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Alex Breitinger column: Chinese go for the gold

7:44 PM, Feb. 21, 2014  |  Comments
Getty Images/Ingram Publishing
Getty Images/Ingram Publishing
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As international athletes competed this week, China came out with a different sort of prize - the Asian nation was declared the world's largest gold consumer by the World Gold Council.

The No. 1 spot has traditionally been held by India, a nation where gifts of gold and silver are intertwined with the national culture and religious holidays. Rising import taxes in India recently undercut demand there, while loosening regulation has increased Chinese consumer demand.

Last year, gold prices fell $473 per ounce as global investors sold off stockpiles of the precious metal, and it seems that the ultimate buyers were overwhelmingly Chinese, as China imported a record 1066 metric tons of gold in 2013.

Partially driven by optimistic outlooks of further Chinese buying, gold prices rose to a three-month high this week, reaching $1,330 per ounce on Tuesday.

Natural gas burning up

As another slew of cold weather struck this week, homeowners were forced to crank up the heat yet again. This contributed to the ongoing decline in national natural gas inventories, which currently stand near 1.4 trillion cubic feet, already the lowest level in five years.

With more cold weather expected, some experts warn that the storage levels could decline below 1 trillion cubic feet, which hasn't happened since 2003.

Despite record-breaking natural gas production levels, this winter has put a strain on supplies and pushed prices up to $6.40 per million British thermal units this week, a four-year high.

Corn is king

Corn emerged as a leader to the upside as continued cold weather created more demand for poultry and cattle feed, while further strength in commodities in general (like oil and metals) helped draw the attention of investors and mutual funds to the golden grain. China's plans to expand meat production, which depends heavily on U.S. corn feed, fueling export demand.

Low supplies of soybeans and frigid weather threatening wheat production added enthusiasm for the grain complex in general. Some analysts also attributed corn's strength to the relationship between rising gasoline prices and corn-based ethanol, which can be pulled up by fuel demand.

Both old crop corn (last year's harvest in storage) and new crop (not planted yet) hit the highest price in months with March corn exceeding all prices since early October, trading Friday near $4.53 per bushel.

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