In December 2016 Chinese wholesale gold demand, measured by withdrawals from the vaults of the Shanghai Gold Exchange (SGE), accounted for 196 tonnes, down 9 % from November. December was still a strong month for SGE withdrawals due to the fact the gold price trended lower before briefly spiking at the end of the month, and the Chinese prefer to buy gold when the price declines (see exhibit 1).
In total Chinese wholesale gold demand reached an astonishing 1,970 tonnes in 2016. But will these huge tonnages bought by China ever have an impact on the gold price? I think it will.
As in previous years, SGE withdrawals were mostly supplied through imports, in 2016 at approximately 1,300 tonnes. And as in previous years, SGE withdrawals were roughly twice the size of Chinese consumer gold demand. The latter is published by all “leading” consultancy firms, such as the World Gold Council and Thomson Reuters GFMS. Because these firms have systematically underreported and eclipsed Chinese gold demand since 2007, a significant share of the financial industry is unaware China has imported 5,000 tonnes in the past years, which is not allowed to be exported. My hypothesis is that this 5,000 tonnes decline in above ground gold reserves outside of the Chinese domestic market will make gold rally stronger in a future bull market than it did in previous bull markets. To the extent many investors are uninformed about the shrinking volume of troy ounces available outside of China, their ignorance will boost any price rally coming.
In this post I would like to share my thoughts on how the gold price is correlated to trade in above ground reserves, and how China has slashed these reserves to the tune of 5,000 tonnes, which will significantly impact the next leg up in gold.
Correlated: The Gold Price And UK Gold Trade
Since many decades large investors in the West set the price of gold. Ever since, the heart of the Western gold wholesale market has been London in the United Kingdom. There is thus a correlation between the gold price and the volume of gold net imported or exported by the UK.
In Asia, on the other hand, gold market participants are more price sensitive, implying they buy low and sell high (the opposite of Western investors). I’ve described this trend frequently on these pages, but the same can be read in books by gold author Timothy Green. In The Prospect For Gold from 1987 Green states:
Before we discuss the connection between Western supply and demand trends to developments in the Chinese gold market of the past decade, let me first recapitulate that global physical gold supply and demand is far in excess of the statistics the World Gold Council and GFMS publish. Below is a chart that shows the quarterly averages of all physical supply and demand categories as disclosed by the World Gold Council from Q1 2002 until Q4 2015. These numbers are more or less the same as figures by GFMS.
We can see that over the course of 13 years, the majority of supply consisted of mine output (73%) and the majority of demand consisted of jewelry consumption (64%).
(Note, the categories official sector, net producer hedging and ETFs can be either supply or demand and volumes can greatly vary per quarter. Though, only in 1 of 52 quarters examined has ETF demand been greater than jewelry consumption (Q1 2009). In all other quarters official sector, net producer hedging and ETFs supply or demand has not been greater than mine output or jewelry consumption.)
If the data by the World Gold Council regarding physical gold supply and demand would be exhaustive, mine output and jewelry consumption should have a positive correlation to each other and the price of gold. But they don’t. Have a look at the next chart.
During the bull market from 2002 until 2011 jewelry consumption decreased and it hardly ever transcended mine output. In turn, mine output gradually ascended over this time horizon while the gold price increased six fold! Are the forces between jewelry demand and mine supply driving the medium/long term price of gold? No, clearly not. This shows the data by the World Gold Council is incomplete.
(I should add that mine output does have a correlation to the gold price in the very long term as it can take more than ten years to setup a gold mining project. See the next chart.)
In contrast to the data by the World Gold Council, we can observe a strong correlation between the medium/long term gold price and institutional supply and demand flowing through London. View the chart below.
Strangely, institutional supply and demand are categories not included in the World Gold Council’s data – or in any other precious metals consultancy firm’s data that I’m aware of.
Because in the UK there are no refineries, no gold mines and local consumption demand and scrap supply is immaterial, all gold that is visibly (non-monetary) imported and exported must either relate to ETF holdings stored in London, or Western institutional supply and demand. When we compute the ratio between both, ETF flows compound to roughly 35 % of the UK’s net flow (import minus export) and as a consequence approximately 65 % is Western institutional supply and demand. Effectively the majority of the UK’s net flow is Western institutional supply and demand.
Hereby, consider that all supply and demand categories disclosed by the World Gold Council more or less equal each other (exhibit 4), so for the sake of simplicity we‘ll state that total mine output + scrap supply versus jewelry consumption + bar and coin + industrial demand meets outside the UK and doesn’t set the medium/long term price of gold.
The UK’s net flow, on the other hand, is highly correlated to the medium/long term price of gold. Note how nearly every month the change in net flow corresponds with the direction of the gold price (exhibit 6). Less granular, from the moment my data starts in 2005 the UK has been a net importer until 2012 on a rising price of gold. From 2013 until 2015 the UK was a net exporter on a declining price of gold. And in the first quarter of 2016, when the gold price saw its strongest move up since 1986, the UK was a net importer. Coincidence? I think not.
We can conclude that Western institutional supply and demand in above ground gold reserves is driving the medium/long term price of gold. As it’s likely the price of gold could not have gone up from 2002 until 2011 if there had been no UK net imports, and it’s likely the price of gold could not have gone down from 2013 until 2015 if there had been no UK net exports. (Short term the gold price is pushed around in the paper markets.)
We can think of Western institutional supply and demand (the UK net flow) like this: the majority of the gold gross imported into the UK is demand from above ground reserves outside the UK, and the majority of the gold gross exported from the UK is supply to above ground reserves outside the UK. When the UK is a net importer that means there is a net pull on above ground reserves outside the UK, which corresponds to a rising gold price. When the UK is a net exporter the inverse is true.
Here it becomes apparent that the amount of above ground bullion is essential for future price developments.
The Chinese Black Hole
Let’s turn to China. In the introduction I stated China is importing a lot more gold than is known in the financial industry because most investors base their knowledge on data by the World Gold Council. More precise, China has imported 5,000 tonnes from 2007 until 2016 in addition to what the World Gold Council has portrayed through their demand statistics.
Let’s get our minds around this through some charts. As an example, I’ve drawn a chart showing Chinese gold supply and demand for 2015 (last year I have complete data of).
We don’t know every exact data point for China, but we do know GFMSdemand (purple) and apparent supply, consisting of domestic mine output (green), scrap supply (yellow) and net import (blue). From here on we’ll use GFMS data, as GFMS publishes scrap supply numbers for China and the World Gold Council doesn’t.
According to GFMS Chinese consumer gold demand in 2015 was 867 tonnes. To meet demand GFMS presents 450 tonnes was domestically mined and scrap supply accounted for 225 tonnes. Indirectly GFMS states China net imported 192 tonnes to complete the supply and demand balance in the Chinese domestic market (exhibit 7). For the additional 1,383 tonnes imported GFMS has floated all sorts of excuses, which I‘ve debunked here and here.
The bottom line is, in addition to the 192 tonnes GFMS reports as imported in 2015 to meet consumer demand, China imported 1,383 tonnes to meet institutional demand and all this metal is not allowed to be exported.
If we repeat the same exercise for every years since 2007, the aggregated net imports by China that have not been included in the statistics by GFMS account for 5,000 tonnes. See the next chart.
You can see now, China has enormously diminished above ground reserves outside of the Chinese domestic market without all investors around the world being fully aware. In my humble opinion this will make the price of gold go up turbo charged next time the West shows interest in the metal.
In The Prospect For Gold Green states:
“Selling gold is not a one way street”, wrote Green in 1987. But guess what. Since a few years – from the moment China became an elephant player in the physical market – selling gold is a one way street! Western sell-offs are transhipped to China but do not return. The global gold game has changed.
The consequence is that there are less above ground reserves outside of China for Western investors to buy in a forthcoming bull market, which will elevate the dollar bid per unit gold – in other words the gold price measured in US dollars per troy ounce.
Keep in mind, this phenomenon (China importing vast quantities in addition to Chinese consumer gold demand as disclosed by GFMS) has greatly materialized in 2013, when gold entered a bear market after an 11-year run up. In the previous bull market (2002-2012) above ground reserves outside of China had not been slashed yet. So the ramifications of this phenomenon will only be felt during the next leg up.
Is there any proof to substantiate my hypothesis? I think so. Early 2016 there was some renewed interest in yellow metal from large Western investors. When the price of gold started to climb it went practically vertical ending the first quarter of 2016 up 16.7 %, the strongest quarter since 1986. Coincidence? I think not. It went up strong as it did because there were fewer ounces in above ground reserves available.
A study on how much above ground reserves there are outside China will be saved for a future blog post.
Last week the Shanghai Gold Exchange (SGE) launched a new English website to offer international customers more information and tools on trading gold in renminbi through its subsidiary in the Shanghai Free Trade Zone the Shanghai International Gold Exchange (SGEI). BullionStar took the opportunity to translate a speech by a Teng Wei, Deputy General Manager of the SGEI, named “How China’s Gold Market Can Help The RMB Achieve International Status” that was held at the Renminbi World summit in Beijing on the 29th and 30th of November 2016. In the speech Teng Wei outlined his vision for the SGEI going forward regarding renmibi (RMB) internationalization, connecting the onshore and offshore renminbi market and increasing gold market share.
My comment before you read the translation:
1) In the financial blogosphere the general perception is that the SGEI has been a failure since it was launched in September 2014. This analysis is based on the assumption that the trading volume of the most popular SGEI contract (1 Kg 9999 – iAu99.99) has been tepid for two years now. But this analysis neglects two important elements.
First, iA99.99 can be traded competitively “on Exchange”, but also in the OTC market. The OTC possibility is hardly known by commentators in the English world, though the related volumes are significant. Have a look at the next chart in which I’ve plotted iAu99.99’s weekly trading volume “on Exchange” and in the OTC market. Clearly iAu99.999 is traded mainly in the OTC market.
Second, international customers of the SGEI can not only trade the SGEI gold contracts, but they can also trade SGE (domestic) gold contracts. Logically, as at present liquidity on the SGE is much higher than on the SGEI, many international customer that seek to trade gold in renminbi, and don’t need to export the metal, will choose to trade SGE gold contracts.
When observing total trading of all SGE(I) gold contracts, there is a clear rise in volume since the SGEI was launched.
Up till now international customers are mainly trading SGE contracts. The significant rise in trading volume of all SGE(I) contracts since September 2014 is due to the inception of the International Board (SGEI). In the second week of November 806 tonnes was traded on the SGE(I), the highest amount ever.
So the launch of the SGEI has not been a failure in my opinion – it has elevated gold trading in (offshore) renminbi.
2) Teng Wei mentions that in 2015 gold demand in China and India was 985 and 849 tonnes respectively. In the case of China this refers only to consumer demand, not institutional demand. Chinese consumer and institutional demand in 2015 combined was well north of 2,000 tonnes.
3) A gold exchange doesn’t flourish overnight. The SGE was launched in 2002; in that year its total trading volume was 22 tonnes and withdrawals accounted for 16 tonnes. Ten years later total trading volume was 3,175 tonnes and withdrawals accounted for 1,138 tonnes. In 2015 total trading volume was 17,033 tonnes and withdrawals accounted for 2,582 tonnes. The development of the SGE, becoming the largest physical gold exchange globally, took time and it can be no different for the SGEI.
Document Translation [brackets added]:
Teng Wei: China’s Gold Market Opens Up To Boost RMB Internationalization
The 2016 RMB summit was held in Beijing on the 29th and 30th of November. Deputy General Manager of the Shanghai International Gold Exchange Center Teng Wei participated in the forum and discussion on “How China’s Gold Market Can Help the RMB Achieve International Status”. He expressed that using Shanghai’s free trade zone status, investors can open trading accounts denominated in RMB and participate in trading directly through the Exchange’s international board [SGEI] that allows access to most of the precious metal products that are traded in China. The international board has developed relatively well since establishment with active participation from international members and steadily increasing trading volume.
Gold on the international board is quoted and settled in RMB, which effectively connects the RMB onshore market and offshore market. This will extend the scope of RMB usage across borders and provide a new channel for inward capital flows. It is a move that is beneficial to expand the RMB usage to steadily promote internationalization of the RMB.
The actual speech:
Ladies and gentlemen, good afternoon, I am Teng Wei from the Shanghai International Gold Exchange. I am delighted to participate in this forum organized by the Asian Bankers Association to have a chance to speak and interact with everyone about opening China’s gold market to the world and how that can help the internationalization of the RMB.
This afternoon, I would like to touch upon on three topics. The first topic is the new pattern of the internationalization of the RMB and the global gold market. China’s gold market was established in 2002 with the launch of the Shanghai Gold Exchange. If anyone is familiar with the history of China’s gold market, you will know that before the year 2002 the Chinese gold market was entirely ran by the People’s Bank of China, including the process of purchasing, allocating and storing of gold. There wasn’t a single unified market where all participants could trade at the same time. Since the year 2002, with approval of the State Council, the People’s Bank Of China developed gold spot trading on the Shanghai Gold Exchange, as well as gold futures trading and over-the-counter trading via commercial banks, etc, which formed the basis for a multi-level diversified gold market system. While the Chinese gold market was developing rapidly, the pattern of the global gold market was also having a dramatic change. As time passed, the international gold spot market was heavily concentrated in London and the international gold futures market has been concentrated in New York. However, in recent years, with the rise of gold demand in China, India and other Eastern nations, and with the exit of European and American banks from the precious metals market, it’s clear that Western gold is moving to the East. In 2015 gold demand in China and India was at 985 tons and 849 tons respectively. These figures alone account for 45% of global [consumer] gold demand. With gold demand from other markets dipping to various levels, China is not only the world’s largest gold producer and importer of gold, but has also become the world’s largest gold consumer.
Just now, I mentioned that the two main centers for gold trading are London and New York, and the current situation is Western gold flowing to the East. Everyone, have a look at some statistics that I have here, showing that just China and India alone make up over 45% of global gold demand. This was last year’s data.
Since the year 2005, when the RMB exchange rate was reformed, international investors’ willingness to trade in RMB denominated assets has also increased. This has objectively enhanced the Chinese gold market’s international status and garnered attention. In recent years, the RMB exchange rate is expected to have some changes.
The Shanghai Gold Exchange provides the important infrastructure for China’s gold market. ECB officials have mentioned that an important part of promoting the internationalization of the RMB is having a good financial market infrastructure. The exchange is also an important “all-in-one” foundation for gold transactions, clearing, delivery and storage. It serves with the commitment to provide gold investors with efficient and convenient market services. It has been 14 years since establishment of the exchange in the year 2002 and development has been rapid with annual trading volumes increasing 40% on average.
At the end of 2015 there were over 8.6 million individual accounts, over 10,000 institutional accounts and the total gold trading volume for the year reached 17,000 tonnes. The exchange was ranked as one of the largest and we firmly grasped an important opportunity for the internationalization of the RMB with the profound changes happening in the gold market. At the same time, we want to build a harmonious ecological gold market that sets a new path for the global gold market and achieve the status of being a global gold power from a large gold holding nation.
For the second point, I would like to explain how opening up China’s gold market externally to the world can help the internationalization of the RMB. To further promote and innovate China’s gold market, on 18th September 2014, the Shanghai Gold Exchange set up an international board [SGEI], open directly to foreign investors. This move has effectively connected China’s domestic gold market and the international gold market. Using Shanghai’s free trade zone, investors can open trading accounts denominated in RMB and participate in trading directly through the exchange’s international board that allows access to most of the precious metal products that are traded in China. The international board has developed relatively well since establishment with active participation from international members and steadily increasing trading volume.
As of now, the exchange has 67 international members, including most of the world-renowned gold suppliers and traders like Mr Thomas McMahon, who is also our Exchange’s member. At the end of the third quarter of 2016, the international board had recorded a total of 7,837 tonnes of gold traded, with a turnover valued at nearly 200 billion RMB. The Shanghai International Gold Exchange is the test pilot and pioneer for opening up China’s gold market to the world. It is significantly important for further increasing the capacity, expansion and international influence of China’s gold market. In addition, the international board uses RMB for settlements, producing an effective convergence of the RMB offshore and onshore markets, expanding the cross-border use of the RMB and providing a new channel for return of funds. All these points steadily promote the internationalization of the RMB and serve as a useful exploration.
For RMB denominated gold products to gain popularity outside of China, we think the prerequisite is to provide a fair offering for global gold market transactions, with reliable gold benchmark pricing in RMB, using the Shanghai Gold Exchange benchmark pricing mechanism [Shanghai Fix] for our trading platforms. The weight of the gold traded is 1 kilogram, with a fineness of no less than 99.99%. Using a price inquiry method and market volume, a balance is reached to form the benchmark price of gold measured in RMB. The price announcements will be released externally each trading day at 10:15 and 14:15.
At present, the Shanghai gold benchmark price is being used by domestic gold producers and suppliers for hedging and settlements. More and more commercial banks are also using the Shanghai gold benchmark price for gold leasing and financing as the standard. More and more products linked to the Shanghai gold benchmark will be made available.
Other than domestic usage, the Shanghai gold benchmark price is also being actively studied more and more by external markets regarding its application. In October, the exchange signed an agreement with Dubai for the right to use the Shanghai gold benchmark price and authorization was given for the Dubai gold exchange to use the Shanghai gold benchmark price as the standard for offshore RMB denominated futures. The signing of this agreement marks the use of the Shanghai gold benchmark price in international financial markets for the first time. This greatly helps to elevate the international influence of the exchange in global markets and improves the image and reputation of the RMB abroad.
For the third point, I would like to share with everyone how the Shanghai Gold Exchange acts as an important infrastructure for internationalization in three steps. As the forerunner for opening domestic markets and innovation, the Shanghai Gold Exchange cannot forget its historical mission. We are determined to take the international and market-oriented strategy.
Overall, for the internationalization process, we have three steps to take. The first step is to be open and inclusive, actively inviting foreign investors to come in. Just now, we have introduced our international board after the establishment of the Exchange and we will continue to increase publicity efforts. In accordance to high standards and multifaceted principles, we will continue to increase and expand international membership of the Exchange. Accordingly, we have carried out a variety of promotional activities in major financial hubs and countries and regions along the new Silk Road to allow more international market participants to hear the sound coming from the Chinese gold market. The exchange also takes the opportunity to actively learn from the experience of advanced international markets in the optimization of various trading systems and innovation of all kinds of trading products.
For the second step, since we have invited guests inwards, we also have to step outwards. Through cooperation and win-win situations, the gold Exchange can be promoted and step out of China. The Shanghai gold benchmark price has now taken a first step with the Dubai Gold Exchange agreement. This can be considered an ice-breaking move and serve as a cooperation model for other overseas markets and improve the recognition, branding and acceptance of the Shanghai gold benchmark price. Taking this as an opportunity, the Shanghai Exchange, together with the Chicago Mercantile Exchange (CME, COMEX), the Hong Kong Stock Exchange, the Malaysian Stock Exchange and a number of foreign exchange markets explored on long-term cooperation mechanisms that will allow foreign investors to directly participate in our gold market, in RMB denominated gold trading, standard gold settlement, and many other aspects and modes of cooperation that will increase the Shanghai Gold Exchange’s international market influence.
