A popular phrase in segments of the mainstream financial media is that “You Can’t Eat Gold”. We don’t know who first uttered this comment, but it was more than likely a talking-head or Wall Street analyst on CNBC or Bloomberg.
The disparaging claim seems to be based on concluding that in a financial or monetary crisis, if you own gold, that “You Can’t Eat It”. And so, according to the logic of whoever came up with the phrase, this would make gold useless during a financial crisis.
In addition to the misleading and irrelevant nature of the comment, which we will discuss below, the claim that “you can’t eat gold” is actually factually wrong. And that is because you can eat gold. And also drink it.
Eating and Drinking Gold
While gold can be eaten, it cannot be digested. But it is non-toxic to the human body. And it does not react chemically in the human body. That is why gold can and does appear safely in a number of foods and drinks, not surprisingly foods and drinks which are predominantly at the luxury end of the market.
Some readers will have heard of Goldschläger, a Swiss/Italian liquor which has flakes gold suspended within it. On a similar note, a Swiss gin called ‘Studer Swiss Gold Gin’ also contains flakes of gold. Staying within Switzerland, you can also buy edible gold products including “Swiss chocolate truffles with gold flakes”. Not to be outdone by the Swiss, the Emirates Palace Hotel in Abu Dhabi (United Arab Emirates) offers a ‘Palace Cappucino” which is sprinkled with gold flakes.
In Selfridges department store in London, you can buy a “billionaires soft serve” ice cream cone topped with both sprinklings of gold leaf and a gold leaf covered flake. While in New York, in Manhattan’s Upper East Side, a high-end restaurant offers a "Golden Opulence Sundae” topped with gold leaf, for US$ 1000 a glass. Back in England, a specialist cheese producer in Leicestershire created Britain's most expensive cheese - "Clawson Stilton Gold", a stilton cheese interwoven with edible gold leaf and shot-through with gold liqueur. These uses of gold in food and beverages illustrate that gold is a sought after and prestigious substance, but also that gold is real, that gold is tangible and that gold is of value.
Wall Street's Selective Focus
The logic of the “you can’t eat gold” comment, as well as being wrong, is also flawed. Because by extension, you can’t eat any of Wall Street's favorite investment assets. Imagine chewing on financial securities or fiat currencies. But whoever coined the phrase “you can’t eat gold” conveniently failed to mention this on CNBC. We would challenge anyone, especially CNBC and MSNBC, to eat share certificates or bond certificates or the electronic equivalent thereof.
Nor can you eat the electronic coins of cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin, Ethereum’s Ether or Litecoin. Real assets such as art, antiques, real estate, agricultural land, or vintage cars are also off the menu. A possible exception is that can drink an expensive investment wine collection, but would you really want to do this, as then you would be consuming your principal investment?
Gold's Many and Varied Benefits
But beyond the fact that you can in fact eat gold, and that Wall Street never points out the non-edibility of stocks and bonds, there are many beneficial reasons to buy and own investment grade physical gold of which we recently pointed out in 28 reasons to buy and own physical gold. What we are talking about is real physical gold in the form of gold bars and gold coins. This is true both during times of financial crisis, and also over the long-term as a form of investment and savings.
Gold is without doubt the ultimate safe haven asset. In times of financial crisis and turmoil, investors and savers flock to gold as a wealth preservation strategy. The reason for investing in gold during times of crisis is based on the fact that investors instinctively know that the gold price behaves differently to the prices of other assets, particularly during crises. This is because the gold price moves independently of economic and business cycles.
In times of war and social upheaval, physical gold's benefits also come to the fore. Since gold has a high value to weight ratio, significant personal wealth can discreetly be carried in the form of gold across borders and frontiers and within areas of conflict.
Since gold is a universal money supported by a highly liquid global market, it will always be accepted everywhere at the going gold price. Gold can easily be sold. Gold can easily be traded or even bartered with, especially in non-functioning economies where the local paper currency has collapsed or has become worthless. The fact that gold coins are regularly issued to elite military personnel in areas of conflict attests to gold's critical benefits in times of monetary crisis and localized economic collapse.
Gold as Store of Value
But gold is not just of use during financial crises. It is also an essential asset to own over the long-term as a strategic form of saving and investment. Physical gold retains its purchasing power over long periods of time. This is in contrast to fiat currencies issued by the world's central banks, which generally lose most of their purchasing power over time. In other words, gold is a great hedge against inflation, as the gold price adjusts upwards to offset inflation. The gold price even adjusts to inflation expectations, hence it is sometimes called an inflation barometer and is watched like a hawk by central bankers because the gold price signals future inflation.
Physical gold is also an asset without counterparty risk. This is because when you own physical gold in the form of gold bars or gold coins, there are no counterparties. In other words, the physical gold that you own outright is no one else's liability. Nor are there any governments or central banks involved in issuing gold, or in trying to increase and debase its supply. Gold also lacks default risk, because it cannot default.
Physical gold is also inherently valuable because it is a scarce precious metal that is difficult and costly to mine and refine. Gold's price will never go to zero because it has a finite and significant production cost. Physical gold is difficult to counterfeit, impossible to create artificially, and cannot be debased.
These are just some of the reasons for buying and owning physical gold. Please see BullionStar's recent article"28 Reasons to Buy Physical Gold" for a list of reasons why you should consider buying physical gold.
Gold in Zimbabwe & Venezuela & South Korea
In the real world, owning physical gold can be of critical importance in scenarios where trust in a nation's money supply has evaporated, such as is currently the case in Venezuela or Zimbabwe.
Gold can also be of critical importance when entire nations suffer economic shocks. A case in point is the interesting experience of South Korea during the Asian financial crisis that swept the region in the late 1990s. This crisis left the South Korean economy severely impaired, with it’s currency, the Won, collapsing against the US dollar.
In addition to a bailout by the International Monetary Fund, the South Korean government also launched a patriotic campaign in early 1998 to actually collect physical gold from the South Korean citizens which was then sold on the international market to raise much-needed foreign currency. This collective campaign was pursued precisely because the South Korean government understood that gold is a high-quality liquid asset that has substantial value.
National Mobilization of Gold
By mid-March 1998, the South Korean citizenry had donated more than 220 tonnes of gold, worth over US$2 billion, in the form of investment gold coins and bars, and other gold in the form of rings, jewelry, and gold medals. More than 3 million households were said to have contributed. This collective mobilization of gold to overcome a nation's economic adversity and raise financing is a great illustration of how gold comes to the fore in a time of crisis, due to its store of value, safe haven, and high liquidity characteristics.
In conclusion, knowing the many compelling reasons to buy and hold gold, and how gold can sometimes be a lifeline in a time of crisis, the claim that "you can't eat gold" is exposed for what it is, misguided and disingenuous, and shows either ignorance on the part of the people who use it, or more likely, a deliberate intention to mislead and deceive.
Throughout human history, gold has constantly emerged as an unparalleled form of savings, investment and wealth preservation. Due to its unique characteristics and features, gold has inherent value and cannot be debased. When holding physical gold, there is no counterparty risk or default risk. Wealth in the form of gold can also be held and stored anonymously.
From its ability to retain its purchasing power over time, to its safe haven status in times of financial turmoil and uncertainty, to gold's ability to diversify investment risk, there are many and varied reasons to own physical gold in the form of investment grade gold bars and gold coins.
1. Tangible with Inherent Value
Physical gold is real and tangible. It is indestructible, impossible to create artificially, and difficult to counterfeit. Mining physical gold is arduous and costly. Physical gold therefore has inherent value and worth. In contrast, paper money doesn't have any inherent value.
2. No Counterparty Risk
Physical gold has no counterparty risk. When you hold and own gold bars and gold coins outright, there is no counterparty. In contrast, paper gold (gold futures, gold certificates, gold-backed ETFs) all involve counterparty risk.
