Gold's record rally has been attributed to everything from worries about inflation, the dollar and the emergence of exchange-traded funds. One big factor many may have missed: huge buying from China.
Data cited Thursday by China's state-run Xinhua news agency showed that China imported 209.7 metric tons of gold in the first 10 months of the year, a fivefold increase compared with the same period last year.
That surpassed purchases made by ETFs and surprised analysts, who until now had no clear insight into the size of China's buying.
Gold demand in general has soared globally this year, as a result of the sovereign-debt crisis in Europe and the Federal Reserve's new round of bond buying. Gold prices were pushed up to an all-time high of $1,409.80 a troy ounce on Nov. 9. Thursday, gold settled $1.20 higher, or 0.1%, to $1,388.50, up 27% for the year.
"Everybody in the gold market knew there was a surge in investment demand, but they didn't know it was China," said Jeff Christian, managing director at CPM Group.
China's import growth is a reminder of the country's huge but nascent purchasing power.
It comes as the government loosens its restrictions on gold purchases by financial institutions and individual investors. In August, the country began allowing more banks to import and export gold, opening up the gold market to the institutions and their clients.
Then this week, the Chinese securities regulator approved the country's first gold fund designed to invest in overseas-listed gold ETFs, a move analysts interpreted as another bullish sign for gold.
"The big picture is that China is continuing to relax the rules governing the domestic gold market," said Martin Murenbeeld, chief economist of DundeeWealth Inc., which oversees $69.9 billion in assets. "What we are seeing is the latent demand that has been there all the time and now can be exercised in the market because now the market is freed."
The World Gold Council estimates that China's gold demand could double in 10 years as more investors there embrace precious metals.
Until several years ago, China's gold market was strictly controlled by the central bank, which bought all the gold mined domestically. It then sold the metal to jewelry makers. The country, which is now the largest gold producer, remained largely self-sufficient in gold, with imports at a meager 31 metric tons in 2009, according to GFMS Ltd.
This year, fears of inflation have driven many Chinese investors to include gold in their portfolios as a store of value. At the Shanghai Gold Exchange, trading volume increased 43%, to 5,014.5 tons, in the first 10 months of 2010, exchange Chairman Shen Xiangrong said, according to Xinhua.
At a speech at the China Gold and Precious Metals Summit in Shanghai Thursday, Mr. Shen detailed the size of China's imports this year, Xinhua said. Those purchases were big enough to absorb all the gold that the International Monetary Fund had shed during that time period, which stood at 148.6 tons. It also dwarfed the SPDR Gold Shares, the world's largest gold-backed ETF, which added 159.48 tons of gold into its holdings in the same period.
China also is home to a booming gold-mining industry that keeps it as the world's largest gold producer. Wednesday, China's Ministry of Industry and Information Technology said the nation's gold production reached 277.017 metric tons in the January-to-October period, up 8.8% from the same period last year.
China's 2010 gold production is expected at about 350 metric tons, according to Standard Bank head of commodity strategy Walter de Wet.
"We note that there is likely to be illegal gold exports and imports from and to China," Mr. de Wet said in a note to clients. "This would distort the actual gold numbers for China. However, the trend is undeniable, gold demand in China is rising rapidly."
In other commodities markets:
CRUDE OIL: Prices settled at a two-year high Thursday, with oil for January delivery rising $1.25, or 1.4%, to $88 a barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange, as economic data in the U.S. and actions in the euro zone to support debt markets lifted hopes for oil demand. Improving economic conditions in the U.S., the world's largest oil consumer, are vital to continuing the drawdown in global supplies that piled up during the recession. Tightening supplies could help clear the way for oil prices to hit $100 a barrel next year.