The trade deficit or the difference between imports and exports, in August 2013 was at $10.9 billion. This was a significant improvement over August 2012, when it was at $14.17 billion. The deficit was $12.27 billion in July, 2013.
This fall in trade deficit, as I pointed out a couple of days back, was largely on account of lower gold imports. The gold imports stood at 2.5 tonnes, almost down to zero. These imports cost around $650 million. Now compare this to 47.5 tonnes imported in July, 31.5 tonnes in June, 162 tonnes in May and 142.5 tonnes in April of this year.
In April 2013, the 142.5 tonne of imported gold had cost $7.5 billion, and the trade deficit was at $17.8 billion. In May 2013, the 162 tonnes of imported gold had cost $8.4 billion, and the trade deficit was at $20.1 billion.
Hence, its safe to say that the major reason for the fall in trade deficit has been a fall in gold imports. As the Indian Express reported a few days back “Gold imports stopped after July 22 due to confusion over a rule issued by the Reserve Bank of India, which required importers to re-export at least 20% of all the purchases from overseas.”
Dan Smith and Anubhuti Sahay of Standard Chartered offer a similar reason in their September 12, 2013, report titled “Gold – India’s government gets tough.” As they write “Recent weeks and months have seen aggressive government action to dampen gold demand, owing to its heavy impact on the current account deficit…the…initial lack of clarity on these measures resulted in a dramatic slump in imports in August.”
This confusion has now been sorted out, and gold imports are going to surge in the months to come. “Local traders and sources estimate that we might see an upswing in bullion imports to 35 tonnes in September. This is still modest compared with the official average import level of 59 tonnes/month last year. October is also likely to see relatively firm imports,” write Smith and Sahay.
The Indian demand for gold is seasonal and tends to pick up around the festival time and wedding season. The festival season has started and the wedding season will soon start. As Smith and Sahay point out “Over the past five years, August, September and October have been the strongest months for India‟s gold imports, accounting for 30% of the annual total as the country restocks ahead of a pick-up in demand. Key reasons for buying gold include the marriage season, which normally starts after the monsoon season in mid-September, and Diwali, which is on 3 November this year.”
What will also drive the demand for gold is a good monsoon which is likely to lead to a higher agricultural growth. As the Economic Outlook 2013-14 released today, by the Economic Advisory Council to the Prime Minister, points out “Agriculture projected to grow at 4.8% in 2013-14 as against 1.9% in 2012-13. The early and good monsoon had a huge positive impact on sowing activity.”
This is likely to lead to a higher demand for gold during the current month and the following few months. “This year the monsoon season was good and farmers planted 7% more crops, according to the Agriculture Ministry. This should feed through into higher incomes and gold demand in the weeks ahead,” write Smith and Sahay.
In a country as underbanked as India is, any increase in income ends up being invested in gold, especially in rural areas. As the Economic Survey released before the budget pointed out “Gold has been a combination of investment tool and status symbol in India. With limited access to financial instruments, especially in the rural areas, gold and silver are popular savings instruments.”
It also needs to be mentioned here that even though “official” gold imports have fallen close to zero, gold continues to come into the country through other routes. This is not surprising given that the import duty on gold bullion currently stands at 10%. Hence, for anyone who manages to get gold into the country without paying the duty on it, there is a huge arbitrage opportunity.
Smith and Sahay provide several examples of gold coming into the country through unofficial routes. As they write “There is much anecdotal evidence suggesting that increased amounts of gold are entering India through unofficial channels, which makes the official figures an understatement. Pakistan temporarily suspended a duty-free gold import arrangement in August, when gold imports doubled. According to media reports, much of this was crossing the border into India. Dubai has seen a steady pick-up in the number of passengers being arrested at airports for smuggling.”
Gold is also coming in from Nepal. “Nepal has seen an eight-fold rise in smuggling – 69kg of smuggled gold was seized by customs in the first half of this year, versus 18kg for the whole of 2012.”
Higher gold imports will obviously cancel out the recovery on the export front. Exports for August 2013, went up by nearly 13% to $26.4 billion, in comparison to August 2012. In July, exports were at $25.83 billion. Even if gold imports come in at $2-3 billion on an average, they will cancel out the bounce in exports. Given this, the trade deficit is likely to go up in the months to come.
(Vivek Kaul is a writer. He tweets @kaul_vivek)