The third step is to realize RMB internationalization and increase global transaction on the exchange through integration and upgrades. As the international financial markets continue to merge and develop, market boundaries are increasingly blurred and we believe that market fragmentation will be removed gradually. In recent years, we can all notice that there are more and more mergers and acquisitions among major exchanges in the world. We hope to learn from the experiences of such joint stock mergers and acquisitions between global exchanges and explore the different modes of industry integration with overseas exchanges. By offering a wide range of local and overseas products through an open platform [SGEI], we hope to create a world class exchange group. The journey of the internationalization of the Shanghai Gold Exchange will epitomize the opening of China’s financial markets to the outside world and play an important part in the internationalization of the RMB. With Shanghai becoming the third most important market in the world after London and New York, the Chinese gold market will make a great contribution to the internationalization of the RMB. Thank you everyone.
From the moment Donald J. Trump got elected as the next President of the United States, on November 8, 2016, the price of gold tumbled 8 % in the remainder of the month – from $1,282 USD/oz to $1,178 USD/oz. Usually these cascades in the gold price go hand in hand with physical sell-offs in the West and strong demand Asia. It appears November has been no exception. The volume of physical gold withdrawn from vaults of the Shanghai Gold Exchange (SGE) in November accounted for 215 tonnes, the highest amount in ten months. Year to date SGE withdrawals have reached 1,774 tonnes.
There have been rumours in the gold space about the People’s Bank Of China (the PBOC) curbing gold import into the Chinese domestic market in response to capital flight. Although my sources have confirmed these rumours, Chinese gold import in November was still very strong at an estimated 140 tonnes. I don’t expect the PBOC will halt gold import all together.
The first mention of the rumour was by Reuters on November 25. By then the premium on physical gold trading at the SGE, which more or less reflects the strength of local demand versus international supply, had reached 2 % (from ~ 0.2 % on November 1). Reuters wrote:
“While we don’t have the exact numbers, we hear that they (Chinese government) have limited the number of importers,” said Dick Poon, general manager at Heraeus Precious Metals in Hong Kong.
In a previous blog post I stated the quote from Poon was not likely to be accurate, because there are 15 banks that have PBOC approval to import gold, but for every shipment a new License must be requested at the central bank. This protocol is referred to as “one batch one License”. Bullion cannot cross the Chinese border without a License. From the PBOC:
There shall be one Import … License of the People’s Bank of China for Gold … for each batch … and the License shall be used within 40 work days since the issuing date.
If the PBOC desires to curb gold import it can simply hand out less Licenses to approved banks, instead of deleting banks from the approved list. The former has happened as far as I can see. The next mention was by the Financial Times on November 30 [brackets added]:
Some banks with licences [approval] have recently had difficulty obtaining approval [Licenses] to import gold, they said — a move tied to China’s attempts to stop a weakening renminbi by tightening outflows of dollars, the banks added.
Although the Financial Times exchanged the terms “approval” and “License”, this is what I thought that was happening: banks are obtaining less import Licenses from the PBOC, which is obstructing supply, pushing up the SGE premium.
Either way the PBOC effort has not severely impacted the volume of Chinese gold demand as SGE withdrawals set a ten-month record at 215 tonnes in November, up 40 % from October. Premium or no premium the Chinese still ‘accumulate on the dips’. Additionally, mainlanders buy gold in Hong Kong where jewelry is cheaper as it doesn’t enjoy VAT. From Live Trading News we read:
“Gold sellers in Hong Kong, where mainland Chinese often buy gold, report an increase in purchases, …” according to published reports. “Some of the buying is also because of the Lunar New Year period next month, a time when buying normally picks up.”
How much of SGE withdrawals were supplied by import? Let’s make an educated guess. In the first nine months of 2016 SGE withdrawals accounted for 1,407 tonnes and China net imported 908 tonnes over this period, implying 65 % of SGE withdrawals was imported. If we use the past months as a reference China imported 140 tonnes of gold in November (=0.65*215). Year to date (-November) China has imported and estimated 1,147 tonnes.
An other possibility would be that elevated SGE withdrawals in November were supplied by scrap and disinvestment from within China (domestic mine output is fairly constant at 38 tonnes per month). Though this is not very plausible because the renminbi gold price went down in November (red line in exhibit 1). Normally scrap supply increases on a rising gold price. And hence, I assume the majority of SGE withdrawals in November were supplied by imports.
There have been concerns in the gold community with respect to a full stop on Chinese gold import. In my humble opinion the PBOC will not completely block imports for a number of reasons:
Despite the rumours of obstructed imports SGE withdrawals were strong in November.
The PBOC hasn’t released an official statement to curb imports.
The PBOC has just spent decades to develop the Chinese gold market in order to strengthen the Chinese economy and internationalize the renminbi. Why cancel the project for problems that can be solved differently?
Curbing gold imports would improve China’s current account. But China has a current account surplus; the capital account is in deficit. Why doesn’t the Chinese government tighten the capital account? In Q3 2016 China’s capital flow was minus 71 billion US dollars. In the same quarter gold import was valued at an estimated 13 billion US dollars. The problem is in the capital account.
SGE premiums started to rise on November 8 exactly when the gold price went down (which SGE premiums often do when the price goes down, exhibit 5). So are these elevated premiums of late fully caused by curbed imports, or simply strong demand? It’s probably a mix of both; in any case there is no full stop on imports. What probably happened is that imports exploded when the price tanked after November 8. As a result the PBOC decided to block shipments.
Most gold analysts surmise COMEX 100-ounce gold futures contracts (GC) can only be physically settled through taking and making delivery. This is technically true when excluding the possibility of EFP trading in GC through the over-the-counter (OTC) market. While on Exchange trading in GC is “executed openly and competitively”, trading GC in the OTC realm (and thus the price of the gold, its form and location) is a “privately negotiated transaction” between buyer and seller. The COMEX is a subsidiary of CME Group, which offers its clients OTC trading on a platform called ClearPort.
Because the COMEX in New York is the most liquid gold futures exchange globally – offering precious metals futures denominated in the world most used currency the US dollar, gold industry participants use GC for a variety of reasons, including hedging metal held outside the contract’s deliverable geography. Subsequently, the contracts can be physically “settled” anywhere at any price through EFP.
In EFP two parties sign a futures contract (short and long) and simultaneously execute a reverse spot transaction (buy and sell). One side sells short the futures contract and buys spot gold (the spot leg is referred to as the related position by CME), while the other buys long the futures contract and sells the related position. EFP trading can increase the open interest, decrease the open interest, or not change it, depending on the existing positions held by both parties before they enter into an EFP transaction. When EFP decreases the open interest the phrase “settle positions” is applicable. Another way of saying it would be “offsetting positions” or “netting out positions”.
This example matches my previous one regarding EFP (hedging metal held outside the contract’s deliverable geography). Any bullion bank, miner or refinery can sell short on COMEX and when the gold needs to be physically “settled”, for example in Switzerland, the short position can be unwound through EFP. The only requirement is that “the quantity of the related position component … must be approximately equivalent to the quantity of the Exchange component” – meaning the spot leg must be more or less 100-ounces of gold, which is the underlying asset of GC. In this example the GC short holder connects through CME ClearPort to Exchange For Physical. In the EFP transaction he will buy long a futures contract and simultaneously sell spot. His long and short will then be netted out while he sells spot the physical in Switzerland. Effectively, a COMEX short has been physically settled outside the contract’s deliverable geography. Naturally, a long position can also be unwound in Switzerland, which is then the other side of the trade.
EFP Moves Kilobars Through CME’s Hong Kong Vaults
In March 2015 CME launched a Gold Kilo Futures contract (GCK) physically deliverable in Hong Kong, but ever since implementation there has been poor participation in this instrument. From the start GCK trading volume has been close to nothing and deliveries rarely occur. Notwithstanding, there are massive volumes of kilobar gold flowing through the CME approved warehouse in Hong Kong owned by Brink’s, Inc.. On average 3.9 tonnes per day are withdrawn from this vault, but sometimes daily withdrawals are as high as 20 tonnes.
Because volume and delivery for GCK on Exchange is so low, the withdraws must be explained by OTC trades. A CME representative actaully confirmed this to me; the physical movement through the Hong Kong vaults is caused by EFP transactions.
But if we look at the GCK volume page we can never observe any EFP trades being disclosed. In contrast, EFP volume of GC is substantial. Can it be gold kilobars in CME’s approved warehouses in Hong Kong are used to settle the 100-ounce futures contracts? Yes.
My theory is that kilobars bought by bullion banks in the West, for example at Swiss refineries, to be consigned to China are hedged on the COMEX and once the gold arrives is Hong Kong the shorts are unwound through EFP. From there the gold is transported by armored truck to Shanghai Gold Exchange designated warehouses in Shenzhen by Brink’s that has a cross-border logistics license from the Chinese government. Supportive to my theory, see exhibit 3 below. Notice the strong correlation between “gold import into Hong Kong versus kilobars received in CME’s vaults” and “re-export from Hong Kong versus kilobars withdrawn from CME’s vaults”.
The correlation points out most gold moving through Hong Kong, which is headed for China, is in kilobar form and moves through CME’s vaults. And because most of this throughput is EFP related, I assume the kilobars are used to settle COMEX futures.
It’s hard to test if my theory is accurate because EFP transactions are executed in the OTC realm and little information is available. Possibly, al throughput in Hong Kong is EFP related but doesn’t impact the GS open interest. If anyone has a different theory please comment below.
London Gold Offsets COMEX Futures
We’ve established gold in Switzerland and Hong Kong is used to “settle” gold futures. But there is also proof gold in London is used to phase out positions on the COMEX. When researching this topic I reached out to William Purpura who is, inter alia, Chairman at Northport Commodities, member of the COMEX Governors Committee, and previously traded on the COMEX floor from 1982 to 2007. I asked Purpura for an example of how EFPs are used. He replied [brackets added by me]:
Most of it [EFP] is done by bullion banks. … It’s mainly for netting out. Lot’s of times London versus New York. You see lots of EFPs posted around 8am in New York on COMEX.
There it is, “London versus New York”, and, “netting out”. From this quote we learn loco London gold is used to execute EFPs to wash out New York futures positions. One can argue the related position in London is “unallocated” – I’m not sure. In the latest formulation by CME on EFP (Market Regulation Advisory Notice RA1311-5R) it’s stated:
Where the related position component … is a physical transaction … the transaction should be submitted for clearing as an EFP transaction type.
Often in wholesale gold market parlance physical is also used for “unallocated gold”, which is not exactly physical in my opinion.
I’m sure there are many more methods than I’ve mentioned to use EFP, or any other privately negotiated transaction (PNT) available on ClearPort, that influences the open interest at the COMEX. One thing is for sure, conventional delivery is not the only way to terminate futures positions. In the gold futures rulebook this is explicitly noted by CME Group. The excerpt below is about terminating a gold futures contracts [brackets added by me].
113102.E. Termination of Trading
No trades in Gold futures deliverable in the current month shall be made after the third last business day of that month. Any contracts remaining open after the last trade date must be either:
(A) Settled by delivery which shall take place on any business day beginning on the first business day of the delivery month or any subsequent business day of the delivery month, but no later than the last business day of the delivery month.
(B) Liquidated by means of a bona fide Exchange for Related Position [/EFP] … .
This is important for our comprhension of the global paper and physical gold market. COMEX gold futures delivery statistics are not all there is to it.
What came to light as on odd discrepancy between GFMS’ Chinese gold demand and “apparent supply” has proven to be a tenacious cover-up by the oldest consultancy firm in the gold market. And not only does GFMS publish incomplete and misleading data on Chinese gold demand, all its supply and demand data is incomplete and misleading. As a result, the vast majority of investors across the globe has been brainwashed to believe total gold supply and demand mainly consists of global mine output and jewelry demand. In reality, the supply and demand data GFMS publishes is just the tip of the iceberg. But the firm is reluctant to admit this publicly, lest their business model would be severely damaged.
GFMS has denied all allegations about their incomplete Chinese gold demand statistics by continuously making up false arguments. Therefore, BullionStar will debunk, once more, such arguments spread by GFMS – which are supposed to explain how from January 2007 until September 2016 the difference between GFMS’ Chinese gold demand and apparent supply reached over 4,500 tonnes – in order to expose true Chinese gold demand.
Since 2013 I’ve witnessed GFMS shamelessly present nine arguments in their Gold Survey reports, but along the way abandoned the arguments that I had debunked on these pages. Indeed, few of all these arguments have ever proven to be valid, illustrated by the fact that GFMS perpetually keeps making up new ones. What’s left is to disparage are the final three arguments from GFMS’ most recent annual report: the Gold Survey 2016 (GS2016). Because GFMS chooses their arguments to be ever more complicated, I’ll have to be precise in my wordings not to allow any margin for interpretation errors. For detailed information regarding the mechanics of the Chinese gold market and supply & demand metrics readers can click the links provided.
Debunking Final GFMS Arguments
In the Chinese domestic gold market nearly all supply (import, mine output, scrap supply) is sold through the Shanghai Gold Exchange (SGE), and so Chinese wholesale gold demand can be measured by the amount of gold withdrawn from the SGE vaults; data published on a monthly basis. As I’ve been reporting on withdrawals from the Chinese core exchange since 2013, the debate between me and Western consultancy firms like GFMS with respect to true Chinese gold demand has centered around these infamous SGE withdrawals (exhibit 1). Per mentioned above, GFMS has put out nine arguments in recent years explaining their reader base why SGE withdrawals do not reflect gold demand. Firstly, let us have a look at the five arguments now abandoned by GFMS:
Chinese commercial bank assets to back investment products. “The higher levels of imports, and withdrawals, are boosted by a number of factors, but notably by gold’s use as an asset class and the requirement for commercial banks to hold physical gold to support investment products.” (Gold Survey 2015, page 78).
Defaulting gold enterprises send inventory directly to refiners and SGE (Gold Survey 2015 Q2, page 7)
No need to discuss these anymore, as GFMS dedicated a full chapter in the GS2016 report titled, “A Review And Explanation Of How China’s SGE’s Withdraw Numbers Are Impacted By Other Trading Activities”, in which the arguments above are not listed, implying GFMS ceased to recognize them as relevant. However, there are three new arguments listed, and one old one, that will be discussed in this post:
Gold leasing activities and arbitrage opportunities (in China gold is money at lower cost) (Gold Survey 2016, page 57, Gold Survey 2015, page 78)
Because gold leasing is an old argument it will only briefly be addressed here.
1. Tax Avoidance
This argument entails an illegal Value-added tax (VAT) invoice scheme. Although this scheme exists, it can not have the impact on SGE withdrawals like GFMS wants you to think.
GFMS introduces its special investigation chapter by stating:
The first and foremost factor behind why we believe the SGE’s withdrawal number differs from the country’s total gold demand is related to China’s current tax system, with some people exploiting this grey area.
… the number of industry participants mushroomed in 2014 and 2015 as other traders became aware of the potential loophole.
The GFMS team uses the terms “tax avoidance” and “loophole”. For the ones that don’t know, tax avoidance and tax evasion are two opposing practices. Tax avoidance is the legal usage of a tax regime to one’s advantage in order to reduce the amount of tax payable by means that are within the law (Wikipedia). Tax evasion is the illegal evasion of tax payable (Wikipedia). In other words, tax avoidance is legal while tax evasion is illegal. In the introduction the GFMS team pretends the tax scheme is legal, while this is anything but true. In China one can risk life imprisonment or the death penalty when caught for tax evasion:
Whoever forges or sells forged special invoices for value-added tax shall, if the number involved is especially huge, and the circumstances are especially serious so that economic order is seriously disrupted, be sentenced to life imprisonment or death and also to confiscation of property.
Then, to add to the confusion, further down the GFMS team writes, “of course, all of the activities are considered illegal by the Chinese government.” Maybe GFMS doesn’t understand the difference between tax avoidance and tax evasion, two diametrically different practices, which makes their professionalism highly questionable.
GFMS writes, “the first and foremost factor behind why we believe the SGE’s withdrawal number differs from the country’s total gold demand is related to China’s current tax system”. So we’re supposed to believe that after all these years – GFMS is operational for decades – and all that has been written on the Chinese gold market, now GFMS has finally found the “first and foremost reason” why SGE withdrawals do not reflect demand? Or did it recently stumble upon this scheme to use in its defence? I think the latter.
Regarding using VAT invoices for tax evasion, the GFMS team must have read this news article by the Shenzhen Municipal Office. In the news, a company called Longhaitong used SGE VAT invoices for tax evasion. How does it work? For example: the prevailing spot gold price on the SGE is 234 CNY/gramme. Company X tells a mom-and-pop jewelry fabricator that they can supply good quality cheap gold, say the SGE spot price minus 2 CNY/gramme, but without a VAT invoice. The mom-and-pop fabricator wants to buy 1 Kg so it gives 232,000 CNY to company X (the mom-and-pop shop will fabricate jewelry from the gold to be sold covertly without VAT to consumers). Company X buys 1 Kg of gold on the SGE at the spot price of 234 CNY/gramme, paying 234,000 CNY. Then company X gives the gold to the mom-and-pop fabricator but keeps the VAT invoice. Up till now, company X has incurred a loss of 2,000 CNY (bear in mind, because of China’s VAT system buyers pay the spot price at SGE which doesn’t include any VAT, but when companies withdraw the metal they receive a VAT invoice from the tax authority that describes 17 % of the all-in price is VAT, because the gold leaves a VAT exempt environment). However, company X can then sell the VAT invoice for 4,000 CNY to, in example, a brick trader. Company X effectively makes 2,000 CNY. If the brick trader alters the subject header on the invoice from “gold” into “bricks” he can tax deduct 34,000 CNY (234,000 / (1+17%) * 17%) from his VAT payable. In this scenario, the brick trader effectively makes 30,000 CNY (34,000 CNY minus the 4,000 it paid to company X). Naturally, all exemplar numbers can vary.
For sure this illegal VAT scheme exists and has been used. But, only to a limited extent – in my conclusion I will tell you the upper bound. Mind you, in the scenario I just described the gold does meet demand, albeit through an illegal scheme!
In addition, the discrepancy between the GFMS Chinese demand figures and SGE withdrawal numbers first appeared in 2008, and have exploded since 2013.
In the GS2016 GFMS writes:
We initially became aware of the scheme in 2013 when it first emerged, but based on information gathered from our contacts, the number of industry participants mushroomed in 2014 and 2015 as other traders became aware of the potential loophole.
The GFMS team wants readers to believe that it was the tax scheme that caused the discrepancy between GFMS Chinese demand and SGE withdrawals since 2013, but the VAT regulation regarding gold has remained unchanged since 2002. Is it believable that criminals found the possibility of these illegal practices 11 years later, exactly when Chinese demand exploded? No. If you click this link, you will see a similar incident that happened in 2010 and was reported at the end of 2011. The VAT scheme has existed for many years and crime incidents happen, but not like GFMS wants you to think.
If the GFMS team was indeed aware of the illegal practices as late as 2013 and thought that was the year when these practices first emerged, then GFMS is not properly informed in the Chinese gold market.
More from GS2016:
One of our contacts with some understanding of this activity estimated that just from Shenzhen alone, such trading activities could have possibly impacted the SGE’s withdrawal volumes by a few tonnes per day. Approximately half of the gold being sold in the black market at discounts would eventually flow back to the SGE.
In my opinion this is speculation. According to the news available, buyers in the black market are those who want the gold to fabricate jewelry that eventually is being met by true demand. In contrast, GFMS wants readers to believe half of the gold involved in the scheme flows back to the SGE. But bars withdrawn from the SGE vaults are not allowed to re-enter, only if they’re recast into new bars by SGE approved refineries (the gatekeepers of the Chinese chain of integrity). For gold involved in VAT invoice schemes to flow back to the SGE, technically SGE approved refineries would be complicit. Though the SGE conducts a campaign to crack down on such illegal tax activities.
