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It's been a bad week for the Russian economy. Low oil prices helped push the ruble to record lows on Friday. Despite the bad economic news, Russia's central bank continues to buy gold at an astounding rate. In fact, Russia and China and other nations have been on a buying spree lately, scooping up hundreds of tons of the precious metal. NPR's Jackie Northam reports.
JACKIE NORTHAM, BYLINE: Ah, the allure of gold. It's the stuff of kings and princes, of hidden treasures - not to mention, blockbuster movies.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GOLDFINGER")
SHIRLEY BASSEY: (Singing) Goldfinger. He's the man, the man with the Midas touch.
NORTHAM: Whether its price rises or falls, gold has always had a special appeal, says Bob Haberkorn, senior market strategist for the brokerage firm R.J. O'Brien.
BOB HABERKORN: Gold's been a currency for over 5,000 years. It's always been a vehicle to store wealth, you know, throughout history, whether it be a central bank or an individual investor. They always like to - you know, it's always a good feeling to have part of your assets backed up in gold.
NORTHAM: Russia, China, India and others have been snapping up gold lately, says Ashish Bhatia, a director at the World Gold Council. He says up until a few years ago central banks were selling their gold assets.
ASHISH BHATIA: And what we're seeing is unprecedented, in that central banks are now buying somewhere between 300 and 500 tons per year. So it's a big seed change in the gold market.
NORTHAM: Russia in particular acquired an enormous amount of gold this year - more than 130 tons. Last year it bought about 75 tons. Haberkorn says Russia shifted more assets into gold because it's had a particularly bad year.
HABERKORN: Western sanctions coupled with the fall in oil as of recently has caused a lot of turmoil in their markets - their stock markets as well as in their currency markets and the ruble.
NORTHAM: With its economy suffering and the cost of imports skyrocketing, Moscow needs to be seen doing something, says Joshua Aizenman, professor of economics and international relations at the University of Southern California.
JOSHUA AIZENMAN: It makes perfect sense politically for Russia to hold and to accumulate more gold. And equally important, it makes sense to advertise this to the population that their leaders are aware about the need to take care of the reserves and the right.
NORTHAM: Aizenman co-authored a report looking at the patterns of central banks buying and selling gold. He says gold is seen as a safe haven and giving countries a degree of autonomy during times of turbulence in the world economy.
AIZENMAN: We noted, for example, that there seem to be a positive correlation between the wish to signal your political might and the accumulation of gold.
NORTHAM: Bhatia, with the World Gold Council, says there are other factors that play. He says the central banks of Russia, China and many other countries are sitting on vast piles of foreign reserves - primarily U.S. dollars in bonds and euros. Bhatia says central banks began parking their reserves in gold a few years ago as a way to diversify their assets.
BHATIA: It has no credit risk unlike the sovereign debt of countries. It has ample liquidity so you can get in and out of the asset very easily. And there's large availability of gold.
NORTHAM: Bhatia says the trend in buying gold will likely continue. He says Russia knocked China from its perch as the sixth largest holder of gold in the world. Russia now has more than 1,100 tons - about 10 percent of its total assets - are now in gold. By comparison, the U.S. - still the world's largest holder of gold by a wide margin - has more than 8,000 tons. Jackie Northam, NPR News, Washington.
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