Financial market prices are generally set by the trading venues which command the highest trading volumes and liquidity. This is also true of the gold market where the venues with the highest gold trading volumes - the London over-the-counter and COMEX gold futures markets – establish the international gold price.
However, these two gold markets merely trade paper gold claims in the form of unallocated gold positions (London Gold Market) and gold futures derivatives (COMEX). This trading creates paper gold supply out of thin air and is also highly leveraged and fractional in nature since the paper gold claims are only fractionally backed by real physical gold.
Although these highly leveraged synthetic gold trades have nothing to do with the transacting of physical gold, perversely they still establish the international gold price because physical gold markets merely inherit the gold prices derived in these ‘high liquidity’ paper gold markets.
BullionStar maintains that these paper gold markets cannot price physical gold accurately because they don’t trade physical gold, instead they trade infinitely scalable fractional claims on a smaller amount of physical gold. The international gold price is thus an artificial gold price totally removed from supply and demand in the physical gold markets.
Drawbacks of paper gold / Benefits of physical gold
Each trading day in the London OTC gold market, the equivalent of a staggering 6500 tonnes of gold is traded.
To put this into perspective, less than 7500 tonnes of physical gold vaulted in the entire London gold vaulting network, most of which is owned by central banks and Exchange Traded Funds.
Nearly all trading in the London OTC gold market is speculate activity based on unallocated gold positions. Unallocated gold positions are just book-keeping entries where the holder of the position is an unsecured creditor to a counterparty bullion bank, and the position just represents indebtedness between the two transacting parties.
Likewise, on the COMEX futures exchange during 2017, only 1 in every 2650 gold futures contracts actually reached delivery via a transfer of underlying gold. The remainder (99.96%) of gold futures are cash-settled. There is very little physical gold backing COMEX gold trading i.e. Registered physical gold inventories in COMEX approved gold vaults represent only a tiny fraction of the total volume of gold futures traded at any given time.
Conversely, real physical gold is a tangible asset that exists in limited quantities, it is inherently valuable, difficult to produce, difficult to counterfeit, and most importantly when held in the form of fully allocated, segregated and unencumbered gold bars and gold coins, it has no counterparty risk and so is no one else’s liability.
Real physical gold is not a claim on gold. It is gold. Real physical gold is real money, and is the ultimate form of saving and store of value due to its ability to retain its purchasing power over time. Unfortunately, the proliferation of paper gold trading dwarfs the volume of physical gold traded, and thus the gold price is set on these huge paper gold trading volumes.
But given the dominance of gold pricing by the paper gold markets, can this situation continue, and if so for how long?
BullionStar would contend that this situation can only continue while the bulk of paper gold market participants are happy to continue trading paper gold claims and in the absence of a shock to the physical gold demand-supply balance.
Conversely, a shift in the trading behaviour of paper gold traders away from paper gold towards physical gold, or a scenario in which physical gold demand overwhelms available physical gold supply, could cause a disconnect between gold pricing in the paper gold and physical gold markets, with the paper price falling while the physical price simultaneously rises.
Physical Gold flows West to East
As Western institutional and retail investors continue to speculate and trade staggering volumes of paper gold instruments, Eastern buyers in Asia continue to accumulate real physical gold, physical gold which is in limited supply.
These flows of physical gold from West to East have been ongoing for some time and can even be viewed as a slow and silent bank run on the physical gold market.
Classic commercial bank runs either begin when a subset of a bank’s customers suspect that the bank may not have sufficient liquid cash to repay all depositors, or else suspect that the bank’s loan base has soured. Since commercial banks employ fractional reserve banking where only a fraction of depositors’ money is kept in reserve (the majority being lent out in the form of loans), depositors with early suspicions begin withdrawing their money first.
Word spreads that the bank is having trouble meeting withdrawal requests and more and more depositors follow suit attempting to make withdrawals. Panic soon sets in with the bank forced to limit withdrawals and request emergency assistance from regulators.
The same end-game could be said to be true of fractional-reserve gold banking where holders of claims on physical gold rush to be the first to convert their claims into physical gold. Since the early 2000s, there has been a continual and substantial flow of physical gold from West to East. For example, since 2001, India has net imported over 11,000 tonnes of gold. This imported gold has for the most part stayed within India.
Likewise, since 2001, China has imported over 7,000 tonnes of gold. Because exports of gold are prohibited from the Chinese gold market, this gold cannot leave China mainland. In addition, the Chinese central bank has reported a 1400 tonne increase in its gold holdings since 2001. This is gold that the People's Bank of China buys exclusively on international gold markets in the form of wholesale gold bars and imports secretively into China, and is above and beyond reported Chinese gold import figures.
In the global gold market, Eastern buyers of physical gold are analogous to the early depositors of a commercial bank withdrawing their cash. In this scenario, a gold market ‘depositor shock’ prompting further withdrawals from the global stock of gold would be analogous to a widespread realization that the outstanding set of traded gold claims is far larger than the dwindling quantity of physical gold backing those claims. This realization would prompt further rotation out of paper gold into physical gold.
If at the margin, paper gold market players (later adopters) begin converting their paper gold claims into physical gold, or more realistically cash settle their paper claims and then try to use the proceeds to buy physical gold, this could set the scene for a disconnect between physical gold prices and paper gold prices.
On the one hand, a shift towards physical gold would overwhelm available physical gold supply, a situation which could only be rectified via an increase in the physical gold price to induce supply from existing above ground stocks. On the other hand, selling pressure in the paper gold markets to release proceeds to convert into physical gold would drive the paper gold price lower, thus also reinforcing this gold price disconnect.
Gold Price $65,000
But what would the real price of physical gold be in the absence of the subduing influence of the fractional and limitless paper gold market, or how do we even approach calculating a range of such physical gold prices?
Throughout history, gold has been the ultimate money and ultimate store of value. Until 1971, physical gold backed the international monetary system. Throughout monetary history and up until the latter half of the 20th century, gold played a critical role in backing paper currencies and in backing monetary debt. It is thus still appropriate to analyse the value of gold in relation to the value of currencies and the value of outstanding debt.
