Gold News

China Still Gold Mining King

But can we trust the statistics...?

CHINA has been the world's largest Gold Mining producer since 2007, writes Lawrence Williams at MineWeb.

The most recent data from China's Ministry of Industry and Information Technology note that it continued its dominance in world gold production with output rising last year by 5.89% to 360.95 tonnes. The most recent statistics also show that the country's Gold Mining sector continued to expand in January with a rise of about 3.69% from the same month a year ago, suggesting that we may well see further annual gold mine output growth in 2012. 

China's ever-increasing gold output though is still nowhere near the country's huge appetite for consuming gold which rose to perhaps some 800 tonnes in 2011, although such figures tend to be speculative in nature as the officially reported statistics may not show the true picture. There does seem to have been a fall-off in demand however at the end of last year and in the first two months of 2012 with official figures for imports through Hong Kong – the main import route – seeming to show a significant decline over the same period a year ago.

But there are always question marks over Chinese statistics which may well be presented to suit the State (something which even countries with a free market can do with some of their 'official' figures in these days of politically-motivated spin). What is an uncertainty over Chinese production figures is it is not clear whether these include byproduct output from the country's big toll base metals smelting and refining sector, and whether output from a myriad of small gold mines, some being technically illegal operations, which fall outside direct state control is also included.

Likewise on the import side it is still unknown what proportion of gold imports, if any, does not come in through Hong Kong, which seems to be the only route for which possibly reliable statistics are available.

It has long been suspected that China's official gold reserve picture also substantially under-represents the true picture. There is perhaps consensus speculation that the country's official gold output is all going into state coffers and the possibility that some of the stated imports are too, but any such reserve increases are not announced on any regular basis. We won't really know the true picture (if then) until China announces new official gold reserve figures which could yet be some years away when it deems it to be the right moment to do so. This year, next year, sometime, never?

Meanwhile official gold production figures are beginning to come in from other major gold producing countries. South Africa's output seems to be continuing to decline year on year and latest figures from Statistics South Africa show further sharp production declines in December and January over the same months a year previously. US production last year was also seen as down, but official statistics not yet available.

World No. 2 gold miner, Australia, also showed a small fall last year with output estimated at 264 tonnes as opposed to 266 tonnes a year earlier.

Ironically, higher Gold Prices, which have been seen year-on-year for the past decade, can lead to production reductions as mines are able to mine lower grade ore profitably and extend mine lives. If they do not expand milling capacity – which tends to be an expensive capital exercise and thus frequently not a consideration – then actual output will fall as a consequence of lower grade ore being milled at the same throughput rates. Higher prices may still mean higher profits despite lower production.

Similarly developing mining operations may be able to lower cutoff grades which again can mean lower metal output than originally projected.

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Founded in 1999 as part of the Johannesburg-listed MoneyWeb media group, Mineweb is one of the world's leading sources of mining and metals-investment news, comment and analysis. Managed since 2003 by professional mining engineer Lawrence Williams – formerly of Mining Journal, and with more than 30 years' technical and financial experience in the sector – MineWeb provides thorough, international coverage of the natural resources industry.

See all MineWeb articles.

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