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One country's gold rush is another's gold drain

As Australian gold rushes go, this one was a little peculiar. That it has pretty much ended is a good sign that the troubled economies of Asia are on the comeback trail.

But this gold rush didn't even start in Australia, the world's No. 3 gold producer behind the United States and South Africa. Rather, it began in the jewelry stores and pawnshops of Thailand and Indonesia - and in the kitchens and even the nurseries of South Korea.

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As Asians faced economic collapse, they sold tons of personal hoards of gold to support troubled currencies or simply to put food on the table.

"This 'scrap jewelry,' as they call it, needed to be refined into tradable bullion," an official at an Australian refinery says."A great percentage of it came into Australia. That artificially inflated our gold imports."

Australia benefited from being close to Asia. This country's three internationally accredited refineries turned much of the imported jewelry into the standard 99.95 percent gold bars for reexport to gold markets such as London, Zurich, and the Middle East.

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, imports of "nonmonetary gold" from Asia for the year ending in September jumped 2,874 percent, to $1.75 billion (Australian; US$1.12 billion), up from $61 million the year before.

But now the gold rush has more or less come to a halt. "There hasn't been much in 1999," says a Sydney bullion trader who, like many in the gold sector, prefers not to be identified. "It seems to have dried up."

That is because demand for gold in Asia is returning to normal, according to George Milling-Stanley, spokesman for the World Gold Council in New York. "Asians have started to buy back gold."

Across Asia, millions own high-karat gold jewelry both for personal adornment and as a store of wealth. Such gold is sold in jewelry stores there at a markup of only 5 to 10 percent above the value of the metal itself. "It's not investment in the sense of 'buy low and sell high,' " Mr. Milling-Stanley says. "Selling would be an absolute last resort."

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But, he notes, "They bought it against a rainy day, and it rained."

In South Korea the chaebols, or conglomerates, mobilized a campaign to get the public to sell gold to help prop up the value of the currency, the won. The government ended up taking over what became known as the "Save the Nation" campaign.

Distinctive to this country's dishoarding, or selling, were tiny gold rings traditionally given to newborn babies. A typical family accumulates dozens of them as children outgrow ring after ring. None of the rings is worth much on its own. But in aggregate, says Milling-Stanley, "they actually amounted to some money."

The gold-imports rush was described by some here as an example of prosperous countries able to take advantage of the economic distress of developing countries in Asia - a charge others here reject as unfair.

Though the dishoarding ultimately meant more business for Australian refiners, competition in the refining sector is tight. "There are bigger margins in pizza than in gold," says Susanne Capano, spokeswoman for the London Bullion Market Association.

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