Approximately 190,000 metric tonnes of gold have been mined throughout history. Nearly all of this gold can still be accounted for in one form or another and is known as 'above-ground gold'. About 90,000 tonnes of this gold is held in the form of jewellery, 33,000 tonnes of gold are (supposedly) held by central banks, 40,000 tonnes are attributed to private gold holders, with the remainder having been used in industrial and other fabrication uses.
While 190,000 tonnes may sound like a lot, at the current gold price of USD 1250 per ounce, all the gold ever mined in the world is valued at less than $8 trillion, and official central bank gold holdings (monetary gold) are valued at just $1.3 trillion. The US Treasury claims to hold 8133 tonnes (or 261.5 million troy ounces) in its official gold reserves (a figure which, by the way, could be far lower since it has never been independently audited). At the current gold price, these US Treasury gold reserves are worth just under $320 billion.
Compare these gold valuations to total outstanding money supply figures. The total broad US money supply is currently running in excess of $18 trillion (using a "continuation M3" measure). For the US money supply of $18 trillion to be fully backed by the US Treasury’s gold, this would require a gold price of $68,840 per troy ounce.
Even at a 40% gold-backing, a backing which was historically in place for the US money supply in a recent period in US monetary history, this would imply a gold price of $27,500 per ounce.
Beyond the US money supply, total world money supply is currently running at over $85 trillion [source: broad money supply CIA World Factbook]. This global money supply of $85 trillion is approximately 11 times more than the current 'valuation' of all the gold ever mined.
For the world’s money supply to be fully backed by total worldwide central bank gold holdings [33,000 tonnes] would require a gold price of $82,600 per troy ounce. Even if world money supply was 100% backed by all the gold ever mined, this would require a gold price of $13,900 per ounce.
According to a recent study by the high-profile consultancy McKinsey, the world’s total outstanding debt is currently $200 trillion (of which government debt is $58 trillion). For the total outstanding stock of global debt to be backed by all the gold ever mined would require a gold price of $32,700 per ounce. For all government debt to be backed by the world’s official central bank gold reserves would require a gold price of $56,000 per troy ounce.
While extrapolating implied prices for physical gold in a world absent of paper gold market distortions will always be estimates, if and when the fractionally-backed paper gold market does cease to function, then ownership of allocated and unencumbered physical gold will become the only way to take advantage of the potential price movements in the physical gold market.
The following article is arranged in Question and Answer (Q & A) format. Through the Q & A approach, this article raises some important issues about price discovery in the gold markets and aims to explain the view that the gold price is being set by the paper gold markets.
BullionStar’s CEO Torgny Persson and precious metals analyst Ronan Manly are of the opinion that due to the structure of contemporary gold markets, it is primarily trading activity in the paper gold markets which sets the international price of gold.
Question: The international gold price is constantly quoted in the financial media alongside other major financial indicators. What is this international gold price, and how is it defined?
The international gold price usually refers to the price of gold quoted in US Dollars per troy ounce as traded on the 24-hour global wholesale gold market (XAU/USD). Gold is traded non-stop globally during the entire business week, creating a continuum of international gold price quotes from Sunday evening New York time all the way through to Friday evening New York time. Depending on the context, this international gold price sometimes refers to a spot gold market quote, such as spot gold traded in London, and at other times may refer to the front month of a gold futures contract price as traded on the US Commodity Exchange (COMEX). The front month contract is a nearby month which will usually exhibit the highest trading volume and activity.
The international gold price can also at times be referring to the LBMA Gold Price benchmark price as derived during the London daily gold price auctions (morning and afternoon auctions). LBMA is an abbreviation for London Bullion Market Association.
Therefore, this 'international price' could be referencing a spot gold price, a futures gold price, or a benchmark gold price, but all three would, at a comparable time, be roughly similar in magnitude.
Question: Where does this international gold price come from, where is it derived?
Recent empirical research has determined that gold price discovery is jointly driven by London Over-the-Counter (OTC) spot gold market trading and COMEX gold futures trading, and that the "international gold price" is derived from a combination of London OTC gold prices and COMEX gold futures prices. See “Who sets the price of gold? London or New York (2015)” by Hauptfleisch, Putniņš, and Lucey.
In general, the higher the trading volume and liquidity in a specific asset market, the more that market contributes to discovering prices for that asset. This is also true of the global gold market. Between them, the London OTC and New York trading venues account for the vast majority of global gold trading volume, and in 2015, the London OTC spot market represented approximately 78% of global gold market turnover while COMEX accounted for a further 8% (See Hauptfleisch, Putniņš, and Lucey (2015)).
Based on London gold clearing statistics for 2016, a quick calculation shows that total trading volume in the London OTC gold market is estimated to have been at least the equivalent of 1.5 million tonnes of gold in 2016, while trading volume of the 100 oz COMEX gold futures contract reached 57.5 million contracts during 2016, equivalent to 179,000 tonnes of gold. Gold trading volume on the London OTC gold market in 2016 was therefore about 8.4 times higher than trading volume in the COMEX 100 oz gold futures contract.
However, COMEX has been found, by the above academic research, to have a larger influence on price discovery than London OTC, despite the lower trading volumes of COMEX. This is most likely due to a combination of factors such as COMEX' accessibility and extended trading hours via use of the GLOBEX platform, the higher transparency of futures trading compared to OTC trading, and the lower transaction costs and ease of leverage in COMEX trading. In contrast, the London OTC gold market has limited trading hours (during London business hours), barriers to wider participation since it's an opaque wholesale market without central clearing, and trading spreads which are dictated by a small number of LBMA bullion bank market-makers and a handful of London-based commodity brokerages.
The bottom line though is that both sets of trading statistics, London OTC and COMEX, are gigantic in comparison to the size of the underlying physical gold markets in London and New York.
Question: So, does the physical gold market or the paper gold market set this international price of gold?
The international gold price is purely set by paper gold markets, in other words it is set by non-physical gold markets. Based on their respective gold market structures, the London OTC gold market and COMEX are both paper gold markets. Supply of and demand for physical gold plays no role in setting the gold price in these markets. Physical gold transactions in all other gold markets just inherit the gold prices that are discovered in these paper gold markets.
