India has allowed five domestic private sector banks to import gold, in what industry officials say could be a significant step towards easing of tough curbs on the metal imposed last year to cut the country's trade deficit.
The move could boost gold supplies and bring down premiums for the metal in the world's second-biggest consumer after China.
India's central bank has allowed gold imports by HDFC Bank , Axis Bank, Kotak Mahindra Bank, IndusInd Bank and Yes Bank, officials at the respective banks told Reuters.
Two industry sources confirmed the names of the banks. They and the bank officials did not want to be named as they are not authorised to speak to media.
India enforced the so-called 80/20 rule in July, making it mandatory to export a fifth of all gold imports. Under that rule, only six banks and three state-run trading agencies that had facilitated export of gold or jewellery in the past three years were allowed to import. The six banks were mostly state-run lenders.
The Reserve Bank of India - the central bank - has now permitted gold imports within prescribed limits by the private banks even though they had not facilitated any exports of metal or jewellery in the past three years.
"They have decided upon limits on quantities depending upon the number of (current) customers you have for exports," said Shekhar Bhandari, executive vice-president of Kotak Mahindra Bank.
The Reserve Bank of India did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The move to allow more banks to import gold may raise shipments to about 40 tonnes per month from more than 20 in February, industry officials said. India used to ship in as much 70 tonnes per month, the biggest import after oil that had pushed the current account deficit (CAD) to a record high in the year ended March 2013.
"Supplies will be smooth from now and I think premiums will come down," said Haresh Soni, chairman of the All India Gems and Jewellery Trade Federation. "This looks like just a beginning to the further easing of 80/20 rule."
NEW GOVERNMENT, NEW RULES
India used to be the No. 1 buyer of gold before the levy of a record 10 percent import tax in stages and other restrictions led to a sharp cut. Premiums hit a record of $160 an ounce in December, triggering smuggling and forcing industry officials to call for a repeal of the curbs.
Further major relaxations of the