The COMEX gold futures market and the London OTC gold market have a joint monopoly on setting the international gold price. This is because these two markets generate the largest ‘gold’ trading volumes and have the highest ‘liquidity’. However, this price setting dominance is despite either of these two markets actually trading physical gold bars. Both markets merely trade different forms of derivatives of gold bars.
Overall, the COMEX (which is owned by the CME Group) is even more dominant that the London market in setting the international price of gold. This is a feat which financial academics ascribe to COMEX being a centralized electronic platform offering low transaction costs, ease of leverage, and “the ability to avoid dealing with the underlying asset” (i.e. COMEX allows its participants to avoid dealing with gold bars). Because of these traits, say the academics, COMEX has a ‘disproportionately large role in [gold] price discovery”.
Over 95% of COMEX gold futures trading is now conducted on CME’s electronic trading platform Globex, with most of the remainder done on CME’s electronic Clearport, where futures trades executed in the OTC market can be settled by CME. Next to nothing in gold futures is traded any more via pit-based open outcry.
The existence of gold price manipulation in the London and COMEX gold markets is well documented, it is hard to refute, and it has presented itself in many forms over the recent past. Examples include:
Bullion bank gold traders in the late 2000s colluding in chat rooms to manipulate the gold price as documented in current consolidated class action law suits going through New York courts
Barclays Bank manipulating the London Gold Fixing price in 2012 so as to prevent triggering option related pay-outs to Barclays clients
Recent CFTC (US Commodities regulator) prosecutions of futures traders on the CME for ‘spoofing’ gold futures orders
Flash crashes in gold futures prices which have no underlying explanation to, or connection to, events and developments in any physical gold markets
This last point, ‘flash crashes’ in gold futures prices, is particularly relevant for COMEX. Many readers will recall reading about one or more of these COMEX gold futures price ‘flash crashes‘ during which large quantities of gold futures are shorted in a concentrated interval of time (e.g. within 10 or 20 seconds) which causes the gold price to completely collapse in free fall fashion over that very short period of time.
For example, on 26 June this year, the COMEX gold price free fell by nearly 1.5% within a 15 second interval, amid a huge spike in trading volume to more than 18,000 August gold futures (56 tonnes of gold) during the 1-minute period around the crash event.
On January 6, 2014, the COMEX gold price fell by over $30 in a few seconds, from $1245 to $1215 on huge volume, forcing the CME to introduce a temporary trading halt.
On April 12, 2013, aggressive selling of gold futures contracts representing over 13.4 million ounces (more than 400 tonnes of gold) hit COMEX gold futures in two waves during the London morning trading session sending the gold futures price down by more than 5%. The following Monday, April 15, 2013 the COMEX gold price rapidly fell by another 10%.
Whether these flash crashes are the result of trading errors, futures market illiquidity, computerized trading patterns or deliberately engineered moves is open to debate. Engineered price takedowns, where an entity initiates an order with the intention of moving the futures gold price in a downward direction, are distinctly possible.
However, concentrated gold futures shorting over tiny time intervals doesn’t have to be in the form of one large trade or a series of relatively large trades. All a shorting tactic of this type has to do is to either trigger the price to move down through certain thresholds which then triggers stop-loss orders, or to trigger and induce trading reactions from trading algorithms that monitor gold futures prices. Once sentiment is damaged through rapid downward price movements, the result can affect gold futures trading sentiment for the rest of the day and indeed over subsequent days.
But beyond the possible or probable individual acts of price manipulation on the COMEX, it is important to realize that the very structure and mechanics of the COMEX create a system in which gold futures trades can be executed in large volumes in a virtual vacuum which has no connection to the physical gold bullion market, no connection to gold bar and gold coin wholesalers and retailers, and which doesn’t even have any connection to the vaulted gold residing within the COMEX approved vaulting facilities (aka COMEX warehouses aka COMEX vaults).
These underlying mechanics of COMEX, which are discussed below, allow the generation of massive gold futures trading volumes and open interest, huge leverage and large non-spot month position limits, a high concentration of speculative trading by a small number of banks, and a lack of transparency into the gold ‘delivery’ process. And at the foundation of the system, there are very small physical gold holdings in the COMEX approved vaults.
COMEX gold futures contracts are derivatives on gold. Importantly, a COMEX gold futures contract comes into existence any time two parties agree to create that contract. This means that COMEX gold futures contracts can continue to be created as long for as there are interested buyers (longs) and sellers (shorts) willing to bring these gold futures contracts into existence.
Therefore, there is no hard upper bound or supply limit on the amount of gold futures contracts that can be created on COMEX. This is very similar to the unit of trading of gold in the London market, i.e. unallocated gold, which is also a derivative that can be created in unlimited quantities. In both cases there is no direct connection to real physical allocated and segregated gold bars.
Technically, the value of any futures contract is derived from the value of its underlying asset, and in this case the underlying asset, nominally anyway, is physical gold. But perversely in the global gold market, the value of the gold futures is not being derived from the value of the underlying asset (physical gold). Instead, the value of the world’s physical gold is now being consistently and continually derived via this out-of-control and unhinged gold futures trading.
Contractually, COMEX 100 ounce gold futures contracts (COMEX code GC) are futures contracts that offer a physically deliverable option, i.e. to deliver/receive 100 ounces of minimum 995 fine gold (in either 100-ounce gold bars or 1 kilo gold bars format) on a specific future date.
However, the vast majority of COMEX 100 ounce gold futures are never delivered, they are offset (closed out) and cash-settled, or else they are rolled over. Only a tiny fraction of these gold futures contracts are ever ‘delivered’. Again, this is similar to unallocated gold in the London market, which is a cash-settled gold derivative.
COMEX is also a speculative market, where leverage (due to the use of trading margin) is used to create outsized trading volumes, and where initial position limits for individual traders are far larger than the quantity of underlying gold being stored in the COMEX approved vaults.
These factors combine to create what is in effect a Las Vegas type casino. This casino encourages vast speculative trading of futures which will never be delivered, and vast shorting (selling) claims on large quantities of gold which a) the shorter does not possess, b) are not even stored in the COMEX system, and c) are many multiples of annual gold supply). Conversely, the buyers are going long on claims on gold which will a) will never be delivered and b) which nearly none of the trading counterparties even wants to have delivered. The players in this casino have no interest in secure gold storage or allocated gold bars or bar brands or bar serial numbers. After all, as the academics put it, the COMEX provides “the ability to avoid dealing with the underlying asset”.
Even when COMEX gold futures for used for hedging purposes, much of this hedging is by bullion bank traders so as to hedge unallocated London gold using COMEX futures, i.e. hedging cash-settled paper bets with cash-settled paper bets. And both sets of instruments structurally have nothing to do with the real physical gold market.
Even back in December 1974, when COMEX gold futures were about to be launched (and which coincided with a lifting of the ban on US private ownership of gold), a group of major gold dealers in London including 3 of the 5 primary London gold dealers, i.e. Samuel Montagu & Co, Mocatta & Goldsmid, and Sharps Pixley & Co, told the US State department that they believed that this new gold COMEX futures market would dwarf the physical gold market i.e. “would be of significant proportion, and physical trading would be miniscule by comparison“.
These dealers expected that “large volume futures dealing would create …. a highly volatile market” whose “volatile price movements would diminish the initial demand for physical gold” that the US Government feared from the lifting of the gold ownership ban.
In hindsight, it was perceptive and prophetic that these major participants of the then fully allocated gold market in London in 1974 saw that the introduction of gold futures would create what we are seeing now, i.e. huge trading volumes, high price volatility, and a market (COMEX) which has an adverse effect on pricing in the physical gold market.
Trading Volume Metrics
Two revealing trading metrics for COMEX gold futures are trading volumes and the “Open Interest” on gold futures contracts. “Open Interest” simply means the number of gold futures contracts that are outstanding at any given time that have not been closed or delivered.
For 2016, COMEX gold futures trading generated a trading volume of 57.5 million contracts, representing 178,850 tonnes of gold. This is nearly as much gold as has ever been mined in the history of the world, i.e. which is estimated to be 190,000 tonnes. This COMEX trading volume in 2016 was also a whopping 37% higher than in 2015. In 2016, while 57.5 million gold futures contracts traded, only 71,380 COMEX gold contracts were ‘delivered’. This means that only 0.12% of COMEX gold contracts that traded in 2016 were ‘delivered’.
Delivered in this context means that the delivery option on the contract was exercised and a warrant representing 100 oz of gold on that contract changed hands, i.e. title documents to gold were shunted around a COMEX/vault recording system, mostly between bank holders. Delivered does not mean gold was withdrawn from a COMEX approved vault and delivered to an external location. The concept of gold vault withdrawal numbers, which is a bread and butter metric for the physical Shanghai Gold Exchange (SGE), is totally alien to the COMEX and its trading participants.
For the first six months of 2017, trading volumes in the main COMEX gold futures contract (GC) reached 32.7 million contracts, representing 101,710 tonnes of gold. This was 12% up on the same period in 2016. When annualized, this suggests than in 2017, COMEX is on course to trade more than 200,000 tonnes of gold, which will be more than all the gold ever mined throughout history.
In the first half of 2017, only 12,320 gold futures contracts (representing 38 tonnes) were delivered on COMEX. This means that from January to June 2017, only 0.037% of the COMEX gold contracts traded in that six month period were ‘delivered’, or just 1 in every 2650 contracts traded.
Beyond the trends and snapshots that trading volumes provide, COMEX Open Interest shows how much real physical gold would be needed if all longs who hold gold futures contracts decided to exercise every contract into the 100 ounces of physical gold that each contract supposedly allows for.
For example, currently there are 480,000 GC gold futures contracts outstanding on the COMEX, each of which represents 100 ounces of gold. This means that buyers of the contracts are long 480,000 contracts, and sellers of those same contracts are short 480,000 contracts. With each contract worth 100 ounces of gold, this is an open interest of 48 million ounces (1500 tonnes) of gold, which is about half a year’s global gold mining output.
Currently 46% of this open interest is in the front-month August 2017 contract (nearly 750 tonnes), with another 40% in the December 2017 contract. Together the August and December contracts represent over 85% of the current open interest. During 2017, open interest has fluctuated roughly between 400,000 and 500,000 contracts at any given time.
Registered Gold Inventory and Eligible
However, there are only currently 22 tonnes of ‘Registered gold’ in the COMEX approved vaults in New York, which is equivalent to about 700,000 ounces. What this means is that there are only 22 tonnes of gold currently in the vaults that the vault operators previously attached warrants to as part of the COMEX futures delivery process. This 22 tonnes of gold, if it was held in Good Delivery gold bar format, would only occupy one small corner of one of the COMEX’s 8 approved gold vaults when stacked 6 pallets high across 3 stacks, and another 4 pallets in an additional stack. That’s how small the COMEX registered gold inventories are.
The amount of Registered gold backing COMEX futures gold trading is also at a 1-year low. For example, in August 2016 there were 75 tonnes of Registered gold in the COMEX vaults. Now there’s only 30% of that amount.
There is also no independent auditing of the gold that the COMEX reports on its registered and eligible gold inventory reports. So there is no way of knowing if the COMEX report is accurate. For example, HSBC claims to have 165 tonnes of eligible gold and a measly 1.5 tonnes of registered gold stored at its COMEX approved vault. This vault is located in the lower levels of 1 West 39th Street in Manhattan (the old Republic National Bank of New York vault). However, I heard from a former New York Fed senior executive that HSBC don’t keep a lot of gold in this Manhattan vault since they moved a lot of it to Delaware after 9/11 for security reasons. If this is true, then the question becomes, on the COMEX report, does the total for HSBC represent the amount they have in the midtown Manhattan location, or the total in midtown and Delaware (assuming they have gold stored in Delaware).
COMEX approved vaults also report another category of gold known as ‘Eligible’ gold. This ‘Eligible’ gold is unrelated to COMEX gold futures trading and could be owned by anyone, for example owned by mints, refineries, jewellery companies, investment funds, banks or individuals, who would just happen to be storing this gold in the New York vaults that the COMEX also uses, such as the Brinks vaults.
In other words, this ‘eligible’ gold is merely innocent bystander gold that just happens to be stored in the COMEX approved vaults in the form of 100-ounce gold bars or 1 kilo gold bars. At the moment, there are 243 tonnes of this eligible gold in the vaults. But this gold is not involved in COMEX gold futures trading. Some of this gold is probably owned by banks that engage in COMEX gold futures trading because there are sometimes movements of gold from the eligible category to the registered category, but still, as long as it’s in the eligible category, this gold does not have any COMEX related warrants attached to it.
With an Open Interest of 1500 tonnes of gold on COMEX, and with registered gold in the New York vaults totalling only 22 tonnes, this means that there are currently 68 “Owners per Ounce” of registered gold. The holders of allocated gold bars stored in a secure vault, such as BullionStar’s secure vault in Singapore no not face this 68 owners per ounce problem, as each gold bar is owned by one person and one person only.
Since the beginning of 2017, this COMEX “owners per ounce of registered gold” metric has risen sharply, more than doubling from under 30 owners per ounce to the current ratio of 68 owners per ounce. This is because registered gold inventories have fallen sharply over this time.
Even adding into the equation all the eligible gold in the New York vaults, which is a calculation that doesn’t really mean much given the independent nature of eligible gold, there are still 5.7 “owners per ounce” of the combined COMEX “eligible and registered gold” total.
The physical gold foundations to the entire COMEX gold futures trading process are therefore very tiny in comparison to COMEX trading volumes and open interest. And all the while, gold futures trading volumes continue to rise, owners per registered ounce of gold continues to rise, and the amount of physical gold backing these contracts on COMEX continues to shrink.
The Dominant Players
The latest Commitment of Traders (COT) report produced by the US Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC), for 11 July, includes market concentration data for the percentage of contracts held by the largest holders. This COT report currently shows that “4 or Less Traders” are short 35% of the COMEX GC gold futures open interest, while “8 or Less Traders” are short a combined 51% of the open interest. Note that the “4 or Less Traders” are a subset of the “8 or Less Traders”.
The CFTC also publishes a Bank Participation Report (BPR) showing metrics for banks involved in gold futures trading. The latest BPR for 11 July shows that 5 US banks are short 78063 contracts (16.4% of the total open interest), and 29 non-US banks are short another 67,373 contracts (14.2% of open interest). In total, these 34 banks were short 145,000 contracts or 30% of the open interest. The same banks were long 40,688 contracts, so were net short 105,000 contracts.
Neither the COT report nor the BPR report reveal the identity of the ‘traders’ or the ‘banks’ that hold these concentrated large positions because the bank friendly CFTC choses not to do so, but even without their identities being revealed, it’s clear that a small number of entities are dominating trading of the COMEX gold futures contracts.
When is a Delivery not a Delivery?
The COMEX delivery report is known as the “Issues and Stops Report”. This report ostensibly shows the number of contracts that were ‘delivered’ on the COMEX each month, but in reality just shows a series of numbers representing the quantity of title warrants (to gold bars) that were shunted around each month between a small handful of players.
The COMEX does not publish any gold bar weight lists of registered or eligible gold inventories held in the COMEX approved vaults. It is therefore impossible to check to what extent the same gold bars or some of the same gold bars are moving back and forth between a few parties over time. On an annual basis, each COMEX approved vault must conduct a precious metal inventory audit on behalf of the COMEX and file this audit with the COMEX within 30 days of completing it. However again, the CME Group does not publish these inventory audits, which only adds to the existing opacity of the system. Is the registered gold in the COMEX vaults even specifically insured? Who knows, because the COMEX does not divulge such details.
Some of the bank institutions which are prominent on the COMEX gold delivery reports are also some of the same institutions which operate the COMEX approved vaults, e.g. HSBC, JP Morgan and Scotia, and these same names are undoubtedly some of the names underlying the CFTC’s Bank Participation Report given that they are always prominent on the COMEX delivery reports. By the way, these same banks essentially run the LBMA in London and run the unallocated gold clearing system, LPMCL, in the London Gold Market.
As regards, the COMEX’s assignment of delivery for gold futures contracts, this is also out of the hands of a contract holder looking for delivery. When a contract is presented for delivery, it is the Exchange (COMEX) which assigns the delivery to a specific warehouse. Not the contract holder. The contract holder (long) has no say in choosing which New York warehouse that contract will be assigned to, no choice of which bar brand he/she will receive, and no choice even of whether the assigned gold will be in the form of a 10 ounce bar of three 1 kilogram gold bars. But even to the long holder seeking delivery, delivery just means gaining an electronic warehouse warrant issued in the long holder’s name or broker’s name (title to the warrant).
To take real delivery of gold bars (withdrawing gold from one of the New York vaults) that would arise from a COMEX ‘delivery’ is a laborious and discouraging extra step. Armed with a copy of an electronic receipt, the procedure involves the receipt holder directly contacting the warehouse in question and telling them you want physical delivery. How they would react to such as phone call is not clear. My guess is that it would be like visiting the mailroom in a large company, the reaction being ‘Who are you? No one ever comes down here‘.
After navigating the withdrawal negotiations with the vault in question, the pickup and transport of the gold bars is then organized using one of the list of secure transport alternatives that approved warehouse will allow.
COMEX – Not Designed for Physical Bullion
The COMmodity EXchange (COMEX) is a derivatives exchange that is not designed for buying physical gold, storing or delivering that gold, or even selling physical gold. The COMEX primarily facilitates speculation and hedging, with the delivery option just existing as a little -used side option.
Flash crashes continue to occur but neither the CME nor the CFTC ever publishes explanations for the causes of these flash crashes.
It looks certain that in 2017, COMEX will again smash its gold futures trade gold futures representing more gold than has ever been mined in human history, i.e. more than 200,000 tonnes equivalent.
So far in 2017, only 1 in every 2650 gold futures contracts traded on the COMEX has resulted in delivery i.e. less than 0.038% of the contracts go to delivery. The rest, 99.962% of contracts are cash-settled and closed-out / rolled.
The open interest in COMEX gold futures is currently 1500 tonnes, yet there are only 22 tonnes of Registered gold in the COMEX vault inventories. This means that there are 68 owners per ounce of registered gold.
There is continually a high concentration of short futures positions held by a small number of banks on COMEX. The CFTC doesn’t name these banks. When contract deliveries occur on COMEX, it is not a delivery in the sense of a gold bar movement but is merely a transfer in title of a warrant attached to a bar.
Withdrawal of a gold bar or bars out of the COMEX vaulting network to be really delivered to another location is not straightforward.
With the London Gold Market trading unlimited quantities of unallocated gold which the bullion banks create out of thin air, and with COMEX trading gold futures which are also created out of thin air, the disconnect between the world of unlimited paper gold and the world of limited physical gold is becoming ever more stark.
On one side lies paper claims on gold which come into and out of existence through cash-settled market mechanisms. On the other is real physical gold that is segregated, allocated and unencumbered, with full title held by the gold holder. Paper gold ownership is fleeting, speculative and prone to counterparty and conversion risks. Real gold is tangible, has inherent value, has no counterparty risk, and can be securely stored.
When real gold is ‘delivered’ to a gold buyer, it actually is delivered to the buyer to wherever they want it delivered, unlike COMEX deliveries where an electronic warrant is merely updated. When real gold is held in a secure vault, such as BullionStar’s vault in Singapore, the gold is fully-insured and the gold holder has full audit and control.
Unlike the COMEX and the London OTC gold market, the traditional gold buying markets of Asia and the Middle East are markets know the real value of physical gold as a form of money and a form of saving. In the physical gold market, especially in Asia, gold buyers demand high purity gold (9999s purity) in convenient bar sizes such as 1 kilogram and 100 grams, and not the 100 ounce bar size traditionally made for COMEX delivery.
Physical gold buyers want gold bars from trusted and well-known sources, and also want choice and variety for example a cast bar from the German Heraeus refinery, or a highly designed minted bar from the Swiss refinery PAMP. Kilobars and 100 gram gold bars also have the lowest premiums of any bars on the retail market since many refineries compete to supply this segment and the demand is widespread and international. Most kilobars and 100 gram bars have their own unique serial numbers which facilitates tracking and auditing.
As COMEX pursues its record-breaking attempt in 2017 to trade gold futures representing more than 200,000 tonnes of gold, the disconnect between COMEX and the real world is becoming all too clear. COMEX flash crashes will continue as long as the CME and CFTC let them continue. And many people will continue to believe that these flash crashes were deliberately orchestrated. But at the heart of the contradiction between paper gold and real gold is not whether such and such a flash crash was deliberate. The heart of the contradiction is that the very structure of the COMEX system is so detached from the reality of physical gold market that it ideally suits deliberate flash crash attempts to rig the gold price.
BullionStar will be exhibiting at the FreedomFest event in Las Vegas, which this year runs from July 19 to 22 at the Paris resort in Las Vegas. For those attending FreedomFest please drop by our stand and say hello (Booth number 321) and to chat about precious metals. BullionStar CEO Torgny Persson will also be speaking at FreedomFest at 2:30pm on Friday July 21, on why today’s gold price is not reflecting what’s happening in the world and not reflecting what’s happening in the physical gold market.
Silver futures prices on the COMEX futures trading platform briefly plummeted at approximately 7:06am Singapore time yesterday, with the price for the front month (most active) September silver contract falling from a US$16.06 quote down to a low of US$14.34 all within a 1 minute interval. The futures price then recovered nearly all of its losses in the subsequent 2-3 minute period. High to low, this COMEX silver futures contract saw its price fall by just over 10.7%, before rebounding nearly 11%.
During this time when the COMEX price crashed, there was nothing fundamentally happening in the wider financial markets, or indeed in the physical silver market, to justify these price gyrations in COMEX silver futures prices. Which all goes to show that the COMEX ‘paper’ futures silver prices is completely detached from the physical silver market, and that COMEX silver futures prices have no anchoring in the real silver market.
This price movement in the September 2017 silver futures contract (contract code SIU7 aka SIU17) can be seen in the below 1-minute tick candlestick chart from CME. Times in the chart are New York Time (NYT), which is 12 hours behind Singapore.
During this one minute period between 19:06 NYT and 19:07 NYT, the SIU7 contract saw trading volume of 4954 contracts (the 4.954K in the chart below), with the price falling from a high of 16.065 to a low of 14.34, before ending that minute period at US$ 14.68.
The COMEX SI silver futures contract, which is a deliverable contract but which in practice is rarely delivered; is a futures contract for 5000 troy ounces of silver. The 4954 contracts traded during the 1 minute period in theory represent 24.77 million ounces (770 tonnes) of silver and would be valued at $397.8 million at the opening price of US$ 16.06 at 19:06 NYT.
Overall within these 4 minutes, more than 8,300 September silver contracts were traded.
Following this 1 minute flash crash, in the subsequent minute between 19:07 NYT and 19:08 NYT, the SIU7 contract price rebounded sharply, rising from US$ 14.67 to US$ 15.62 on a trading volume of 1495 contracts. This rebound reflected in the below chart which also shows the opening and closing prices of each minute period. The price continue to rebound between 19:08 and 19:09 on volume of 936 contracts to close the minute at US$ 15.07, and then between 19:09 and 19:10, the price again closed higher at US$ 15.90 on volume of 932 contracts.
Overall, from the low quote of US$ 14.34, the price had rebound within the next 3 minutes to US$ 15.90, a rebound of 10.95%, and just 1% lower than the price had been (US$ 16.06) 4 minutes earlier.
Note that the same price flash crash also affected the next most actively traded COMEX silver contract for December 2017 (code SIZ7). See COMEX silver futures summary table below, and notice the lows for the September 2017 and December 2017 contracts at US$ 14.34 and US$ 14.44, respectively.
What caused this momentary price plummet in the COMEX silver futures is not clear. This is because the CME Group, operator of the COMEX futures platform, has provided no explanation for these price gyrations. Possible causes could include market illiquidity, deliberate manipulation, a trading error or errors, or algorithmic trading programs triggering stop losses or inducing abnormal trading patterns.
Until the CME Group releases a statement on this (which it probably won’t), the exact cause of this futures price flash crash remains unclear. What the CME did do yesterday however was as follows:
At 19:06:38, the CME systems implemented a 10 second halt in the COMEX silver futures contracts. Within 20 minutes, CME made an announcement in a messaging broadcast that it was reviewing all SIU7 (September futures) trades that had taken place under US$ 15.84 and all SIZ7 (December futures) trades that had taken place under US$ 15.94. After another 20 minutes, CME announced in a messaging broadcast that for SIU7, any trades executed below US$ 15.54 would be adjusted up to US$ 15.54, while for SIZ7, all trades executed below 15.64 would be adjusted up to US$ 15.64.
These speedily introduced price adjustments would appear to suggest that the CME Group quickly determined that whatever caused the sharp price falls in the COMEX silver futures prices was not part of normal COMEX futures market trading, and that the CME made the call to back out and cancel at least some of the effects of this abnormal market trading. This would also seem to suggest the CME found evidence of something untoward, either price manipulation, or unfair algorithmic trading, or unjustified stop-loss triggering etc.
While these ‘paper’ trading markets in the form of the OTC London silver market and the COMEX futures market unfortunately do have a real impact on the international silver price that is inherited by these physical markets, this latest pricing fiasco on the COMEX again demonstrates that COMEX trading of precious metals futures and London trading of fractionally-backed unallocated precious metals spot and forwards contracts are becoming more and more detached from the underlying reality of the physical gold and silver markets.
This also has an adverse effect on investor sentiment in these paper markets and could in time be a trigger for shifting gold price discovery from paper to physical.
The London Metal Exchange (LME) and World Gold Council have just confirmed that their new suite of London-based exchange-traded gold and silver futures contracts will begin trading on Monday 10 July. These futures contracts are collectively known as LMEprecious.
This 10 July 2017 launch is itself over a month behind schedule given that LMEprecious was supposed to be launched on 5 June but was delayed by the LME.
As a reminder, these LMEprecious gold futures and silver futures contracts represent unallocated gold and silver and there is no direct connection in the contracts to physical gold or physical silver, since settlement is via unallocated gold and silver balance transfers across LME Clearing unallocated metal accounts at member banks of London Precious Metals Clearing Limited (LPMCL).
Still, this hasn’t stopped LME from using terminology in the contract specs that attempts to link them by association to real precious metal. For example, the gold contract spec says that the:
“underlying material” is “Loco London Fine Gold held in London and complying with standards relating to good delivery and fineness acceptable to the Precious Metal Clearer of the Clearing House”.
