PBOC Gold Purchases: Separating Facts from Speculation


Date: 28.02.2018

The purpose of this post is to get an overview of all clues and data in order to separate the facts from speculation regarding PBOC purchases. Subsequently, we’ll estimate how much above ground gold is held in China mainland – official (PBOC) and private reserves.

I have been writing for a long time the PBOC does not buy any gold trough the SGE, and therefor PBOC purchases must be seen in addition to the flows of gold going through the famous bourse in Shanghai. Though, it’s necessary to expand on this subject in great detail.

We have a fairly good view on how much gold is going through the SGE and thus how much non-monetary gold is net imported into China from countries like the UK, Switzerland, Hong Kong and Australia (after which it’s not allowed to be exported and thus is accumulated in the mainland). If we add domestic mine supply to imported gold, we can estimate how much gold is held in reserves by the Chinese. But, are any of these visible gold flows bought by the PBOC? Not according to my investigation.

Why The PBOC Does Not Buy Gold Through The SGE

Below are the reasons why I think the PBOC does not buy gold through the SGE.

1) The PBOC prefers to buy gold with US dollars, while all physical gold on the SGE is quoted in yuan.

To get a better grip on this subject it helps if we understand why the PBOC would buy gold in the first place, so let’s sum up all possible incentives. The main objectives for the PBOC to accumulate physical gold are:

  • Supporting the renminbi for its internationalization (adding trust and credibility to the renminbi).
  • Owning hard currency (gold) as the cornerstone of capitalism.
  • Owning reserves (gold) that protect the Chinese economy from external/internal shocks and inflation.
  • Owning neutral reserves (gold) that are not controlled by a foreign nation (the US).
  • Diversifying its excessively large US dollar (USD) reserves.
  • Hedge their USD reserves.
  • Overthrow the USD hegemony.

After reading this list it should be clear the PBOC rather buys gold with their foreign exchange reserves than with renminbi – China’s FX reserves are worth about $3.0 trillion (2017) and mostly held in USD. The amount of gold currently on the PBOC’s balance sheet (roughly 1,800 tonnes) is disproportionate to the amount of USD held. Hence, the PBOC would prefer to exchange USD for gold. All gold on the SGE is quoted in yuan, meaning the PBOC can’t exchange USD for gold through the SGE. Therefor, the PBOC is more likely to buy gold abroad and these purchases should be added to the visible gold flows we see entering the mainland through the SGE.

2) The PBOC would prefer to buy gold in large 12.5 Kg bars, which are relativly more cheaper. 12.5 Kg bars have almost never traded over the SGE.

It should be said the SGE is a subsidiary of the PBOC. In 2002 China’s central bank erected the SGE to develop the domestic Chinese gold market; for the people to trade gold in yuan. The gold bar sizes available on the SGE are 50 gram, 100 gram, 1 Kg, 3 Kg and 12.5 Kg. Though, the volume of 12.5 Kg contracts (Au99.5 and iAu99.5) ever traded on the SGE is close to nil.

Only the 50g, 100g, 1 Kg and 3 Kg bars are traded, which are consumer sizes. This is a sign the PBOC is not buying gold through the SGE. Gold in large 12.5 Kg bars is relatively cheaper and more attractive for central banks. All central banks, that I know of, hold large bars.     

3) The PBOC would prefer to hide its gold purchases. The reason we don’t know how much Chinese official gold reserves are is because this is the best kept secret in China. The PBOC buys gold in utmost secret or it would influence the market and geo-politics. If we think from the PBOC’s point of view, why would they leave a single trace when buying gold? Why would the PBOC buy any gold through the SGE for the world to see? I think they wouldn’t.

4) The PBOC would prefer to import monetary gold which is exempt from being disclosed in customs reports. Let me explain. All bullion gold trade on this planet that is visible  (that shows up in customs reports) is classified as non-monetary. Monetary gold is exempt from being published in customs reports according to the guidelines in the International Merchandise Trade Statistics 2010 (IMTS) drafted by the United Nations. This is perfect for the PBOC to covertly ship gold to China.