As stated above, the VAT scheme is real, though it can not involve as much gold as GFMS wants you to believe. Unfortunately we can’t compute the exact amount recycled through the SGE through this practice, we can only identify the upper bound, which we’ll do in the conclusion.
As background information: when gold is withdrawn from SGE vaults and promptly flows back to the SGE, this overstates withdrawal numbers as it creates equal demand and supply that has no net effect on the price. Therefore, such recycle flows should not be counted in supply and demand statistics. Readers can click this post for more information.
Financial Statement Window Dressing
The GFMS team writes:
Some companies attempted to build up their revenues by merely trading and withdrawing physical gold from the SGE vault so it would appear they have a high level of business activity, while in reality there is no real genuine demand behind this.
Trading can build up revenues but why do these companies withdraw gold? That doesn’t make economic sense. If a company buys gold on the SGE and leaves the gold in the SGE vault, the gold will be recorded as “inventory” on the company’s balance sheet. If the company then withdraws the gold, the gold is still regarded as “inventory”, so what’s point of withdrawing gold? Changing the location of the gold doesn’t change the accounting nature of the gold.
It is technically possible to buy gold on the SGE, withdraw, refine it into new bars, redeposit the bars into SGE vaults and sell the bars. However, this will incur expenses. When the point is “window dressing”, why incur unnecessary expenses? More logic would be to leave the gold in the SGE system. This argument is false.
Retailers Selling Unsold Inventories Directly to Refiners
In this section, the GFMS team writes:
Retailers often prefer to sell a portion of their working stock at a discount directly to refiners in order to maintain inventories at a desirable level.
Why waste the fabrication costs of jewelry when retailers can sell the products at a discount to customers?
By selling to refiners, even if such a transaction may result in a financial loss, it still counts as revenue; but doing the latter only increases the expense category and provides no benefits to the company’s revenues or asset value.
Let’s assume an unsold jewelry stock is worth of 1,000 CNY. The retailer sells it to a refiner at 800 CNY, which results in a loss of 200 CNY. The inventory item on the retailer’s balance sheet is reduced by 1,000 CNY and the cash item increases by 800 CNY. The net result is that the total asset value of the retailer decreases by 200 CNY, then how can this practice provide benefits to the asset value?
As an example, during a field research trip earlier this year, a local refiner indicated that one jewellery retailer has sold approximately 40 tonnes of unsold jewellery pieces to them in a single two month period.
But this quote doesn’t mention what the unsold jewelry pieces become in the end. Possibly, these pieces become gold wires, which might be used by jewelry fabricators instead of becoming gold bars that flow back to the SGE. GFMS pretend the majority of gold in China is continuously recycled through the SGE, which is not true. Many refineries are note even approved by the SGE to supply gold bars.
Gold Leasing Activities And Arbitrage Opportunities
This argument is one of the oldest and most persistent. But we can be short about this; in the Chinese gold lease market nearly all trades are conducted within the SGE system. Any speculator borrowing gold for cheap funding will not withdraw his metal loan, as his incentive is to sell spot for the proceeds. GFMS fools readers by mentioning high leasing activity, but it neglects to mention leases aren’t withdrawn from the vaults. Only a jewelry fabricator would withdraw borrowed gold because he wants to fabricate products to meet demand. For more information you can read this post on the Chinese gold lease market.
Over recent years we have observed a rising number of commercial banks participating in the gold leasing market. … It’s estimated that around 10% of the leased gold leaves the SGE’s vaults. The majority is for financing purposes and is sold at the SGE [and stays within the SGE vaults] for cash settlement.
This argument is false.
Furthermore, it’s noteworthy that GFMS writes:
From the perspective of the bank, lending physical gold is an off-balance sheet item,…
But as I’ve demonstrated in this and this post the majority of the “precious metals” on the Chinese bank balance sheets reflects back-to-back leasing. Meaning banks borrow gold in the SGE system to subsequently lend out at a higher lease rate. So neither do the Chinese bank balance sheets influence SGE withdrawals. What withdrawals largely reflect are direct purchases by individual and institutional investors at the SGE. True demand.
There is a very limited extent to which the VAT scheme can explain the difference between GFMS’ demand and SGE Withdrawals. I wrote previously that indeed there is certain amount of gold being withdrawn from SGE vaults, which, for various reasons, finds its way back to the SGE in newly cast bars – overstating SGE withdrawals as a proxy for wholesale demand. Unfortunately nobody knows exactly the volume flowing through the SGE that distorts withdraw data. But, we do know the upper and lower bound. The upper bound is the difference between SGE Withdrawals and apparent supply, the lower bound is zero.
GFMS only measures consumer demand (jewelry, retail bar and coin, and industrial demand) and not institutional demand (direct purchases at the SGE). This is not speculation this is a fact, and in China everyone can buy gold directly at the SGE so this explains the immense withdrawals. GFMS is fully aware of this but refuses to acknowledge it – because that would ruin their business model. Instead GFMS pretends that the difference between consumer demand and SGE withdrawals is all caused by gold being recycled through the central Chinese exchange. But how is this possible? If the Chinese gold market would simply be a merry-go-round fest, how come the Chinese import thousands of tonnes of gold that are not allowed to be exported? What GFMS suggests is not possible. The fact China keeps importing reveals demand. Another chart:
Theoretically the upper bound for the VAT scheme to have recycled gold through the SGE equals the difference between SGE withdrawals and apparent supply (the difference in exhibit 4 between the red and center columns). That’s the sole leeway we can debate about. As supply equals demand, demand cannot be lower than apparent supply. I should add, not unimportant, we know GFMS’ scrap supply data does not include disinvestment (institutional selling directly to refineries). So disinvestment must be included in the difference between SGE withdrawals and apparent supply as well. Have another look at exhibit 3. But, because we don’t know the amount of disinvestment, neither do we know the amount of distortion (VAT scheme and other recycling flows).
That’s why in exhibit 1 I’ve disclosed the aggregated difference between apparent supply and GFMS demand. There can be no mistake about this volume, it reflects true demand and it has mushroomed into +4,500 tonnes since 2007. GFSM can present many more arguments in future reports, but it won’t change the fact that true demand is at least equal to apparent supply.
Important for a thorough understanding of the Chinese domestic gold market – the largest physical gold market globally – is the local Value-added Tax (VAT) system.
In the Gold Survey 2016 by Thomson Reuters GFMS there is a complex illegal scheme described whereby criminals obtain VAT invoices from the Shanghai Gold Exchange (SGE) for tax evasion. According to GFMS this scheme is one of the reasons why SGE withdrawals are significantly higher than “Chinese consumer gold demand”. To be able to properly clarify this scheme I will first expand on the workings of the VAT system in China’s Gold Market in this article. The scheme has certainly existed for years, but not anywhere near the volume and frequency GFMS portrays.
The Current VAT system in China was adopted in 1994 as part of the economic reform and is often regarded as one of the most complex systems in the world. Here the discussion is simplified somewhat, not to get entangled in details that are not important. Be aware this article does not discuss income tax.
The General VAT System In China
China’s VAT is chargeable on the sale of goods, provision of processing and repair services, and the importation of goods. The standard VAT tax rate is 17 %, a couple of household necessities enjoy a preferential 13 % VAT rate. When visiting any shop or supermarket in China, you will never see any VAT disclosed separately from the unit price. In China it’s common practice to show customers VAT-inclusive prices. In addition, all the prices listed on China’s Commodity Exchanges, the Shanghai Futures Exchange, Dalian Commodity Exchange, Zhenzhou Commodity Exchange and Shanghai Gold Exchange, are VAT-inclusive prices. As a result, if you see a notepad computer priced at 3,510 CNY (onshore renmibi) in China, the VAT is 510 CNY and the VAT-exclusive price is 3,000 CNY.
The “VAT-liable entities” are responsible for collecting the VAT and hand in the money to the tax authority. The VAT-liable entities in China are divided into two categories: general VAT taxpayers and small-scale VAT taxpayers. General VAT taxpayers are large firms that have annual sales large enough and the ability to maintain an accounting system sophisticated enough to accurately calculate output VAT and input VAT. Small-scale VAT taxpayers are firms that don’t satisfy these criteria. Since small-scale VAT taxpayers are not relevant to our discussion, so the focus will be put on general VAT taxpayers.
The formula for computing the VAT payable to the tax authority for a general VAT taxpayer is:
VAT payable = output VAT – input VAT
Output VAT = current period taxable sales * applicable VAT rate
Input VAT = current period costs of eligible purchases * applicable VAT rate
Here is a small example to illustrate VAT computing. Suppose company A is a laptop wholesaler that purchases laptops from Dell, and re-sells them to local retailer B. Company A buys 100 laptops from Dell at the VAT-exclusive unit price of 3,000 CNY. The total VAT-exclusive amount for the goods is 300,000 CNY and total VAT is 51,000 CNY.
Dell then issues a VAT invoice on which the 300,000 CNY and 51,000 CNY are recorded.
From Dell’s perspective, the 51,000 CNY is Dell’s output VAT, but from company A’s perspective the 51,000 CNY is its input VAT.
After having bought the laptops from Dell, company A then re-sells them to retailer B at the VAT-exclusive unit price of 4,000 CNY. Implying, the total VAT-exclusive amount for the laptops is 400,000 CNY and the total VAT is 68,000 CNY.
Company A then issues to retailer B a VAT invoice on which the 400,000 CNY and 68,000 CNY are recorded. From company A’s perspective, the 68,000 CNY is its output VAT but from retailer B’s perspective the 68,000 CNY is its input VAT.
At the end of the month, the VAT payable by company A is 17,000 CNY, which is to be paid to the tax authority.
VAT payable by company A = output VAT – input VAT = 68,000 – 51,000 = 17, 000 CNY
Company A has to keep Dell’s VAT invoice safe and demonstrate the invoice to the tax authority. If company A couldn’t produce Dell’s invoice to the tax authority, then the 51,000 CNY wouldn’t be allowed to be deducted and company A would have to pay the tax authority 68,000 CNY.
They are four kinds of receipts and invoices in China we will discuss:
Special VAT invoice (SVI)
Customs office special receipt for the payment of import VAT
General VAT invoice
Shanghai Gold Exchange invoice (SGE invoice)
In order for input VAT to be used as a tax credit to offset the output VAT, the input VAT must be substantiated by a “special VAT invoice” (SVI) or “customs office special receipt for the payment of import VAT”. SVIs are issued when a general VAT taxpayer sells taxable goods and services. General VAT taxpayers must purchase blank SVIs from the tax bureau. In China, entities can’t produce any VAT invoice of their own – or it will be fake – but all transaction nee to be recorded through an invoice. An SVI looks like this:
A “customs office special receipt for the payment of import VAT” is used for imported goods. Suppose company A buys a computer from Australia at the price 10,000 CNY, assuming no tariffs. The exporter in Australia can never give company A a Chinese SVI, but the imported computer does enjoy VAT. Therefore company A must pay the Chinese Customs Office 1,700 CNY (10,000 CNY * 17 %). Upon receiving the money, the Chinese customs office will issue a “customs office special receipt for the payment of import VAT”. With this special receipt, company A can obtain the tax credit (input VAT) from the imported computer.
A VAT general invoice looks like this:
A general VAT invoice looks very similar to an SVI, though a general VAT invoice cannot be used in obtaining VAT credits when calculating payable VAT. In other words, if you declare to the tax authority that you have 1,000 CNY input VAT but can only produce a general VAT invoice to substantiate your declaration, the tax authority will not recognize the invoice. General VAT invoices are issued by general VAT taxpayers strictly for accounting purposes when they make sales to consumers that will not use the purchase for input VAT. Effectively, general VAT taxpayers issue SVIs for sales to other general VAT taxpayers, and general VAT invoices for sales to consumers.
The “Shanghai Gold Exchange invoice”, or SGE invoice, is designed by the Shanghai Gold Exchange under the supervision of the national tax authority. It’s a pity I can’t find an image of a SGE invoice.
VAT Policy For Gold In China
In China, gold is divided in several categories. There are gold,gold products and ore, and gold is subdivided in standard gold and non-standard. Gold is unwrought/unforged gold, like bars and ingots (HS code 7108120000 and 7108200000). Standard gold refers to gold bars or ingots having a fineness of 9999, 9995, 999 or 995, and a weight of 50g, 100g, 1kg, 3kg or 12.5kg. On the Shanghai Gold Exchange and the Shanghai Futures Exchange (SHFE) only standard gold can be traded. Non-standardgold includes any gold that doesn’t satisfy standard gold criteria, in example 200g ingots. Gold products mean semi-finished gold and finished products of gold, like coins, jewelry and ornaments.
When gold producers and gold traders (general VAT taxpayers and small scale VAT payers) sell non-standard gold off-SGE the VAT is exempt. Gold imported into the domestic market (non-standard and standard gold), for the ones that have an import license, is also VAT exempt.
If standard gold is not sold through the Shanghai Gold Exchange (or Shanghai Futures Exchange), a 17 % VAT tax rate will apply. If standard gold is sold through the Shanghai Gold Exchange (or the Shanghai Futures Exchange), then the VAT is exempt. But it’s the invoicing procedure that is quite complex. An example will follow to illustrate the whole process.
Let’s tie everything together. Suppose the following trades occur. ICBC imports 1 kg of Au99.99 (SGE 1 Kg 9999 gold ingot), which is standard gold, from Switzerland at the price of 230 CNY/gramme (around 1,033 USD/oz). ICBC then sells the gold on the SGE at the price of 234 CNY/gramme. Jewelry manufacturer Laofengxiang is on the other side of the trade. Laofengxiang then withdraws the gold, makes it into gold ornaments, and sells all of them to a retailer at the VAT-exclusive price of 300 CNY/gramme. The VAT payable and receipts and invoices of different parties are as follows:
When ICBC imports the gold, it receives a “customs office special receipt for the payment of import VAT”. On this receipt the total VAT-exclusive amount for the gold is 230,000 CNY and the VAT is 0 (ICBC’s input VAT), because imported standard gold is VAT exempt. When ICBC sells the gold at the price of 234 CNY/gramme on the SGE, it needs to issue to the SGE a general VAT invoice, on which it’s recorded 234,000 CNY for the gold and 0 VAT (ICBC’s output VAT), because selling standard gold on the SGE is also exempt from VAT. Upon issuing the general VAT invoice, ICBC will receive an SGE invoice from the exchange.
After ICBC and Laofengxiang have concluded the deal, the SGE will issue both ICBC and Laofengxiang an SGE invoice respectively. After Laofengxiang withdraws the gold from the vault, the tax authority will issue a SVI on behalf of the SGE, which the SGE distributes to Laofengxiang. On the SVI, the total VAT-exclusive amount for gold is 200,000 CNY and the amount of VAT is 34,000 CNY. The tax authority decides these two numbers using the following formula:
The total VAT-exclusive amount for gold on the SVI = SGE transaction price * quantity / (1+17%) * 100 % = 234 * 1,000 / (1+17%) * 100% = 200,000 CNY
The VAT amount for gold on the SVI = SGE transaction price * quantity / (1+17%) * 17 % = 234 * 1,000 /（1+17%）* 17 % = 34,000 CNY
To understand the reasoning behind this calculation, please note that after withdrawing the metal, this standard gold leaves a VAT exempt environment (the SGE system), for an environment that is not exempt from VAT, and hence VAT is born into existence. When Laofengxiang doesn’t withdraw the gold, the SGE invoice is the only invoice it will receive for accounting purposes – Laofengxiang needs some evidence for accounting entries. If it withdraws the gold, then it will receive an SVI because the standard gold withdrawn can be manufactured into new gold products and sold off-SGE. Therefore Laofengxiang will need to claim input VAT. General VAT taxpayers that withdraw will get a SVI, individuals that withdraw form the SGE will not. The input VAT noted on Laofengxiang’s SVI from the SGE is not an amount Laofengxiang paid to ICBC as VAT, but Laofengxiang is allowed to deduct this amount from its output VAT.
As mentioned, after concluding the purchase of 1kg 9999 gold on the SGE at the price of 234 CNY/gramme, Laofengxiang receives an SGE invoice and also an SVI after it withdraws the gold. The input VAT is 34,000 CNY, which is described above. Laofengxiang then fabricates and sells all the gold ornaments made from the 1kg of gold at the VAT-exclusive price of 300 CNY/gramme. Therefore the output VAT is 51,000 CNY.
Therefore, the VAT payable for Laofengxiang is 17,000 CNY. Since Laofengxiang has the SVI from the SGE, the tax authority will accept the 34,000 CNY input VAT as a tax credit to deduct from the output VAT.
Up till now, readers will have a general idea on how the VAT system works in China’s gold market.
Core Supply & Demand Data Chinese Gold Market Q1-Q3 2016
Chinese gold demand is still going strong this year, albeit less than in 2015. The most likely reason for somewhat lower demand has been the strength in the price of gold in the first three quarters of this year, to which the Chinese reacted by subduing purchases. From 1 January until 30 September 2016, the gold price went up 24 % in US dollars per troy ounce, from $1,061.5 to $1,318.1; measured in renminbi the price went up 28 % over the same period.
Now I have proven the gold on Chinese commercial bank balance sheets has little to do with physical gold ownership of these banks, but mainly reflects back-to back leases and swaps, we can be positive that data on withdrawals from the vaults of the Shanghai Gold Exchange (SGE) roughly equals Chinese wholesale demand. For now that is, as future developments can always alter our metrics.
Below is a chart showing withdrawals from the vaults of the SGE and the price of gold in yuan per gram. The most significant trends of recent years are still in effect; in the short term, when the gold price is falling Chinese demand increases (2013 and 2015), when the gold price is rising Chinese demand declines (2016). This trend is supported by SGE premiums that have an inverse correlation with the price of gold, when the price of gold declines, SGE premiums escalate and vice versa – I will show charts below. Furthermore, in the long term we can observe consistent growth in Chinese gold demand due to the opening up and development of the domestic market.
SGE withdrawals in the first three quarters of 2016 accounted for 1,406 tonnes – still impressive – down 29 % from 1,986 tonnes in 2015, which was a record year. Annualized SGE withdrawals are set to hit 1,877 tonnes in 2016.
Notable, “known net import” by China is relatively strong compared to SGE withdrawals in 2016. Total net import in the first three quarters of this year has aggregated to 905 tonnes – annualized 1,206 tonnes – or 64 % of SGE withdrawals, versus an import/withdrawals ratio of 53 % in 2015. As mine supply to the SGE is fairly constant, recycled gold through the SGE must be lower this year than last year. As a rule of thumb, we use the equation:
The largest net exporter to China is still Hong Kong, having transhipped 608 tonnes to the mainland from January until September 2016, up 5 % compared to 2015. The volume Hong Kong exports to the mainland has been quite constant since 2014, while in 2013 China’s special administrative region was a substantial larger supplier.
(There have been rumors that Hong Kong ’s export to China is overstated in the official data by the Hong Kong Census & Statistics Department, caused by fake exports. In the chart below you can see that the share of exports relative to re-exports from Hong Kong to China this year has increased from previous years. Potentially this signals fake exports, as it’s easier to over invoice an export than re-export, though I haven’t found hard evidence for this scheme. When I do I will report accordingly.)
