India struggles to balance its books as citizens lust for gold

May 17, 2012

Kumar Jain’s small shop in Zaveri Bazaar, Mumbai’s labyrinthine jewelry district, has the feverish atmosphere of a Wall Street trading room. Women wave calculators, quote the latest global gold prices and haggle fiercely over bangles laid out on velvet trays.

These buyers are thinking about finance rather than finery. “Money can change value,” said Jain, as he watched his assistants and customers do battle. “But when you have gold, no one can cheat you.”

In India, the world’s biggest annual bullion importer, gold jewelry plays a central role in weddings and festivals. But the precious metal’s main appeal is as an investment favored by both rich and poor. India imported 933 metric tons of gold for private consumers last year, a 35 percent rise over five years and just under a quarter of global demand, according to the World Gold Council.

But the bustling business at jewelry shops is putting an increasing strain on India’s national finances, analysts say, causing particular concern as the world’s biggest democracy faces an economic slowdown this year.

For many Indians, the bazaar has had more appeal than the bank. Indian households’ disposable incomes grew by 13 percent during the 2010-11 financial year, but the amount in their bank accounts rose by only 3 percent, according to official data. High inflation often renders the idea of financial savings unappealing, and many people in rural areas lack access to banks. Meanwhile, global economic uncertainty has boosted bullion prices. Gold today trades at about $1,540 per troy ounce, double its value since late 2008 despite a recent dip.


India leading importer of bullion in world (The Washington Post/The Washington Post)

Yet India is struggling to balance its books partly because its citizens keep buying gold. The country’s current account, the difference between the value of its imports and exports of goods, services and financial-transfer payments, is running at a deficit of about 4 percent, largely because of high import bills for oil and gold — India bought 969 metric tons of bullion last year at an overall cost of $48 billion. The lack of money in Indian bank accounts forces the government and private companies to borrow abroad, pushing the country further into the red.

“You’re not looking at something sustainable. The balance of payments becomes very skewed,” said Deepali Bhargava, chief India economist at Espirito Santo, an investment bank.

Moreover, many Indians buy baubles as a way to launder undeclared cash and keep their wealth outside the formal economy. The vast majority of sales occur in one-off shops known as family jewelers, such as those in Zaveri Bazaar.

The family jewelers “let a customer buy jewelry and do not write any bill,” a store manager with a jewelry retail chain said on the condition of anonymity to be candid. “Everything is under the table.”

The International Monetary Fund predicts that India’s economy will grow by 6.9 percent this year, a significant drop from the double-digit rates touched in recent years. Standard & Poor’s last month downgraded the country’s credit rating outlook from stable to negative. The rupee hit a record low against the dollar Wednesday.

At home, India needs high growth to support its rapidly rising population. On the global stage, a slowdown will dampen hopes for a new superpower and democratic counterweight to China.

India’s government has been trying to exert some control this spring. This year’s draft budget included a tiny excise duty on gold jewelry — a 0.3 percent levy that would have required even small jewelers to submit detailed logs of their stock. A law requiring jewelers to record the tax numbers of customers spending more than 200,000 rupees, or about $3,700, in cash also was proposed. However, the family jewelers went on strike in response, and both proposals were dropped last week.

For now, Zaveri Bazaar continues its roaring trade. One of Jain’s regular clients is buying trinkets to build a savings fund because her husband has cancer. Another is saving up for a house by stockpiling gold. Jain, an affable salesman with a thick mustache and a pinstriped shirt, said he deals only in “white money” and attributes his appeal to his long-standing ties with each customer.

“Indians don’t change their jeweler,” he said. “It’s like you don’t change your doctor. It’s personal.”

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