Tag Archives: Trump

Gold and the Monetary Blockade on Iran

This blog post is a guest post on BullionStar's Blog by the renowned blogger JP Koning who will be writing about monetary economics, central banking and gold. BullionStar does not endorse or oppose the opinions presented but encourage a healthy debate.

With Donald Trump close to re-instituting economic sanctions on Iran, it's worth remembering that gold served as a tool for skirting the the last round of Iranian sanctions. If a blockade were to be re-imposed on Iran, might this role be resuscitated?

The 2010-2015 Monetary Blockade

The set of sanctions that the U.S. began placing on Iran back in 2010 can be best thought of as a monetary blockade. It relied on deputizing U.S. banks to act as snitches. Any U.S. bank that was caught providing correspondent accounts to a foreign bank that itself helped Iran engage in sanctioned activities would be fined. To avoid being penalized, U.S. banks threatened their foreign bank customers to stop enabling Iranian payments or lose their accounts. And of course the foreign banks (mostly) complied. Being cut off from the U.S. payment system would have meant losing a big chunk of business, whereas losing Iranian businesses was small fry.

One of the sanctioned activities was helping Iran to sell oil. By proving that they had significantly reduced their Iranian oil imports, large importers like Japan, Korea, Turkey, India, and China managed to secure for their banks a temporary exemption from U.S. banking sanctions. So banks could keep facilitating oil-related payments for Iran without being cut off from the dollar-based payments system. The result was that Iran's oil exports fell, but never ground to a halt. This was a fairly balanced approach. While the U.S. wanted to deprive Iran of oil revenue - which might be used to build nuclear weapons - it didn't want to force allies to do entirely without necessary crude oil.

The U.S. Iran Threat Reduction & Syria Human Rights Act of 2012 (TRA) further tightened the noose. The TRA prevented Iran from repatriating any of the oil & gas funds that were accumulating in foreign escrow accounts maintained in Turkey, Japan, and elsewhere. To enforce this restriction, any bank proven to repatriate Iranian oil money would be cut off by its U.S. correspondent bank, thus losing its connection to the U.S. banking system.

The inability to unlock funds was inconvenient for Iran. There was no useful purpose to which the pariah nation could put all the Japanese yen, Indian rupees, Chinese yuan, or Turkish lira that was piling up in its overseas escrow accounts. Iran could still buy non-sanctioned goods and services in these countries and bring them back to Iran, say food, medicine, and whatnot. But none of the oil-importing nations provided Iran with enough importable stuff that it could draw its account balances down to zero. The funds held in escrow were dead money.

Gold Enters the Scene

This is where gold was recruited as a useful payments rail for evading the sanctions. The scheme was carried out primarily through Turkey. Gold dealer Reza Zarrab, one of the most well-known expediters of the scheme, designed an escape hatch for Iranian funds along with bank officials at Halkbank, a Turkish state-owned bank. Iranian funds frozen in a Halkbank escrow accounts (denominated in Turkish lira) were transferred to accounts held at Halkbank by Zarrab's shell companies and used to buy gold in the Turkish gold market.

This technically was not illegal. While an earlier set of sanctions had prohibited banks from directly helping the Iranian government to deal in gold, it was still legal for them to help “private” persons to access gold, as long as the gold was sent to Iran and not elsewhere. Zarrab sent some of this gold directly to Iran. The rest was exported to Dubai where it was sold for dollars, the cash being returned to Turkey where Zarrab laundered it back into the banking system. Now the Iranian government could finally make use of it. Below is a chart that Zarrab made at his 2017 court trial that illustrates the complexity of the gold trade.

"Iranian gold transaction," an illustration of Zarrab and Halbank's method for moving Iran's frozen funds (source)

This size of this loophole was significant. According to Reuters, Turkish gold exports to Iran exploded from one tonne in 2011 to 125.8 tonnes in 2012, worth $6.5 billion. Another $4.6 billion was sent to Dubai, most of this ultimately destined for Iran. Below I've charted Turkish gold exports from 2008 to present. You can see the big bulge in 2012-13.

The large inflow of Turkish gold helped keep Iran afloat. It was only in mid-2013 that the "private person" loophole was finally cut off. Banks like Halkbank, which before could only be penalized for engaging in gold dealings with the Iranian government, were now prohibited from enabling gold payments for private Iranian entities as well. Gold shipments out of Turkey slowed to a trickle.

Turkish Gold Exports: 2008 to Present (millions US$)

While Zarrab continued to illegally export small amounts of gold, he focused on a different form of sanctions busting: moving Iranian funds locked in Turkey to Dubai by using fake invoices for food and medicine as cover. But this too came to an end. During a visit to Disney World with his family in 2016, Zarrab was arrested and accused of helping Iran evade U.S. sanctions. In late 2017, he accepted a plea agreement and became the key witness against a number of Halkbank officials and Turkish government officials. Only one of them, Mehmet Atilla, has been convicted to date, the rest remain at large.