This is similar to how an estate agent (realtor) would describe a house that’s located in a bad area, i.e. that it’s not too far from a good area.
The LME also fails to mention the fact that the LBMA/LPMCL unallocated account system is a fractionally-based paper gold and paper silver trading system, with trading volumes of unallocated gold and unallocated silver that are 100s of times higher than the available physical metal sitting in the London precious metals vaults. Ironically, these gold and silver futures are starting to trade in a month in which the LBMA has still not begun publishing the actual quantities of gold and silver in the LBMA vaults in London, despite promising to.
For both gold and silver, the LME futures contract suite will consist of a daily trade date (T) + 1 contract (T+1), known as TOM, and daily futures from a T + 2 (equivalent to Spot settlement) out to and including all trade dates to T + 25. Beyond this, there are approximately 36 monthly futures contracts covering each month out to 2 calendar years, and then each March, June, September and December out to 60 calendar months (12 more quarters out to 5 years).
All LMEprecious contracts will centrally clear on LME’s clearing platform LME Clear. The contracts can be traded on LME’s electronic trading platform LMESelect between 1am and 8pm London time, and can also be traded 24 hours a day ‘inter-office’ over the blower (voice-based trading). Apart from trading hours differences, the only other difference between LMESelect and phone is that of the daily contracts, only T+1 to T+3 can be traded via LMESelect, while T+1 to T +25 can be traded over the phone.
The LME also plans to roll out options products and calendar spread products based on these futures, but as to when these will appear is not clear.
Banks, Banks and more Banks
The official line is that LMEprecious has been developed by a consortium of the LME, the World Gold Council and a group of investment consisting of Morgan Stanley, ICBC Standard, SocGen, Goldman Sachs and Natixis, as well as prop trading firm OSTC, but to what extent each of the 5 banks and OSTC has had input into the product development and trading rules of LMEprecious is unclear.
On 3 August 2016, the World Gold Council established a UK registered company called ‘EOS Precious Metals Limited’ to house the arrangement between the Council and the aforementioned banks and OTSC. The first director of EOS was Robin Martin, managing director of market infrastructure at the World Gold Council, while the first registered address of EOS was actually the World Gold Council’s London office at 10 Old Bailey in the City of London.
A slew of other directors were then appointed to EOS Precious Metals Ltd on 9 November 2016, namely:
Aram Shishmanian, CEO of World Gold Council
Raj Kumar – ICBC Standard Bank (formerly of Deutsche Bank and formerly a director of London Precious Metals Clearing Limited (LPMCL)
Bradley Duncan – ICBC Standard Bank (resigned as director March 2017 and replaced by Richard England)
Francois Combes – SocGen (formerly a director of London Gold Market Fixing Limited)
Vinvent Domien – SocGen (formerly a director of London Gold Market Fixing Limited)
Matthew Alfieri – Goldman Sachs (resigned May 2017 and replaced by Donald Casturo)
David Besancon – Natixis
Bogdan Gogu – Morgan Stanley
Hanita Amin – Morgan Stanley
Jonathan Aucamp – Exec chairman of OSTC
Some of these directors, as you can see above, are very much connected to the existing and previous mechanisms of the London Gold Market, eg, LPMCL and the old London Gold Fixing.
But apart from ICBC Standard Bank, suspiciously absent from the list of banks cooperating with the LME and World Gold Council are the big guns of the LBMA and LPMCl members, i.e. HSBC, JP Morgan, UBS, Scotia, all of which are big players in the London gold and silver markets and vaulting scenes in London, New York, and in UBS’s case Zurich. As they control LPMCL, perhaps there is no need for them to be involved in a gold and silvers futures sideshow.
Peter Drabwell of HSBC was re-elected to the Board
Sid Tipples, of JP Morgan was re-elected to the Board
Raj Kumar of ICBC Standard (formerly of Deutsche Bank) was elected to the Board
Kumar replaces Steven Lowe of Scotia who had been on LBMA board Vice-Chairman
When EOS Precious Metals Ltd was established, it only had 1 A share and 1 B share, both held by WGC (UK) Limited. In the incorporation documents, A shares were defined as having voting rights, an ability to appoint a director and a board observer but no rights to dividends. B shares were defined as having no voting rights but with an entitlement to dividends.
On 26 October, a further 999 A shares and 699 B shares were allotted and said to be paid-up. In the in the allotment filing, these B shares are listed in various tranches i.e. 400 B shares, 100 B Shares, 100 B shares, and 99 B shares, with different total amounts paid for each of these tranches.
In total, there are now 1000 A shares and 700 B shares issued in EOS (with a nominal value of US$ 0.10 each), but there is nothing in the filings listing how many shares of each class are owned by each of the companies and banks that have director representation. Given that there are 6 trading entities as well as the World Gold Council, it could be that each of the 7 entities holds 100 B shares.
There are currently also 10 directors on the EOS board, 2 each from the World Gold Council, SocGen, ICBC Standard, and Morgan Stanley, and 1 each from Goldman Sachs and Natixis. Therefore, its possible that the 1000 A shares could be divided out in the same ratio, 200 for each of the World Gold Council, SocGen, ICBC Standard, and Morgan Stanley, and 100 shares each for Goldman and Natixis.
In a related development, on 23 February 2017 Reuters reported that the LME had agreed a 50-50 revenue sharing agreement with EOS precious Metals under which Morgan Stanley, ICBC Standard, SocGen, Goldman, Natixis and OSTC will attempt to generate trading certain volumes (liquidity) in the LMEprecious gold and silver contracts in return for 50% of the LME’s revenue on the products. The terms of this agreement are not public and it’s unclear if the performance of the banks and OSTC will be measured on customer flow or liquidity guarantees, or perhaps some type of credibility measurement of the contracts in the marketplace.
In early March, Reuters also reported that 3 additional banks and a broker had agreed to come on board with LMEprecious as clearing members, specifically, Commerzbank,Bank of China International,Macquarie Bank, and broker Marex Financial
Most recently, on 6 July, Reuters reported that of these 4 additional participants from the Commerzbank / Bank of China / Macquarie / Marex group, the LME has said that only Marex is ready to participate as a “general clearing member”.
Clearing Unallocated into LPMCL
This brings us to the different types of LME clearing members. Of the 6 participants which came on board to LMEprecious in 2016, 4 of these (SocGen, Goldman, Morgan Stanley and ICBC Standard) are General Clearing Members (GCMs) for LMEprecious. However, Natixis is only an Individual Clearing Member (ICM). Furthermore, OSTC is a Non-Clearing Member (NCM). Marex, as mentioned above, is also a General Clearing Members (GCM). See list of GCMs, ICMs and NCMs for LMEprecious here.
According to LME Clear’s membership rules (Rule 3.1 Membership Categories and Application Process):
a “General Clearing Member” or “GCM”, which may clear Transactions or Contracts on its own behalf and in respect of Client Business
an “Individual Clearing Member” or “ICM”, which shall be permitted only to clear Transactions or Contracts on its own behalf
On 6 July, Reuters also reported that an algorithmic trading firm called XTX Markets which is based in Mayfair in London, will also start as a Non-Clearing Member (NCM) participant. Obviously, the Non-Clearing Member (NCM) don’t clear trades, instead they use ‘Administrative clearers’ to do their clearing. XTX will use Marex, and OSTC will use SocGen.
As to why Commerzbank, Bank of China International and Macquarie Bank are still not ready to participate is unclear, but this seems odd given that they announced their intent to participate over 4 months ago.
Meet the New Boss, Same as the Old Boss
– there are now 8 bullion banks, a prop trading firm, and a high speed algo firm lined up to help these LME gold and silver futures get out the gate
– these LMEprecious futures will be trading unallocated gold and unallocated silver.
– unallocated gold and unallocated silver is fractionally-backed paper gold and paper silver
– the 5 LMPCL banks offering these unallocated accounts are HSBC, JP Morgan, UBS, Scotia and ICBC Standard
– the trading of these LMEprecious futures therefore comes full circle and does nothing to change the structure of the London Gold Market or the London Silver Market
– the World (Paper) Gold Council, which claims to promote gold on the behalf of the gold mining industry, is instead front and center in the promotion of more paper gold trading
With similar recently launched London gold futures from CME Group and ICE not having taken off, all eyes will be on these LMEprecious products to see if they can go where no London gold futures have gone before. Therefore, the LME monthly trading volumes page will be one to watch in future.
Sometime in the coming days, the London Bullion Market Association (LBMA) plans to begin publishing gold and silver vault holding totals covering the network of commercial precious vault operators in London that fall under its remit. This follows an announcement made by the LBMA on 8 May.
There are seven commercial vault operators (custodians) in the LBMA custodian vault network namely, HSBC, JP Morgan, Brinks, Malca Amit, ICBC Standard Bank, Loomis (formerly Viamat), and G4S. Note that ICBC Standard Bank has a vault which is operated by Brinks on behalf of ICBC Standard. It is also quite possible that some of the HSBC vaults, such as the famous GLD gold vault, are located within Brinks facilities.
Adding in the Bank of England gold vaults under the Bank of England’s head office in the City of London, the LBMA vaulting network comprises eight sets of vaults. However, the Bank of England vaults do not store silver, or at least there is no evidence that the Bank of England stores silver. However, the other 7 vault operators can and do store silver, or at least most of them do. It’s unclear whether the G4S vault stores anything on behalf of anyone, but that’s a different story.
The forthcoming LBMA vault data will represent actual physical gold and silver holdings, i.e. real tangible precious metals, as opposed to the intangible and gargantuan paper gold and paper silver trading volumes generated each day in the London precious metals markets.
The LBMA will report physical holdings data on an aggregated basis for each of gold and silver, i.e. one quantity number will be reported each month for vaulted gold, and one quantity number will be reported each month for vaulted silver. The LBMA data will be on a 3-month lagged basis. For example, if the LBMA begins reporting this data in early July (which it probably will), then the first set of data will refer to the end of March period.
The uncertainty as to when the LBMA will begin to publish its vault holdings data is purely because the LBMA has not provided a specific publication commencement date. At first, the LBMA announced that the reporting would begin “in the summer”. Subsequently, it announced that it’s vault reporting would begin in July.
As to whether the LBMA vault holdings numbers published each month will include or exclude the Bank of England gold vaults holdings is also unclear. At the end of April, the Bank of England went ahead and separately began to publish vault holdings numbers for its own gold vaults, also on a 3-month lagged basis. More information on this Bank of England initiative can be read in BullionStar blog “Bank of England releases new data on its gold vault holdings”
Incidentally, the Bank of England has now updated its website (updated 30 June) with the gold holdings figure for its vaults as of the end of March, and is reporting total physical gold holdings of 163.36 million troy ounces, which equates to 5081 tonnes of gold.
When the LBMA begins to publish its numbers, it will be clear as to whether the LBMA gold number includes the Bank of England gold holdings or not, and this will probably even be specified in a footnote of the report. Excluding the Bank of England vaults (or at least the non-loaned gold in the Bank of England vaults which is not under the title of bullion banks), the remaining lion’s share of the LBMA’s gold holdings number comprises gold held by Exchange Traded Funds (ETFs) in London.
“The HSBC vault in London holds gold on behalf of the SPDR Gold Trust (currently 853 tonnes) and ETF Securities (about 215 tonnes). The JP Morgan gold vault in London holds gold on behalf of ETFs run by iShares (about 210 tonnes in London), Deutsche Bank (95 tonnes), and Source (100 tonnes). An ABSA ETF holds about 36 tonnes of gold with Brinks in London. In total, these ETFs represent about 1510 tonnes of gold.”
The approach used to calculate the gold stored by these ETFs in the London vaults can be seen in the article “Tracking the gold held in London: An update on ETF and BoE holdings”. To this 1510 tonnes gold figure we can add gold held on behalf of customers of BullionVault and GoldMoney – which is roughly 12 tonnes of gold between them (4.75 tonnes for GoldMoney, and 7.2 tonnes of gold for BullionVault).
When the LBMA publishes its first gold total for gold held in its vault network, it will also be clear as to whether the LBMA vaults hold any significant amount of physical gold above and beyond the gold allocated within the gold-backed ETFs. There may be some gold tonnage held on an allocated basis by the LBMA bullion banks as a ‘float’, and also some gold held in allocated form by various institutional investors such as hedge funds, but my hunch is that this residual gold will be at most a respectable fraction of the amount of gold stored on behalf of ETFs in London.
However, the silver holdings in the LBMA vault network are a different kettle of fish entirely, and in addition to ETF holdings (which are reported), there could be significant silver holdings in the London vaults which have gone unreported up until now (unreported silver in the form of what consultancy GFMS calls ‘Custodian Vault’ holdings).
Although gold usually generates the most headlines, it’s important not to forget about silver, and the fact that this new LBMA reporting will also provide a monthly aggregated total for the amount of physical silver held in the LBMA vaulting network in London. The silver stored in these LBMA vaults is in the form of variable weight London Good Delivery silver bars.
Since silver has a lower value to weight ratio than gold and is bulkier to store, silver a) takes up more room and b) can be stored in secure warehouses rather than ultra-high secure vaults that are used to store gold. This is particularly true in expensive cities such as London where it is more economical to store silver in locations with lower commercial rental values.
In the LBMA vaulting network, London Good Delivery silver bars are stored 30 bars per pallet, i.e. a formation of 10 bars stacked 3 bars high. Since each bar weighs approximately 1000 oz, each pallet will weigh about 30,000 ozs, i.e. each pallet would weigh about 1 tonne.
At this stage, can we arrive at an estimate of the minimum amount of silver currently held in the LBMA London vaulting network? The answer is yes, for the simple reason that, in a similar manner to gold-backed ETFs, a substantial number of silver-backed ETFs also hold their silver in the vaults of London-based precious metals vaulting custodians, and these ETFs publicly report their silver bar holdings.
In addition, BullionVault and GoldMoney (which are not ETFs), both hold silver with one of the custodians in the LBMA vaulting network – Loomis. But I have included the BullionVault and GoldMoney silver totals below purely because even though they are non-ETF custodian vault holdings, both companies’ silver holdings are publicly reported on their websites.
However, there is probably also a lot more additional silver held in the London vaults above and beyond the silver bars allocated to ETFs and the known silver stored by GoldMoney and BullionVault. Some of this additional silver falls under what Thomson Reuters GFMS classify as ‘Custodian Vault‘ silver, which is silver that is basically in an ‘Unreported’ category but which Thomson Reuters GFMS seems to think it knows about through its own ‘proprietary surveys’ and ‘field research’. This ‘Custodian Vault’ silver probably accounts for a substantial amount of silver in the London vaults. However, it is difficult to know because GFMS does not provide granularity on its numbers beyond an overall ‘Europe’ number. But I have made some assumptions about this ‘Custodian Vault’ silver in London, which is discussed in a final section below.
For the silver-backed ETFs, the first step is to identify which silver ETFs hold silver bars in the LBMA vaults in London. Using the list of silver ETF providers specified on Nick Laird’s GoldChartsRUs website (subscription only), the platform providers and their ETFs which hold silver in the LBMA vaults in London are as follows:
iShares: 1 ETF
ETF Securities: 6 ETFs
SOURCE : 1 ETF
Deutsche Bank: 3 ETFs
Between them, these four providers offer 11 ETFs that hold some or all of their silver in LBMA London vaults. This silver is held with custodians JP Morgan and HSBC, and with sub-custodians, Brinks and Malca Amit. Note, that GoldMoney and BullionVault store silver in London with Loomis as custodian.
As publicly traded vehicles, most of these ETFs publish daily silver bar weight lists or holdings files and they also undergo twice yearly physical audits by independent auditors. These weight lists and audits documents are helpful in pinpointing who the custodians and sub-custodians are, which locations these silver ETF’s store their silver in, and how much silver (in silver bar form) is stored in each location.
iShares Silver Trust (SLV)
The iShares Silver Trust, ticker code SLV, is the world’s largest silver-backed ETF. It’s probably best to think of SLV as the silver equivalent of the mammoth SPDR Gold Trust (GLD).
The custodian for SLV is JP Morgan Chase Bank (London Branch), and Brinks also acts as a sub-custodian for SLV. SLV holds silver in vaults across both London and New York. According to the SLV daily silver bar weight list, SLV’s silver bars are held in two Brinks vaults in London, one JP Morgan vault in London, and one JP Morgan vault in New York.
As of 29 June 2017, SLV reported that it was holding 348,841 Good Delivery silver bars containing a total of 339.89 million troy ounces of silver, or a colossal 10,572 tonnes of silver. The actual SLV bar list, which is uploaded to a JP Morgan website in pdf format using the same filename each day, can be seen here, but be warned that the file is about 5370 pages long, so there’s no real need to open it unless you are curious. A screenshot of the top of the first page is provided below
The SLV weight list specifies that the SLV silver is held in a ‘Brinks London‘ vault, a ‘Brinks London C‘ vault, a ‘JPM London V‘ vault, and a ‘JPM New York‘ vault. Between them, 2 Brinks vaults in London hold 55% of SLV’s silver bars representing 5753 tonnes, or 54% of the silver held in SLV. Adding in the ‘JPM London V‘ vault means that 289,053 silver bars, weighing 8720 tonnes (or 82% of SLV’s entire silver holdings) are held in LBMA London vaults.
The auditor for SLV is Inspectorate. Interestingly, the latest Inspectorate letter for SLV, for record date 10 February 2017, does not make a distinction between the 2 Brinks vaults in London and just reports that SLV’s silver is in:
“Three vaults located in and around London and New York:
- two vaults owned and operated by JP Morgan Chase Bank N.A. with 124,054 bars
- one vault owned and operated by Brinks, as a sub-custodian for JP Morgan Chase Bank N.A. with 220,066 bars
This would suggest that Inspectorate does not see the need to distinguish between the “Brinks London” vault and the “Brinks London C” vault, presumably because both Brinks vaults are in the same building in the Brinks facility (which is beside Heathrow Airport).
Even though the official custodian for SLV is JP Morgan Chase Bank N.A., London Branch (see original SLV Custodian Agreement filed April 2006 here), since it’s launch in 2006 SLV has at different times used quite a diverse group of sub-custodian vaults as well as at least 3 JP Morgan vaults. For example, over the 3 year period from early 2010 to early 2013, SLV stored silver in the following vaults:
Johnston Matthey, Royston
Brinks London A
Brinks London C
Viamat (now known as Loomis)
JP Morgan London A
JP Morgan London V
JP Morgan New York
Royston is about 50 miles north of central London. The above list is taken from the following chart which is from the ScrewTape Files website.
Given that there are Brinks vaults in London named ‘Brinks London‘, ‘Brinks London A‘, and ‘Brinks London C‘, this would most likely imply that there is or was also a ‘Brinks London B‘ vault, which, for whatever reason, doesn’t show up in any ETF custodian documentation.
The naming convention of the JP Morgan vaults in London as ‘JPM London A‘ and ‘JPM London V‘ is also interesting. SLV silver started being taken out of the ‘JPM London A’ vault in February 2012, and this vault was depleted of 100 million ounces of SLV silver (~ 3100 tonnes) by October 2012 (blue line in above chart). At the same time, the SLV silver inventory in the ‘Brinks London’ vault ramped up by 100 million ounces of SLV silver also between February 2012 and October 2012.
JPM London A could be JP Morgan’s original vault in the City of London. This would then make the JPM London V vault a separate location. My pet theory (pet rock theory) is that the V in the ‘JPM London V’ could refer to Viamat International, which is now known as Loomis. JP Morgan could have outsourced storage of silver to Viamat by ring-fencing some vault space. JP Morgan could then call this space a JP Morgan vault, even though it would be physically within a location managed by one of the security storage / transport providers.
I now think on balance that HSBC probably took the same approach with its gold vault and has it located in a Brinks facility, but that it calls it a HSBC vault. This could also mean that HSBC uses Brinks to store silver, while referring to it as HSBC storage. As to whether HSBC and JP Morgan store gold at the Bank of England while labelling it as a HSBC or JP Morgan storage area is another interesting question, but is beyond the scope of discussion here.
Note, there is also an iShares Silver Bullion Fund known as SVR which uses Scotia Mocatta as a custodian, which as of 29 June held 2,154 silver bars, however, SVR mostly holds its silver bars mostly in Toronto with Scotia, with a small number of silver bars stored with Scotia in New York. SVR therefore does not store any silver bars in London. See latest SVR weight list here.
ETF Securities – 6 ETFs
Keeping track of all the silver-backed ETFs offered by ETF Securities is challenging to say the least, but in the below discussion I’ve tried to devise a system which will make things at least a little clearer.
ETF Securities operates 6 ETFs which hold physical silver bars that are stored in the LBMA precious metals vaulting network in London. Of these 6 ETFS, 3 of them hold silver bars and nothing else. The other 3 ETFs are precious metals baskets which hold ‘physical’ gold, silver, platinum and palladium. Two of these ETFs are domiciled in the UK, 2 are domiciled in Australia, and the other 2 are domiciled in the US. In each of the UK, Australia and the US, ETF Securities offers 1 silver ETF and 1 precious metals basket ETF.
It’s most convenient to refer to the codes of these ETFs when discussing them. The 2 UK domiciled ETFs, with codes PHAG (silver) and PHPM (precious metals basket), are positioned under a company called ETFS Metal Securities Limited (MSL). The 2 ETFs domiciled in Australia, with codes PMAG (silver) and PMPM (precious metals basket), fall under a company called ETFS Metal Securities Australia Limited (MSAL). The final 2, which are US domiciled, are known as SILV (silver) and GLTR (precious metals basket).
ETFS Metal Securities Limited (MSL) – PHAG and PHPM
ETFS Physical Silver (PHAG) has a primary listing on the London Stock Exchange (LSE) and trades in USD. It’s NAV is also in USD. The custodian for PHAG is HSBC Bank Plc, with a listed vault location of London. Note: There is also another variant of PHAG called PHSP. It’s the same security as PHAG (same ISIN) but its trades in GBP (and its NAV is calculated in GBP). Its best to ignore PHSP as it’s literally the same fund.
ETFS Physical PM Basket (PHPM) is a precious metals Basket ETF that also holds gold, platinum, and palladium, in addition to silver. The custodian is HSBC Bank Plc with a vault location in London. There is also a GBP variant of PHPM called PHPP. Again, just ignore PHPP in this analysis.
ETFS Metal Securities Limited (MSL) officially reports all of its precious metals holdings in the same report (which it reports on each trading day). Since PHAG and PHPM are part of MSL, PHAG and PHPM silver bar holdings are reported together. According to the MSL weight list, as of 30 June 2017, MSL held 62,427 London Good delivery silver bars containing 60,280,155 troy ounces of silver(1875 tonnes). The individual ETFs within MSL also report their own holdings. However, there is a slight mismatch between dates on the individual fund pages and the date in the MSL spreadsheet with PHAG and PHPM reporting 29 June, while MSL has reported 30 June.
It’s not a big deal though. As of 29 June, PHAG held 58,777,148 troy ozs of silver (1828.2 tonnes) and PHPM held 1,480,037 troy ozs of silver (46 tonnes), which together is 60,257,185 troy ounces of silver (1874.25 tonnes), which is very close to the MSL reported number. Overall, PHAG holds 97.5% of the silver that is held in MSL, and PHPM only holds about 2.5% of the silver held in MSL.
Now, here’s the crux. While MSL uses HSBC Bank Plc in London as custodian for its silver, HSBC also uses Malca Amit London as sub-custodian, and the Malca Amit vault holds more than twice the amount of MSL silver (i.e. predominantly PHAG silver) than the HSBC vault. MSL’s reported silver holding are distributed as per the following table:
MSL holds 62,427 London Good Delivery silver bars in LBMA vaults in London, containing 60.28 million ounces of silver (1875 tonnes of silver). The Malca Amit vault stores 42,917 of these bars (1283 tonnes), and a HSBC vault stores another 19,510 silver bars (592 tonnes).
Inspectorate is also the independent auditor for the silver held by MSL. According to the latest Inspectorate audit letter, dated 3 March 2017 but referring to an end audit date of 31 December 2016, the silver in MSL was held in the vaults of HSBC Bank plc, London and at the vaults of Malca-AmitLondon.
ETFS Metal Secs. Australia Ltd (MSAL) – PMAG & PMPM
ETFS Physical Silver (PMAG), domiciled in Australia, is an ETF which only holds silver, and holds this silver in London with custodian HSBC Bank plc at a vault location in London. Note: ETF Securities officially refers to PMAG as ETPMAG.
ETFS Physical PM basket (PMPM) is a precious metals Basket ETF that also holds gold, platinum, and palladium, in addition to silver. The custodian of PMPM is HSBC Bank plc with a vault location in London. Note: ETF Securities officially refers to PMPM as ETPMPM.
In a similar way to UK domiciled MSL, MSAL (the ETFS Australian company) reports on all of its precious metals holdings in one daily spreadsheet including the silver in PMAG and PMPM. As of 30 June 2017, MSAL held 2754 silver bars in a HSBC vault in London, containing 2,664,690 troy ounces of silver (82.88 tonnes of silver).
Of the 2,664,690 ounces of silver held by MSAL, over 98%, or 2617,229 ounces, is held by PMAG, with less than 2% held in PMPM (47,362 ounces). The actual figures are 98.22% vs 1.78%. This means that PMAG roughly holds 2705 silver bars, and PMPM holds 49 silver bars.
Inspectorate is, not surprisingly, also the independent auditor for MSAL’s metal holdings, and as per the latest audit letter for record date 31 December 2016, the silver bars audit location is stated as having been “HSBC Bank plc, London“.
The latest silver bar weight list spreadsheet for the ETFS Silver Trust (SIVR), dated 29 June, which is titled “HSBC US Silver Bar List”, states that the SIVR Trust holds 21,437 silver bars containing 20,363,315 troy ozs of silver (633.4 tonnes of silver). There is no mention of SIVR holding any of its silver with a sub-custodian. The latest independent audit report for SIRV, by Inspectorate, for an audit reference date of 31 December 2016, states that the audit took place “at the vault of HSBC Bank plc, London (the “Custodian”)“, where Inspectorate found “20,108 London Good Delivery Silver Bars with a weight of 19,171,492.300 troy ounces.”
The latest silver bar weight list for the ETFS Precious Metals Basket Trust (GLTR), also dated 29 June, and which is titled “JPM Precious Metals Basket Bar List“, states that the GLTR Trust holds 5,670 silver bars containing 5,496,035 ozs of silver (~ 171 tonnes of silver).
