No doubt China is buying gold direct from its miners. South Africa did the same when it was No. 1 for annual production, and it's plain from Russia's steady accumulation that it's using the same route, as well. Such metal is then lacking for retail consumption, so to ensure lots of supply for what proved another strong Chinese New Year, importers booked early and often. Trouble is, gold imports through Hong Kong alone more than trebled in 2011, outweighing the country's domestic mine supply. So then, immediately after New Year – and only two weeks after trade-deficit hit India doubled its gold and silver import duties – the authorities moved to temper the flow of metal.
China's private gold buyers have needed no help from over-excitable headlines to date. But they have needed Beijing's blessing – and its policy on gold now looks conflicted, to say the least. Happy to deregulate since 2002, it's allowed private sales of gold to treble as a proportion of China's fast-growing GDP, reaching more than 0.6% in full-year 2011 when judged off the GFMS data. That private accumulation has enabled China to diversify its national holdings – "national" meaning just what it says in a state which remains very much controlled if no longer quite communis today. No doubt the People's Bank has also bought a little more gold for its own stash too, albeit adding a lot less than the 1,400 tonnes which GFMS reckon has gone into private-sector possession in the last two years alone.
Now China's massive trade surplus is fast shrinking, however. The rate of foreign-currency hoarding is slowing right alongside, but its gold imports just overtook domestic mine output for the year as a whole, let alone the fourth quarter. Building the central bank's gold reserves would only worsen that gap. Making a "push" to buy gold – and at near-record prices – looks a long way from certain.
Adrian Ash runs the research desk at BullionVault. Formerly head of editorial at Fleet Street Publications - London's top publisher of financial advice for private investors - he was City correspondent for The Daily Reckoning from 2003 to 2008, and is now a regular contributor to a number of investment websites.