Gold deposits are relatively scarce across the world and difficult to mine and extract. New supply of physical gold is therefore limited and explains why gold is a precious metal. Gold's scarcity reinforces it's inherent value.
4. Cannot be Debased
Because of its physical characteristics and features, gold cannot be debased, and gold supply is immune to political meddling. Compare this to fiat money supplies which are constantly being debased and destroyed via deficit government spending, central bank quantitative easing and financial system bailouts. On a survivorship scale, gold has far outlived all fiat currencies by thousands of years.
5. A 6000 Year History
Gold has played a central role in society for thousands of years from the early civilizations of ancient Egypt, right up to the contemporary era. Gold has facilitated international trade throughout history, has been directly responsible for the economic expansion and prosperity of numerous civilizations throughout history, and has even been, due to gold exploration and mining, the direct catalyst for the growth of some of today’s best-known cities such as San Francisco, Johannesburg, and Sydney.
6. Store of Value
Gold is a preeminent store of value. Physical gold, in the form of gold bars or gold coins, retains its purchasing power over long periods of time despite general increases in the price of goods and services.
In contrast, fiat currencies such as the US Dollar are not stores of value and their purchasing power consistently becomes eroded by inflation or the general increase in the price level. Fiat currencies have a long history of either becoming totally worthless and going out of circulation, or else becoming completely debased, such as the US dollar, while remaining in circulation.
Since the creation of the US Federal Reserve in 1913, the US dollar has lost over 98% of its value relative to gold, i.e. the US dollar has lost over 98% of its purchasing power relative to gold.
7. Long- Term Inflation Hedge
Physical gold’s ability to retain its purchasing power over time is sometimes referred to as the “Golden Constant”. This reflects the fact that gold’s purchasing power is constant over long periods of time. This ‘constant’ exists because the gold price adjusts to changes in inflation and future inflation expectations. Therefore, physical gold is a long-term hedge against inflation.
8. A 2500 Year Track Record as Money
Because of its ability to retain value and act as a store of value, physical gold has been used as money for over 2500 years. Gold coins were first issued in the Lydian civilization in what is now modern Turkey. Subsequently gold was used as a stable form of money in Persia, ancient Greece, ancient Rome, the Spanish and Portuguese Empires, the British Empire, and right through to the various international gold standards of the 20th century.
It was only in August 1971 that the US famously suspended the convertibility of the US dollar into gold, a move which triggered the debt fueled expansion that is still having repercussions within today’s monetary system.
To put gold’s monetary importance into perspective, for 97% of the last 2500 years, gold has been chosen by numerous sophisticated civilizations as the form of money par excellence and an anchor of stability, precisely because of its ability to retain its value.
9. Safe Haven
Physical gold acts as a safe haven asset in times of conflict, war and geopolitical turmoil. During the financial market stresses and heightened uncertainties caused by wars, conflicts and turmoil, the counterparty risk of most financial assets spikes. But since physical gold does not have any counterparty risk, investors rush to gold during these periods so as to preserve their wealth. This is analogous to sheltering in a safe harbor. Gold can thus be seen as a form of financial insurance against catastrophe.
10. Portable Anonymous Wealth
Gold bars and gold coins combine high value with high portability. In times of conflict and war, gold bars and gold coins are ideal for transporting wealth and savings across borders and within conflict zones in an anonymous fashion.
11. Universal Acceptance
Gold is universally accepted as money across the world, with the highly liquid global market always providing ample sales opportunities for gold bars and gold coins. This means that whichever city you are in across the world, you can always sell or trade your gold bars and gold coins.
12. Emergency Money
Military personnel are often issued with gold coins that they carry with them in conflicts zones as a form of emergency universal money. For example, the British Ministry of Defense often issues RAF pilots and SAS soldiers with Gold Sovereign coins to carry on their persons during combat missions and activities, such as in the Middle East.
13. Outside the Banking System
In the current era of global financial repression, physical gold is one of the few assets outside the financial system. Gold is not issued by any monetary authority or central bank or government. Because its not issued by any government or central bank, gold is independent of the banking system. Fully owned physical gold, if stored in a non-bank vault or held in one’s possession, is outside the banking system.
14. No Default Risk
Unlike a government bond, there is also no default risk with gold because it is not issued by any authority that could default. Gold bars and gold coins are no one else’s liability. Physical gold cannot go bankrupt or become insolvent. Therefore, there is no need to have to trust any other party when holding physical gold.
15. Portfolio Diversification
Adding an investment in gold to an existing portfolio of other investment assets such as stocks and bonds, reduces the volatility (risk) of the investment portfolio and can increase portfolio returns. This is because the gold price has a low to negative correlation with the prices of most other financial assets, because gold is less influenced by business cycles and macro-economic cycles than most other assets.
Numerous empirical studies by financial academics, as well as industry bodies, such as the World Gold Council, have validated gold’s role as a strategic portfolio diversifier. Optimal allocations to gold in multi-asset portfolios have found to be in the 5% to 10% range.
16. Currency Hedge
There is generally an inverse relationship between the gold price and the US dollar, in that the gold price generally moves in opposite directions to the US dollar. Therefore, holding gold can act as a currency hedge of the US dollar, and help manage the currency risk of portfolios denominated in US dollars.
17. Gold's Metallic Properties
Gold has many and varied metallic properties. These properties provide gold with many technological and commercial applications and uses, which in turn contribute as additional demand drivers in addition to the investment and monetary demand for gold.
Gold is highly ductile (can be drawn into very thin wire). It is also highly malleable (can be hammered and flattened into very thin film). Gold is a very good conductor of electricity and heat. Gold does not corrode or tarnish. It is chemically unreactive and non-toxic to the human body. Gold has a high luster and shine, and an attractive yellow glow.
These properties explain gold’s use in electrical and electronic wiring and circuits (e.g. computers and internet switches), its use in the medical and dental fields, gold’s use in solar panels, space travel, and gold’s traditional uses in jewelry, decoration, and ornamentation. With new technological uses being found for gold all the time, gold's demand pattern is diversified and underpinned by its commercial importance.
18. Physical gold - A tiny fraction of Paper Gold
The London wholesale gold market and the US-based COMEX gold futures market generate huge trading volumes of paper gold that dwarf the size of the physical gold market. However, these markets only trade derivatives on gold (futures and unallocated positions), representing fractionally-backed and unbacked claims on gold that could never be convertible into physical gold by claim holders.
In a scenario under which these paper gold markets became unsustainable, the prices of paper gold and physical gold would diverge, with the paper gold markets ceasing to trade and collapsing, and only physical gold retaining any real value. Physical gold is therefore an insurance against the collapse of the world's vast paper gold markets.
19. By Definition - Not an ETF
Physical gold Provides all the benefits that gold-backed Exchange Traded Funds (ETFs) do not. ETFs provide exposure to the gold price, not to gold. Holding physical gold is by definition direct exposure to gold. With most gold-backed ETFs, you cannot convert the units into gold and take delivery of the gold, and in many cases, the locations of the vaults are not even known. If holding physical allocated gold bars or gold coins in a vault, such as with BullionStar in Singapore, you can always take delivery.
Gold ETFs have many counterparty risks since there are many moving parts in an ETF such as a trustee, a custodian, and a sponsor / issuer. Physical gold has no counterparty risks. When you hold a gold-backed ETF, the quantity of gold backing the ETF declines over time due to management fees being offset against the gold holdings. When you hold physical gold, you always remain with 100% of the actual gold you first purchased. There is no erosion of holdings.
20. Anonymous Storage
Gold can be stored anonymously, either in your possession within your house or property, or in a vault in a jurisdiction, such as Singapore, that has no reporting requirements. Since gold has a high value to weight ratio, storing gold does not take up much space.
21. Independent of Internet
Owning physical gold is not reliant on having internet access and access to electronic wallets and cryptocurrency exchanges. Furthermore, gold cannot be stolen by hacking an electronic address or by transferring or deleting a number in a computer.
