By Scott Rose and Olga Tanas
Sunday, February 10, 2013
MOSCOW -- When Vladimir Putin says the United States is endangering
the global economy by abusing its dollar monopoly, he's not just talking.
He’s betting on it.
Not only has Putin made Russia the world's largest oil producer, he
also has made it the biggest gold buyer. His central bank has added 570
metric tons of the metal in the past decade, a quarter more than runner-up
China, according to International Monetary Fund data compiled by Bloomberg. The
added gold is also almost triple the weight of the Statue of Liberty.
"The more gold a country has, the more sovereignty it will have
if there's a cataclysm with the dollar, the euro, the pound, or any other
reserve currency," Evgeny Fedorov,
a lawmaker for Putin's United Russia party in the lower house of parliament,
said in a telephone interview in Moscow.
Gold, coveted by Russian rulers including Tsar Nicholas II and the Bolshevik
leader whose forces executed him, Vladimir Lenin, has soared almost 400
percent in the period of Putin's purchases. Central banks around the world
have printed money to escape the global financial crisis, sapping investor
appetite for dollars and euros and setting off a scramble for safety.
In 1998, the year Russia defaulted on $40 billion of domestic debt, it
took as many as 28 barrels of crude to buy an ounce of gold, Bloomberg data
show. That ratio tumbled to 11.5 by the time Putin first came to power a year
later and in 2005, after it touched 6.5 -- less than half what it is now --
the president told the central bank to buy.
During a tour that November of the Magadan
region in the Far East, where Polyus Gold
International Ltd. and Polymetal International Plc have operations, Putin told Bank Rossii
not to "shy away" from the metal. "After all, they're called
gold and currency reserves for a reason," Putin said, according to a
At the time, gold was trading at an 18-year high of $495 an ounce and
the Moscow-based central bank held 387 tons, or 2.2 percent of its $165
billion total reserves. The share reached 3.5 percent within a month,
according to data compiled by Bloomberg.
An ounce of gold for immediate delivery traded at $1,670 as of 7:24
p.m. Moscow time on Feb. 8. It rose 7 percent last year, the 12th straight
year of gains. Analysts expect the metal to advance again in 2013, to $1,825
by the end of the year, according to the median of 26 forecasts in a
"Putin's gold strategy fits in with his resource nationalism,
statist agenda," said Tim Ash, head of emerging-market research at
Standard Bank Plc in London. "It's kind of a
defensive play, but it worked, right?" Ash said in an interview in
Moscow. "You need luck in politics and business, and clearly the guy has
Other world leaders haven't been as lucky. Gordon Brown, as U.K.
finance minister, sold almost 400 tons of gold in the 30 months to March
2002, when prices were at two-decade lows. London tabloids have referred to
the period as "Brown's Bottom."
Quantitative easing by major economies to support financial asset
prices is driving demand for gold in the emerging world, said Marcus Grubb,
head of investment research at the World Gold Council. Before the crisis,
central banks were net sellers of 400 to 500 tons a year. Now, led by Russia
and China, they're net buyers by about 450 tons, Grubb said by phone from
London, where his industry group is based.
While Putin is leading the gold rush in emerging markets, developed
nations are liquidating. Switzerland unloaded the most in the past decade,
877 tons, an amount now worth about $48 billion, according to International
Monetary Fund data through November. France was second with 589 tons, while
Spain, the Netherlands, and Portugal each sold more than 200 tons.
Even after Putin's binge, though, Russia's total cache of about 958
tons is only the eighth-largest, the World Gold Council said in a Feb. 8
report. The U.S. is No. 1 with about 8,134 tons, followed by Germany with
3,391 tons and the Washington-based IMF with 2,814 tons. Italy, France,
China, and Switzerland are fourth through seventh. While gold accounts for
9.5 percent of Russia's total reserves, it accounts for more than 70 percent
in the U.S., Germany, Italy, and France.
Russia keeps about two-thirds of its stockpile in a greenish gray
stone-and-glass building on Ulitsa Pravdy, or Truth Street, in central Moscow. The street is
named after Pravda, the official newspaper of the Communist Party, which also
was headquartered there.
Then-Prime Minister Putin became the first Russian leader to visit the
complex on Jan. 24, 2011, according to the government's website. He toured
the 17,000 square-meter facility, which includes 1,500 square meters of
storage, with First Deputy Chairman Georgy Luntovsky, posing for photographs lifting an ingot. Most
of the bars weigh 10 to 14 kilograms (22 to 31 pounds) and are boxed in
plastic or wooden crates alongside an emergency supply of banknotes.
Technically, state metals depositary Gokhran
has the exclusive right to buy all gold mined in the country. In practice it
lets commercial banks buy from producers directly, usually in the form of
project financing, said Sergey Kashuba, chairman of
the Russian Union of Gold Producers in Moscow.
When the central bank buys gold, it's from those commercial banks, led
last year by OAO Sberbank, OAO Nomos
Bank, VTB Group, and OAO Gazprombank, Kashuba said. Russia produced 205 tons of gold last year,
making it No. 4 after China, Australia, and the U.S., according to U.S.
Geological Survey estimates.
Security is tight along the entire production chain, Kashuba said. Just two organizations are allowed to move
partially refined gold from miners in the Far East and northern Siberia to
processing facilities in other parts of the country, he said. One is FeldSvyaz, a courier service that reports directly to
Putin. The other, SpetsSvyaz, was split off from
Stalin's NKVD secret police in 1939 to transport precious metals and state
secrets, according to its website.
Russia has gone through bouts of hoarding before. Tsar Alexander II
ordered his government to start amassing bullion in 1867, just months after
selling Alaska, now the No. 2 gold- producing U.S. state, for $7.3 million.
His grandson, Nicholas II, introduced the gold standard in 1897, then needed a loan from France to ward off speculators and
save the system in 1906.
Nicholas, Russia's last tsar, was forced to
free the ruble in 1914 as war broke out in Europe. Lenin's revolutionary
government reinstated the gold link along with a new currency in 1922. While
Soviet rubles were nominally backed by gold, sales of the metal to citizens
were halted in 1930, making the peg meaningless.
When Lenin's Bolsheviks seized power in Petrograd, as St. Petersburg
was then known, in 1917, one of their first targets was the State Bank and
its gold, which they captured at 6 a.m. on Nov. 7, according to Bank Rossii's website. They soon nationalized all the banks,
confiscating any gold found in vaults and deposit boxes.
Communist secrecy regarding the country's gold holdings fueled
speculation that party elites had amassed a huge hoard of bullion that they
spirited out of the country before the Soviet Union disintegrated in 1991.
Viktor Gerashchenko, the last Soviet central banker and a two-time
chairman of Bank Rossii, has repeatedly denied such
speculation, including last February.
"When people ask about the party's gold, my answer is always: Are
you an idiot or something?" Gerashchenko, 75, told Afisha
For now, with more than five years left in Putin's term, Russia plans
to keep on buying.
"The pace will be determined by the market," First Deputy
Chairman Alexei Ulyukayev said in an interview in
Davos, Switzerland, on Jan. 25. "Whether to speed that up or slow it
down is a market decision and I'm not going to discuss it."
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