Is all the gold in California sitting in a bank in Beverly Hills? Bloomberg reports that central banks, which own 18% of all the gold ever mined, will add as much as 350 tons valued at about $15 billion this year, the London-based World Gold Council estimates. They purchased 535 tons in 2012, the most since 1964. Russia is the biggest buyer, expanding reserves by 20% since prices reached a record $1,921.15 an ounce in September 2011. Gold has slumped 31% since then.
As policy makers were buying, investors were losing faith in the metal as a store of value. The value of exchange-traded products dropped by $60.4 billion, or 43%, this year, saddling hedge fund manager John Paulson with losses, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. Billionaire investor George Soros sold his holdings in the biggest gold-backed ETP this year and mining companies wrote down the values of their assets by at least $26 billion.
Gold, which entered a bear market in April, slid 21% to $1,316.28 in London this year on Oct. 4, set for the biggest drop since 1981. It rose six-fold as it rallied for 12 successive years through 2012, beating a 17% gain in the MSCI All-Country World Index of equities as the Standard & Poor's GSCI gauge of commodities more than doubled. It's this year's third-worst performing raw material, after corn and silver. Gold today fell to $1,310.33 an ounce.
Policy makers, who are responsible for shielding their economies from inflation, often mistime gold investment decisions, buying high and selling low. They were reducing holdings when bullion reached a 20-year low in 1999 and as prices as much as quadrupled in the next nine years. Central bankers became net buyers just before the peak in 2011.
"Central bankers have typically bought when you probably should be selling and selling when you probably should be buying," said Michael Strauss, who helps oversee about $25 billion of assets as chief investment strategist and chief economist at Commonfund Group in Wilton, Connecticut. "It's going to be a difficult market and sometimes the price of gold is driven by emotions rather than fundamental factors. Central banks have been bad traders of gold."
Holdings were little changed from the start of 2008 through early 2009. Then, policy makers increased gold reserves as prices doubled and they have purchased a net 884 tons since the 2011 peak, International Monetary Fund data show. Russia was the biggest buyer, adding about 171 tons. Kazakhstan bought 67.2 tons and South Korea purchased 65 tons. Turkey's reserves swelled about 371 tons in the past two years as it accepted bullion in reserve requirements from commercial banks.
In addition to buying when prices rose, central banks sold into slumping markets, disposing of about 5,899 tons in the two decades from 1988, equal to about two years of current mine supply.
The U.K. auctioned about 395 tons from July 1999, a month before prices reached a two-decade low, through March 2002. Gold averaged about $277 as the country was selling. The Bank of England's hoard of ingots and coins, including a bar smelted in New York in 1916, now totals 310.3 tons, or 13 percent of the nation's total reserves.