The 15 Nations That Control the World’s Gold

January 31, 2019 by Jon C. Ogg

Source: Thinkstock
As 2018 turned into 2019, the easy reflection would be that it was a wild ride in the global equity markets. The year 2018 turned out to be a pretty exciting year for gold as well. The price gyrations might not have been as extreme as in years past, but central banks were major gold buyers in 2018.

The World Gold Council reported that net central bank purchases of gold totaled 651 tonnes over the course of 2018. If that sounds like a large number, there is a reason. That figure was up 74% over 2017, and it was the highest central bank gold-buying in decades — all the way back to 1971 when Bretton Woods was dissolved. Heightened geopolitical and economic uncertainty was shown to be the key drivers for central banks to diversify their reserves during a turbulent year.

The big question now is who really owns all the world’s gold. 24/7 Wall St. has reviewed global gold demand trends for years. It turns out that central banks and ministries now hold nearly 34,000 tonnes of gold (close to $1.4 trillion in value), but almost 28,000 tonnes, or more than 80%, of that is owned by just the 15 largest international holders of gold.

The United States has remained the world’s largest central bank owner of gold for ages. While some of the nations may seem obvious as the world’s top gold owners, some unexpected gains have been seen elsewhere in the world and that has shaken up which nations are more influential in the gold market now.

The gold-buying spree of 2018 was led by Russia, Turkey and Kazakhstan, but other central banks were big buyers of gold as well, including Iraq, Hungary, Poland, Mongolia and Azerbaijan. The net sales made by Australia, Germany, Sri Lanka, Indonesia and the Ukraine were deemed to be miniscule, with just a total of 15.6 tonnes combined.

The council showed that 76% of central banks view gold as a highly relevant safe-haven asset, and 59% of central banks see gold as an effective portfolio diversification tool. Almost one-fifth of the central banks also have indicated that they intend to increase their gold purchases over the next 12 months.

Note that the International Monetary Fund and European Central Bank are such large holders of gold that they have been included in the world’s top nations holding gold, despite not being nations. And to prove just how dominant the few largest gold holders are, a special reference has been made for the world’s largest exchange-traded fund for gold.

24/7 Wall St. sourced back to a similar view of the world’s top gold holders from 2012 here for comparisons, to see things now versus how central banks were acting in the aftermath of the last recession. Here are the 15 nations and government-related entities that dominate the global ownership of gold.

15. Kazakhstan
> Tonnes of gold: 350.4

Kazakhstan will seem odd to consider, being a larger holder of gold than Saudi Arabia (323.1 tonnes) and the United Kingdom (310.3 tonnes), but that is because its gold reserves rose by 50.6 tonnes in 2018 alone. This has now made for its eighth consecutive annual increase, and its gold reserves have risen for 75 consecutive months. Over that longer period, Kazakhstan net purchases totaled an impressive 246.4 tonnes.

14. Portugal
> Tonnes of gold: 382.5

Portugal’s gold holdings have also remained steady for years.

13. Taiwan
> Tonnes of gold: 423.6

Taiwan has been a steady owner of gold for years and is expected to remain more or less the same.

12. European Central Bank (ECB)
> Tonnes of gold: 504.8

The ECB is a non-nation that gets counted as a national holder of gold. After all, it is the equivalent of the Federal Reserve for all of continental Europe covered by the European Union. Back in 2012, the ECB ranked right behind India as well, but with 502.1 tonnes of gold at that time. As a reminder, the ECB has been striving to end the massive bond buying, and the central bank would like to begin a path to moving away from what had been negative interest rates back to normalized interest rates.

11. India
> Tonnes of gold: 598.6

If there is one nation in which the population covets gold as much as the government, it’s India. Its 598.6 tonnes of gold held by the central bank are up from 557.7 tonnes counted in 2012. Still, this gain feels small compared to the past decade, when India spent almost $7 billion in 2009 to buy 200 tonnes of gold from the IMF. Indian’s monthly purchases began in March of 2018 and picked up in the second half of the year, for a total of 40.5 tonnes purchased in 2018.

