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Is gold’s current pullback just a blip on the way to higher prices as fears over the economic impact of the coronavirus will drive renewed buying, or is it a sign the precious metal isn’t quite the safe haven it used to be?

Certainly, up until two weeks ago gold was behaving pretty much as expected during times of global economic uncertainty, with spot prices reaching as high as US$1,702.56 an ounce on March 9, a jump of 13 per cent from the end of last year.

However, the rally reversed course since then, with the yellow metal dropping 14.8 per cent to a low of US$1,450.98 an ounce on March 16. It has since steadied and was around US$1,495.60 an ounce in early Asian trade on Monday.

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Much of the blame for gold’s recent stumble has been laid at the door of investors dashing to cash, either to meet margin calls as equities and other investments sink, or on the perception that cash is king.

Certainly, the decline in the amount of gold held by the SPDR Trust bears this view out, with the total falling to 29.2 million ounces on March 20, down 5.8 per cent from the 3-1/2 year high of 30.99 million on March 9.

The SPDR Trust is the world’s largest gold exchange-traded fund and is a good proxy for investor interest.

But gold’s current problems go well beyond some portfolio liquidation to meet the need for cash, there are other worrying demand elements.

China, the world’s biggest gold consumer, and number two ranked India together accounted for 1,538.8 tonnes of demand in 2019, equivalent to some 58 per cent of total world consumer demand, according to data from producer group the World Gold Council.

The importance of these two mega-consumers to physical gold demand cannot be overstated, but is often played down, or downright ignored, by many of the typical gold bulls that tend to dominate public discourse on the metal.

China’s consumer demand was down 15 per cent in 2019 from the preceding year, while India’s dropped 9 per cent, and so far 2020 is shaping up for a poor start as well.

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India’s gold imports in the first two months of the year were 72 tonnes, a drop of 26 per cent from the same period last year, according to Refinitiv Metals Research.

Consumer demand is reported by traders in India to be weak, and it’s worth noting that the gold price in local currency reached a record high of 125,991 rupees (US$1,670.96) an ounce on March 9, before easing to trade around 112,497 rupees in early trade on Monday.

In Indian rupees, gold has gained about 24 per cent in the past 12 months, a substantial increase in a country with slowing economic growth.

The coronavirus has yet to hit India as hard as it is now damaging Europe, the United States and other countries, but gold demand in the sub-continent may suffer further unless India somehow manages to prevent its rapid spread.

CHINA RECOVERS

China is largely recovered from the coronavirus, which was first detected last year in the city of Wuhan, but it seems gold demand has yet to pick up.

China’s imports of gold so far in 2020 aren’t yet officially available, but imports from Singapore, a regional trading hub, slumped in February to just 2.2 tonnes, down from 17 tonnes as recently as December, according to Refinitiv Metals Research.

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Switzerland, another hub for gold trading and storage, also saw exports to China plunge in February to 2 tonnes, down from 17 tonnes in January, according to customs data.

It may well be that as China starts to recover from the economic slowdown caused by the coronavirus, its gold imports will recover, but the question has to be will they be strong enough to start a rally in prices.

The gold price tends to perform strongly when it has the support of physical consumers in China and India, as well as Western investors and central bank buying.

None of these look particularly strong currently, with consumers in India and China battered by economic woes and high gold prices in local currencies, and Western investors preferring cash, at least for now.

Central bank buying may also take a breather, especially since most governments around the world are going to be desperate for cash to stimulate their economies, and this is likely to be more important than building gold reserves.

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