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Another factor driving demand has been the reemergence of central banks as net acquirers of gold. This is actually a pretty big deal. Over the past few decades, central banks have been actively reducing their gold holdings, preferring paper assets over the 'barbarous relic.'
Famously, Canada and Switzerland vastly reduced their official gold holdings during this period (to effectively zero in the case of Canada), a decision that many citizens of those countries have openly and actively questioned.
The UK-based World Gold Council is the primary firm that aggregates and reports on gold supply-and-demand statistics. Here's their most recent data on official (i.e., central bank) gold holdings:
Note that the 2009 data is lowered by slightly more than 450 tonnes in this chart to remove the one-time announcement by China that it had secretly acquired 454 tonnes over the prior six years, so this data may differ from other representations you might see.
I thought it best to remove that blip from the data. Also, the data for 2012 and 2013 must also be lacking official China data because the last time they announced an increase in their official gold holdings was in 2009.
In just 2013 alone, the gap between China's apparent and reported gold consumption was over 500 tonnes and the Chinese central bank, for a variety of reasons, is the most likely candidate to have absorbed such a quantity. If true, then China alone increased its official reserves by more than the rest of the world combined in 2013.
The World Gold Council puts out what is considered by many to be the definitive source of gold statistics, which are the source data for the above chart. I do not consider the WGC to be definitive since their statistics do not comport well with other well reported data, but let's first take a look at what the WGC had to say about gold demand in 2013:
The big story there, obviously is that investment demand absolutely cratered even as jewelry and coins and bars rose to new heights. And nearly all of that investment drop was driven by flows out of the GLD investment vehicle.
That is, gold was chased out of the weak hands of mainly western investors and into the strong hands of Asian buyers who wanted physical bullion and jewelry.
This huge drop in total demand, led by plummeting investment demand, fits quite well with the 15% price drop recorded in 2013. So the WGC tells a nice coherent story so far.
But the problem with this tidy story is that it simply does not fit with the above data about China's voracious appetite for gold, let along India's steady demand and rising demand in Europe, the Middle East, Turkey, Vietnam or Russia.
The summary of the fundamental analysis of gold demand is there is a huge and pronounced flow of gold from the West to the East there is rising demand from all quarters except for the hot money GLD investment vehicle (which I have never been a fan of) all of this demand has handily outstripped mine supply which means that someone's vaults are being emptied (the West's) as someone else's are rapidly filling (the East's)
Now about that supply...
Gold - Supply
Not surprisingly, the high prices for gold and silver in 2010 and 2011 stimulated quite a bit of exploration and new mine production. Conversely, the bear market from 2012 to 2014 has done the opposite.
However, the odd part of the story for those with a pure economic view is that with more than a decade of steadily rising prices, there has been relatively little incremental new mine production. For those of us with an understanding of depletion it's not surprising at all.
In 2011 the analytical firm Standard Chartered calculated a rather subdued 3.6% rate of gold production growth over the next five years based on lowered ore grades and very high cash operating costs:
Most market commentary on gold centres on the direction of US dollar movements or inflation/deflation issues – we go beyond this to examine future mine supply, which we regard as an equally important driver
In our study of 375 global gold mines and projects, we note that after 10 years of a bull market, the gold mining industry has done little to bring on new supply. Our base-case scenario puts gold production growth at only 3.6% CAGR over the next five years. (Source - Standard Chartered)
Since then, the trends for lower ore grade and higher costs have only gotten worse. But the huge drop in the price of gold in 2011 and 2012 was the final nail in the coffin and resulted in the slashing of CAPEX investment by gold mining companies.
Of course, none of this is actually surprising to anyone who understands where we are in the depletion cycle, but it's probably quite a shock to many an economist. The quoted report goes on to calculate that existing projects just coming on-line need an average gold price of $1,400 to justify the capital costs, while green field, or brand-new, projects require a gold price of $2,000 an ounce.
This enormous increase in required gold prices to justify the investment is precisely the same dynamic that we are seeing with every other depleting resource: energy costs run smack-dab into declining ore yields to produce an exponential increase in operating costs.
And it's not as simple as the fuel that goes into the Caterpillar D-9s; it's the embodied energy in the steel and all the other energy-intensive mining components all along the entire supply chain.
Just as is the case with oil shales that always seem to need an oil price $10 higher than the current price to break even, the law of receding horizons (where rising input costs constantly place a resource just out of economic reach) will prevent many an interesting, but dilute, gold ore body from being developed. Given declining net energy, that's that same as "forever" as far as I'm concerned.
Just like any resource, before you can produce it you have to find it. Therefore the relationship between gold discoveries and future output is a simple one; the more you have discovered in the past, the more you can expect to produce in the future, all things being equal.
This next chart should tell you everything you need to know about where we are in the depletion cycle for gold, as even with the steadily rising prices between 1999 and 2011 (going from $300 and ounce to $1,900), gold discoveries plummeted in 1999 and remained on the floor thereafter:
Here we see that the 1990's decade saw quite a number of large discoveries that are currently in production but which were not matched in later years. Since it takes roughly ten years to bring a mine into full production following discovery, it's fair to say that we are currently enjoying production from the discoveries of the 1990's.
Future gold production will largely be shaped by the discoveries made since then.
In other words: expect less gold production in the future.
Meanwhile, there will be more money, more credit, and more people (especially in the East) competing for that diminished supply of gold going forward.
Let's take another angle on gold supply, but which circles back and supports the above chart showing fewer and smaller discoveries in recent years.
The United States Geological Survey, or USGS, keeps a mountain of data on literally every important mined substance. I think it's staffed by credible people, doing good work, and I've yet to detect political influence in their reported statistics.
At any rate, the latest assessment on gold reveals that their best guess for world supply is that something on the order of 52,000 tonnes of reserves are left. Which means that, at the 2012 mining rate of 2,700 tonnes, there are 19 years of reserves left:
This doesn't mean that in 19 years there will be no more new gold to be had, as reserves are always a function of price; but it gives us a sense of what's out there right now at current prices.
Comments may be made at the end of Part 3 Thank You