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Thailand's Gold Rush Goes Digital

In this GlobalPost piece, I explained how Thailand's jittery stock market has driven many Thais to sink their money into gold bars.

Bangkok's Chinatown,  lined with more than 100 shops selling high-purity gold bars,  has been bum-rushed in recent months each time gold prices dip. Buyers walk in with fat stacks of cash, wait as shopkeepers diligently count the bills and walk out with bags full of palm-sized gold rectangles.

Now it looks like this old-school, face-to-face style of investing is threatened. In early March, the Thailand Futures Exchange will take on gold, allowing brokers to secure large gold holdings for buyers convinced that gold's value will rise.

Buying gold through online brokers instead of Bangkok's crimson-walled gold shops, however, will require sizeable investments. Traders will have to throw down an amount worth roughly $2,000 to play. That's more than 760 grams of gold.

While mom-and-pop gold shops are likely worried, they can still count on buyers seeking what the market calls "ornamental gold," which include necklaces, bracelets, rings, etc.

Many Thais adore gold jewelry, especially older-generation Thais, and the obsession seems to cross class lines. Gold isn't just for the wealthy. It's not too uncommon to see an older guy sporting the working-class, Bruce Springsteenish Thai rocker look: leather vest, ponytail and enough gold chains to rival 1980s rapper Slick Rick.

For the big-time gold emporiums in Bangkok, digitizing gold investment isn't a threat. They'll be the same companies supplying the futures market. They're even prepping buyers with a "Gold Futures Trading Workshop" coming in February.