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William Pesek: India shows hedge-fund savvy with huge gold buy

Section: Daily Dispatches

By William Pesek
Bloomberg News
Thursday, November 5, 2009

Barack Obama and Timothy Geithner must be as annoyed as they are bewildered.

Didn't India get the memo? Developing nations are supposed to keep their excess cash in Treasuries, the U.S. president and his Treasury secretary are no doubt thinking. Gold? That relic of the past that doesn't pay interest or dividends and can't be eaten? A fool's game best left to the dinosaurs out there.

India is going its own way with a $6.7 billion gold purchase. The transaction turned heads in markets. It should do the same in capitals from Beijing to Washington.

India's 200 metric-ton deal wasn't huge considering how much gold central banks hold. It's the symbolism that matters as the U.S. struggles to keep the dollar's slide orderly and panic-free. Consider India the vanguard of central banks more aggressively diversifying reserves away from U.S. assets.

As markets brace for that inevitability, here are four things we can conclude from India’s gold rush.

One, the dollar's plight just got worse. Mounting U.S. debt is bumping up against a dismal employment picture, a toxic mix that may get the attention of credit-rating companies. This U.S. recovery looks to be a uniquely jobless one, complicating things for a president already grappling with two unpopular wars.

That raises the specter of even more stimulus spending, more bond issuance, and more pressure on central banks to avoid a dollar crash. It's well-known that Geithner is relying on Asia to continue loading up on Treasuries. Even U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton found herself talking up the bond market in Beijing earlier this year.

Yes, talk of the dollar's death is overdone. There is still no obvious replacement. Yet Asia's tolerance with falling U.S. assets is evaporating. India's gold grab from the International Monetary Fund’s bullion stash is the latest reminder of that.

Two, India's got game. China doesn't talk much about its currency reserves, yet you have to imagine a few top officials in Beijing are red-faced this week. "How on Earth did India beat us to the punch?," policy makers must be asking. China seemed the overwhelming favorite to get the first chunk of the gold the IMF is offloading to shore up its finances.

A question no one can answer yet is whether India will touch off a bidding war among central banks. Not that India cares all that much at this point. As it leapfrogs past Russia to become the ninth-biggest government holder of gold, China is now looking at even higher precious-metals prices.

While India's people are major gold hoarders, the government hasn't been a big one. India really did display the savvy of a hedge fund here. It got what it wanted, surprised markets, and will sit back and reap the benefits as gold rallies.

Traders are now betting on who will announce the next big purchase. Will it be China looking to employ its $2.3 trillion of reserves? What about Japan, which has the second-biggest pile of currency? Or Gulf states working to end dollar hegemony? And let's not forget about Brazil and South Korea. Well done, India.

Three, the IMF is back. The crisis of the last two years put the Washington lending institution back in business. Now it's flush with fresh liquidity to help the nations that need it most. Along with getting top dollar for its bullion, the IMF managed to avoid shaking up markets.

Investors had been on edge following Sept. 18, when the IMF approved the sale of 403.3 tons of gold. The concern was that a fire-sale might spook markets. Instead, the IMF's first such sale in nine years managed to soothe them.

On Nov. 2, Anoop Singh, the IMF's Asia-Pacific region head, told me in Tokyo that the lender was redoubling efforts to help developing nations reduce imbalances and retool economies. A day later, after the gold sale was disclosed, his words made even more sense to me. Expect a busy and pro-active 2010 at the IMF.

Four, central banks are reverting to the past. Almost 100 years ago, John Maynard Keynes chided India for its "ruinous" love of the "barbaric relic." Perhaps central banks were reading their Keynes over the last two decades, during which anti-gold sentiment pervaded.

The belief that inflation had been defeated made paper currency seem a safe and more practical bet than bars of gold collecting dust. The dollar's swoon is prompting a bit of revisionist history, putting gold back en vogue. It says much about where the global financial system finds itself.

This gold revival has a clear geographic profile, too. Expect Asian central banks that took the whole "trust the Federal Reserve to protect the dollar" hype too literally to be especially avid buyers.

If you are looking for the next big industry in Asia, it may just be manufacturing fortified warehouses. Many nations will need a Fort Knox of their own to store all those gold bars as the dollar's reign falters.


William Pesek is a Bloomberg News columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.

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