(Corrects paragraph 3 to show gold prices fell for first time
in 13 years, not 12)
* ANZ, HSBC first foreign banks to receive import permits
* Could improve supply, ease premiums
* Is part of move to open China gold markets
By A. Ananthalakshmi and Fayen Wong
SINGAPORE/SHANGHAI, Jan 15 China has granted
licences to import gold to two foreign banks for the first time,
sources said, as moves to open the world's biggest physical
bullion market gather pace.
Allowing more banks to import gold could increase the supply
of the metal into the country, easing local prices that are
higher than in most Asian nations.
China's gold imports more than doubled last year to over
1,000 tonnes - ousting India as the biggest buyer - as demand
soared to unprecedented levels due to the first drop in
international prices in 13 years.
ANZ and HSBC were awarded import licences
late last year, two sources with direct knowledge of the matter
Other trading sources said China Everbright Bank
has also received approval to join the nine local banks already
allowed to ship gold into China. Beijing strictly controls how
much the banks import through a quota system.
ANZ and HSBC declined to comment. Everbright could not
immediately be reached for comment.
"China is actually increasing its transparency. I think
there will possibly be further access to other banks as well,"
said Cameron Alexander, manager of Asian precious metals demand
at metals consultancy GFMS, which is owned by Thomson Reuters.
China faced a supply crunch early in 2013 when a sharp
plunge in gold prices released pent up demand that eroded
inventories at banks and jewellery sellers.
Premiums in China tend to be higher as supply is tighter
than other parts of Asia due to the quota system and the limited
number of import licences.
Premiums are currently about $15 an ounce over London
prices, compared to less than $2 in Singapore and Hong Kong.
They rose to a record high of $30 in April-May last year.
China imported 1,060 tonnes of gold from Hong Kong in the
first 11 months of 2013. Beijing does not release gold trade
data, so numbers from Hong Kong - the main conduit for gold -
provide the best estimate on imports.
But traders warned the award of the new licences did not
necessarily mean imports would jump sharply from 2013's record
volumes, as the level of demand would be the main factor driving
shipments. But they added that the move indicated appetite for
gold would likely be strong.
ANZ and HSBC were in 2011 also the first two foreign banks
to get the green light to trade gold futures on the Shanghai
ANZ is the only foreign bank on the list of 10 most-active
members by volume on the Shanghai Gold Exchange, the physical
trading platform in China.
STRING OF CHANGES
The granting of new licences is the latest in a string of
steps by China to ease restrictions on bullion trading and boost
China approved its first gold-backed exchange-traded funds
last year and extended trading hours on the futures exchange.
The central bank issued a draft policy document in September
that proposed letting more banks import and export gold.
The move also comes as the SGE plans to launch gold futures
in the city's pilot free trade zone this year that would be open
to foreign investors.
"China will need to allow more foreign players into the
physical gold market if it's planning to have foreign investors
participate on its gold futures," said one of the sources.
"This is the first step that the regulators are taking to
ensure that its gold futures contract in the free-trade zone can
(Editing by Joseph Radford)