The London OTC gold market predominantly involves the trading of synthetic unallocated gold, where trades are cash-settled and not physically delivered (i.e. no delivery of physical gold). These synthetic gold transactions have little connection to any underlying gold holding, hence they are de-facto gold derivative positions. By definition, unallocated gold positions are just a series of claims on bullion banks where the holder is an unsecured creditor of the bank, and the bank has a liability to that claim holder for an amount of gold. The holder, on its side, takes on credit risk towards the bullion bank. The London OTC gold market is therefore merely a venue for trading gold credits.
The London OTC gold market is also one in which the bullion banking participants employ fractional-reserve gold trading to create large amounts of paper gold out of thin air (analogous to commercial lending), where the trading is also leveraged and opaque, and where this paper gold is only fractionally backed by physical gold. This “gold” is essentially synthetic gold. See BullionStar Gold university article "Bullion banking Mechanics" for further details on fractional-reserve gold trading.
Since COMEX only trades exchange-based gold futures contracts, it is, by definition, a derivatives market. Cash-settlement is the norm. Only 1 in 2500 gold futures contracts traded on COMEX is delivered with a transfer of warrants representing metal. The rest of the contracts are cash-settled. This means that 99.96% of COMEX gold futures contracts are cash-settled. See BullionStar US Gold Market Infographic for details.
Given COMEX trading gold futures and London trading synthetic unallocated gold, both the London and COMEX gold markets essentially trade gold derivatives, or paper gold instruments, and by extension, the international gold price is being determined in these paper gold markets.
Beyond the London OTC gold market and COMEX, all other gold trading venues are predominantly price takers that take in and use the gold prices established by the paper gold markets in London and New York. These other markets include physical gold markets around the world which look to the international gold price as an input into their domestic gold price setting mechanisms and conventions.
Question: Explain a little more about the market structures of these London OTC and COMEX markets?
By definition, futures trading is trading of securities whose value is derived from an underlying asset but whose securities are distinct from those of the underlying asset, i.e. derivatives. COMEX gold futures contracts are derivatives on gold. COMEX registered gold stocks are relatively small, very little physical gold is ever delivered on COMEX, and even less physical gold is withdrawn from COMEX approved gold vaults. COMEX gold trading also employs significant leverage. Hauptfleisch, Putniņš, and Lucey (2015) state that “such trades [on COMEX] contribute disproportionately to price discovery”. Note that the COMEX gold futures market is actually a 24-hour market but its liquidity is highest during US trading hours.
Turning to the London OTC gold market, nearly the entire trading volume of the London OTC gold market represents trading in unallocated gold, which to reiterate, merely represents a claim by a position holder on a bullion bank for a certain amount of gold, a claim which is rarely exercised. London OTC gold trades also predominantly cash-settle. Traders, speculators and investors in unallocated gold positions virtually never take delivery of physical gold.
Dentons states that “the reality of unallocated bullion trading is that buyers and sellers rarely intend for physical delivery to ever take place. Unallocated bullion is used as a means to have “synthetic” holdings of gold and so obtain exposure to the price of gold by reference to the London gold fixing.”
Although the LBMA does not publish gold trading volumes on a regular basis, it did publish a one-off gold trading survey covering Q1 2011 in which it was revealed that during the first quarter of 2011, 10.9 billion ozs of gold (340,000 tonnes) were traded in the London OTC gold market. During the same period, 1.18 billion ozs of gold (36,700 tonnes) were cleared in the London OTC gold market. This would suggest a trading turnover to clearing turnover ratio of 10:1. In the absence of live trading data from the London OTC gold market, this 10:1 proxy ratio can continue to be applied as a multiplier to the LBMA London Gold Market daily clearing statistics, which are published every month, and which are always phenomenally high.
For example, average daily clearing volumes in the London Gold Market during January 2017 totalled 20.5 million ounces. That’s the equivalent 638 tonnes of gold cleared per day in London. On a 10:1 trading to clearing multiple, that’s the equivalent of 6,380 tonnes of gold traded per day, or 1.6 million tonnes of gold traded per year.
Since there are only about 6,500 tonnes of gold stored in London, most of which represents static holdings of central banks, ETFs and other holders, the London OTC gold trading activities are totally disconnected from the underlying physical gold holdings. Furthermore, only about 190,000 tonnes of gold have ever been mined throughout history, half of which are estimated to be held in the form of jewellery. Therefore, the trading of nearly 6,500 tonnes of gold per day within the London OTC gold market has nothing to do with the physical gold market, yet perversely, this trading activity drives global gold price discovery and the pricing of physical bullion trades and transactions.
Revealingly, according to the LBMA bullion bankers who established the reporting of London gold clearing statistics, who specifically were the then LMPCL chairman, Peter Fava, and JP Morgan’s Peter Smith, these LBMA gold clearing statistics include trading activities such as “leveraged speculative forward bets on the gold price” and “investment fund spot price exposure via unallocated positions”, activities which are just side-bets on the gold price. See October 2003 article titled “Clearing the Air Discussing Trends and Influences on London Clearing Statistics“, from LBMA Alchemist Issue 32.
In essence, trading activity in the London gold market predominantly represents huge synthetic artificial gold supply, where paper gold trading is deriving the price of gold, not physical gold trading. Synthetic gold is just created out of thin air as a book-keeping entry and is executed as a cashflow transaction between the contracting parties. There is no purchase of physical gold in such a transaction, no marginal demand for gold. Synthetic paper gold therefore absorbs demand that would otherwise have flowed into the limited physical gold supply, and the gold price therefore fails to represent this demand because demand has been channelled away from physical gold transactions into synthetic gold.
Likewise, if an entity dumps gold futures contracts on the COMEX platform representing millions of ounces of gold, that entity does not need to have held any physical gold, but that transaction has an immediate effect on the international gold price. This has real world impact, because many physical gold transactions around the world take this international gold price as the basis of their transactions.
