Is the Next Big Thing 1,700 Tonnes of Gold Purchases?

Forgive the hyperbole in the headline but we wanted to get your attention as something quite profound is happening that could propel gold to record new highs. Yes, potentially the biggest thing since the birth of the gold ETF and the liberalization of the Chinese gold market in 2003. A decade on and we have grounds for saying that gold may well see a significant leg higher – the big new thing in gold. I'll explain…

Banking capital adequacy ratios, once the domain of banking specialists are set to become center stage for the gold market as well as the wider economy. In response to the global banking crisis the rules are to be tightened in terms of the assets that banks must hold and this is potentially going to very much favor gold. The Basel Committee for Bank Supervision (or BCBS) as part of the BIS are arguably the highest authority in banking supervision and it is their role to define capital requirements through the forthcoming Basel III rules.

In short, they are meeting to consider making gold a Tier 1 asset for commercial banks with 100% weighting, rather than a Tier 3 asset with just a 50% risk weighting as it does today. At the same time they are set to increase the amount of capital banks must set aside as well. A double win potentially.

Hitherto banks have been much dis-incentivized to hold gold while being encouraged to hold arguably riskier assets such as equity capital, currencies and debt instruments, none of which have fared too well in the crisis. With this potential change in capital adequacy requirements bank purchases of gold would drive up its value relative to other high quality qualifying assets, increasing its desirability for regulatory purposes further. This should result in gold being re-priced to bring it on a par with all other high quality assets.

Currently banks have to have core Tier 1 capital ratio of 4%, which will rise to 6% from the beginning of next year. In addition to its store of value merits, central to the argument in favor of gold as a bank reserve is its countercyclical nature to most other assets in that it tends to be inversely correlated. Gold is ideal as it bears no credit risk. It involves no other counterparty and it is no one's liability. It is a reserve asset diversifier if you like.

This is a treble win for gold – it would be a major endorsement of its role in preserving wealth and as a store of value from the highest financial authority. It would lead to significant purchases of gold by major financial institutions and it would lead to a reappraisal of its value with respect to other Tier 1 capital such as quality sovereign debt. Under the new rules gold could become a very significantly larger proportion of a reserve pool which is about to grow very much larger.

The two questions that come to my mind are when and how much metal? On timing, Basel III kicks in from January 2013 with a further tightening in capital adequacy ratios in 2018. That said, it is not yet clear when gold's re-rating to Tier 1 might take place.

In terms of amount of gold that could be purchased that is harder still – if we thought that say 2% of total current Tier 1 capital held by commercial banks globally might be converted into gold (forgetting for a moment about the increases in capital yet to be seen) – this would suggest that 2% of the $4,276 billion would be converted to gold. That is equivalent to $85 billion in gold which at current market prices is equivalent to 1,700 tonnes of gold.

Another way of looking at this is to consider that commercial banks would be holding gold for precisely the same reason that central banks do – and the largest 110 central banks in the world have 16% of their reserves as gold - as such a figure of just 2% is really quite a modest expectation. Ultimately it will be a question of price and expectations of price change that would determine the rate of uptake in the short term.

For those anxious about the lackluster market this could well promise to be game-changer of epic proportions.

About the Author
Ross Norman

Ross Norman is owner and chief executive officer of the London-based gold broker Sharps Pixley Ltd.

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