India targets gold hoards and temple treasures in trade deficit battle
India aims to recycle 20,000 tons of privately-owned gold in a monetization scheme to reduce record bullion imports and trade deficit. India overtook China this year as the world’s biggest consumer of gold.
The Indian government woos a staggering US$ 778 billion of gold with individuals, ancient temples and trusts, to tackle the current account deficit (CAD) – the gap between export and import revenues.
Imported gold contributed 28% of CAD for financial year ending March 2013. India’s expected deficit of $20.6 billion for 2015-16 favorably compares with $28 billion (1.4 % of GDP) in 2014-2015. But with fluctuating global prices, the Modi government intends to more significantly cut trade deficit, and rein in inflation.
If all goes merry and bright with the new Gold Monetization Scheme, deposited gold will be stored as ingots, then minted as gold coins, sold to earn foreign exchange, and loaned to jewelry merchants as in Mumbai’s Zaveri Bazaar.
Zaveri Bazaar’s Sheikh Memon Street in the dusk of a December evening seemed like other crowded lanes in the Crawford Market shopping area, except its shops own a few hundred millions dollars of gold.
Lalit Jain and Ashish Mehta do business near one such jeweler declaring intention to ‘buy old gold, diamonds, silver and pearls’. From the ground floor of the Bank of India Bullion Exchange Branch building, Jain’s Mahavir Hallmarking Centre has its striking white décor cleanly appropriate to its role in this gilded road: certifying purity of gold.
Mahavir Hallmarking made history this November serving the first three customers in India who signed up for the gold monetization scheme. These Gold Savings Account holders earn a tax-free interest, while the melted gold gets recycled back to the jewelry industry. Depositors can choose between getting back their gold quantity or its cash value at the end of fixed deposit terms.
“The GMS (Gold Monetization Scheme) is a good idea and can reduce the current account deficit”, Lalit Jain told Asia Times, with insider view as vice president of the Indian Association of Hallmarking Centres. “But banks have to play key role in spreading awareness, and the scheme needs to address some issues.”
One such issue is over 95% of gold in India being bought with cash, says Jain. Gold depositors then might have the taxman showing keen interest in source of that gold – something bashful black money holders would rather avoid.
The Indian government may mull over a mild tax amnesty to gold depositors. Or, more radically, ban all cash purchases in gold. That could interestingly impact India’s ravenous appetite for the noble metal. Gold imports hit a record high of 1,000 tons worth US$36 billion in 2015.
India’s official gold reserves are 557.7 tons in December 2015, according to latest World Gold Council statistics, compared with the 20,000 tons of privately owned gold.
20,000 tons is a stupendous quantity, considering that less than 175,000 tons of gold have been mined since the start of civilization – with over 90% of it after January 24, 1848, when a New Jersey sawmill operator James Marshall struck something valuable at Coloma, on the South Fork American River, and started the California Gold Rush.
The world’s oceans are said to contain 15,000 tons of gold; the entire US official gold holdings are 8,133 tons, with 4,600 tons of it in Fort Knox. Over 20,000 tons of India’s sleeping gold can change the dynamics of the world’s bullion market.
“Of India’s 20,000 to 22,000 tons of gold in private ownership, temples may have about 1,000 tons,” Lalit Jain and Ashish Mehta said. Vast quantities of gold are in small holdings across the country.
Well-known ancient temples cumulatively receive hundreds of tons gold that devotees donate every year. It is a tradition of renunciation stretching across millennia.
The 1700-year old Tirupati Balaji Temple in southern India has an estimated 200 tons of gold. The temple trustees have committed 1.5 tons of it for the Gold Monetization Scheme.
“Our gold is intact as periodical interest accrues in metal rather than in cash, and we still hold (own) the gold,” a temple official told the Economic Times.
The temple uses donations of gold and cash for public services like education. The gods have no practical use for gold from humans, but they need such shared merits earned from serving fellow beings.
Mumbai’s 200-year old Siddhivinayak temple plans to deposit 40 kg of its 160 kg of gold under the new Gold Monetization Scheme, and use the INR 6.9 million (US$ 102,697) in annual interest to fund medical aid for economically weaker people.
On December 13, Shirdi town’s Saibaba Temple committed 200 kg of its 380 kg gold holdings to the GMS. The annual interest of about US$ 500,000 will fund two free hospitals that the temple trust runs to serve 35,000 people a year.
More gold treasures may be awaiting discovery. In 2011, a US $22 billion trove of gold, diamonds, precious stones and artifacts was found in the 9th century Padmanabha Swamy temple in Thiruvananthapuram in south India. This, the world’s single-largest treasure trove, was in five vaults opened after 130 years. The government wants such gold idling for centuries back in the economy.
India’s other plans include a gold exchange such as in China and Turkey, the world’s other great guzzlers of gold with monetization schemes.
Turkey’s successful gold recycling pulled in 240 tons worth US$ 10.4 billion in 2013, said a World Gold Council report. At the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul, the jewelry shops beyond the Light of Ottomans Gate feed a Turkish lust for gold similar to India. Turkey allows withdrawing 1-1.5g of 24ct hallmarked gold through Kuveyt Türk Bank’s 500 gold ATMs.
Over seven million Chinese and overseas traders, 8,000 corporate clients have traded through the Shanghai Gold Exchange since it opened in October 30, 2002.
Gold exchanges ensure more transparency and fair prices, but India’s immediate exchange plan is for people and trustees exchanging their stored gold for interest from term deposits, and to recycle the gold.
By committing nearly two tons of gold this December, three of India’s well-known temples have gifted a $62 million starting boost to the scheme that enables keeping the gold cake while enjoying the interest – and giving the economy a healing trade deficit cut.
Gold Monetization Scheme, Ministry of Finance, more details of the Gold Savings Account
Raja Murthy is a Mumbai-based journalist writing for the Statesman since 1990 and Asia Times since 2003 – besides having been a long-term contributor to the Times of India, Economic Times, Elle etc. He shuttles between Mumbai and the Himalayas, for more intensive practice of Vipassana and Metta Bhavana.
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