Finance ministry’s clampdown helps but shortage of gold looms this festival season

Finance Minister P. Chidambaram and his fellow wonks will be all smiles with plunging gold imports in the country, but the shortage of bullion ahead of the festival and wedding season could be a boomerang they had not accounted for.Gold imports were just about 3.5 tonnes in August — about a tenth from year-ago period. This is against an average 40 tonnes of gold a month that the domestic jewellery business consumes, says C. Vinod Hayagriv, managing director at one of India’s oldest jewelers, C. Krishniah Chetty & Sons in Bangalore.
Leading jewellery retailers are worried. “There is a short supply of gold in the market, and we are managing hand-to-mouth,” says Bhaskar Bhat, Managing Director at Titan Co. Ltd, which owns the Tanishq jewellery chain of more than 150 stores. “We are somehow managing, but I can say we have less of a problem compared to many others in the market.””I think we are going to see a big shortage in about a fortnight’s time as we get close to the festival season,” says Harmesh Arora, spokesman at Bombay Bullion Association Ltd. Festival season sales in India start typically around end-September just before the Durga Puja celebrations — beginning October 9 this year — and go on until after Diwali, falling on November 3 this year. Wedding season runs between October and early January.
What caused the sharp decline were a series of measures by the finance ministry and the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) to rein in gold imports, the second highest imported item in 2012-13 after crude oil and petroleum products. One rule change had a condition imposed on jewellers or banks that they would have to export a fifth of their gold imports. The resultant confusion and absence of any clarification from the government side led to a sharp decline in imports.In routine course, jewellers buy bullion from banks, which import and sell, but the export rule has crimped the supply from banks. “We are not able to import because we cannot pay upfront for gold, and take the exposure [to the dollar on exports],” says P.G. Jayakumar, CEO at Dhanlaxmi Bank.
Gold coin sales have almost come to an end after All India Gems & Jewellery Trade Federation, a grouping of jewellers, recently advised its members to suspend their sale. “We are gradually closing down our gold coin business because we are not able to import gold,” says P.E. Mathai, CEO at Muthoot Precious Metals Corporation, citing the new regulations. “There is a shortage of gold in the market for those who follow ethical business practices.”
Bullion Association’s Arora says what has met part of the demand is people who bought gold at lower rates before selling back to jewellers taking advantage of the price rally. Twenty-four-karat gold is trading above Rs.31,000 for 10 grams. Part of the gold from Indian households is getting recycled easing the supply to some extent, but traders say this will taper after some time.
Jewellers, off the record, say bullion is available in the grey market at prices lower by Rs.250-300 per gram as they have been smuggled in but that is not an option for the large jewellers who source their gold only through legal channels.According to data from industry body World Gold Council, which tracks gold imports by the calendar year, India imported 859.7 tonnes of gold in 2012. To be sure, gold imports in the past have been higher at 958.2 tonnes in 2010 and 969 tonnes in 2011. But what hurt the Indian economy in 2012 and first two quarters of calendar year 2013 was the double whammy of rising gold prices and an appreciating dollar.
India’s current account deficit — CAD, or the difference in imports and exports net of remittances and transfers — stood at nearly $88 billion in 2012-13, or 4.8 per cent of gross domestic product, primarily because of surging gold imports by value. The government target for CAD, $78.2 billion in 2011-12, in 2013-14 is $70 billion.Going by import numbers of August and September, the government may be on target to reduce gold imports, even if there isn’t supporting evidence of demand tapering on the ground. In January-June of 2013, gold imports were 553.1 tonnes — averaging over 92 tonnes a month. In July and August, it fell sharply to an average of 23.75 tonnes a month. The trend of lower imports in August is expected to continue in September also, according to gold industry sources. They expect the government to ease rules in October if the CAD improves a little bit.The World Gold Council predicts some stability in the days to come. “We hope to see the situation to ease during the festival season with the government issuing the necessary clarifications on gold imports,” says P.R. Somasundaram its managing director, India.

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