Asian Consumers Driving Demand For Gold
CNBC "On-Air Stocks" Editor
Here's a shocker: according to the World Gold Council, all the gold that has ever been mined still exists today in one form or another.
Oh sure, there is stuff that is lost in the ground, or under the sea, but it's still there, waiting to be recovered.
How much gold are we talking about? About 165,600 metric tons (a metric ton is 1,000 kilos, or about 2,200 pounds), or 5.3 billion ounces, according to GFMS Limited.
To understand it visually, imagine two or three Olympic-sized pools. All the gold ever mined would only fill them. (An Olympic swimming pool is 50 meters long, 25 meters wide, and two meters deep, which is 2,500 cubic meters.)
What form does all this gold take?
Mostly, it's in the form of jewelery. Here's a breakdown.
According to the World Gold Council, gold sales in 2010 reached a ten-year high of 3,812 metric tonnes — about 135 million ounces. Jewelry demand remains strong, demand for gold bars is increasing rapidly, while demand for gold held in exchange traded products, ETFs , after increasing rapidly for several years, appears to be leveling off.
Who's buying all this gold?
India is far and away the largest consumer of gold in the world. It accounts for about one-third of all gold purchased — that is, consumer demand, not from central banks or government agencies.
Demand in China is also increasing rapidly, accounting for about 20 percent of global demand. Demand for gold in the Middle East is also increasing.
Why are the Chinese and the Indians, so keen on gold? Some of it is cultural, but some of it is a lack of alternatives. Other investments have proven to be poor bets. Bank deposits are returning negative rates of return, and stocks were not stellar performers in China last year.
This is also partly because of India's sheer size — 1.2 billion people, second only to China's 1.3 billion (and third to the U.S.'s 313 million), but also because gold ownership is part of an ancient tradition there.
Gold in India is not just viewed as a decorative item, or a faddish hedge against inflation; it is viewed as a store of wealth.
"There are no social welfare nets in India. The social welfare net is the extended family and the gold that they contain to support a family member when they get in trouble," says Mark Cutifani, CEO of Anglogold Ashanti, whom I visited in Johannesburg, South Africa.
Cutifani also says that of the more than 200 million households in India, 40 million are active purchasers of gold; he estimates in the next ten years the number of households buying gold will more than double. Even with those relatively small numbers, about 7 percent of household savings in India are already in gold.
Of course, there is supply coming on all the time, from two sources — mine production, and gold that is recycled. Mine production, which is "new gold," added 2,586 metric tons in 2010, about a 1.5-percent increase to supply.
But that's not enough to satisfy recent demand. Indeed, the World Gold Council notes that "since 1984, the amount of new gold that is mined each year has been substantially lower than the level of physical demand."