The second largest exporter to China is Switzerland, having supplied a net 229 tonnes so far this year, which is 22 % more than last year. Clearly, direct shipments from Switzerland to China have replaced shipments via Hong Kong.
Direct net exports by the UK to China mainland have collapsed by 92 % this year compared to 2015, from 210 tonnes to a mere 18 tonnes. The reason being, the UK has been the largest net importer globally this year, which is related to the strength in the gold price early this year. UK net gold trade is a proxy for Western institutional supply and demand.
Australia’s direct export to China is down this year as well (in the first eight months, data for September has not yet been released). I’ve computed the data as described in my post Australia Customs Department Confirms BullionStar’s Analysis On Gold Export To China. Following this method, the land of down under has sent 50 tonnes of gold directly to China during the first eight months of this year, down 23 % from 65 tonnes in 2015.
Despite press releases suggesting Russian gold enterprises are strengthening ties with the SGE, I have identified only one shipment of 30 Kg by the Russian Federation directly to China in 2016. In 2013 the Russians directly net exported 50 Kg to China.
Data on gold export from South Africa to China is not publicly available.
Since 2014, when the Shanghai International Gold Exchange (SGEI) was erected, there is a possibility “SGE withdrawals” are inflated by withdrawals from vaults in the Shanghai Free Trade Zone; gold that is allowed to be exported abroad – the free trade zone is not part of the domestic market. But as far as I know any activity on the SGEI lacks foreign enterprises that buy gold to withdraw and export. A couple of months ago a source at a large Chinese bank told me the SGEI is mainly used by Chinese banks to import gold into Chinese domestic market. In addition, I haven’t bumped into any large importers from China. Occasionally India imports a few hundred Kg, but that’s it.
The emblematic difference between “Chinese gold demand as disclosed by GFMS” and SGE withdrawals – displayed in exhibit 7 – is due to GFMS’ incomplete metrics. For decades this consultancy firm has been denying the existence of institutional supply and demand in above ground gold, which is far more important to price formation than retail sales and mine supply, the predominant flows published by GFMS. The essence of this swindle can be read in my blog post The Great Physical Gold Supply & Demand Illusion. I also have a few more blog posts in the pipeline that discuss GFMS’ most recent gold supply and demand data.
I expect November to be a very strong month for SGE withdrawals. Mentioned in the introduction segment of this post, there is a trend in Chinese wholesale gold demand in relation to the gold price. Whenever, the gold price is climbing, Chinese demand is subdued, accompanied by low SGE premiums; when the gold price is decreasing, SGE withdrawals and premiums in China shoot up. The relationship between the gold price and SGE withdrawals can be viewed in exhibit 1. Below in exhibit 8 & 9, readers can see the relationship between “SGE end of day prices and premiums”.
Note, the gold price on the SGE and the premium have an inverse correlation.
I already mentioned that SGE withdrawals in the first nine months of 2016 have been subdued due to a rally in the gold price. However, high premiums at the SGE in November forecast elevated withdrawals for the month. Since Trump got elected on November 9, and price of gold started tumbling, SGE premiums have broken a three-year record. This signals strong demand.
In the next chart from Goldchartsrus.com we can see the premium on the SGE’s most traded physical contract Au99.99 has risen since November 9 and reached 3 % by 24 November. Levels not seen since 2013 (exhibit 8).
Although the relationship between the gold price and SGE premiums has been in place for years, Reuters reports the high premiums in November are caused by worries on import restrictions. From Reuters:
Gold premiums in top consumer China jumped to the highest in nearly three years this week on worries over a supply shortage that traders said were due to Beijing’s efforts to restrict import licenses.
“While we don’t have the exact numbers, we hear that they (Chinese government) have limited the number of importers,” said Dick Poon, general manager at Heraeus Precious Metals in Hong Kong.
To me this statement doesn’t make sense. At this moment that are 15 banks approved by the PBOC to import gold. Limiting the number of importers would cause less importers to import more gold in order to balance the domestic market (supply gold from abroad when necessary). In the Measures for the Import and Export of Gold and Gold Productsdrafted by the PBOC in March 2015 it states:
… An applicant for the import … of gold … shall have corporate status, … it is a financial institution member or a market maker on a gold exchange [SGE] approved by the State Council.
… The main market players with the qualifications for the import … of gold shall assume the liability of balancing the supply and demand of material objects on the domestic gold market. Gold to be imported … shall be registered at a spot gold exchange [SGE] approved by the State Council where the first trade shall be completed.
The Chinese government could lower imports by distributing less “import licences” to approved banks. As, every approved bank still needs to submit for a license for every gold import batch. Logically, lowering imports would be done by the PBOC through handing out less licences.
More proof the “precious metals assets” on Chinese commercial bank balance sheets have little to do with the “surplus” gold in China’s domestic market.
The “surplus” in the Chinese gold market is the difference between withdrawals from the Shanghai Gold Exchange vaults and gold demand as measured by consultancy firms like the World Gold Council and Thomson Reuters GFMS. The “surplus” accounts for over 4,000 tonnes. In reality the “surplus” is true gold demand by Chinese individuals and institutional investors directly at the SGE. Some analysts think the huge tonnages in “precious metals assets” on the balance sheets of Chinese commercial banks have anything to do with the “surplus”, but this is not true. And I prefer to explain in detail.
One of the topics about the Chinese gold market that has not been fully illuminated is the “gold” on the 16 Chinese commercial banks’ balance sheets. At the end of 2015 the aggregated “precious metals assets” on the bank balance sheets accounted for 598 billion yuan (RMB), which translates into approximately 2,682 tonnes of gold – if all the precious metals were gold related, which is very likely.
In my previous post on this subject we learned from examining the banks’ annual reports from 2015, that there are at least five gold assets that can appear in the “precious metals” line item on the balance sheets. Namely:
Gold savings that belong to the banks’ customers (Gold Accumulation Plans, GAP)
Gold inventory for the banks’ retail gold bar business
Gold leasing business
Gold held for hedging purposes
Gold held outside China
In this post we’ll examine more thoroughly the (Chinese and English) annual reports from 2007 until 2014 of the 16 banks, to learn more on what these huge tonnages represent. The most significant new finding is that Chinese banks conduct synthetic leases – in other words: swaps. By performing synthetic leases, Chinese banks can show “precious metals assets” but no “precious metals liabilities” on their balance sheets. Then, at the very surface it seems these banks own gold, in reality they own zero gold.
Also note, swaps can be executed with foreign banks, through which gold is subsequently imported into the domestic market. And because the Chinese banks have been importing thousands of tonnes in recent years, it should come as no surprise these trades have influenced the “precious metals” line item on their balance sheets.
More findings that will be addressed in this post are:
Chinese reported lease volume reflects yearly turnover.
Gold stored in Shanghai Gold Exchange (SGE) designated vaults owned by commercial banks does not to appear on the custodial bank’s balance sheet.
More confirmation some gold on the balance sheets is stored outside China.
My conclusion is that the “precious metals” on the Chinese commercial bank balance sheets do not account for the “surplus” gold in the Chinese domestic market Western consultancy firms pretend to be ignorant about. The Chinese banks do not own much gold of themselves, as some analysts have speculated, nor are these banks preparing for a new gold standard designed by the PBOC, according to my sources and analysis.
This post is divided in three segments. The first segment is about accounting, which supports the second segment about swaps and other gold related line items on the Chinese bank balance sheets. The first segment can be skipped if you already posses thorough knowledge on accounting. The third segment displays all the “precious metals” related data of the 16 bank balance sheets from 2007 until 2015.
I Accounting Background
Before we can discuss the details of the “precious metals” mentioned in the financial statements of the annual reports of the 16 banks, we need to do some studying on accounting structures (study the definitions of a financial statement, balance sheet, an income statement, assets/liabilities, financial assets/liabilities and derivative financial assets/liabilities). This study will prove valuable for future posts as well. The bank balance sheets are an important topic in the Chinese gold market; understanding accounting helps us to illuminate the Chinese gold market.
Financial statements of banks are divided in three main segments: abalance sheet, anincome statement and a cash flow statement.
On Investopedia we can read the definition of a balance sheet:
A balance sheet is a financial statement that summarizes a company’s assets, liabilities and shareholders’ equity at a specific point in time. These three balance sheet segments give investors an idea as to what the company owns and owes, as well as the amount invested by shareholders.
The balance sheet adheres to the following formula:
Assets = Liabilities + Shareholders’ Equity
A number of ratios can be derived from the balance sheet, helping investors get a sense of how healthy a company is. These include the debt-to-equity ratio and the acid-test ratio, along with many others. The income statement and statement of cash flows also provide valuable context for assessing a company’s finances, as do any notes or addenda in an earnings report that might refer back to the balance sheet.
An example would be, ICBC holding 1 tonne of gold in small ICBC brand bars as inventory for retail sales. This gold is an asset of ICBC.
Next to a balance sheet, banks disclose an income statement in their annual reports. From Investopedia we read:
An income statement is a financial statement that reports a company’s financial performance over a specific accounting period. Financial performance is assessed by giving a summary of how the business incurs its revenues and expenses …. It also shows the net profit or loss incurred over a specific accounting period.
Unlike the balance sheet, which covers one moment in time, the income statement provides performance information about a time period.
In example, ICBC buys gold at the SGE worth 1,000,000 RMB and has the metal recast in small 200 gram ICBC brand bars. If ICBC subsequently sells the newly casted bars for in total 1,100,000 RMB, then 100,000 RMB is profit and will be included in the income statement.
Cash flow is the net amount of cash … moving into and out of a business.
Total aggregated cash flows are measured over the course of a period, for example one year, as with the income statement. But unlike the income statement, it records all things related to cash flows. For example, if ICBC buys a new building worth 10,000,000 RMB, this will affect the balance sheet (cash decrease, asset increase) and the cash flow statement, but not the income statement.
Article 20 An asset is a resource that is owned or controlled by an enterprise as a result of past transactions or events and is expected to generate economic benefits to the enterprise.
“Past transactions or events” mentioned in preceding paragraph include acquisition, production, construction or other transactions or events. Transactions or events expected to occur in the future do not give rise to assets.
“Owned or controlled by an enterprise” is the right to enjoy the ownership of a particular resource or, although the enterprise may not have the ownership of a particular resource, it can control the resource.
“Expected to generate economic benefits to the enterprise” is the potential to bring inflows of cash and cash equivalents, directly or indirectly, to the enterprise.
Article 21 A resource that satisfies the definition of an asset set out in Article 20 in this standard shall be recognized as an asset when both of the following conditions are met:
(a) it is probable that the economic benefits associated with that resource will flow to the enterprise;
(b) the cost or value of that resource can be measured reliably.
Article 22 An item that satisfies the definition and recognition criteria of an asset shall be included in the balance sheet. An item that satisfies the definition of an asset but fails to meet the recognition criteria shall not be included in the balance sheet.
Financial assets/liabilities can be subdivided in several categories, such as financial assets/liabilities designated at fair value through profit and loss, financial assets/liabilities held for trading and derivative financial assets/liabilities. Financial assets/liabilities are included on the balance sheet and the change in fair value of most financial asset/liabilities will appear in the income statement. Not all banks subdivide financial assets/liabilities in the same manner. For example, ICBC lists “financial assets/liabilities held for trading” parallel to “financial assets/liabilities designated at fair value through profit and loss”. Other banks only disclose “financial assets/liabilities designated at fair value through profit and loss” as a total. The details on accounting are beyond the scope of this post.
Let’s have a look at an example of a financial liability. We’ll use plain gold leasing. Suppose ICBC borrows 1 Kg of gold for 1 year and instantly sells the gold at 280 RMB/gram. ICBC will then record a cash asset of 280,000 RMB and a financial liability held for trading of 280,000 RMB on its balance sheet. Say, after one month the gold price surges to 380 RMB/gram. For ICBC the cash asset remains at 280,000 RMB, but the bank will increase the carrying amount of the financial liability held for trading to 380,000 RMB. The 100,000 RMB, which is a loss, will go into the income statement. In the income statement there is a separate line for this called net profit or loss on financial assets or liabilities designated at fair value through profit and loss.
Derivative financial assets/liabilities on balance sheets must not be commingled with derivative instruments such as futures or forwards, of which the notional values are recorded off-balance sheet. Let me show how derivative financial assets/liabilities are acquired.
We’ll use futures as an example. Suppose ICBC buys long a SHFE gold futures (1,000 grams) contract at 280 RMB/gram on 1 November 2016 that is to expire in June 2017. The futures contract itself (derivative instrument) is recorded off-balance sheet, but the profit or loss arising from it creates a “derivative financial asset/liability” recorded on the balance sheet and the income statement. At 1 November 2016 the fair value of the futures contract is 0 because the future price has not moved yet so there is no profit or loss. The notional value of the futures contract is 280,000 RMB (1,000*280). On 1 November 2016 ICBC’s financial statement would be:
ICBC’s derivative financial asset/liability held for trading on the balance sheet = 0
Fair value ICBC’s derivative financial asset/liability held for trading recorded in the income statement’s “net profit or loss on financial assets or liabilities designated at fair value through profit and loss” = 0 RMB
Notional value of ICBC’s derivative financial instrument recorded off-balance sheet = 280,000 RMB
Suppose one month later, on 1 December 2016, the gold price has surged to 380 RMB/gram. ICBC is long gold so it will have a mark-to-market profit of 100,000 RMB. This profit will go into the income statement in “net profit or loss on financial assets or liabilities designated at fair value through profit and loss”. At the same time ICBC has created a derivative financial asset held for trading worth 100,000 RMB. (If gold would sink below 280 RMB/gram, ICBC would record a derivative financial liability held for trading.) On 1 December 2016 ICBC’s financial statement would be:
Derivative financial asset held for trading on the balance sheet = 100,000 RMB
Fair value ICBC’s derivative financial assets held for trading recorded in the income statement’s “net profit or loss on financial assets or liabilities designated at fair value through profit and loss” = 100,000 RMB
Notional value of ICBC’s derivative financial instrument recorded off-balance sheet = 380,000 RMB
Below you can view a balance sheet and an off-balance sheet account from ICBC’s 2015 annual report.
Having said this, the practice of categorizing precious metals assets and liabilities varies from bank to bank in China. Nevertheless, there are excellent observations to make from the financial statements of the banks. This will be quite complex, if I didn’t explain it properly, please refer to the introduction of this post that serves as a simplified summary.
Banks Do Synthetic Back-To-Back Gold Leasing Through Swaps
From the previous post, we know that gold leasing – mainly back-to-back borrowing and lending – overstates the precious metals assets and liabilities of Chinese banks. However, what was not mentioned in the previous post was that banks do synthetic back-to-back leasing through swaps. This way, it’s possible that banks that are active in the gold lending market, will show precious metals assets on their balance sheet – without precious metals liabilities, while not owning a single gram of metal themselves. The bank will syntheticallyborrow gold through a swap, and lend it out for a few extra basis points. The result is synthetic back-to-back leasing.
From a Chinese bank’s perspective a synthetic gold lease is conducted by borrowing RMB to buy spot gold, lend that metal to a customer, and at the same time sell short a forward contract. When the gold loan to the customer comes due the metal is returned to the bank, which then will be sold through the forward contract to repay the bank’s RMB loan. That’s the definition of a swap: buy spot and sell forward (sell spot and buy forward for the counterparty).
If gold is in contango, and the forward price is higher than spot, the Chinese bank will make a profit on the swap. However, in contango, the costs for the RMB loan transcend the swap profit. The difference between both is the cost equal to the gold lease rate (GLR). In my previous post Understanding GOFO And The Gold Wholesale Market we could read about these relationships (and the exact workings of swaps).
Fiat interest rate – swap rate = GLR
Effectively, by borrowing RMB for a swap the bank pays GLR to synthetically borrow gold.
As the international gold lease rate is likely lower than the gold lease rate in China, Chinese banks can make a profit by (synthetically) borrowing gold abroad, import the metal and lend it through the SGE system at a higher GLR. (Whenever a gold loan is to be repaid from the Chinese domestic gold market to an international lender, not the physical metal is exported, but funds cross the Chinese border, as physical gold export is prohibited from the Chinese domestic gold market.)
For example, Minsheng Bank can synthetically borrow gold for 3 months from HSBC at GLR in the interbank market. When Minsheng lends the gold for 3 months to a jeweler at GLR + 30 BPs, then Minsheng earns 30 BPs in this trade.
In the real world, this is exactly what banks have been doing. Let’s still use Minsheng Bank as an example.Please view the table above. We can see Minsheng’s gold lease volume jumped from 13 tonnes in 2013 to 101 tonnes in 2014, and the precious metals assets surged from 2,913 million RMB in 2013 (~12 tonnes) to 25,639 million RMB in 2014 (~107 tonnes).The surge in precious metals assets was fully caused by the increment in the gold lease business, as can be seen in the excerpt below from Minsheng Bank’s 2014 annual report. All the numbers are in millions of RMB.
It’s disclosed the precious metals assets jumped from 2,913 million RMB in 2013 to 25,639 million RMB in 2014, due to a 22,726 million “increase in precious metals lease business”.
But note we can only see an increase in “precious metals assets” on Minsheng’s balance sheet (exhibit 4), there are no “precious metals liabilities”. This is because the gold lend by Minsheng was sourced through swaps. Minsheng didn’t literally borrow gold (precious metals liability), it swapped gold for RMB collateral.
This is how it works in Minsheng’s case. When it enters a swap transaction these are the spot and the forward legs to be recorded in the financial statement. Minsheng borrows RMB and buys spot gold to lend out to a customer at GLR plus a few basis points. At that moment a precious metals asset (the gold loan) is recorded on the balance sheet, but not a precious metals liability (the related RMB liability is not disclosed in exhibit 4). Simultaneously, Minsheng sells short a forward contract that is recorded off-balance sheet. In due time the gold loan is repaid, the forward settled, etc.
The off-balance activities are shown in exhibit 4, additionally they’re disclosed in Minsheng’s financial statement to be viewed below. Again all numbers are in millions of RMB.
We can see that the large increase in precious metals derivatives trading from 2013 to 2014 was mainly caused by “3 months to 1 year” “forwards and swaps”, of which most have been swaps used for synthetic back-to-back leasing.
Exhibit 5 shows there was a 22,726 million RMB (~ 94 tonnes) increase in leases from 2013 to 2014. Exhibit 6 shows ~ 24 billion RMB (~ 100 tonnes) in “3 months to 1 year” swaps have been executed in 2014, over zero in 2013. Likely, the majority of the swaps have been in tenors close to 1 year, as by 31 December 2014 roughly 107 tonnes in precious metals assets were on the balance sheet.
In 2014 the “3 months to 1 year” “cash inflow” (Minsheng’s sell forward leg) transcended the “cash outflow” (buy spot leg) because gold was in contango that year in China. (Exhibit 6)
Perhaps you have noticed that Minsheng Bank counts only 1 leg of the gold swap off-balance sheet. Yes, if we compare the total “precious metals forwards and swaps” “cash outflow” 32,865 million RMB with the total notional amount in precious metals derivatives off-balance sheet, 32,844 million RMB, the two numbers are roughly equal.
All in all, at the surface it seems Minsheng Bank holds approximately 100 tonnes in precious metals assets, in reality this is merely reflecting synthetic back-to-back leasing through swaps. More proof there can be little “surplus” gold on the commercial banks balance sheets.
