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China curbs gold imports as trade war heats up

China curbs gold imports as trade war heats up

China has severely restricted imports of gold since May, bullion industry sources with direct knowledge of the matter told Reuters. The move could be aimed at curbing outflows of dollars and bolstering China’s yuan currency as economic growth slows.

The world’s second-largest economy has cut shipments by some 300 to 500 tonnes compared with last year. That amount is worth $15bn to $25bn at current prices, the sources said, speaking on condition of anonymity because they are not authorised to speak to the media.

The restrictions come as an escalating trade confrontation with the United States has dragged China’s pace of growth to the slowest in nearly three decades and pressured the yuan down to its lowest level since 2008.

China is the world’s biggest importer of gold, taking in around 1,500 tonnes ($60bn worth) of the metal last year, according to its customs data. This is equivalent to one-third of the world’s total supply.

Chinese demand for gold jewellery, investment bars and coins has grown threefold in the last two decades as the country has rapidly become wealthier. China’s official gold reserves, meanwhile, rose fivefold to nearly 2,000 tonnes, according to official data.

Chinese customs figures show the country imported 575 tonnes of gold in the first half of the year, down from 883 tonnes in the same period of 2018.

In May, China imported 71 tonnes, down from 157 tonnes in May 2018. In June, the last month for which data is available, the decline was even sharper, with 57 tonnes shipped compared with 199 tonnes in June last year.

The bulk of China’s imports – coming from places such as Switzerland, Australia and South Africa and usually paid for in dollars – are conducted by a group of local and international banks given monthly import quotas by the Chinese central bank.

But quotas have been curtailed or not granted at all for several months, seven sources in the bullion industry in London, Hong Kong, Singapore and China said.

“There are virtually no import quotas now issued in China,” one source affirmed. In June and July “next to nothing” was imported by banks, the source added.

The Chinese central bank did not respond to a written request for comment.

Imports have not fallen to zero because some banks may still be receiving some quotas and other import channels – such as refineries receiving semi-pure mined gold – remain open, four of the sources said.

They said China’s likely motive for restricting gold shipments was to help limit the amount of money leaving the country amid a plunge in the value of the yuan.

Beijing has previously taken steps to curb capital outflows when its currency weakened, such as squeezing the supply of offshore yuan, clamping down on import invoicing and encouraging banks to send home dollars held overseas.

It has also restricted gold import quotas before – most recently in 2016 after the yuan weakened sharply, bullion bankers said.

But those restrictions were not to this degree. It’s “unprecedented”, said an industry source in Asia.

“Gold going in is money going out,” said one source, adding that Chinese buyers tend to buy dollars to pay for metal. “It’s all linked to what’s going on in terms of how the central bank is handling the currency.”

The yuan has sunk more than 10 percent against the dollar since early last year, and China’s central bank this month allowed it to slide below the key threshold of seven yuan per dollar for the first time in more than a decade.

While there is no clear official data to gauge capital outflows from China, a popular measure is a component in its balance of payments called errors and omissions, which point to outflows of $88bn in the first three months of this year, the most on record.

With foreign exchange reserves at $3.1 trillion – the world’s largest – China has the capacity to defend its currency.

But restricting gold imports is an easy way to curtail outflows without affecting people’s lives, bullion bankers said.

So far, the effect on the wider gold market has been muted.

A sharp rise in prices has prompted many in China to cash in their gold for profit, boosting local supply, while resurgent demand elsewhere in the world has been strong enough to soak up extra gold.

Slowing global economic growth is pushing more institutional investors – particularly in Europe and North America – towards gold. The precious metal has traditionally been seen as a safe place to invest, and central banks are buying it at the fastest pace in half a century.

However, the cost of gold in China could rise if the surge in recycled supply fades before import restrictions are lifted, and supply could rapidly exceed demand outside China if institutional investors slow their purchases.