* China's gold demand likely to ease after record 2013
* Gold imports could fall by at least 10 percent - analysts
* Chinese banks and retailers seen having sufficient stocks
By A. Ananthalakshmi and Clara Denina
SINGAPORE/LONDON, Jan 21 Chinese gold imports,
the lone bright spot in an otherwise disastrous year for bullion
in 2013, look set to fall from last year's record levels, adding
to pressure on gold as analysts forecast a price decline for a
But any drop-off in Chinese demand is likely to be limited
by gold's 28 percent price-plunge in 2013, which has kept retail
buyer interest high in the world's biggest bullion consumer,
even as large investors scour for greater returns elsewhere.
Chinese investors rushed to buy gold last year, particularly
after a price plunge in April that drew queues of mom and pop
buyers looking for a bargain.
In the first 11 months of 2013, Chinese imports more than
doubled to 1,060 tonnes, based on the most recent data, making
up about a third of global purchases.
But China's gold imports from Hong Kong - the only official
data available - could fall in 2014, four analysts said, with
three of them pegging a decline of at least 10 percent. Another
saw imports at around the same level as a year ago.
"I think that perhaps a figure of 10 to 15 percent down
year-on-year is probably about right for Chinese imports of
gold. There is a good level of stock there that can be released
into the jewellery market," said Tom Kendall, head of precious
metals research at Credit Suisse.
Gold tumbled in 2013 after a 12-year bull run as signs of a
global recovery prompted Western investors to dump their
holdings in search of brighter returns, while demand in No. 2
consumer India was slashed by government curbs on imports.
But with prices trading at levels last seen in 2010, retail
buyers scrambled to snap up supplies, running down inventories
at Chinese banks and jewellery retailers which were forced to
restock later in the year.
Demand was also bolstered by dramatic growth in the number
of wholesale showrooms opening, noted Societe Generale metals
analyst Robin Bhar.
But with the market frenzy calmed and restocking now
complete, market watchers expect the pace of purchases to slow.
"It is unlikely that Chinese demand in 2014 will match the
2013 level, let alone expand at its typical growth rate next
year," Bhar said.
ANZ expects 900 tonnes of imports into China in 2014, while
VTB Capital also forecast imports below 1,000 tonnes. Standard
Bank expects imports to stay steady.
Chinese imports have already begun to slow. Imports in
November dropped 40 percent from the previous month to about 75
tonnes. Before the drop, imports were over 100 tonnes a month
for six straight months.
"A lot depends on China to support prices but I am not
confident demand will be strong other than the seasonal
periods," said one Hong Kong-based precious metals trader,
referring to the Chinese New Year holiday period.
"If Chinese purchases are not strong enough, prices will
continue to suffer as they are the biggest physical buyers."
Imports of 900 tonnes would still be the second-highest on
record for China, and well ahead of 557.5 tonnes in 2012.
Gold jewellery, bars and coins are an attractive and easily
accessible form of investment in China, and retailers are still
in an expansion mode, supporting demand.
Premiums in China tend to be higher than other parts of Asia
as the central bank limits the amount of gold entering the
country through a quota system and hands out only a few import
Premiums are currently about $15 an ounce over London
prices, compared with less than $2 in Singapore and Hong Kong
and signalling ongoing strength in demand, but short of the $30
hit in April-May last year.
China continues to reform its gold market, recently granting
import licences to two foreign banks for the first time, in
steps to make bullion more accessible.
Last year's strong purchases suggested a demand level in the
Chinese market has been established, said Bernhard Schnellmann,
director of Swiss-based Argor-Heraeus, one of the world's
biggest gold refineries that has been converting bullion
outflows from the West to smaller bars for Chinese use.
"I wouldn't say demand is slowing, but it has calmed down.
Demand is going to continue in this range. I think it has become
more price sensitive than it was earlier," he said.
(Editing by Richard Pullin)