Although gold clearing volumes and the LBMA's market survey provide some useful inputs into calculating London gold trading volumes, there is very little known publicly about how much physical gold actually trades in the London gold market. This is because the LBMA and its member banks choose not to reveal this information. There is no trade reporting in the London OTC gold market, no reporting of physical gold vault positions, no reporting of the unallocated gold liabilities of LBMA member bullion banks, and no reporting of how much physical gold in total these bullion banks retain to back up their fractional-reserve unallocated gold trading system. However, physical gold trading is by definition an extremely minuscule percentage of average daily trading volumes in the London OTC gold market. For details on the workings of the gold market in London, see BullionStar Infographic the "London Gold Market".
While one of the three components that comprise the London gold clearing statistics is stated to be “physical transfers and shipments by LPMCL clearing members”, the LBMA doesn’t even see fit to publish a breakdown of these 3 components. This compounds the secrecy and is another example of where bullion banks and central banks keep the global gold market in the dark about how much gold is being physically transferred and shipped.
Question: How do local gold markets around the world use the international gold price?
Local gold markets all around the world look to the international gold price, and take in this gold price, usually quoting their local country gold prices in comparison to the international gold price.
In the physical gold market, product pricing of gold coins and bars is based on a combination of the spot gold price plus a premium. The premium is that part of the product price in excess of the value of the precious metal contained in the coin or bar. Given that the physical gold market is a price taker, physical gold market spot prices feed in from where the price is being discovered, i.e. the international gold price.
For example, the 2017 issue of the Royal Canadian Mint 1 troy ounce Gold Maple Leaf bullion coin is quoted on the BullionStar website at a US dollar price which reflects the US dollar spot price of gold plus a premium.
Gold coin and gold bar premiums are based on a number of factors. Part of the premium will reflect natural minting / refining costs such as fabrication, marketing, distribution and insurance costs. If the products have been distributed through a wholesaler, the premium will reflect a wholesaler mark-up. Another component of a premium is semi-variable and reflects physical market imbalances caused by supply and demand fluctuations. If demand for a gold coin or gold bar is high, its premium will increase. If supply of the product is abundant, the premium would tend to be lower than if in short supply.
In general, premiums on gold coins are higher than those on gold bars, while premiums on large gold coins and gold bars are lower than premiums on smaller gold coins and gold bars.
Question: What contribution does the Shanghai Gold Exchange make to gold price discovery and does the SGE, with its large physical trading, influence the international gold price?
The Shanghai Gold Exchange (SGE) is the world’s largest physical gold exchange and nearly all physical gold bars in China flow through the SGE. Gold trading volumes and gold withdrawal statistics for the SGE are certainly impressive. For the year 2016, total SGE gold trading volumes reached 24,338 tonnes, a 43% increase over the 2015 figure of 17,033 tonnes. SGE trading volumes include physical contracts, deferred contracts, OTC trades settled through the SGE, and also trading volumes on the Shanghai international Gold Exchange (SGEI). In 2016, physical gold withdrawals from the SGE totalled 1,970 tonnes, down 24% from 2015’s withdrawals of 2,596 tonnes, but still huge on an absolute basis because these withdrawals represent actual physical gold taken out of the SGE vaults.
By the end of 2016, the SGEI (International Bourse), which was launched in September 2014, had recorded cumulative trading of nearly 9,000 tonnes of gold. The Shanghai Gold Benchmark Price (a.k.a. Shanghai Gold Fix), which was launched on 19 April 2016, is a gold auction for 1 kilo gold bars of 99.99 purity quoted in RMB. Over the 8 months from launch to end of 2016, the Shanghai Gold Fix had traded 569 tonnes, which equates to over 1.5 tonnes per day on average.
All in all, the SGE has generated impressive physical gold trading volumes (24,338 tonnes for 2016) and withdrawals (1970 tonnes for 2016). For the sake of comparison, compare these annual SGE physical gold trading volumes to the bloated London OTC gold market where trading volumes of approximately the equivalent of 6,500 tonnes of gold per day are the norm. Such a comparison reveals the fractional-reserve nature of the London gold market and the fact that physical transactions can only be a minuscule fraction of the London market.
But does SGE trading affect the international gold price as derived in the London OTC and COMEX markets, or is the SGE a price taker?
The short answer is that the SGE does not influence the international price and the SGE is a price taker. There may be some lagged influence by the SGE on the international price but this would require further study. The Chinese gold market is still a closed gold market with market frictions and distortions. Gold can be imported into China but cannot in general be exported out of China. There is therefore no freedom of movement of gold out of China. Gold imports into China are strictly controlled via import licenses and these licenses are only issued to a small number of Chinese and foreign banks.
But it’s worth looking at SGE premiums to see if changes in SGE premiums ever provide any signalling ability for subsequent changes in the international gold price. SGE premiums arise when the Shanghai gold price trades above the international gold price. SGE premiums are a possible gauge to determine whether SGE trading affects the international gold price. In November and December 2016, SGE premiums rose sharply from less than 0.5% to over 3% which was a period in which gold imports into China surged. However, during that same period, the international gold price fell. So in this case, the expanding SGE premiums had no effect on the international gold price.
That example was just eyeballing, but a recent study by Metals Focus (MF) consultancy, titled "Links Between the Chinese and International Gold Prices" also found that the correlations between changes in the LBMA Gold Price (AM) and SGE premiums are not significant and were in some cases even found to be negative, which in summary means that SGE trading was not affecting the international gold price. MF also calculated some lagged correlations to see if SGE premiums influence subsequent changes in the LBMA Gold Price, due to, for example, "increased shipments of bullion to China over subsequent days". MF claims that "SGE premiums have a modest but positive and statistically significant impact on future gold price [LBMA Gold Price] moves" however, correlation is not causation. Properly functioning financial markets are supposed to instantaneously reflect pricing information in other markets, not take days to reflect it. There are also too many other variables which could also be responsible for explaining why the LBMA Gold Price moved higher after SGE premiums had previously moved higher.