10. Netherlands
> Tonnes of gold: 612.5

It may seem surprising that the Netherlands has so much gold considering its small population, but the country is a former colonial power and has a longstanding history as a very wealthy nation. The Netherlands did not sell all the gold provided for by the Central Bank Gold Agreement, and that figure has remained the same 612.5 tonnes of gold since at least 2012.

9. Japan
> Tonnes of gold: 765.2

The Bank of Japan has conducted massive waves of quantitative easing, asset purchases and even negative interest rates for years. It has remained a top holder of gold, and that 765.2 tonnes has been at the same level for years. Before negative rates, Japan had interest rates of almost zero for two decades.

8. Switzerland
> Tonnes of gold: 1,040.0

Switzerland may have created a stir when it devalued the Swiss franc in recent years, but the reality is that its gold reserves have hardly budged from the 1,040.1 tonnes held in 2012. As one of the world’s top private bankers, it seems that Switzerland also must be one of the top owners of gold.

7. Mainland China
> Tonnes of gold: 1,852.5

Mainland China effectively had been dormant for two years, but the nation announced that its gold reserves had increased by just under 10 tonnes in December. This is still quite small in terms of being 2.4% of total reserves, but it was up from 2.3% of total reserves at the end of 2017. China’s currency reserves had fallen by $67 billion in 2018 to $3.1 trillion. While that doesn’t sound active in gold, China’s gold reserves have soared higher from the 1,054.1 tonnes during 2012.

6. Russia
> Tonnes of gold: 2,113.0

The World Gold Council says Russia is “de-dollarizing” its reserves. What further stands out is that Russia now holds more gold than China. The nation bought 274.3 tonnes of gold in 2018 and this was shown to have been funded by selling the bulk of its U.S. Treasuries portfolio. It also was the highest level of annual net purchases on record and marked the fourth consecutive year that Russia had added more than 200 tonnes. Russia’s gold reserves have now increased for 13 consecutive years, growing by 1,726.2 tonnes over the period to total 2,113 tonnes at the end of 2018.

5. France
> Tonnes of gold: 2,436.0

France has been a long-time leader when it comes to reserves in gold. Still, even with European nations being supposed sellers under the Central Bank Gold Agreement, its gold reserves have hardly budged from the 2,435.4 tonnes back in 2012.

4. Italy
> Tonnes of gold: 2,451.8

Despite European nations being gold sellers under the Central Bank Gold Agreement, Italy’s gold reserves have remained steady since at least 2012. It remains a question whether Italy would even dare be a seller of gold, considering that the nation’s banks and debt load keeping back up as problems.

3. International Monetary Fund (IMF)
> Tonnes of gold: 2,814.0

The IMF is not a nation, but it is the third largest holder of gold. This organization includes 189 countries, and its goals are global monetary cooperation, financial stability, facilitating international trade, promoting high employment and sustainable economic growth and reducing global poverty.

2. Germany
> Tonnes of gold: 3,369.7

Germany is the top individual economy in Europe, handily stronger than France, Italy and the United Kingdom. Since 2012, its gold reserves have come down slightly as Germany is supposed to be a gold seller under the Central Bank Gold Agreement. Still, that drop is only from 3,395.5 tonnes back in 2012. It seems unlikely that the world will wake up one day and see that Germany has dumped vast holdings of gold when so many other nations are buying it.

1. United States
> Tonnes of gold: 8,133.5

The United States has now grown into a $20 trillion economy, and the dollar is still considered the world’s reserve currency. That makes it no surprise that the United States would be the largest owner of gold. The 8,133.5 tonnes owned by the nation has remained at the same level for many years.

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Special mention: The SPDR Gold Shares (NYSE: GLD) is the key trust that trades as an exchange traded fund in the United States. The World Gold Council noted that ETFs and similar products saw annual inflows of 68.9 tonnes in 2018, down from inflows of 206.4 tonnes in 2017. If you used a live snapshot on its website of 823.87 tonnes (worth $35 billion), that would have made it the eighth largest holder of gold, just behind Switzerland and ahead of Japan.