As long as Chinese annual lease volume grows, the commercial bank balance sheets can mushroom as a consequence.
Chinese Lease Volume Reflects Yearly Turnover.
In the past there has been some doubt whether the reported Chinese gold lease volume reflected the total turnover over a certain period, or the gold that has been leased out at a certain point in time. Already in May 2015 I wrote China’s reported gold lease volume reflects turnover – because traders at Chinese banks told me – and now there is more confirmation to be presented. From Minsheng Bank’s financial statements we can understand that the gold lease volume means the lease turnover per annum. Have another look at exhibit 4.
Minsheng bank leased out 116 tonnes of gold in 2015, which was an increase from 2014. But at the end of 2015, the “precious metals assets” wherein gold leasing is recorded, decreased to 83 tonnes. This can only be possible if the lease volume is annual turnover. Apparently, in 2015 Minsheng’s leasing business grew, but it conducted more deals in tenors shorter than 1 year, causing the annual turnover to increase (to 116 tonnes) but the outstanding leases at year-end on the balance sheet to decline from the previous year.
The World Gold Council (WGC) seems the have come to the same conclusion recently. In the Gold Demand Trends Q2 2016 report, it stated (page 15) the gold lease volume “captures the total amount of gold leased in the reporting period, for example, if Commercial Bank A lends 1t to Jeweller B for three months and Jeweller B returns it back for the Commercial Bank A to lend again to Bank C, a total of 2t of leasing volume will be recorded for the period”. This confession by the WGC is remarkable, because from April 2014 until early 2016 the WGC was spreading a myth about the gold involved in the Chinese lease market. From the WGC’s China’s Gold Market Progress And Prospects, April 2014:
No statistics are available on the outstanding amount of gold tied up in financial operations [leases] linked to shadow banking but Precious Metals Insights believes it is feasible that by the end of 2013 this could have reached a cumulative 1,000t.
While at it, the WGC admitted most of the leased gold doesn’t leave the SGE vaults:
It’s estimated that around 10 % of the leased gold leaves the SGE’s vaults. The majority is for financing purposes and is sold at the SGE for cash settlement.
This is what I’ve written since February 2015: gold leasing has little impact on SGE withdrawals, as the vast majority of leases are for financing purposes and are thus settled within the SGE system.
Gold In SGE Vaults Is Not On The Custodian’s Balance Sheets
In China, most of the SGE vaults are actually owned by commercial banks but approved by the SGE as “designated vaults”. In addition there are other types of enterprises that own “SGE designated vaults” – probably jewelry companies in Shenzhen, the heart of China’s jewelry manufacturing industry. In my previous post I shared the possibility that SGE vaulted gold appears on the balance sheets of custodian commercial banks. But further research has pointed out that is not the case. SGE vaulted gold does not appear on the balance sheet of the custodians, only on the balance sheet of the owner.
As has been written at the beginning of this post, in order for a custodian, in this example ICBC, to recognise the gold owned by another entity, in this example BOC, in its SGE-designated vault as an asset, the gold has to be “owned or controlled” by ICBC. In reality ICBC wouldn’t have any ownership of this gold. ICBC would have, to a certain extent, some control over BOC’s gold, but in order for ICBC to recognise the gold as an asset on its balance sheet, it should be “probable that the economic benefits associated with that resource will flow to the enterprise”. In other words, ICBC should be able to sell or lease out BOC’s gold in its vaults to record the metal as asset. Though, an SGE custodian would never go there or its business would collapse promptly.
There is more confirmation. On the balance sheet of Ping’ An Bank, the volume of precious metals holdings for 2011 and 2010 were both nil. At the same time, according to Ping’ An’s annual report of 2010, its total gold withdrawals ranked No. 8 among all SGE designated vaults.
Gold vaulting service keeps increasing and the withdrawal number is listed the eighth among SGE designated vaults.
And in 2011 Ping’ An’s gold deposit and withdrawal total accounted for 10% of all SGE warehouse activity. It is hard to believe that Ping’ An had no gold in its SGE-designated vaults at the end of 2010 and 2011, while Ping’ An’s vaults were such an important part of the SGE system. Concluding, Ping’ An didn’t recognize other SGE clients’ or members’ gold in its vaults as its assets. Hence we have for 0 for Ping’ An’s precious assets in 2010 and 2011.
Some readers may point out the following paragraph in ICBC’s 2015 annual report:
The Group records the precious metals received as an asset. A liability to return the amount of precious metals deposited is also recognised.
The group recognises an asset when the group receives the precious metals deposited by the customer for accumulation, and at the same time recognises the related liability.
Therefore, ICBC was actually referring to the gold in its Gold Accumulation Plan (GAP) and the key information was lost in translation.
Gold in Chinese ETFs is neither recognized by its custodian as an asset.
Some Of Chinese Banks’ Gold Is Indeed Outside China
I mentioned in the previous post that some of Chinese banks’ precious metals holdings could be outside China. ICBC acquired Standard Bank in 2015 and Standard Bank’s precious metals are outside China. However, even some medium-sized Chinese banks hold precious metals outside China. The following table is from Ping’ An’s 2014 annual report (page 196, numbers are in millions of RMB).
What we see is that Ping’ An held gold assets in US dollars worth 2,420 million RMB. The disclosed “foreign exchange equivalent” for Ping’ An’s precious metals would only be mentioned like this if the precious metals are held outside China. If the precious metals would have been located inside China, Ping’ An never would have listed the value of the assets as “USD (in CNY equivalent)”.
We will not extensively analyze every Chinese bank’s financial statement like we’ve done with Minsheng Bank and Ping’ An Bank above, though I do like to share all the data I’ve collected. The practice of categorizing precious metals assets and liabilities varies from bank to bank so readers should pay attention to the notes below the tables and are recommended to read the original annual reports for more information. The derivative instruments are listed according to the notional amount (off balance sheet) instead of the fair value. The notional amount is not comparable between banks because for swaps, some banks only consider one leg while others add both the spot and forward legs, for example Bank of Ningbo, together.
Assuming all precious metals mentioned are gold related.
1. Industrial and Commercial Bank of China (ICBC)
We can observe ICBC precious metals assets started to transcend its financial liabilities related to gold in 2014. The possible causes are increases in ICBC brand gold bar sales (more inventory), customers purchased more options (ICBC would need to buy more gold to hedge), and more synthetic gold leasing.
2. Bank of China (BOC)
“Commodity derivatives and others” were called “precious metals derivatives and other derivatives” before 2010. BOC doesn’t have any significant numbers related to precious metals in financial liabilities designated at fair value through profit and loss.
Noteworthy, at the end of 2007 BOC had 7,982 million RMB (~ 41 tonnes of gold) in precious metals pledged as collateral, and late 2009 this figure had grown into 27,271 million RMB (~ 114 tonnes of gold). The precious metals were used as collateral in swap transactions for financing, according BOC’s accounting practice.
Precious metals swap transactions, based on the transaction nature, are treated as precious metals sales under collateral agreement. The precious metals pledged as collateral are not ceased to be recognized and the related liability is reflected in “borrowings through interbank lending”
3. Bank of Communications
Bank of Communications lists precious metals assets in two separate categories. I’m not sure what is identified with “precious metals contracts”.
Bank of Communications reported in its 2013 annual report that it conducted overseas gold swap business:
[Bank of Communications] successfully conducted overseas gold swap transactions.
In 2013, Bank of Communications conducted gold interbank lending with HSBC and HSBC became the most important source of physical gold for the Bank of Communications:
The two parties [Bank of Communications and HSBC] not only conducted “first deal” cooperation in gold consignment and gold borrowing, but also realized surging cooperation volume. HSBC has become an important import source of physical gold for the bank.
4. China Construction Bank
Not everything in the “other derivatives” category are precious metals.
China Construction Bank (CCB) wrote in its annual reports that the market share of physical sales to the public was No. 1 in 2010, and in the same year the market share of gold leasing was 40 %. From CCB’s 2010 annual report:
The Bank [China Construction Bank] has maintained the rank of No 1 in branded physical gold to individuals. The market share of gold leasing was 40.30 %. The market share of account gold was 37.41 %.
CCB offered physical withdrawal on precious metals accounts since 2013 and its own gold accumulation plan since 2015.
5. Agricultural Bank of China
Before 2014 “precious metals contracts” were called “precious metals lease contracts”. Not sure what “precious metals contracts” can be next to “precious metals lease contracts” – perhaps SGE physical contracts like Au99.99.
Before 2011, precious metals derivatives were reported separately as forwards and swaps. The precious metals lease business was reported to be launched in 2010.
6. Shanghai Pudong Development Bank
The change in “Financial liabilities at fair value through profit and loss” was caused by precious metals shorts (?) according to Shanghai Pudong Development Bank’s annual reports.
7. China Merchants Bank
The increase in “precious metals assets” was caused by the increase in proprietary trading and gold lease according to the annual reports. From China Merchants Bank’s 2014 annual report:
In 2013, China Merchants Bank reported to have conducted precious metals leasing of 60 tonnes, a 203 % increase from 2012.
8. China Minsheng Bank
The fine data was discussed in the previous chapter.
9. Industrial Bank
The 644 million RMB precious metals related liabilities were caused by “gold pledge business” according to Industrial Bank’s 2008 annual report.
“Precious metals shorts and leased precious metals” are a subcategory under “financial liabilities held for trading”.
10. China CITIC Bank
According to the annual reports, the surge in the precious metals and precious metals contracts in 2014 was caused by the increase of precious metals lease and proprietary business.
In the reporting period, the gold lease business and precious metals proprietary trading business all achieved rapid growth.
11. Ping’ An Bank (former Shenzhen Development Bank)
Before 2014 precious metals derivatives were called gold derivatives. Before 2009, Ping’ An only gave a lump sum of all the derivatives. Just in case there were any gold derivatives in this category, I’ve included the lump-sum numbers.
The increase in the “financial liabilities designated at fair value through profit and loss” in 2013 was caused by the increase in “financial liabilities held for trading” related to “gold business”, according to the annual report. Therefore all the numbers in “Financial liabilities designated at fair value through profit and loss” are listed here, although this category may include some liabilities not related to precious metals. From Ping’ An’s 2013 annual report:
12. Huaxia Bank
The precious metals assets in 2007 and 2008 were a result from physical gold sales according to the annual reports.
13. Everbright Bank
According to the annual reports, Everbright Bank started to conduct gold consignment sales and gold leasing in 2013. Therefore, the increase in precious metals holding in 2013 was probably caused by these activities. From to Everbright Bank’s 2013 annual report:
[Everbright Bank] acquired the gold import qualification, started to conduct gold consignment and gold lease business.
14. Bank of Beijing
Clearly the Bank of Beijing participates in back-to-back leasing, as precious metals leased out are exactly equal to precious metals leased in.
15. Bank of Nanjing
The Bank of Nanjing only disclosed 6 million RMB in precious metals assets in 2014 and 7 million RMB in 2015.
As readers might have seen on these pages, since 2014 I’ve been investigating the inventory audits of the US official gold reserves, which should proof the existence of the metal that embodies the credibility of the world reserve currency. My first article showed the official narrative: all the bars of in total 8,134 tonnes of gold spread over depositories at Fort Knox, West Point, Denver and New York, have been carefully counted, weighed, assayed and inventoried in between 1974 and 2008.
In subsequent posts I’ve exposed there is a vast array of problems to be found with the physical audits. Through several Freedom Of Information Act (FOIA) request, I had obtained information that severely damaged the integrity of the official narrative. Example given, one of my FOIAs that requested the audit reports drafted in between 1974 and 1986, when 7,504 tonnes was audited, revealed the US government had “lost” nearly all documents.
To get to the bottom of this I filed countless new FOIAs in the past months at the legal owner of the gold, the US Treasury, the custodian, the US Mint, and the head auditor, the Office Inspector General of the Treasury, in order to obtain every single piece of documentation I could think of that is related to these audits. Pretty soon, by putting all pieces of new information together I realized I was entangled in a conundrum of giant proportions as many documents contradicted each other. Eventually I submitted a request for a publicly unknown report, which I read about in a document I had obtained by another FOIA. I asked the Mint for “the [US Mint] Director’s Representative … written report to the [US Mint] Chief Financial Officer (CFO) notifying the CFO of the completion of the verification” for the years in between 1993 and 2008. Surprisingly, the US Mint wrote me my request would cost $3,144.96 dollars!
This amount of money is ridiculous. First of all, the documents should be readily available. Perhaps any digitalization costs would incur a few hundred dollars at most. Second, the Mint wrote the estimate of $3,144.96 dollars “includes 40 hours of … search time”. But how can it take 40 hours to find a few pieces of paper? It also wrote, my request would include an estimated 1,200 pages of documentation. But how do they know there are 1,200 pages if they first have to search 40 hours for it?
In any case, I decided to start a crowdfunding campaign last August to collect the money. After I tweeted about the campaign it quickly went viral. The news was spread on websites such as TFMetals, GoldMoney, GATA and GoldChartsRus – among others – and within a few hours the funding was completed, which shows to the power of our gold community.
After I received the money from the crowdfunding website I asked the US Mint for a bank account number to wire the funds. But the Mint replied I could only pay by check! Check? I was born in 1981, I have never seen a check in my life. Was this another way to obstruct my investigation? Most likely. It’s impossible the US Mint does not have a bank account, and every account has a number. I still can’t see why they don’t accept wired money.
But I had no option to go to a branch of my bank located in my area. When I walked in explained and the situation, the gentleman that helped me told me he never handled a check neither. This gentleman was replaced by an older one. There was a slight possibility he could create a check for me, but he had to look into it somewhat. Two hours later I walked out of his office carrying a promise the dollars would be transferred within a week.
A few days later the funds had been subtracted from my bank account, and I asked the US Mint for the first time (that was 11 September) if the check had arrived, but they replied it hadn’t. For weeks, mysteriously the check was “missing”. Only when I emailed the Mint with the email address of my local bank employee included, to have my bank and the Mint work it out together, the Mint confirmed on 28 September 2016 the funds had been received:
We have received your check and are now working to get the requested documents out to you.
That was 28 September, it’s now 15 November! I still haven’t received the documents from the US Mint. Naturally, I have sent more emails to ask what’s the status of my request, but no reply until now.
Or the Mint will have to confirm at some point they can’t deliver to me the paper work – maybe they got “second thoughts”. In that case they have to wire back the funds and I will have all funds send back to everybody that donated. Or they will honor my request in the coming weeks and I will include the findings in a very very long read I’ve been working on.
So, that’s all I know at this stage. Please have a little more patience. Thanks again everybody that donated. Either way, I will publish an article to reveal the results of all my FOIA and the many “problems” I found in the official narrative.
In the Netherlands we have a financial newspaper that prints on pink paper and is named “Het Financieel Dagblad”. Basically it’s the Dutch equivalent of the Financial Times. A few weeks ago I was interviewed by two of their reporters, Joost van Kuppeveld and Lenneke Arts. Today the interview was published as part of a series of interviews with gold experts, among others, with myself and Aerdt Houben, Director Financial Markets at the Dutch central bank (DNB). Perhaps not surprisingly I disagree with several statements of Houben in his interview, to which I would like to respond in a forthcoming post. For now, you can read my interview below. In case readers didn’t know my real name is Jan Nieuwenhuijs, and Koos Jansen is my Internet alias. Het Financieel Dagblad preferred to disclose my real name.
“The whole world is now in the same boat. Everywhere there are low interest rates and on all continents money is printed. Only the United States has paused printing for the moment.
There are many flaws in fiat money. You can print it without limitations, which is politically too tempting. Fiat money printing was used to save the financial system in 2008, but since then nothing has changed. Banks are not split. In a next crisis it’s going to end badly with paper money. There will be significant inflation.
Gold is a hard currency. It can’t be printed – like fiat money. It is divisible and it does not perish. It retains its purchasing power in the long term. If it’s in the center of the monetary system, it will also be more stable in terms of purchasing power in the short and medium term. That has to do with economic principles; it is a commodity. In that respect I feel safe by keeping a portion of my savings in physical gold. I am protected from economic shocks. If the euro falls gold rises, and so my purchasing power is maintained.
Something has to happen in the international monetary system. It cannot stay centred around the dollar. Since 1971 – when the dollar was detached from gold – the United States has an exorbitant privilege. Most trade in the world is settled in dollars. Therefore, there is a huge demand for dollars in the world, and the US can simply print these dollars.
In the new system gold is going play a role. Look at the developments in Europe. The Netherlands and Germany get their gold back from America. Austria and Belgium are also repatriating. Russia and China buy a lot of gold. The Chinese have too many dollars in foreign exchange reserves and are therefore at the mercy of the whims of US policy. The transition to a new system will be gradual. No one wants a new shock.
With my blog I try to fill the gap between mainstream media, who do not understand gold, and conspiracy theorists. I always try to seek the truth. Because if we get a new financial crisis, we must know the truth. The Dutch central bank shouldn’t state it holds 600 tonnes if it can’t show us the audit reports and gold bar list. That’s why I’m pushing for the audit reports and gold bars list to be publicly released, but those requests find a lot of resistance at my national bank. While you would think they can be fully transparent. What’s there to hide?”
After years of gradually securing its official gold reserves (unwinding leases) the central bank of Austria claims to have completed the audits of its 224 tonnes of gold stored at the BOE. However, it refuses to publish the audit reports and the gold bar list. What could possibly be so sensitive to hide from public eyes?
Have a look below at the repatriation schedule of the OeNB for the period from 2015 until 2020. We can wonder why the gold is scheduled to be transported over the course of five years instead of a few months. My guess is this is caused by some kind of friction between the BOE and its foreign central bank clients, in this case the OeNB.
But we know that the OeNB didn’t start to get nervous about the safety of their gold in 2012 or 2015. This started right after Lehman Brothers fell in 2008, as documents show the OeNB slowly started to secure its bullion by unwinding gold loans to commercial banks in 2009. Though, the OeNB publicly disclosed these details after the facts in 2015.
Have a look at the overview below. OeNB gold loans to commercial banks have been brought down from 116 tonnes in 2009 to 24 tonnes in 2013.
I (we) first learned the Austrians were worried about the safety of their gold in the UK through an article from Goldreporter.de from May 2014. The article noted:
Austria is planning to send auditors to the Bank of England in order to verify the existence of Austria’s gold reserves stored in British vaults.
The Austrian accountability office will sent a delegation to London in order to check on Austria’s gold reserves stored in vaults at the Bank of England. … The measure is seen as a consequence of growing public pressure. There is a rising disbelief among Austrians about the existence of the gold.
“I acknowledge the request. Any grocery store is obliged to do an inventory once a year. It is the only way of getting rid of these unreasonable allegations”, Ewald Nowotny, Governor of the National Bank of Austria tells Trend.
Exactly. Any gold owner, and thus many central banks including the OeNB, is obliged to do an inventory once a year to be positive his gold is safe and sound. If central banks truly hold the amount of gold they claim, executing a proper audit and publish the documentation shouldn’t be a problem. Or would it?
Well, it could be a problem if a central bank is obstructed by its custodian to perform audits. In February 2015 we learned the OeNB had some problems with auditing their gold at the BOE. The Austrian Court of Audit (Der Rechnungshof) wrote in a report [brackets added by me]:
Late 2013, the OeNB stored roughly 82 % of its physical gold holdings [224 tonnes] at a depository in England [BOE] and therefore ran a high concentration risk. The current  depository concept lacked adequate measures to reduce this risk. Additionally, the gold depository contract with the depository in England contained deficiencies. With respect to the gold reserves stored abroad, internal auditing measures were lacking.
