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    To Grow Wealth, China’s Gen Z is Buying Gold — One Bean at a Time

    Buying gold was largely associated with older generations in China, but data now indicates that over half of gold consumers belong to the post-’90s age group. For many, it’s the most viable long-term investment.

    For the past few months, 20-year-old Zhong Yongxin has had a new ritual on returning home from work each day. She heads straight for a small glass bottle with a few bean-shaped bits of gold and gives it a quick shake. The soft rattle serves as a daily reminder that she’s finally saving money. 

    Smaller than a fingertip and often shaped like lucky symbols like melons or koi fish, gold beans are quickly gaining popularity among China’s Gen Z. Weighing roughly one gram and priced between 400 and 600 yuan ($54-$82), they offer an affordable entry point for buyers. Many purchase one or two pieces monthly, likening the cost to their regular milk tea expenses. 

    To Zhong, gold beans signify more than mere savings — they’re a viable long-term investment. Traditionally, China’s middle-aged and elderly were the primary consumers of gold, but now, Gen Z is now gravitating towards these diminutive gold products.

    On social media platforms, young Chinese are even chronicling their journey of slowly filling these glass bottles with gold beans. While some bottles have just a few beans at the bottom, like Zhong’s, others are almost full, with enthusiasts frequently sharing their experiences, including recommendations for reliable online shops and vouchers.

    In a 2023 report on the jewelry and accessories industry, China’s leading e-commerce platforms Tmall and Taobao revealed that the primary consumers of gold jewelry are those born after the 1990s. And in 2022, an insight report by consultancy firm Mob Data found that Gen Z’s inclination to purchase gold surged from 16% in 2016 to 59% in 2021 — marking the highest spending potential among all age groups.

    Over the last several months, 23-year-old Zhou Siying told Sixth Tone that she’d been swept up in a “gold-buying frenzy.” In line with her personal goals, she purchases at least one gold item every month: either gold beans or lightweight jewelry. Sometimes, her gold expenses climb to nearly 3,000 yuan, consuming half her monthly salary.

    She said: “There’s an adage: ‘Gold is worn as jewelry when you’re rich and used as money when you’re poor.’ The gold I buy has two values. I can wear it daily or hold onto it, opting to trade or sell later.”

    Gold has long been recognized as a valuable financial hedge. A study by the World Gold Council reveals that, over the past three decades, gold has yielded an annualized return of 5.8%. This eclipses mainstream assets like cash and bonds during the same time period. And during five of the past seven economic downturns, gold has thrived, aiding investors in mitigating overall portfolio losses.

    Speaking to Sixth Tone, Wang Youxin, a senior researcher at the Bank of China Research Institute, said, “This year, as the global economy faces increasing challenges and financial market volatility intensifies, the hedging demand for gold is on the rise.”

    Wang added that compared with heavier gold bars, smaller gram-sized gold products align more with the earning capacity of younger demographics. Gold beans have a low investment threshold and are visually pleasing, but also face the risk of future markdowns down the road.

    Having worked only for a few years now, Zhou says she has limited money for investments and prefers stability over returns. For her, owning physical gold over other gold investment methods provides a unique “psychological satisfaction.” 

    To stick to her plan, Zhou deliberately cuts back on spending on meals and clothing, channeling those funds into gold purchases. “While both cost money, I can recoup the cost of gold. The rest is just spent,” she says. 

    In the first half of 2023, China’s gold consumption increased by 16.37% over the same period last year, at 554.88 tons, according to the China Gold Association. Mirroring this trend, in mid-September, spot gold prices reached an unprecedented high, creating the widest gap with international gold prices in a decade. Following the Golden Week holiday, prices dipped to around 450 yuan per gram but have since been climbing, closing at 475.8 yuan per gram on Oct. 27.

    Xia Yingying, a metals analyst at Nanhua Futures, attributed the September spike in gold prices to the exchange rate. “The dollar appreciated sharply, putting pressure on the yuan. While domestic gold supply was tight, demand remained strong. And the surge in US bond issuance and yields in October, both seen as low-risk assets, raised the opportunity cost of holding gold, leading to a dip in prices.

    Experts generally concur that the renewed surge in gold prices was influenced by diminished expectations of the U.S. Federal Reserve’s interest rate hikes. Additionally, geopolitical tensions, like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, heightened risk aversion, prompting investors to turn to gold.

    Despite the price volatility, Xia believes it won’t deter physical gold investors. “Gold jewelry enthusiasts typically have a long investment horizon and aren’t swayed by temporary price changes. It’s not as though they’d rush to sell their pieces as soon as gold’s value spikes,” she explained.

    Zhong shares a similar sentiment. Rather than capitalizing on the high prices by selling the gold beans she’s accumulated, she’s had them crafted into a gold lock design she’s long admired — a move she says has saved her thousands of yuan compared to an outright purchase.

    “For gold, the sooner I buy it, the sooner I can enjoy it,” she said. 

    Editor: Apurva. 

    (Header image: Buying gold jewelry at a market in Shenzhen, Guangdong province, June 9, 2023. VCG)