Economic recovery momentum strengthened
Daily new COVID-19 cases averaged ~62,000 during the month, down from ~87,000 in September. With lower daily infections lockdown restrictions were eased throughout India, helping the economy recover (Chart 1).
As restrictions eased, pent-up demand was released and several high frequency indicators started to show a recovery in economic activity:
- India’s manufacturing purchasing managers’ index (PMI) rose to 58.9, its highest level since January 2012, due to a sharp pick-up in manufacturing to meet the backlog and fulfil new orders
- Power demand was 12.1% higher y-o-y
- Railway tonnage movement was 15.2% higher y-o-y
- Retail sales of tractors improved – 55.5% higher y-o-y
- Average daily E-Way bills generated rose – 17.4% higher y-o-y3
With an improvement in economic activity, GST collection for the month of September touched an eight month high at INR 1.05tn (10.2% higher y-o-y), reaching a pre-COVID level of GST collection last seen in February (Chart 2).4
The improvement in high frequency indicators bodes well for the economy, however investors remain cautious on the sustainability of this growth due to concerns that it has been skewed towards manufacturing or led by festival season demand (from October to December).
Retail demand improved in October but remained weak y-o-y
Retail demand improved following muted sales in September. The month got off to a slow start due to Adhik Maas – considered to be inauspicious for gold purchases – before picking up mid-month ahead of the Navratri festival. This seasonal demand, as well as a lower average gold price of Rs50,700/10gm (-0.4% lower m-o-m), supported gold sales. However, the average gold price in October was still 32.4% higher y-o-y, impacting retail gold demand compared to October 2019 (~25-30% lower in volume terms).
Focusing on Navratri sales, jewellers in the southern states of Tamilnadu and Karnataka reported marginally higher volume sales in the range of 5% to 15% y-o-y. A prominent southern-based retailer reported 12.5% y-o-y gold jewellery sales growth during October due to a lower gold price and Navratri sales. Retailers in tier 2 and tier 3 cities with strong rural demand also reported better sales during Navratri (Figure 1). In other states, including Gujarat, Maharashtra, Delhi and West Bengal, retailers reported more muted sales during Navratri, with 30-40% lower volume y-o-y. Retailers here reported that sales had primarily been impacted by a higher gold price and lower consumer income resulting from the impact of COVID-19. As a result, the overall volume of gold sales during Navratri was lower y-o-y.
Safe haven demand and high y-t-d returns on gold attracted inflows into gold ETFs in October
Indian gold ETFs saw inflows during the month, the seventh consecutive month of AUM growth. This was supported by safe haven demand and strong returns on gold y-t-d (29.6%). Gold has outperformed the BSE SENSEX (-2.8%) and 10-year government bonds (10.6%), supporting gold’s appeal as an asset.5 However, the net inflows of US$42.8mn were 40% lower m-o-m as some investors switched into equities (BSE SENSEX: + 4.1% m-o-m) as the economy improved and optimism grew over a potential coronavirus vaccine. Against such a backdrop, net inflows into Indian gold-backed ETFs were 0.7t during October, pushing total gold holdings to 27.6t by the end of the month (Chart 3).
Local markets was back in premia as retail demand improved ahead of Navratri
Local discount narrowed from US$40/oz to US$3/oz during September due to a gradual revival in retail demand and stocking by jewellers ahead of Navratri and the upcoming wedding season. Despite this, the local gold price was back in premium by mid-October, just ahead of the Navratri festival, with the average premium remaining at ~ US$2/oz during the second half of October (Chart 4).
India imported 40.9t of gold in October
Indian official gold imports recovered to 40.9t in October, four times higher than the 9.2t seen in September. But y-t-d, gold imports remain very weak – 58% lower than the same period in 2019 (Chart 5). A total of nine banks, nominated agencies and exporters imported 24.3t of bullion during the month, and 17 refineries imported 16.3t of gold doré (fine gold content).
Looking at import data in October, ~66% of the official imports landed in India during the last two weeks of the month when the retail demand improved ahead of the Navratri festival. Further, out of a total of 40.9t official imports, 11.5t were imported in Sri City Free Trade Warehousing Zone (FTWZ).6 These imports landed in FTWZ with an expectation of recovery in demand at the beginning of the festival season – from Navratri in October to Dhanteras in November, as well as the wedding season.
RBI added 35.1t of gold reserves in 2020
The RBI purchased an additional 1.9t in October, bringing y-t-d purchases to 35.1t and taking its total gold reserves to 670.1t – 7.2% of total reserves (Chart 6).7 The RBI has stepped up its gold purchases with the aim of diversifying its foreign reserves and maintaining the safety and liquidity of its forex reserves.