However, while 85% of these bars (144.5 tones of silver) are stored in the ‘JP Morgan V‘ vault, 15% of the silver bars (26.5 tonnes of silver) are stored in a ‘Brinks 2‘ vault. So according to GLTR naming convention, as there is a ‘Brinks 2′ vault, presumably when it was first named, there was also a ‘Brinks 1′. ‘Brinks 2′ could possibly be referring to the same location as the ‘Brinks London A’ vault.
Inspectorate is also the independent auditor for the precious metals held by GLTR. In the latest Inspectorate audit letter for GLTR, with an audit reference date of 31 December 2016, Inspectorate states that its audit was only conducted “at the vault of J.P. Morgan Chase N.A, London (the “Custodian”)” where it counted “4,873 London Good Delivery Silver Bars“. This probably means that GLTR’s holdings of silver bars in the ‘Brinks 2′ vault are quite recent, i.e. they have been acquired since 31 December 2016.
SOURCE – Physical Silver P-ETC
A silver-backed ETF offered by the ETF provider ‘SOURCE’, which is named the Physical Silver P-ETC, holds its silver bars in a London vault of custodian JP Morgan. The SOURCE ETF platform was originally established in 2008 as a joint venture between Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, and Merrill Lynch.
The latest silver bar weight list for the Physical Silver P-ETC (dated 23 June) states that it holds 3,129,326 troy ounces of silver (97.34 tonnes of silver). The list does not state an exact bar count, but looking at the weight list, there are about 3,237 silver bars listed.
Inspectorate is also the independent auditor for the Physical silver P-ETC. The latest Inspectorate audit letter, conducted on 4 January 2017, states that at that time, this ETF held 2,048 silver bars containing 1,982,343 troy ounces of silver. This is interesting because about a week ago, this SOURCE Physical silver P-ETC held about 4 million ozs of silver. Now it holds 3.1 million ounces of silver, and at the start of the year it held under 2 million ounces of silver. So the quantity of silver held in this SOURCE silver ETF fluctuates quite dramatically.
Deutsche Bank ETFs
There are 3 ETCs listed on the Exchange Traded Commodity (ETC) section of the Deutsche Asset Management website which hold physical silver in London. These 3 ETCs are as follows:
db Physical Silver ETC
db Physical Silver ETC (EUR)
db Physical Silver Euro hedged ETC
The Factsheets for these 3 Deutsche ETCs all list the custodian as “Deutsche Bank”, but list the sub-custodian as “JP Morgan Chase Bank”. For example, the Factsheet for the db Physical Silver ETCstates
“Custodian/Sub-custodian: Deutsche Bank AG/JP Morgan Chase Bank N.A.”
Shockingly, there do not seem to be any recent independent audit documents for any of these Deutsche ETCs anywhere on the Deutsche Asset Management website. The latest ‘Inventory Audit’ document in the ‘Download Center’ of the website is dated November 2012. That audit document can be viewed here. The old audit document stated that on 25 September 2012, ‘DB ETC Plc’ held 13,314 silver bars containing 13,040,194.3 troy ounces of silver (405.6 tonnes of silver), and that the audit was conducted at ‘Custodian and Location‘ of ‘JP Morgan Chase Bank, N.A. London‘. I have scanned the entire website and there is no sign of any other audit documents or any silver bar weight list.
The initial metal entitlement for units issued in each of these 3 ETCs was 10 troy ounces per unit. The latest units issued figures from Deutsche (dated 22 June 2017) for these ETCs is as follows:
db Physical Silver ETC: 277, 500 units issued
db Physical Silver ETC (EUR): 533,000 units issued
db Physical Silver Euro hedged ETC: 878,000 units issued
Total units issued for silver-backed db ETCs = 1,688,500 units
This would mean that in total, these 3 ETCs would have had an initial metal entitlement of 16,885,000 troy ounces of silver. However, due to what looks like operational fees being offset against the metal in these ETCs (i.e. selling silver to pay fund expenses), the effective metal entitlement for each of the 3 ETCs is now stated on the Deutsche website as being less than 10 troy ounces.
For db Physical Silver ETC, the entitlement is 9.6841 ounces. For db Physical Silver ETC, the entitlement is 9.6930 ounces and for db Physical Silver Euro hedged ETC the metal entitlement is a very low 7.9893 ounces.
Therefore, the amount of silver backing these ETCs looks to be (277500 * 9.6841) + (533000 * 9.693) + (878000 * 7.9893) = 14,868,312 troy ounces = 462.5 tonnes. Since there is no bar count, an approximate bar count assuming each bar weighs 1000 oz would be 14,870 Good Delivery silver bars.
Since there are no audit reports and no silver bar weight list for these ETCs, it’s difficult to know if real allocated silver in the form of London Good Delivery silver bars is backing these Deutsche Bank db ETCs, let alone trying to figure how many silver bars are in a JP Morgan vault in London backing these Deutsche products. We can therefore use 462.5 tonne for Deutche but with a caveat that there is no current silver bar weight lists or independent audit documents.
Total ETF Silver held in London LBMA Vaults
Adding up the silver held in the 11 ETFs profiled above yields the following table. In total, the 11 ETFs hold approximately 12,041 tonnes of silver (387.2 million troy ounces) across 4 vault operators. Brinks vaults hold 48% of the total, and JP Morgan vaults hold another 30%. HSBC and Malca Amit hold about 11% each of the remainder.
ETF Silver Holdings – Tonnes, for Silver stored in London LBMA Vaults
In terms of London Good Delivery silver bars, these 11 ETFs hold approximately 400,000 of these silver bars. Since the 3 Deutsche ETFs (ETCs) don’t have an available bar list, I converted the assumed troy ounce holdings to bar totals by assuming each bar held weighs 1000 ozs. Brinks stores over 191,000 of these Good delivery silver bars. That equates to nearly 6,400 pallets with 30 silver bars per pallet. If the pallets were stacked 6 high, and arranged in a square, that would be an area 32 pallets long by about 33 pallets wide. In addition, Brinks may also store silver on behalf of HSBC, or even on behalf of JP Morgan. Who knows?
According to the latest numbers on the BullionVault website (Daily Audit), BullionVault has 349,939.57 kgs of silver stored in London. That equates to 11,250,557 troy ozs of silver, or 350 tonnes of silver. This silver is stored in the form of London Good Delivery Silver Bars. According to the BullionVault website, BullionVault use Loomis as a custodian for storing silver bars in London:
Those with a BullionVault login can go in and view BullionVault’s latest silver bar weight list which has been generated by Loomis, but BullionVault don’t allow this list to be published externally. Suffice to say, the latest list, dated 11 May, lists 11,544 silver bars which are stored across nearly 400 pallets.
The GoldMoney website has a real-time audit page which currently states that GoldMoney has 202,057.614 kgs of silver. That equates to 6,496,153 troy ozs of silver, or 202 tonnes of silver stored in London. This silver is also stored with Loomis. At least some of this silver and probably a lot of it is in the form of London Good Delivery silver bars. Without being able to log in to the site properly, it’s not possible to see a bar list.
So between them, BullionVault and GoldMoney have 550 tonnes of silver stored in Loomis vaults in London. My guess is that Loomis (formerly Viamat) store precious metals in a warehouse in Shepperton Business Park, Govett Avenue, Shepperton, a warehouse which is in the corner of the business park, beside the railway track.
Adding this 550 tonnes of silver to the 12040 tonnes of silver held by the 11 ETFs above gives a figure of 12,590 tonnes. Let’s call it 12,600 tonnes. This is then the lower bound on the amount of physical silver in the LBMA vaults in London.
Thomson Reuters GFMS – “Custodian Vault” silver
On its ‘Silver Supply’ web page, the Silver Institute website has an interesting data table titled “Identifiable Above-Ground Silver Bullion Stocks” which lists 5 categories of above-ground silver stocks, namely ‘Custodian vaults’, ‘ETPs’, ‘Exchanges’, ‘Government’, and ‘Industry’.
What’s notable and striking about this table is that the ‘Custodian Vaults‘ category for 2016 amounts to a very large 1571.2 million troy ounces of silver (50,440 tonnes), and also the fact that this ‘Custodian vaults’ category is distinct from silver held in ‘Exchanges’ (such as COMEX and TOCOM) and ETPs / ETFs (such as the ETF products discussed above). The ‘Custodian Vaults’ category also does not include ‘Government’ stockpiles or ‘Industry’ inventories. The actual table and the data in the table are sourced from the Thomson Reuters GFMS “World Silver Survey” 2017 edition. As you will see below, this ‘Custodian Category’ refers to holdings of silver which are not reported, but which are stored in custodian vaults, including in the London vaults. This category therefore needs to be examined in the context of the LBMA’s imminent reporting of silver holdings in the LBMA London vaulting system.
You can also see from the above table that this 2016 Custodian Vaults figure of 1571.2 million ozs (50,440 tonnes) grew from a 2008 total of 615.6 million ozs (19,148 tonnes), so in eight years has risen more than 250%.
On pages 37-38 of this GFMS World Silver Survey 2017 (pdf – large file), GFMS makes some very interesting assertions. GFMS starts by defining what it calls Identifiable silver bullion stocks. It states:
‘Identifiable bullion stocks can be split into two categories: unreported GFMS stock estimates that are based on confidential surveys and field research; [and secondly] stocks that are reported.
“Unreported stocks include the lion’s share of our government category and our custodian vault category.”
“Reported inventories are predominantly held in ETPs..but also include some of the government and industry stockpiles.”
However, in the accompanying commentary to the above table, GFMS classifies all ETP, Exchange and Industry holdings as “Reported“, and all Custodian Vaults and Government holdings as “Unreported“. Therefore, it is useful to regroup the 2016 figures from the above table into a Reported category and an Unreported category, as the GFMS commentary then makes more sense. A regrouped table of the 2016 data is as follows, and illustrates that ‘Custodian Vault’ holdings of silver (none of which are reported) account for a whopping 61% of all above ground silver:
A GFMS bar chart in the 2017 World Silver Survey also underscores the dominant position of these (unreported) ‘Custodian Vault’ holdings:
GFMS goes on to say that in 2016 “Reported stocks were 36% of identifiable stocks“. Conversely, we can see that ‘Unreported’ silver stocks (Custodian Vaults and Government) were 64% of identifiable stocks.
GFMS says that for 2016 “71% of reported stocks were ETPs“, the rest being Exchange and Industry classifications. Exchanges refers to silver held in warehouses of COMEX (NY), TOCOM (Japan) and the SGE and SHFE (China). COMEX is currently reporting 209 million ouzs of silver in its approved warehouses in New York, of which 172 million ozs in Eligible and 37 million ozs is in the Registered category.
Interesting, but on a side note, GFMS also states in its 2017 silver report that as regards COMEX silver inventories:
“Eligible stocks reported by COMEX contain a portion that is allocated to ETPs”.
“At the end of 2016, the portion of COMEX Eligible stocks that was allocated to ETPs was around 16% of total COMEX eligible stocks.”
This will probably be an eye opener for those interested in COMEX silver warehouse stocks.
Addressing ‘Custodian Vault‘ stocks of silver, GFMS says that Europe’s share of Custodian Vault stocks was 488.7 million ozs (15,201 tonnes) in 2016 and accounted for 31% of total Custodian Vault stocks. Asian ‘Custodian Vault’ stocks of silver were just over 50% of the total with the remainder in North America (Canada and US).
Silver holdings in Custodian Vaults by Region, 2007 -2016. Source – GFMS World Silver Survey 2017
But what do these ‘Custodian Vault’ stocks of silver refer to?
GFMS does not provide a detailed answer, but merely mentions a number of examples, which themselves vary by region. For Asia GFMS says “the bulk of these stocks are located in China, and reflects stocks held in vaults at banks“, and also ” other parts of Asia, such as Singapore, have been increasing in popularity for storage of bars and coins in recent years“, while in India “global bullion banks increasingly seeking this location as a strategic point for silver vaulting in case the need arises.” There are also silver “stocks in Japan”. From a BullionStar perspective, we certainly are aware that there is a lot of silver bullion in vault storage in Singapore, so the GFMS statement is accurate here.
In North America, GFMS attributes the “growth in silver custodian vaulted stocks not allocated to ETPs” to a “drop in coin sales in North America last year“. In the 2016 edition of the World Silver Survey, GFMS said that the growth in custodian vault holdings was partially due to “the reallocation by some North American investors from their ETP holdings” [into custodian holdings].
Turning to Europe, GFMS says that the growth in Custodian vault silver holdings “can be attributed to increased institutional investor interest“. Therefore, according to GFMS, institutional investors in Europe are buying silver and holding real physical silver in Custodian vaults.
With 488.7 million ozs (15,201 tonnes) of silver held in Europe in ‘Custodian vaults’ that is not reported anywhere, at least some of this silver must be held in London, which is one of the world’s largest financial centers and the world’s highest trading volume silver market.
“Custodian vault stock data excludes ETP Holdings, but it is important to note that most custodians of ETP silver stocks also store silver in vaults that are not allocated to ETPs. the same is true of futures exchange warehouses.”
So how much of this 15,201 tonnes of ‘Custodian Vaults’ silver that is said to be in Europe is actually in London vaults? Apart from London, there would presumably also be significant physical silver holdings vaulted in Switzerland and to a lessor extent in countries such as Germany, the Netherlands and maybe Austria etc. So whats’s a suitable percentage for London? Given London’s extensive vaulting network and prominence as a hedge fund and institutional investment centre, a 40-50% share of the European ‘custodian vault’ silver holdings would not be unrealistic, with the other big percentage probably vaulted in Switzerland. This would therefore put previously ‘Unreported’ silver holdings in the London vaults at between 6080 tonnes and 7600 tonnes (or an additional 182,000 to 230,000 Good Delivery Silver bars).
Adding this range of 6080 – 7600 tonnes to the 12,040 tonne figure that the 11 ETFs above hold, gives a total figure of 18,120 – 19,640 tonnes of silver stored in the LBMA vaults in London (545,000 – 585,000 Good Delivery silver bars).
Note, BullionVault and GoldMoney silver is technically part of the ‘Custodian Vault’ figure, so can’t be counted twice.
ps: In its 2017 World Silver Survey, GFMS also stated that in 2016, ETPs (ETFs) held 664.8 million ounces of silver “with 75% of the total custodian vaulted stocks [that were] allocated to ETPs held in Europe and 24% in North America. Asia makes up the balance of less than 1%.“. This would mean that as of the date of the GFMS calculation for 2016, 498.6 million ounces of ETF silver was vaulted in Europe.
Above, I have accounted for 387.1 million ounces of silver that is currently stored in London on behalf of 11 ETFs. There are also 3 Swiss Silver ETFs which store their silver in Switzerland. These are ZKB (currently with 74.9 million ozs), Julius Baer (currently with 13.7 million ozs) and UBS (currently with 5.89 million ozs), giving a total of 94.49 million ozs of silver for these 3 Swiss based platforms. Therefore, between London vaults and vaults in Switzerland, there are currently 14 ETFs that together hold 481.6 million ounces of vaulted silver (14,980 tonnes of vaulted silver).
When the LBMA finally manages to publish its first report on the silver and gold stored in the LBMA vaults in London in the coming days, we will have a clearer picture of how much physical silver is actually in these mysterious and opaque vaults.
A lower bound based on ETF holdings and BullionVault and GoldMoney holdings would be about 12600 tonnes of silver. A higher bound that also reflects ‘Custodian Vault’ holdings could be in the region of 18120 – 19640 tonnes of silver. There would probably also be some LBMA bullion bank float, which may or may not be included in ‘Custodian Vault’ figures, that could push the silver total to over 20,000 tonnes or more.
The LBMA perennially claims that it wants to bring transparency to the London precious metals market. This has been a very hollow mantra for a long time now. However, while some of the LBMA members may want this transparency, others, possibly some of the powerful bullion banks or their clients, certainly don’t want transparency. Take a case in point. At the Asia Pacific Precious Metals Conference (APPMC) in Singapore in early June, the LBMA CEO in a speech to the conference talked about the difficulty of even getting a press release out about the upcoming publication of gold and silver vault holdings data. She said (fast forward to 8:37 in the below video):
“It was actually a huge achievement just to get the press release out.”
For what is supposed to be a mature and efficient financial marketplace, this is a truly bizarre occurrence, and it must be pretty obvious that some of the vested interests in the London gold and silver markets needed to be dragged kicking and screaming over the finish line as regards being in any way open about how much gold and silver is actually in these LBMA London vaults.
But now, according to the LBMA CEO in the same part of her speech, even so-called “credible investors” (as opposed to uncredible investors?) also “find it a little odd that as a marketplace, there’s no data“, which may explain the vampires within the LBMA being dragged into the daylight.
Hopefully with the above analysis and the upcoming aggregated LBMA silver vaulting numbers, these “credible investors” (and the hundreds of millions of other silver investors around the world) will now be less in the dark about the amount of silver in the London LBMA vaulting network, and will now have better information with which to make investment decisions when buying silver and selling silver.
Infographic website Visual Capitalist recently published an eye-catching infographic on behalf of Sprott Physical Bullion Trusts which featured 4 well-known billionaire investors and their supposed investments in gold. The infographic is titled “Why the World’s Billionaire Investors Buy Precious Metals” and can be seen here.
The 4 investors profiled in the infographic are:
Jacob Rothschild (Lord), chairman of London-based investment trust RIT Capital Partners Plc
David Einhorn, president of Manhattan-based hedge fund firm Greenlight Capital
Ray Dalio, chairman and CIO of hedge fund firm Bridgewater Associates, Westport (Connecticut)
Stanley Druckenmiller, chairman and CEO of Manthattan-based Duquesne Family Office (and formerly of Duquesne Capital Management)
Overall, four very famous investors, and four names that should at least be vaguely familiar to almost anyone who has a passing interest in financial markets and investing.
For each of the 4 billionaires, the Sprott infographic provides a few quotes about their views on gold and then moves on to record their recent ‘Moves’ into ‘gold’, or in some cases their recent readjustments of existing ‘gold’ exposures.
However, the trouble with this infographic is that although it’s visually appealing, nowhere does it mention how these famous investors achieve their exposures to ‘gold’, i.e. what form their gold investments take.
This is something which is also regularly bypassed in financial media articles, especially those published by Bloomberg, articles which refer to hedge fund managers such as Druckenmiller, or John Paulson, or Ray Dalio buying ‘gold’, but which all too often are too lazy to do basic research into the actual trades that these hedge fund managers execute to acquire their positions in ‘gold’ and whether these positions are actually in real physical gold or in some form of synthetic or derivative or paper gold.
In fact, the first comment posted on the Visual Capitalist website under said Sprott infographic when it was published asks exactly this question:
“I’d like to know if they are holding physical bullion, presumably in guarded safe vaults, or just paper.”
Given that the infographic is ‘Presented by’ Sprott Physical Bullion Trusts, one might assume that Rothschild, Einhorn, Dalio and Drukenmiller are all investing in physical bullion.
But are they? This is the question I set out to answer and which is documented below. Some of my findings may surprise you.
The Rothschilds: Jacob & RIT Capital Partners
First port of call, the Rothschilds of St James’s Place in London. Given that the Rothschilds are probably the richest family in the world and have been involved in the gold market for hundreds of years, you might assume that the family of the Five Arrows knows a thing or two about the difference between real gold bars and paper gold. And presumably they do. However, no one seems to have told this to the day-to-day managers of RIT Capital Partners Plc, the Rothschild controlled investment vehicle quoted in Sprott’s infographic.
Investment trusts are actually public limited companies (Plcs) which are structured as closed-ended investment vehicles. These vehicles issue a certain number of shares that can then be publicly traded. RIT Capital Partners plc, formally called the Rothschild Investment Trust (hence the name RIT), trades on the London Stock Exchange. Jacob Rothschild (The Lord Rothschild) is chairman of RIT Capital Partners Plc.
As a publicly traded vehicle, RIT Capital Partners Plc publishes annual and half-yearly reports, and is therefore more transparent than its hedge fund brethren. RIT’s latest report, an annual report for year-end 2016, was published on 28 February 2017.
Strangely, although the Sprott infographic was only published on 7 June 2017, it quotes not from the annual report for year-end 2016 but from RIT’s half-yearly report to 30 June 2016, which was published on 15 August 2016.
The Sprott infographic states:
“In a 2016 shareholder update [Jacob] Rothschild outlined bold changes to the RIT Capital Partners’ portfolio, including…increased exposure to gold and precious metals to 8%”
Similarly, in the RIT Chairman’s Statement (page 2) of the 30 June 2016 report, Jacob Rothschild said “We increased gold and precious metals to 8% by the end of June.”
Glancing at either the Chairman’s statement or the Sprott infographic, you might think ‘ok, so RIT holds (or held) 8% of its portfolio in gold and precious metals’. However, this is not the case, a fact which becomes clear when we look at the Investment Portfolio (holdings) of RIT that are detailed in the same report.
RIT is a global investment fund whose holdings span equities, hedge fund investments, private investments, real assets, credit, and bonds. It’s ‘gold’ and ‘precious metals’ holdings are listed under ‘Real Assets’. The entire RIT portfolio is worth £2.73 billion.
The Real Assets section of the RIT report to 30 June 2016 (on page 6 of the report, page 8 of the pdf) lists relevant gold-related line items as:
“BlackRock Gold & General Fund”, described as “Gold and precious metal equities”, valued at £22.9 million, and representing 0.9% of the NAV, with a fund weight of 0.83%
“Gold Futures” with a description “Long, 6.0% notional“, valued at £7.6 million, represents 0.3% of the NAV
“Silver Futures with a description “Long, 1.2% notional” valued at £7.6 million, representing 0.0% (rounded) of the NAV
These are the only gold-related investments in the entire RIT portfolio. Therefore, could this 8% that Jacob Rothschild refers to as “we increased gold and precious metals to 8% by the end of June” be a combination of a 6% notional long on gold futures, a 1.2% notional on long silver futures, and a 0.8% fund weight in gold mining equities through the BlackRock Gold & General Fund holding?
In short, the answer is Yes.
Firstly, looking at the BlackRock Gold & General Fund, this is a UCITS equity fund which exclusively invests in the shares of gold and silver mining companies such as Newcrest, Newmont, and GoldCorp and which is benchmarked against the FTSE Gold Mining Index (an equity index). However, the BlackRock website reminds us that “The Fund does not hold physical gold or metal.” Like all equity investments, this fund exposes its holders to equity risk, currency risk, sectoral risks (in this case the mining sector), possible gold hedging risks, and the general corporate risks that come with stock specific investing in any publicly quoted company, some of which cannot be diversified through portfolio investing.
Next up are the precious metals futures line items. In investment portfolios, notional is literally the gross exposure of a position. In this case, the RIT portfolio being long 6.0% notional in gold futures just means that the portfolio’s notional exposure to gold (via the gold futures position) represented (on 30 June 2016) an amount which was 6.0% of the total (gross) exposure of the portfolio. This is also a leveraged position since it was acquired via the purchase of exchange traded futures and the maintenance of these futures via margin. The amount reflected in the NAV for this position just refers to the margin.
I also checked with RIT investors relations as to whether Jacob Rothschild, when he stated that RIT holds gold, was actually referring to these gold futures positions. RIT investor relations responded:
“Yes, we do refer to long gold futures exposure as “holding gold”. We take this view since we are confident that gold futures are acting as a suitable proxy for gold both from a regulatory perspective and in terms of where we are in the cycle.
However, it should be clear to all that holding gold futures is not the same thing as holding vaulted physical gold. Gold futures may provide exposure to the US Dollar price of gold, but that’s about it, and even if they can be theoretically exercised into physical gold on the COMEX or ICE platforms, no one uses them for this purpose. For example, only 0.04% of COMEX gold futures contracts result in physical delivery each year.
Gold futures also entail exchange risk, risk of not being able to exercise for delivery, margin risk, forced cash settlement risk, etc etc. Gold futures are also derivatives that can come into existence in massive quantities as long as there are counterparties to take the other side of the futures trades.
Allocated physical gold on the other hand is an asset which exists in limited quantities, has no counterparty risk, has intrinsic value and has been used as money and as a store of value for thousands of years.
The “regulatory perspective” that RIT refers to just seems to mean that the fund’s exposure ticks various compliance boxes and is an acceptable security from a compliance and regulatory perspective.
The “where we are in the cycle” phrase probably refers to the interest rate cycle in terms of interest rate movements, inflation, real interest rates etc, but surely this is irrelevant because if you really believe that gold futures prices are a perfect proxy for gold prices, then the existence of a “cycle” and the phases of such a cycle become irrelevant to the investment decision?
In summary, it should be clear that RIT Capital Partners Plc does not hold any gold or other precious metals, because it merely holds gold futures and units in a BlackRock fund which itself only holds gold and silver equities (common shares) and which does not hold physical gold.
Just for completeness, let’s turn to the latest annual report from RIT for year-end 2016 that Sprott did not refer to. Has anything changed compared to 30 June 2016? At year-end 2016, according to Jacob Rothschild:
“We continue to hold gold and gold mining shares amounting to 6% of the portfolio.“
Therefore, by the end of 2016, by RIT’s logic, it now had a 6% exposure to gold (and the exposure to silver futures had disappeared). However, as per the 6 month earlier period, this was really a) exposure to the US dollar price of gold via gold futures and b) an exposure to the common equity of publicly-traded gold mining companies through the BlackRock fund investment.
In the Real Assets section of the RIT annual report (page 13 of the report, page 15 of the pdf), it lists:
“BlackRock Gold & General Fund”, with a description “Gold and precious metal equities” valued at £20.3 million, representing 0.9% of the NAV, and with a fund weight of 0.7%
“Gold Futures” with a Description “Long, 5.7% notional” representing (0.2%) of the NAV
Again, the 6% Rothschild reference includes the 5.7% long notional on gold via the gold futures, the BlackRock fund with a weight of 0.7%, and possibly the (0.2%) NAV (margin), which altogether net to approximately 6% when rounded down. Since 8% sounds better than 6%, Sprott may have chosen to reference the 30 June 2016 RIT report and not the more recent 30 December 2016 RIT report as this would make Rothschild appear more bullish on gold.
David Einhorn and Greenlight Capital
Hedge funds by their nature are very secretive, and because they are private pools of capital, they have no obligation to report detailed holdings even to their clients, let alone to the general public. Some of the justifications for hedge fund secrecy include preventing other trading parties adversely trading against them and preventing competitors replicating their positions. Note, hedge funds still have to report equity holdings to the US SEC and they do this via their quarterly 13F form submissions, which can be viewed on the SEC EDGAR website about 6 weeks after quarter end.