The Advantage of a High Value-to-Weight Ratio

In theory, the funds held in Iran's escrow accounts at Halkbank could have been used to buy any sort of commodity, say copper, and then the copper shipped to Iran (or Dubai). The reason that gold was probably chosen as the in-between commodity is because it has a higher value-to-weight ratio than most commodities. Whereas an ounce of gold conveys $1300 in value, it would have required around 6,500 ounces of copper to convey $1300 in value. The extra bulk involved would have been very costly to ship.

Value-to-weight ratios (source)

Another advantage of gold relative to other commodities is that it is highly liquid. There are markets for the yellow metal all over the world that attract the participation of a wide range of buyers from consumers to industrial users to jewelers. Copper is much less marketable. Because Iran needed to on-sell whatever commodity was being used as the in-between commodity in order to get hard currency like euros and dollars, gold would have been the most convenient option.

A Monetary Blockade in 2018?

The monetary blockade that began in 2010 was eventually successful. Iran was forced to come to the negotiating table and in 2015 the Iran nuclear deal was signed. Zoom forward to today. Trump has left the nuclear deal and is threatening to reimpose sanctions against Iran. Could gold once again become a player in the game played between sanctioner and sanctioned?

One major difference between then and now is that there was significant global buy-in during the last round of sanctions. Prior to setting up the monetary blockade, the U.S. gained support from the United Nations Security Council, including China and Russia. So while certain loopholes were exploited, a broad consensus meant that evasion was not prevalent enough to bring the whole edifice down.

In exiting the Iran deal last month, Trump has done so alone. Presumably this lack of consensus will make any ensuing round of sanctions much more leaky than the initial ones. India, for instance, has already said that it won't comply with the sanctions because they are not UN-mandated. Now, in actuality there probably isn't much India can do to escape the sanctions. The majority of Indian banks will comply because they will be wary about the threat of being cutoff from the dollar-based payments system.

But with a wink and a nod from their national governments, a few banks who don't do much U.S. business may decide to take Iran on as a customer. They will need some sort of popular medium for expediting payments to and from Iran, say gold, euros, bitcoin, or an up-and-coming national currency such as the Chinese yuan. It remains to be seen which one would be selected, but gold certainly has a number of useful properties, as evidenced by the last round of sanctions. Whatever the case, the U.S. dollar's dominant role as a global medium of exchange can only be weakened by another round of Iran sanctions.

Sources used to write this post:

  1. Iran’s Turkish connection, Reuters, 2014 (pdf)
  2. Aggressive U.S. Monetary Policy... in Iran, 2012 (Moneyness blog)
  3. United States of America vs Reza Zarrab et al, 2017 (pdf)
  4. United States of America vs Mehmet Hakan Attila, 2018 (pdf)
  5. Iran's Gold Loophole, 2013 (pdf)
  6. Sanctions Against Iran: A Guide to Targets, Terms, and Timetables, 2015 (pdf)
  7. The Beauty of TRA Section 504, 2015 (Sanctions Law blog)
  8. OFAC FAQs: Iran Sanctions (US Treasury website)
  9. Exiting the Iran deal is a blow to financial transparency and US control, 2018 (Interfluidity blog)

Trump and Gold

It was an event-filled and turbulent evening last night as the results for the 45th US presidential election rolled in, signalling that the majority of the American electorate had voted for Republican candidate Donald Trump. Trump received over 270 of the 538 electoral college votes needed to secure a majority. Trump will now be inaugurated as US President on Friday January 20, 2017.

Media and Polls eat Humble Pie

This, the 58th US presidential election, will no doubt go down in history as one of the most unusual, divisive and wrongly predicted US presidential elections of all time. The official surveys of the expected outcome were proven to be way off the mark, and in fact the entire US polling industry may have to reassess its methodologies and enter a period of self-reflection. The mainstream media machine, particularly but not exclusively in the US, was also shown up throughout this election campaign to be glaringly slanted and in favor of the Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton at the expense of Trump, and a large amount of shock, back-peddling and embarrassment seems to have hit that section of the media today, in a 2017 version of 'Dewey defeats Truman'.

The media and survey driven, but shockingly wrong, consensus of an assured Clinton victory, which was relentlessly pitched over the last few months, also seems to have been priced into the financial markets, which is arguably why the actual outcome of a Trump victory caused acute volatility and large moves across the markets last night and into today.

