Monday, December 28, 2009

Asia Central Bankers Say It with Gold

By David Roman
The Wall Street Journal
Monday, December 28, 2009

http://online.wsj.com/article/SB20001424052748704718204574616280863871104.html

Strong dollar equals falling gold price, right?

Except, perhaps, when Asia's central bankers are involved.

Three-quarters of the region's $5 trillion in foreign-exchange holdings are parked in U.S. dollars. A desire to diversify away from the greenback, though, has become evident. The dollar's share in reserve accumulation dropped to less than 30% in the third quarter, Barclays Capital estimates.

Admittedly, knowing exactly what is in central bank reserves takes guesswork, but analysts think most diversification in 2009 favored the euro.

Recently gold has turned up as a second alternative. The Reserve Bank of India stirred markets when it revealed it purchased 200 tons of gold from the International Monetary Fund in October, increasing gold's share of central bank reserves to 6.4% from 3.6%.

Even if other central banks don't start making large purchases like India's, they will likely remain a substantial buyer as reserves continue to pile up. In the 12 months through November, the banks added around $800 billion to their foreign-exchange holdings, a side effect of their efforts to slow the appreciation of local currencies.

China, which has seen its reserves rise by more than 50% in the past two years to about $2.3 trillion, has bought 450 tons of gold during the period, Merrill Lynch estimates. That is a substantial chunk in a market where annual turnover is about 3,800 metric tons. Accumulation of reserves by Asia's central banks will likely continue as long as strong regional growth and high interest rates continue to attract foreign investors.

A shift in portfolios, like India's, would only add to this, and there is scope for this to happen. Gold accounts for around 2% of reserves in emerging markets, Merrill Lynch calculates. That compares with a 10% average globally, and more than half of all holdings in the case of the U.S. Federal Reserve, and France's and Germany's central banks.

Asia's central bankers will move slowly, particularly with gold prices still above $1,000 an ounce. But a shift toward the global average would mean more buying -- regardless of what the dollar does.

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