Sometimes hedge fund stars will drop hints about some of their positions or engage with the financial media, but this is mainly to talk their positions and trading books up. Often however, the “partner letters” (similar to shareholder letters) that hedge fund partnerships send to their clients / investors will give some indication as to their positions and asset allocations, and for whatever reason, some of these letters seem to make it into the public domain pretty quickly. Note that most hedge funds are established as Limited Liability Companies (LLCs), a structure which supports the partnership model.
Following Jacob Rothschild, next up on the Sprott infographic is hedge fund manager David Einhorn and his Greenlight Capital hedge fund firm. Greenlight, as a hedge fund firm, runs a series of funds that invest in equity, debt etc but also include global macro and that are known as the “Greenlight Capital funds” a.k.a. “The Partnerships”. There are at least 6 funds in this group, maybe more.
The Sprott infographic refers to a recent gold-related ‘Move’ that Einhorn that made as follows:
“In early 2017, Einhorn mentioned on an earnings call that he was:…Keeping gold as a top position”
“Gold remains a long-term position with a thesis that global fiscal and monetary policies remain very risky”
So we can assume that Einhorn maintains a gold exposure of some sort. Since there was no information in the above partner letter as to what exactly Greenlight refers to as a gold position, and nothing that I could find on the web, I did what any junior Bloomberg reporter should but doesn’t do, and shot off an email to Greenlight asking how Greenlight Capital attains its long gold exposure? Surprisingly, or maybe not, within about 20 minutes Greenlight answered with a short and sweet one-liner:
“We hold physical allocated gold in all our funds.”
This response came from the top of the Greenlight tree, close to Einhorn. Hint David Einhorn only follows three accounts on Twitter, one of which is Donald Trump another of which is the Einhorn Trust. So now we know that at least one major hedge fund firm holds physical allocated gold.
On a side note, Greenlight also offers two funds called Greenlight Capital (Gold), LP and Greenlight Capital Offshore (Gold), Ltd. These two funds actually offers investors a gold class which denominates investments in that class in gold rather than USD. This is similar to a USD denominated fund offering shareholders a EUR or CHF class, the only difference being that this class is in gold.
Ray Dalio and Bridgewater
Bridgewater Associates, based in Westport in Connecticut, runs some of the largest and most well-known individual hedge funds such as the global macro Pure Alpha as well as other well-known funds called ‘The All Weather’ and ‘Pure Alpha Major Markets’. Ray Dalio is founder, chairman and chief investment officer (CIO) of Bridgewater.
In the Sprott infographic, the gold ‘Move’ which they chose to highlight Dalio for was that:
“In 2016, Dalio said it is prudent to have a ‘well-diversified portfolio’ that is 5-10% gold”
However, unlike the other investors profiled, i.e. Rothschild, Einhorn, and Druckenmiller, who had investment decisions attributed to them that involved taking or extending long positions, there is nothing, at least in the infographic, that refers to Dalio taking on or amending a gold position.
“And so gold is one of the currencies. So we have dollars, we have euros, we have yen and we have gold.”
“Now, it [gold] doesn’t have a capacity — the capacity of moving money into gold in a large number is extremely limited.”
“I think … there’s no sensible reason not to have some — if you’re going to own a currency, … it’s not sensible not to own gold”
“I don’t want to draw an inordinate amount of attention to gold”
“a certain limited amount, at least passably, should be in gold, just like you would hold a certain amount in cash”
“Now, it depends on the amount of gold, but if you don’t own, I don’t know, 10 percent in — if you don’t have that and then it depends on the world, then you — then there’s no sensible reason other than you don’t know history and you don’t know the economics of it.”
Dalio frequently, in various forums, demonstrates his understanding of the historical importance of gold in the monetary system. Based on the language that Dalio uses about capacity of the gold market and his appreciation of the history of gold, my hunch is that Bridgewater does hold physical gold in a similar manner to how Greenlight Capital holds gold.
Although it is quite tricky to contact Bridgewater, I did manage to find Dalio’s email (somehow or other) and like an aspiring Bloomberg reporter (or not), I shot off an email to Dalio asking:
“DoesBridgewater hold physical gold in its funds (e.g. Pure Alpha, All Weather, and Pure Alpha Major Markets) or some other type of long gold exposure?”
The same day, I received back an automated response:
Message from "Ray Dalio"
I recognize from your email address that this is the first message I have received from you since Bridgewater Associates began using Sender Address Verification (SAV).
Your message is very important to me. Like you, we are very concerned with stopping the proliferation of spam. We have implemented Sender Address Verification (SAV) to ensure that we do not receive unwanted email and to give you the assurance that your messages to me have no chance of being filtered into a bulk mail folder.
By pressing REPLY and SEND to this message your original message will be delivered to the top of my inbox. You need only do this once and all future emails will be recognized and delivered directly to me.
However, after replying as per the instructions above using the verification address, there was no further response from Bridgewater. Maybe he is on vacation!
So the jury is still out on how Bridgewater acquires its exposure to gold, assuming that its funds actually have exposure to gold. But my guess is that at least some of Bridgewater’s funds do hold gold, and probably hold real physical allocated gold.
Stanley Druckenmiller and Duquesne
Finally, the Sprott infographic features Stanley Druckenmiller, founder and former chairman and president of Pittsburgh-based Duquesne Capital Management, and also former portfolio manager of Soros’ Quantum Fund. In 2010, ‘Stan’ Druckenmiller wound down Duquesne Capital since he claimed it was becoming harder to deliver consistently high returns, but he continued to manage his own wealth through Duquesne Family Office LLC, which is based out of Manhattan.
According to the infographic, in early 2017 Druckenmiller said:
“Gold was down a lot, so I bought it.”
Stan Druckenmiller, Duquesne
This quote was reported in a 8 February 2017 Bloomberg article which itself was based on a CNBC interview from 7 February:
“I wanted to own some currency and no country wants its currency to strengthen,” Druckenmiller said Tuesday in an interview. “Gold was down a lot, so I bought it.”
As per usual, Bloomberg doesn’t bother to find out or mention what form of gold exposure Druckenmiller was referring to in that interview.
Strangely, Bloomberg says that Druckenmiller bought gold in late December and January having previously sold his ‘gold’ on election night in November when Trump was elected. I say strangely because Druckenmiller is known for getting his US dollar ‘gold exposure’ via the gold-backed ETF the SPDR Gold Trust (GLD) however, the Duquesne Family Office 13F filings with the SEC don’t show GLD activity in Q4 2016 or Q1 2016.
Looking at recent Duquesne Family Office 13F filings which show reportable equity holdings (including GLD since GLD is a listed security and is basically like a share), the last time Duquesne Family Office had a long exposure to the SPDR Gold Trust was in Q1 2016 when it held 2,016,000 call options on the SPDR Gold Trust (Cusip 78463V907) which at the time had a notional exposure of $237.16 million. Druckenmiller had purchased 2,880,000 call options on GLD during Q2 2015 but reduced this to 2,016,000 calls during Q1 2016. Duquesne has not held any SPDR Gold Trust shares or options since Q1 2016.
However, looking at the Duquesne 13F filings for Q3 2016, Q4 2016 and Q1 2017, there are some interesting changes in reported holdings of some gold mining equities over this period.
The timing of Druckenmiller saying that he sold his ‘gold’ on election night in November 2016 and the bought gold in late December 2016 and January 2017 fits very well with the Duquesne trades of selling Barrick Gold and Agnico Eagle so that they appeared in the Q3 13F, but not in the Q4 13F and then reappeared in the Q1 2017 13F. If this is the case, then Druckenmiller’s Duquesne does not hold gold but holds gold mining equities, and Druckenmiller’s recent references to buying gold are really references to holding common shares in publicly-traded gold mining companies.
Duquesne, however, could hold other ‘gold exposures’ such as gold futures or even real physical allocated gold. But due to the non-obligation of these investment pools to report holdings, this is unclear.
I also sent an email to Stan Druckenmiller at his Duquesne address, asking him:
“Does Duquesne Family Office hold physical gold as part of its exposure to gold within its investments, or is the exposure some other type of long gold exposure such as the gold-backed ETF GLD?”
However, as of the time of writing, Druckenmiller has not responded.
Druckenmiller’s gold exposure via GLD calls between Q2 2015 and Q1 2016 also deserves some commentary. Readers of this website will know that holding a gold-backed ETF such as GLD is not the same as owning real physical gold. Although the Trust behind GLD holds gold bars, GLD units just provide exposure to the US dollar price of gold and there is no conversion option into real gold. With GLD, the holder is a shareholder and not a gold holder. There are many other concerns with GLD, all of which are documented on a BullionStar infographic.
However, Duquesne’s ‘exposure’ is even one more step removed from gold since it was in the more of a derivative (call option) on an underlying (GLD) which itself does not provide ownership of any gold to the holder. So in some ways this could be called a second order derivative.
Paulson & Co
Although Sprott’s infographic doesn’t feature John Paulson of hedge fund firm Paulson & Co, maybe it should have. However, on second thoughts maybe not, because Paulson & Co is currently the 6th largest institutional holder of SPDR Gold Trust (GLD) shares, which as explained above, is not the same as owning real physical gold. According to its latest 13F filing, Paulson & Co holds 4,359,722 GLD shares worth a sizeable $500 million.
Paulson also launched a specific gold fund in 2010 which is now called the PFR Gold Fund, named after Paulson, and the two managers who used to run the fund, namely, Victor Flores and John Reade, hence the PFR. Reade has now left Paulson & Co, and moved to the World Gold Council (WGC), which derives the majority of its revenue from…wait for it….the SPDR Gold Trust, since WGC’s 100% owned subsidiary World Gold Trust Services is the sponsor of the GLD.
RIT Capital Partners Plc claims to hold gold but really holds a) gold futures which provide notional long gold exposure and b) a BlackRock fund which invests in gold mining shares.
Greenlight Capital holds allocated gold in all of its hedge funds (and they are good about replying to emails).
Bridgewater Associates probably holds gold exposure across at least some of its funds. Given Ray Dalio’s grasp of the importance of real physical gold, I would be surprised if Dalio’s funds do not hold real physical gold. But Dalio is a hard man to track down, so the jury is still out on this one.
Stan Druckenmiller’s Duquesne Family Office had a large exposure to the SPDR Gold Trust via call options in 2015 and early 2016 but then closed this exposure. Duquesne also invests in gold mining equities Barrick Gold and Agnico Eagle Mines, and this could be what Druckenmiller is referring to when he said he sold and then bought back gold.
Paulson is a big fan of the SPDR Gold Trust, a vehicle which is in no way the same as owning physical gold, because it merely provides exposure to the US dollar price of gold.
This is Part 2 of a two-part series. The series focuses on collusive discussions and meetings that took place between the world’s most powerful central bankers in late 1979 and 1980 in an attempt to launch a central bank Gold Pool cartel to manipulate and control the free market price of gold. The meetings centered around the Bank for International Settlements (BIS) in Basle, Switzerland.
Part 2 takes up where Part 1 left off, and begins by looking at developments in the BIS Gold Pool discussions during January 1980, a month in which the US dollar gold price rocketed more than 60% during a three-week period to reach a then record of $850 per ounce. Part 2 then looks at how the discussions involving these central banks evolved over the remainder of 1980 and 1981 as key high level central bankers continued to call for intervention into the gold market.
Part 2 also looks at evidence that central bankers party to the discussions began advocating gold for oil exchanges between the West and the Saudis, exchanges which would provide real wealth (gold) to the Arabs in exchange for oil flowing to the West, while simultaneously keeping a lid on the gold price.
A series of meetings of the world’s most powerful central bank governors were held in late 1979 at the Bank for International Settlements (BIS) office of BIS Chairman and President Jelle Zijlstra in Basle, Switzerland. The objective of the meetings was discussion of a central bank consortium that would operate a collusive Gold Pool to manipulate the price of gold. Note that this was more than 11 years after the London Gold Pool had collapsed in March 1968.
At the IMF annual conference in Belgrade in early October 1979, the US monetary authority delegation in the form of Paul Volcker, William Miller, Tony Solomon, and Henry Wallich approached Fritz Leutwiler, Chairman of the Swiss National Bank, and discussed a proposal to launch a joint central bank gold selling operation.
During the discussions at the BIS and between the central bankers at various locations, Zijlstra, who was BIS President until the end of 1981, and Leutwiler, who became BIS President in January 1982, were both strongly in favour of launching a new joint central bank gold pool to manipulate the gold price.
The oil-producing cartel OPEC was at that time, “increasingly concerned that gold was outpacing oil”, but Al Quraishi, Governor of the Saudi Arabian Monetary Authority (SAMA) had made an assurance that the Saudi’s “would not rock the boat” and buy gold on the market if a new gold pool was activated. However, Al Quraishi and SAMA were still eager to “diversify” the reinvestment of the Saudi oil revenues into gold.
The Bank of England recorded market intelligence in October 1979 that the “USA was planning to sell 10 million ounces of gold in four separate unannounced operations” before the end of 1979 so as to “placate the Saudi Arabians.“
The Bank of England’s foreign exchange and gold specialist at that time, John Sangster, thought that there was“a need to break the psychologyof ‘the market can only go one way and that is up’.”
Sangster’s view was also that there was “no question of anypermanent stabilisation of the gold price, merelyat a critical time holding it within a target area”, an operation he called a “smoothing operation”.
A meeting to discuss a new collusive gold pool took place in the BIS office of Zijlstra on Monday 12 November 1979, whose invitees (in addition to Jelle Zijlstra) were Gordon Richardson, Governor of the Bank of England, Cecil de Strycker, Governor of the National Bank of Belgium, Fritz Leutwiler, Chairman of the Swiss National Bank, Bernard Clappier, Governor of the Banque de France, and Otmar Emminger, President of the Bundesbank.
A follow-on meeting about the collusive new gold pool took place in the BIS office of Zijlstra on Monday 10 December 1979, attended by Zjilstra, Kit McMahon of the Bank of England, Otmar Emminger, outgoing President of the Bundesbank, Karl Otto Pohl, incoming Bundesbank President, de la Geniere, the incoming Governor of the Banque de France, de Strycker, Governor of the Belgian central bank, Leutwiler, Chairman of the Swiss National Bank, and Rene Larre, BIS General Manager.
The December meeting, which was facilitated by BIS general manager Rene Larre, also revealed that “European central banks would intend to buy back in due course any gold they sold”, that the Gold Pool could be funded by buying gold first so as to create an inventory of physical gold to use for selling operations, and that in McMahon’s words “if the scheme were to be simply a BIS one, publicity would not necessarily, orperhaps desirably, arise”
Based on the detailed briefing of the content of that meeting at the BIS on 10 December, which was written by the Bank of England’s Kit McMahon for the benefit of the Bank of England Governor Gordon Richardson, the proposed new gold pool, among other things, would sell gold “only when gold was relatively strong and the dollar relatively weak and [buy] only in the reverse circumstances.”
In the 10 December 1979 meeting at the BIS, the Bundesbank was against the Gold Pool plan due to what Bundesbank President Otmar Emminger attributed to opposition from the BundesbankCentral Bank Council. However, the Bundesbank was thought, by the Bank of England’s Sangster, to be against the Gold Pool primarily as a tactical way to force the US Fed to address the underlying problems of a weak US dollar and high inflation.
The Banque de France, which had been in favour of the Gold Pool scheme prior to October 1979, also came out in the 10 December meeting as being against the scheme due to what Banque de France governor De la Geniere described as “great political dangers…of selling any French gold” indirectly through a Gold Pool. However, Sangster also thought the Banque de France was more likely to be tactically backing the Germans so as to put pressure on the Fed to first address inflationary problems.
As per Part 1, a number of internal documents from the Bank of England are cited below. These documents provide a unique road map on the evolution of the collusive discussions at the BIS and the thinking of the Bank of England executives involved in and supporting the discussions. Documents are rendered in blue text and italics, with bold, underlining, and a few cases of red text added where appropriate.
January 1980 BIS Gold Pool Meeting
Following the Gold Pool meeting at Zjilstra’s office in the BIS headquarters on 10 December 1979, the central bank governors next met at the BIS in Basle on 7 January 1980 during their monthly scheduled ‘Basle Weekend’. The afternoon London Gold Fix was set at $431 on 10 December 1979, but by 4 January 1980 it was already 36% higher at $588.
In preparation for the January meeting about the proposed Gold Pool, which took place on Monday 7 January 1980, John Sangster, the Bank of England’s foreign exchange and gold specialist, wrote the following briefing document titled “SECRET” to the attention of the Governor’s Private Secretary (G.P.S.) as well as to the attention of Bank of England Executive Director Kit McMahon. The Governor of the Bank of England at that time was Gordon Richardson.
To recap from Part 1, Christopher McMahon, known as ‘Kit’ McMahon, became Deputy Governor of the Bank of England on 1 March 1980, taking over that position from Jasper Hollom. Prior to becoming Deputy Governor, McMahon was an executive director at the Bank of England from 1970 to 1980. McMahon signed his internal Bank of England memos and correspondence with the initials ‘CWM’, short for Christopher William McMahon. McMahon left the Bank of England in 1986 to take up the role of Chief Executive and Deputy Chairman of Midland Bank. Midland Bank was taken over by HSBC in 1992. See profiles of McMahon here and here.
Gordon Richardson was Governor of the Bank of England for 10 years from 1973 to 1983. Before that, he was a non-executive director of the Bank of England between 1967 and 1973. Richard was chairman of J. Henry Schroder Wagg from 1962 to 1972, and chairman of Schroders from 1966 to 1973. After leaving the Bank of England, Richardson went on to be a director of Saudi International Bank in London. He also headed the influential Group of Thirty (G30) central bank lobbyist group, and was chairman of Morgan Stanley International.
John Sangster’s full name was John Laing Sangster, hence he signed his internal Bank of England memos and analysis with the initials ‘JLS’.
G10 plus Switzerland
Sangster’s secret memo to McMahon and Richardson was written on Friday 4 January 1980, a day on which the afternoon Gold Fix came in at $588 per ounce. The memo addressed developments in the gold price and discussed potential joint central bank intervention into the gold market. Hand written at the top are the words “The Governor has seen : copy in Basle Dossier JB 7/1“. JB is the Bank of England’s John Balfour who was also copied on the document, and who was a Bank of England alternate director at the BIS at that time.
The memo has 6 numbered paragraphs, paragraphs 5 and 6 of which are most interesting:
Copies to : Mr McMahon, Mr Balfour, Mr Byatt
5. Since the market has further extended itself, any central bank operation would now have greater chance of success. But it would have to be a co-operative effort preferable on a G.10 plus Switzerland basis. Obviously the contributors, with the possible exception of the USA, would go into the operation in the hope and intention of subsequently recapturing their gold. But I think the new “pool” must face the possibility that they might not recapture some or all of their gold – in which case they would have to envisage the operation as a general contribution to the struggle against inflation.
6. If a G.10 plus Switzerland operation were mounted on a pro rata basis, our share would be just under 3%. If the Italians (who sometimes talk as if the loss of one ounce of their gold would mean the end of the world) and the Swedes (very low gold holders) dropped out, our share would be about 3 1/4 %. If the Japanese declined on the excuse of a very low gold proportion, then I think we could do so too.
4th January 1980
The G10 that Sangster mentions refers to the Group of 10 highly industrialised nations which consisted of the USA, UK, France, West Germany, Netherlands, Belgium, Italy, Canada, Sweden, and Japan. The G10 as a grouping was formed in 1962 when these 10 countries participated in the IMF’s General Arrangements to Borrow (GAB) plan. Switzerland became associated with the GAB in 1964 but the name remained the G10. The G10 also participated in the Smithsonian Agreement in December 1971, with all other members agreeing to peg their currencies against the US dollar.
As readers will recall from Part 1, this list of 11 countries, as represented by their central banks, comprised the group of central banks that either advocated the gold market intervention meetings in late 1979 (the US), were present in the BIS Gold Pool meetings in November and December 1979 (Switzerland, West Germany, France, Netherlands, Belgium), or that were to be consulted after the December meeting. As per the December 1979 meeting:
“The meeting ended with Leutwiler saying he would approach the Canadians and Japanese to see how they felt about the idea while Zijlstra would talk to the Italians. All would then think further about it and revert in January.“
No mention of the Swedes, but, based on Sangster’s comment above, the Swedes were considered to be “very low gold holders“.
As per the 12 November 1979 Gold Pool meeting, there are no meeting minutes in the public domain for the 7 January 1980 Gold Pool meeting, with the BIS Archives office claiming it did not have such minutes. When asked about minutes from a 7 January 1980 meeting, the BIS Archives deflected the question and misdirected the answer, saying only that:
“The Gold Pool came to an end in 1968, so I take it that you are referring to meetings of the Gold and Foreign Exchange Committee. We do have some minutes for this meeting, but unfortunately not for the period which interests you.”
However, London Times correspondent Peter Norman, in Basle that day to cover the “Basle Weekend”, did write a report on the outcome of the BIS governors’ January meeting on gold. In his article titled “Bankers Rule Out Sale of Reserves to Hold Back Rush into Gold”, dated Monday 7 January 1980 (a day on which the gold price closed at $634), Norman wrote:
“Western central bank governors today ruled out any concerted sales of gold from reserves to quell the speculative rush of funds into the metal on the world’s bullion markets.
The idea, which has been suggested at various times in the past few months by Herr Fritz Leutwiler, the Swiss National Bank president, foundered when it became apparent that it would receive no support from the West German Federal Bank and the Bank of France.As these central banks have the second and third largest gold reserves in the Western world, their agreement was crucial to the launching of a concerted sale.”
“It appears that the gyrations of the gold markets were discussed at some length yesterday at the regular monthly meetings of central bankers here.”
“Behind the decision not to introduce a concerted programme of gold sales lies a hope that the speculative fever of the past few days will burn itself out and that the price will fall sharply of its own accord to administer a salutary shock to speculators.
There is also the sober consideration that nobody knows how much gold would need to be dumped on the market to achieve the desired result.“
Norman only refers to ‘sales of gold’ and not a Gold ‘Pool’ since knowledge of the Gold Pool discussions was not in the public domain at that time. The reference in the London Times’ January 1980 report to the West German and French central bankers still being against the launch of a gold intervention operation gels with the view attributed to the Bundesbank and Banque de France during the December 1979 BIS meeting.
The G5 Gold Meeting – Washington
However, this did not stop further discussions on gold market intervention, since exactly one week later on Monday 14 January in Washington DC, the deputy finance ministers of the G5 convened a secret meeting to also discuss a plan for joint central bank gold sales. In the 1970s, the G5 (Group of 5) referred to the world’s then five largest economies i.e. US, UK, Japan, West Germany and France.
This meeting was covered by a New York Times report, titled “Concerted Gold Sales Discussed” and filed in Washington DC on Wednesday 16 January 1980, a day on which the PM Gold Price closed at $760:
“The possibility of concerted sales of gold by central banks from the leading industrial nations was discussed at a secret meeting in Washingtonlast Mondayby deputy finance ministers from the United States, West Germany, France, Britain and Japan.
The United States Treasury, confirming reports of the meeting that have just leaked out, said discussions were not confined to gold, and that discussions covers a ‘ wide range’ of international monetary issues.
European sources reported that there was as yet no consensus on the gold sales, with France and Germany opposed and the United States, Britain and Japan in favour, but with varying degrees of enthusiasm.”
As per the London Times report on 7 January, the New York Times report of 16 January referred to sales of gold but not to the secretive Gold Pool discussions. The New York Times also recorded the West Germans and French as being non-cooperative about joint gold market intervention.
On Thursday 17 January 1980, the London Times, in an article titled “Gold at $755 after biggest jump ever” also commented on the secret Washington DC meeting, which it said was “chaired by Anthony Solomon, Under-Secretary of the United States Treasury for Monetary Affairs“, and that “apparently there was general agreement at the meeting that political factors were totally dominating the gold markets and that there was little point in any central bank selling gold.”
Sangster’s G5 Gold Briefs
The day after this Times report, on Friday 18 January, when the gold price closed in London at $835 per ounce, John Sangster at the Bank of England sent a confidential memorandum to Kit McMahon and to the attention of the Governor Gordon Richardson, commenting on the “G5 gold briefs“, i.e. the G5 gold discussions in Washington DC between the US, UK, France, West Germany and Japan. Sangster’s memo was as follows:
Copies to Mr. Kirbyshire, Mr. Byatt, Governors’ Private Secretary
Just a few glosses on the G5 gold briefs.
1. Whereas the earlier rise in the gold price had definitely been a factor in the dollar’s weakness, since early in the New Year the dollar has detached itself from gold.
2. But gold has been a factor in the rise in the price of other commodities. part of that rise is obviously due to the increase in international tension, but the meteoric rise in gold has almost certainly exacerbated it.
3. Now that international tension is the main factor in the gold market, any central bank action would probably be ineffective.
4. If tension eased substantially, however, central bank action need not then be unnecessary. With greater chance of success, it could be helpful in further cooling the inflationary environment.
5. I am suspicious of the thesis that any future gold pool must start with purchases. When the price starts to rise there will be too strong an inducement, and probably many would present arguments not to sell.
6. All of which seems to suggest that the only gold policy central banks could be said to have is – afraid to sell but hoping to buy in the next bear phase. Realistic perhaps, but not very satisfying.
18th January 1980 (Dictated by JLS and circulated in his absence)
The ‘international tension’ referred to in Sangster’s note above most likely refers to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979 and the Iranian hostage crisis that began in November 1979.
While John Sangster’s ‘glosses on the G5 gold briefs‘ memo from 18 January 1980 may have given the impression that gold market intervention was off the cards for the time being, no one told this to Fritz Leutwiler, chairman of the Swiss National Bank, because less than 2 weeks later, Leutwiler was again stirring for“central bank intervention in the gold market”.
According to Peter Norman in an article for the Times titled “Swiss call for banks to dampen gold price”, dated 31 January 1980 , a day on which the US dollar gold price closed at $653:
“Dr Fritz Leutwiler, president of the Swiss National Bank, has once again advocated central bank intervention in the gold market to curb wild price movements.
In today’s issue of Handelsblatt, the West German business daily, Dr Leutwiler was quoted as saying that central banks should exercise control over the gold price to dampen down inflationary expectations and prevent speculation on the gold market from spreading on to foreign exchange markets.”
