Dealers see opportunity for Hong Kong in European gold shift

Central banks repatriating their reserves could find safe storage at Chek Lap Kok depository

PUBLISHED : Monday, 28 January, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 28 January, 2013, 4:37am

With Germany and other European countries planning to repatriate their gold reserves from the United States, dealers believe this might open up business opportunities for the gold depository at the Hong Kong airport.

Dealers in Hong Kong said the European action showed mainland China might also need to consider whether it was a good idea to shift back its gold stored in the US and other countries.

The Hong Kong Monetary Authority brought all its gold home in 2009 and stored it at the airport depository when the facility came on stream.

"Hong Kong airport has had world-class gold depository facilities since 2009. It is safe for the mainland and other Asian central banks to deposit their gold reserves here," said Fung Chi-kin, a veteran dealer and former president of the Chinese Gold & Silver Society.

Airport Authority board member and legislator Chan Kam-lam agreed it would be a good business opportunity for Hong Kong to get more central banks to deposit their gold in the city.

"If more central banks deposited their gold in Hong Kong, it would benefit the city as an international financial centre," Chan said.

The People's Bank of China has not disclosed any changes to its gold holdings since 2009, when it said the holdings had increased 76 per cent in five years to 1,054 tonnes.

It also did not say where it stored its gold bars but dealers said they believed about 500 to 600 tonnes might be stored in the US.

Fung said many central banks placed their gold reserves in the US, Britain and other key markets to diversify the risks of theft and in case the gold needed to be liquidated in an emergency for foreign exchange.

The US dollar traditionally has been the major reserve currency, so most central banks deposit a third or half of their gold reserves in the US.

However, since the global financial crisis in 2008, Europe has begun to worry about its gold abroad. The dollar has ceased to be a safe long-term bet, thanks to the relentless monetary easing policies to keep the economy going.

This has led many central banks to cut their dollar holdings and shift into other currencies or physical gold, which in turn led to demands in some countries that their central banks reduce their gold reserves stored in the US and repatriate them.

For China, gold represents only about 1.6 per cent of its overall reserves, but for many Western central banks, the precious metal constitutes a significant portion.

The US, Germany, Italy and France keep more than 70 per cent of their reserves in gold, according to World Gold Council data.

The German central bank, the Bundesbank, said this month it was planning a phased repatriation of its 54,000 gold bars - representing 300 tonnes of its reserve gold from New York and 374 tonnes from Paris - to Frankfurt by 2020.

Germany holds 3,391 tonnes of gold in reserve but stores only 31 per cent of the yellow metal at home, with 45 per cent in New York, 13 per cent in London and 11 per cent in Paris.

By 2020, the country's central bank wants half of its reserves to be at home, with 37 per cent in New York and the rest in London.

Besides the Germans, the Dutch have also been demanding that their government move their gold stored in the US.

When the demand was first raised last year, the US had turned down the idea, leading dealers to speculate that the Federal Reserve might have lent out the gold.

Germany has since decided to remove its gold from the US over seven years as a compromise solution.

Fung said that if European central banks wanted to shift their gold back from the US, they might want to take them home instead of using the gold depository in Hong Kong.

"However, if other Asia central banks, including China, take some of their gold reserves from the US, they may consider putting their gold bars in Hong Kong as we have a good and safe gold storage facility," he said.

"Hong Kong is an international financial centre with active gold and foreign-currency trading. As such, it would be easy for central banks to change their gold deposits into other currencies, if needed."

The city's "Fort Knox" opened in 2009 at the Chek Lap Kok airport. The 340 square metre depository has double security doors and bulletproof steel walls. After its opening, the HKMA shifted its entire gold reserve - the amount has never been specified - back from London.

The Airport Authority had said it would pitch to central banks and other gold dealers in the region the idea of putting their physical gold reserves in the depository.