LLANTRISANT, Wales (Reuters) - In a warehouse a dozen miles to the northwest of Cardiff, the Royal Mint is running its machines through the night to keep up with demand for one of the big beneficiaries of the last year’s political turmoil - gold and silver bullion.
The 1,100-year-old Mint, based here since the 1960s, is producing 50 percent more gold bullion coins and bars than it was this time last year, director of bullion Chris Howard says, while its sales in January rose by a third.
With growth prospects for its core minting business limited by the advent of the cashless society, the Mint has focused heavily on growing its bullion arm in the last few years.
Its contribution to the overall business’s bottom line has gone from negligible levels in 2012 to more than a quarter in the last year.
“We used to send these out by the box,” head of bullion sales Nick Bowkett says, indicating stacks of silver coins packed for transit in the Mint’s bullion striking room. “Now we ship them out by the pallet.”
Next door, the Mint’s core business -- producing commemorative coins and legal tender for 60 different countries -- is churning out crates of coinage, including the new 12-sided British pound, due to launch in March. But it’s the bullion arm that is really ramping up.
While in global terms the Mint is still small -- its total gold sales of 237,000 ounces last year were dwarfed by the U.S. Mint’s 1.2 million ounces of gold Eagle and Buffalo coin sales, the Austrian Mint’s 534,000 ounces of gold Philharmonic coin sales, and the Perth Mint’s 520,000 ounces of gold sales -- its bullion unit expanded both revenue and profit by two-thirds last year.
It is forecasting similar growth this year, through expansion in its already core U.S. and German markets, and elsewhere.
About 30 percent of its bullion sales - largely Britannia coins, but also sovereigns, and bars ranging in size from 1 gram to 1 kilogram - are made through the Mint’s website, while a further 70 percent goes to wholesale clients.
Global retail investment in gold has exploded in the last 15 years. At nearly 1,000 tonnes last year, it was two and a half times the levels seen in 2001.
While a sharp rise in investors selling gold back onto the market after prices surged last year weighed on the net demand figure, gold sales in Europe jumped after the Britain’s Brexit vote and resulting fluctuations in the currency markets.
The government-owned Mint’s sales to Germany more than doubled last year in volume terms, while UK sales rose by more than a quarter.
“The excitement around Brexit, and the uncertainty, brought a lot more (business), especially on to our ecommerce platform,” Howard, a veteran of designer retail brands such as Guess and Swarowski, said.
“The level of trading after Brexit was much higher than it was before, and it has continued to be at that level.”
Gold prices XAU= rose for the first year since 2012 last year, by 10 percent, while in sterling terms XAUGBP=R gold performed even more strongly, climbing 30 percent.
The turmoil seen in stock markets this month after U.S. President Donald Trump took office and optimism over his plans for the U.S. economy dissipated suggests that investors will continue to need havens from risk.
A monthly Reuters poll of investment professionals across Europe, the United States and Japan this week showed U.S. equity holdings at their highest since June 2015, but also suggested markets may have overcooked the “reflation” trade.
This year Howard expects sales to the United States and Germany to stay strong, and he tips Asia -- home to the two biggest physical bullion markets, China and India -- as a key growth market.
That’s not necessarily an easy sell. The mint has worked around import restrictions into India through a licensing agreement with Swiss-Indian refiner MMTC-PAMP, which produces sovereigns on its behalf.
Howard admits that China, where last year traders reported that Beijing was restricting imports, has been a tough market to crack. “From 25 years of working in other industries, it’s been the same challenge everywhere,” he says. “Everyone sees this great opportunity, that China is where you should be -- but how do you do it? It’s exactly the same with bullion.”
Reporting by Jan Harvey; Editing by Veronica Brown and Jane Merriman