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Central Banks & Their Gold Strategy

We all know that the biggest demand for gold comes from central banks. Just how has their buying or selling strategy been over the last 12 months? Is their strategy influenced by the amount of USD being printed into circulation? Are they afraid of the dollar not being able to uphold its long term value? Will they ever regard holding US Treasuries as an option only? Is any of them seriously hinting of reverting back to the gold standard? By holding more gold and less USD does that mean more flexibility to their monetary policy?

  • Reduced central bank gold selling and increased investor buying may have been helping to underpin high prices in 2008 at a time of turmoil in financial markets. The renewal of the central bank gold selling agreement with a lower threshold suggests that gold sales by central banks will be lower in the next five years, a move the could support gold prices.
  • Gold's share in global foreign exchange reserves is about 10%, the third largest asset by value despite being unevenly distributed across countries. The U.S. and European central banks account for the highest amounts both in absolute terms and as a share of reserve holdings (about 50%). Emerging market central banks have a much smaller share. Gold's share in global reserves declined sharply since the 1950s -1960s.
  • Regulation of Central Bank gold sales

  • In August 2009, the central banks party to the central bank gold agreement (CBGA), who collectively have a gold share of just under 60% in their reserves, agreed to renew the treaty but with a lower maximum sales threshold. Analysts suggest that the marginally lower threshold could provide a "mild support" for gold.
  • The annual sales by the central banks party to the treaty will be less than 400 tons. The previous agreement had a cap of 500 tons per years. The IMF's planned sales of 403 tons are included in the overall cap of 2000 tons from 2009-2014. With the Swiss National bank suggesting it will not sell, only the European central bank and the Banque de France are likely to take advantage to sell. The Italian and German central banks have been reluctant to sell their gold holdings.
  • In H1 2009, estimated net sales by official holders of gold were 39 tonnes, 73% lower than in H1 2008. Net gold official gold sales are expected to be only 140 tons in 2009, the lowest since 1994.
  • In 2008, European central banks sold the lowest levels of gold in about decade, reversing the practice of recent years whereby official sales helped depress gold prices. Banks bound by the central bank gold agreement (most of the European central banks) sold about 343 tons of gold , the lowest since the first agreement was signed in 1999, and well under the 500 ton annual limit.
  • In the fall of 2008, central banks stopped lending out gold to banks as they were afraid they would not get it back. This reluctance contributed to an increase in bullion borrowing costs to 2.649% for one month, the highest since May 2001 and high above recent levels (5yr average 0.12%).
  • An asset allocation assessment would suggest European central banks still have too much gold. EM central banks have low gold holdings in part because of the rising cost of gold and worries about an inability to sell when forex liquidity is required.
  • Gold holdings of Emerging Market Central banks

  • GCC private investors have much higher stocks of gold than its central banks do. However, Qatar increased its gold reserves in 2007.
  • China announced early in 2009, that it had increased its total gold holdings by 75%, likely from shifting non-monetary gold to the central bank. Although that increase now makes China one of the top 5 official gold holders, gold makes up less than 2% of China's $2.1 trillion in foreign exchange reserve by value. On the margins, China is likely to keep adding slowly to its holding but it is unlikely to make purchases on the open market given the potential for disrupting prices and reducing the value of USD holdings
  • Aside from China with 1054 tons, the emerging market central banks with the largest gold holdings are Russia (540 tons), Taiwan (424 tons), India (358 tons) and Venezuela (356 tons) as of May 2009. Aside from Venezuela and Lebanon, the gold shares of which make up 37.5% and 27.5% respectively of total reserves, most of the other large holders have a gold share of only about 4% of reserves.

Gold Sales by the IMF

  • The IMF, the third-largest official holder of gold, intends to sell 403 tons (12%) of its 3217 tons of gold, pending approval from 85% of its members which will likely be given in the fall. Any sales are likely be gradual though and may be sold to central banks.
  • IMF gold sales are unlikely to be disruptive for the gold market and could be positive if the gold is purchased by other official investors (like central banks).
  • The IMF is likely to start selling in 2010, selling about 200 tons a year.

p/s photos: Aya Nakata


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