However, unlike the OTC and COMEX, the Shanghai Gold Exchange is structured around physical gold price discovery. The establishment of a gold exchange in Shanghai was first referenced in China's 10th Five Year plan in 2001 as an integral part of the nation's gold liberalisation strategy. Following its launch in 2002, the SGE was quick to promote physical gold ownership and by 2004 was allowing private citizens in China to transact on the Exchange and purchase gold bullion. On the SGE, physical delivery of gold is the norm, not the exception. The SGE has a network of 61 gold vaults in 35 cities across China.
This makes the SGE a nature candidate to take the lead in pricing real physical gold and acting as a physical gold price discovery centre if and when the physical gold markets detach from the paper gold markets, and physical gold demand and supply becomes the natural determinant of the international gold price.
Question: What is the significance of the LBMA Gold Price?
The LBMA Gold Price is a twice daily auction for unallocated gold controlled by the LBMA. The final output of the auction is a benchmark gold price. The auction is conducted in US Dollars, however the derived price is also published in 11 other currencies. This auction is the successor to the London Gold Fixing and the benchmark is now a ‘Regulated Benchmark’ under UK financial regulations and is administered by ICE benchmark Administration (IBA), part of the ICE exchange group. But the new auction mechanics are fundamentally similar to the older London Gold Fixing mechanics. The auction opening prices are based on COMEX and London OTC price quotations as well as trading prices at auction opening times, i.e. at 10:30 am and 3:00 pm respectively.
Structurally, the LBMA Gold Price auction has very narrow direct participation, with only a handful of LBMA member bullion banks being authorised by the LBMA to take part. These are the same bullion banks which are the market makers and largest traders in both London OTC gold market trading and in COMEX futures gold trading. The LBMA Gold Price auctions therefore lack broad market participation and is not representative of the broader gold market. The LBMA and ICE Benchmark Administration also refuse to reveal the identities of the auction chairpersons, a refusal which suggests that those now involved have connections to the former scandal tainted London Gold Fixing auction. They also refuse to reveal how the chairperson chooses the opening price for the auctions. See "Six months on ICE – The LBMA Gold Price" for more details.
Not surprisingly, the LBMA gold auctions also settle in unallocated gold, so trading and settlement in the auction is also detached from physical gold markets. Trading volumes in the daily gold auctions usually only reach the equivalent of 1-2 tonnes of unallocated gold transfers, and rarely exceed 3 tonnes. So not only do the LBMA gold auctions not offer wide participation to the thousands of gold trading entities around the world, the volumes traded in the auctions are not representative of the global gold market and the benchmark is therefore not a reliable representation of the global gold market.
Perversely however, the LBMA Gold Price benchmark price is very influential in the gold world in that it is a widely-used valuation source for gold-backed Exchange Traded Funds (ETFs) such as the SPDR Gold Trust and the iShares Gold Trust. Furthermore, it is often used ad a transaction reference price by physical bullion dealers when purchasing physical gold from refineries and suppliers. The LBMA Gold Price is also widely used as a benchmark for valuing financial products such as ISDA gold interest rate swaps, gold options and other gold derivatives, and is even used by other futures exchanges as a reference point on their gold futures contracts, for example the gold futures contract (FGLD) of the Malaysia Derivatives Exchange.
Therefore, this reference price and auction, which is controlled by a handful of bullion banks under the banner of the LBMA, is based on trading synthetic gold, but is referenced widely around the world in countless gold contracts and in countless physical gold markets and retail gold outlets.
Even very large central bank physical gold transactions take this gold fixing reference price derived in London and then use it as a price with which to execute their own independent bi-lateral transactions. For example, when the Swiss National Bank used the Bank for International Settlements (BIS) gold trading desk as its agent to sell hundreds of tonnes of physical gold in the early 2000s, the transaction prices used for the transfers were based on taking the London Gold Fixing price as a reference price. As another example, in 2010, the IMF’s so-called ‘on-market’ gold sales were conducted by a selling agent who also based the sales transfer prices on the London Gold Fixing price. This is the same London Gold Fixing that is currently under investigation in an ongoing New York court class action suit.
Of concern here is that a benchmark that was controlled by a cartel of London-based bullion banks, that was opaque in its operation, and that is currently the subject of a gold price manipulation class action suit, was being used to value very large physical gold transactions. The question must be asked, was this benchmark fit for purpose and to what extent was it representative of the underlying worldwide physical gold market?
Question: So what about outside London and US / NY trading hours. Do other markets contribute more during these other times, for example TOCOM in Japan and MCX in India?
In general, higher trading volumes mean more liquidity to drive price discovery. But since financial markets are integrated, price information rapidly flows between markets due to simultaneously and overlapping trading. Futures markets such as TOCOM in Japan and MCX in India do contribute to gold price discovery, especially at times when the larger markets are not trading, but because these other venues are less liquid, COMEX tends to lead in the lead-lag analysis of futures prices. This finding is according to a study by financial academics from Bangkok University led by Rapeesorn Fuangkasem.
Question: How does gold lending affect the gold price?
The Gold Lending Market is centred in London at the Bank of England. It is here that central banks and commercial bullion banks interact in the execution of ultra-secretive gold lending and gold swaps transactions that increase the available supply of gold. Bullion banks euphemistically refer to this as liquidity provision but these transactions act as a supply overhang on the gold market. Few if any transactional details about the gold lending market are ever made public. If gold lending trade details were market-wide knowledge, their impact would be immediately reflected in the gold price. But they are not. Secrecy about central bank gold lending transactions therefore makes this market informationally inefficient. And when a market is informationally inefficient, the prices in that market do not necessarily reflect the non-public information in that market.
Likewise gold lending and gold swaps are not reported distinct from central bank gold holdings. In the perverse world of central bank accounting policies, gold held and gold lend/swapped is merely reported as one line item of 'Gold and Gold Receivables' on central banks' balance sheets. Therefore, the real state of central bank gold holdings is obscured for any central bank engaged in gold lending or gold swaps.
Gold Lending also provides borrowed physical gold for bullion banks to engage in leveraged fractional-reserve bullion banking and trading, mostly in London where the international spot gold price is predominantly determined. Therefore, gold lending, the leveraged and fractional-reserve nature of gold trading, and the lack of reporting of real central bank gold holdings, all align to have a potentially depressing effect on the gold price as discovered in the London Gold Market.