22. Real Gold is Measured by Weight
Physical gold is measured in weight, not through a number set by a politician or central banker. When you buy a 1 Kilo gold bar, or a 10 Tola gold bar, or a 1 troy ounce gold coin, or a 5 Tael gold bar, you will always have that gold bar or gold coin, irrespective of the fluctuations of fiat currencies.
While thinking of the value of physical gold in terms of a fiat currency might be convenient, a better way is to think of a gold holding in terms of weight.
23. Coins and Bars - Build a Collection
Buying investment gold bars and bullion gold coins allows you to build a diverse collection of bars and coins that are at the same time a fascinating pastime and a form of investment and saving.
Bullion gold coins from the world’s major mints are beautifully illustrated and often have a connection to history. Investment gold bars from the world's major gold refineries are distinctively different from each other and you can vary a collection by cast or minted bars, and a selection of weights.
24. Physical Gold Feels like Real Wealth
Physical gold feels like real wealth. When you hold ten 1 ounce gold coins in your hand, you intrinsically know that you are holding real wealth, gold that is scarce and that has been costly to produce.
25. Gold as Loan Collateral
Gold can be used as loan collateral. Since gold is highly liquid and valuable, it can be lent and used as a form of financing, and as a way of generating interest. The wholesale gold lending market between central banks and bullion banks is highly active. Likewise, retail gold holders can also in various ways lend their gold to receive financing or interest, with new innovations to do this arising all the time.
26. Central Banks hold Gold
Although the world’s central banks like to downplay the importance of gold because it competes with their fiat currencies, most central banks continue to hold substantial amounts of physical gold bars and gold coins in vaults around the world. They hold this gold as a reserve asset on their balance sheets, and they value this gold at market prices.
Like private gold investors, central banks hold physical gold because it is highly liquid, it lacks counterparty risk, and because gold is a safe haven or ‘war chest’ asset that acts as a financial insurance in times of crisis. Central banks also hold gold for the unpublished reason that if and when gold re-emerges at the centre of a new monetary system, these very same central banks will not be caught out having no gold.
27. Gold for Gifting
Gold coins and small gold bars make great gifts and presents, and gold is a traditional form of gifting in many societies around the world. Gifting a gold coin or small gold bar to mark a birth, or anniversary, or a wedding or other special occasion, is an ideal present that will be highly appreciated by the recipient.
28. Gold for Inheritance
Gold bars and gold coins are a great form of inheritance for your children and family members. Because gold is real, tangible, valuable, and has a highly liquid trading market, it is an ideal asset for inter-generational wealth transfers. Because physical gold is fabricated in convenient weight denominations, such as troy ounces and kilograms, it can be distributed equitably among recipients, and specified equitably in wills and trusts.
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.
Bullion banks are some of the most influential participants in the global gold market. But who are these players and what do they actually do? And most importantly, how can these bullion banks trade thousands of times more gold each year than is actually in existence?
This infographic lifts the lid on bullion banking, looking at the world of fractional-reserve paper gold trading built on the unallocated gold account system. Topics covered include:
The identities of these bullion banks
The fractional reserve nature of bullion banking and the paper gold creation process
How the staggeringly large paper gold trading volumes are generated
The gold price discovery process and how the price of gold is set in London by unallocated trading which channels gold demand away from real physical gold and into paper
The secretive nature of the bullion banking club and how its activities in the City of London are deliberately shrouded in secrecy
How new competitors into the London Gold Market claim to be providing competition but are actually perpetuating the underlying unallocated gold account system of trading
For more information about the mechanics of bullion banking, please also see BullionStar Gold University article Bullion Banking Mechanics.
To embed this infographic on your site, copy and paste the code below
The following speech, by BullionStar precious metals analyst Ronan Manly, was given to an audience during a Precious Metals Seminar held at BullionStar's shop and showroom premises in Singapore on 19 October 2016.
Good evening ladies and gentlemen, you are all very welcome to this event at BullionStar.
This evening, I will be discussing the topic of transparency versus secrecy in the gold market, and specifically looking at this transparency and secrecy by highlighting a number of areas of the gold market which claim to be transparent but which are in fact very secretive.
Transparency is an important concept in financial markets mainly because it encourages informational and market efficiency. Applied to the gold market for example, this would prevent larger gold traders having an information and trading advantage over the retail gold buying public such as ourselves. So transparency is not just an abstract concept, it has real world implications.
To illustrate this contradiction of transparency versus secrecy, I’ll look at two main sets of gold market participants:
- firstly the central bank or official sector, which includes central banks and organisations such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the Bank for International Settlements (BIS),
- and secondly the wholesale London gold market as represented by the London Bullion Market Association (LBMA) and its bullion bank members.
I have chosen the official sector and the investment sector since together they represent two of the largest areas of gold ownership and gold activity globally, with central banks claiming to hold about 33,000 tonnes of gold, and bullion banks being the largest traders of gold globally.
The London gold market, which is a wholesale gold market dominated by bullion banks, is also arguably the most influential market for gold price discovery. And as Torgny explained just now, these bullion banks are generally defined as the large commercial or investment banks involved in the wholesale gold market.
Central banks and bullion banks also overlap in the gold lending market which is also centred in London, and which is an ultra-secretive market, probably the most secret market on the planet.
The title of my talk actually stems from a recent article that I wrote about the 2010 International Monetary Fund (IMF) gold sales and how those sales were marketed by the IMF as being transparent but which in actual fact were the exact opposite - they were highly secretive, and information about those sales even remains highly classified to this day, six years later.
But first, let's quickly define what we mean by transparency. We are talking here about financial market transparency. A Transparent financial market is one in which, simply put, much is known by many.
In a transparent market, the market institutions are also transparent, and importantly, the institutions can be held to account - i.e. accountability.
In a transparent market there is also open exchange of information between all market participants, and accurate information is freely available about price, supply, demand and market transactions.
And one last point, which is very important, is that in a transparent market, the market data of that market is available and open to independent verification by investors and analysts. Which is totally not the case in the gold market as we'll see shortly.
In short, a transparent market is one in which all relevant information is freely and fully available to the public (and to all participants).
The opposite of transparency is obviously secrecy, which comes from the Latin ‘Secretus’ meaning hidden, concealed, and private. Secrecy at the extreme allows collusion to occur between market participants.
So the extent of transparency in a market can be visualised as a spectrum with transparency at one end of the scale and secrecy, or opacity, at the other.
Lack of transparency in market structure also contributes to lack of transparency in the derivation of market prices, in other words lack of transparency stifles price discovery, and also causes associated higher trading costs for market participants than would otherwise be the case.
Transparency is also a prerequisite for market efficiency. Simply put, market efficiency is the degree to which financial asset prices reflect or embody all available information.
An efficient market is also informationally efficient. This information efficiency requires competition, low barriers to entry, and very importantly, it requires low costs of information gathering. i.e. 'transparency'.
Some of you might be familiar with the work that Nobel prize-winning financial academic Eugene Fama did on market efficiency. I used to work at Dimensional Fund Advisors (DFA) which is an investment firm that subscribes to market efficiency and which actually has Eugene Fama on its board of directors. So this market efficient view was drilled into me.
But you don’t have to agree with market efficiency theory to see how it's linked to transparency. The more transparent a market is, the more information is available in that market, and therefore the more likely it is to be an efficient market.
The opposite of this is inefficient markets which can allow a situation to develop known as asymmetric information. That’s where some market participants possess far more information than others, who then have an advantage over others in trading and transacting.
There are some markets such as the stock market where there is a relatively high degree of transparency since individual companies have to maintain high standards of investor relations, high standards of corporate governance, and proper corporate communication because of the intense scrutiny under which the market puts those companies and also the in-built checks and balances that exist in common equity such as company voting rights.
