the gold refineries on the LBMA Good Delivery List for gold represent 85% to 90% of ‘world production’, which by LBMA logic is GFMS gold mining production and GFMS scrap recycling, then, these refineries would have processed between 3681 tonnes and 3898 tonnes (85% – 95%) of mine production and scrap supply during 2015.

This then implies that during 2015, these LBMA gold refineries also processed between 1136 tonnes and 1353 tonnes of gold due to converting large 400 oz bars into kilobars.

If the LBMA had have written a press release in May 2017 to coincide with updating its table of the output of LBMA Good Delivery refineries, it should have read something like the following:

“In 2015, the gold refineries on the LBMA Good Delivery List (which generate 85% – 95% of world gold refinery output) produced 5034 tonnes of gold. This  was in excess of the 85% – 90% of combined gold mining production and scrap gold recycling that these refineries are known to process. The LBMA refineries’ 5034 tonnes of refinery output in 2015 in excess of their mine and scrap processing of 3681 – 3898 tonnes (85% and 90% of combined mine and scrap supply) was due to recycling of material by LBMA GD refiners converting large 400 oz bars into kilobars, which was in the range of 1136 to 1353 tonnes.”

Where would these huge quantities of 400 ounce gold bars have come from that were melted down during 2015, predominantly or even exclusively by the Swiss gold refineries? Because 1136 to 1353 tonnes of large wholesale market gold bars is a lot of gold. The most likely source of this gold is from the London Gold Market. Beyond that, gold which was already stored in Switzerland is also a possible pool from which to draw from.

 2015 UK to Switzerland Gold Exports

During 2015, Switzerland imported 1853 tonnes of non-monetary gold, and exported 1861 tonnes of non-monetary gold. By far the largest source of Swiss gold imports during 2015 was ‘the UK’, which in this case really means the London Gold Market. Non-monetary gold is just gold which is not  monetary (central bank) gold. Non-monetary gold shows up on trade statistics. Monetary gold does not show up on trade statistics since central banks get an exemption from revealing physical movements of monetary gold across national borders.

During 2015, Switzerland imported 644.5 tonnes of non-monetary gold from the UK (London). You can see from the below graph that no other source country came anywhere close to supplying non-monetary gold to Switzerland in 2015, with the next largest source countries each only sending less than 70 tonnes of gold to Switzerland. And London does not have any gold mines nor any major scrap gold collection facilities.

Some of the other exporters of gold to Switzerland during 2015 were France, Germany, Italy and UAE/Dubai (none of which are gold mining countries), and South Africa, Russia, Peru (which have gold mining). Some of the gold sent from France, Germany, Italy and UAE was obviously scrap. Some of the gold sent from South Africa, Russia and Peru was most likely gold mining ore or gold doré. But somewhere within these numbers, there was also most likely good delivery gold bars. For example, why would Russia or South Africa send gold mining ore or gold doré or scrap to Switzerland when they have their own perfectly good gold refineries with huge capacity.

The UK (London) was the biggest source of Swiss gold imports during 2015
The UK (London) was the biggest source of Swiss gold imports during 2015. Source: www.GoldChartsRUs.com

Surprising perhaps, the largest gold-backed ETF, the SPDR Gold Trust (GLD) did not lose that much gold during 2015, with only a net 65 tonne gold loss. This is more so because the damage to GLD’s gold holdings had really been done in mostly in 2013 and to a lesser extent in 2014 when holdings had fallen from the 1350 tonne range down to the 700 tonne range. See chart.

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SPDR Gold Trust – gold holdings 2007-2017 (black line). 2015 indicated in gold line  Source: www.GoldChartsRUs.com

Based on recently released data from the Bank of England, it can be seen that during 2015 the Bank of England gold vaults lost 13.5 million ounces of gold, with Bank of England total gold holdings dropping from 167.2 million ounces at the end of 2014 to 153.6 million ounces at the end of 2015. This is equivalent to a 421 tonne loss of gold from the Bank of England vaults during 2015. All gold held in the Bank of England is in the form of Good Delivery gold bars (i.e. the large 400 ounce gold bars.

Custody gold at the Bank of England
Custody gold holdings at the Bank of England 2010 – 2017, 2015 indicated in gold line. Source: www.GoldChartsRUs.com

Whether gold lost from the Bank of England vaults during 2015 was central bank gold or bullion bank (commercial bank) gold is unclear since the Bank of England does not provide a breakdown of figures. It’s possible that some of this gold that left the Bank of England during 2015 was converted from monetary gold to non-monetary gold, and then sent to Switzerland to be transformed into kilogram gold bars. This would then show up in the Swiss trade statistics. If extracted from the Bank of England vaults and left as monetary gold and then exported to Switzerland, it would not show up in Swiss trade statistics.

If 644 tonnes of non-monetary gold, as per the Swiss trade statistics, were sent from London to Switzerland during 2015, and another 421 tonnes of monetary gold from the Bank of England were also sent to Switzerland during 2015, this in total would be 1065 tonnes of gold. This quantum would begin to account for the range of 1136 to 1353 tonnes being converted from 400 oz gold bars into 1 kilogram gold bars that the 2015 LBMA gold refinery statistics imply. Add in another 100 – 200 tonnes of Good Delivery bars from sources such as Russia, South Africa and Dubai and this huge scale of 400 ounce bar conversion begins to look achievable. There could also be Good Delivery bars flowing out of Swiss central bank vaults directly, i.e. the Swiss National Bank (SNB) gold vaults in Berne, which would not show up on any inbound gold trade customs statistics.

Within a 3 year period, we can see roughly that the following quantities of large gold bars were melted down into kilogram bars and sent to Asia:

  • 2013: about 2000 tonnes of gold
  • 2014:  between 1060 and 1275 tonnes of gold
  • 2015: between 1136 to 1353 tonnes of gold

Overall, within the 2013 – 2015 period that is about 4200 – 4600 tonnes of gold being converted into kilogram and other smaller denomination high purity gold bars and sent to markets in China, India, Hong Kong and elsewhere in Asia. This is gold above and beyond mine supply and scrap supply. Where has all of this gold come from? Some of it is proven to be from gold-backed ETFs. Some is most probably also from central bank vaults, in which case the central banks do not have the gold that they claim to have. Which everybody know anyway, as much central bank gold has been lent out and is merely a fiction on the central bank balance sheets. But there may also be other stockpiles of Good Delivery gold bars which are also feeding this huge trend. Until the LBMA begins to publish its vault statistics, any grey area unreported gold vault inventories in London are still being kept in the dark.

If the trend of raiding ETFs and borrowing central bank gold to send to Switzerland to convert into kilogram bars for the Asian markets continues, then this is not and cannot be sustainable. The question is how long it can remain sustainable, in other words when will it become unsustainable?