An Inside Look at the World’s Biggest Paper Gold Market
Every day, there are a whopping 5,500 tonnes ($212 billion) of gold traded in London, making it the largest wholesale and over-the-counter (OTC) market for gold in the world.
To put that in perspective, more gold is traded in London each day than what is stored at Fort Knox (4,176 tonnes). On a higher volume day, amounts closer to total U.S. gold reserves (8,133.5 tonnes) can change hands.
How is this possible?
The infographic below tells the story about gold’s foremost trading hub, as well as the paper gold market in London, England:
Image courtesy of: BullionStar
London is dominant in global price discovery for gold.
In 2015, it accounted for roughly 88% of gold trade – most of which occurs between banks on behalf of their clients. Further, 90% of London trade is spot trading, which further emphasizes London’s importance in price discovery for gold markets.
While the high-level details of the market are visible, the individual mechanisms behind the London gold trade are less clear. There is very little detailed information provided on physical shipments, outstanding gold deposits or loans, allocated or unallocated gold, or clientele types. Trade reporting also breaks down at a more granular level, and datasets on the GOFO (Gold Forward Offered Rate) were also discontinued in January, 2015.
Almost all gold (95%) traded in London is unallocated and without legal title. This makes it easier to trade, but it also raises concerns about a market that is opaque to begin with. There are 5,500 tonnes of paper gold exchanging hands on paper each day, but there are only 300 tonnes of gold vaulted in London outside of the reserves for ETFs or the Bank of England.
What would happen if there was ever even a small rush to get the physical asset behind the paper? Is there a system in place for such an event, and how does it work?
Original graphic by: BullionStar
Charted: 30 Years of Central Bank Gold Demand
Globally, central banks bought a record 1,136 tonnes of gold in 2022. How has central bank gold demand changed over the last three decades?
30 Years of Central Bank Gold Demand
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Did you know that nearly one-fifth of all the gold ever mined is held by central banks?
Besides investors and jewelry consumers, central banks are a major source of gold demand. In fact, in 2022, central banks snapped up gold at the fastest pace since 1967.
However, the record gold purchases of 2022 are in stark contrast to the 1990s and early 2000s, when central banks were net sellers of gold.
The above infographic uses data from the World Gold Council to show 30 years of central bank gold demand, highlighting how official attitudes toward gold have changed in the last 30 years.
Why Do Central Banks Buy Gold?
Gold plays an important role in the financial reserves of numerous nations. Here are three of the reasons why central banks hold gold:
- Balancing foreign exchange reserves
Central banks have long held gold as part of their reserves to manage risk from currency holdings and to promote stability during economic turmoil.
- Hedging against fiat currencies
Gold offers a hedge against the eroding purchasing power of currencies (mainly the U.S. dollar) due to inflation.
- Diversifying portfolios
Gold has an inverse correlation with the U.S. dollar. When the dollar falls in value, gold prices tend to rise, protecting central banks from volatility.
The Switch from Selling to Buying
In the 1990s and early 2000s, central banks were net sellers of gold.
There were several reasons behind the selling, including good macroeconomic conditions and a downward trend in gold prices. Due to strong economic growth, gold’s safe-haven properties were less valuable, and low returns made it unattractive as an investment.
Central bank attitudes toward gold started changing following the 1997 Asian financial crisis and then later, the 2007–08 financial crisis. Since 2010, central banks have been net buyers of gold on an annual basis.
Here’s a look at the 10 largest official buyers of gold from the end of 1999 to end of 2021:
|Rank||Country||Amount of |
Gold Bought (tonnes)
|#7||🇸🇦 Saudi Arabia||180||3%|
The top 10 official buyers of gold between end-1999 and end-2021 represent 84% of all the gold bought by central banks during this period.
Russia and China—arguably the United States’ top geopolitical rivals—have been the largest gold buyers over the last two decades. Russia, in particular, accelerated its gold purchases after being hit by Western sanctions following its annexation of Crimea in 2014.
Interestingly, the majority of nations on the above list are emerging economies. These countries have likely been stockpiling gold to hedge against financial and geopolitical risks affecting currencies, primarily the U.S. dollar.
Meanwhile, European nations including Switzerland, France, Netherlands, and the UK were the largest sellers of gold between 1999 and 2021, under the Central Bank Gold Agreement (CBGA) framework.
Which Central Banks Bought Gold in 2022?
In 2022, central banks bought a record 1,136 tonnes of gold, worth around $70 billion.
|Country||2022 Gold Purchases (tonnes)||% of Total|
Türkiye, experiencing 86% year-over-year inflation as of October 2022, was the largest buyer, adding 148 tonnes to its reserves. China continued its gold-buying spree with 62 tonnes added in the months of November and December, amid rising geopolitical tensions with the United States.
Overall, emerging markets continued the trend that started in the 2000s, accounting for the bulk of gold purchases. Meanwhile, a significant two-thirds, or 741 tonnes of official gold purchases were unreported in 2022.
According to analysts, unreported gold purchases are likely to have come from countries like China and Russia, who are looking to de-dollarize global trade to circumvent Western sanctions.
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