Question: Given that paper gold markets determine the gold price, then when or how could physical markets begin determining the gold price?"
There are two sets of gold markets – on the one side, the COMEX gold futures and London OTC unallocated gold spot markets which are both ultra leveraged and which both create gold supply out of thin air, and on the other side, the physical gold markets which inherit the gold prices derived in these paper gold markets. Currently the physical gold markets have no effect on the international gold price.
Any shift away from the dominance of gold price discovery in the paper markets to a dominance of gold price discovery in the physical gold markets could only occur via a disconnect between physical gold prices and paper gold prices. The conditions for such a disconnect to occur would only be possible in an environment in which trading behaviour in the paper markets changed and/or the supply-demand balance in the physical gold market became acutely stressed and out of balance.
A shift in trading behaviour in the paper gold markets refers to an increased preference for converting paper gold claims (unallocated positions or gold futures positions) into physical holdings either directly by exercising conversion rights, or indirectly by selling paper gold and then using the proceeds to buy physical gold. Many of these paper claims are held by institutional and wholesale market clients. An increase at the margin in paper gold holders demanding direct conversion of their paper claims into physical gold would probably make such conversion impossible as cash-settlement of futures and unallocated positions would be introduced and made obligatory by regulators and exchange / marketplace providers.
The indirect option would be to sell paper gold and then buy physical bullion on the physical gold market from bullion dealers such as BullionStar. This move into physical gold would raise physical gold demand to such an extent that it could overwhelm available gold supply. At the same time the international gold price would fall because of selling pressure in the paper gold markets, thereby creating a disconnect between the price of paper gold and the price of physical gold, and would make the continued holding of paper gold claims ever riskier.
One trigger that could prompt a shift in sentiment from paper gold to physical gold would be a realization by a critical mass of paper gold holders that physical gold stocks are finite, while paper gold claims are at best fractionally-backed. The acceptance of this reality would be a self-fulfilling prophesy, prompting more and more paper gold claim holders to attempt to rotate into physical gold.
The contemporary physical gold markets have already witnessed sustained flows of physical gold from West to East over the last number of years driven by huge physical gold demand emanating from China, India and much of the rest of Asia. While physical gold flows are dynamic and while gold flows can and sometimes do reverse out of normal recipient destinations such as Hong Kong, Turkey, Dubai and Thailand, this is not true of China and to a large extent is not true of India either, where gold that gets imported does not come back out again. India has imported over 11,000 tonnes of gold since 2001. China has imported 7,200 tonnes of gold since 2001.
As more and more gold goes into destinations such as China and India in quantities which exceed annual gold mine supply, there is less gold available in above ground stockpiles to meet supply deficits. This is akin to a slow bank run on gold. There is also very little gold stored in the London gold market that is not already accounted for by central bank gold holdings or ETF gold holdings. Coupled with this, if in the future the paper gold holders shift to a preference for converting their paper claims into physical gold, this could also be a catalyst for tipping the physical gold market even further into a situation of excess demand and acute supply stress.
In a scenario of a destructing paper gold market, ownership of physical allocated and segregated gold is paramount. This means physical gold that is unencumbered, free from competing claims and titles, and that cannot be lent out or swapped. The paper gold market is already a gigantic bubble which has expanded to an unsustainable size and whose huge fractionally-backed claims are supported by very small physical gold foundations. The unsustainable nature of such a bubble dictates that it's a matter of when and not if the paper gold bubble bursts. In such a scenario, physical gold ownership is the only thing that can protect against a systemic collapse of the financial system and protect against the destruction of the fractionally-reserved gold banking system.
BullionStar's ideological belief promotes freedom of speech and liberty. Likewise, we believe that open debate produces improved analysis and research. Indeed, the BullionStar blog platform encourages varied opinions and well-researched ideas. Debate is particularly important when applied to the gold market, a market which is often opaque and deliberately shrouded in secrecy by its influential bullion bank and central bank participants.
BullionStar’s precious metals analyst Koos Jansen has a different view and believes that while paper markets might have some short-term impact on price, the physical gold market is more dominant in gold price formation over the long-term. Due to having taken some time off recently for health reasons, Koos did not contribute to the following article. But he recently summarized his view as follows:
"Due to my research in recent years my opinion has shifted from 'the gold price is purely set in the paper markets' to 'the physical market is more dominant in the long-term whereas the paper market has more impact in the short term'. That's where I stand now. If central banks suppress the price over years/decades they need to supply physical gold or the paper and physical price would diverge. Potentially there is a combination of paper and physical schemes at work."
Koos Jansen will, at a later point in time, present his view by answering and publishing the same or similar questions on the BullionStar website.
The following speech, by BullionStar CEO Torgny Persson, was given to an audience during a Precious Metals Seminar held at BullionStar's shop and showroom premises in Singapore on 19 October 2016.
What have I got here?
It’s 87 grams of gold.
As many of you know, we have our own bullion vault integrated in BullionStar's bullion centre here in Singapore. What if I told you that every day we sell 6 kgs (6000 grams of gold), meaning that we sell about 1500 kgs gold per year to customers storing with us, but that we actually only keep 87 grams of gold in storage as reserves.
You would call it fraud and have me arrested, right? I’m obviously running a Ponzi scheme with very small fractionalised reserves backing up huge trading of unallocated paper gold.
Now, for clarity, that's not how we conduct business. When you buy and store bullion with BullionStar, your bullion is fully allocated and you can withdraw your metals at any time by just walking into BullionStar's bullion centre. You don’t even have to notify us beforehand.
What I just explained to you is something else - it’s bullion banking per definition - more precisely it’s unallocated gold trading by bullion banks.
As most of you know, the London Bullion Market Association (LBMA) has held its annual Precious Metals Conference in Singapore over the last two days. The LBMA is at the core of the world’s bullion trading system, a system which generates extremely large trading volumes every trading day. To understand the gold market, one has to understand the LBMA system as it is of great significance to both the price of gold and also to the physical movements of gold around the world. I will therefore provide you with an introduction to bullion banking and this LBMA system, and talk about how bullion banking operates.