Market Volatility

US stock market index futures all fell sharply during trading in US evening hours last night as the prospects of a trump victory began to crystallize. S&P 500 futures and Nasdaq 100 futures both went limit down in trading, each losing about 5%, and Dow equity index futures at one stage was 800 points lower. Asian market equities were also weaker, and the US Dollar weakening against most major currencies, and the Mexican Peso also plummeting.

The markets had a very Brexit feel to them, in a similar fashion to how the markets had reacted overnight between late Thursday June 23rd, the day the Brexit EU referendum was held in the UK, and early morning Friday June 24th, when it became clear that the referendum results pointed to a majority of voters wanted the UK to leave the European Union. In both these events, Brexit and a Trump win, financial market uncertainty has been a big factor.

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Florida and Ohio

Results from the battleground states of Florida, Ohio, and to a lesser extent North Carolina were decisive to Trump’s election and to the market’s moves. Florida, with 29 electoral votes, and the 3rd highest population by state at just over 20 million people, was called to Trump late on Tuesday night before 11pm. Ohio, with 18 electoral seats and 7th largest state population of 11.6 million people went to Trump at about 10:20pm. North Carolina, with 15 electoral seats and a 10 million population, was called for Trump just after 11pm NYT. Within the space of an hour, Trump had won the 3 key states of Florida, Ohio and North Carolina, which between then have 62 electoral college seats. By just after 1:30am, Pennsylvania was called to Trump, and following that Wisconsin. A trump majority in Iowa also helped. The rapidity of these results coming in also had a resonance with the Brexit results back in June.

Previously, the states of Florida, Ohio, Iowa, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Michigan, had all majority voted for Obama on both occasions when he had been elected. This is why these particular state results going to Trump were a) critical for Trump and b) caused the volatile market reactions due to the markets' perceptions that a Trump presidency will create more unknowns and greater uncertainty.

Precious metals prices, as would be expected, moved higher on the back of the market uncertainty and the Trump gains. Gold’s low in US Dollars was about $1270 at 8pm New York time (NYT), then it made a $50 ascent to a high of $1336 just after midnight NYT, an up move of 5.2%. See BullionStar gold chart for one day move. Silver in US Dollars moved up from $18.40 at about 8pm NYT to $19.02, an up-move of up 3.37%. Platinum also had a sizable up move, at one stage rising $20 from $1000 to $1020. These moves in precious metals prices were also reminiscent of similar moves on the morning of the Brexit results.

Trump and a Gold Standard

Beyond these short-term benefits to the gold price and the prices of other precious metals from a Trump victory, there are some other longer-term benefits to gold that a Donald trump presidency might create.

These longer term potential benefits to gold stem from Trump's affinity for the use of a gold standard as part of the US monetary system. A gold standard, to define the term generally, is a monetary system that employs gold as a monetary unit, and links the economy's currency to that monetary unit of gold. When used by a number of countries, each country's currency can then be expressed in terms of gold, i.e. the exchange rates between the currencies are defined in terms of gold.

Donald Trump is known to be sympathetic to the concept of a gold standard, and even attracted to the prospect of implementing a gold standard as a way of maintaining the stability and value of the US Dollar. The first of Trump's recent references to a gold standard came in a 2015 interview with WMUR-TV, New Hampshire, in a segment called ‘Conversation with the Candidate’, published on March 31, 2015, in which Trump commented on the gold standard in response to an audience question:

Question: “Can you envision a scenario that this country ever goes back to a gold standard?”

Trump: “In some ways, I like the gold standard and there is something very nice about it but you have to go back at the right time... We used to have a very solid country because it was based on a gold standard for it. We do not have that anymore. There is something very nice about the concept of that. It would be very hard to do at this point and one of the problems is we do not have the gold. Other places have the gold."

The transcript of this interview can be read in an archived page of the WTAE-TV Pittsburgh website. See ‘web extra’ section. WTAE is a sister channel of WMUR.

It's slightly odd that Trump thinks the US doesn't have the gold, or maybe he knows something about Fort Knox and the US Treasury gold reserves that has not been made public.

Following his March 2015 comments, Trump again addressed the gold standard in November 2015 in a short video interview with GQ magazine when he said:

“Bringing back the gold standard would be very hard to do, but boy would it be wonderful. We'd have a standard on which to base our money."

You can see the short GQ video interview with Trump on visiting this page.

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Some of Trump's economic advisers also have notable views on gold, and the possible utilization of gold within the US currency system. In an interview with Forbes magazine in August this year, Dr. Judy Shelton, part of Trump's economic advisory team, was asked on her view of a gold backed monetary system:

Forbes Question: "You’ve written before about going back to some sort of gold-based monetary system. Is that something the U.S. could do unilaterally, or would we need to convene other nations and get them on board?"

