In the fourth quarter of 2019 central banks added a net 109.6t to global official gold reserves, 34% lower y-o-y. Added to net purchases in the first three quarters, this brought full-year net purchases to 650.3t, just 1% shy of the 2018 total (656.2t).
Central bank net purchases in 2019 were remarkable. The annual total of 650.3t is the second highest level of annual purchases for 50 years, highlighting the importance central banks place on having an allocation to gold in their reserve portfolio. The highest level was recorded in 2018 and buying in 2019 was not widely expected to repeat these levels for a second consecutive year.
Buyers in force. In total, 15 central banks increased their gold reserves by at least one tonne in 2019, highlighting the breadth of buying. Demand was exclusive to emerging market central banks looking to bolster and/or diversify their overall reserves.
The largest purchasers during the year were mostly familiar faces. Turkey, which began buying gold in 2017, emerged as the largest buyer in 2019, growing gold reserves by 159t.1 This brought total holdings to 413t, 63% higher y-o-y and equal to 20% of total reserves. Poland, which purchased 25.7t in 2018, made the biggest single purchase in 2019, buying 94.9t in June. In total, annual Polish net purchases amounted to 100t, taking reserves to 228.6t. Russian gold reserves rose by a healthy 158.1t, albeit 42% lower than a year earlier, partly because in May the central bank began offering a discounted purchase price aimed at encouraging domestic producers to export more gold. Chinese gold reserves grew by 95.8t over the first nine months, taking total gold reserves to 1,948t (3% of total reserves). No further purchases were reported after September. Central banks in Kazakhstan (35t), India (32.7t), UAE (13.5t) Qatar (11t), Ecuador (10.6t) and Serbia (10t) also increased official gold reserves by at least 10 tonnes.
Dazzling decade of demand. 2019 marked one decade since central banks became annual net purchasers, following the Global Financial Crisis in 2008. The fundamental change in mindset towards gold has resulted in significant and, importantly, sustained levels of demand. During this time, central banks have added 5,019t back to global official gold reserves, with an annual average of around 500t, compared with average annual net sales of 443t in the preceding decade. And any sales in the last 10 years have been dwarfed by the scale of buying.
Over this time, heightened economic and geopolitical uncertainty have been the twin driving forces that have propelled central bank buying, particularly from emerging markets. The decade was beset by unconventional monetary policies (such as consistent low or negative interest rates) in order to restore economic stability and growth, as well as a rise in nationalism/populism, trade wars, and risks of armed conflicts. In response, central banks increased their allocation to gold.
The 5,019t surge in demand over the last decade, more than offsetting the 4,426t of net sales between 2000-2009, means that reported global official gold reserves are now only 12% below the all-time high of 38,491t seen in 1966.