“What has provoked Dr Leutwiler to raise the issue of central bank intervention in gold at this time remains a mystery. Neither he nor his spokesman were available for comment in Zurich today.“
“He has suggested central bank intervention in the gold market before, at the meeting of the International Monetary Fund in Belgrade last autumn and again to foreign journalists in Geneva last December. However, at the meeting of central bank governors in Basle last month [December 1979], the issue was quickly disposed of once it became apparent that neither the French nor West German central banks would support the idea.”
Note that after working for the London Times, Peter Norman subsequently moved to the Financial Times in 1988 and was the FT’s economic editor from 1992 to 1995, as well as later becoming the FT’s chief EU correspondent. Norman’s profile can be read here.
After gold in US dollars hit a peak of $850 in January 1980, the price came off but still ended January 1980 at over $700 per ounce. By the end of February 1980, the US dollar gold price was trading in the $640 range, and by March and April 1980 it was trading in the $500 range, as the Paul Volcker led US Fed’s interest rate hikes began to take effect. But by the end of June 1980, the gold price was again above $600 per ounce, and in late September 1980 gold was trading above $700 per ounce.
Exchange of Gold for Oil while the World Adjusts
In September 1980, the Bank of England Governors (the Governor and Deputy Governor) and senior executives again went on record addressing the gold price and possible coordinated central bank interventions into the gold market. The following detailed commentary document was written by the Bank of England’s John Sangster (JLS) on Wednesday 17th September 1980, a day on which the US dollar gold price closed at $673.
Although JLS addressed the September 1980 memorandum to “The Deputy Governor” and to “Anthony Loehnis”, it was also sent to the Governor, Gordon Richardson, because Richardson, along with McMahon and Loehnis, all replied to the memorandum by writing signed notes in pen on the actual circulated document, as was the convention at the time.
In the document, “Mr Loehnis” refers to Anthony Loehnis. At that time in 1980, Loehnis was an Associate Director of the Bank of England. In 1981, he became an executive director of the Bank responsible for overseas affairs. Loehnis had previous worked for the Bank of England Governor Richardson from 1977 to 1979, and Richardson had actually brought Loehnis into the Bank of England from J henry Schroder Wagg & Co, where Richardson had been chairman. Loehnis moved to SG Warburg in 1989. Loehnis’ full name was Anthony David Loehnis and hence he signed his internal Bank of England memos and correspondence with the initials ‘ADL’. See profile of Loehnis here.
17. 9. 80
MR LOEHNIS, THE DEPUTY GOVERNOR
Central Banks and Gold
1. Last year when there was some discussion of a possible revival of the central bank gold pool, sceptics outnumbered advocates. Subsequent events justified the sceptics, although international political events played more of a part than any can have foreseen. Nevertheless a general but unspecified wariness of political disasters may be a part of the general background to scepticism in this area. The sceptic may also now point to the gold price occasionally threatening $700 again even though international tension is significantly reduced.
2. Nevertheless the price of gold is telling us something, and I do not think that we can dismiss it as merely a symptom to be ignored while continuing to concentrate on fundamentals.
3. The world is in competition for a relatively few “inflation-proof” assets, of which gold is reckoned to be chief. Its supply has been sharply reduced over the past year and the bulk of its stock is largely and firmly held by the G10 (and Switzerland).
4. In these circumstances the competition for the reduced supply – much sharpened by OPEC appetite which was not markedly present in 1973/74 – is having a disproportionate effect on the price. I well realise that if this continues for long, gold may not be such a good hedge in the short-run thereafter.
5. But the damage to inflationary psychology will by then have been done; not only in the developed countries but with OPEC, where the escalating price of this, one of the few inflation-proof assetscould become an element in their price determination. Moreover, gold seems to exercise some influence on many “hard” commodities irrespective of fundamentals. The “symptoms” may therefore be having an independent effect on price levels.
6. It is not of course for us with our relatively low gold holding, compared with many of the G10 countries, to preach a new gold pool. We can question however whether it is helpful in the longer run for the G10 countries to continue to sit pat on all their gold (in just another manifestation of the perversity of the adjustment process) and complacently accept the effects of the rising price of gold.
7. If any operations were ever contemplated, it would have to be geared at some concept of the developing real price of gold and not attempt to hold any particular nominal level.It would almost certainly not be a “pool” with any significant potential for recovery of gold sold. Rather it would enable OPEC to acquire some modicum of the chief inflation-proof asset without an excessive rise in the price.The aim would be to prevent gold making its own particular contribution to inflation while the developed world was attempting to bring inflation down and so reduce gold’s own peculiar attraction.
8. This is not to advocate gold for oil directly; the price haggling would be too acrimonious. Market intermediation should allow the G10 to move with the price while attempting to control its pace as well as break off the experiment when possible or necessary. A positive policy for gold could be a sign of confidence on the broader issue of inflation. But I fear the general opinion will be that the risk of comparative failure is too high to warrant such action on gold.
The actual memorandum from John Sangster (JLS) to McMahon and Loehnis (and Richardson) can be seen here: Page 1 and Page 2. The links may take a little while to load first time. Since this is an extremely important document, it can also be viewed below:
There are a number of intriguing aspects to Sangster’s Bank of England document, namely that:
Gold was reckoned to be the chief “inflation-proof” asset
The bulk of the available gold stock was firmly held by the G10 (and Switzerland)
Gold demand by OPEC countries was impacting the gold price due to limited supply
The escalating price of gold was feared by Sangster to have the potential to affect OPEC’s price determination of oil
Sangster’s posed the question whether “in the longer run” the G10 countries should “sit pat on all their gold”
Sangster’s vision was for central bank operations to target the movements of the real price of gold in a moving fashion
Sangster’s did not necessarily envision a central bank Gold Pool in the traditional sense but a Pool that would “enable OPEC to acquire some modicum” of Gold “without an excessive rise in the price”. Modicum is a word which means a small quantity of something.
Sangster also wanted to “prevent gold making its own particular contribution to inflation” (i.e. to sabotage what gold does best – signal inflation) and hilariously, in typical central banker fashion, he referred to the interest in real money (gold) as a “peculiar attraction” that should be targeted.
There are 3 hand-written notes on the document. The first note at the top of page 1 in blue pen was written by Anthony Loehnis. The second note which starts at the top left of page 1 and continues at the bottom of page 1 in black pen was written by the Deputy Governor Kit McMahon. The 3rd note at the bottom of page 2 in black pen was written by the Governor Gordon Richardson.
Note from Anthony Loehnis:
“An interesting but difficult proposal. The case for rising gold prices as a locomotor rather than a manifestation of inflation would need to be made very persuasively. And I have difficulty with “the developing real price of gold”. It may nonetheless be an idea worth touring around in Basle and elsewhere, although I share the doubt in JLS’s final statement. AOL 19.9”
Note from Kit Mc Mahon:
“I have always been one of the sceptics in this area, & I am afraid I remain one.If the US would declare official convertibility buying and selling to CMIs without limit – at say $700, I believeit would be an enormously beneficial development for the international monetary system and especially for the US. But I see not the faintest chance that this will ever happen. In the absence of such a move I think it would be weak and dangerous for a group of central banks to try ad hoc to influence the price. CWM 24/9.”
Note from Gordon Richardson:
“It is surely impossible for any country to fix a gold price in present circumstance. What I am looking towards is some exchange of gold for oil while the world adjusts – although not very hopefully! G”
Again, there were some intriguing comments in the these hand-written notes.
Loehnis recommended sharing around Sangster’s proposals in Basel (BIS) and elsewhere.
McMahon advocated that the US Government declare official convertibility between the US dollar and gold at $700 per ounce. This was based on a calculation of US overseas dollar liabilities tallied in a separate document. A similar calculation today would put the US dollar gold price in the many thousands.
Richardson was ‘looking towards an exchange of gold for oil’ between the gold holders (Western central banks) and the gold producers (OPEC, the most important member of which was the Saudis).
In the Bank of England Archives, there do not seem to be any relevant files relating to Gold Pool discussions or gold market intervention after the year 1980. Likewise, BIS Archives claim not to have any material whatsoever about the 1979-1980 BIS Gold Pool discussions, despite the fact that there are numerous files in the Bank of England archives proving that these discussions took place. We therefore need to look at relevant material from other sources covering the period after 1980.
Zjilstra’s Per Jacobsson lecture – September 1981
Just over 1 year after John Sangster had written his document dated 17 September 1980 to Kit McMahon, Anthony Loehnis, and Gordon Richardson, in which he envisioned a scheme that would “enable OPEC to acquire some modicum” of gold “without an excessive rise in the price”, the BIS President Jelle Zijlstra was again proposing joint action to control the gold price.
On Sunday, 27 September 1981 in Washington DC, Zjilstra gave the main speech at the IMF’s annual “Per Jacobsson Lecture”. Zijlstra was chosen to give this speech to mark the fact that he was scheduled to retire at the end of 1981 from his role as President and Chairman of the BIS and as President of the Dutch central bank, De Nederlandsche Bank (DNB). Note that Fritz Leutwiler of the Swiss National Bank (SNB) became BIS President and Chairman from January 1982 onwards, while Wim Duisenberg became President of the Dutch central bank in January 1982.
In his “Per Jacobsson Lecture” which was titled “Central Banking with the Benefit of Hindsight”, and which was given while the gold price had last traded that week at $450 per ounce, Zijlstra candidly told his Washington DC audience of fellow central bankers that:
“I feel that it is necessary for us, within the Group of Ten and Switzerland, to consider ways to regulate the price of gold, admittedly within fairly broad limits,so as to create conditions permitting gold sales and purchases between central banksas an instrument for a more rational management and deployment of their reserves.
On the occasion of the annual meeting of the IMF in 1979 this was brought up, but regrettably, insufficient agreement could be reached to make even a modest start with regulating the gold price in the free market.
It is my firm conviction that relatively small-scale interventions, though not forestalling the subsequent explosion of the gold price, would at least have reduced it to more manageable proportions.
Now that the turbulent emotions seem to have quietened down, we would be wise to reflect anew and without prejudice on these subjects.”
These quite extraordinary statements from Zjilstra while still BIS President illustrate that the desire of the BIS head to intervene in the gold market had not dwindled between early 1980 and the end of 1981. In fact, Zjilstra seemed to be indicating that the lower volatility in the gold price towards the end of 1981 provided a perfect opportunity to revisit the discussions with more chance of success in controlling the gold price.
Zjilstra “regretted” that “insufficient agreement could be reached” by the G10 and Switzerland on considering “ways to regulate the price of gold” in late 1979
Zjilstra was also convinced that “relatively small-scale interventions” would have reduced the gold price moves in January 1980 “to more manageable proportions“
Zjilstra advocated revisiting the topic of gold market intervention (“reflecting anew and without prejudice on these subjects“) sensing that “the turbulent emotions seem to have quietened down”.
This view of Zjilstra’s resonates with John Sangster’s comment in his 18 January 1980 report about the G5 Gold Briefs in which Sangster said:
“If tension eased substantially, however, central bank action need not then be unnecessary. With greater chance of success, it could be helpful in further cooling the inflationary environment.”
Given that Fritz Leutwiler of the Swiss national Bank took over the reins as BIS President in January 1982, and given that Leutwiler was arguably the most prominent of all the BIS governors as an advocate of a new BIS Gold Pool (see above and Part 1), then it would not be surprising if, under Leutwiler’s stewardship, the BIS inner club of Governor’s recommenced discussions of a BIS Gold Pool during the 1982 – 1983 timeframe.
First, there is the Meeting on the Gold Pool – 1983
During that time, Gordon Richardson was still Bank of England Governor, Karl Otto Pohl was still Bundesbank President, Fritz Leutwiler was still Swiss National Bank Chairman, and Paul Volcker was still Chairman of the US Federal Reserve. So, is there any evidence of a Gold Pool mentioned during this timeframe?
Fascinatingly, there is:
“Over A bratwurst-and-beer lunch on the top floor of the Bundesbank, Karl Otto Pohl, its president and a ranking governor of the BIS, complained to me in 1983 about the repetitiousness of the meetings during the “Basel weekend.”“First, there is the meeting on the Gold Pool, then, after lunch, the same faces show up at the G-10, and the next day there is the board which excludes the U.S., Japan, and Canada, and the European Community meeting which excludes Sweden and Switzerland.”
Edward Jay Epstein, “The Money Club” – An Essay, HARPER’S November 1983
In 1983, investigative journalist Edward Jay Epstein was given privileged access to the Bank for International Settlements and some of its inner sanctum central bank governors while he was writing an article on the BIS (“The Money Club”) for US magazine Harper’s.
In his Money Club article, Epstein writes:
“Artfully concealed within the shell of an international bank, like a series of Chinese boxes one inside another, are the real groups and services the central bankers need-and pay to support.
The first box inside the bank is the board of directors, drawn from the eight European central banks (England, Switzerland, Germany, Italy, France, Belgium, Sweden, and the Netherlands), which meets on the Tuesday morning of each “Basel weekend.“
To deal with the world at large, there is another Chinese box called the Group of Ten, or simply the “G-10.” It actually has eleven full-time members, representing the eight European central banks, the U.S. Fed, the Bank of Canada, and the Bank of Japan. It also has one unofficial member: the governor of the Saudi Arabian Monetary Authority.
“This powerful group, which controls most of the transferable money in the world, meets for long sessions on the Monday afternoon of the “Basel weekend.”
[Karl Otto Pohl] concluded: “They are long and strenuous-and they are not where the real business gets done.” This occurs, as Pohl explained over our leisurely lunch, at still another level of the BIS: “a sort of inner club.“
Bundesbank President Karl Otto Pohl is clearly on record in 1983 as stating that “First, there is the meeting on the Gold Pool“ during the “Basle weekend“. But the only publically known gold pool was the London Gold Pool which operated from November 1961 to March 1968.
Epstein interviewed the Bundesbank’s President Karl Otto Pohl in 1983, more than 15 years after the London Gold Pool had collapsed. Pohl only joined the Bundesbank in 1977, and he would not, in 1983, have used the term ‘Gold Pool’ for a meeting that had not discussed a gold pool since 1968, i.e. 15 years earlier. So what does this term ‘Gold Pool’ refer to?
“What is the ‘gold pool’ cited by BIS board member and Bundesbank President Karl Otto Pohl in his interview with the financial journalist Edward Jay Epstein published in the November 1983 edition of Harper’s magazine?”
The BIS initially responded to Schall with a classic ‘deflection and avoid answering the question’ response. The BIS wrote:
“Many thanks for your phone call and e-mail enquiry…
A detailed history of the Gold Pool, which operated between 1961 and 1968, can be found in Toniolo, Gianni (2005), ‚Central Bank Cooperation at the Bank for International Settlements,‘ Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 375-81 and 410-23. This book should be available from most academic libraries covering finance and economics.”
“Thank you for your response. However, it seems that you have not answered my question as to the ‘gold pool‘ that Mr. Pohl cited in his interview with Edward Jay Epstein. That interview took place many years after the London Gold Pool disbanded and it must have been the BIS‘ own gold pool.
Therefore, once again: what is the ‘gold pool‘ that Mr. Pohl was talking about in 1983?”
The BIS then replied again as follows:
“After further in-house research the following can be said about references to the’‚Gold Pool':
The ‘Gold Pool‘ Mr Pohl referred to in the 1983 interview is clearly a bit of a misnomer. The (London) ‘Gold Pool‘ as such – i.e. as a mechanism to intervene actively in the gold market by buying and selling gold on behalf of the central banks – operated only between 1961 and 1968.
Out of the regular meetings of central bank gold and foreign exchange experts organized at the BIS between 1961 and 1968 to discuss the operations of the London Gold Pool grew the so-called G10 Group of Gold and Foreign Exchange Experts, which continued their regular meetings at the BIS after the London Gold Pool had been abandoned. But for quite some time after 1968 this group was still being referred to by some as the ‘Gold Pool’, although it didn’t have the operational role the London Gold Pool had. This forum still exists today — it was re-named the Markets Committee in 1999.
Thus, it should be clear that after 1968 the mandate of this Gold and Foreign Exchange Committee was no longer to discuss and agree on direct interventions on the gold market,but simply to monitor and discuss developments on the financial markets generally. This is the ‘Gold Pool‘ Mr Pohl refers to in his 1983 interview.
Frankly, this BIS response is risible and fabricated since Karl Otto Pohl only joined the Bundesbank in 1977 and had no dealings whatsoever with the 1960s gold pool so would never have referred to a meeting which had nothing to do with a gold pool as “the meeting on the Gold Pool“.
As former Luxembourg prime minister Jean-Claude Juncker famously said: “When it becomes serious, you have to lie“. The BIS response to Schall is also as hollow and misleading as a similar response the BIS sent to me when I asked for BIS documents on the Gold Pool discussions which took place in Jelle Zjilstra’s office in November and December 1979, meetings which are proven to have taken place. As a reminder, the BIS told me:
“The Gold Pool came to an end in 1968, so I take it that you are referring to meetings of the Gold and Foreign Exchange Committee. We do have some minutes for this meeting, but unfortunately not for the period which interests you.”
Many Modicums of Gold for the Saudis
Therefore, what sort of Gold Pool would the early 1980s gold Pool have been? Bank of England Governor, Gordon Richardson, a member of the BIS inner club of governors, was calling for “some exchange of gold for oil while the world adjusts”.
Bank of England gold and foreign exchange specialist John Sangster recommended a pool that would not have significant potential for recovery of gold sold, but that “would enable OPEC to acquire some modicum” of gold “without an excessive rise in the price.” It would involve “market intermediation” which would “allow the G10 to move with the price while attempting to control its pace.”
OPEC was “increasingly concerned that gold is outpacing oil”, and while Al Quraishi, Governor of the Saudi Arabian Monetary Authority (SAMA) said that the Saudi’s “would not rock the boat” and buy gold on the open market if a new gold pool was selling, the Saudi’s still wanted to“diversify” into gold.
Incoming BIS President, Fritz Leutwiler “advocated central bank intervention in the gold market“. Outgoing BIS President Jelle Zjilstra wanted the G10 and Switzerland to “consider ways to regulate the price of gold, so as to create conditions permitting gold sales and purchases between central banks.“
Soviet – Kuwait Gold for Oil Deals
Gold for Oil sales were not just in the realm of theory even in 1979. They were fact. On 4 October 1979, the Governor’s office at the Bank of England wrote the following Secret briefing to the Bank of England Deputy Governor about Russian gold being exchange for Kuwaiti oil:
THE DEPUTY GOVERNOR
Sir George Bolton phoned and asked me to mention to you that he had heard the following story from Washington.
It was attributed to the State Department and has two strands.
The Russians have sold one hundred tons of gold to Kuwait against payment in oil.
The Russians have suggested to the Government (?Central Bank) of Kuwait that they should act as agents for the Russians in buying oil against gold.
4th October 1979
Handwritten 1 DAHB / JGH only. 2 back to JLS please. Handwritten “Mr McMahon, Mr Sangster, Mr Walker” “for what it may be worth”.
The day before this Secret memo was written, the New York Times reported from the IMF conference in Belgrade on 3 October 1979 in an article titled “Saudis Hint Oil Output May Drop – Dollar’s Eroding Value Cited at IMF Meeting” that:
“Saudi Arabia’s finance minister told a forum of international monetary officials and private bankers today that his country was considering new cutbacks in oil production because of the eroding value of the dollar.”
“It would be naive to pretend that a continuous erosion of our financial resources, through inflation and exchange depreciation, could not evoke reactions,” Sheik Abalkhail said.
“We have done this to maintain more orderly conditions in the oil market and to promote a higher level of sustained growth of the world economy. We are finding it increasingly difficult to continue our policies under prevailing instabilities in exchange markets, coupled with high levels of inflation in industrial countries.”
On 4 October1979, the New York Times again reported from the IMF conference in Belgrade in an article titled “Historical Linkage Cited For Gold and Oil Values” that:
“South Africa’s finance minister suggested today that there was a rough historical relationship between oil and gold prices.”
“Of the relationship between gold and oil, [Oren] Horwood declined to provide any explanation, saying ‘I simply note the fact’. The reaction of bankers here was that the relationship showed a constancy of real values against the background of gyrations in currencies.”
“Mr Horwood said that, as tracked over the last half-century, the price of gold per ounce was generally 15 times greater than the price of oil per barrel.”
Prior to the 1970s, the gold oil ratio was more static than the gold oil ratio since the 1970s for the simply fact that the gold price was fixed for a large period of time prior to the 1970s. However, the Gold to Oil ratio since 1970 has moved in a range of about 10 to 35, with a lengthy period during the 2000s when the ratio dipped below 10.
Conclusion – The BIS, Where Noone Can See
To me, the evidence suggests that a Gold Pool did evolve at the BIS in the early 1980s but that it has been extremely well hidden. If it did evolve, was its intent to control the gold price so that Saudi & Co could acquire gold on the open market without driving up the gold price, or was it a dual purpose operation of Western central banks to quell inflationary signals, while in the background transferring a portion of their substantial gold holdings to Saudi & Co in secretive BIS administered transactions? And did it fix the gold / oil ratio or attempt to target a range, while allowing the dollar price of gold and oil to seemingly fluctuate randomly? And where was the gold that was being provided to Saudi & Co coming from, central bank sales from the large western central bank gold holders?
The Bank of England’s Sangster said he did not want to“advocate gold for oil directly” but was advocating that OPEC “acquire some modicum” of gold “without an excessive rise in the price.” And Bank of England Governor Gordon Richardson was “looking towards some exchange of gold for oil while the world adjusts“. Remembering that given that the Governor of the Saudi Arabian Monetary Authority (SAMA) was an unofficial member of the G10 at the BIS, then it is not implausible that the Saudis got what they wanted i.e. a chance to acquire real money in the form of gold in return for continuing to supply oil to the advanced Western economies.
Anyone familiar with the writings of “Another” on the USAGold website which appeared starting in October 1997 will recognise that this is exactly what “Another” said happened at the BIS, i.e. that the BIS fixed the gold/oil ratio so as to allow the Saudis to acquire gold even as they were receiving US dollars in payment for their oil exports.
In other words, that one leg of the BIS transactions took the form of behind the scenes gold transfers that flowed to Saudi & Co as subsidised payments for oil, thereby allowing the Saudis to receive payment in the ultimate money of gold in addition to fiat US dollars, while the other leg of the transactions allowed oil to continue to flow to the West. And lastly, that these arrangements, by also targeting the gold price, kept gold at an artificially low level which prevented gold fulfilling its traditional role of inflationary baramoter.
Anyone who reads ‘Another’ will see intriguing sentences such as follows, which just so happen to resonate with what BIS discussions and Bank of England documents were alluding to:
It was once said that “gold and oil can never flow in the same direction”
The BIS, instead of taking [gold] outright, places it where it’s needed!
In effect the governments are selling gold in any form to “KEEP IT” being used as ‘REAL MONEY” in oil deals!
Make no mistake, the BIS knows gold in the many thousands.
Not all oil producers can take advantage of this deal as it is done “where noone can see”.
Westerners should not be too upset with the CBs actions, they are buying you time!
Oil went from $30++ to $19 + X amount of gold! Today it costs $19 + XXX amount of gold (which according to some ‘Another’ experts, is a reference to the gold for oil agreement of the 1980s being renewed in the earlier 1990s at more favourable terms to the Saudis after the invasion of Kuwait)
All of this is presented in highly stylised but cryptic and ‘vague’ detail by Another & Friend of Another (FOA) on the USAGold website for those interested in reading it. I would tend to agree with what “Another” says, especially after having seen all of the discussions that took place at the BIS from the late 1970s onwards. The only question I would have is if the gold for oil deals are true, then “why the secrecy?” Why not make it public, and let the world adjust?
In 2016, withdrawals of gold from the Shanghai Gold Exchange totalled 1970 tonnes, the 4th highest annual total on record. This was 24% less than SGE gold withdrawals recorded in 2015, which reached a cumulative 2596 tonnes (See Koos Jansen’s 6 January 2017 blog at BullionStar “How The West Has Been Selling Gold Into A Black Hole” for more details of the 2016 withdrawals).
SGE gold withdrawals are an important metric in the physical gold market because SGE gold withdrawals are a suitable proxy for approximating Chinese wholesale gold demand. This proxy functions well because China’s domestic gold mining production, Chinese gold imports, and most Chinese gold scrap are all sold on the Shanghai Gold Exchange. As a reminder, gold withdrawals from the SGE means actual physical gold bars withdrawn from the SGE’s network of 62 approved precious metals vaults in 35 cities across China. (See “The Mechanics Of The Chinese Domestic Gold Market” for a discussion of why this proxy works).
2017 SGE Gold Withdrawals
Year-to-date, which now includes the first four months of 2017, SGE gold withdrawals have reached 727 tonnes, which annualized equals 2181 tonnes, and would make 2017 the 3rd highest SGE vault withdrawal year on record, and only slightly behind the 2197 tonnes of registered withdrawals from the Exchange’s vaults in 2013. And since SGE gold withdrawals are a suitable proxy for wholesale Chinese gold demand, it would point to 2017 shaping up to be one of the strongest years ever for physical gold demand in the Chinese gold market.
SGE Gold Withdrawals 2008 – 2017. The 2017 figure reflects January – April inclusive. Source:www.GoldChartsRUS.com
With two-thirds of the year still to play out, annualised estimates of year-to-date gold withdrawal figures will always be approximations and will change when each successive month’s figure is added.
For example, January 2017 gold withdrawals of 184.4 tonnes suggested an annualised withdrawal figure of 2213 tonnes. February’s withdrawals as per published SGE data came in at 179.2 tonnes, implying an annualised figure of 2182 tonnes. As monthly withdrawals increased in March to 192.2 tonnes, this edged the annual estimate up to 2224 tonnes. But coincidentally, April’s SGE gold withdrawal figure brought the annual estimate back to ~2182 tonnes. This was so because combined gold withdrawals for January and February exactly equaled combined withdrawals for March and April, in both cases 363 tonnes over the two consecutive two month periods.
January + February = 184+179 = 363 tonnes
March + April = 192+171 = 363 tonnes
There is also a data discrepancy worth pointing out with the Shanghai Gold Exchange’s gold withdrawal figures for 2017. This discrepancy relates to the fact that the monthly withdrawal numbers for the 4 month period from January to April do not add up to the cumulative gold withdrawal figure for 2017 as published elsewhere on the Exchange’s website.
SGE gold withdrawals for January to April inclusive summate to exactly 727.073 tonnes.