Similarly in bond markets, be it sovereign bonds or corporate bonds, there is a high level of available market data about those markets, and in-depth information on the mechanics and market mechanisms of those markets.
There is a debate as to whether it’s the army of equity and bond analysts and hedge fund analysts actually scrutinising stock and bond markets that keeps them efficient, or whether those markets are inherently structurally efficient, but whatever the answer, stock and bond markets are generally considered to be quite efficient.
So, when I turned my attention to looking at the gold market a few years ago, it was actually quite a shock, at least when looking at the central bank and London Gold Market segments of the market, that there is little information of real substance available about the workings of these areas of the gold market, and also, and this is a critical point, there is a culture of secrecy in the gold market that I had never witnessed before in other financial markets.
Perhaps as surprisingly, is the fact that the gold and commodity market analysts working in the major investment banks in places like London and New York don't seem to ask the simple questions, at least in public, as to how the central bank and wholesale London gold markets actually work. This lack of scrutiny also extends, in my view, to the London financial media, who as far as I can see, almost never question how the gold market really works or question why the gold market is so secretive. Whatever most of these financial reporters actually do all day, they don't investigate the gold market. That is for sure.
Back in 2011 and 2012, I visited the Bank of England archives in London and the Banque de France archives in Paris a number of times and read and photographed a lot of files about central bank gold operations and transactions that took place between the 1960s and early 1980s, which I then subsequently researched using file copies that I had made.
Those documents made me realise that central banks and the large bullion banks used to regularly discuss the gold market, and also operated within it, and often the discussions and memos were classified and even Top Secret. There are literally hundreds of these files and memos on gold markets in the archives, if not thousands. So, my view is that although 30-40 years has passed since the 1960s - 1980s, and although technology and products have changed, that behind the scenes, the physical gold market is still pretty much the same, and still generates a lot of discussion by central banks and their bullion bank counterparts.
So when I see an opaque contemporary gold market and knowing that central banks and bullion banks used to discuss this gold market in-depth, it motivated me to research this area and try to find out how the contemporary gold market works, how its infrastructure and its transactions work, because I still think that central banks and bullion banks regularly and frequently discuss the market, although never in public.
Transparency claims by Central Banks
There are many examples where central banks claim transparency in their operations and policies, but where these claims don’t stand up to scrutiny when applied to their operations in the gold market. Given this contradiction, the only rationale conclusion is that the central banking sector merely pays lip-service to operating with transparency.
Let’s look at a few examples:.
We'll start with The Bank of England, one of the largest gold storage custodians in the world, also custodian for the UK's gold reserves, and also heavily involved in the London Gold Market in conjunction with the clearing group London Precious Metals Clearing Limited (LPMCL), and also central to facilitating lending in the London gold lending market. The Bank of England actually established the LBMA in 1987. So what does the Bank of England say about transparency? The Bank of England says:
“A transparent, accountable and well-governed central bank is essential not only for effective policy, but also for democratic legitimacy”
This quote comes from a Bank of England report in 2014 titled ‘Transparency and Accountability at the Bank of England’.
Next we have the transparency claims made by the European Central Bank.
“Today, most central banks, including the ECB, consider transparency as crucial.”
This quote actually come from the ECB's web site from a page entirely devoted to describing the ECB's supposed transparency.
Then we have the International Monetary Fund, with a transparency claim that it pronounced in relation to its 2010 IMF gold sales:
“The need for transparency and evenhandedness, which is essential for an international financial institution, argues for providing as much information as possible to the public”
So how do these organisations respond when asked questions related to the gold market? I've asked the Bank of England a number of gold related questions over the years, and their answers are mostly classic deflection, i.e. not answering the question. As an example, the Bank of England is involved in gold clearing in the London gold market, where each of the 5 clearing members of LPMCL maintain gold accounts at the Bank, and where the Bank of England clears the net positions of the 5 clearers (from the AURUM system) each day using book entry transfers (BETs) at the Bank of England. In effect, the Bank of England is the London Gold Market's central clearer.
So I asked the Bank of England to explain its role in this gold clearing? The Bank of England's answer...
"The Bank is not a member of LPMCL and therefore has no links to AURM. The LPMCL website should be able to answer most of your questions."
However, the LPMCL website has zero information about this process. So, as you can see, the Bank of England is engaging in disinformation and deflection. And this is an institution which claims to be gold custodian for 4857 tonnes of gold held in its London vaults.
The UK Government also claims that all of its departments are transparent and it even launched a 'Public Sector Transparency Board" in 2010 at which time it stated:
“We want transparency to become an absolutely core part of every bit of government business.”
However, the UK Treasury doesn't seem to have gotten this message about transparency, since Her Majesty's Treasury (HM Treasury), a UK government department, is even more uncooperative than the Bank of England in relation to gold market related questions. The UK's gold reserves are actually owned by HM Treasury and managed by the Bank of England in an account called the Exchange Equalisation Account (EEA).
I was recently writing an article about central banks that hold both gold bars and gold coins in their gold reserves. The UK holds some gold coins, including gold Sovereigns, in its gold holdings. These holdings of gold Sovereigns are actually mentioned in the UK National Archives files as well as in the Bank of England archives.
So I asked HM Treasury what any reasonable person would consider an innocuous question about HMT's gold coin holdings, and I even included the links to the Archive websites that discuss the HM Treasury gold sovereign holdings:
Can you clarify which gold coins are held as part of the EEA gold holdings, it is gold Sovereigns?"
Not surprisingly, HM Treasury replied:
“Data on the composition of the EEA’s gold is not disclosed due to its market sensitive nature”
HM Treasury actually wrote an entire page to me as an answer while deflecting the question and padding it out with irrelevant material which had nothing to do with my question.
What about the ECB, an institution which holds over 500 tonnes of gold reserves. More transparency than the aloof British institutions? Actually, far from it. As preparation for this presentation, I sent a question to the media department of the ECB asking:
"Where is the ECB gold held, how is it audited, and can you send me a weight list?"
Answer? After two weeks, and 2 emails (including a follow-up), there is no answer from the ECB media team, i.e. complete radio silence.
[Note, since this presentation, the ECB responded after I sent additional emails to them. Their response said that the ECB gold is held in 5 locations in London, Paris, New York, Rome and Lisbon. The ECB hold is not physically audited at all since the ECB considers the central banks that hold it to be 'totally reliable, and no surprise, the ECB will not publish a weight list of the gold bars which it claims to hold since it says that "the weight of each gold bar is a technicality" and " does not warrant a publication“. See BullionStar blog "European Central Bank gold reserves held across 5 locations. ECB will not disclose Gold Bar List" for full details.]
Next we come to the Bank for International Settlements (BIS), the central bankers' central bank, based in Basel, Switzerland.
In a 2007 presentation, the BIS actually had a slide titled the ‘Golden Triangle of central bank autonomy’ where it links the concepts of Transparency, Accountability, and Autonomy and says that transparency is "important for holding central bank to account", while accountability is the "crucial counterpart of autonomy in open society" as it "makes transparency more credible".
The BIS holds its own gold holdings on its balance sheet, as well as holding gold as a custodian on behalf of other central banks, and it also offers these banks a gold deposit taking service. Altogether these BIS holdings represent over 900 tonnes of gold.
So you may think maybe the BIS takes these transparency claims seriously, for example in the gold market, especially given its fondness for gold with the Golden Triangle analogy. However, unfortunately no.
Quite recently, I asked the BIS about its gold as follows:
:Can you confirm the storage locations of the BIS custody gold and the BIS’ own gold?"
The BIS answered:
'I regret that we cannot be of assistance with your query, as the information that you have requested is not made publicly available.”
So it seems that the only gold that the Bank for International Settlements will talk about is the 'gold' in its ‘Golden Triangle’ gimmick of Transparency, Accountability, and Autonomy. In the real world, transparency does not apply to the BIS real gold. Another example of the fiction and deception practiced by central bankers.
