Vietnam tries to cope with new bout of gold fever

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In 1954, the year Vietnam was split in two by the Geneva Accords, Do Thi Mien bought her first gold ring with money she had earned selling grass to cow farmers.

For more than 55 years, Mien remained a gold bug, like most of her compatriots, investing almost exclusively in the yellow metal. She kept gold rings locked in steel boxes buried under a floor and, after their value increased, used them to buy a motorcycle for her son.

This year, after selling a piece of land, Mien decided to try a new investment strategy: instead of buying gold, the 73-year-old grandmother stuck the money in a short-term deposit account.

"With VND280 million (US$13,580) at an interest rate of 14 percent, I'll make VND10 million in interest in three months' time," she said. "If I buy gold, it'd still be a form of savings, but I wouldn't get the interest."

Her investment choice away from gold might signal that Vietnamese policymakers are reaping some success after years of effort to wean the populace off gold, de-dollarize the economy and instill confidence in the local currency.

Perhaps for the first time in Vietnam's modern history, gold may become less dominant as a form of investment.

But perhaps not, thanks mostly to forces at work outside Vietnam. Global gold fever in August amid deepening uncertainty about the world economy is threatening the Vietnamese government's progress in chipping away at the centuries-old affinity for the metal. World gold prices have leapt 27 percent since the start of July, and prices in Vietnam have followed.

So Mien is now remorseful about putting money in the bank, which she earlier thought was the best option financially.

"I wish I had bought gold," she laments. "I had hoped I could buy a gold necklace from the interest at the bank, but gold prices have gone up so much that it's not affordable now."

Big appetite

Economists widely view gold as currency in Vietnam. Last year, the Asian Development Bank said Vietnamese hold more gold per dollar of income than anyone else in the world, which underlies the lack of confidence in the dong.

When gold demand rises in Vietnam, dollar demand rises in tandem, putting the dong under pressure to fall. Speculative buying of gold can fuel inflation, which the government has been battling to beat down from annual levels above 20 percent.

The government wants to cool gold fever. The central bank on Tuesday announced its intention to narrow the gap between global gold prices and those onshore in a bid to end speculative activity.

Since last year, the central bank has taken steps to try to discourage use of gold and dollars. Banks were forbidden to lend or trade gold bars while 20 gold trading houses were shut down. Police cracked down on dollar transactions in the black market, which for a time pushed down demand and stopped gold in Vietnam from trading at a premium to world prices.

"Gold demand decreased sharply by 40 percent in the second quarter due to government policies," said Nguyen Ngoc Trong, director of gold business at Phu Nhuan Jewelry (PNJ), a major manufacturer that's listed in Ho Chi Minh City.

Vietnam, for a time, stopped being a major gold importer. Custom data showed that gold and precious stones imports decreased to $20 million in June from $281 million in January.

When onshore gold prices slipped below world ones, exports were spurred. In the first six months, Vietnam exported about 24 tons of gold, bringing in roughly $1.4 billion, according to customs data.

Gold exports helped Vietnam have a rare trade surplus in July and allowed the country to rebuild its foreign exchange reserves.

"˜Irresistible' hike

But when many people around the world started worrying about another recession and turned to gold as the traditional safe haven, the retail price in Vietnam jumped back above international levels. Many Vietnamese, too, wanted to put cash into gold.

"The world gold price hike is irresistible," said Cao Sy Kiem, a former central bank governor. With Vietnamese catching gold fever again, he said, "fighting inflation and stabilizing the economy will be more difficult."

Le Dang Doanh, an independent economist and former government advisor, said improvements in the trade account will be short lived while smuggling of gold is highly likely to resume with the price onshore again at a premium.

Doanh said gold import and trading is "in the hands of a tiny number of rich and powerful men." He asserted that up to 60 tons a year is smuggled into Vietnam, and he called the smuggling "the elephant in the room but nobody sees it."

Consumer demand has been robust. Tran Nhan Tong, one of Hanoi's streets filled with gold shops, has been frenetic.

Since August 8, there've been a series of price records set, including Tuesday's price of VND49 million per tael.

"Gold buyers are very excited now," said Trong of PNJ.

Alan Pham, an economist at VinaSecurities in Ho Chi Minh City, said speculation in the gold market "is driven by the fact that lots of capital in the economy has no channel to invest at the moment, since the stock market is in bad shape, real estate is frozen and government rate on bonds is falling."

"Gold is the only market people can put money in and hope to make quick profit," he said.

Vietnam is planning to establish a gold reserve using gold deposited at commercial banks, central bank governor Nguyen Van Binh said Tuesday. The reserve, of between 130 and 200 tons, will help the central bank intervene in the market when needed, Binh said.

The central bank will allow the import of "necessary amount" of gold, Binh said. Early this month, it approved the import of five tons of gold.

The price of gold in Vietnam eased to VND45.85 million per tael on Thursday morning, following a sharp fall in the world market.

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