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China's no-longer secret hoarding of gold may not be done

With China finally coming clean that it's been the second-biggest buyer of gold over the past six years, analysts and traders say the purchases will continue.

[BEIJING] With China finally coming clean that it's been the second-biggest buyer of gold over the past six years, analysts and traders say the purchases will continue.

In the first update since 2009, the People's Bank of China said on Friday that it owns about 1,658 metric tons, implying purchases of 100 tons a year. The stockpile may eventually reach more than 5,000 tons, according to Robin Bhar, an analyst at Societe Generale SA in London.

"China hasn't been very open about its strategy, so what matters now is whether the market believes they intend to continue buying," said Joni Teves, an analyst at UBS Group AG in London. "They do appear to leave the door open to further purchases, which should limit the downside for gold." While other big bullion holders like Russia and Germany update their holdings every month, China hasn't reported a change until last week. The new data shows the country is using the metal to diversify foreign-exchange reserves as policy makers push for the yuan to be added to the International Monetary Fund's basket of currencies.

China bought 604 tons of gold since 2009, second only to Russia, according to data from the central bank and IMF. The total holdings make China the world's fifth-biggest gold owner.

The annual gold purchases equal about 2 per cent of global demand, and there's "significant scope" for more Chinese additions, the London-based World Gold Council said Friday. The nation has been buying gold even as prices slumped from a record in 2011 to a five-year low.

'Keep Buying'

"Their motivation is reserve diversification, and they'll probably keep buying," Georgette Boele, a strategist at ABN Amro Bank NV in Amsterdam, said by phone. "We'll probably only hear when they're done." China's purchases since 2009 are valued at about US$26 billion, based on average prices.

The metal sank to a five-year low on Monday, losing as much as 0.4 per cent to US$1,129.59 an ounce, and trading at US$1,132.64 at 7:26 am in Singapore. Investors are shunning bullion on expectations that the Federal Reserve will raise interest rates this year, eroding demand for an asset offering returns only through price gains. Bullion is 4.4 per cent lower in 2015 after dropping last year and in 2013.

"We can't be sure about what China is going to do, the evidence is that they have been buying at a far lower pace than the bugs were expecting," Leon Westgate, an analyst at ICBC Standard Bank Plc in London, said by phone Friday. "There is no way that the PBOC will ever maintain gold as a fixed percentage of foreign reserves."

'Special Asset'

While the PBOC said Friday that gold is a "special asset" and a good way to diversify from currencies, it warned that purchasing large amounts would affect a gold market that's small in comparison to its foreign-exchange holdings.

The country is the world's largest gold producer and vies with India as the top consumer. After lifting a ban on bullion trading and opening the Shanghai Gold Exchange in 2002, the bourse is now the largest physical bullion marketplace, according Xu Luode, secretary general of the exchange.

"As the banking community in China becomes more sophisticated, we're going to continue to see gold move east," Peter Thomas, a senior vice president for metals at Zaner Group LLC in Chicago, said by phone Friday. "We're going to see gigantic stockpiles." -With assistance from Kevin Crowley in Johannesburg and Agnieszka de Sousa and Laura Clarke in London.