Gold imports by India, the world's top consumer, plunged 56 percent to 125 tonnes in the fourth quarter, cutting full-year imports by 8.4 percent as record high prices and high interest rates hit demand, the head of India's leading bullion body said.
India, whose appetite for gold dates back centuries, imported about 878 tonnes of gold in 2011, down from 958 tonnes in 2010, Bombay Bullion Association President Prithviraj Kothari said.
The World Gold Council said in November that for the fourth quarter it expected the world's second most populous country to buy more than the 281 tons it bought in the same period a year ago, taking total imports over 1,000 tons.
The October-December quarter covers the peak festival and wedding season, when Indians traditionally splurge on gold jewellery and investments. It is rare for gold demand in the last quarter to remain below third quarter consumption.
"Imports were very bad in October to December, compared with last year, compared with Q3 of this year," Kothari said.
"People were even selling gold in November. For them it was an investment," he added.
Indian gold prices hit a record high of 29,516 rupees per 10 grams on November 15. International gold prices touched an all-time high of $1,920.3 per ounce in September.
In local currency terms, the price of gold jumped 32 percent in 2011, tracking firmness in the world market and taking into account a 16 percent drop in the value of the rupee.
One reason behind the weak demand in the last quarter of the year was the increase in purchases during the first nine months, when many Indians snapped up gold bars and coins, hoping that prices would rally further, Kothari said.
In the first nine months of 2011, investment demand for gold in India rose 22.5 percent from a year earlier to 272.1 tonnes, data from the WGC showed.
But the rise in investment interest during 2011 was not sufficient to overcome a sharp drop in jewellery demand, Kothari said.
"Jewellery sales were very low. Investment demand rose in 2011. People were interested in coins and bars. The share of investment demand in total demand has risen to 35 percent in 2011," Kothari said.
Investment demand accounted for about 22.6 percent of total demand in 2010, WGC data showed.
India imports almost all of its gold requirements.The factors that eroded demand and imports in the fourth quarter are likely to hurt demand in the first quarter of 2012, Kothari said.
"Still prices are high. Interest rates are high. Liquidity is tight. I think imports in the first quarter of 2012 will be 50 percent lower than last year," he said.
India imported 286 tonnes of gold in the first quarter of 2011, WGC data shows.
Gold prices in India are likely to move between 24,000 and 35,000 rupees per 10 grams in 2012, while the world price could range between $1,430 and $2,000 per ounce, Kothari said.
The most-active gold futures contract for February delivery on India's Multi Commodity Exchange was trading down 0.1 percent at 27,303 rupees per 10 grams by 1000 GMT.
In the world market, gold was trading at $1,565.31 per ounce.