IMF Gold Sales
As mentioned earlier, the title of my talk is based on some research I did on the gold sales of the International Monetary Fund which I wrote about recently. Between November 2009 and December 2010, the IMF sold 403.3 tonnes of gold in a series of off-market and on-market sales. The off-market sales were direct sales to a number of central banks: 200 tonnes to India in November 2009, 10 tonnes to Sri Lanka, 2 tonnes to Mauritius, and later on in late 2010, 10 tonnes to Bangladesh.
Then 181.3 tonnes of gold were sold via ‘on-market’ transactions over 10 months between February to December 2010. You might think that "on-market" means that the gold was sold on a well recognised market somewhere, but this was not the case, or at least we don't know what market was used since the entire operation was and is still secret.
When these 'on-market' sales began in February 2010, the IMF came out with a statement saying “A high degree of transparency will continue during the sales of gold on the market”.
Actually, the well-known gold investor and entrepreneur, Eric Sprott, was starting a gold fund at that time and went to the IMF saying that he was interested in buying the entire 181.3 tonnes of IMF gold, but the IMF quickly told him his money wasn't good with them. The well-known website Business Insider then asked the IMF a series of questions on why Sprott couldn't buy the IMF gold. These questions were also either arrogantly not answered or dismissed by the IMF’s external communications officer.
Last year, when looking at the IMF online archives for a different reason, I stumbled upon 3 IMF reports titled 'Monthly gold sales' which actually covered the first 3 months of these sales in 2010, i.e. Monthly reports on gold sales for February / March 2010, March / April 2010, and April / May 2010. These reports contained some, but not a lot, of information about the sales process and seemed to indicate that the BIS had been used as the sales agent. I wrote about these reports in my blog and you can find all the details on the BullionStar website.
But a footnote in the 3 monthly reports caught my eye since it referenced 2 further IMF papers as follows:
“Modalities for Limited Sales of Gold by the Fund (SM/09/243, 9/4/09) and DEC/14425-(09/97), 9/18/09“.
SM stands for "Staff Memorandums" which are classed under the IMF's Executive Board Documents series. DEC stands for ‘Text of Board Decisions’, which are also Executive Board Documents. These 2 document titles looked interesting and relevant, however, when I checked, neither of these 2 documents appeared to be retrievable in the IMF archives. The IMF have a 3 year rule on releasing Executive Board Documents into their archives, so both of these documents should have been available by at least 2013, and definitely by 2015.
So I went to the IMF archives people with 2 sets of questions. Firstly, could they confirm where these 2 missing documents were, the staff memorandum about the IMF gold sales, and the text of the board decision about the same sales.
Secondly, in a separate question, I asked the IMF archives staff where the other 7 monthly gold sales reports that were missing were, since logically, as these gold sales were conducted over 10 months, one would expect 10 monthly reports in the IMF archives, not just 3 reports covering February to the middle of May 2010.
After a large number of email exchanges with the IMF Archives people about the staff memorandum and the text of the Executive Board decision, they ultimately responded and said:
“these two documents are still closed because of the information security classification”
“The decision communicated back to us is not to declassify these documents because of the sensitivity of the subject matter.”
On the 7 missing monthly gold sales reports, the IMF responded that:
"The reports after May 2010haven’t been declassified for public access because of the sensitivity of the subject matter."
So as you can see from the slide, there is absolutely nothing transparent about these gold sales when the documents relating to them have not even been declassified due to the supposed "sensitivity of the subject matter".
So the IMF's claims that “The need for transparency and evenhandedness, which is essential for an international financial institution, argues for providing as much information as possible to the public” is actually a complete lie. And this is an institution which still claims to hold 2815 tonnes of gold.
Based on the IMF archive rules, these Executive Board Documents can only be declassified on the authorisation of the IMF Managing Director, who is currently MS Christine Lagarde. I'm not making this up. I did think of maybe sending her an email asking 'Please can you declassify these documents' but then I thought what's the point, it wouldn't be any use.
My personal theory is that some or all of these sales involved the IMF using the BIS to transfer gold to either the Chinese State (People's Bank of China), or else helping to bail out bullion banks by selling IMF gold to a set of bullion banks, or both of these scenarios.
It looks like we'll have to wait a long time to find out the exact answers, but this incident hopefully illustrates to you that in the official sector gold market, Transparency really does mean Secrecy. So, gold is not just a 'Pet Rock', as the Wall Street Journal would have you believe. In the IMF world, gold is a topic whose discussions remain highly classified due to the sensitivity of the subject matter.
The Secrecy of Gold Storage Locations
Last year in 2015 I did some research on which central banks stored gold at the Bank of England's vaults in London, and how much each bank stored there. This required asking a number of central banks, by email, about their gold storage locations. While a few such as the Bank of Korea told me that they store their gold at the Bank of England vaults, many central banks didn't divulge this information. Lets look at a few examples:
The Banca d’Italia, one of the biggest central bank gold holders in the world, which holds 2450 tonnes of gold, half of it in Rome, said “The Banca d'Italia will not be giving information in addition to the website note.
The Bank of Japan, which claims to hold 765 tonnes of gold: “We have nothing to comment on the matter”.
The South Africa Reserve Bank (or SARB), a holder of 125 tonnes of gold: “The SARB cannot divulge that information”
The Spanish central bank claims to hold 280 tonnes of gold. They replied to me that: “The only information provided [to the public] on Banco de Espana's gold reserves is total volume [held]”
Between them, these 4 banks claim to hold more than 3,600 tonnes of gold, and they won't even provide a breakdown of where their gold is stored.
Since we happen to be in Singapore at the moment, what about the central banks in the local South east Asian region? Do you think these central banks would be more transparent than some of the examples we've just looked at, or less transparent, or about the same when it comes to gold storage locations?
As it turns out, they're pretty much the same, i.e. not transparent. The Bank of Thailand replied “I could not share that information as requested”.
The Malaysian central banksaid “If the information you require is not on our website [which it's not], it may imply that the said information is not meant for public viewing / reference”. Since they knew that this storage information is not on their website (hence the question), this is a particularly lame response from Bank Negara Malaysia.
TheMonetary Authority of Singapore, here in Singapore replied that “We are unable to share with you where we store the gold as the information is confidential.”
The Bank of Thailand claims to hold 152 tonnes of gold reserves, Singapore 127 tonnes, and Malaysia 36 tonnes, that's 315 tonnes of gold where central banks in the region won't say where its held.
These central banks we've just looked at were actually some of the central banks which did bother to respond to me. Many central banks such as the central banks in Lebanon, Kuwait, Jordan, Morocco, Kazakhstan and Cambodia didn't even respond.
Where are the Central Bank gold bar Weight Lists?
Another huge area for central bank secrecy on gold is the topic of weight lists, or gold bar lists. A gold bar weight list is, as the name suggests, just an itemised list of all the gold bars held within a holding that uniquely identifies each bar. In the wholesale gold market, such as the London Gold Market, there are rules on the data that this list has to contain.
These rules are specified in the LBMA's "Good Delivery Rules", actually in Annex H which is titled "Sample Weight Lists". For each gold bar on a weight list, and these are the large variable weight bars which each roughly weighs 400 ozs, it must include the bar serial number, the refiner name, the gross weight of the bar in troy ounces, the gold purity of the bar and the fine weight of the bar (i.e. the gold content weight). The LBMA also state that "year of manufacture is one of the required ‘marks’ on the bar"
The Good Delivery Rules annex even states that “This Annex shows the form of weight lists that should accompany shipments of GD bars to London vaults”, which confirms that all gold bars entering and exiting the London vaults will be on such a list.
The large gold-backed Exchange Traded Funds (ETFs) such as the SPDR Gold Trust (GLD), which holds nearly 1,000 tonnes of gold, and the iShares Gold Trust (IAU), actually produce and publish weight lists of their gold bar holdings in pdf format each and every trading day. It's not a big deal and it doesn't take long to produce these lists because the process is automated from the vault to the custodian back office all the way to the ETF websites.
