By Xiao Han, Peter Hobson and Swati Verma
China has given domestic and international banks permission to import large amounts of gold into the country, five sources familiar with the matter said, potentially helping to support gold prices after a months-long decline.
China is the world's biggest gold consumer, gobbling up hundreds of tonnes worth tens of billions of dollars each year, but its imports plunged as the coronavirus spread and local demand dried up.
With China's economy rebounding strongly since the second half of last year, its appetite for gold jewellery, bars and coins has also recovered, and since January domestic prices have been higher than global benchmark rates, making it profitable to import bullion.
The People's Bank of China (PBOC), the nation's central bank, controls how much gold enters China through a system of quotas given to commercial banks. It usually allows enough metal in to satisfy local demand but sometimes restricts the flow.
In recent weeks it has given permission for large amounts of bullion to enter, the sources said.
"We had no quotas for a while. Now we are getting them ... the most since 2019," said a source at one of the banks moving gold into China.
Around 150 tonnes of gold worth $8.5 billion at current prices is likely to be shipped, four sources said. Two of the sources said the bullion would be shipped in April. Two others said it would reach China over April and May.
The bulk of China's gold imports typically come from Australia, South Africa and Switzerland.
The size of the shipments signals China's dramatic return to the global bullion market. Since February 2020, the country has on average imported gold worth around $600 million a month, or roughly 10 tonnes, Chinese customs data show.
In 2019 its imports ran at about $3.5 billion a month, or roughly 75 tonnes.
The People's Bank of China did not respond to a request for comment.
China's absence made little difference to gold prices early in the pandemic when Western investors fearful of economic catastrophe stockpiled vast amounts of bullion -- traditionally seen as a safe asset -- pushing it to a record high of $2,072.50 an ounce.
But the investor interest drifted away as vaccines and government stimulus revived economic growth, with prices sagging to around $1,750.
India's demand for bullion has also rebounded from a pandemic-induced slump, with record-breaking imports in March of 160 tonnes of gold, an Indian government source told Reuters this month.
China and India typically account for some two fifths of the world's annual demand for gold.
Their recovery is "critical in setting the floor for gold" and should stop prices from falling further over the coming months, said Suki Cooper, an analyst at Standard Chartered.