Big Gold Purchases By Central Banks: Bad News for U.S. Dollar?

Central Banks Buying Gold - Bad News for U.S. Dollar?

According to data published by the World Gold Council, global central banks haven begun adding to their gold stockpiles. In February, the following nations added to their reserves:

  • India (11.2 tons)
  • Uzbekistan (7.2t)
  • Kazakhstan (1.6t)
  • Colombia (0.5t) 

The only notable sale of central bank gold reserves was from Turkey at 11.7 tons.

Why did Turkey’s central bank sell gold?

Nations hold gold reserves as a sort of collateral against their sovereign currency. Turkey’s currency, the lira, had a horrible day on March 22 and lost 20% of its value. In response, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan made an appeal:

I ask my citizens to invest their foreign currencies and gold in various financial institutions and bring [those assets] into the economy and production.

via BalkanInsight

Put simply: if his people listened to Erdogan’s plea and swapped all their U.S. dollars and euros and precious metals for lira, demand for lira would increase. And therefore prices would increase. It’s reasonable to assume the Turkish central bank sold gold in order to buy lira in an effort to prop up the beleaguered currency.

Note that even after this sale, Turkey has a respectable 716 tons of gold reserves.

What other central banks are buying gold?

More recently, central bank gold purchases have been in the news.

This month, Hungary announced its intention to triple its gold reserves “to help stabilise the economy amid the COVID-19 pandemic, inflation risks and rising debt.”

Back in March, Poland decided to buy 100 tons of gold.

The Reuters article even hints at a possible explanation…

Over the last decade central banks, particularly in Eastern Europe, the Middle East and Asia, have stepped up purchases of gold, often seeing it as a way to reduce reliance on assets such as the U.S. dollar.

Reuters

Is central bank gold buying a bad sign for the dollar?

Not necessarily. Most central banks around the world hold a combination of foreign exchange reserves (a collection of the world’s most-used and/or most-stable currencies) in bonds as well as gold or other precious metals.

So, in a sense, any government that issues bonds is competing for central bank customers. For the most part, only the most common currencies are considered useful as foreign exchange reserves. According to the IMF, the top five are:

  • U.S. dollar
  • euro
  • China’s renminbi
  • Japan’s yen
  • U.K.’s pounds sterling

So anytime the U.S. Federal Reserve, the Bundesbank or the Bank of England issues a bond (a promise to pay later for cash now, or an IOU), there are other global central banks who are potential customers. Along with them, what you might think of as the “traditional” customers for bonds like pension funds, insurance companies, individual savers, etc. also want bonds. More customers means more demand, and more demand means higher prices.

But what if some of that central bank demand is diverted out of bonds, into gold?

That means a diminished demand for bonds. That means a slight upward pressure on the interest rate issuing banks must offer to attract buyers. Which makes deficit spending more expensive. Sovereign bonds can also lose value to inflation.

Further, as mentioned in the Reuters article, gold isn’t subject to counterparty risk. There’s always the chance, however small, that a nation might choose to stop paying its bond-holders. (This is called a default, or a sovereign debt crisis, and they happen fairly regularly.)

There’s zero chance of physical gold defaulting. Once those gold bars are locked up in a nation’s central bank vaults, it serves as a permanent store of value.

In an important sense, when a central bank chooses to add to their gold reserves, the decision says, “We’re diversifying our country’s savings out of currencies we don’t control, into an asset class that we can trust.”

2021: Deficits, Inflation, Overvalued Stocks Drive Gold Higher

In 2021 Deficits, Inflation, Overvalued Stocks Drive Gold Higher

The factors that drove gold to a new all-time high of $2,067 last year are well-known. The unprecedented amount of global panic caused a flock towards precious metals, one that had just as much to do with reactionary government policies as the crisis itself. Over the span of 12 months, gold gained around 25% while silver topped a seven-year high and became the main item on many a watchlist. In their Gold Outlook report for 2021, the World Gold Council (WGC) stated that it expects gold to post an almost as strong of a performance this year due to a combination of new and existing tailwinds.

Inflated stock valuations are a boon for gold

According to the report, the stock market is again shaping up to be a massive red flag. Long before the crisis hit, many experts were warning that equities’ valuations are overblown and that the longest bull run in the market’s history is slated for a correction, if not an altogether crash. The WGC points out that the S&P 500 price-to-sales ratio is at historic highs, yet also likely to expand further.

Near-zero bond yields send investors to gold as a safe haven

With the effective elimination of most sovereign bonds from portfolios, investors will now look to take on a more risk-on approach in search of gains, said the WGC. The renewed appetite for risk will also be powered by optimism in regards to a rapid global economic recovery after one of the worst slowdowns over the past century. The increased reliance on dubiously-valued stocks is likely to bring on strong pullbacks and market swings. While this turbulence alone is beneficial to gold, the metal is likely to receive even more support as higher risk will place more emphasis on hedging, especially in the absence of bonds that formerly fulfilled this role.

Inflation fears and inflation-resistant assets

Though not yet materialized in substantial form, inflation has been on the mind of every market participant ever since the government decided to expand the money supply with an unseen multi-trillion dollar stimulus. With the Federal Reserve and the European Central bank both stating their willingness to allow inflation to run past the targeted rate of 2%, the WGC’s report notes that gold prices increased by 15% on average during years where the inflation rate exceeded 3%. Of course, inflationary policies are just one of gold’s government-backed tailwinds, with ballooning budget deficits and the aforementioned normative of low to negative-yielding debt acting as pillars of support on their own.

Overseas gold demand increases

While last year’s demand for physical gold reached sky-high levels on one side, it was subdued from another as economic activity from the world’s top gold consumers slowed. The WGC expects this to change in 2021, projecting that consumer demand for gold from both China and India will return to form. The report cites data from the Indian Dhanteras festival in November as evidence that jewelry demand is already well on the track to recovery, having bounced back from the Q2 lows.

Central banks influence gold’s price

In contrast to 2018 and 2019, two record years in terms of central bank purchases, the WGC’s report forecasts a change in dynamic. With gold prices being near all-time highs, central banks could alternate between buying and selling, along with purchases no longer being widely spearheaded by Russia. Nonetheless, the WGC says that the official sector will continue to offer strong support for gold in the ever-growing bid to diversify foreign reserves, especially during a time of questionable fiat.