For example, here's a line item for an iShares gold bar weight list, where you can see the refiner name PAMP, the bar serial number, the purity, and the bar weight (gross and fine weight). It even says where the bar is stored, in JP Morgan's vault in London.
BrandBar No.AssayGross OzsFine Ozs Vault
PAMP. SA. TC7490 9998 413.425 413.342 JPM London V
A full weight list is also needed when completing a physical gold bar audit, which is something that the large gold-backed ETFs perform twice per year.
So you would think that since commercial gold-backed ETFs produce gold bar weight lists, then central banks should be able to also? And given that large central banks have large teams of technology staff, and good IT infrastructure, that it will not be a big issue for them to produce such a weight list, in either pdf or Excel format.
However, the reality is that not a single central bank, when asked, will produce and publish such a gold bar weight list.
Koos Jansen, precious metals analyst at BullionStar, recently asked the Dutch central bank, De Nederlandsche Bank (DNB), to provide a weight list.
The De Nederlandsche Bank, which holds gold in Amsterdam, London (Bank of England), and New York, replied:
“We do not intend to publish a gold bar list. This serves no additional monetary purpose to our aforementioned transparency policy, however it would incur administrative costs.”
Frankly, this reply from the Dutch is an absurd and infantile excuse and is implausible since gold-backed ETFs produce pdf versions of their gold bar weight lists on their websites each and every trading day which run into hundreds of pages in length.
In preparation for this presentation, I recently asked the Austrian central bank (the OeNB) the same question, could they provide a weight list. The Austrian central bank holds 280 tonnes of gold, 80% of which is currently stored in London at the Bank of England. The OeNB's response was:
“We are sorry to inform you that the Oesterreichische Nationalbank (OeNB) does not publish a weight list of the gold reserves.”
Last year in October 2015, the German Bundesbank issued a useless list of its gold bar holdings, useless since the industry standard required refiner brand and bar serial number details were omitted from the weight list. As the Bundesbank, which claims to hold 3,378 tonnes of gold, stated at the time:
“Information on the refiner and year of production are not relevant for storage or accounting purposes and merely provide supplementary information.”
This continual accumulation of evidence that central banks refuse to issue industry standard gold bar weight lists suggests that there seems to be a coordinated campaign between central banks never to release this information into the public domain.
FOIA: Central Bank of Ireland
The Central Bank of Ireland holds 6 tonnes of gold, the majority of which, according to its annual report, is in the form of “gold bars held at the Bank of England”. In June 2015, I submitted a Freedom of Information Request to the Central Bank of Ireland asking for a weight list / bar list that identifies these bars of gold held on behalf of the Central Bank of Ireland by the Bank of England.
My request was refused by the central bank. The FOIA reply mentioned that the Central Bank of Ireland didn’t have a weight list, and couldn’t find one. Their exact reply was:
“the record concerned does not exist or cannot be found after all reasonable steps to ascertain its whereabouts have been taken.”
The only documentation the Central Bank of Ireland claimed to have was a statement from the Bank of England dated 2009 which listed a 'total' of the number of bars stored on behalf of the Central Bank of Ireland and an equivalent total in 'fine ounces', but they said that could not provide this statement to me on the basis that it could have “serious, adverse effect on the financial interests of the State”.
I followed up with a phone call to the FOIA officer who had handled my request (as is the procedure) and was told that the Central Bank of Ireland had conducted 2 conference calls with the Bank of England about my request, with the second conference call even including a 'chief security officer' from the Bank of England FOI office, and that the Bank of England told the Central Bank of Ireland that 'you absolutely cannot' send this statement out to this guy with bars total and fine ounces since its 'highly classified'.
While you will note the conflict that arises when a request made under the Freedom of Information Act of one country (Ireland) can allow interference from the central bank of another country (the Bank of England) in determining its outcome, the pertinent point here is that the Bank of England views the topic of gold bars as ‘highly classified’.
Given that the Central Bank of Ireland reports to the Minister of Finance who, as part of the Irish Government, works on behalf of the citizens of Ireland, this refusal shows that the Central Bank of Ireland is not in the least bit transparent or accountable to its citizens, especially about a topic as important as its gold bar holdings.
Fully Opaque - Central Bank Exemptions on Trade and Reporting
There are many other areas of central bank secrecy in the gold market that make a mockery of their transparency claims. The gold that central banks hold on their balance sheets as official reserves alongside major currencies and Special Drawing Rights (SDRs) is conveniently defined as by the IMF as a ‘financial asset’ and so is exempt from international merchandise trade statistics. Therefore, central banks can transport gold between countries and foreign locations and no on will ever know, since customs authorities are prohibited from reporting on these gold movements.
Central Bank accounting of gold holdings is another area of complete secrecy where the reporting does not follow international norms, and where for most central banks, ‘Gold and Gold Receivables' are reported as one line item. This ‘get out clause’ accounting rule for central banks arose from lobbying of the IMF at the BIS in Basel in 1999 by a group of European central banks including the Bank of England, Bundesbank and Banque de France when they forced the IMF to drop plans to split out gold receivables such as gold loans and gold swaps, since, in the words of the bullying central banks, the data was ‘highly market sensitive’.
As you can see, the words ‘highly classified’, ‘sensitivity of the subject matter’, ‘highly market sensitive’, ‘confidential’, and ‘not publicly available’ are all different forms of the same thing, i.e. they reflect a culture of secrecy, where aloof and arrogant central bankers think that they have a mandate to cover up market sensitive information and not allow free markets to operate efficiently nor allow free market price discovery to work.
This arrogant and misguided behavior by central banks is not surprising given their constant meddling and intervention in all things market related. Again, the mainstream financial media will never discuss this, preferring to be invited as ‘embedded reporters’ for freebies at events such as the LBMA conference that we’ve just attended here in Singapore.
London Gold Market and the LBMA
We now look at the London Gold Market, its industry representative body, the London Bullion Market Association (LBMA) and its bullion banking members. The LBMA has recently begun to make soundings that it wishes to improve transparency in the London bullion market, a desire which is partially in the context of a UK regulatory Fair and Efficient Markets Review (FEMR).
However, this newly found sense of duty by the LBMA for transparency is hard to believe when you realise that the gold market today is even less transparent than it was 20 years ago.
In January 1997, the LBMA published Issue 6 of its magazine ‘The Alchemist’ and devoted the entire issue to the theme of Transparency, even going so far as to title the cover page “Towards Transparency”. The very title of the publication, ‘Towards Transparency’, conceded that the London Gold Market was not transparent at that time and admitted that the bullion market was secretive and lacking in information and data.
There was an introduction to that issue written by the then chairman of the LBMA, Alan Baker, who worked at Deutsche Bank at the time. I want to share with you just the first few lines of that introduction since its quite eye-opening:
Alan Baker wrote:
“The bullion market is oftencriticised by observers for being secretive and lacking in information and data. Unfortunately, to an extent, this is inevitable given the need for a duty of care to clients which dictates that a high level of discretion is an essential element in so much of the business that takes place in the market, particularly for gold.
While discretion and integrity will always be bywords in the London Bullion Market, the LBMA is nevertheless conscious of the general call for greater transparency. With this in mind we have considered ways in which to enhance transparency in the market while in no way compromising integrity, something perhaps of a delicate balancing act.”
Therefore, we have a situation where the ‘Towards Transparency’ era of January 1997 has not only not improved, but it's actually gone backwards. So if January 1997 was ‘Towards Transparency’ what exactly should 2017 be called, perhaps ‘Still Towards Transparency but quite a way to Go’?
