HONG KONG (AP) — China is poised to overtake India to become the world's biggest gold market this year as rising incomes fuel demand for the precious metal and a weak rupee diminishes Indian purchases, an industry group said Thursday.
The amount of gold bought in China rose 20 percent in 2011 over the year before to 770 metric tons, the World Gold Council said in its annual report. That put China behind only first-place India, where 933 metric tons were bought.
Worldwide, the amount of gold purchased rose 0.4 percent to 4,0671 metric tons worth $205.5 billion.
The council said it's "likely that China will emerge" as the world's largest gold market for the first time in 2012. China has already moved into top place on a quarterly basis, with 190.9 metric tons purchased in the last three months of 2011 versus 173 tons in India.
Rising incomes in China, which is the world's No. 2 economy, have resulted in a surge in demand for gold jewelry and other luxury goods. China became the world's largest market for gold jewelry in the second half of 2011 as demand rose in every quarter, the report said.
Gold bars, coins and other gold-backed products are also popular because of a lack of other investment options in China.
The long-term rise in the price of gold has also made it a popular hedge against inflation — gold hit a record nominal high of $1,891.90 an ounce in August, though prices have fallen since then. Gold futures for April delivery ended trading in New York on Wednesday at $1,728.10 an ounce.
Central banks, many in developing economies, also boosted gold sales as they sought to diversify their growing piles of foreign currency reserves. They bought 439.7 metric tons of gold last year, up from 77 metric tons the year before and the highest amount since 1964, the report said.
The poor performance of China's stock and property markets — the other two main choices for Chinese with money to invest — is boosting the popularity of gold as an investment, said Albert Cheng, a managing director at the London-based World Gold Council.
The Shanghai Composite Index is down 20 percent over the past year while house prices are starting to fall after authorities put in place curbs to cool an overheated market.
Strong Chinese demand for gold also helped sales leap 33.5 percent last year in Hong Kong, a popular destination for wealthy mainland shoppers because of lower taxes in the semiautonomous Chinese territory.
Demand for gold jewelry in India, meanwhile, fell in the second half of 2011 because of the weakening rupee, which made gold more expensive.
Indians also grappled with high inflation last year that ate away their purchasing power, so they bought smaller amounts of gold, Cheng said.
World Gold Council website: www.gold.org
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