The OeNB had no appropriate concept to perform audits of its gold reserves. … The lack of audit measures represented a gap in the internal control procedures of the OeNB. The OeNB started in March 2014 with the development of an audit program, which included all the gold holdings of the OeNB.
So, although the OeNB was trying to audit their gold at the BOE since March2014, the results haven’t been as desired, as “the gold depository contract with the depository in England contained deficiencies”, and, “with respect to the gold reserves stored abroad, internal auditing measures were lacking”. Noteworthy to mention is that the BOE sent a letter to its foreign central bank clients in June 2013, openly inviting them to come and audit their gold. Please read bellow the letter obtained by colleague gold blogger Bullion Barron:
As you may know, the Bank of England’s vault operation is somewhat unique in that it facilitates both long term central bank storage and active trading.
I am pleased to tell you that we will now allow inspections of a suitable random sample of your bars. We will follow a principle of doing everything we can to accommodate requests, subject to us maintaining our ability to run the vault efficiently.
The workload associated with these visits, combined with regular operations means that you will need to agree the scope and timing of any inspection with us in advance. Furthermore, there will need to be some constraints around the date, sample size and frequency of visits depending on the overall demand.
Due to the number of customers we have, we may not be able to accommodate your request immediately but, we will do everything we can to accommodate you as soon as is reasonably practicable.
If you would like to discuss further details, please contact your Relationship Manager
First of all, it seems that prior to June 2013 foreign central banks had no auditing rights at the BOE at all. That’s shocking. In addition, this letter was sent in June 2013, but in February 2015 Austrian Court of Audit declared, “with respect to the gold reserves stored abroad, internal auditing measures were lacking”. Why couldn’t the OeNB audit its gold in London by 2015 while the BOE had stated in 2013 to welcome clients for metal inspection?
In any case, I emailed the OeNB in September 2016 to ask what the status was of the repatriation program – how much had been shipped from the UK to Austria. The OeNB replied:
Due to security reasons we are not able to give information concerning the concrete process and status of the transport of the Austrian gold reserves.
Then I asked if the OeNB had been able to finally audit its gold at the BOE and if they have a gold bar list publicly available disclosing each of their bar’s refinery brand, serial number, year of manufacturing, etc. The OeNB replied [brackets added by me]:
…we can confirm that the Oesterreichische Nationalbank has audited her gold holdings in the UK and also in Switzerland, but we also have to tell you that we won’t send a copy of the audit reports.
I regret, we do not have the required [the gold bar] list online.
Isn’t that odd? In 2014 the President of the OeNB Nowotny stated, “any grocery store is obliged to do an inventory once a year. It is the only way of getting rid of … unreasonable allegations”. Effectively he stated that the only way to proof the existence of the Austrian gold is to do a proper audit. But once that audit is completed the reports should made public or the whole exercise isn’t credible. Actually, by not releasing the audit reports more concern is raised. Can an audit “get rid of … unreasonable allegations” if it’s done in secret and the documents remain classified? I think not.
The audits have been obstructed for at least 20 months (June 2013 – February 2015).
After the audits had been allegedly completed, the OeNB decided not to publish the audit reports.
The OeNB settled to repatriate 140 tonnes from the BOE. But why not all? Did the OeNB discover a portion of their gold was missing? Have European central banks settled with their custodians (BOE & New York Fed) to receive a slice of what was once deposited?
Why not full transparency? Why are central bankers always so secretive about their official gold reserves? What could possibly be the reason to hide inventory documents from public eyes? Why doesn’t the OeNB publish a gold bar list? Why doesn’t the Dutch central bank publish a gold bar list (and makes up false excuses)? Why did the German central bank publish a gold bar list that is worthless because it doesn’t disclose gold bar serial numbers, refinery brands and years of manufacturing? Why does it take Austria and Germany another four more years to repatriate gold from the UK and US?
If the OeNB, and many other central banks, keep hiding their documents from us all we can do is worry and speculate. Not because we want to, but because we’re forced to.
Gold supply and demand data published by all primary consultancy firms is incomplete and misleading. The data falsely presents gold to be more of a commodity than a currency, having caused deep misconceptions with respect to the metal’s trading characteristics and price formation.
Numerous consultancy firms around the world, for example Thomson Reuters GFMS, Metals Focus, the World Gold Council and CPM Group, provide physical gold supply and demand statistics, accompanied by an analysis of these statistics in relation to the price of gold. As part of their analysis the firms present supply and demand balances that show how much gold is sold and bought globally, subdivided in several categories. It’s widely assumed these balances cover total physical supply and demand, which is incorrect as the most important category is excluded. The firms though, prefer not to share the subtle truth or their business models would be severely damaged.
The supply and demand balances by the firms portray gold to be more of a commodity than a currency, as the gist of the balances reflect how much metal is produced versus consumed – put differently, the firms mainly focus on how much gold is mined versus how much is sold in newly fabricated products. However, in reality gold is everlasting and cannot be consumed (used up), all that has ever been mined is still above ground carefully preserved in the form of bars, coins, jewelry, artifacts and industrial products. Partly because of this property the free market has chosen gold to be money thousands of years ago, and as money the majority of gold trade is conducted in above ground reserves. Indisputably, total gold supply and demand is far in excess of mine production and retail demand.
As most individual investors, fund managers, journalists, academics and precious metals analysts consider the balances by the firms to be complete, the global misconception regarding gold supply and demand is one of epic proportions. Physical gold is a profound anchor in our global financial system and thus it’s of utmost importance we understand the fine details of its trading characteristics.
Supply & Demand Metrics By The Firms
The firms can argue that the difference between what they present as supply and demand (S&D), as opposed to what I deem to be a more unadulterated approach of S&D is due to contrasting metrics. Accordingly, we’ll discuss their metrics to reveal their infirmity. In a nutshell, the firms only count the physical gold S&D flows that are easy to measure, while leaving out the most important part: institutional supply and demand.
Although the firms all have slightly different methodologies to measure S&D, from comparisons the numbers appear to be quite similar. For our further investigation we’ll spotlight the metrics and models by GFMS. The reason being, GFMS has been the only firm that was willing to share a full description of their methodology for publication – to be viewed here. Metals Focus (MF) provided a partial methodology, the World Gold Council and CPM Group declined to comment.
Let’s have a look at GFMS its S&D categories. On the supply side is included:
Mine supply (newly mined gold)
Scrap supply (gold sourced from old fabricated products)
On the demand side is include:
Jewelry demand (gold content used in newly manufactured jewelry products bought locally at retail level, adjusted by jewelry exported and imported).
Industrial demand (the volume of gold used in industrial applications, for example bonding wire, products used in semiconductors/electronics and dental alloys).
Retail bar investment (the net volume of bars that are purchased by individual investors through retail channels).
Coin investment (a combination of published data from mints and also a proprietary survey conducted by GFMS detailing where coins are sold).
The above four demand categories summed up are often referred to as “consumer demand” by the firms.
Furthermore GFMS includes:
Net hedging (change in physical market impact of mining companies’ gold loans, forwards, and options positions)
Net official sector (total central bank selling or buying)
ETF inventory build (change in ETF inventory)
Exchange inventory build (change in exchange inventory)
The last four categories can be either supply or demand. In example, when central banks (the official sector) in total are net sellers this will be listed as a negative demand figure, as is shown in the S&D balance by GFMS below from 2006 until 2009, when central banks in total are net buyers this will be listed as a positive demand figure, as is shown in the balance from 2010 until 2015. For a clear overview of the GFMS S&D balance please have a look at all line items below.
According to GFMS Supply consists of Mine production, Scrap and Net Hedging. In turn, Demand consists of Jewelry, Industrial Fabrication, Retail Investment, and Net Official Sector. After balancing Supply and Demand this results in a Physical Surplus/Deficit. Then, ETF Inventory Build and Exchange Inventory Build are added/subtracted from the Physical Surplus/Deficit to come to a Net Balance.
GFMS likes to pretend their balance is complete and occasionally articulates any surplus or deficit arising from it is positively correlated to the price of gold, which is anything but true, as I will demonstrate step by step.
The Firms Exclude Majority Gold Supply & Demand
Most important what’s excluded from the balance is what we’ll refer to as institutional supply and demand, which can be defined as trade in bullion among high net worth individuals and institutions. Usually the bullion in question comes in 400-ounce (12.5 Kg) London Good Delivery (GD) bars having a fineness of no less than 995, or smaller 1 Kg bars having a fineness of no less than 9999. In addition, bullion bars can weigh 100-ounce or 3 Kg, among other less popular sizes, generally having a fineness of no less than 995. Bullion can be traded without changing in weight or fineness, but it can be refined and/or recast for transactions as well, in example from GD bars into 1 Kg bars. In some cases institutional supply and demand involves cross-border trade, when bullion is sold in country A to a buyer in country B, in other cases the bullion changes ownership without moving across borders.
Provided are two exemplifications of institutional S&D:
An (institutional) investor orders 400 Kg of gold in its allocated account at a bullion bank in Switzerland – which would be purchased in the Swiss wholesale market most likely in GD bars. This type of S&D will not be recorded by GFMS.
A Chinese (institutional) investor buys 100 Kg of gold directly at the Shanghai Gold Exchange (SGE), the Chinese wholesale market, in 1 Kg 9999 bars and withdraws the metal from the vaults. Neither this transaction will be registered by GFMS – or any other firm.
These examples show the S&D balances by GFMS are incomplete.
For illustrational purposes, below is a chart based on all S&D numbers by GFMS from 2013, supplemented by my conservative estimate of institutional S&D. Including institutional transactions total S&D in 2013 must have reached well over 6,600 tonnes.
GFMS Covers The Tracks With Help From The LBMA
Although GFMS intermittently admits their number are incomplete (they have to), at the same time they’ve been battling for years to eclipse apparent institutional S&D for its audience.Dauntless tactics were needed when in 2013 institutional demand in China reached roughly 1,000 tonnes and over 500 tonnes in Hong Kong. Institutional demand in the East was predominantly sourced through GD bars from the London Bullion Market, which were refined into 1 Kg 9999 bars that are more popular in Asia. For the cover up GFMS went to great lengths to refute the volumes of gold withdrawn from SGE vaults, and accordingly have the London Bullion Market Association (LBMA) adjust statistics on total refined gold by its member refineries. Remarkably, the LBMA cooperated. Allow me to share my analysis in detail.
In 2013 something unusual happened in the global gold market as Chinese institutional demand exploded for the first time in history. Hundreds of tonnes of institutional supply from London in the form of GD bars were mainly shipped to Switzerland to be refined in 1 Kg 9999 bars, subsequently to be exported via Hong Kong to meet institutional demand in China. From customs data by the UK, Switzerland and Hong Kong the institutional S&D trail was clearly visible. From 2013 until 2015 there was even a strong correlation between the UK’s net gold export and SGE withdrawals. Demonstrated in the chart below.
Stunningly, since 2013 GFMS has tried to convince its readers through numerous arguments why SGE withdrawals crossed 2,000 tonnes for three years in a row, while Chinese consumer demand reached roughly half of this. Yet the arguments have failed miserably to explain the difference – they rationalize only a fraction, read this post for more information.
And GFMS did more to eclipse apparent institutional S&D. They colluded with the LBMA.
To be clear, I cannot exactly measure global institutional S&D. However, let me make an estimate of apparent institutional demand for 2013. Notable, in 2013 a flood of gold crossed the globe from West to East. Chinese institutional demand accounted for 914 tonnes and Hong Kong net imported 579 tonnes – the latter we’ll use as a proxy for additional Asian institutional demand, as Hong Kong is the predominant gold trading hub in the region.
In total apparent institutional demand in 2013 accounted for (914 + 579) 1,493 tonnes. If we add all other demand categories by GFMS shown in exhibit 1, total demand in 2013 was at least 6,619 tonnes. Be aware, this excludes non-apparent institutional demand.
Because nearly all wholesale gold demand in Hong Kong and China is for 1 Kg 9999 bars, the global refining industry was working overtime in 2013, mainly to refine institutional and ETF supply in GD bars coming from London. In December 2013 I interviewed Alex Stanczyk of the Physical Gold Fund who just before had spoken to the head of a Swiss refinery. At the time Stanczyk told me [brackets added by me]:
They put on three shifts, they’re working 24 hours a day and originally he [the head of the refinery] thought that would wind down at some point. Well, they’ve been doing it all year . Every time he thinks it’s going to slow down, he gets more orders, more orders, more orders. They have expanded the plant to where it almost doubles their capacity. 70 % of their kilobar fabrication is going to China, at apace of 10 tonnes a week. That’s from one refinery, now remember there are 4 of these big ones [refineries] in Switzerland.
As a consequence, statistics on “total refined gold production” in 2013 by “LBMA accredited gold refiners who are on the Good Delivery List”, which the four large refineries in Switzerland are part off, capture the immense flows of institutional S&D – next to annual mine output and scrap refining. On May 1, 2015, the LBMA disclosed total refined gold production by its members at 6,601 tonnes for 2013 in a document titled A guide to The London Bullion Market Association. It’s no coincidence this number is very close to my estimate on total demand (6,619 tonnes), as apparent institutional demand in Asia was all refined from GD into 1 Kg bars.
Here’s exhibit 2 from another angle.
In the table below we can see the LBMA refining statistics for 2013 at 6,601 tonnes.
After this publication GFMS was trapped; these refining statistics revealed a significant share of the institutional S&D flows they had been trying to conceal. What happened next – I assume – was that GFMS kindly asked the LBMA to adjust downward their refining statistics. First and painstakingly exposed by my colleague Ronan Manly in multiple in-depth posts, the LBMA kneeled and altered its refining statistics to keep the charade in the gold market going.
On August 5, 2015, the LBMA had edited the aforementioned document, now showing 4,600 tonnes in total refined gold production. (Click here to view the original LBMA document from the BullionStar server, and here to view the altered version from the BullionStar server.) Have a look.
In the altered version it says:
Total refined gold production by the refiners on the List was estimated to be 4,600 tonnes in 2013, owing to recycling of scrap material, above world mine production of 3,061 tonnes (source Thomson Reuters GFMS).
A few important notes:
In the altered version the LBMA mentions “an estimate” for “total refined gold production”, while it doesn’t need to make an estimate as all LBMA accredited gold refiners who are on the Good Delivery List are required to provide exact data to its parent body. The exact data was disclosed in the first version of A guide to The London Bullion Market Association, and it stated, “total refined gold production by the refiners on the List was 6,601 tonnes”.
In the altered version the LBMA states the refining statistics were sourced from Thomson Reuters GFMS, but the LBMA doesn’t need GFMS for these statistics. The fact they mention GFMS, though, suggests a coordinated cover up of institutional S&D. Not only the firms, also the LBMA publishes incomplete and misleading data.
The altered version stated refining production totaled 4,600 tonnes, which is a round number and obviously quickly made up. A few weeks after the numbers were adjusted, the LBMA adjusted the numbers again, this time into 4,579 tonnes (click here to view from the BullionStar server).Clearly, on several occasions there has been consultation with the LBMA to get the statistics in line with GFMS.
In the original document the LBMA states, “Total refined gold production by the refiners on the List was 6,601 tonnes in 2013, more than double world mine production of 3,061 tonnes”, while in the altered version they state, “Total refined gold production by the refiners on the List was estimated to be 4,600 tonnes in 2013, owing to recycling of scrap material, above world mine production of 3,061 tonnes”. Notable, GFMS prefers to have total supply focused around mine and scrap production, instead of including institutional supply.
The original refining statistics (6,601 tonnes) are still disclosed in the LBMA magazine The Alchemist (#78 on page 24), to be viewed from the LBMA server here.
And so nothing is spared in trying to uphold the illusion of the GFMS S&D balance to be complete. In another example GFMS excluded gold purchases by the central bank of China from its S&D balance. In June 2015 the People’s Bank Of China (PBOC) increased its official gold reserves by 604 tonnes, from 1,054 tonnes to 1,658 tonnes. During that quarter (Q2 2015) all other central banks worldwide were net buyers at 45 tonnes. Thus, in total the Official Sector was a net buyer at 649 tonnes. Now, let’s have a look at GFMS’ S&D balance for Q2 2015:
Net Official Sector purchases are disclosed ay 45 tonnes. GFMS decided not to include the 604 tonnes increment by the PBOC simply because it didn’t fit their balance model. A 604 tonnes increment in would have set the “net balance” at -480 tonnes. Readers would have questioned the balance from this outlier, and so GFMS decided not to include the tonnage.
According to my sources PBOC purchases were sourced from institutional supply (from abroad and not through the SGE), which is a supply category not disclosed by GFMS and therefore the tonnage was a problem. (Note, GFMS disclosed the PBOC increment in text, but not in their balance.) For more information read my post PBOC Gold Purchases: Separating Facts from Speculation.
Gold Is More A Currency Than A Commodity
The biggest flaw of the balance model by GFMS is that it depicts gold to be more of a commodity than a currency. It’s focused on mine output and gold recovered from old fabricated products on the supply side, versus retail sales of newly fabricated products on the demand side. In parlance of the firms, how much is produced (supply) versus consumed (demand). Official sector, ETF and exchange inventory changes are then added to the balance. This commodity S&D balance approach by GFMS has caused deeply rooted misconceptions about the essence of gold and its price formation.
The price of a perishable commodity is mainly determined by how much is annually produced versus how much is consumed (used up). However, gold is everlasting, it cannot be used up and its exchange value is mainly based on its monetary applications, from being a currency, or money if you will. Logically the best part of its trading is conducted in above ground reserves. From my perspective the impact of global mine supply, which increases above ground stocks by roughly 1.5 % annually, and retail sales have less to do with gold’s price formation than is widely assumed.
Back to GFMS. Have a look at the picture below that shows their S&D flows for 2015.
GFMS pretends total supply is mine production plus some scrap, which is then met by jewelry demand in addition to retail investment, industrial fabrication and official sector purchases. The way they present it is misleading. These S&D flows are incomplete; they suggest gold is traded like any other commodity. But what about institutional S&D in above ground bullion? Trades that define gold as an international currency.
Let’s do another comparison; this time between what GFMS calls Identifiable Investment demand, consisting of…
Retail bar & coin
…versus my what I deem to be a more unadulterated approach of investment demand, consisting of…
Total [global] Identifiable Investment, … posted a modest 5 % increase in 2015, to reach 990 tonnes.
That’s quite a tonnage between global Identifiable Investment by GFMS at 990 tonnes and apparent Chinese institutional demand at 1,400 tonnes. We should also take into account non-apparent institutional demand, gold that changes hands in trading hubs like Switzerland. Unfortunately we can’t always measure institutional S&D, but that doesn’t justify denying its subsistence.
Have a look at the chart below that shows the large discrepancy. In the next chapter we’ll specifically discuss the significance of investment demand in relation to the price of gold.
My point being: what many gold market participants and observers think is total supply and demand is just the tip of the iceberg.This truly is a staggering misconception created by the firms.
