Russia’s Foreign Currency, Gold Reserves And National Debt Compared With China and the United States

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By Chris Devonshire-Ellis 

Russia is not as impoverished as imagined while US debt could become a problem when bartered against hard assets

According to just released H1 2021 data from China’s State Administration of Foreign Exchange, China possesses US$3.21 trillion in foreign currency reserves. The Central Bank of Russia figures show Russia holding US$600 million in foreign currency reserves at the end of June.

We can break these figures down to a per capita basis as follows:

Foreign Currency Reserves Population Amount Per Capita
China 3,210,000,000,000 1,400,000,000 $2,293
Russia 600,000,000 144,000,000 $4.2

At the same time, both countries released data concerning their gold reserves. China has reserves of 1,957 tonnes, Russia reserves of 2,295 tonnes. At today’s spot value of US$46.4 million per tonne, this is worth the following USD equivalent.

Gold Reserves Population Amount Per Capita
China 90,804,800,000 1,400,000,000 $64.86
Russia 106,488,000,000 144,000,000 $739.5

At the same, the Chinese economy exceeded US$15 trillion in 2020 for the first time and is growing a rate of 12.7%. Russia’s economy hit US$1.47 trillion, roughly 10% of the size of China’s, and is growing at an expected rate of about 3.2%. That economic disparity between the size of the two economies does not equate to the difference in reserves, where different policies are apparent. China continues to hold large amounts of US dollars, although that amount has been decreasing rapidly and is believed to now be well below 50% of its total.

Russia meanwhile has almost completely divested itself of US dollars and has turned instead to gold – a commodity that tends to increase in value during times of uncertainty. Russia also has the world’s second largest unmined gold reserves with an estimated 7,500 tonnes still in the ground. China possesses unmined gold reserves of about 2,000 tonnes. Were those deposits to be realized, Russia would have total gold reserves valued at US$454,000,000,000 and China at US$183,604,800,000, bringing the per capita values in terms of both currency and gold reserves closer at US$3,604 for China and US$3,156 for Russia. The question is how much value can China rely upon in the debt value of the US dollar as opposed to Russia’s dominance in hard gold as an asset?

That appears to be a question that China is now addressing – with a sustained, yet continuing reduction in its US$ reserves – and increasing acquisitions of Russian gold.

In contrast, the United States foreign currency and gold reserves are as follows:

Foreign Currency Reserves Gold Reserves
United States (USD value) 42,400,000,000 377,371,200,000

The US has an additional 3,000 tonnes of unmined gold still in the ground, with a latent additional value of a further US$139,200,000,000 making the total US reserves larger than Russia’s.

However, Russia also has significant reserves of many other valuable commodities, and especially in oil and gas and other minerals such as some of the world’s largest and most valuable deposits of nickel, gold, lead, coal, molybdenum, gypsum, diamonds, diopside, silver, and zinc.

The results may be somewhat academic and can be interpreted in different ways. However, it does illustrate that for Russia and China, a move away from the US dollar and a re-emergence of currencies and trade based on real assets rather than debt could create problems in the US. There are also national debt issues to contend with, which we can examine as follows:

National Debt (US$ trillion) Percentage of GDP
China 2.4 270.1
Russia 0.3 18.4
United States 28.53 132.84

The emergence of Russia as one of the least-indebted countries in the world – yet with some of the highest real asset value reserves is in stark contrast to the fiscal behavior of both China and the United States. It remains to be seen how this will play out in coming years, however if China, as expected, continues to reduce its holdings of the US dollar, the US debt-based system will need to support the dollar by selling gold reserves – where Russia arguably holds strategic cards as it already has plentiful supplies. China may buy, but gold values may fall. It could indicate a future gold race to the bottom as the US becomes increasingly in need of gold to support debt, and should Russia and China increase supplies to deflate that. A closer look at US and Russian investments in their respective gold mining activities would be a clue as to how this struggle for global trade based on debt versus assets can be expected to play out in the longer term.

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About Us

Russia Briefing is written by Dezan Shira & Associates. The firm has 28 offices throughout Eurasia, including China, Russia, India, and the ASEAN nations, assisting foreign investors into the Eurasian region. Please contact Maria Kotova at russia@dezshira.com for Russian investment advisory or assistance with market intelligence, legal, tax and compliance issues throughout Asia.

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