If Russia’s central bank sold gold to raise cash ahead of Western sanctions, that could send shivers throughout the gold market.
Societe Generale SA (EPA:GLE) analyst Michael Haigh flagged the potential risk in a research note earlier this week, but told IBTimes it was unlikely that Russia’s central bank would sell gold to recover from sanctions, to make up for lost oil revenue.
To be clear, all indications are that Russia has mostly held onto its gold reserves, which are typically used to diversify central bank holdings. Russia sold a small amount of central bank gold in September, surprising some gold investors.
Swiss investors quizzed Haigh recently about the Russian government’s options in the face of U.S. or EU sanctions, he explained. It’s not unheard of for central banks to sell gold to raise funds, he added, citing Cyprus’ ultimately failed talk of a 400 million ($554.7 million) euro gold sale in April 2013 amid economic uncertainty.
“We don’t expect that they’re going to do it, or that they’d need to do it,” Haigh told IBTimes, referring to Russia’s options. “We were echoing what our clients were worrying about.”
But: “Could they sell gold to support their needs? Yes, of course they could. That, like the Cyprus effect, would send shivers through the gold market,” he added.
According to World Gold Council data from Thursday, Russia remained the eighth-highest holder of gold in the world, holding 1,034 metric tons, or 8.3 percent of reserves. It bought about 77 tons net in 2013.
Russian reserves slid by 0.5 tons from February to March 2014. One ton of gold is worth about $43.9 million, at current spot prices of $1,367 per troy ounce. A sale of a ton or less is considered tiny by many gold investors.
“It would probably hurt sentiment a little bit, but I don’t think it would have a significant physical impact, unless they [Russia] sold an enormous quantity,” George Milling-Stanley, who advises several central banks on gold buying, told IBTimes.
Russia is one of about 20 countries that have bought gold significantly in the past several years, including the Ukraine itself, said Milling-Stanley. Russia has bought gold for more than 20 years, since the end of the Soviet Union.
“I find it very difficult to believe that even sanctions, however serious they might be, would actually prompt them to sell gold,” said Milling-Stanley, who holds that gold is a harder and more reliable asset than the U.S. dollar or the euro. “I think they might want to get rid of some of their dollars.”
Russia could even request gold in payment for their oil and gas exports, noted precious metals seller GoldCore, though that’s an outside possibility.