India's love affair with gold is well-understood in Asia but completely misunderstood in the West — a phenomenon we have always found fascinating — but recently, as Grant Williams exclaims, it has become abundantly clear that this disconnect is widening almost daily as the Western fixation with 'The Gold Price' and the Eastern obsession with 'The Price of Gold' take ever more divergent paths...
After the recent frenzied activity at the Reserve Bank of India (which, if it had taken place in the USA, would absolutely have been labeled "The War on Gold" by CNN) as they tried every means possible to stop Indian citizens from buying gold (something I documented in "Never The Twain", TTMYGH August 27 2013), I set about thinking why it is that attitudes in the opposing hemispheres are so different regarding the yellow metal.
As I ruminated, a good friend of mine, who has forgotten more about gold than most will ever know, pointed me towards the Hindu Business Line; and there I stumbled upon a couple of pieces by S. Gurumurthy which, rather conveniently, do a lot of the heavy lifting for me.
In the first piece, entitled "Gold: Villain or Saviour?", S. tackles the stark disparity between economists' views of the "barbaric [sic] relic" and the views of the ordinary Indian citizen. And he does so beautifully:
(Hindu Business Line): Modern economists and the Indian people seem to operate on two different paradigms with regard to gold. In the modern West, gold is more a state asset than a private possession. Gold constitutes just three per cent of family wealth there, but a third in India. Western states, socialist or capitalist, expropriated all private gold during the last century. Even the liberal US outlawed private gold in 1936 and built official gold reserves of over 20,000 tonnes by 1950.
Modern economics views gold as an uneconomic, wasteful, private investment. But traditionally, in India, gold has been the preferred asset of the rural masses who hold 70 per cent of the nation's stocks. Indian gold habits clearly mock at modern economic theories.
So far, so good. Now at this point S. begins laying down a few facts and figures, and as he does so, the clouds surrounding the question of how important gold is to the average Indian quickly start to evaporate:
Market Oracle, a UK-based market analysis and forecasting online publication, captures the relation between India and gold thus: Indians own 20,000 tonnes of gold worth $1 trillion — almost half of India's GDP. For Indians, gold is not just money or asset; it ensures the financial security and stability of families. It has religious overtones. More than a commodity or money, it is integral to the warp and weft of family life. Investments in gold and jewelry are indistinguishable. Jewelry is the working capital of families; families collateralize it for commercial borrowing.
Some 13 per cent of Indian families, more from rural areas, borrow against gold as collateral; while rural India borrows from the unorganized financial sector, urbanites access bank loans.
The authors of Market Oracle seem to understand India's family-gold nexus better than Indian policymakers. Yet, despite such a paradigmatic difference, economic laws on gold based on the Western experience are continuously being tried out in India. Result: the establishment hates what the people love.
Do Indian policy makers not understand "India's family-gold nexus"? Of COURSE they do — but gold is the only refuge from inflation for the Indian population; something that just isn't acceptable to "The Establishment", because India's national debt has been run up by politicians amidst a corrupt and totally inefficient bureaucracy, whilst Indian citizens have patiently and painstakingly accumulated real wealth a gram at a time over many centuries. They are not about to give that up.
The Reserve Bank of India (RBI) set up a working group to investigate what every one of its members already knew instinctively (yet more taxpayer money being put to good use), and the conclusion they reached after a year's expensive extensive study was this:
(Reserve Bank of India): Demand for gold appears to be autonomous and a function of several influences and factors in India and may not be strictly amenable to policy changes. Supply of gold, through organised channels can be constricted, but buyers may take recourse to unauthorised channels to buy gold. The share of banks in importing gold has already been on decline over the years. Since it is difficult to vary the demand for gold the policy focus will have to be directed to (i) design and offer gold investors, alternative instruments that may fetch positive returns with a flexibility of liquidity; and (ii) increased unlocking of the hidden value locked in idle gold stocks through increased monetisation of gold. In this context encouraging gold jewellery loans from Banks and NBFCs, ensuring customer protection of borrowers and changes in the practices of NBFCs is desirable.
Brilliant! Welcome back, Captain Obvious!
Seriously, though, this is perhaps the most ludicrous government-funded study since US$3 million was spent on helping the National Science Foundation study shrimp running on a treadmill (no, really).
Westerners aren't used to the kind of inflation levels, government confiscation, and currency volatility so common in places like India; and so the need to own gold as protection isn't fully appreciated in the West.
Westerners pay lip service to gold's being "an inflation hedge" or "a currency" or "a safe asset", but these terms are used in an extremely abstract way by the vast majority of the investing public, who see gold as mostly just another trading vehicle. Yes, there are Western investors who have a deeper understanding of the reasons for owning physical gold, but they are a tiny minority.
In short, Asians like their gold to be heavy, shiny, and made of ... well, gold.
This massive disparity in appetite for "placeholder gold" is just one side of the coin, however; and India is just one of the Eastern countries that has been soaking up copious amounts of physical gold in recent months.
That is a twelve-fold increase in bullion traffic between the primary vault in London and the major refineries in Switzerland.
Now, we don't know with absolute certainty where that gold is ultimately bound — but we know it isn't Switzerland. If we throw into the mix the widely covered movement of gold into China through HK, a picture begins to emerge of an incredible wave of physical metal heading from West to East, even as the price continues to languish.
One of the primary sources of supply in this steady transfer of physical bullion has been the GLD warehouse. I've touched on the subject of the incredible vanishing ETF gold holdings before, but it's worth revisiting the phenomenon and reminding readers of a chart I included in the July 16th edition of Things That Make You Go Hmmm..., entitled "What If?":
The gold in London is heading somewhere — and it's heading there via Switzerland, by the looks of it.
The chart below shows seasonal gold price performance since 1969. (Although the data stops at 2010, so that there are a couple of down years missing, the pattern is the important thing here.) I have laid the chart out from September to August to better illustrate the phase we are moving into.
October has traditionally been the weakest month of the year, while November through January has been the strongest period:
So, how does this all play out?
Well, I've been watching this situation unfold through most of this past year with an increasingly bemused look on my face, because the numbers just don't add up. But so far, despite clear evidence of massive demand for physical gold, "The Gold Price" has continued to trade poorly. However, the longer this situation persists, the more definitely it will resolve itself; and it's very hard to see how that resolution ends in anything but higher prices.
Demand levels from Asia continue to soar while production increases just a couple of percent each year; and leaving aside Indian festivals and increasing central bank purchases, the fiat alternative to gold bullion — the US dollar — is coming under renewed pressure in the wake of the Taper That Never Was and the appointment of Janet Yellen as Ben Bernanke's successor.
But, like the infatuation America had with the Monkees in 1967, this fascination with the fiat dollar will prove to be nothing more than a passing fad; and one day — perhaps soon — the citizens of the West will, like their cousins in Asia and the Indian subcontinent, realize that there really is no alternative to sound money.
The only problem is, when the realization finally dawns, where will all the gold be?
Full Grant Williams letter below: