COLUMN-Gold rally unlikely until Asian demand gains: Clyde Russell

Last Updated: Thu, Nov 15, 2012 12:00 hrs

--Clyde Russell is a Reuters market analyst. The views expressed are his own.--

By Clyde Russell

JOHANNESBURG, Nov 15 (Reuters) - Gold analysts are generally bullish by nature and many have long-running forecasts that bullion is poised to rally through the $2,000 an ounce barrier, but the reality continues to disappoint.

If analysts were looking for reasons why gold has failed to push on from its all-time high of $1,920.30 an ounce, the World Gold Council's third-quarter report is a good place to start.

No doubt the gold bugs will point to the fact that third-quarter demand, at 1,084.6 tonnes, was up from the second quarter's 982.2 tonnes and was the first quarterly gain in a year.

The increase was driven by a jump in demand from exchange-traded funds (ETFs) and from India, but even this wasn't enough to prevent an 11 percent decline from the third quarter of last year.

The problem for any bullish gold view is that physical demand isn't supportive.

For the year to end September, gold demand was 3 percent weaker, according to the council.

No matter which way you slice and dice the individual breakdown of demand in an attempt to find the positives, the overall picture is that demand is slightly weaker, and it's hard to see any reason why prices should rally significantly unless demand starts rising.

The bullish gold view thus relies largely on the fear trade, where people buy gold on the basis that the European debt crisis and quantitative easing in the United States will ultimately lead to monetary debasement and rampant inflation.

Certainly, this view will have helped the gain in ETFs, where holdings jumped by 136 tonnes in the third-quarter, resulting in a 165 percent gain in the year to end-September.

The other positive area for demand is central bank purchases, which are up 49 percent for the year to end-September, but these are easing from record levels and third-quarter demand of 97.6 tonnes was the lowest since the June quarter of last year.

It's possible that the flow of bullion into ETFs and central banks is holding up the gold price, which would otherwise be falling by more than it has on the back of soft physical demand.

Spot gold has been in a fairly narrow range between just above $1,500 an ounce and just below $1,800 this year, and is currently around $1,725.

It's also no coincidence that the price was weakest this year in the second quarter, when physical demand was the lowest in two and a half years, and at its highest when demand posted a modest recovery in the third quarter.

Given that physical demand is dominated by China and India, it's worth looking at what's happening in two Asian giants, something Western gold analysts tend to overlook, seeing them as a secondary concern to more traditional drivers such as U.S. interest rates.

Demand in India, the world's biggest gold buyer, rose to 223.1 tonnes in the third quarter, a sharp jump from the 181.3 tonnes in the second quarter and the 204.8 tonnes from the same period last year.

Indian demand was probably due a rebound after several weak quarters, and a strengthening rupee probably provided a catalyst for the third-quarter increase.

But Indian demand is still down 28 percent in year-on-year terms, which equates to 305.9 tonnes, a significant reduction in physical demand that can't be made up by even a strong fourth quarter in the South Asian nation.

Chinese demand has also disappointed the bulls, falling to 176.8 tonnes in the third quarter, a drop of 8 percent from the same quarter a year ago and a bare 1 percent rise in year-on-year terms.

Slower economic growth was blamed by the council, which said stronger conditions in the fourth quarter may boost demand in China.

That is quite likely, but Chinese demand will probably only grow significantly when a rising price trend is re-established or domestic inflation rises again.

Given that China and India together account for about half of total gold demand, it seems logical to assume that they are vital to the outlook for prices.

Right now, the two are a drag on gold prices, and I would only expect a rally to resume when there is evidence of stronger demand from the Asian giants.

However, if demand does rise in China and India, it will probably be on the back of strengthening economic conditions, which in turn might undermine the fear trade that has driven inflows into ETFs.

A repeat of last year's rally to the record high, when strong physical demand in Asia combined with fear-driven investment demand from Europe and the United States and central bank buying is unlikely to be repeated in the coming months.

This makes me wonder how long many of the gold analysts can cling to bullish forecasts, how many months do you have to be wrong before you change your mind?

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