The chemical element Au with atomic number 79 "has never been worth zero." King Tutankhamen and the Incas had at least one thing in common - they understood the value and scarcity of gold and used it as a symbol of wealth and power. Nothing has changed since.
Even though gold is no longer used to back currencies like the dollar, it is still stockpiled by countries around the world. Since the price of gold has fluctuated dramatically, the holdings are expressed in metric tons (or tonne = 1000 kg) as documented by the World Gold Council in August 2011. One U.S. ton is approximately 0.9 tonnes. Here's a look at who holds the largest gold reserves and the amount of holdings.
TUTORIAL: The Industry Handbook: Precious Metals
United States - 8,133.5
While the U.S. permanently abandoned the gold standard in 1971, it has the largest holdings of any country by a wide margin. While most of the gold is held at Fort Knox in Kentucky, gold is also held by the U.S. Mints in Philadelphia and Denver and several other locations.
Germany - 3,401.0
Germany's central bank, the Deutsche Bundesbank in Frankfurt, is the manager of the country's reserves. However, reports have surfaced that the bulk of Germany's gold is in the physical custody of the New York Federal Reserve. Two years ago, international journalist, Max Keiser received an acknowledgment of these holdings in the U.S. directly from the Bundesbank. (The policies of these banks affect the currency market like nothing else. For more, see Get To Know The Major Central Banks.)
International Monetary Fund (IMF) - 2,846.7
The IMF overseas the economic activity of its 187 member countries around the globe. While its gold policies have changed over time, the reserves are intended to aid national economies and stabilize international markets. Depending on market conditions, it will buy or sell portions of its reserves in support of specific economic initiatives.
Italy - 2,451.8
Italy's reserves are held and managed by the Banca D'Italia. Italy is one of the PIIGS nations (along with Portugal, Ireland, Greece and Spain), all of which are suffering financial woes that threaten the entire eurozone. Parliament approved austerity measures in exchange for financial assistance, but the country is also embroiled in a political crisis that centers on Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. In addition to being charged with paying for sex with a minor, his government is under investigation for influence peddling and corruption.
France - 2,435.4
The Banque de France is the central depository for France's gold reserves.
After World War II, the Bretton Woods Agreement established a standard that pegged the dollar at the gold exchange rate of $35 (USD) per ounce. Subsequently, President Charles de Gaulle reduced French dollar reserves by exchanging them for gold from Fort Knox. As a result of this action and other economic considerations, President Richard Nixon ended the convertibility of dollars to gold in 1971. (For related reading, see The Midas Touch For Gold Investors.)
China - 1,054.1
While the world's most populous country is sixth on the list of total holdings, gold accounts for only 1.6% of China's foreign reserves. It is the largest foreign holder of U.S. Treasuries with a total investment of $1.166 trillion as of June 30, 2011.
China is the world's largest producer of gold and can buy gold from its own mines without reporting those transactions publicly. It has reasons to buy gold off the open market since open market transactions would push the price even higher and devalue its U.S. Treasury holdings.
The Wall Street Journal has reported that China dramatically increased its gold purchases in response to inflation fears. Because of possible stealth transactions, China's total gold holdings and the prices it pays are uncertain.
Switzerland - 1,040.1
Switzerland's seventh place rank on this list is notable considering its economy is the 38th largest and its population is the 95th largest in the world.
The Swiss National Bank is charged with managing the gold reserves and the country's monetary policy.
Russia - 775.2
Russia's gold reserves are in the custody of the Central Bank of the Russian Federation. The country has been on a buying spree, increasing its holdings by 21% in 2009 as it opened several new mines, and another 24% in 2010. The Wall Street Journal has reported that Russia plans to buy an additional 90 tonnes per year to replenish its reserves.
Japan - 765.2
Gold accounts for only 3.3% of Japan's total foreign reserves which are managed by the Bank of Japan.
Netherlands - 615.5
The gold reserves and national finances are managed by the Netherland Bank. (For related reading, see The Currency Board: Understanding The Government's Bank.)
TUTORIAL: Commodities: Gold
The Bottom line
The biggest holders of gold are governments, central banks and international entities that currently account for 30,500 of the world's estimated 160,000 tonnes. The current rate of new production from mining is about 2,497 tonnes per year. As the price has risen, more mines have become economically feasible to open or reopen.
Gold has gotten much attention lately as the price has risen to new highs, although it is still well below the January 1980 inflation-adjusted high of about $2,400 per ounce. Unlike money, you can't print more gold, so it's likely to continue to be a safe haven investment during uncertain economic times. (For related reading, see Gold: The Other Currency.)