MUMBAI: India is considering a radical plan to direct commercial banks to buy gold from ordinary citizens and divert it to precious metal refiners in an attempt to curb imports and take some heat off the plunging currency.
A pilot project will be launched soon, a source familiar with the Reserve Bank of India’s (RBI) plan told Reuters, although the idea was met with some scepticism. India has the world’s third-largest current account deficit, which is approaching nearly $90bn, driven in a large part by appetite for gold imports in the world’s biggest consumer of the metal. That has played a major role in driving the rupee to a record low.
With 31,000 tonnes of commercially available gold in the country — worth $1.4 trillion at current prices — diverting even a fraction of that to refiners would sate domestic demand for the metal. India imported 860 tonnes of gold in 2012.
The RBI will ask the banks to buy back jewellery, bars and coins for rupees. Lenders will have to offer better rates than pawn shops and jewellers to lure sellers. “We will start a pilot project among some banks where we will allow them to buy back gold from individual households,” the source, an official familiar with the central bank’s plan, said. “This will start soon, we have discussed (it) with banks.” The RBI did not immediately have an official comment, a spokeswoman said.
The RBI proposal was a talking point in world gold markets, although prices were reacting more to an easing of concerns that a US-led attack on Syria was imminent. Spot gold prices fell by around 1 percent.
The source said banks in the pilot project would be given a regulatory directive to purchase the gold. It will initially be limited to those with big gold portfolios. Several Indian banks already offer a gold deposit scheme that pays out interest.
“I don’t think it is going to work. It has to be more structured, like a gold bond,” said Samiran Chakraborty, chief economist at Standard Chartered Bank.
India’s central bank holds 557.7 tonnes of gold in its own reserves. However, any talk of using the central bank’s gold to help meet India’s international obligations revives memories of a 1991 balance of payments crisis - when India flew 67 tonnes of gold to Europe as collateral for a loan to avoid a sovereign debt default.
Selling the country’s gold reserves may sit badly with Indians, many of whom saw the 1991 sale as a public humiliation. The secret operation was only exposed after a vehicle carrying the first consignment of bullion broke down on its way to the airport from the central bank.
Some economists said India should improve the current gold deposit scheme, which allows individuals to effectively hold gold in a bank account in exchange for a certificate. They receive interest payments and can redeem the same weight in gold when the certificate matures.
However, Indians are currently put off by the 500 gram minimum requirement. Offering higher interest rates could also draw out gold stashed in the country’s temples.
India has taken multiple steps this year to curb imports of gold, its second-biggest import after oil, including raising duty three times to 10 percent. Reuters