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Gold: Taels, Tolas and Mommes

Mark Griffith
Jun 6, 2005

When speculators look for trends and levels in charts of gold and silver, it's reasonable we get our prices from the world's most public, most liquid precious-metals markets: New York and London. So it's not surprising those levels are calculated in dollars per ounce.

But every day huge quantities of gold change hands on the street all across Asia. In Arab countries, Pakistan and India, Indochina and the Far East, many small businesses treat gold as the only real thing. It's different there, not like the West where gold bugs are often seen as eccentrics, and Western businesses are happy (to date) to accept payment in wired dollars, pounds, euros. Or in paper promissary notes.

It would make a lot of sense to watch gold trading in Asia more closely, where they laugh at people who don't value gold. So how to better track their daily unofficial ups and downs for the yellow metal, traded off the official radar screen?

Luckily, there is a simple way to track private, small-scale gold trading between millions of businesses, at the souk or the kazbah, across the world's largest continent.

The data is where it has always been: out in the open on the charts and price quotes of Western financial markets. A move in the gold price anywhere quickly shows up in prices everywhere. You just have to look at those familiar charts a little more closely to see the price signals that the massive hidden iceberg of Asian gold-trading plays off.

Every Western gold trader realises that breaching a level like 400 dollars an ounce is a big moment. There will be resistance from sellers on the underside, and once through and consolidated, 400 dollars an ounce will quickly act like a floor with resistance from buyers.

But how many Western gold speculators watch levels like 7000 rupees a tola? Or 3500 yen per tael?

7000 rupees a tola translates, at the moment, into around 428 dollars an ounce. Heavy trade in India, now the world's largest country, is done in rupees, and in tolas, a trusted unit of weight for gold. Just this level was broken through in late April this year, and then, in early May, gold fell back through 7000 rupees a tola, and drifted down the rest of May.

It didn't drift much lower, bouncing several times off an apparent floor somewhere in the region of 416 dollars an ounce. Which, at current values, is 3500 yen per tael.

Taels are so widely used in the Far East, for gold and silver trading, that there are three slightly different weights: the Hong Kong tael, the Taiwan tael, and the Singapore tael. They're all within one per cent of each other, though - the fact that all three different taels are regularly quoted only goes to show that they are all taken very seriously in the Far East. Japan has its own version, which is subdivided into ten momme - so please accept my apologies, I should have given 416 dollars an ounce as 350 yen per momme.

The point of all this should be obvious by now. I'm not saying that traditional chart signals such as head-and-shoulders, leading average, or more recent innovations to the West like Japanese candlestick trading graphs are obsolete. Far from it.

But there is yet more to see in a price graph than even these.

Some Asian-unit signals will show up as weaker than dollar-ounce levels, but as any technical trader will tell you, in a financial market as big and liquid as precious metals, there is no such thing as noise - only data that has not been understood yet.

Keep in mind that these levels move around on the charts, since the rupee, the yuan, the won, the yen and so on, themselves move against the dollar in daily trading.

Right now, 400 yen per momme (in the region of 476 USD per ounce at the moment) and 8000 rupees per tola (currently near 489 or 490 dollars per ounce) look like important levels, among others, but they will have moved a little up or down by the time we get that close to 500 dollars.

Given the power of round numbers, small rises in prices will be pushed back by each of these levels. A big surge will gain impetus, on the other hand, from breaching three big levels in quick succession.

One of the reasons Western businesses are relatively comfortable with paper money is that Western central banks still keep a lot of the hard stuff in their vaults. Around a third of most European central bank reserve holdings are in gold.

By comparison, Far Eastern small businesses are suspicious of their own monetary paper. This might have something to do with their own central banks typically keeping less than five per cent of their holdings in gold. Oil-rich Arab nations hardly do much better at around ten per cent.

Two and a half years ago, Ralston Thiedeman of the World Gold Council told a Singapore conference that a handful of Far Eastern central banks had decided to raise their gold holdings from under five per cent of their reserves to more closely approach world averages. Since he said that, gold's price per ounce has risen by almost a third, to put on almost exactly 100 dollars.

That's how big a difference it makes when official East Asia moves. Since the unofficial East (Far, Middle, Near) is much bigger, there are substantial trading profits to be had from being able to track the levels that loom large in people's minds in different countries across Asia. Many are very local, only showing up in world figures in the band five dollars each side of the level. Others are bigger - and so are the profits to be made from understanding them.

Mark Griffith

Mark Griffith has a BA in Economics and Philosophy from Cambridge University, England; has traded in the open-outcry futures and options pits of LIFFE, London; has been published by Forbes Magazine, Financial Times newsletters, Playboy Russia, and American Spectator.

He writes about commodity markets and finance, and is researching a book about how firms can profit from virtual currencies. He can be contacted at

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