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Oil Prices Go Down, Russia's Gold Buying Goes Up

An employee displays a gold bar at a gold refining workshop of the plant of Uralelektromed Joint Stock Company (JSC), the enterprise of Ural Mining and Metallurgical company (UMMC) in the town of Verkhnyaya Pyshma, outside Yekaterinburg, Oct. 17.
Maxim Shemetov
An employee displays a gold bar at a gold refining workshop of the plant of Uralelektromed Joint Stock Company (JSC), the enterprise of Ural Mining and Metallurgical company (UMMC) in the town of Verkhnyaya Pyshma, outside Yekaterinburg, Oct. 17.

It's been a rough ride for the Russian economy and it keeps getting worse. Low oil prices helped push the ruble to another record low on Friday. This spate of bad economic news is probably just accelerating an existing trend: Russia's purchase of gold at an astounding rate.

Russia's central bank bought more than 130 tons of gold this year. Last year, it bought about 75 tons. Bob Haberkorn, senior market strategist at the brokerage firm, RJ O'Brien, says Russia has shifted even more assets into gold because it has had a particularly bad year.

"Western sanctions, coupled with the fall in oil recently, has caused a lot of turmoil in their markets, their stock markets as well as in their currency markets," he says.

Haberkorn says he's not surprised Russia is buying lots of the precious metal. He says gold has been a currency for over 5,000 years, it's always been a vehicle to store wealth throughout history.

"Whether it be a central bank or an individual investor, they always like it, it's always a good feeling to have part of your assets backed up in gold," he says.

Joshua Aizenman, professor of economics and international relations at the University of Southern California says with its economy suffering, and the cost of imports skyrocketing, Moscow needs to be seen doing something.

"It makes perfect sense politically for Russia to horde and accumulate more gold," he says. "And equally importantly, it makes sense to advertise this to the population that ... leaders are aware of the need to take care of the reserves and the like."

Central Banks Snap Up Gold

China, India, and many other emerging economies have also been snapping up gold lately, says Ashish Bhatia, a director at the World Gold Council. He says this is a big sea change in gold market. Bhatia says up until a few years ago, central banks were selling their gold assets.

"And what we're seeing is unprecedented in that central banks are now buying somewhere between 300 and 500 tons per year," he says.

The gold price soared a few years back and hit an all-time high of more than $1,800 an ounce in 2011. It's come down since then and is now trading around $1,200 an ounce.

Professor Aizenman says gold is seen as a safe haven, giving countries a degree of autonomy during times of turbulence in the world economy. Aizenman co-authored a report looking at the patterns of central banks buying and selling gold.

"We noted, for example, that there seemed to a positive correlation between ... the wish to signal your political might and the accumulation of gold," he says.

Bhatia, with the World Gold Council, says there are other factors at play. He says the central banks of Russia, China and many other countries are sitting on vast piles of foreign reserves, primarily U.S. dollars and bonds and Euros. Bhatia says central banks began parking their reserves in gold a few years ago as a way to diversify their assets.

"It has no credit risk, unlike the sovereign debt of countries, it has ample liquidity so you can get in and out of the asset very easily, and there's large availability of gold," he says.

Bahtia says the trend in buying gold will likely continue. He says Russia knocked China from its perch as 6th largest holder of gold in the world. Russia now has more than 1,100 tons, about 10 percent of its total assets are now in gold. By comparison, the U.S., still the world's largest holder of gold by a wide margin, has more than 8,000 tons.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Jackie Northam is NPR's International Affairs Correspondent. She is a veteran journalist who has spent three decades reporting on conflict, geopolitics, and life across the globe - from the mountains of Afghanistan and the desert sands of Saudi Arabia, to the gritty prison camp at Guantanamo Bay and the pristine beauty of the Arctic.