Blaring headlines earlier today from Bloomberg and Reuters announced that Chinese gold imports through Hong Kong reached a new record in 2014.  Readers of Mineweb will hardly be surprised at that – indeed they will be aware that gold imports by this route had already achieved a record total a couple of months ago!  But it’s nice, at least, to have the full year’s figures confirmed, even though the two agencies disagree a little on actual figures!

December’s net gold imports by Mainland China via Hong Kong bounced back to hit around 95 tonnes from 77 tonnes in November, but still way below the 131 tonnes recorded in October.  For some reason Reuters and Bloomberg figures for Chinese gold imports seem to vary – despite both reporting statistics received from the same source – The Hong Kong Census and Statistics Department – but overall both sources confirm record net and gross import figures for the year and the variations are not important – it’s the trend that counts most.  Reuters puts the total at 1158 tonnes while Bloomberg at a rather lower 1109 tonnes.  Mineweb, which has been monitoring the announced Reuters figures month by month puts the total somewhere between the two at 1139 tonnes – the differences rather more than can be accounted for by rounding monthly figures up and down – but be this as it may it suggests that Chinese gold imports through Hong Kong probably more than doubled in 2013 over 2012.

Since Hong Kong is actually a Special Administrative Region of China, we also publish gross figures (i.e. not discounting re-exports from  Mainland China back to Hong Kong) – and this suggests China as a whole (i.e. Including Hong Kong) will have imported a little under 1500 tonnes of gold in 2013.

But again, as we have pointed out here before, China also imports gold through other land, sea and air border points, which are not officially quantified by the Chinese, and we suspect total imports may well have been in excess of 2,000 tonnes for the year.  Taken with China’s own gold mine and smelter byproduct output (currently estimated at around 430 tonnes for 2013) this brings China’s total gold consumption to say 2,430 tonnes in 2013, representing around 85% of last year’s global mined gold output – quite probably higher!

Mineweb has been saying for some months now that the frequently media-reported 1,000 tonnes of gold imports into China suggested by GFMS very early in the year was a significant underestimate – and is thus shown to have been exceeded by net imports through Hong Kong – just one port of entry – alone.  While many sources quote the Hong Kong net figure as being a proxy for Chinese total imports we feel it is just a part, albeit a very significant one, of likely total Chinese imports of the yellow metal.

But even though China is importing such a huge amount of gold, it is definitely not the only country so doing. Even with all its import restrictions in place India will have remained a major importer of gold last year with big amounts coming in early in the year in particular before the most stringent import restrictions were put in place. The World Gold Council puts Indian gold demand in 2013 at around 900 tonnes despite the restrictions. A number of other countries have also recorded significant gold imports in 2013, while central banks have purchased 300 tonnes or more. Where’s all this gold coming from?

Any surplus of supply over demand is usually accounted for by scrap recovery, but falling gold prices will have almost certainly cut this supply source dramatically so the balance will have had to come from other sources – the most prevalent being sales out of the big gold ETFs and out of COMEX and other inventories – some even suggest from central bank leased gold. (Indeed there have been some very big, out of the ordinary withdrawals from COMEX warehouses in the past week – all of which is thought to be headed east.

But should the gold price stabilise, or improve, sales out of the ETFs are likely to diminish, or even reverse and other inventories are getting low so, if Chinese imports remain at or near recent levels we do seem to be approaching a major turnaround in gold’s fortunes – or at least logic suggests so. However the gold price does not always behave logically as many readers will know to their cost!

It will now be very interesting to see how Chinese gold imports hold up in 2104. As can be seen from the table below, last year imports in January and February were at a very low level in comparison with the rest of the year. There are suggestions of a bit of a surge in imports this January so we may expect much higher figures, but the with the Chinese New Year holiday likely to cut back business activity in February quite strongly – it won’t really be until the second quarter until we see how well Chinese demand is really holding up this year.  And if this demand remains strong, as many anticipate, then supply levels could well become a serious issue, particularly if the ETFs stop bleeding gold.

Table:  2013 Chinese gold imports via Hong Kong (tonnes)

Month

Net imports (tonnes)

Gross imports (tonnes)

January  

20       

   51

February        

61

   97

March          

136

   223

April              

77

   126

May               

106

   127

June            

102

   112

July            

113

   129

August        

110

   131

September

111

   116

October

131

   148

November

77

   107

December

95

   127

Total 2013

1139

   1494

Source: Reuters month by month figures

iPad Version: Picture – An employee arranges gold jewellery in the counter as her arm is reflected in the mirror at a gold shop in Wuhan: REUTERS/Stringer China