Bullion Banking - Unallocated Gold
Almost all gold traded in the LBMA system today is in the form of unallocated gold which is accounted for in unallocated accounts. The definition of an unallocated gold account, as we can read on the LMBA’s website, is that the holder of such an account with a LBMA bullion bank does not have any ownership interest in any specific gold bars.
Instead, the account holder is merely an unsecured creditor of the bullion bank and holds a claim on the bullion bank for an amount of gold. At the same time, the bullion bank has a liability to this customer for this same amount of gold. Therefore unallocated gold is essentially paper gold. It is gold that doesn’t exist in the physical realm.
The creation of unallocated gold is in fact very similar to how fiat currency is created in the fractional reserve banking system. The fractional reserve banking system provides a good gateway into understanding bullion banking.
How is Fiat Money Created Today?
Let’s quickly recap on how fiat money is created in the fractional reserve banking system.
Money is created out of thin air. When a bank extends a loan, the money is created out of thin air.
Let’s take an example:
1) Robert plan to buy a house for $1 million.
2) Robert goes to a bank and the bank takes a look at Robert and deems him credible. With today’s low lending standards, it is rather easy for Robert to secure a loan. The bank deposits $1 million into Robert's account.
3) Where does this $1 million come from? The answer is 'nowhere'. It doesn't come from anywhere. The money is created out of thin air when loaned out to Robert.
This is easy to understand but hard to believe for some people. But it is true that this money is created out of thin air and lent into existence. About 92% of our money today is lent into existence in this fashion.
Banks keep a very small amounts of money in reserve to cover withdrawals, but they face liabilities which are far larger in size that their reserves.
The term "loan" as used in banking has been corrupted and twisted by banks. When a bank extends a loan, there is nothing loaned. To loan something you need to be in possession of it first, but when banks make loans, there is no countervailing transaction - The money is just created when the loan is extended.
How is Paper Gold Created?
Now, what about gold? How is gold created? You might say gold can’t be created, it has to be mined, right? Yes, you would be correct, physical gold cannot be created, but gold as an investment product definitely can be created and is created on a massive scale.
When a bullion bank customer goes to the bank and requests to buy gold, the standard procedure is for the bullion bank to create unallocated paper gold and credit this paper gold to the customer’s account. This ’gold’ is simply created out of thin air as a book-keeping entry in the bank’s accounting system.
Similarly, if actual physical gold is deposited into an unallocated account operated by a bullion bank, this deposit of gold is also in fact very similar to a deposit of fiat money. Just as a bank keeps deposited fiat money on its own balance sheet, a bullion bank keeps deposited physical bullion on its own balance sheet.
Bullion banks don’t generally safeguard or segregate gold deposited with them or held by them unless they are specifically instructed to do so if a customer opens an allocated gold account.
This means that depositors of gold into bullion banks' unallocated accounts are no longer the legal owners of the gold that they have deposited. Instead, they are just one of the general creditors to the bank, and they merely hold a claim for gold against the bank.
By depositing gold into an unallocated account at a bullion bank, you therefore lose ownership of your gold in return for a mere claim on gold.
Trading in unallocated gold by the bullion banks is thus based on book-keeping entries denominated in gold. The gold is fractionally reserved. Gold is created out of thin air as book-keeping entries in the banks' ledger systems, and even gold that is deposited into an unallocated account becomes the property of the bank.
LBMA Unallocated Gold Trading Volumes
From the LBMA’s published clearing statistics, which is one of the only transactional statistics that the LBMA does publish, we know that 600 tonnes of gold are "cleared" in the London Gold Market each and every trading day. Cleared means that it’s 600 tonnes of gold that's transferred between participants after netting out all trades between all trading participants.
According to a LBMA gold trading survey conducted in 2011 (the last such survey), the ratio between trading turnover and clearing on the London Gold Market was about 10 to 1. This means that the total amount of gold traded in the LBMA system each day is about the equivalent of 6,000 tonnes!
In other words, almost twice as much gold is traded in the LBMA system in a single trading day than is physically mined globally during an entire year.
But what is backing this 6,000 tonnes of unallocated gold traded each day, or 1.5 million tonnes of gold traded each year?
Let’s take a look at the reserve side of bullion banking in the LBMA system.
Bullion Bank Gold Reserves
The LBMA bullion banks' outstanding gold liabilities, and the unallocated trading system in the London Gold Market are ultimately backed by a quantity of 400 oz Good Delivery gold bars.
However, bullion banks don’t really want to hold physical gold. They will buy it if someone forces it on them but bullion banks have no real need for physical gold and are therefore incentivised to keep as little gold as possible in reserve, and lend out the gold they hold in reserve so as not to incur storage fees and handling costs. Banking reserves are looked upon as a dead asset so the banks minimise these reserves and try to make them into live assets by loaning them out.
When a bullion bank receives a gold bar by buying or borrowing it, it either sells, leases or allocates that bar elsewhere.
This sets a bullion bank apart from any other bullion entity because a bullion bank can hold deposits of gold on its balance sheet as assets even if it no longer has, or never had, the actual physical gold in its possession.
How much backing is there for all the unallocated gold traded in the LBMA-system?
We don’t exactly know as there are no reserve figures published but we can make an educated guess.
Vaulted Gold in London
How much gold is actually vaulted in London? The LBMA recently said on its website that there was approximately 6,500 tonnes of gold stored in London, about three-quarters of which was at the Bank of England. The Bank of England recently revealed that it was custodian for 4,734 tonnes of gold in its vaults.
This would leave 1,766 tonnes of gold privately stored in the LBMA vaulting system outside the Bank of England.
BullionStar research recently calculated (30 September 2016) that ETF gold holdings held in London accounted for 1,679 tonnes. This would mean that there are only 1,766 - 1,679 = 87 tonnes of gold in the LBMA system which is not allocated to ETFs!
Therefore, nearly all of the LBMA reserves are allocated to the ETFs with only 87 tonnes of gold left to back up the vast amorphous of unallocated gold trading amounting to 6,000 tonnes per day or 1.5 million tonnes per year!
