Annabelle Williams is deputy Money editor at City A.M.
China's hoarding and so is the US - should you be too? (Source: Getty)
China’s decision to buy its second gold storage vault in London last week was another step towards total dominance of the market.
The vault is in a secret location and was bought by Chinese state-owned bank ICBC Standard Bank from Barclays. It could store $90bn of gold at today’s prices, and follows the purchase of a lease on another vault in the capital earlier this year from Deutsche Bank.
London has been a hub for metals investment for hundreds of years, but times have changed and the big banks are pulling back from trading them.
Now China is pushing into the gold market in a big way. The reasons why are unclear, and gold continues to spawn more conspiracy theories than the moon landing, but what is known is that China has been amassing the yellow metal at a rapid pace over the last decade. Its official reserves are 1,658 tonnes as of July 2015, a small part of its overall currency reserves and far below the US’s hoard of 8,000 tonnes. Germany and the IMF have 3,000 tonnes apiece.
But China’s actual stocks could be closer to 4,000 tonnes, according to estimates based on how much it mines, imports, and stores. That would put it in second place behind the US. Given the opacity of statistics from China, it’s plausible the country has more.
Why would China keep it secret? Because openly accumulating in a relatively small market would drive the gold price up. And China is not the only buyer either. Russia and a number of other nations have been expanding their reserves too.
One possible reason for amassing a stockpile is that China recognises the world’s monetary system is effectively based on gold – a shadow gold standard if you will. That’s the argument put forward by author James Rickards in his book The New Case for Gold.
Simply put, he says the IMF is a lender of last resort for troubled states, and its source of strength ultimately rests on its masses of gold, and that of its members.
If the monetary system collapses, “gold functions like a pile of poker chips” when the world’s powerful (most gold laden) countries sit around the table and formulate a new system. “China is trying to acquire enough gold so that when the international monetary collapse comes and the world has to recut the deal, China will have a prime seat at the table,” he adds.
Even more, gold is so important the US government is deliberately talking down its true worth, Rickards says.
There hasn’t been an audit of the gold held in Fort Knox, Kentucky for 50 years and some say that means the gold isn’t really there. But Rickards says that’s what they want you to think. “Audits are reserved for important assets, not trivial ones. By refusing to do an audit, the government maintains a pretence that gold is trivial. The US government has a powerful interest in downplaying gold’s importance. The government wants its citizens to forget their gold even exists.”
Incidentally, gold has been one of the best performing investments so far this year. It’s at a 21-month high, having risen from $1,060 on 1 January to $1,285 currently.
There are lots of reasons why, but most analysts talk of fear. Stock markets have been rocky and there’s talk of a global recession coming. This is particularly since monetary policy appears to be becoming ineffective at stimulating economies, and central banks around the world have resorted to unusual methods including negative interest rates to fire them up.
If there is another collapse of the global money system coming, Rickards says gold will be the safest store of wealth and means of exchange for private citizens. He also suggests buying silver coins, currently priced around £15 each, as a practical alternative to bullion. “For around £150 you could buy 10 ounces of silver. Even people with modest means could have silver to perform the same function.”