India has long been the world's biggest gold buyer — in fact, The Wall Street Journal notes, analysts believe it has held the number-one spot for "decades, if not centuries." However, recent reports that China consumed over 1,000 tonnes of the yellow metal in 2013 have many gold market participants convinced that the country is set to steal India's title. For instance, the China Gold Council said earlier this week that it believes China consumed 1,176.4 tonnes of gold last year, a whopping 41.36-percent increase from the previous year, as per Xinhuanet. Similarly, Thomson Reuters GFMS pegs China's 2013 demand at 1,190 tonnes, a far cry from the 987 tonnes it believes India took in. The rise was partially caused by Chinese consumers' "increasing affluence," along with "more relaxed investment restrictions," The Wall Street Journal states. The country's "cultural affinity" for gold also played a role. However, the biggest contributor was gold's significant price drop in the second quarter of 2013. That prompted Chinese consumers — mainly middle-aged women — to go on a buying spree that ultimately sent demand for gold jewelry up to 716.5 tonnes, a 42.52-percent increase from 2012, and gold bar demand to 375.73 tonnes, a 56.57-percent rise from 2012, Xinhuanet notes. Missing gold? Interestingly, that price drop may also have prompted China's central bank to do some buying of its own. The bank maintains that its gold holdings have sat at 1,054 tonnes since April 2009, but the Financial Times states that the figures released by the China Gold Council have some thinking it may soon update that number. That's largely because "the latest official figures show that China imported and produced far more gold in 2013 than its citizens bought." Specifically, the news outlet explains, China brought in 1,158 tonnes of gold via Hong Kong, while domestic bullion production came to 428 tonnes. The country took in even more gold through Shanghai, though that amount has not been disclosed.
The upshot, according to CNC Asset Management's Na Liu, is that China's "apparent gold consumption" came to a total of more than 1,700 tonnes last year — in other words, over 500 tonnes more than reported. Many, including Liu, "would not be surprised" to hear that those 500 tonnes went to the central bank.Others, however, are of a different mind. Liu Xu, an analyst with Beijing's Capital Futures, believes that buying from jewelry companies and commercial financial institutions may account for a portion of the missing 500 tonnes. He told the Financial Times, "[i]t's not only about increases in official holdings. It's more accurate to say that every level of society, from individuals up to banks, has been allocating more to gold." What to watch Unfortunately for those of a curious mind, the Chinese central bank is not obligated to officially announce its gold holdings, so the public may never know for sure where the 500 missing tonnes went. On a brighter note, confirmation of whether China has managed to best India in terms of gold consumption is expected next week, when Thomson Reuters GFMS and the World Gold Council release their quarterly report on the world gold market. Securities Disclosure: I, Charlotte McLeod, hold no direct investment interest in any company mentioned in this article. Related reading: Will India Remain the Largest Gold Consumer in 2012? Is India's Appetite for Gold Declining? China Set to Overtake India as World's Biggest Gold Buyer from Gold Investing News