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Gold Is Everywhere in Bangkok

January 11, 2019

When one drives down the streets in Bangkok's China Town, it is easy to be blinded by the sun reflecting off of the gold chains in all of the gold shops. The Thai people like to wear their wealth around their neck. It is usually 23+ karat gold and sold by weight in the form of gold chains. Buddhist amulets can be attached easily as the gold clasps are sufficiently malleable that they can be adjusted by hand. There is no mystery when you stumble across a gold shop. Moreover, they are always packed with customers and the sales staff are indifferent to customer service-"You have money, you want gold, we got it."

Once inside, customers have a seemingly endless choice of various chains to suit their design tastes and budgets. Moreover, the gold shops have a layaway system such that they are packed on Friday paydays.

Apart from the financial capacity to wear such an investment around one's neck, there is a spiritual aspect to justify such a blatant display of wealth and that is the one or more Buddhist amulets that are affixed to the chain. The chains vary in value according to the weight of the 96.5% gold. The weights are peculiar to Thailand and described in baht which represents more than 15.16 grams in the case of jewelry. Interestingly, the Thai currency is also called baht which evolved from a metal weight concept. The five baht chain below would be valued in a Bangkok gold shop at approximately $5,000. The shop would sell it to you at that price or buy it from you at the same price less a commission. Therefore, gold in Thailand qualifies as a liquid asset.

As you can see the chain is strong though the hook to which the Buddha image is attached is sufficiently malleable that the can be opened with one's fingers. On the other hand, the author was mugged from behind in Kampala, Uganda a couple of years ago and dragged down the street in a semi-conscious state without breaking the chain. Since the chain was purchased some 48 years ago, it has appreciated by 33 times its acquisition price whereas the Dow Jones Industrial Average has appreciated 29 times. Therefore, who can argue that the stock market consistently provides better rates of return than gold?

Recently, the Nikkei Asia Weekly published an article entitled Asia Helps Gold Regain Its Luster based on the premise that the global demand for gold is recovering. Asian consumers have increased their jewelry purchases in hopes of higher prices down the road and to hedge against weakening currencies at home. Perhaps the British should consider gold as a pound sterling hedge in view of the continued missteps over Brexit. However, one could make the same observation in regard to the U.S. given the political and potential constitutional storm ahead in this country.

Demand for gold increased 1% in the past quarter to 964 tons according to the World Gold Council. Jewelry demand expanded in the past twelve months by 6% representing an increase to over 535 tons. Demand increased 10% in India and China with Southeast Asia contributing to the increase.

Global demand for gold coins and ingots also soared 28% to just under 300 tons being bought by individuals in anticipation of higher prices and as a defensive hedge against inflation. With Iran being placed under U.S. sanctions, their purchases shot up 240% for the year, while Asian countries experiencing currency depreciation also reflected increased demand. Maybe it is time to open a gold shop on Bond Street in London.

To round out demand growth, central banks are also buying more gold as they increase the portion of their foreign-exchange reserves held in gold. Purchases in the public sector totaled 148 tons representing the largest increase since the fall of 2015. Russian holdings surpassed 2,000 tons for the first time as they seem to be planning for a disruptive and potentially cold winter.

Perhaps we should re-think the adage that "diamonds are a girl's best friend." Given the supply-controlled diamond cartel prices, gold might be a better choice. However, it would take a reasonably strong lady to wear as much value as a diamond around her neck in gold. On the other hand, Mr. T never seemed to have a problem but, as his image below confirms, he was one scary dude with no fear of being mugged.

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