However, in the latest (April) edition of the SGE’s monthly “Data Highlights” report, which is published in English, it states that cumulative withdrawal volume inclusive of April totalled 771.973 tonnes, which is 44.9 tonnes higher than the figure implied by the summation of the 4 individual months’ figures.
This data discrepancy has been present in the ‘Data Highlights’ report each month since February. For example, at the end of February 2017, the combined monthly withdrawals of January (184.412 tonnes) and February (179.237 tonnes) were 363.649 tonnes, but the ‘Data Highlights’ report for February stated that the cumulative withdrawal total for those two months was 378.649 tonnes. This is exactly 15 tonnesmore than the two months combined would suggest. So, it seems that there is a data issue somewhere in SGE record keeping, especially given the rounded figure nature of the discrepancy number.
The SGE March report also had an error when the monthly totals for January – March pointed to gold withdrawals of 555.899 tonnes , while the March ‘Data Highlights’ listed cumulative gold withdrawals of 524.899 tonnes, in this case exactly 31 tonnesless than the summation of the 3 monthly figures would suggest. Again, the rounded figure nature of the discrepancy number suggests a data issue somewhere in the SGE reporting system.
Until the SGE clarifies the discrepancy, its best to go with the summation of the individual month’s withdrawal figures while awaiting feedback from the Exchange.
The above chart plots cumulative gold withdrawals for the 4 months to end of April compared to similar periods in previous years, and again shows that 2017 looks set to be one of the strongest years for Chinese gold demand on record. The cumulative gold withdrawals of 727 tonnes for the January to April timeframe are the 2nd highest ‘Month 1-4′ cumulative figure on record, with only 2015 higher, when the similar figure came in at 821 tonnes.
Beginning last November and persisting into December 2016, the SGE gold price and the International gold price (as expressed in Yuan) began to diverge with the SGE gold price trading significantly higher. This created a noticeable and rapidly rising premium in the SGE gold price, and at one point in mid December this premium was $40 per ounce higher than, or over 3% above the international gold price.
This phenomenon was at the time attributed to the introduction by the Chinese authorities of more stringent restrictions on gold imports in an effort to reduce currency outflows. For example, Reuters, citing trader sources, wrote on 9 December 2016 that China was “curbing gold imports in [a] bid to limit yuan outflow”.
There were also rumours in the gold market at that time that a number of banks that had been authorised to import gold into China had lost their import licences (or that their licenses had not been renewed), and that the People’s Bank of China was also becoming stricter on the quotas of gold that it would allow banks to import in a given consignment. However, when BullionStar asked the SGE about this in December, the SGE did not reply.
Only 13 banks are authorised to import gold into China, 10 of which are local Chinese banks, and the other 3 of which are the foreign banks HSBC, ANZ and Standard Chartered.
In theory, an expansion in the SGE price premium could have been caused by a combination of limited supply or higher demand, or both. The below chart for 2016 (lower panel) illustrates the emergence of this premium in early November, with the premium rising rapidly from less than 0.5% at that time to nearly 3.5% at one point in December, but still ending the year in the 2% range. The upper panel of the chart show that same phenomenon only in terms of the relative prices of the SGE and International gold prices.
In contrast, for the 10 months of 2016 that preceded November, the premium of the SGE price to the International price was persistently very low and static from January to October 2016.
Fast forwarding to 2017, the most interestingly observation of the SGE premium since the November-December timeframe is that although the premium dropped sharply in January from the 2% range down to the 0.4% range by January month-end, it resumed a uptrend in February before spiking up noticeably again during March to levels approaching those seen in November and December.
In the case of March, it appears that premiums rose again for the very same reason that was attributed to the sharp rise in late 2016, i.e. the re-emergence of supply constraints brought on by more stringent gold import restrictions. According to Reuters in an article on the subject dated 17 March in which it quoted a Hong Kong based trader saying that:
“imports are happening, but with some restrictions. The government has been doing this since November to control the capital outflows. Now, it is becoming a bit aggressive with stringent reviews”
“The quotas are reviewed regularly and extended on a case by case basis.”
Although premiums shrank after mid-March and returned to the 1% level, they oscillated in the 1% to 0.5% range until mid-April and since then have resumed a steady rise to the 1% level, which is a very different chart to the one that persisted for most of 2016.
It therefore seems that the impact of tighter import restrictions that appeared in November and December of last year and which the rising premiums reflected was not a transitory phenomenon but instead has become a persistent feature of the Chinese gold market.
And what does this say about the Chinese authorities’ plans to liberalise the Chinese gold market since more restrictive import quotas and rules appear to be doing the opposite by undermining some of the liberalisation steps that had already been underway?
“In the Governor’s absence I attended the meeting in Zijlstra’s room in the BIS on the afternoon of Monday, 10th December to continue discussions about a possible gold pool. Emminger, de la Geniere, de Strycker, Leutwiler, Larre and Pohl were present.”
13 December 1979 – Kit McMahon to Gordon Richardson, Bank of England
A central bank Gold Pool which many people will be familiar with operated in the gold market between November 1961 and March 1968. That Gold Pool was known as the London Gold Pool.
This article is not about the 1961-1968 London Gold Pool. This article is about collusive central bank discussions relating to an entirely different and more recent central bank Gold Pool arrangement. These discussions about a second Gold Pool began in late 1979, i.e. more than 11 years after the London Gold Pool had been abandoned. This article is Part 1 of a 2 part series. Part 2 will be published shortly.
These discussions about a new Gold Pool arrangement took place in an era of soaring free market gold prices and in the midst of the run-up in the gold price to US$850 in January 1980.
The discussions and meetings about a new Gold Pool in 1979 and 1980 and beyond which are detailed below, occurred at the highest levels in the central banking world and involved the world’s most powerful central bankers, some of whose names will be familiar to readers. The aim of these central bank discussions and meetings was to reach agreement on joint central bank action to subdue and manipulate the free market gold price in the early 1980s. Many of these collusive meetings were private meetings between a handful of Group of 10 (G10) central bank governors, and took place in the actual office of the president of the Bank of International Settlements in Basle, Switzerland.
Above all, these central bank meetings show intent. Intent by a group of powerful central banks to manipulate a free market gold price so as to distort free market gold pricing signals. So these documents are timeless in that regard. The documents also illustrate the concern that a rising gold price in the free market creates for senior central bankers, and importantly, also shows that these same central bankers have no qualms, at least from a legal or moral perspective, of intervening to manipulate a gold price when they see it as a threat to their fiat currency monetary system.
The 1961-1968 London Gold Pool was a collusive arrangement between 8 major central banks to attempt to keep a lid on the official gold price at US $35 per ounce. That Gold Pool was instigated at the headquarters of the Bank for International Settlements (BIS) in Basle, Switzerland and monitored at the BIS by the governors of the Pool’s member central banks. However, day-to-day activities of the 1961-1968 Gold Pool were executed by the Pool’s agent, the Bank of England in London. Hence it was dubbed the London Gold Pool. Famously, this London Gold Pool collapsed on Thursday 14 March 1968 when speculative buying in the London Gold Market overwhelmed available Gold Pool supplies from member central banks.
Whereas the members of the 1961-1968 London Gold Pool consisted of the central banks of the United States, United Kingdom, West Germany, the Netherlands, Switzerland, France, Belgium and Italy, the discussions about a new Gold Pool that took place in 1979, 1980 and beyond, involved the very same central banks.
The 1961 -1968 Gold Pool was both a selling syndicate, where the members pooled their gold reserves to intervene in the London gold market, and a buying syndicate where the member central banks attempted to replenish gold that had been used in the gold price capping operations. Similarly, as you will see below, the discussions on a new Gold Pool in 1979 and 1980 involved participant West European central banks which on the whole wished to be able to buy gold for the Pool as well as sell gold from the Pool.
Central to illustrating how the most powerful central bankers in the world colluded to attempt to establish a new Gold Pool are a number of internal documents from the Bank of England which provide a detailed blueprint on the evolution of these collusive discussions at the BIS, as well as providing detailed insights into the thinking of the senior Bank of England executives involved in the meetings. These internal correspondence documents from 1979 and 1980 can be thought of as the equivalent of internal emails in the era before corporate email systems.
As you will see below, so many names of high level central bankers crop up in the discussions and documents, that to provide context, this necessitated some short background summaries on who these people were and what roles they occupied. It is also necessary to provide some brief context on gold price movements during the period under discussion.
The Gold Price Run-up during 1979 and 1980
When the London Gold Pool collapsed in mid-March 1968, a two-tier gold market took its place, with the private market gold price breaking higher, while central banks continued to trade gold with the Federal Reserve Bank of New York (FRBNY) and US Treasury at the official price of US$ 35 per ounce. However, in August 1971, Nixon closed this FRBNY / Treasury ‘Gold Window’ by ending the convertibility of US dollar liabilities into gold that had been an option for foreign central banks and foreign governments. This was the birth of the free-floating gold price.
By the end of 1974, the US dollar gold price had soared to $187 per troy ounce. Following this, the next 3 years saw the gold price first trade down to near $100 during August 1976 before resuming its uptrend. Year-end gold prices over this period were in the $135 – $165 range. In 1978, the price again broke to a record high and finished the year at $226 per ounce. See chart below.
But it was in 1979 that the US dollar gold price really took off, setting record after record. In July 1979, the $300 level was breached for the first time. During October 1979, the gold price then took out $400 for the first time. During December 1979, the gold price hit $500. While these late 1979 price increases were in themselves phenomenal, what then occurred in January 1980 was even more striking, for in the space of a few weeks, the price rocketed up first through $600, then $700, and then through the $800 level before peaking in late January 1980 at a then record of $850 per ounce. See chart below.
The mid-1970s saw a flurry of official gold sales to the market which although strategically designed in part to subdue the gold price, in practice didn’t achieve that goal over the medium term. Between June 1976 and May 1980, the International Monetary Fund sold 25 million ounces (777 tonnes) of gold in 45 public auctions. Between May 1978 and November 1979, the US Treasury sold 8.05 million ounces of high grade gold (99.5% fine) and 7.75 million ounces of low grade gold (90% fine) in 23 auctions to the private market. That’s just over 15 million ounces (466 tonnes) of gold in total auctioned by the Treasury. The last US Treasury auctions were on 16 October 1979 when 750,000 ounces of low grade coin bars were auctioned, and then on 1 November 1979 when the Treasury implemented a variable sales quantity approach and auctioned 1,250,000 ounces of low grade coin bars. On 15 January 1980, the US Treasury Secretary announced an official end of US gold sales.
As the 1980 annual report of the bank for International Settlements noted when reviewing the 1979 gold market:
“The further increase in [gold] supplies was overshadowed by the dramatic rise in the demand for gold which, in the space of little over a year, caused the London market price to increase more than fourfold to a peak of $850 per ounce in January 1980.”
“In addition to its sheer magnitude, last year’s  gold price rise had three other remarkable features: firstly, it took place against all major currencies, including those whose value had increased most during the 1970s. Secondly, it took place at a time of generally rising interest rates in the industrialised world, one effect of which was to increase the cost of holding gold. Thirdly, it took place at a time when, by and large, the dollar was strengthening in the exchange markets.”
It is against this background of surging gold prices, pre-existing gold auctions, turmoil in currency markets, slow growth and high inflation, that the first of the collusive Gold Pool discussions took place between September 1979 and January 1980 at the BIS.
Gold Pool Revival
There now follows a series of confidential memorandums and briefings from the Bank of England, the first of which, marked ‘SECRET‘ was an analysis written by the Bank of England’s John Sangster to the attention of the Bank of England’s Christopher McMahon. Documents are in blue text and italics, with bold and underlining added where appropriate. A lot of the text in the documents is self-explanatory and the underlying and bold text just draws attention to sections of particular interest.
Christopher McMahon, known as ‘Kit’ McMahon, was an executive director at the Bank of England from 1970 to 1980, before becoming Deputy Governor of the Bank of England on 1 March 1980. Prior to McMahon’s promotion, Jasper Hollom was Deputy Governor of the Bank of England. Kit McMahon’s full name is Christopher William McMahon, hence he signed his his internal Bank of England memos and correspondence with the initials ‘CWM’.
McMahon left the Bank of England in 1986 to take up the role of Chief Executive and Deputy Chairman of Midland Bank. In 1987, McMahon was also made Chairman of Midland Bank. McMahon left Midland in 1991. Since 1974, Midland Bank had also owned Samuel Montagu, one of the five traditional bullion firms of the London Gold Market. HSBC acquired full ownership of Midland in 1992 after acquiring a 15% stake in 1987 when McMahon was Chairman and Chief Executive of Midland. See profiles of McMahon here and here.
John Sangster’s full name was John Laing Sangster, hence he signed his internal Bank of England memos and analysis with the initials ‘JLS’.
During the 1970s and early 1980s, Sangster was the Bank of England’s foreign exchange and gold specialist. In March 1980, Sangster became one of six newly appointed assistant directors at the Bank of England. To give some idea of the senior level at which Sangster was operating at that time at the Bank, when he was promoted to assistant director in March 1980, two of Sangster’s contemporaries that also made assistant director at the time were Eddie George (gilt-edged operations area) and David Walker (economics area). Sangster retired from the Bank of England in 1982. Eddie George went on to be Governor of the Bank of England from 1993 to 2003. David Walker went on to head a whole host of institutions in the City of London including the chairmanship of Barclays Bank.
The first document which follows was written on 21 September 1979 when the gold price closed at $376.41.
Mr McMahon Copy to Mr Byatt
It is just possible that over the next few weeks some central banks may try to discuss a possible revival of the gold pool. Rather like the sterling credit of June 1976, a number of people could spontaneously be thinking that the time is ripe for some joint action.
The main arguments would be: -
(a) gold is even now so much part of the international monetary system that its present performance is a significant element in general currency instability;
(b) whereas previously the weakness in the dollar had been boosting gold, latterly the strength of gold has itself contributed to the dollar’s renewed weakness;
(c) the market now looks overbought, and there is a need to break the psychologyof “the market can only go one way and that is up”. Such an attitude has obvious dangers in any market but given gold’s residual monetary connections, there must be a danger that financial institutions could become over exposed in this area;
(d) a joint demonstration by central bankswould be all the more salutary since the market firmly believes that central banks are only interested in putting a floor under the price and that none wishes to stem its rise.
(e) it could flush out more Russian selling
There would obviously be no question of any permanent stabilisation of the gold price, merely at a critical time holding it within a target area. Such an operation could be mounted alongside the existing US auctions, although it is arguable that these have become too predictable and could, for the time being at least, be better subsumed in a new gold pool arrangement. As far as I know, nothing has yet been mooted to or by the FRBNY, and if there is no American interest the matter would be dropped. Nor would others consider the proposal, if there were no provision for the recapture of gold, were the market temporarily mastered.
There is nothing for us to do at the moment but be aware of the potential for discussion.. If the idea got off the ground and given the comparative paucity of our gold holding, it would obviously [page 2] be preferable to ensure that contributions were made in proportion to gold holdings rather than on any other basis.
21st September 1979
The actual memorandum from JLS to McMahon can be seen here:Page 1andPage 2. The links may take a little while to load first time.
Not surprisingly, as the Bank of England’s gold and foreign exchange specialist, Sangster was privy to the views and conversations of other central banks in this area at that time, for he correctly predicted that a group of central banks were about to embark on discussions about a new Gold Pool.
Sangster also correctly predicted that the European central banks’ preferred structure of the interventions be in the form of a Pool in which the gold used could be recaptured. Notably, Sangster’s assessment of the need for American buyin to the scheme also proved accurate.
It was convention in that day at the Bank of England for internal correspondence to be circulated to the recipients who then read it and added hand-written notes which they signed with their initials before returning the original circulated pages to the author. This was in the time before the advent of corporate email.
Hand-written note on JLS memorandum to Sangster, 21 September 1979
In the above memorandum, a hand-written note by Kit McMahon signed with the initials CWM at the top of page 1 reads as follows:
“Paul Jeanty told me that Zijlstra had told him personally a couple of weeks ago that he would now be in favour of a central bank operation to stabilise the price within a moving band. Leutwiler (frequently) and Clappier have said this to him in the past and he believes (I do not know on what evidence) that de Stryker and Baffi would go along with such a plan. All recognise, however, that Emminger has no disposition to support.
As above, there will be many famous names throughout this article, each of which needs to be briefly profiled so as to add context.
At the time of this correspondence, Paul Jeanty was Deputy Chairman of Samuel Montagu & Co, one of the five bullion dealers in the London Gold Market. Samuel Montagu & Co had been a wholly owned subsidiary of Midland Bank since 1974.
A Who’s Who of Central Bankers
Zijlstra refers to Dr. Jelle Zijlstra, Chairman and President of the Bank for International Settlements (BIS) from 1967 to December 1981. Zijlstra was also simultaneously President of the Dutch central bank, De Nederlandsche Bank (DNB) from 1967 until the end of 1981.Notably,Zijlstra was also Dutch Prime Minister for a short period during 1966-67.
Leutwiler refers to Fritz Leutwiler, Chairman of the Swiss National Bank (Switzerland’s central bank) from May 1974 to December 1984. Leutwiler was also a member of the board of the BIS from 1974 to 1984, and served as President of the BIS between January 1982 and December 1984, as well as Chairman of the Board of the BIS from January 1982 to December 1984.
De Stryker refers to Cecil de Strycker, Governor of the National Bank of Belgium from February 1975 to the end of February 1982. At that time, De Stryker was also president of the European Monetary Cooperation Fund and then president of the Committee of Governors of the Central Banks of the Member States of the European Economic Community.
Clappier refers to Bernard Clappier, Governor of the Banque de France from 1974 to 1979. Clappier was also vice-governor of the Banque de France from 1964 to 1973.
The reference to Baffi is Paolo Baffi, Governor of the Banca d’Italia from July 1975 until October 1979, and also a board member of the BIS since 1975. Baffi became Vice-Chairman of the BIS in 1988.
Emminger refers to Otmar Emminger, President of the Deutsche Bundesbank from 1 June 1977 to 31 December 1979. Emminger was one of the principal architects of the IMF’s synthetic Special Drawing Right (SDR) in 1969 which was designed to be a competitor of and replacement for gold.
The next document below, from 18 October 1979 contains references to the above people and also references to other important central bankers, so it is best, at this stage, to explain these additional names also.
THE GOVERNOR of the Bank of England - Gordon Richardson. Richardson was Governor of the Bank of England for 10 years from 1973 to 1983, and a non-executive director of the Bank of England between 1967 and 1973. He was chairman of J. Henry Schroder Wagg from 1962 to 1972, and chairman of Schroders from 1966 to 1973. Richardson was also a director of Saudi International Bank in London. Saudi International Bank was formerly known as Al Bank Al Saudi Al Alami when it was incorporated in London in 1975, and is now known as Gulf International Bank UK Limited.
Ciampi refers to Carlo Ciampi. Ciampi was Governor of Banca d’Italia from October 1979 to April 1993, and also Vice-Chairman of the Bank for International Settlements between 1994 and 1996. Notably, Ciampi was also Prime Minister of Italy from April 1993 until May 1994, and President of Italy from May 1999 until May 2006.
Schmidt refers to Helmut Schmidt, Chancellor (head of state) of the Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany) from 1974 to 1982.
Guth refers to Wilfried Guth, Chairman of the Board of Deutsche Bank (the commercial bank) from 1976, and from 1985 Chairman of the Supervisory Board of Deutsche Bank until 1990.
Al Quraishi refers to Abdulaziz Al-Quraishi. Al-Quraishi was Governor of the Saudi Arabian Monetary Agency (SAMA) from 1974 to 1983. He was also Chairman of Saudi International Bank in London from 1987 to 1996, and was on the Board of Saudi International Bank at the same time as Gordon Richardson.
The Americans: Miller, Solomon, Volcker and Wallich
Miller refers to William Miller. Miller was US Secretary of the Treasury from August 1979 to January 1981. Before that, he was chairman of the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System from March 1978 to August 1979.
Solomon refers to Anthony Solomon. From March 1977 to March 1980, Solomon was US Undersecretary of the Treasury for Monetary Affairs. In April 1980, he became President of the New York Fed and stayed in that position until the end of 1984.
Volcker refers to Paul Volcker. In August 1979, Volcker took over from Miller as chairman of the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System. Prior to that, Volcker was President of the New York Fed from 1975 to 1979. Volcker had also been Undersecretary of the Treasury for Monetary Affairs 1969 to 1974.
Wallich is a reference to Henry Wallich. Wallich was an economist, who among other things, was a member of the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System from 1974 to 1986. He was also a member of the Congressional Gold Commission in 1981-1982.
Gold Pool Discussions in Belgrade
This second document below was written by Kit McMahon on 18 October 1979 and addressed to the Bank of England Governor, Gordon Richardson. On 18 October 1979 the gold price closed at $386.84. The reference to Belgrade refers to the annual conference of the International Monetary Fund and World Bank which took place at the beginning of October 1979 at the Sava Center in Belgrade, the capital of the former Yugoslavia. Finance ministers and central bankers from 138 countries attended this IMF annual conference in Belgrade.
THE GOVERNOR O/R
Paul Jeanty came to see me this afternoon to report on a conversation be had with Leutwiler the other day in Zurich.
Leutwiler told him that the Americans had come to see him in Belgrade (the whole team of them – Miller, Solomon, Volcker and Wallich). To Fritz’s great surprise they had asked him whether he might organise a gold selling operation (it was mainly Volcker and Solomon who did the talking). They had apparently mentioned the possibility of being prepared to sell 10% of official reserves and were apparently prepared to join in themselves.
Fritz had replied that if an operation was mounted, nothing like 10% of reserves would be necessary; but that any gold that he sold he would want to buy back later on at a lower price. Again to his surprise the Americans had not demurred at this – a very big change from previous attitudes.
Fritz had told Jeanty, what Jeanty already knew, that Zijlstra would be interested; however, apparently Clappier indicated that he was against. This was a reversal of view which Leutwiler attributed to pressure from the Élysée which was itself influenced by the Germans. Leutwiler had also said that whereas Baffi had been in favour he had no knowledge of Ciampi’s attitude.
Emminger continued to be strongly against. Apparently, however, some attempt had been made to persuade Schmidt of the value of this idea. According to Leutwiler, Guth had urged it on him, but Schmidt does not appear to be prepared to oppose the Bundesbank.
There seems to be some disposition among those in favour to believe that OPEC are increasingly concerned that gold is outpacing oil and increasingly prepared to use this as an argument for higher oil prices. Jeanty asked Leutwiler whether he was sure that Al Quraishi would not rock the boat
and start buying if other central banks sent the price down. Leutwiler had assured him that he had often discussed it with Quraishi and that there would be no problem there. He then apparently gave a very interesting piece of information that Quraishi and Zijlstra are meeting with Emminger in Frankfurt next Tuesday – though not necessarily on this subject. Jeanty suggested it might be a plea to be allowed to diversify.
Finally, according to Jeanty, Fritz had asked if he would be likely to be seeing me, making it fairly clear that he would like the gist of these conversations to get to us. He knew that our reserves are small but he hoped that we might provide moral backing for an initiative to put pressure on Emminger.
I applied to all this, as I have to similar discussions on previous occasions, in a rather discouraging way, saying that while I disliked the instability of the gold price, I thought it was symptomatic more than causal of currency problems and that their would be a sharp fall if and when Volcker’s policy succeeded. Moreover, while it would be easy and nice for central banks to force the price down too hard and quickly, thereafter – and particularly when they started buying back, they could well find that they were riding a tiger.
I would have said this to Jeanty whatever my views, but in fact I remain extremely doubtful about the wisdom of any enterprise of this kind – at least divorced from much more wide-ranging agreements about currency stability. However, I thought the conversation was of interest in a number of ways not least in providing further evidence of the way central bankers will talk to major operators in the gold market. I imagine you might want to have some further conversations on this subject with your colleagues in Basle.
18th October 1979
The above memorandum from McMahon to Richardson can be seen here: Page 1 and Page 2. The links may take a little while to load first time.
The following key points are notable from McMahon’s analysis. Zijlstra, as BIS President and as president of the Dutch central bank was in clear favour of the Gold Pool idea.
At the IMF conference in Belgrade at the start of October 1979, the representatives of the US Treasury (Miller and Solomon) and of the Fed Board of Governors (Volcker and Wallich) approached Fritz Leutwiler, chairman of the Swiss National Bank to discuss coordinated gold sales.
At the time, this was alluded to within the financial media, but only in a very general way and there was no mention of a Gold Pool. On 2 October 1979, the New York Times wrote:
“The United States Government, weighing new plans to stabilize the dollar on exchange markets, suggested today that it might increased the amount of gold it offers at monthly auctions and that it was considering the possibility of internationally coordinated bullion sales.
Anthony M Solomon, Treasury Secretary for Monetary Affairs, said the international effort had been discussed with ‘various’ Government representatives on the fringes of the Belgrade annual meeting of the IMF and World Bank.”
The Americans appear to have had a change of mind by the time they met in Belgrade since they were by then comfortable with the notion of recapturing any gold used in price manipulation operations. i.e. a Gold Pool, but by implication they had previously not been in favour of trying to recapture any gold sold.
Note that Volcker and Miller had also met with Helmut Schmidt and Otmar Emminger in Hamburg on their way to Belgrade when they held a meeting to discuss how best to defend the US dollar on the currency markets.
Bernard Clappier, governor of the Banque de France, was by then less in favour of a Pool due to political pressure from the Élysée, which in this context refers to the French Council of Ministers who meet at the Élysée Palace, home of the French president. But that French reluctance was attributed to influence from the Bundesbank which was itself reluctant to engage in the scheme, but as revealed below, this was more due to the Bundesbank’s desire that the US monetary authorities fix the larger currency / dollar issues of the day in parallel with engaging in any Gold Pool operations.
Volcker Headed back to Washington for FOMC Meeting
During the Belgrade IMF conference, Paul Volcker had unexpectedly and suddenly left Belgrade on Tuesday 2nd October and headed back to Washington. He did this to convene a special secret and previously unscheduled meeting of the Fed’s FOMC which occurred on Saturday 6 October 1979. It was at this meeting that Volcker announced the now famous change in Fed policy that saw it shift its focus to monitoring and managing the volume of bank reserves in the financial system as opposed to trying to micro manage the federal funds rate level, and which ushered in much higher interest rates and a recession in an attempt to rein in inflation.