Chart layout inspired by GoldChartsrus /Nick Laird. Data gathered by Goldchartsrus/BullionStar's Ronan Manly
Physical gold in the LBMA bullion banking system is therefore like physical cash in the monetary system. It is rarely seen!
LBMA is a banking system that by definition is based on fractional reserve banking.
HSBC, JP Morgan and ICBC Standard Bank are the only LBMA bank custodians with their own precious metals vaults in London. Most of the circa 42 LBMA bullion banks don’t even have their own gold vaults but still keep books denominated in gold ounces. A bullion bank without a gold vaults instead holds its gold reserves with a bullion bank that does have a gold vault.
For example, if Citibank keeps its reserves with a bank with a vault such as JP Morgan, then Citibank merely holds a gold claim for which JP Morgan has a gold liability. These unallocated gold reserves are therefore just pooled with the bullion banks that do have vaults.
The bullion banks without a vault never see or touch the metal they keep in reserves. If a bullion bank stores its gold reserves at another bullion bank’s vault, this means that the reserves are unallocated credits/claims which are standing behind the bank’s own liabilities. So even the reserves are fractionalised. So not only are bullion banks’ liabilities to their customers unallocated, even the reserves are unallocated inter-bank liabilities which are fractionalised.
Paper gold thus stands behind the liabilities of paper gold.
The LBMA system serves as a pool of reserves and uses coordinated reserve management where the different participating bullion banks can loan and lend to each other the few physical reserves that there are in the system so as to meet any demand for physical bullion.
Gold Bank Run
The bullion banks face massive liabilities in the form of unallocated gold credits. Bullion banks are thus, just like normal banks, susceptible to bank runs.
The difference between bullion banks and normal commercial banks is that whereas central banks are the ultimate lenders of last resort to commercial banks, most central banks no longer back-stop bullion banks as the lender of last resort because most central banks no longer sell or lease bullion that can be used to prop up bullion banks' reserves.
In case of the LBMA, the central bank is replaced by a private company called London Precious Metal Clearing Limited (LPMCL) which is run by 5 clearing bullion banks and whose clearing system AURUM nets out all gold claims and liabilities in the LBMA system. The clearing system functions as a pooled system in that only net balances are cleared and the bullion banks' gold reserves are essentially pooled and can be leased and double counted whenever necessary.
When they no longer have any physical gold to deliver, the ultimate rescue plan for bullion banks is to use cash settlement instead.
In the same way that banks increasingly promote cashless solutions as a means to reduce cash handling costs, earn credit card fees, reduce the risk of bank runs and lock in customers, LBMA system bullion banks promote gold-less gold transacting.
Just as the banking system inherently incentivises reckless debt behavior, the bullion banking system inherently incentivises the reckless creation of paper gold assets.
LBMA – The Paper Gold Protector
In creating artificial paper gold, bullion banking protects the fiat money system.
If even a small minority of the paper gold traded today was backed up by physical gold, the price of gold would have skyrocketed. A gold price significantly higher than today would point towards the inferiority of the fiat money system, and possibly the collapse or implosion of the current monetary system.
Bullion banks and gold industry organisations, such as the LBMA and the World Gold Council, which itself has developed and owns securitized gold products, can profit from gold trading volumes that are far higher than they would be if they were limited to the constraints imposed by the availability of physical gold to trade.
The bullion banks and the LBMA work hard to overcome the tangible limitations of physical gold mining. By promoting gold-less gold transacting, the LBMA unallocated system artificially increases the supply of gold, earning the banks higher fees from artificially large trading volumes.
To reiterate, the LBMA unallocated gold trading is a banking system based on fractional reserve banking which is all about exposure to the price of gold but not to gold itself.
The LBMA system is used to coordinate unallocated paper gold trading where ‘gold’ is created out of thin air, and the tiny physical reserves held are pooled and shared out among participants so as to minimise costly reserves and avoid gold bank runs.
When bullion banks need to allocate gold to the ETFs, such as to the SPDR Gold Trust (GLD) in London, they use credits from the same unallocated gold credit system as was previously used to offset other gold liabilities. Even though the ETF may own the gold outright, the gold is still being double counted within the system because its being allocated out of a bullion bank pooled systems of credits.
To summarize what the LBMA is all about, it is a paper gold protector for the bullion banks which allows the bullion banks to earn fees from an artificially high trade turnover while at the same time protecting the fiat currency system.
The Guarded Secret of no Gold
The fractionally-reserved bullion banking system is a fragile system. Many investors and savers holding paper gold believe that the gold they are holding is backed up by real physical gold. But if the bullion banking system implodes, which it will do if the high demand for real physical gold in Asia is sustained at anywhere near today’s levels, these holders of paper gold will at best end up holding paper claims which will be cash-settled, or at worst these paper gold holders will be empty-handed.
Demand for ETF’s and unallocated gold will likely not stress the system systemically since the pooled LBMA gold reserves are used for leasing and double counting. It is the demand for real physical gold, draining bank gold reserves, that stresses the system.
Many gold investors/savers buy various paper gold products as a means of protecting themselves against the fiat currency Ponzi scheme. It may therefore come as a surprise to some holders that these investments are no safer or even less safe than the fiat currency against from which they are seeking to protect themselves. Bullion banks give the impression that these investors into unallocated gold are actually holding gold, whereas in reality they are just unsecured creditors holding paper gold, gold that is created out of thin air, in a fractionally-reserved Ponzi scheme.
As long as everyone is happy to buy and sell ledger entries/book-keeping entries, this fragile system can continue to balance on a thin thread. The systemic problem arises when larger entities start to demand physical delivery, a trend which has been happening in the last few years, most notably in Asia and Russia. There is therefore an imminent risk of the bullion banking system collapsing in the next few years.
This is an accident waiting to happen, because when enough holders of paper gold ask for delivery, the default that will follow will trigger the biggest bank run for gold in history, which due to gold’s significance as a monetary proxy, will shake the entire monetary system.
When there is no longer any physical metal to deliver, the ensuing shortage will result in a disconnect between prices, in which paper gold will become worthless while the price of real physical gold will be revalued at a much higher level based on the market equilibrium for physical supply and demand of gold.
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