May 8 (Bloomberg) -- Mainland China’s gold imports from Hong Kong surged more than sixfold in the first quarter, adding to signs that the country may displace India as the world’s largest consumer of the precious metal on an annual basis.
Imports from Hong Kong were 135,529 kilograms (135.53 metric tons) between January and March, from 19,729 kilograms in the year-earlier period, according to data from the Census and Statistics Department of the Hong Kong government. Shipments in March rose 59 percent from February, yesterday’s data showed.
Demand has climbed in the world’s second-largest economy as rising incomes and curbs on property speculation boosted purchases. China may become the biggest user annually this year, according to a forecast from the producer-funded World Gold Council. Last year, total Indian demand including for jewelry and investment was 933.4 tons to China’s 769.8 tons.
“We’re looking at another solid year for Chinese demand based on these early numbers,” said Nick Trevethan, senior commodities strategist at Australia & New Zealand Banking Group Ltd. “While it’s largely related to price, negative real interest rates should keep demand strong.”
Gold has lost 15 percent from its record $1,921.15 an ounce in September as the European debt crisis, combined with reduced expectations for further monetary easing by the Federal Reserve, boosted the dollar. Spot gold traded at $1,636.88 an ounce at midday in Singapore, 4.7 percent higher this year.
The prospect of China becoming the largest bullion user reflects the country’s economic ascendance. Per capita gross domestic product has more than doubled since 2000, according to World Bank data. The country is already the world’s top consumer of copper and biggest producer of steel.
Gold shipments to the mainland climbed in March to 62,913 kilograms, the Hong Kong data showed. That compares with 39,668 kilograms in February and 9,166 kilograms in March 2011. China doesn’t publish gold-trade data. Last year, imports from Hong Kong more than tripled to 431,226 kilograms.
The purchases through Hong Kong may signal that the mainland is accumulating reserves, London-based brokerage Sharps Pixley Ltd. said in February. The nation last made its reserves known more than two years ago, stating them at 1,054 tons.
“Summer is usually the low season for gold consumption,” said Liang Ruian, director at Pinpoint Investment Consulting Ltd. in Beijing. “If we can see growth even in the low season, it represents the resilient nature of China’s gold consumption.”
China expanded 8.1 percent in the first three months of 2012 from a year earlier in the fifth quarterly deceleration as authorities cracked down on property speculation. Inflation was 3.6 percent in March, below a government target of about 4 percent. So-called real interest rates are negative when the amount paid to savers on deposits is less than inflation.
Indian Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee said yesterday that he was withdrawing an excise tax on precious-metal jewelry, boosting prospects for the country’s gold demand this year. Imports in April had plunged to 30 tons to 35 tons from 90 tons a year earlier, according to the Bombay Bullion Association.
“China’s strong demand for bullion may help support gold prices at lower levels,” said James Steel, an analyst at HSBC Securities (USA) Inc. “A recovery in Indian gold demand should be an important factor in support of gold prices.”