There was also an article in Issue 6 of the Alchemist about GOFO, the Gold Offered Forward Rate (GOFO), which also had a notable quote about what the London gold forward market was like before GOFO was introduced in 1989. The author of that article, Martin Stokes of JP Morgan, quoted Winston Churchill, saying that before 1989, the gold forward market was “a riddle shrouded in mystery wrapped up in an emigma”, and that ‘transparency was non-existent’.
The January 1997 issue of the Alchemist covered 3 developments of the time which the LBMA considered as moves towards transparency:
The launch of clearing statistics for the London gold and silver markets
The publication of trading data from a 1998 survey by the Bank of England
The launch of a London Gold Lease Rate page by the LBMA on the Reuters terminal to compliment the GOFO rates that the LBMA had begun publishing in 1989.
Now, fast forward nearly 20 years from January 1997 to practically January 2017, and what do we have? What we have is:
The same high level practically useless rolled-up London gold and silver market clearing data each month which doesn’t really explain anything since it’s not granular enough, and which baffles people more than anything due to the phenomenally large clearing volumes stated in the data
There was a trading survey in Q1 2011 but nothing since then, nothing in nearly 6 years
GOFO has been discontinued since January 2015
So the question needs to be asked, what happened to this “general call for greater transparency” back in 1997?
Looking at the ‘London Gold Market’ in 2016, there is:
No trade reporting, physical or otherwise, Monthly Clearing data is practically meaningless
No data on the size of unallocated gold positions in the market
No confirmation of the identities of central bank & bullion bank customers at the Bank of England
Commercial gold vault locations in London are not published by the LBMA
No official data about the London Gold Lending Market. Zero!
GOFO and Forward Curve submissions were discontinued by January 2015
The LBMA ‘Moved the goalposts” – as they altered 2013 refining production figures from 6600 to 4600 tonnes after I had reported on the original numbers, thereby obscuring the fact that a few thousand tonnes of large bar wholesale gold left the London market for Switzerland, where it was melted down into kilobars and shipped to markets in Asia.
This list is just a sample. There are plenty of other areas where there is no transparency in the LBMA controlled London Gold Market.
As mentioned, the LBMA has recently been making soundings that it will improve transparency in the London bullion market, specifically in the context of trade reporting. There was even a slide titled “LBMA’s commitment to enhance transparency” in one of its Singapore conference presentations that addressed trade reporting and the appointment of BOAT Services and Cinnober as the planned provider of a London gold and silver market trade reporting service in the first quarter of 2017.
But this new awareness of transparency seems, in the first instance, to be being undertaken for regulatory reasons and to optimise something called the Net Stable Funding Ratio (NSFR) which is a Basle Committee concept for banking sector stability. So transparency for transparency's sake and for the benefit of the smaller participants in the global bullion market is not the raison d'être.
Furthermore, the LBMA has made it clear that central banks will be exempt from any 'transparency' that may arise out of the planned London bullion market trade reporting project in 2017. In a letter dated January 2015 to the Bank of England Fair and Efficient Markets Review, the LBMA wrote that:
"it is worth noting, that the role of the central banks in the bullion market may preclude ‘total’ transparency, at least at public level, but that transparency could be increased via post-trade anonymised statistical analysis of nominal volumes, provided by the clearing banks."
As to what exactly the role of central banks is in the bullion market, the LBMA did not say, nor did the Bank of England query. But I think we can conclude that this nudge-nudge wink-wink codespeak about central banks' operations in the bullion market is exactly as it appears to be, i.e. nefarious.
So here again we see that central banks are going to be given an exemption from transparency, i.e. central bank trading in the London Gold Market will remain opaque, with the blessing of the LBMA and the banking regulators. The post-trade anonymised statistical analysis unfortunately looks like it will be another stitch up and cop-out, and as useless a set of data as any data that gets deliberately rolled-up and masked.
In conclusion, why do central banks refuse to release details of the serial numbers of their gold bars Because after all, If the gold is allocated, then there shouldn't be an issue. This secrecy around weight lists appears to be deliberate.
In my view, the reason for non-publication of central bank weight lists is because of gold lending. If a gold bar serial number turned up in the weight list of an ETF, then it would become clear that the ETF was holding borrowed gold that the central bank still claimed to hold. And the more lent gold that appears in transparent gold holdings such as ETF weight lists, the more the wider gold market knows the extent of the gold lending market. The same would be true of gold for US dollar swaps.
Similarly, if a gold bar turns up in one central bank's list when it was previously in another central bank's holding, this could suggest undisclosed central bank gold sales or alternatively it could suggest a location swap, where gold was swapped between holdings at two different gold depositories / vaults.
Publishing a central gold bar list would forever more also allow those bars to be independently traced with a high accuracy due to the serial number - refiner brand - year of manufacture attributes.
So there appears to be a concerted and coordinated effort by central banks, most likely formulated and imposed by the large gold custodians, to absolutely prevent any central bank gold bar weight list from ever being published anywhere.
However, in my view, there are other reasons for the secrecy. Like major currencies, monetary gold is a reserve asset on the balance sheets of central banks, and like major currencies, gold can be used for international payments, gold swaps, and for interventions into fx and gold markets. Monetary gold is also a strategic asset, what the Bank of England called a ‘war chest’, or the ultimate store of value. The Bank of England also described the rationale for holding gold as an insurance policy against gold making a re-appearance at the centre of the international monetary system
There is also a general culture of secrecy in central banking and an aloofness where central banks don’t feel obliged to justify their policies and decisions due to an entitlement issue with ‘independence’.
Turning to bullion banks, and to put it simply, these large banks are commercial enterprises, and they wish to protect their status quo and also to protect their profit margins. This motivation goes back to asymmetric information, where one party possesses more information than the other.
However, for investment banks, some of the superior knowledge relative to the wider gold market is obtained, not because of superior skill, but because of being able to operate in an environment where secrecy is not just tolerated, but where secrecy is actively protected by the industry body (LBMA) and the regulators (the Financial Conduct Authority and the Bank of England).
Although central banks and large bullion banks often have different motives in the gold market, their motives align in protecting the market’s secrecy. Taken central bank secrecy and bullion bank secrecy together, the phrase ‘A riddle shrouded in mystery wrapped up in an emigma’ is unfortunately still an excellent description for the entire London Gold Market.
In what was an extraordinary day for global financial markets, and a day which will no doubt become legendary and enter folk memory in the UK and elsewhere, the electorate of the United Kingdom voted 51.9 % to 48.1% to leave the European Union. As the first count results began trickling in during the very early hours of Friday morning London time from northern England constituencies such as Newcastle and Sunderland, the cosy optimism that had prevailed in the Remain camp became increasingly agitated as the voting majority swung to the Leave side and quickly snowballed, in what was a shock to many.
The Sterling – Dollar cable rate plummeted, gold took off, especially in GBP, and BBC presenters became increasingly stony-faced and pale looking. By 3:40am UK time, Leave was ahead by 500,000 votes, and just an hour later the major UK networks of first ITV and then the BBC called the election to the Leave camp. Nigel Farage, promoter of the Leave side and leader of the UK Independence Party (UKIP), who had earlier conceded then un-conceded defeat, reappeared to the press and when asked what he would do next announced that he was going for a celebratory drink. As Farage and his boisterous entourage were undoubtedly finding a suitable early hostelry to settle into in Westminster, an ashen-faced British Prime Minister David Cameron appeared in Whitehall to announce his resignation in what had already become a day of records.
Gold & Silver Prices
All this time gold was soaring and the British Pound was folding. Gold in GBP started moving at 2:45am UK time when it was at £852, and as the voting tide turned, gold in GBP peaked at 5:30am at approximately £1004, an 18% move in less than 3 hours. GBP gold then fell slightly from the peak and has settled into a roughly £950 to £960 range.
US Dollar gold, which had been as low as $1250 before the voting pattern emerged, surged past $1300 before 3am UK time, and peaked at just under $1340 before 6am UK time, for an up move of 90 bucks, before it too fell back slightly into a range of $1310 to $1325.