The PBOC, having an incentive to exchange its superfluous USD in the international OTC market for gold, is actually obliged to monetize the gold it buys abroad. And when these purchases are transferred to China they will not be disclosed in foreign customs statistics. Subsequently, monetary gold imported into China does not go through the SGE, as only the non-monetary small gold bars go through the SGE.

All visible gold exports to China, traded over the SGE, are not PBOC purchases.

For more information on global trade rules for monetary and non-monetary gold, please read my blog post The London Bullion Market And International Gold Trade.

5) The PBOC would prefer to buy gold in an OTC market, not over an exchange like the SGE. The majority of global gold trade is done through the London Bullion Market; the most liquid market there is. This is not a central exchange like the COMEX, but an Over The Counter (OTC) market where buyers and sellers connect (electronically) one on one to trade gold without nosy analysts taking notes. The gold traded can be Loco London – located in London – or elsewhere. The London Bullion Market is ideal for the PBOC, as opposed to the SGE.

6) Another reason for the PBOC to buy abroad would be because it’s cheaper. Gold on the SGE often attracts a significant premium over London spot. Why would the PBOC pay that premium? Especially if it’s buying large quantities.

7) There is anecdotal evidence the PBOC covertly imports gold. Gold industry expert Jim Rickards has written in The Death Of Money (2014):

A senior manager of G4S, one of the world’s leading secure logistics firms, recently revealed to a gold industry executive that he had personally transported gold into China by land through central Asian mountain passes at the head of a column of People’s Liberation Army tanks and armored transport vehicles. This gold was in the form of the 400- ounce “good delivery” bars favored by central banks rather than the smaller one- kilo bars imported through regular channels and favored by retail investors.

This is very interesting. Not only because it demonstrates the PBOC prefers 400 ounce (12.5 Kg) bars over 1 Kg bars, but more so because it confirms the PBOC does not import gold through visible channels. This strengthens my analysis the PBOC does not buy any gold through the SGE. Again, all visible import (in general trade) is required to be sold through the SGE in China.

For information on how monetary gold might be imported into China by the military please read my post China’s Gold Army.

8) Early 2017 Jim Rickards was in a meeting with the three heads of precious metals trading desks of large Chinese bullion banks. These gold dealers told Rickards that indeed the PBOC does not buy any gold through the SGE. Jim stated in the Gold Chronicles podcast published January 17, 2017 (at 25:00)[brackets added by Koos Jansen]:

What I [Jim Rickards] don’t know is about the Shanghai Gold Exchange sales, they’re pretty transparent, how much of that is private and how much of that is the government [PBOC]. And I was sort of guessing 50/50, 70/30, whatever. What they told me, and these guys are the dealers [the three heads of the largest bullion banks in China], it’s 100 % private. Meaning, the government operates through completely separate channels. The government does not operate through the Shanghai Gold Exchange. … None of what’s going on on the Shanghai Gold Exchange is going to the People’s Bank Of China.

9) The SGE chairman has stated only consumers buy gold over his exchange. On the LBMA Forum in Singapore on June 25, 2014, a speech was delivered by Xu Luode, then Chairman of the Shanghai Gold Exchange. Below is a snippet from Xu:

Last year, China imported 1,540 tonnes of gold. Such imports, together with the 430 tonnes of gold we produced ourselves, means that we have, in effect, supplied approximately 2,000 tonnes of gold last year.

The 2,000 tonnes of gold were consumed by consumers in China. Of course, we all know that the Chinese ‘dama’ [middle-aged women] accounts for a significant proportion in purchasing gold. So last year, our gold exchange’s inventory reduced by nearly 2,200 tonnes, of which 200 tonnes was recycled gold.

Xu mentions the amount of gold imported into China mainland in 2013 (1,540 tonnes). Would Xu be allowed to break China’s best kept secret on an LBMA forum? Would any of these imports end up at the PBOC? I don’t think so. Moreover, Xu explicitly says all imports and mine output (and scrap supply) has been sold through the SGE system to consumers, not the PBOC.

10) SGE withdrawals are elevated when consumer buying is strong. When examining SGE gold purchases by withdrawals from SGE designated vaults, we can depict a seasonal trend of strong demand around New Year (and in April 2013 and mid 2015). The Chinese people typically buy gold in this period as gifts for each other. Does this trend look like PBOC activity? No.


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