The impact of COVID-19 severely disrupted demand for gold used in the technology sector in 2020. The worst was felt in H1, with Q3 heralding a q-o-q improvement before Q4 brought a y-o-y recovery.
Gold used in the electronics industry was down 5% for the full year, as 2% y-o-y growth in Q4 offset the weakness of the preceding quarters. All major sectors within the space saw modest growth in demand during Q4, contributing to a 9% q-o-q increase.
Gold used in the dental sector continued its long-term decline, down 15% for the year at 11.9t. Other industrial uses of gold experienced a similarly significant annual fall of 15%, to 42t.
Gold used in electronics declined by 5% to 248.1t in 2020. Given the chaos wrought on markets and economies around the world during 2020, a decline in demand for gold in the electronics sector was anticipated. Supply chains were impacted from top to bottom, with many manufacturing facilities suspending their operations to comply with local and national lockdowns. These challenges were compounded by weakening consumer demand, especially for ‘big ticket’ purchases. However, there were some positives for the electronics industry; the shift to working from home bolstered demand for devices, laptops in particular. This persisted throughout the year, and helped to catalyse a 2% y-o-y increase to 69.2t during Q4.
The broader electronics industry also fared better than expected during the year; the most recent World Semiconductor Trade Statistics market update, released in December 2020, reported an anticipated 5% growth in the global semiconductor market in 2020, and forecast 8% growth in 2021 driven by strong demand in the memory and sensor sectors.1
Traditionally, Q4 is low season for LED demand, but 2020 bucked this trend with an increase in gold uptake of between 1-4%. This was driven by strong PC and laptop shipments, with wearable and biomedical devices also performing well. General lighting applications continued their decline, but it has been reported that some manufacturers are adapting their facilities to produce lighting for agricultural applications that offer a higher value proposition. Looking forward to 2021, the threat of migration to mini-LED technology (which uses less gold) in some applications remains, but other areas – such as 3D sensors for use in the smartphone and automotive sectors – should provide support for gold.
The memory sector remained healthy in Q4, recording increased gold demand of 3-5% y-o-y. Mirroring the LED sector, this strength was driven by high PC and laptop shipments, which continued into Q4. Looking forward, China’s largest memory chip manufacturer, Yangtze Memory Technologies, plans to double its monthly output to 100,000 wafers by the second half of 2021.2 However, any gains to gold volumes as a result of increased output may be offset by efforts to further miniaturise memory chip architecture (which potentially lowers the amount of gold required in each unit) and the threat of manufacturers switching to alternative solutions such as silver bonding wire.3
The wireless sector remained strong during Q4, thanks primarily to ongoing 5G infrastructure deployment which led to a 2-4% y-o-y increase in gold volumes in the sector. 5G is expected to remain a key topic going into 2021; average industry estimates collected during fieldwork suggest that 5G-enabled smartphones will grow from around 240m shipped units in 2020 to around 500m shipped units in 2021. Countries around the world continue to build their 5G infrastructure, which should support gold demand in the wireless sector over the coming months. Similarly, ongoing advances in 3D sensing such as partially autonomous automotive applications – where sensor-heavy control units in vehicles will likely use gold to satisfy reliability requirements – should be positive for gold volumes.
Finally, the Printed Circuit Board (PCB) sector was probably the strongest performer of the quarter, registering a rise of 4-7% in gold volumes. This was driven by the recovering demand for consumer electronics and a strengthening automotive sector. High-speed computing and artificial intelligence applications also supported this uptick in demand.
Each of the four key electronics fabrication hubs around the world registered falls in gold demand throughout 2020: Japan at -3% y-o-y, Mainland China and Hong Kong at -7%, South Korea at -1% and the United States at -5%. Taiwan (province of China) was the only region to record increased demand, up 4% y-o-y.
Other Industrial and dentistry
Dental demand again registered a decline in Q4, falling 8% y-o-y to 2.9t, while other industrial applications fell 4% y-o-y to 11.8t. However, gold continues to play a critical role in the development of new COVID-19 diagnostic tools; both rapid antigen and antibody tests rely on gold nanoparticles. While this source of demand is not material within our data, it is an irreplaceable component in these tests, and gold is found in hundreds of millions of kits manufactured on a monthly basis.