But there are also some interesting references in the transcripts of that 6 October FOMC meeting and in a transcript of a 5 October FOMC conference call preparatory meeting, that make reference to the discussions on gold that Volcker, Miller, Solomon and Wallich had with their European central banker peers while in Belgrade. In the 5 October FOMC conference call meeting Volcker said:
“Let me summarize some of this by saying that late last week–actually beginning before then but particularly late last week and in the very early part of this week–these markets, by which I mean the gold market very obviously and the foreign exchange markets, were “depressed.” I guess that’s the right word. And the atmosphere was very nervous. I think that has been largely turned around by an expectation that there will be some action.“
In its 6 October 1979 FOMC meeting, Volcker makes reference to the soundings which the Americans made in Belgrade with other central bankers:
“The possibility of gold sales has been canvassed up and down. “
“The question has been debated up and down and I think it is essentially unsettled. There is a possibility [of gold sales], particularly if the gold market acts up again, but there has been no firm consensus reached on that point simply because in our mutual discussions some concern was expressed about whether they are effective or not effective over a period of time. They might be effective immediately. But if the gold sales have a nice effect immediately and we test it a little while later and the gold price goes up again, the question arises: Is it confidence inspiring or is it not?
Or is it really better over a period of time just to leave the [gold] market alone? I think that question has to be left on that basis for the time being.”
“We will have cooperation, I think, from our foreign partners either on gold or on intervention to the degree that they feel that we have done something here; that is an essential part of setting the stage. We will get that kind of cooperation, I suppose, with the limitations of enthusiasm that are inherent in my earlier comments. I don’t mean to suggest that that type of activity is “out” if we mutually think it is advantageous. On the contrary, it is ‘”in” over a period of time with an appropriate background. But it is not “in” in the sense of announcing an international package of that type this weekend.”
Interestingly, on the same day, 18 October 1979, a former Bank of England executive, George Bolton, rang the Bank of England to relay news about rumoured clandestine gold sales by the US to the Saudis:
THE DEPUTY GOVERNOR Copies to DAHB and JLS
Sir George Bolton rang to say that he had heard from a reasonably reliable source of a story current in both Washington and New York. This was to the effect that the USA were planning to sell 10 mn. ounces of gold in four separate unannounced operations before the end of this year. He said that it was being undertaken to placate the Saudi Arabians.
P.W.F. Ironmonger, Governor’s Office 18th October 1979
Sir George Bolton had been an executive director of the Bank of England in the 1950s and a non-executive director of the Bank of England in the 1960s, and is attributed as having playing an important role in the development of the Eurodollar market in London. It is not clear why Bolton was still relaying market intelligence to the Bank of England in 1979. Perhaps he did this on an informal basis for the Governors.
However, it is very interesting that Bolton said that the Americans were selling 10 million ounces (311 tonnes) of gold to the Saudis to placate them, and this ties in with McMahon’s comments to Richardson that “OPEC are increasingly concerned that gold is outpacing oil”, but that Al Quraishi of the Saudi Arabian Monetary Authority (SAMA) “would not rock the boat” and buy gold on the market if a new gold pool was selling, but that at the same time Leutwiler thought that Al Quraishi and SAMA were eager to “diversify” i.e. reinvest their oil revenues in a more diversified way including in physical gold.
Since the last US Treasury gold auction was on 1 November 1979 for 1.25 million ounces of low grade coin bar gold, were 10 million ounces of gold sold directly to the Saudis out of US gold stockpiles, 10 million ounces which were never reported to the market? Or did the US use another central bank’s gold as part of a gold swap to ‘placate’ the Saudis with? These questions remain unanswered, but its important to remember the gold and oil connection and the importance to which the Western European and US monetary authorities attached to ‘keeping the Saudis happy’. More on these oil and gold connections in Part 2.
First Gold Pool Meeting – 12 November 1979
In the above memorandum dated 18 October 1979 that Kit McMahon sent to Govenror Gordon Richardson about the Belgrade discussions and the establishment of a new Gold Pool, there is a hand-written reply in red pen from Richardson to McMahon written on 4 November 1979, as follows:
Thank you for this interesting note which I read some days ago. I agree with your comment at X at the bottom of Page 2. I will pursue with Fritz at Baslebut I wonder if it has not now died. GR 4/11’
Fritz refers to Fritz Leutwiler, then Chairman of the Swiss National Bank. X refers to “conversation was of interest in a number of ways not least in providing further evidence of the way central bankers will talk to major operators in the gold market”. A hand-written reply from McMahon to Richardson reads “possible but still worth raising, CWM”.
There is also another handwritten note at the top of page 1 which reads “Copy for November Basle Dossier”.
However, the Gold Pool initiative did not die as Richardson thought it might, for on Tuesday 6 November 1979, Zijlstra called a meeting for the following Monday 12 November to take place at his office at the BIS, and invited the central bank governors of the Bank of England, the Bundesbank, the Banque de France, the Swiss National Bank, the Belgian central bank, and of course, the Dutch central bank which was represented by Zijlstra himself.
NOTE FOR RECORD
Copies to: The Governor, The Deputy Governor, Mr McMahon, Mr Payton, Mr Balfour, Mr Sangster
“Dr. Zijlstra telephoned the Governor to say that he is holding a meeting in his room at the BIS at 10:30am on Monday 12th November. Others invited to attend are de Strycker, Leutwiler, Clappier and Emminger or Pohl. Dr. Zijlstra said that the subject would be that about which the Governor and he spoke while in Belgrade (possibly gold).”
L.C.W Mayes, Governor’s Office 6th November 1979
Handwritten on the note was “Basle Dossier“, and the initials GR in red (for Gordon Richard) with the date 8/11.
The last few months of 1979 was a period that witnessed new governors being installed at both the Banque de France and Banca d’Italia and a new president at the Bundesbank. At the Banca d’Italia, Paolo Baffi resigned on 7 October 1979, and Carlo Ciampi (then deputy governor) became governor. At the Banque de France, Bernard Clappier stepped down as governor on 23 November 1979 , and Renaud de La Genière took his place. At the Bundesbank, Otmar Emminger retired in December 1979, and Karl Otto Pohl became President.
This explains why the meeting invitation above says “Emminger or Pohl” because November and December 1979 was a transition time at the Bundesbank between Emminger and Pohl. Pohl only joined the Bundesbank in 1977, first serving as vice-president between 1 June 1977 to 31 December 1979. Pohl then became president of the Bundesbank on 1 January 1980 and remained as Bundesbank President until 31 July 1991.
This adhoc Gold Pool discussion meeting by a subset of G10 central bank governors at the BIS in Basle, Switzerland, was the first of 3 such meetings that took place on 12 November 1979, 10 December 1979, and 7 January 1980, respectively, and variously involved G10 central banker governors Zijlstra, Leutwiler, Richardson, Emminger, Pöhl, McMahon, de Strycker, de la Genière, Clappier, as well as René Larre, the BIS General Manager.
The Bank of England archives only have a summary of the meeting which took place on 10 December 1979 (which is covered below). The very fact that there is a record of the 10 December 1979 meeting is itself a streak of luck since Kit McMahon attended the meeting that day in the place of Gordon Richardson, since, according to the Governor’s Diary for that day, Richardson had to leave the BIS early on 10 December to return to London in order to attend a meeting with the Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher at 10 Downing Street.
Additionally, when asked for minutes of these 3 meetings from 12 November 1979, 10 December 1979, and 7 January 1980 where the attendees were the above governors, the BIS Archives claimed it did not have such minutes and responded:
“The Gold Pool came to an end in 1968, so I take it that you are referring to meetings of the Gold and Foreign Exchange Committee. We do have some minutes for this meeting, but unfortunately not for the period which interests you.”
Preparing for the 12 November Gold Pool Meeting
Hand-written on the invitation notice for the 12 November meeting is a note from McMahon to Sangster which says: “JLS, Can you provide a short brief & factual background and thoughts on the advisability of any form of central bank action? (see attached note of a conversation with Jeanty)”. [This is the ‘Paul Jeanty came to see me‘ memorandum from above].
Sangster saw this note from McMahon on 7 November and responded as follows (remember that Sangster had read the “Paul Jeanty – Leutwiler” memorandum). Below is the third main document of the series. It was written by John Sangster on 7 November 1979, a day on which the US dollar gold price closed at $382.92.
Mr McMahon Copies to: Mr Byatt
(handwritten: ‘Copy to the Governor’)
POSSIBLE GOLD POOL
This heat may be now off this question although on a longer term view gold still looks substantially overpriced, unless oil-producing countries are determined to pre-empt a large proportion of current supplies.
$ per fine ounce
End 1974 almost 200
September 1976 almost back to 100
July 1978 through 200
July 1979 through 300
October 1979 through 400
There could obviously be endless argument about when the price was right. One can perhaps say no more than that 200 was obviously too high at end of 1974, as 100 was too low almost two years later. If these brackets are omitted, it seems difficult to justify a price over 300 now. I should certainly be reluctant to recommend purchases, other than for the jobbing book, at above this price.
It is largely possible that German opposition to any thoughts of a revived ad hoc gold pool was largely tactical. They did not wish to give the US the excuse for further delay by diverting attention with another attack on symptoms, when a fundamental policy appraisal was under way. This would be rather like the general opposition to the third sterling balance arrangement in 1976 before the IMF deal was complete. If this view of the German opposition were correct, the discussion could now revive with more chance of success – particularly as the gold price has become a reflection on currencies in general and not just on the dollar in particular. If it is thought that the US has now got its policy right the action on the gold price could bring the sort of success that would sustain faith while waiting for the important result to come through. Would such an action be any more than the correction of erratic fluctuations which we all advocate in a greater or lesser degree in currencies, but in a market more notoriously subject to violent swings.
Of course the action might fail when it comes to the other leg of the smoothing operation in that the pool might not succeed in buying back at lower levels all that it had previously sold. That is a risk that would have to be accepted from the outset: there should be no question of chasing the price back beyond the level at which the selling operation started.
Given that the US auctions are now discretionary it would obviously be advisable for such sales to be subsumed in any general pool arrangement.
By way of illustration, should we become involved in a G.10 plus Switzerland co-operative endeavour and contributions were clearly in proportion to total gold holdings, our share would be just under 2 7/8%
7th November 1979
The pages of this memorandum from Sangster to McMahon can be seen here: Page 1 and Page 2. The links may take a little while to load first time.
Second Gold Pool Meeting – 10 December 1979
Since there are no records available from the BIS nor elsewhere as to what transpired at the first Gold Pool meeting on 12 November, the best way to glean the thinking from the participants of that meeting is by examining the discussions that took place in the 2nd Gold Pool meeting on 10 December 1979, a meeting for which there is a detailed summary, courtesy of a briefing memorandum from Kit McMahon to Gordon Richardson.
The invitation for the 10 December meeting at Zijlstra’s office at the BIS in Basle was relayed to the Governor’s office at the Bank of England on 6 October 1979 and was, probably not surprisingly for that time, scrawled as a short note on some small blue paper:
President Zijlstra’s secretary rang yesterday to invite you to a meeting he is intending to hold on Monday 10th December from 10.00am. This meeting follows the one held on 12th November. The subject will be the same – gold.
I said I would revert if you were unable to attend.
[Initials illegible] 6/12/79”
Gordon Richardson saw and acknowledged this note with his initials GR in red pen on the note, and the date 6/12 – see below.
The following document is the fourth main document in the Bank of England series covered here. This document is the briefing letter from Kit McMahon to Gordon Richardson referring to the Gold Pool discussion meeting which took place in the office of the BIS President Jelle Dijlstra on Monday 10 December 1979. This is probably the most important documented featured in Part 1 of this two part article series, since it provides an in-depth insight into one of the collusive Gold Pool discussion meetings which the most powerful central bank governors of the time attended discussing the creation of a syndicate to manipulate down the free market price of gold. On 10 December 1979, the gold price closed at $428.14.
In the meeting document, the name Larre refers to RenéLarre, General Manager of the BIS. Larre was BIS General Manager from May 1971 to February 1981.
De la Geniere refers to Renaud de La Genière, Governor of the Banque de France from 1979 to 1984.
The other participants at the 10 December meeting were BIS President Jelle Zijlstra, Chairman of the Swiss National Bank Fritz Leutwiler, Bank of England executive director Kit McMahon, outgoing Bundesbank President Otmar Emminger, incoming Bundesbank president Karl Otto Pohl, and Governor of the National Bank of Belgium Cecil de Strycker.
To: The Governors Copies to : Mr Payton, Mr Balfour, Mr Sangster , Mr Byatt only
In the Governor’s absence I attended the meeting in Zijlstra’s room in the BIS on the afternoon of Monday, 10th December to continue discussions about a possible gold pool. Emminger, de la Geniere, de Strycker, Leutwiler, Larre and Pohl were present.
Larre began by outlining a way in which a possible gold pool might be handled. The BIS could undertake all the operations on behalf of a group of central banks on the basis of rather general criteria which would be reviewed monthly. The criteria would take into account not merely the developments of the price of gold but the affect any such developments appeared to be having on the dollar. Thus they would envisage selling only when gold was relatively strong and the dollar relatively weak and buying only in the reverse circumstances. They thought that they at least might start with a sum of around 20 tons (equals around $300 million at present prices). They could take running profits of losses on their books for a considerable period and though participating central banks would have to envisage the possibility of an ultimate loss or gain in gold, in practice all that might be involved would be a loss or gain in dollars. On this point both Zijlstra and Leutwiler emphasised that they were already liable to suffer substantial losses on their dollar reserves and would not be worried by the potential losses that they might they might sustain on this scheme.
In answer to a question from me, Zijlstra confirmed that the US realised that if any gold pool were developed, the European central banks would intend to buy back in due course any gold they sold. He said they were unhappy that the Europeans were not prepared to sell gold outright but they accepted it. Larre pointed out in parenthesis that TonySolomon was probably the only American now or in the recent past that would be prepared to accept such a line. He knew that Wallich and probably Volcker was against the whole idea.
Zijlstra and Leutwiler said they were both strongly in favour of going ahead on the basis Larre had suggested. They then asked what the other thought.
Emminger said that he had put this proposition to his Central Bank Council who were unanimously against it. His hands were therefore at present totally tied.
De Strycker said he was extremely doubtful about the scheme. He thought it was neither desirable nor necessary and carried considerable dangers. De la Geniere was also negative stressing the great political dangers for him of selling any French gold in this indirect way.
Leutwiler then suggested that they should do it the other way round: wait until the gold price went below 400 and then start the operation by buying. When the BIS had bought, say, 20 tons they would have a masse de manoeuvre which they could then sell. La Geniere said that this might be easier for him and he would consider the possibility of doing something along these lines. Emminger also said, though without much confidence, that it was possible that if the operation were to start along these lines and if it appeared to be going well, it might be possible to persuade the Central Bank Council to join in.
Leutwiler and Zijlstra then said that although they did not think a very large group was necessary to undertake the operation it probably had to be bigger than Two: specifically they really needed either the French of the Germans. Zijlstra said that although he had formal powers to do this he did not wish to do it without carrying his Government with him. The Government was still doubtful and would probably need to know that a number of other countries were going along with it.
At various points during the meeting there was a discussion about publicity for the operation and at an early point Zijlstra said that publicity was both inevitable and desirable if the operation was to have a maximum effect. He brushed aside my suggestion that while the publicity for any selling operations would be helpful, that attached to the later (or on the revised scheme, earlier) buying could be rather inflammatory. However, if the scheme were to be
simply a BIS one, publicity would not necessarily, or perhaps desirably, arise. This point was not really addressed in the discussion.
I made a number of sceptical points about the failure of commodity stabilisation schemes of all kinds in the past and the dangers of getting drawn in gradually to bigger and bigger commitments. Leutwiler said that there was no danger because the losses would be small. I said that I envisaged political dangers. If it got known that the central banks were involving themselves in the price of gold, however much they said it was only a smoothing rather than a stabilising operation, they would find themselves on a tiger. If the price of gold went on rising they would either have to increase their efforts or add to the upward pressure o gold by pulling out.
None of this carried any weight with anybody except perhaps de Strycker. In any case I was not asked for any commitment from us. There was, in fact, no discussion of whether or how contributions to the scheme would be based, but presumably it would be in relation to gold holdings so that they would not expect much from us.
The meeting ended with Leutwiler saying he would approach the Canadians and Japanese to see how they felt about the idea while Zijlstra would talk to the Italians. All would then think further about it and revert in January.
I must say I remain personally extremely sceptical about the desirability and efficacy of any scheme along the lines so far suggested.
13th December 1979
The pages of this meeting description from McMahon can be seen here: Page 1, Page 2 and Page 3. The links may take a little while to load first time.
The Essence of the 10 December Meeting
The following key points are notable from McMahon’s briefing of the 10 December Gold Pool discussions meeting. McMahon opens by stating that the meeting was called “to continue discussions about a possible gold pool“. This proves there was an earlier meeting in November as per the invitation for the November meeting despite the fact that no minutes or summary exist for the November meeting.
Zijlstra and Leutwiler acted as the 2 main advocates of the proposed Gold Pool arrangement. This is important to remember because Zijlstra was the President of the BIS at that time and Leutwiler became President of the BIS at the beginning of 1982 taking over from Zijlstra. So the heads of the BIS in the early 1980s were both firm advocates of the need for a new Gold Pool. Zijlstra and Leutwiler probably also represented the two most independent central banks present at the discussions, namey the Dutch and Swiss central banks.
The following countries were represented at the 10 December meeting: UK, Switzerland, West Germany, France, Netherlands, Belgium. The following central banks were represented at the meeting:
Zijlstra – BIS and Netherlands central bank
McMahon – Bank of England
Emminger – Deutsche Bundesbank
Pohl – Deutsche Bundesbank
de la Geniere – Banque de France
de Strycker – Belgian central bank
Leutwiler – Swiss National Bank
Larre – Bank for International Settlements
The fact that Emminger had already put the suggestion to his Central Bank Council implies that this was probably a take-away after the November meeting. According to the Bundesbank 1979 annual report, there were 18 members of the Central bank Council (including Emminger and Pohl).
The market mechanics of the proposals discussed in the meeting are also classic collusive Gold Pool tactics to torpedo the gold price by “selling only when gold was relatively strong and the dollar relatively weak and buying only in the reverse circumstances.”
The discussion also made it clear that the preferred approach would be to operate as both a selling syndicate and a buying consortium as “European central banks would intend to buy back in due course any gold they sold.” It was even suggested that thebuying could occur first so as to create an inventory of physical gold with which to use to fund the selling interventions, i.e “wait until the gold price went below 400 and then start the operation by buying. When the BIS had bought, say, 20 tons they would have a masse de manoeuvre which they could then sell.”
Given that René Larre the BIS general manager began the meeting shows that he was coordinating or spearheading this meeting in his capacity as BIS general manager. It is also very interesting that McMahon states that “the BIS could undertake all the operations on behalf of a group of central banks” that could be “reviewed monthly”, which underlines the fact that overall, this could be viewed as a BIS led scheme, controlled and operated out of Basle.
A BIS scheme would also allow the Gold Pool to operate in secrecy, out of public view. In the words of McMahon “if the scheme were to be simply a BIS one, publicity would not necessarily, or perhaps desirably, arise“.
Following this 10 December meeting, the governors returned to their respective banks and recessed for Christmas and New Year, returning to Basle in early January where the next Gold Pool meeting took place on 7 January 1980, in a historic month in which the gold price rocket from $515 to $850 in a matter of weeks.
This concludes Part 1 of the series. There is a lot to digest in the above. Part 2 will continue where we left off, and will cover discussions of this new BIS Gold Pool during the period from January 1980 onwards. For now, some quotes from Part 2:
“This is not to advocate gold for oil directly; the price haggling would be too acrimonious. Market intermediation should allow the G10 to move with the price while attempting to control its pace as well as break off the experiment when possible or necessary.”
- John Sangster to Gordon Richardson, Anthony Loenhis & Kit McMahon, Bank of England, 17 September 1980
“I feel that it is necessary for us, within the Group of Ten and Switzerland, to consider ways to regulate the price of gold, admittedly within fairly broad limits”
- Jelle Zjilstra, BIS Chairman and President and Dutch central bank President, 27 September 1981
“First, there is the meeting on the Gold Pool, then, after lunch, the same faces show up at the G-10″
- Bundesbank President Karl Otto Pohl (who only began working at the Bundesbank in 1977) to journalist Edward Jay Epstein, in a conversation at the Bundesbank in 1983
The growing influence of the Shanghai Gold Exchange (SGE), the world’s largest physical gold exchange, is a topic familiar to many. So it is not surprising that trading volumes at the SGE continued their dramatic rise in 2016, with a record 24,338 tonnes of gold traded across physical delivery and deferred settlement contracts.
Volumes in 2016 were a staggering 43% higher vis-a-vis the 17,033 tonnes traded on the SGE during 2015, which itself was a strong year, since 2015 volumes were 84% higher than the 9,243 tonnes of gold traded at the Exchange in 2014. See “SGE Gold Trading Volume 2015 Up 84 % Y/Y Due To International Board” for more information about the 2015 volumes.
Therefore, in the space of three calendar years, the SGE has seen total trading volumes nearly triple, which is quite an achievement by any standard.
SGE Contracts: Physical Delivery and Deferred
Overall, there are 17 contracts listed on the SGE which can contribute to the trading volumes reported by the Exchange. On top of this, the trading volume generated by the SGE’s daily Shanghai Gold Benchmark Price auction (which was launched in April 2016) is also factored into the SGE’s overall trading volume.
The 17 contracts offered by the SGE cover trading in both physical products and deferred products. Five physical products trade on the Main Board of the Exchange (domestic) and a further 3 physical products trade on the Exchange’s International Board. These 8 products are as follows:
Au50g (50 gram gold bar, 9999 fine)
Au100g (100 gram gold bar, 9999 fine)
Au99.99 (1 kg gold ingot, 9999 fine)
Au99.95 (3 kg gold ingot, 9995 fine)
Au99.5 (12.5 kg gold ingot, 995 fine)
iAu100g (100 gram gold bar, 9999 fine)
iAu99.99 (1 kg gold ingot, 9999 fine)
iAu99.5 (12.5 kg gold ingot, 995 fine)
There are also 4 deferred settlement products offered by the SGE. These 4 products only trade on the Main Board. Deferred settlement contracts trade on margin, and as the name suggests, the contracts can be settled on trading day or at a later date. Two of the four are T + D contracts, the other two are T + N contracts:
T + D contract: Non-Fixed Maturity Dates
Au(T+D) (1 kg per lot, delivery in 3 kg or 1 kg ingots)
mAu(T+D) (100 gram per lot, delivery in 1 kg ingots) m = mini
These contracts do not have any pre-determined settlement date.
T + N contracts: Fixed Maturity Dates
Au(T+N1) (100 gram per lot, delivery in 1 kg ingots)
Au(T+N2) (100 gram per lot, delivery in 1 kg ingots)
The maturity date of the Au(T+N1) contract is 15 June.
The maturity date of the Au(T+N2) contract is 15 December.
In addition, 3 of the Main Board physical products (Au99.99 and Au99.95) and all 3 of the International Board products also trade bilaterally Over-the-Counter (OTC) between participants, but importantly, these OTC trades still settle on the SGE. Therefore the trading volumes of the OTC trades are still captured in the SGE systems and reported as part of SGE overall trading volumes. The SGE assigns a specific prefix P’ to these OTC products, but they are also sometimes written with a prefix of ‘OTC’. These 5 products are:
OTC Au99.99 / PAu99.99
OTC Au99.95 / PAu99.95
OTCiAu99.99 / PiAu99.99
OTCAu50g / PiAu50g
OTCAu99.5 / PiAu99.5
Finally as mentioned, trading in the Shanghai Gold Benchmark Price auction (code SHAU) contributes to physical gold volume on the Exchange. Since SHAU was only launched on 23 April 2016, it’s volume for 2016 only represents just over 8 months worth of trading, and not a full trading year.
What traded in 2016?
In 2016, 13 of the 18 gold products (including SHAU) traded. These were: Au99.99, Au99.95, Au100g, iAu99.99, iAU100g, Au(T+D), Au(T+N1), Au(T+N2), mAu(T+D), OTC Au99.99, OTC Au99.95, OTC iAu99.99 and SHAU.
Five products did not trade at all in 2016. These 5 products were Au50g, Au995, iAu995, PiAu50g (OTC), and PiAu99.5 (OTC).
Furthermore, trading volume in Au100g was very low and trading volume in iAu100g was miniscule.
Au100g and Au50g (and their International Board versions) are designed for the retail market, but the lack of trading volume in the Au50g suggests that even retail players on the SGE shun these 50g contracts. Likewise, the 100g product does not generate much interest on the Main Board, and generates zero interest on the International Board (which is mostly frequented by institutional participants anyway).
The lack of trading volume in the Au995 specifications on both the Main Board (Au995 and PAu995(OTC)) and on the International Board (iAu995) also confirms that neither domestic participants nor international participants on the SGE are active in trading the large 12.5 kg wholesale gold bars (a.k.a. aka Good Delivery bars) which these contracts represent.
It also underscores that the Chinese central bank, the People’s Bank of China (PBoC), which like all central banks has a preference for holding wholesale 12.5 kg (400 oz) gold bars, is not an active buyer on the SGE. Instead, the PBoC prefers to buy its gold bars in Good Delivery form on international gold markets, then monetise that gold (so as to avoid it being reported in customs trade statistics). The PBoC then ships these gold bars to Beijing surreptitiously. This buying route by the PBoC has been confirmed by gold market consultancy sources in the London market.
Excluding the SGE’s 100g contracts and the non-traded 50g and Au995 variants, there were 11 contracts (including SHAU) traded in 2016 which together accounted for the bulk of SGE trading volume. The individual volumes of these contracts in metric tonnes are illustrated in the following chart:
Volume was highest in the deferred Au(T+D) contract at 9186 tonnes, followed by 7080 tonnes in the physically delivered OTCAu99.99 contract. The on-exchange physically delivered Au99.99 contract registered trading volume of 2975 tonnes. Together, the Au99.99 and OTCAu99.99 generated 10,055 tonnes of physical trading which resulted in immediate physical delivery of gold. OTC trading of the iAu99.99 (i.e. PiAu99.99) generated trading volume of another 1511 tonnes of gold.
Looking at the volumes by category, there were just over 3200 tonnes traded on Exchange in the Main Board physically delivered contracts, 190 tonnes traded on Exchange in the International Board physically delivered contracts, 8850 tonnes traded OTC in physically delivered contracts, and 11,800 tonnes traded on Exchange in the Deferred contracts.