GBP - USD suffered an unprecedented fall by over 11% at one stage today, moving down 18 cents at one point from $1.50 to a 31-year low of $1.32, a level not seen since mid-1985. It was since recovered partially to trade at $1.375, still down over 8% on the day.
The Euro weakened significantly against major currencies, one of the reasons being that the uncertainty of the UK’s exit from the EU may precipitate further defections that could include a Eurozone member country. FTSE equity indices fell sharply intraday before recovering somewhat. Bank shares were hammered especially the shares of UK and European banks.
Gold - Flight to Safety
The massive moves and volatility spikes caught much of the financial markets off-guard, hence the dramatic price movements and flight to safety. As gold was bid, it has yet again proved its role as one of the world’s preeminent safe havens and protectors of wealth that investors will flock to in times of crisis and fiat currency uncertainty. According to ICBC Standard Bank, as cited by the Financial Times, the Shanghai Gold Exchange traded a record equivalent of 143 tonnes of gold during its trading day today – 24th June. One person who seems to have been confident of a Leave win is Arron Banks, a rich donor to the Leave side. He was said to have commissioned a poll of 10,000 people (which is a large sample size), and the results of this poll, released today, revealed a 52 – 48 win for Leave. So perhaps some hedge funds and investment banks were privy to similar data last night.
Central Bank Intervention
The world’s major central banks, who were meeting in Basel at the Bank for International Settlements this week, may appear to have been also blindsided by the election result, however, being the conservative types, they seem to have been prepared for this contingency and have, in a not too subtle way, indicated their collective intention to intervene in the FX and funding markets in a coordinate fashion, and with total disregard of the free functioning of financial markets. Central banks are by their very nature interventionist, meddling and secretive in their interventions, so this is hardly surprising. However, its more blatant than usual.
The Bank of England announced that it “will continue to pursue responsibilities for monetary and financial stability relentlessly”. This use of ‘relentlessly, is quite ominous bank-speak and could even suggest intervention in the gold market, since after all, the Bank of England houses its FX and Gold operations on the same desk and is allowed to use all assets of the HM Treasury’s Exchange Equalisation Account (EEA) to pursue monetary stability. So some ‘smoothing operations’ or ‘stabilisation operations’ on the gold price by the Bank of England (or by the BIS) are not beyond the bounds of possibility. In fact, it is logical for the major central banks to intervene in the gold market since they do not want gold to play the role of canary in the coalmine as this counters their ‘stability’ meme.
The ECB said this morning that it “stands ready to provide additional liquidity in Euro and foreign currency, in close contact with other central banks
In its statement today, the Bank of Japan said that it has ”a network of currency swap arrangements is already established by the central banks of major countries. The Bank of Japan will take appropriate measures as necessary, including activation of this network”.
Meanwhile, the US Federal Reserve announced that it is "carefully monitoring developments in global financial markets, in cooperation with other central banks,….The Federal Reserve is prepared to provide dollar liquidity through its existing swap lines with central banks, as necessary, to address pressures in global funding markets..”
Not to be outdone, the Swiss National Bank (SNB) didn’t just threaten to intervene, it did intervene today as the ‘Swiss franc came under upward pressure’. According to an email sent to Bloomberg by the SNB “has intervened in the foreign exchange market to stabilize the situation and will remain active in that market”.
Demand for Physical Gold
BullionStar saw noticeably higher website traffic today with higher demand and sales than normal, but BullionStar does not have the shortages in inventories that are being reported by other dealers. In fact, BullionStar has plenty of stock.
Where there does seem to be tightness in the physical gold market is in the London wholesale market, where gold has now flowed into London from Switzerland for 3 consecutive months (69 tonnes in May, 80 tonnes in April, and over 40 tonnes in March), most likely to top up gold holdings of the SPDR Gold Trust, whose inventory has now recorded a latest multi-year high of 915.9 tonnes. This importation of gold into London from Switzerland does seem to indicate that there is not much free float of gold sloshing around the London Gold Market.
The seismic shifts brought about by today’s extraordinary day in the UK will not settle quickly and may only just be the beginnings of further tremors that have been unwittingly released in into the global economic system. Politically, the UK is in a place where it did not think it would be. Cameron is resigning, Boris Johnson is favourite to take his place, and there is pressure on the opposition Labour leader Corbyn to resign with accusations that he is out of touch with the electorate. In the financial markets, the major banks are in deep trouble and dollar funding is an issue, even according to the central bank interventionalists. In such a climate of evaporating paper wealth, gold, and to an extent silver, are stepping forward to play their traditional roles of war chest assets, assets with real intrinsic value.
This London Gold Market infographic guides you through the secretive OTC wholesale gold market in London. The London Gold Market is the largest gold market in the world and the volumes traded are staggering.
The London Market serves as a price discovery market for the worldwide gold spot price and is home to the London Bullion Market Association (LBMA).
London is also a hub for gold storage with 6,500 tonnes of gold stored in gold vaults around London.
In this infographic you will learn about the importance of the London Gold Market considering
Many topics in the world of gold are opaque and secretive, none more so than the famed gold vaults of the world’s major central banks and their bullion banking counterparts. BullionStar Gold University is now bringing transparency to this intriguing yet under-reported area by profiling the largest and most important of these gold vaults.
According to the vault owners and the information that they divulge, these gold vaults officially store over 16,500 tonnes of gold, which is approximately half of all reported central bank gold reserve holdings. That’s also nearly 10% of all the gold ever mined in the world. This in itself makes knowledge of these vaults important.
From the labyrinthine Bank of England gold vaults storing nearly 5,000 tonnes of gold in custody for over 70 central bank customers, to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York's subterranean gold vaults housing nearly 6,000 tonnes of gold on behalf of 36 foreign central banks and the US Treasury, this BullionStar series brings together information about these vaults that has never before been documented in one place.
Where are the vaults located? Who are their customers? What type of gold bars are stored there? How are the vaults laid out? When were they constructed? These are just some of the questions covered in BullionStar’s Gold Vault series. Only on rare occasions have reporters, camera crews or other observers been allowed to access these vaults and document their layouts and contents. We have included a media section in the profiles where possible to point you to these sources.
Witnessing such large quantities of gold bars stored in one single place seems to create a profound and similar impact on the observers regardless of which vault they have visited.
“I’m speechless when exploring the Sacristy, , … you don’t see this every day” - Alberto Angel, reporter RAI, Italy
”It’s quite extraordinary” - Professor Martyn Poliakoff, visiting the Bank of England vaults
“you never get sick of the gold… it even puts a smile on our faces when we’re down there working with it” - Fed Vault Custodian, New York
“from a purely human perspective, we could see with our own eyes a quantity of precious metal that goes beyond an ordinary perception … I must say that it arouses feelings that are difficult to explain” - Senator Giuseppe Vacciano, Italy
Why the observers have these powerful reactions to seeing such vast quantities of gold, we can’t say for sure, perhaps it’s because gold is money par excellence and the ultimate store of wealth, and that being close to this powerful and aesthetically pleasing element invokes a timeless sense of respect and wonder.
The BullionStar Gold University vault profiles series also covers the deep underground Banque de France gold vaults in Paris. Known as ‘La Souterraine’, home to over 90% of France’s 2,435 tonnes of gold, the Paris vaults also store gold bars on behalf of the Bundesbank and the International Monetary Fund. The series also visits the Banca d’Italia’s gold vaults, "La Sacrestia Oro", under the Banca d'Italia's Palazzo Koch headquarters in Rome which hold 1,200 tonnes, or approximately half of Italy’s gold.
A knowledge of where these central bank and commercial vaults are located and their operating details is also critical, since, if there was ever a physical gold shortage or a crisis in the gold market, these central bank and LBMA bullion bank institutions owe it to the global financial community to prove that they are storing the gold they claim to store, in the locations they profess to store it in.
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