When observing the GFMS balance in exhibit 1 its incompleteness is self-evident. At the bottom we can see the line item “net balance”, which reflects the difference between total supply and total demand. According to GFMS, if the “net balance” is a positive figure there was a surplus in the global gold market, and if “net balance” is a negative figure the market has been in deficit. In the real world this figure is irrelevant. Gold supply and demand are by definition always equal. One cannot sell gold without a buyer, and one cannot buy gold without a seller. Furthermore the gold market is deep and liquid. So how come there is a difference between total supply and total demand in the GFMS balance? As I’ve demonstrated before, because GFMS doesn’t include institutional S&D that in reality makes up for the difference and far beyond. In all its simplicity the “net balance” item reveals their data is incomplete.
Let’s have another stab at this. How can “net balance” exist in the real world, for example in 2009? According to GFMS the gold market had a 394 tonnes surplus in 2009. But how? Were miners left with 394 tonnes they couldn’t sell? Or some supranational entity decided to soak up the surplus to balance the market? Naturally, this is not what happens. Total supply and total demand are always equal, but GFMS doesn’t record all trades.
Moreover, in my opinion the words “surplus” and “deficit” do not apply to gold. There can be no deficit in gold; there will always be supply. At the right price that is. Sometimes Keynesian economists claim there is not enough gold in the world for it to serve as the global reserve currency. Austrian economists then respond by saying that there will always be enough gold at the right price. I agree with the Austrians and their argument also validates why there can be no deficit in gold.
There is more proof the “net balance” item presented by GFMS is meaningless. Although according to GFMS the market had a 394 tonnes “surplus” in 2009 the price went up by 25 % during that year. This makes no economic sense. A surplus suggests a declining price, not the other way around. Tellingly, S&D forces presented in GFMS balances are often negatively correlated to the gold price, as was the case in 2005, 2006, 2009, 2010 and 2014 (exhibit 1). In conclusion, GFMS S&D balances are not only incomplete, the resulting “net balance” items are misleading with respect to the price. Below are a few charts that demonstrate this conclusion.
If we plot “net balance” versus the end of year price of gold we can see the correlation is often negative. Have a look below. Green “net balance” chart bars show a positive correlation to the gold price, red chart bars show a negative correlation (note, the left axis is inverted for a more clear overview between any “deficit/surplus” and the price of gold). As you can see nearly half of the “net balance” chart bars are negatively correlated to the price of gold.
Mind you, although the “net balance” item is often negatively correlated to the gold price, in the Gold Survey 2016 GFMS states on page 9:
In terms of the Net Balance, 2015 marked the third year in which the gold market remained in surplus, and therefore it is not surprising that the bear market continued.
And on page 14:
The forecast reduction in global mine output and a gradual recovery in demand will see the physical surplus narrow in 2016, providing support to the gold price and laying the foundation for better prospects.
GFMS likes to pretend any “surplus” or “deficit” arising from their balance is correlated to the price, but the facts reveal this is not true.
Let us plot the “physical surplus/deficit” line item by GFMS (exhibit 1) versus the gold price. This results in even more negative correlations.
This exercise reveals that a positive correlation between either a “surplus” or “deficit” arising from a GFMS balance and the price of gold is just a coincidence. No surprise when one is aware their S&D data is incomplete.
Remarkably, the last chart was also published in the Gold Survey 2016, but GFMS chose not to invert the left axis and doesn’t disclose what we see is a surplus or deficit. As a result the largest surpluses (2006, 2007, 2009, 2010) seem to correlate with a rising price, though in reality they did the opposite. Compare the chart below with the one above.
GFMS also publishes S&D balances for silver (a monetary metal that is comparable to gold). For silver the presented correlations by GFMS between a “surplus” or “deficit” in relation to the price are even weaker.
According to GFMS the silver market is always in deficit, but the price goes up and down. Obviously GFMS neglects to measure institutional S&D for silver.
In my opinion, when Gold Fields Mineral Services (GFMS) was erected many decades ago they made a mistake to adopt a commodity S&D balance approach.Surely with the best intentions they gather intelligence and retrieve data from the market. But we must be aware this is not the full picture. The most significant data is not disclosed by GFMS.
When it comes to what drives the price of gold GFMS and I agree it’s determined by gold’s role as a currency in the global economy. When reading the chapter PRICE AND MARKET OUTLOOK in the Gold Survey 2016, GFMS shares its insights with respect to the gold price. Factors mentioned are:
Turmoil in global stock markets
A Chinese hard landing
Geopolitical tensions in the Middle-East
Central bank stimulus (QE)
Global economic weakness
Interest rates policy by central banks
Low risk asset / safe haven demand
So if these factors drive the gold price, in what S&D category would this materialize? Would (large) investors buy and sell jewelry? Or bullion bars? I think the latter. According to my analysis the price of gold is largely determined by institutional demand, and to a lesser extent ETF and retail bar & coin demand.
Let’s do an exercise to see what physical gold S&D trends correlate to the price. The majority of supply on the GFMS balance consists of mine output and the majority of demand on the GFMS balance consists of jewelry consumption. But if we plot these volumes versus the price of gold in a chart, there is no push and pull correlation*. For example, when the gold price surged from 2002 until 2011 jewelry consumption was not rising. Neither was it outpacing mine supply. The opposite happened, to be seen in the graph below. This is because jewelry demand is price sensitive – when the price goes up jewelry demand goes down, and vice versa. Jewelry demand is not driving the price of gold.
I also added retail bar & coin demand. Interesting to see is that retail bar & coin demand is on one hand a price driver, moving up and down in sync with the gold price, on the other hand it can be price sensitive having brief spikes when the price of gold declines.
The best correlation between physical S&D in relation to the gold price can be seen in institutional and ETF S&D. One of the largest gold trading hubs in the West is the UK, home of the London Bullion Market that also vaults the largest ETF named GLD. The UK has no domestic mine production, no refineries and national gold demand is neglectable in the greater scheme of things. Therefore, by measuring the net flow of the UK (import minus export) we can get a sense of Western institutional and ETF demand and supply. For example, if the UK is a net importer – import demand being greater than export supply – that signals a net pull on above ground stocks. Approximately one third of the UK’s net flow corresponds to ETF inventory changes, the other two thirds reflect pure institutional S&D.
In the charts above we can observe a remarkable solid correlation between the UK’s net flow and the gold price. The UK is a net importer on a rising price and net exporters on declining price. The shown correlation can’t be a coincidence, though there’s no guarantee it will prevail in the future.
The two charts above show the (medium/long term) gold price is mostly determined by institutional supply and demand in above ground reserves. Effectively, GFMS is hiding the most important part of global physical gold flows.
When I asked an analyst at one of the leading firms why his company doesn’t measure institutional S&D he told me candidly, “becauseit’s extremely difficult to accurately estimate it”. And it is. As I wrote previously, I can’t exactly measure global institutional S&D either. However, very often publicly available information gives us a valuable peek at it, and it shows to be more relevant to the gold price than what the firms keep staring at. Not knowing exactly what institutional S&D accounts for doesn’t mean GFMS shouldn’t pay attention to it.
But the firms keep trying to uphold the illusion the data they’ve been selling for decades is complete. For if they would plainly confess it was incomplete, future business could be severely damaged.
What I blame these firms is that they’ve created a meme that the gold market is as large as annual mine supply. This has caused all sorts of misconceptions. Often I read analyses based on a comparison between quantitative demand and mine output. Such analyses are likely to jump erroneous conclusions.
An often-perceived analysis in the gold community is that gold is the constant in our global economy. But is this true? Yes and no. Allow me to share my observations. Although gold has an exceptionally constant nature, and we have yet to see another currency that can compete with gold’s constant nature, the reality is, that there is no exact constant in economics. In any market all goods, assets, currencies, etc. continuously fluctuate in value relative to each other due to ever changing supply and demand dynamics. Having said that, in this post we’ll examine gold’s constant nature by measuring its purchasing power in the short (weeks) medium (years) and long term (decades). Additionally, we’ll compare our findings to fiat’s nature.
We will find that when gold is officially recognized as the center of a monetary system – throughout history there have been several forms of gold standards – gold is approximately constant in the short, medium and long term. Since the gold standard has been abandoned, the metal has become less constant in the short and medium term, but has remained impressively constant in the long term.
In turn, fiat can have periods of being constant in the short term, but will always lose value in the medium term and evaporate in the long term. Thereby, due to fiat’s fragile nature and the current stress in global finance, there are also risks fiat can significantly devalue overnight. Hence, gold is highly suitable to secure one’s purchasing power.
When examining the value of gold we have to measure it in terms of goods and services. In this day and age one might forget the end goal of any participant in the economy is goods and services. All else traded in our vast financial system is merely a means to an end. All sorts of money, but also stocks, bonds, credit default swaps, options, futures, etc., have no use-value for humans as we can’t eat, drink or wear them. Only goods and services we can truly use (for more information regarding use-value please read my post The Concept Of Money.) Therefor, to measure the stability of gold’s value we have to compute the amount of goods and services gold can buy.
For the sake of simplicity, we’ll use publicly available Consumer Price Index (CPI) and Wholesale Price Index (WPI) data to measure the value of goods and services.
Gold’s Purchasing Power In The Short And Medium Term
On occasion we can read gold commentators stating that when the price of gold rises or falls in the short term, it’s actually fiat that is falling or rising. As, according to this analysis gold is the constant. Let’s test if this analysis is accurate. In the week from January 4 until January 9, 2016, the price of gold in British pounds surged 5.9 % from £23,096 pound per Kg to £24,469 per Kg. We can be quite sure that the price of goods and services in the UK remained flat during this period. As a consequence, in this example gold could buy 5.9 % more goods and services at the end of the week, whilst sterling could buy exactly the same amount of goods and services all week long. So, in this particular example, what was more constant? It was sterling. The reason is that currently the international monetary standard is fiat.
Moving on to the medium term. In the chart below I’ve plotted the purchasing power index of gold versus the British pound, based on CPI data and the gold price, from July 2010 until June 2016.
Over this period we can observe that the British pound was more constant than gold in the short term, but it’s purchasing power has been declining in the medium term due to the inherent inflationary policies by the central bank of the UK. Gold’s purchasing power has been volatile in the short and medium term, but in this case has remained its purchasing power over the shown period. Though, it should be clear that if I would’ve adjusted the period gold’s purchasing power could’ve shown an increase or decrease.
Gold’s Purchasing Power in the Long Term
To get the best understanding of his subject, let us zoom out and have a look at gold and the pound’s purchasing power since 1500. The following chart is conceived by Nick Laird from GCRU, based on data collected by himself and Roy Jastram. The chart is perhaps more difficult to interpret than the previous one. To be clear, we can see 3 index lines:
The red line reflects gold’s purchasing power index (1930 = 100)
The blue line reflects the price of gold index, denominated in British pounds (1930 =100). Note, until 1914 the blue line was mostly straight which shows fixed parities between sterling and gold.
The green line reflects the wholesale (/goods) price index, denominated in British pounds (1930 = 100)
As you can see, if the price of gold (blue) transcends wholesale prices (green), as a consequence gold’s purchasing power (red) is escalated – and vice versa.
Clearly the red line has remained roughly flat, around 100, for hundreds of years! This shows gold’s remarkable constant nature. Note, since the gold standard has been gradually dismantled (1914) gold’s purchasing power became more volatile but remained robust in the long term.
Furthermore, we can see that prior to 1914 wholesale prices were also fairly constant but this is due to the fact sterling was tied to gold during this era. Since the gold standard was abandoned step-by-step from 1914 onwards, the blue and the green line have skyrocketed, evaporating the purchasing power of sterling. Since 1971 the British pound has lost over 93 % of its purchasing power – in 1975 inflation topped 20 %.
We can conclude, while there is no exact constant in economics, the stability of gold’s purchasing power is unprecedented. Not only on a gold standard the metal shows it’s constant nature, but also off the gold standard gold’s purchasing power is remarkably constant, albeit more volatile in the short term.
For the future, if the current fiat international monetary system will breach its limits and has to be re-anchored to gold, I expect gold to become more constant in both the short and medium term when providing a center pillar in finance.
In 2013 we’ve witnessed the inception of the Chinese gold ETF market. At first demand for the gold ETFs was neglectable, as investors mostly preferred to buy the physical gold directly at the Shanghai Gold Exchange (SGE) or buy jewelry or investment bars through retail channels. This year, however, there has been a major shift in gold ETF demand in China.
The physical holdings of Chinese gold ETFs have surged five-fold from 7 tonnes at the end of January, to 35 tonnes at end of August. The Huaán Yifu Gold ETF, which was holding 23 tonnes in August, entered the global top 15 list.
The interest in China’s nascent gold ETF market was even mentioned by the World Gold Council in a recent Gold Demand Trends report. In this post, we’ll add some texture to China’s gold ETF market; how are the gold ETFs constructed and how can they be compared to the largest Western gold ETF, the SPDR Gold Trust. At this moment the market share of Chinese gold ETFs is still small – within China as well as globally, but knowledge about the workings of these ETFs will be valuable when they acquire significant market share in the future.
Kindly note, all mechanics and examples presented in this post are simplified.
What Is A Gold ETF?
ETF is short for Exchange Traded Fund. ETFs trade like stocks and its price usually tracks an underlying asset or index. Like stocks, ETFs have a primary market and a secondary market. The secondary market is the stock exchange where most ETF investors trade. What makes ETFs special is the primary market where ETF shares are created and redeemed. Let us use the SPDR Gold Trust (symbol: GLD) to illustrate how the primary market works. Mainly through the creation and redemption process of shares, the GLD share price tracks the gold price.
The Authorised Participants (the institutions which are authorised to create and redeem GLD shares, at this moment the Authorised Participants are Barclays Capital, Inc., Credit Suisse Securities (USA) LLC, Goldman Sachs & Co., Goldman Sachs Execution & Clearing, L.P., HSBC Securities (USA) Inc., P. Morgan Securities Inc., Merrill Lynch Professional Clearing Corp., Morgan Stanley & Co. LLC, RBC Capital Markets, LLC, Scotia Capital (USA) Inc., UBS Securities LLC and Virtu Financial BD LLC).
If an Authorised Participant (AP) wants to create GLD shares, it needs to deposit gold into the account of the Trust and subsequently the Trustee will provide the AP with GLD shares. The creation application must be made in multiples of 100,000 shares (a block of 100,000 shares is called a basket). Since every GLD share represents approximately 0.1 ounce of gold, in order to create 100,000 GLD shares the AP needs to deposit 10,000 ounces of gold into the account of the Trust. (In reality, 1 GLD share actually represents a little less than 0.1 ounce of gold, the reason for this will be explained later on in this post.)
The redemption process works the other way round. If an AP wants to redeem GLD shares, it deposits 100,000 GLD shares at the Trust and subsequently the AP receives 10,000 ounces of gold.
The purpose of APs creating and redeeming GLD shares is usually arbitrage. As previously mentioned the gold equivalent of 1 GLD share is roughly 0.1 ounce, nevertheless GLD shares and actual gold are traded in two different markets. As a consequence, the price of 1 GLD share can differ from the price of 0.1 ounce of gold. If the price of GLD and the price of gold diverge, this is where arbitrage comes into play for the APs. Accordingly, the arbitrage by APs through creation and redemption of shares contributes to GLD’s price tracking the gold price.
Suppose (simplified), the price of 1 GLD share is $110 – caused by supply and demand for GLD shares at the NYSE Arca – while the price of 0.1 ounce of gold is $100 in the gold market. An AP can grasp this opportunity by buying (or first leasing) 10,000 ounces of gold to deposit in the GLD Trust account after which the Trustee will create 100,000 GLD shares for the AP. The new shares created are then sold by the AP on the stock market, which will cause the price of GLD to go down. The arbitrage opportunity will be used by APs until it’s closed.
If the price of GLD shares is lower than the price of gold, the arbitrage opportunity works the other way around, APs can buy shares, redeem them for gold at the Trustee and sell the gold.
In the aforementioned example trade when the AP (via the Trustee) created 100,000 GLD shares his investment was $10,000,000 (10,000 ounces at $100 per 0.1 ounce). The AP’s revenue was $11,000,000 (100,000 GLD shares worth $110 a piece). The AP’s profit in this exercise was $1,000,000.
($110-$100)*100,000 = $1,000,000
As readers can see from the example, the holdings of GLD were increased by 10,000 ounces of gold. Almost every day the holdings of GLD vary and the change is often caused by arbitrage of APs.
One theory is, when demand for GLD shares is strong (usually by Western investors) and the share price is trending higher than the price of the gold equivalent, the APs jump the arbitrage, create shares and GLD inventory swells. Then, if growth in GLD inventory correlates to a surging gold price (which can be observed in exhibit 3 below) we can speculate the gold bull market in part has been caused by Western investment demand in GLD.
Now we have established the workings of the largest Western gold ETF, we will have a look at how the Chinese gold ETFs are constructed, and compare them to GLD.
China’s Gold ETF Market
Below are the 4 Chinese gold ETFs currently in existence that we’ll discuss.
- Bosera Gold Exchange Open-Ended Securities Investment Fund
- Guotai Gold Exchange Open-Ended Securities Investment Fund
- Huaán Yifu Gold Exchange Open-Ended Securities Investment Fund
- Efund Gold Exchange Open-Ended Securities Investment Fund
In China every gold ETF share represents approximately 0.01 gram of gold. By creating or redeeming gold ETF shares (Chinese) APs receive or deliver a basket of 300,000 shares, which equals to 3Kg of gold. This threshold is much lower than that of GLD, of which a basket equals to 310Kg of gold. The gold acceptable for Chinese ETFs are the spot (physical and spot deferred) gold contracts listed on theSGE – for example Au99.99. Therefore, all the physical holdings of China’s gold ETFs are stored within SGE designated vaults.
Moreover, there is a range of features that make China’s gold ETFs quite different from GLD.
1. Chinese Gold ETF Shares Can Also Be Created Or Redeemed Through Cash
Unlike GLD, which only allows the use of gold to create shares, and only allows the use of shares to redeem gold, China’s gold ETFs also allow shares to be created and redeemed through cash in the primary market. An AP can present cash to the Fund Manager who handles the creation and redemption process for a Chinese gold ETF. The Fund Manager is comparable to the Trustee of GLD. Thereby, through an AP individual investors can create or redeem gold ETF shares with cash as well.
Suppose, a Chinese investor wants to arbitrage the difference between the price of a gold ETF and the price of gold. In this example the price of the gold ETF is higher than the price of gold, so the investor want use cash to create shares to sell on the stock market. The investor can present cash to an AP who in turn will create shares via the Fund Manager. The amount of cash used in this transaction to create shares is equal to the cash value of the spot gold contracts that are needed to create the shares without the use of cash.
Vice versa, in case an investor wants to arbitrage the price of a gold ETF when it’s lower than the price of gold, the investor can present shares to an AP to redeem for cash.
In China the APs can be securities firms and commercial banks. The securities firms are often not SGE members. Therefor, the number of APs that support gold ETF shares creation and redemption through cash is often larger than the number of those that support shares creation and redemption through spot gold contracts. For example, in the case of Efund Gold ETF, the fund has authorised 13 securities firms (APs) to process creation and redemption through cash, but only 2 banks (APs) to process creation and redemption through spot gold contracts (Industrial and Commercial Bank of China and Bank of Communications).
2. The Flexibility Of The Fund Manager
The Trustee of GLD doesn’t have much flexibility in managing the assets. Its duty is mainly processing the creation and redemption orders of GLD shares. Therefore, the gold holdings of GLD are mainly allocated gold and according to the prospectus [brackets added by me]:
Gold held in the Trust [GLD]’s allocated account is the property of the Trust and is not traded, leased or loaned under any circumstances.
