Gold – the chemical element Au with atomic number 79 – “has never been worth zero”. King Tutankhamen and the Incas understood the value and scarcity of gold and used it as a symbol of wealth and power. Nothing has changed since.
Between 1816 and 1931, the pound was linked to the value of gold, so £1 would always be worth 7.3g of 22-carat gold. That much gold would be worth more than £230 today. Other countries — including the US, France and Germany — also linked their currencies to the price of gold (meaning, for example, £1 would always buy you exactly $4.85 while both were linked to gold) with the last direct link between gold and a currency (in Switzerland) abandoned in 2000.
A typical single bar of gold weighs 12.5Kg and would cost today (2/12/2013) £302,831.00.
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But while the gold standard has been removed, the metal is still stockpiled around the world. Here’s a look at the 10 largest gold reserves on the planet — along with where the UK ranks — according to the World Gold Council report in August 2011.
1. United States – 8,133.5 tonnes
While the US permanently abandoned the gold standard in 1971, it has the largest holdings of any single country by a wide margin. While most of the gold is held at Fort Knox in Kentucky, gold is also held by the US Mints in Philadelphia and Denver and several other locations.
2. Germany – 3,401.0 tonnes
Germany’s central bank, the Deutsche Bundesbank in Frankfurt, is the manager of the country’s reserves. However, reports have surfaced that the bulk of Germany’s gold is in the physical custody of the New York Federal Reserve. Two years ago, international journalist Max Keiser received an acknowledgment of these holdings in the US directly from the Bundesbank.
3. International Monetary Fund (IMF) – 2,846.7 tonnes
The IMF overseas the economic activity of its 187 member countries around the globe. While its gold policies have changed over time, the reserves are intended to aid national economies and stabilise international markets. Depending on market conditions, it will buy or sell portions of its reserves in support of specific economic initiatives.
4. Italy – 2,451.8 tonnes
Italy’s reserves are held and managed by the Banca D’Italia. Italy is one of the PIIGS nations (along with Portugal, Ireland, Greece and Spain), all of which are suffering financial woes that threaten the entire eurozone, but still holds £90 billion worth of gold.
5. France – 2,435.4 tonnes
The Banque de France is the central depository for France’s gold reserves. France itself was in-part responsible for ending the US dollar’s link to gold.
After World War II, the Bretton Woods Agreement established a standard that pegged the dollar at the gold exchange rate of $35 an ounce. French President Charles de Gaulle reduced French dollar reserves by exchanging them for gold from Fort Knox. As a result of this action and other economic considerations, US President Richard Nixon ended the convertibility of dollars to gold in 1971.
6. China – 1,054.1 tonnes
While the world’s most populous country is sixth on the list of total holdings, gold accounts for only 1.6% of China’s foreign reserves.
China is the world’s largest producer of gold and can buy gold from its own mines without reporting those transactions publicly. It has reasons to buy gold off the open market since open market transactions would push the price even higher and devalue its US Treasury holdings. China was also one of the major buyers when the UK sold off 395 tonnes of its gold reserves in 1999.
The Wall Street Journal has reported that China dramatically increased its gold purchases in response to inflation fears. Because of possible stealth transactions, China’s total gold holdings and the prices it pays are uncertain.
It is estimated that in 2013 China has purchased in excess of 2,000 tonnes of gold.
7. Switzerland – 1,040.1 tonnes
Switzerland’s seventh place rank on this list is notable considering its economy is the 38th largest and its population is the 95th largest in the world.
The Swiss National Bank is charged with managing the gold reserves and the country’s monetary policy.
8. Russia – 775.2 tonnes
Russia’s gold reserves are in the custody of the Central Bank of the Russian Federation. The country has been on a buying spree, increasing its holdings by 21% in 2009 as it opened several new mines and another 24% in 2010. The Wall Street Journal has reported that Russia plans to buy an additional 90 tonnes per year to replenish its reserves.
9. Japan – 765.2 tonnes
Gold accounts for only 3.3% of Japan’s total foreign reserves which are managed by the Bank of Japan.
10. Netherlands – 615.5 tonnes
The gold reserves and national finances are managed by the Netherland Bank.
The UK – 310.3 tonnes (about 10 million ounces)
Currently the UK has the 17th largest gold reserves in the world, but the total amount we currently stock is lower than the amount of gold we decided to sell in 1999.
Seeing that the price of gold had been steadily falling for years, Gordon Brown made the decision to sell off 395 tonnes from the national reserve, at an average price of $276.6 an ounce, and invest the money elsewhere. It turned out to be a bad call, to say the least, with the gold price consistently rising since then and traders even referring to the generational low in the gold price as the “Brown bottom”.
At the time of writing, gold costs more than $1,800 an ounce, six-and-a-half times as much as when the decision to sell was made, meaning we missed out on close to $20 billion.
The bottom line
The biggest holders of gold are governments, central banks and international entities that currently account for 30,500 of the world’s estimated 160,000 tonnes. The current rate of new production from mining is about 2,497 tonnes a year. As the price has risen, more mines have become economically feasible to open or reopen.
Gold has had much attention recently as the price has risen to new highs, although it is still well below the January 1980 inflation-adjusted high of about $2,400 an ounce. Unlike money, you can’t print more gold, so it’s likely to continue to be a safe haven investment during uncertain economic times.