Chinese gold imports, the lone bright spot in an otherwise disastrous year for bullion in 2013, look set to fall from last year's record levels, adding to pressure on gold as analysts forecast a price decline for a second year.
But any drop-off in Chinese demand is likely to be limited by gold's 28 percent price-plunge in 2013, which has kept retail buyer interest high in the world's biggest bullion consumer, even as large investors scour for greater returns elsewhere.
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Chinese investors rushed to buy gold last year, particularly after a price plunge in April that drew queues of mom and pop buyers looking for a bargain.
In the first 11 months of 2013, Chinese imports more than doubled to 1,060 tons, based on the most recent data, making up about a third of global purchases.
But China's gold imports from Hong Kong - the only official data available - could fall in 2014, four analysts said, with three of them pegging a decline of at least 10 percent. Another saw imports at around the same level as a year ago.
"I think that perhaps a figure of 10 to 15 percent down year-on-year is probably about right for Chinese imports of gold. There is a good level of stock there that can be released into the jewellery market," said Tom Kendall, head of precious metals research at Credit Suisse.
Gold tumbled in 2013 after a 12-year bull run as signs of a global recovery prompted Western investors to dump their holdings in search of brighter returns, while demand in No. 2 consumer India was slashed by government curbs on imports.
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But with prices trading at levels last seen in 2010, retail buyers scrambled to snap up supplies, running down inventories at Chinese banks and jewellery retailers which were forced to restock later in the year.
Demand was also bolstered by dramatic growth in the number of wholesale showrooms opening, noted Societe Generale metals analyst Robin Bhar.
But with the market frenzy calmed and restocking now complete, market watchers expect the pace of purchases to slow.
"It is unlikely that Chinese demand in 2014 will match the 2013 level, let alone expand at its typical growth rate next year," Bhar said.
ANZ expects 900 tons of imports into China in 2014, while VTB Capital also forecast imports below 1,000 tons. Standard Bank expects imports to stay steady.
Chinese imports have already begun to slow. Imports in November dropped 40 percent from the previous month to about 75 tons. Before the drop, imports were over 100 tons a month for six straight months.
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"A lot depends on China to support prices but I am not confident demand will be strong other than the seasonal periods," said one Hong Kong-based precious metals trader, referring to the Chinese New Year holiday period.
"If Chinese purchases are not strong enough, prices will continue to suffer as they are the biggest physical buyers."
Imports of 900 tons would still be the second-highest on record for China, and well ahead of 557.5 tons in 2012.
Gold jewellery, bars and coins are an attractive and easily accessible form of investment in China, and retailers are still in an expansion mode, supporting demand.
Premiums in China tend to be higher than other parts of Asia as the central bank limits the amount of gold entering the country through a quota system and hands out only a few import licences.
Premiums are currently about $15 an ounce over London prices, compared with less than $2 in Singapore and Hong Kong and signalling ongoing strength in demand, but short of the $30 hit in April-May last year.
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China continues to reform its gold market, recently granting import licences to two foreign banks for the first time, in steps to make bullion more accessible.
Last year's strong purchases suggested a demand level in the Chinese market has been established, said Bernhard Schnellmann, director of Swiss-based Argor-Heraeus, one of the world's biggest gold refineries that has been converting bullion outflows from the West to smaller bars for Chinese use.
"I wouldn't say demand is slowing, but it has calmed down. Demand is going to continue in this range. I think it has become more price sensitive than it was earlier," he said.