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Country going for gold as investors play it safe

China led the world in increased purchases of gold jewelry and bars last year as buyers turned to the precious metal as a safe haven.

Shoppers and investors in China, including the Chinese mainland, Taiwan and Hong Kong, bought 432.1 tons of gold jewelry, coins and bars in 2008, 18 percent higher than the previous year, the World Gold Council said.

The increase, 67 tons, easily exceeded that of any other country -- the next closest were Vietnam and Thailand, both with a rise of about 38 tons.

What makes China stands out is the country's soaring sales of gold jewelry over the whole year and even in the fourth quarter, when the world was gripped by an economic crisis.

In contrast, consumers in the United States, Italy and the United Kingdom spent less on jewelry as the recession took hold.

"Chinese gold jewelry market is dominated by high-purity 24-carat pieces with strong safe haven appeal, while K-gold jewelry takes the lion's stake in developed countries," Wang Lixin, general manager of World Gold Council China, said yesterday. "That's why buying gold jewelry is still strong in the fourth quarter in China while other developed countries are posting drops."

Chinese have long regarded gold not just as jewelry, but as a hedge against inflation, a safe haven and a symbol of fortune. That's why 24-carat gold jewelry, or 99.9 percent pure, dominates the market.

"The investor motive was evident in the strength of 24-carat sales, which contrasted to the decline in sales of 18-carat K-gold in China," the council said.

Gold also appealed as an investment. The benchmark Shanghai Composite Index tumbled 70 percent last year. Other commodities such as oil and copper lost ground, but gold remained popular.

China's gold sales in the fourth quarter rose 21 percent to 112.7 tons. Its gold jewelry sales rose 10 percent to 92 tons. Elsewhere in the world, gold jewelry sales dipped 6 percent to 538.9 tons in the fourth quarter.

The delay in the financial crisis taking its toll in China was another reason for the sustained demand in the fourth quarter, Wang added.

Mainland gold jewelry sales jumped 10 percent to 85.1 tons in the fourth quarter. Mainland demand for gold as an investment rocketed 157 percent to 18 tons in the same period.

"If the economy slowdown deepens at home, gold jewelry sales may be hit.

"But investment gold bars will sustain their strong growth," Wang said.


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