Shelton: "In terms of gold being involved [in the system], some people may think of that as a throwback, but I see it as a sophisticated, forward-looking approach because gold is neutral and it’s universal.

It’s a well-accepted monetary surrogate that transcends borders and time. If you look at the foreign reserves of the most important countries, they keep them mostly in gold. I don’t want to read too much into it, but it proves that gold is not some barbarous relic.”

Shelton also referenced a Bretton Woods style conference:

"I’m not opposed to a new Bretton Woods conference, and if it takes place at Mar-a-Lago, I’m fine with that."

Bretton Woods being the 1944 conference in New Hampshire at which the attendee countries planned the introduction of a gold backed system of fixed exchange rates, where the value of  the US Dollar was linked to gold and other participating currencies were linked to the Dollar. Mar-a-Lago is a hotel and club in palm Beach, Florida, owned by Trump.

John Paulson, the founder and head of the well-known and successful hedge fund company Paulson & Co Inc, is also an economic advisor to Trump. Paulson is known, among other things, for his fund's investments in gold, and for example, Paulson & Co is currently the 5th largest institutional investor the SPDR Gold Trust (GLD). The appointment of Paulson to a position on Trump's team could also arguably bolster Trump's position on gold in the monetary system.

As an aside, in the WMUR-TV interview in March 2015, Donald Trump also expressed a view on auditing the Federal Reserve, a view that it will be interesting to see if he still holds during his Presidency. In another answer to a question from the audience, Trump agreed that the Fed should be audited:

Question: Let's go back to our audience now coming from Bob. What is your question? ...[Bob]:"My question is about Federal Reserve. What if any changes would you make to Federal Reserve and do you think they should be audited on a regular basis?"

Trump: "Audited, absolutely. I really think you can have it or not have it. A lot of people like it and a lot of conservative people like it. They think there is an adjustment with interest rates and other things. I'm not a fan. I'm not a big fan. Audit, 100%."

Keynes, Greenspan and Bernanke

Any time the gold standard is mentioned, such as when Trump mentioned it on the occasions back in 2015, there are invariably sections of the financial media which wheel out the old misquote by the economist John Maynard Keynes, and state that Keynes said that gold is a barbarous relic. Even Shelton seems to have used the old misquote.

However, Keynes never said that gold was a barbarous relic. Keynes actually wrote the words “the gold standard is already a barbarous relic”, in chapter 4 of his 1924 book “A tract on Monetary Reform”, when specifically discussing whether Britain should return to a gold standard. Britain returned to a gold standard in 1925, against the advice of Keynes. The quote is at the bottom of page 172 of Keynes book “A tract on Monetary Reform”, (1923, this edition Published 1924), chapter 4, “Alternative aims in Monetary Policy”.

Arguably, Keynes was referring to the move after World War I by some countries to return to a gold standard (the inter-war gold standard), and even if he was talking about the classic gold standard (which ran from 1821 to 1914), Keynes just had a personal view that the gold standard was too constraining for what he saw as a "modern" economic system. But what Keynes was essentially advocating at that time, in other language, was a debasement of currency. Fast forward nearly 100 years and its obvious now that fiat currencies' purchasing power has been heavily debased vis-a-vis the gold standard period.

Contemporary endorsements and appreciations for a gold standard are not actually the far out radical ideas that some might claim them to be and are not exclusive to Trump and his advisors. The concept of a gold standard is actually discussed by serious and mainstream monetary economists and even to an extent endorsed by them. In June this year, in an interview with Bloomberg in the aftermath of the UK’s Brexit results, Alan Greenspan, former Fed chairman had this to say about the gold standard:

“Now if we went back on the gold standard and we adhered to the actual structure of the gold standard as it exists let’s say, prior to 1913, we’d be fine. Remember that the period 1870 to 1913 was one of the most aggressive periods economically that we’ve had in the U.S., and that was a golden period of the gold standard.”

And in March 2004 in a speech 'Money, Gold, and the Great Depression', even ex Federal Reserve chairman, Ben Bernanke, who always seemed to give a somewhat grudging partial endorsement to gold, had this to say:

"The gold standard appeared to be highly successful from about 1870 to the beginning of World War I in 1914. During the so-called "classical" gold standard period, international trade and capital flows expanded markedly, and central banks experienced relatively few problems ensuring that their currencies retained their legal value. The gold standard was suspended during World War I, however, because of disruptions to trade and international capital flows and because countries needed more financial flexibility to finance their war efforts.

With Trump soon at the helm and in the White House, it's not beyond the bounds of possibility that Trump and his advisors may explore the utilization of gold within the US monetary system over the next 4 years. And who knows, they might even bring Greenspan and Bernanke in as consultants, but perhaps only if Trump does not audit the Fed!