In China, the Fund Managers of the gold ETFs have more flexibility. The gold contracts that China’s gold ETFs hold include not only spot physical contracts like Au99.99 and Au99.95, but can also be spot deferred contracts like Au (T+D), and notable all these “spot contracts” may be leased (sometimes swapped) within the SGE system. Additionally, every Chinese gold ETF can invest 10% of its fund assets (5 % of net fund assets in case of Efund Gold ETF) in “other financial instruments” allowed by the China Securities Regulatory Commission (CSRC).
For example, the excerpt below is from the Efund Gold ETF’s prospectus [brackets added by me]:
The investment scope of the Fund [Efund Gold ETF] is liquid financial instruments, including gold physical contracts (including spot physical contracts, spot deferred contracts, etc), bonds, asset-backed securities, bond repos, bank deposits, money market instruments, and other financial instruments which laws, regulations or the CSRC allow the Fund to invest in the future (but these have to satisfy the relevant rules of the CSRC).
If laws, regulations or regulatory institutions allow the Fund to invest in other instruments (including but not restricted to gold derivatives like forwards, futures, options and swaps), after necessary procedures, the Fund Manager will include them into the investment scope.
The portfolio percentage: The fund asset invested in gold spot contracts is not lower than 95% of the net asset value of the Fund.
All the 4 gold ETFs in China can participate in gold leasing. Some can participate in gold swaps and some can pledge the gold to borrow money.
The excerpt below is from the Huaán Yifu Gold ETF Prospectus:
The Fund can do gold lease and pledge gold to borrow money.
Effectively the Fund Manager of the Huaán Yifu Gold ETF can make money by, for example, leasing the fund’s assets.
The excerpt below is From the Guotai Gold ETF Prospectus:
The Fund can do gold lease, gold swap and invest in gold spot deferred contracts, etc, in order to lower the operating expenses and lower tracking error. The Fund does margin trade only for the purpose of risk management and enhancement of the efficiency of the asset allocation.
As a result, the Fund Managers of Chinese gold ETFs have significant flexibility in handling the fund assets. Please remember that all gold leasing, swapping, etc. has to be done within the SGE system and the gold cannot leave the SGE designated vaults.
Article 4. Gold ETFs may not deposit physical gold into the [SGE] vault or withdraw physical gold from the [SGE] vault. Margin trade is only for the purpose of risk management and enhancement of the efficiency of the asset allocation.
3. NAV Per Share Recalculation
Since the inception of GLD in 2004 its share gold equivalent is steadily declining lower than 0.1 ounce of gold. That’s because the Sponsor, Trustee and Custodian don’t provide services for free. They need to earn money and their earnings must come from the Net Asset Value (NAV) of the ETF. In other words, the gold in the Trust is gradually sold to pay for operational expenses. From the GLD prospectus:
The amount of gold represented by the Shares will continue to be reduced during the life of the Trust due to the sales of gold necessary to pay the Trust’s expenses irrespective of whether the trading price of the Shares rises or falls in response to changes in the price of gold.
Each outstanding Share represents a fractional, undivided interest in the gold held by the Trust. The Trust does not generate any income and regularly sells gold to pay for its ongoing expenses. Therefore, the amount of gold represented by each Share has gradually declined over time. This is also true with respect to Shares that are issued in exchange for additional deposits of gold into the Trust, as the amount of gold required to create Shares proportionately reflects the amount of gold represented by the Shares outstanding at the time of creation. Assuming a constant gold price, the trading price of the Shares is expected to gradually decline relative to the price of gold as the amount of gold represented by the Shares gradually declines.
On November 18, 2004, 1 GLD share exactly equaled 0.1 ounces of gold, but by now (September 2016) 1 GLD share equals 0.09542 ounces of gold, a decline of almost 5 % over the course of 12 years. This explains why currently the amount of ounces needed by an AP to create a basket of shares has become less than 10,000 ounces, and continues to decline.
In China’s gold ETF market, although the gold represented by the ETF instruments also decline as with GLD, the share values are periodically re-adjusted to ensure the NAV per share remains (roughly) 0.01 gram of gold.
For example, from the Bosera Gold ETF prospectus:
Fund share re-calculation means the fund manager based on the necessity of the operation of the fund, under the premise that the total NAV is unchanged, adjusts the total fund shares outstanding and NAV per share.
There is nothing complicated about the re-calculation. There are simply periodic adjustments when the Fund Manager sets the value of the shares (in yuan) higher because the gold content equivalent is elevated, from below 0.01 gram to 0.01 gram, whereby the Fund Manger “adjusts the total fund shares outstanding” downward.
4. Linked Funds
In China, every gold ETF is accompanied by a Linked Fund. The Linked Fund mainly invests in the Target Gold ETF as can be seen in the list below. The Linked Fund is usually a common open-ended mutual fund. While 90 % of the assets under management of the Linked Fund must be invested in its Target Gold ETF, the Fund Manager still has some room for managing the remaining 10%.
For example, from the Bosera Gold ETF-linked Fund’s prospectus:
The Fund mainly invests in Bosera Gold Exchange Open-Ended Securities Investment Fund, gold contracts listed on the Shanghai Gold Exchange, gold futures contracts listed on the Shanghai Futures Exchange, bonds and other financial instruments which the CSRC allows the fund to invest, like securities lending and borrowing, gold lease, etc.
For more clarity I’ve drawn a graph to illustrate the ratios of investment allocation by the Guotai Gold ETF and the Guotai Gold ETF-linked Fund.
Although, at this stage it’s not completely clear to me what would be the benefit for investors to invest in the Linked Fund, as opposed to the Target Gold ETF.
5. Voting Rights
GLD holders only have limited voting rights. The excerpt below is from the GLD prospectus,
Under the Trust Indenture, Shareholders have no voting rights, except in the following limited circumstances: (i) shareholders holding at least 66.66% of the Shares outstanding may vote to remove the Trustee; (ii) the Trustee may terminate the Trust upon the agreement of Shareholders owning at least 66.66% of the outstanding Shares; and (iii) certain amendments to the Trust Indenture require 51% or unanimous consent of the Shareholders.
In China’s gold ETFs shareholders have more voting rights and can vote to decide on a lot of important issues. The excerpt below is from the prospectus of Bosera Gold ETF:
In one of the following circumstances, based on the consent of the fund manager, the fund custodian or the fund shareholders who hold 10% (including 10%) of the fund shares outstanding, it is mandatory to hold fund shareholders’ meeting:
1. Termination of the fund contract;
2. Change of the operation of the fund;
3. Increase of the remuneration of the fund manager or the fund custodian, but excluding the circumstances in which the increase of the remuneration is mandatory by the requirements of laws or regulations;
4. Replacement of the fund manager or fund custodian;
5. Amendment of the fund category;
6. Amendment of the fund investment target, scope or strategy (excluding the circumstances in which laws, regulations or the CSRC have other relevant requirements);
7. Amendment of fund share holders’ meeting proceedings, voting methods and voting procedures;
8. Termination of listing but excluding circumstances in which the fund no longer satisfies listing requirements and the listing is terminated by the Shenzhen Stock Exchange;
9. Merger of the fund with other fund(s);
10. Other items that have material influence on the rights and responsibilities of the parties to the fund contract and necessitate the fund share holders’ meeting to amend the fund contract;
11. Other items that are required by laws, regulations, the fund contract or the requirements of the CSRC to hold the fund share holders’ meeting.
Even the Linked Fund shareholders of China’s Gold ETFs can participate in voting:
The fund shareholders of the linked fund of this fund can attend or send representatives to attend the fund shareholders’ meeting and participate in voting, based on the share holding of the linked fund. The equivalent number of fund shares with voting rights and correspondent votes are: the product of the total shares of this fund held by the linked fund multiplied by the linked fund shares held by the respective link fund share holder as a percentage of the total linked fund shares outstanding. The result of the calculation is rounded to the nearest whole number.
Ironically, to me there seems to be more democracy and openness in China’s gold ETFs than in GLD. On the other hand, Chinese gold ETFs have a fundamentally different foundation, a hybrid design I would say.
China’s gold ETF market was erected in 2013 and is still evolving. In the future, there may be more complex gold ETF related financial structures that have a big impact on China’s overall gold market. I shall follow it closely.
There has been much conjecture since 2014 about the increasing numbers in the “precious metals” category on the balance sheets of Chinese commercial banks. By the end of 2015 China’s largest banks were holding RMB 598 billion in precious metals.
Some analysts think that the precious metals on Chinese commercial bank balance sheets are gold reserves purchased on behalf of the Chinese central bank, while others surmise that Chinese banks buy gold at the Shanghai Gold Exchange (SGE) and then lend it out so the precious metals on the balance sheets solely represent leased gold. In the latter analysis it’s then assumed the leasing inflates the amount of gold withdrawn from SGE designated vaults. Most certainly there is leased gold on Chinese banks’ balance sheets, but this can hardly influence SGE withdrawals, as I have previously explained. Read this and this article for more information.
What do we know beyond the gossip about the precious metals holdings on Chinese commercial bank balance sheets?
From studying the annual reports of the respective banks and additional documentation we know the precious metals can be at least the following things:
Gold savings that belong to the banks’ customers
Gold inventory for the banks’ retail gold business
Gold leasing business
Gold held for hedging purposes
Gold held outside China
Since the Chinese silver market was liberalized much earlier than gold I don’t think there is any edge for Chinese commercial banks to have a predominant role in the silver market. So, probably most of the precious metals on the balance sheets in question are gold related.
Below is an overview of the precious metals holdings of listed Chinese commercial banks as of 31 December 2015, measured in yuan (RMB). There are 16 listed Chinese commercial banks on China’s A-share market but Huaxia Bank didn’t disclose its precious metals holding in its annual report. If all aggregated precious metals holdings relate to gold, the upper bound is approximately 2,682 tonnes of gold.
A substantial amount of the precious metals reflect (fully backed) customers’ gold deposits in the form of Gold Accumulation Plans (GAP), recorded as an asset and a liability on the balance sheets of the banks. However, to me it’s unknown how much gold is exactly accumulated in China through GAPs.
Let’s go through the annual reports of the Chinese banks having the largest precious metals holdings, seeking for information with respect to GAPs.
Precious metals comprise gold, silver and other precious metals. The Group retains all risks and rewards of ownership related to precious metals deposited with the Group as precious metals deposits, … and it records the precious metals received as an asset.A liability to return the amount of precious metals deposited is also recognized.
From the BOC website its GAP seems to be in its infancy, so I don’t expect it to comprise much gold. ICBC on the other hand, introduced a GAP in 2010 and is thought to be largest in China.
Seizing the opportunities arising from customers’ wealth increase and capital market growth, the Bank made efforts to establish a mega asset management business system across the whole value chain and enhance its specialized operating capabilities on the strength of the Group’s asset management, custody, pension and precious metal businesses, …
The [ICBC] Group records the precious metals received as an asset. A liability to return the amount of precious metals deposited is also recognized. …
While consolidating our traditionally advantageous businesses in housing finance and cost advisory service among other things, we actively expanded our presence in … precious metals.
The Bank supported product innovation, provided and optimized new products such as … gold purchase and saving.
The Bank proactively responded to changes in the precious metals market via pursuing marketing expansion, enlarging customer base and enforcing product innovation. The Bank launched innovative products and business models, including gold accumulation plan ….
To me it’s unknown how much gold CCB’s GAP comprises.
All in all, part of the precious metals on the listed Chinese commercial banks’ balance sheets are gold savings held on behalf of clients instead of reflecting the banks own metals.
Gold saved in Chinese GAPs are partly stored in SGE designated vaults.
2. Bank Gold Inventory
Chinese banks offer a wide range of retail gold investment products for sale at local branches and through internet order. Naturally, any gold inventory for this business is recorded on the balance sheets. From ICBC’s 2015 annual report:
To echo the changes in market demands, the Bank developed a variety of new brands on assorted themes and introduced a slew of products, e.g. Chinese Zodiac Coins and Panda Gold and Silver Coins, under agent sales. The Bank expanded the online channels, through which the flagship store “ICBC Gold Manager” witnessed substantial growth of sales, and it also piloted the direct distribution of logistics suiting to the characteristics of e-commerce.
According to the World Gold Council roughly 60 % of Chinese retail gold investment demand is supplied through commercial banks. Consequently, Chinese banks’ own gold inventory for retail business can not be neglectable.
Additionally, according to my analysis the gold inventory in the vaults of the SGE does not appear on the Chinese bank balance sheets.
3. Gold Leasing
Probably the largest share of the precious metals on the balance sheets have to do with gold leasing. At the moment, there are no standard accounting rules or guidelines related to how to record bank’s gold leasing activities. (In this post, I don’t distinguish between gold leasing and gold lending because the essence is the same.) However, most banks seem to still put gold leasing activity in the precious metals category of their balance sheet.
Precious metals that are not related to the Group’s trading activities including coins and medallions sales are initially measured at acquisition cost and subsequently measured at the lower of cost and net realizable value. Precious metals that are related to the Group’s trading activities including precious metals lease and [precious metals] interbank lending are initially and subsequently recognized at fair value, with changes in fair value arising from re-measurement recognized directly in profit or loss in the period in which they arise.
Apparently, the Bank Of Communications has its gold leasing business disclosed on its balance sheet in the precious metals category.
Below is from the 2015 annual report of Shanghai Pudong Development Bank (page 17):
Shanghai Pudong Development Bank saw its precious metals holdings grow from RMB 11,707,000,000 on December 31, 2014, to RMB 28,724,000,000 on December 31, 2015. As the main cause for the growth in precious metals is considered to be “increased physical gold leases”, we must conclude in the case of Shanghai Pudong Development Bank nearly all precious metals on its balance sheet relate to gold leasing. But does this mean Chinese banks buy gold on the SGE and then lease it out? Not necessarily.
Chinese banks mainly do back-to-back gold leasing – simply connecting supply and demand. Banks don’t have much money of their own. They need to borrow money or gold either from savers or in the interbank market to make loans. Would it make sense for banks to borrow money in order to buy gold to subsequently lend out gold? Or would it be more logic for banks to borrow gold to subsequently lend out gold?
ICBC operates in the lease market as an intermediary by connecting supply (lessors) and demand (lessees), while striking a fee. ICBC can borrow gold from international banks or local gold owners with an SGE Bullion Account, and lend the gold to miners, jewelers or speculators. My assumption is that the international gold lease rate is lower than the Chinese gold lease rate, which attracts gold from the international market into the Chinese domestic gold market. (Whenever a gold loan is to be repaid from the Chinese domestic gold market to an international lender, not the physical metal is exported, but funds cross the Chinese border, as physical gold export is prohibited from the Chinese domestic gold market.)
Also note, if banks would buy the gold to lend out, they are exposed to the price risk of gold. In order to cover this risk, banks need to hedge but this will involve additional costs. As a result, the logical solution is for banks to do back-to-back gold leasing.
The Bank of Beijing is a good example to illustrate back-to-back gold lending. Unlike other Chinese banks, the Bank of Beijing does not put gold leasing in the precious metals category. It has a separate line in its books for gold leasing.
According to the 2015 annual report of the Bank of Beijing (page 123 and 132):
As readers can see from the excerpts above, the Bank of Beijing indeed does back-to-back gold leasing as precious metals “leased in” (RMB 1,400,000,000) are equal to precious metals “leased out”(RMB 1,400,000,000). I suspect most gold leasing by Chinese banks is back-to back leasing.
Because the Bank of Beijing has its leasing business noted in a separated line than its “precious metals”, we can see a huge discrepancy between the Bank of Beijing’s precious metals holdings in exhibit 1 (RMB 55,000,000) and its back-to back leasing business in exhibit 3 (RMB 1,400,000,000).
Other banks don’t have a separate line for the gold leased out but as mentioned before, they put it in the precious metals category. A widely-accepted method to treat borrowed gold is to include a liability called “financial liability at fair value through profit and loss”. Readers who can understand Chinese are recommended to click this and this link. The ICBC annual report provides an example of how the liability is recorded.
In conclusion, back-to-back gold leasing will result in an asset and a liability on the banks’ balance sheets, for most banks highly “overstating“ the precious metals category. When looking at exhibit 4 we can see the enormous growth in yearly Chinese gold leasing turnover, which must have enlarged Chinese banks’ balance sheets.
According to my analysis a large portion of the precious metals on the balance sheets of Chinese banks is back-to-back leasing, which is nearly all gold that stays inside the SGE vaults, and thus does not impact SGE withdrawals.
China’s commercial banks offer derivatives to retail and institutional customers. Bank of China’s Qi Jin Bao is an example. Qi Jin Bao is in fact gold option business. The retail customer pays a certain amount of money (option premium) and buys a gold call option or put option.
For example (simplified): suppose the current gold price is $1300/oz and a retail customer is bullish on gold and believes that the gold price will rise in 3 months time. Therefore, the retail customer buys a 3 months call option with a notional amount of 100 oz of gold at the strike price of $1300/oz from Bank of China and pays an option premium of $35/oz. If the gold price indeed goes up in 3 month’s time, the retail customer will make money. However, derivatives are a zero-sum game. If the retail customer makes money, then the Bank of China definitely loses money. If the gold price goes up to $2000/oz, Bank of China will lose big time. In order to mitigate this risk, Bank of China will (borrow money to) buy gold to hedge the short call position and the gold purchased will appear on the balance sheet.
5. Gold Held Outside China
Gold on the balance sheets of Chinese commercial banks doesn’t necessarily have to be gold held in China. Chinese banks like ICBC, BOC and Bank of Communications have direct access to the LBMA. As a result, gold on the balance sheets of Chinese commercial banks can be located outside China mainland.
On January 29, 2014, ICBC bought 60 % of the existing shares in Standard Bank Plc from Standard Bank London Holdings Limited. After completion of the acquisition, Standard Bank Plc was renamed as ICBC Standard Bank on 27 March 2015. In the 2015 annual report of ICBC (Group), which includes ICBC Standard Bank data, we see that ICBC Standard Bank held RMB 18,426,000,000 in precious metals assets (equivalent to 83 tonnes of gold) on December 31, 2015.
From the descriptions above, the precious metals holdings on the balance sheets of Chinese commercial banks are quite complicated to decipher. One thing is for sure, it’s not all gold owned by banks and leased out, neither is it all purchased by banks on behalf of the Chinese central bank.
In order for us to learn more exactly what the precious metals on the balance sheets represent we need more information, more investigation is needed by gold analysts. Hopefully this blogpost can serve as a springboard to a better collective understanding.
… As a major precious metal market maker in the PRC, the Bank provided customers with precious metal trading, investment and hedging services through … trading of precious metal derivatives … and trading … the Shanghai Futures Exchange and the London precious metals market.
So, through ABC clients can trade paper gold, but these derivatives would be recorded off-balance sheet, or in a separate line next to “precious metals”. More from the ABC annual report 2014:
Our off-balance sheet items primarily include derivative financial instruments, contingent liabilities and commitments. We enter into currency rate, interest rate and precious metals related derivative financial instruments for the purposes of trading, asset and liability management and business on behalf of customer.
Off-balance sheet items include derivative financial instruments, …. The Group entered into various derivative financial instruments relating to … precious metals and other commodities for trading, hedging, asset and liability management and on behalf of customers.
Implying, from my judgement, all the precious metals on-balance sheet are not (customers’) paper gold.
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