The dramatic rise in SGE trading volumes, especially since 2012, can be seen in the next chart. In 2012, SGE trading volumes totalled 3165 tonnes of gold. By 2013, this figure had risen to 5,775 tonnes of gold. In 2014, trading volumes across physically delivered and deferred gold contracts rose by 60% and hit 9243 tonnes.
During 2015, a record 17,033 tonnes of gold was traded on the SGE. This record was again surpassed in 2016 when gold trading volumes reached 24,338 tonnes, a 43% year-on-year increase. It’s important to remember that the Shanghai Gold Exchange is a physical gold exchange which has been designed to facilitate the throughput of physical gold in the vast Chinese gold market. The immediate delivery trading contracts represent real physical gold that sits in the SGE’s network of 61 precious metals vaults in 35 cities across China and where applicable, the SGEI vault in the Shanghai Pilot Free Trade Zone. Likewise, the deferred contracts can, if actioned, lead to physical delivery in the SGE vaults.
Shanghai vs London and New York
While the SGE is not the largest gold trading venue in the world by trading volume, it is the world’s largest physical gold trading venue, since the two other larger venues, London OTC and COMEX, are predominantly not physical markets. The London Gold Market predominantly trades unallocated fractionally backed paper gold claims, while the COMEX platform trades gold futures.
As of now, the London OTC gold market does not publish trading volumes. But based on London gold clearing volumes for 2016, trading volumes in the London OTC gold market are estimated to have been in excess of 1.5 million tonnes of gold (gold equivalent). However, the vast majority of this trading was in unallocated metal, a trading mechanism which is just a set of debit and credit book entries between accounts which is removed from physical delivery.
Likewise, trading volumes of the 100 ounce COMEX gold futures contract totalled 57.5 million contracts during 2016. This is equivalent to 179,000 tonnes of gold. However, in 2016, only 222 tonnes of gold were delivered within COMEX vaults based on this 179,000 tonnes of trading, Therefore 99.99% of trading did not result in the delivery of any gold.
While estimated gold trading volumes on the London OTC gold market in 2016 were about 8.4 times higher than trading volumes in the COMEX 100 oz gold futures contract, the same London trading volumes were a staggering 61.6 times higher than the 24,338 tonnes traded at the SGE. The COMEX 100 oz contract also traded 7.4 times more volume in 2016 than total SGE gold trading volumes. It should thus be apparent that the vast majority of trading on the London OTC gold market and COMEX has nothing to do with the physical gold market and is just leveraged speculation.
Will the growth in trading volumes on the SGE continue in 2017? The answer is maybe, but probably at a reduced pace. During the first quarter of 2017, SGE trading volumes totalled 5693 tonnes of gold. Annualised, this is 22,773 tonnes, which would be a slight reduction on 2016’s total. However, Q1 2016 was also the quietest trading period on the SGE, so the remainder of 2017 could see trading volumes higher than Q1 which would push 2017 SGE trading volumes slightly above the equivalent figure for 2016. But it might be too much to expect large double-digit growth in SGE volumes this year.
This new gold vault data was first released in early April 2017 and covers gold bar holdings at the Bank of England for every month-end for the last 6 years. Going forward, the Bank will publish updates to this dataset every month, on a 3-month lagged basis.
The move by the Bank of England to publish this data was first reported by the Financial Times in February and was supposedly part of a broader gold vault reporting initiative which was to include vault holdings for all 7 of the London Bullion Market Association (LBMA) commercial precious vaults in London. These commercial vaults are run by HSBC, JP Morgan, Brinks (on behalf of itself and ICBC Standard), Malca Amit, Loomis and G4S. While the Bank of England had single-handedly gone ahead with its side of the reporting initiative, the precious metals vault holdings data from the LBMA was conspicuously absent when the Bank of England made its move. As I wrote in my article last week:
“The London Bullion Market Association was also expected to publish gold vault holdings data for the commercial gold vaults in London, but as of now, this data has not been published, for reasons unknown.”
“While the Bank of England has now followed through with its promise to publish its gold vault holdings, the LBMA has still not published gold vault data for the commercial gold vault providers, i.e. its members HSBC, JP Morgan, ICBC Standard Bank, Brinks, Malca Amit, Loomis and G4S. Where is this data, why is there a delay, and why has it not yet been published?”
However, as if by magic, the LBMA has now just issued a press release titled “LBMA to publish Precious Metal holdings in London vaults”. Coincidence, perhaps. But whatever the case, the LBMA development is timely, and the press release, which is actually a combined press release from the LBMA and one of its alter egos, London Precious Metals Clearing Limited (LPMCL), makes interesting reading, but unfortunately at the same time is still quite vague, and appears to suggest that some of the vault operators in question have been dragged kicking and screaming to the start line.
Summer of 2017
The statement from the LBMA reveals that:
“from summer 2017 the LBMA will be publishing the gold and silver physical precious metals holdings of the London vaults, with the platinum and palladium holdings to be published at a later date”
The statement also clarifies that “the data only includes physical metal held within the London environs” and that it will cover “aggregate physical holdings”.
Given that the LBMA and Bank of England work very closely, its disappointing and bizarre that the LBMA didn’t coordinate the vault data release at the same time as the Bank of England, because, at the end of the day, this is just some simple holdings data we are talking about, and all the vaults concerned know precisely how much precious metal they are holding at any given moment.
As a reminder, the Bank of England was established by the LBMA in 1987, the Bank of England is an observer on the LBMA Management Committee, and the former head of the Bank of England Foreign exchange Division, Paul Fisher, is the recently appointed ‘independent‘ chairman of the LBMA Management ‘Board’ (formerly known as the LBMA Management Committee). See “Blood Brothers: The Bank of England and the London Bullion Market Association (LBMA)” for more details.
Representatives of the two large commercial vault operators in London, HSBC and JP Morgan, also sit on the LBMA Board. Additionally, representatives of the vault operators HSBC, JP Morgan, Brinks and ICBC Standard Bank also sit on the LBMA Physical Committee and all of the vault operators are represented on the LBMA’s Vault Managers Working Party.
The reference to ‘aggregate physical holdings‘ in the press releaseis also potentially disappointing as it seems to imply that the LBMA will not break out its vault reporting into how much gold and silver is held by each of the 7 individual vault operators in and around London, but might only publish one combined figure each month end.
A reporting format in which each vault/operator is listed alongside the quantity (tonnes or thousands of ounces) of gold and silver held by that vault operator would be ideal.For example, something along the lines of:
Quantity per vault is the approach taken in the daily precious metals vault reports that COMEX releases on its approved vault facilities in and around New York, as per an example for gold here. HSBC, JP Morgan, Brinks and Malca Amit submit inventory levels to COMEX for that report. Likewise, HSBC, JP Morgan, Brinks and Loomis submit inventory levels in New York to ICE futures for its version of the gold futures inventory report.
Given that the individual vault operators based in New York report precious metals inventory to COMEX and ICE, is it too much to expect that many of the same vault operators cannot do likewise for their London vault facilities?
It remains to be seen which date ‘summer 2017” refers to. This seems like a bizarre non-committal cop out by the LBMA not to have announced a definitive date for beginning to report vault data. Summer 2017 could mean anything. Assuming they are talking about the northern hemisphere, summer could mean anywhere from May to August or beyond.
If the LBMA data is on a 3-month lagged basis in the same way that the Bank of England data is, the first tranche of LBMA vault data could neatly be released after 30 June and would cover month-end March 2017. As a reminder, the Bank of England gold vault data shows:
“the weight of gold held in custody on the last business day of each month. We publish the data with a minimum three-month lag”
Why the vault data on a platinum and palladium can’t be published at the same time as the gold and silver data is also puzzling, because the London Platinum and Palladium Market (LPPM) is now officially integrated into the LBMA following a change in the LBMA’s governance and legal structure in 2016, so both sets of data are now under the remit of essentially the same Association.
It also remains to be seen whether the LBMA data will have a 6-year historical look-back as the Bank of England data does, or whether it will just begin with a one month-end snapshot? For consistency with the Bank of England data, the LBMA vault data should ideally cover the same time period, i.e. every month beginning at January 2011. In short the LBMA press release is lacking quite a lot of detail and unfortunately invites guesswork.
The Importance of the Vault Data
Turning quickly to why this gold vault data is important. Simply put, at the moment there is little official visibility into how much physical gold is stored in the London Gold Market, and how much of this gold is available as “liquidity” to back up the market’s huge fractional reserve gold trading volumes. Albeit for silver.
In my coverage on 28 April of the Bank of England data release, I had phrased the relationship between physical gold and gold trading in the London market as follows:
“this physical gold stored at both the Bank of England vaults and the commercial London vaults underpins the gargantuan trading volumes of the London Gold Market”
Interestingly and somewhat synchronistically, in its 8 May press release one week later, the LBMA uses very similar phraseology, as well as the identical verb ‘underpins’, when it states that:
“the physical holdings of precious metals held in the London vaults underpins the gross daily trading and net clearing in London”
Another coincidence perhaps, but the LBMA is now also saying that the physical gold bars which they will report on starting in summer 2017, and which the Bank of England has just started reporting on, literally ‘underpin’ or support the massive volume of gold trading in the London Gold Market.
“Net clearing” refers to London clearing volumes for gold and silver that are processed through the LMPCL’s clearing system AURUM, and that are published each month by the LBMA, a recent example of which, covering month-end March 2017, can be seen here. In March 2017, an average of 18.1 million ounces of gold (563 tonnes) and 203.2 million ounces of silver (6320 tonnes) were clearedeach trading day.
Since trade clearing nets out actual trading volumes, these clearing figures need to be grossed up to reveal the true trading figures. Using a 10:1 ratio of trading to clearing, which is a realistic multiplier as discussed here, this would be equivalent to 5630 tonnes of gold and 62,200 tonnes of silver traded each day in the London wholesale gold and silver markets. On an annualised basis, for gold, this would imply that the equivalent of over 1.4 million tonnes of gold are traded per year in the London gold market, quite an achievement, seeing that less than 200,000 tonnes of gold is said to have ever been mined throughout history, and half of this total is held in the form of jewellery.
The LBMA press release goes on to say that:
“Publication of aggregate physical holdings is the first step in reporting for the London Precious Metals Market.
The next step is Trade Reporting.
The collection of trade data will add transparency to the market and provide gross turnover for the Loco London market. Previously gross turnover had been calculated from one-off surveys or estimated from the clearing statistics.“
With the LBMA vault reporting being the first step, but only coming out in the summer of 2017, its anyone’s guess as to when LBMA trade reporting will be coming out, a project which has been bandied about in the financial media and by the LBMA for nearly 3 years now, but which must take the record as the slowest fintech formulation and release in the history of London financial markets, ever.
The Bank of England’s latest physical gold holdings for January month-end 2017 is only in the region of 5100 tonnes of gold bars. Furthermore, since the LBMA say that there are only about 6500 tonnes of gold in the entire London market, the LBMA commercial gold vaults in London have to hold far less gold than the Bank of England. Add to this the fact that the gold in the commercial vaults is mostly held on behalf of gold-backed Exchange Traded Funds (ETFs).
Given the above, it becomes increasingly clear than when the LBMA does decide to release gold vault holdings figures sometime in summer 2017, whatever figure(s) is released, will most likely confirm that there is very little gold in the London market which is not claimed to be owned by either a central bank or a gold-backed ETF. It will also provide a field day for all sorts of theories and calculations about the true ratio of gold trading volumes to gold bar vault holdings, and how much of this gold is allocated and earmarked, and how much can be considered a combined bullions banks’ float.
A Quick Calculation
Its possible to go someway towards estimating a minimum figure for how much gold to expect the LBMA to report on the commercial vaults when it begins vaults reporting this summer. The same exercise could be conducted for silver but is beyond the scope of this analysis. For gold, when such a figure is calculated and added to the amount of gold in the Bank of England vaults, it gives a grand total of how much gold is in the combined LBMA and Bank of England vaults in London.
A large number of high-profile gold-backed ETFs store their gold bars in LBMA vaults in London, mainly in the vaults of HSBC and JP Morgan. The HSBC vault in London holds gold on behalf of the SPDR Gold Trust (currently 853 tonnes) and ETF Securities (about 215 tonnes). The JP Morgan gold vault in London holds gold on behalf of ETFs run by iShares (about 210 tonnes in London), Deutsche Bank (95 tonnes), and Source (100 tonnes). An ABSA ETF holds about 36 tonnes of gold with Brinks in London. In total, these ETFs represent about 1510 tonnes of gold. For the approach used to calculate this type of figure for gold-backed ETFs, please see “Tracking the gold held in London: An update on ETF and BoE holdings“.
ETF gold holdings (most of which are stored in London) have been relatively static since mid March 2017. See chart below. Therefore if the LBMA starts reporting vault gold holdings for a month-end date such as month-end March 2017, it would probably reflect about 1500 tonnes of ETF gold, mostly held by at HSBC and JP Morgan vaults in London. This is assuming that some of the ETF gold is not held in sub-custody at the Bank of England vaults.
Until the LBMA starts its vault reporting, its unclear how much other gold is in the commercial vaults in London above and beyond the ETF holdings. However, non-monetary gold regularly flows in and out of the London Gold Market from gold trade with countries such as Switzerland. While March 2016 to October 2016 was a period in which the UK was a strong net importer of non-monetary gold from Switzerland, since then the UK has been a net exporter of gold to Switzerland, and has exported 325 tonnes of gold from October 2016 to end of March 2017. Therefore, whatever data the LBMA starts reporting, it logically should reflect the renewed outflow of gold from London to places like Switzerland and would tend to suggest that whatever excess bullion bank float gold is in the London commercial vaults, it is less than it would have been in the absence of these renewed outflows.
“6,500 tonnes of gold held in London vaults, of which about three quarters is stored in the Bank of England”
While this web page text is probably slightly out of date, a literal interpretation would imply that 4875 tonnes of gold are in the Bank of England (which is not too far from the actual figure) and that 1625 tonnes are in the commercial vaults (which would mean that very little non-ETF gold is in the commercial vaults).
The Bank of England claims to have about 72 central bank customers with gold accounts, For month-end January 2017, the Bank of England is reporting that there was approximately 5100 tonnes of gold in its vaults. At least 3800 tonnes of this gold is claimed to be owned by 34 known central banks. See “Central Bank Gold at the Bank of England” for more details. That would leave about 1300 tonnes of gold at the Bank of England owned by a selection of other central banks and bullion banks. As to how much gold the bullion banks hold at the Bank of England is not clear, but since central bank gold holdings are relatively static (at least when excluding gold lending), then most of the month-to-month movements in Bank of England gold vault holdings are most likely due to bullion bank activity.
As to how easily bullion bank gold holdings at the Bank of England can switch to or be transported to the vaults of the commercial vault operators in London is also unclear, as logistics is a secretive area of the London Gold Market.
So with (1500 ETF tonnes of gold + X) in the commercial vaults, and 5100 tonnes of gold in the Bank of England vaults, this gives a grand total of 6600 tonnes of gold + X in all the vaults of the London as of early 2017. X could be 400 tonnes, it could be 1400 tonnes, or it could be any other figure of similar magnitude. My guess is that there is not that much gold in the commercial vaults above and beyond whats in the gold-backed ETFs. Maybe a few hundred tonnes or so. However, we will have to wait until the dog days of ‘summer’ in London to know this definitively.
An article in February on BullionStar’s website titled “A Chink of Light into London’s Gold Vaults?” discussed an upcoming development in the London Gold Market, namely that both the Bank of England (BoE) and the commercial gold vault providers in London planned to begin publishing regular data on the quantity of physical gold actually stored in their gold vaults.
Critically, this physical gold stored at both the Bank of England vaults and the commercial London vaults underpins the gargantuan trading volumes of the London Gold Market and the same market’s ‘liquidity’. Therefore, a new vault holdings dataset would be a very useful reference point for relating to London’s ‘gold’ trading volumes as well as relating to data such as the level and direction of the gold price, the volume of gold held in gold-backed Exchange Traded Funds (ETFs), UK gold import and export statistics, and Swiss and Hong Kong gold imports and exports.
The impending publication of this new gold vault data was initially signalled by two sources. Firstly, in early February, the Financial Times (FT) wrote a story claiming that the London Bullion Market Association (LBMA) planned to begin publishing 3 month lagged physical gold storage data for the entire London gold vaulting network, that would, according to the FT:
“show gold bars held by the BoE, the gold clearing banks, and those [vaults] operated by the security companies such as Brink’s, which are also members of the LBMA.”
The “gold clearing banks” are the bullion bank members of London Precious Metals Clearing Limited (LPMCL), namely, HSBC, JP Morgan, ICBC Standard Bank, Bank of Nova Scotia – Scotia Mocatta, and UBS. HSBC and JP Morgan operate precious metals vaults in London. See profile of JP Morgan’s London vault and a discussion of the HSBC vault . ICBC Standard Bank also maintains a vault in London which is operated on its behalf by Brinks.
The second publication to address the new gold vault data was the World Gold Council. On 16 February, addressing just the Bank of England vaults, the World Gold Council wrote in its Gold Investor publication that:
“The Bank of England is, for the first time, publishing monthly data revealing the amount of gold it holds on behalf of other central banks.”
“The data reveals the total weight of gold held within the Bank of England’s vaults and includes five years of historical data.”
While I had been told by a media source that the London vault data would be released in the first quarter of 2017, at the time of writing, there is still no sign of any LBMA vault holdings data covering the commercial vault operators in London. However, the Bank of England has now gone ahead and independently released its own numbers covering gold held in the Bank of England gold vaults. These gold vaults, of which there are between 8 – 10 (the number fluctuates), are located on the 2 basement levels of the Bank of England headquarters in the City of London.
In an updated web page on the Bank of England’s website simply titled ‘Gold’, the Bank of England has now added a section titled ‘Bank of England Gold Holdings’ and has uploaded an Excel spreadsheet which contains end-of-month gold holdings data covering every month for a 6-year period up to the end of December 2016, i.e. every month from January 2011 to December 2016 i.e. 72 months.
According to the Bank of England, the data in the spreadsheet shows:
“the weight of gold held in custody on the last business day of each month. We publish the data with a minimum three-month lag.
Values are given in thousands of fine troy ounces. Fine troy ounces denote only the pure gold content of a bar.
We only accept bars which comply with London Bullion Market Association (LBMA) London Good Delivery (LGD) standards. LGD bars must meet a certain minimum fineness and weight. A typical gold bar weighs around 400 oz.
Historic data on our gold custody holdings can be found in our Annual Report.”
Prior to this spreadsheet becoming available, the Bank of England only ever divulged gold vault quantity data once a year within its Annual Report, for year-end reporting date end of February.
You will appreciate that the new spreadsheet, having data for every month of the year, and for 72 months of data retrospectively, conveys a lot more information than having just one snapshot number per year in an annual report. Therefore, the Bank of England has gone some way towards improving transparency in this area.
Before looking at the new data and what it reveals, it’s important to know what this data relates to. The Bank of England provides gold custody (storage) services to both central banks and a number of large commercial banks. Large commercial banks which trade gold are commonly known as bullion banks, and are mostly the high-profile and well-known investment banks.
On its gold web page, the Bank highlights this fact – that it provides gold custody service to both central banks and commercial banks:
“We provide safe custody for the United Kingdom’s gold reserves, and for other central banks. This supports financial stability by providing central banks with access to the liquidity of the London gold market.
We also provide gold accounts to certain commercial firms that facilitate access for central banks to the London gold market.”
In the London Gold Market, the word “liquidity” is a euphemism for gold loans, gold swaps, and gold trading including gold sales. This reference to central banks accessing the London Gold Market as being in some way supportive of ‘financial stability’ is also an eye-opener, since reading between the lines, the Bank of England is conceding that by accessing the London Gold Market’s “liquidity” via bullion banks, these central bank clients are either contributing to direct stabilisation of the gold price in some shape or form, or else are using their gold operations to raise foreign currencies for exchange rate intervention and/or system liquidity. But both routes are aiming at the same outcome. i.e. stability of the financial system.
At the end of the day, the gold price has always been a barometer that central banks strive to keep a lid on and which they aim to stabilise or smoothen the gyrations of, given that the alternative – a freely formed and unmanipulated gold price – would thwart their coordination of fiat currency exchange rates, interest rates and inflation targets.
Interestingly, in addition to the new spreadsheet of gold holdings data, the Bank of England gold web page now includes a link to a new 1 page ‘Gold Policy’ pdf document, which, looking at the pdf document’s properties, was only created on 30 January 2017. This document therefore also looks like it was written in conjunction with the new gold vault data rollout.
The notion of central banks accessing the liquidity of the London Gold Market via bullion banks is further developed in this Gold Policy document also. The document is quite short and merely states the following:
“GOLD ACCOUNTS AT THE BANK OF ENGLAND
1. The Bank primarily offers gold accounts to central bank customers. This is to support financial stability by providing central banks with secure custody for their gold reserves and access to the liquidity of the London gold market (particularly given the Bank’s location).
2. To facilitate, either directly or indirectly, access for central banks to the liquidity of the London gold market, the Bank will also consider providing gold accounts to certain commercial firms. In deciding whether to provide an account, the Bank will be guided by the following criteria.
a. The firm’s day to day activities must support the liquidity of the London gold market. b. Specifically, the Bank may have regard to a number of factors including but not limited to: evidence of active or prospective trading with a central bank customer; or whether the firm has committed to honour buy and sell prices.
3. Access to a gold account remains at the sole discretion of the Bank.
4. The Bank will review this policy periodically.”
The Vault Data
Nick Laird has now produced a series of impressive charts of this new Bank of England data on his website GoldChartsRUS. Plotting the series of 72 months of gold holdings data over January 2011 to December 2016 yields the below chart.
On average, the Bank’s vaults held 5457 tonnes of gold over this 6 year period. The minimum amount of gold held was 4693 tonnes at the end of March 2016, while the maximum quantity of gold held was 6250 tonnes at the end of February 2013.
The overall trend in the chart is downward with a huge outflow of gold bars from the bank’s vaults from the end of February 2013 to the end of March 2016.
As of January 2011, the BoE held just over 5500 tonnes of gold bars in its vaults. Gold holdings rose until the end of August 2011 and peaked at nearly 5900 tonnes before falling to 5600 tonnes at year-end 2011. Overall in 2011, the holdings fluctuated in a 400 tonne range, trending up during the first 8 months, and down during the latter 4 months.
This downtrend only lasted until January 2012, at which point BoE gold holdings totalled about 5450 tonnes. For the remainder of 2012, BoE gold under custody rose sharply, reaching 6200 tonnes by the end of 2012, a level near the ultimate peak in this 6 year chart. The year 2012 was therefore a year of accumulation of gold bars at the Bank during which 750 tonnes were added.
The overall maximum peak was actually 6250 tonnes at the end of February 2013, after which a sustained downtrend evolved through the remainder of 2013. By December 2013, gold under custody at the Bank of England had fallen to 5670 tonnes, creating an overall outflow of 580 tonnes of gold bars during 2013.
The outflow of gold continued during 2014 with another 470 tonnes flowing out of the Bank, leading to end of year 2014 gold holdings of just 5200 tonnes. The outflow also continued all through 2015 with only 4780 tonnes of gold in custody at the end of December 2015. The Bank therefore lost another 440 tonnes of gold bars in 2015.
Overall, that makes an outflow of 1490 tonnes of gold from the Bank’s vaults over the 3 years from 2013 to 2015 inclusive. This downtrend lingered for 3 more months, with another 80 tonnes lost, which brought the end of March 2016 and end of April 2016 figures to a level of about 4700 tonnes, which is the overall trough on the chart. It also means that there was a net outflow of 1570 tonnes of gold bars from the Bank’s vaults from the end of February 2013 to the end of March / April 2016.
A new uptrend / inflow trend began at the end of April 2016 and continued to the end of November 2016, where gold custody holdings peaked again at about 5123 tonnes before levelling off at the end of December 2016 at 5102 tonnes. Therefore, from the end of April 2016 to the end of December 2016, the Bank of England vaults added 400 tonnes of gold bars.
The gold holdings of the vast majority of central banks have remained stagnant over the 2011 – 2016 period, the exceptions being the central banks of China and Russia. But Russia buys domestically mined gold and stores it in vaults in Moscow and St Petersburg, so this would not affect gold holdings at the Bank of England. China’s central bank, the People’s Bank of China (PBoC), is known to buy its gold on the international market, including the London Gold Market. It then monetizes this gold (classifies it as monetary gold), and airlifts it back to China. But these Chinese purchases don’t show up in UK gold exports because monetary gold is exempt from trade statistics reporting. However, if China was surreptitiously buying gold from other central banks with gold accounts at the Bank of England or buying gold from bullion banks with gold accounts at the BoE, then some of the gold outflows from the BoE could be PBoC gold purchases. But without central bank specific data, its difficult to know.
But what is probably true is that the fluctuations in the quantity of gold stored in the Bank of England vaults are more do to with the gold holdings of bullion banks and less to do with the gold holdings of central banks, for the simple reason that central bank gold holdings are relatively static, or the least the central banks claim that their gold holdings are static. This does not take into account the gold lending market which the central banks and bullion banks go to great lengths to keep secret.
There is also a noticeable positive correlation between the movement of the US Dollar gold price and the inflows/outflows of gold to and from the Bank of England vaults, as the above chart demonstrates.
Bullion Bank gold accounts at the BoE
One basic piece of information that the Bank of England’s new vault storage data lacks is an indication of how many central banks and how many commercial banks are represented in the data.
In its first quarterly report from Q1 2014,the Bank of England states that 72 central banks operate gold accounts at the bank of England, a figure which includes a few official sector organisations such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF), European Central Bank (ECB), and Bank for International Settlements (BIS). This number would not have changed much in the meantime, so we can assume that the gold holdings of about 72 central banks are represented in the new data. But the number of commercial banks holding gold accounts at the Bank of England is less clear-cut.
The 5 gold clearing banks of the LPMCL all hold gold accounts at the Bank of England. Why? Because it says so on the LPMCL website:
“Each member of LPMCL has vaulting facilities under its control for the storage of gold and/or silver, plus in the case of gold bullion, account facilities at the Bank of England, which have contributed to the development of bullion clearing in London.”
The LPMCL also states that its clearing statistics include:
“Transfers over LPMCL Clearing Members’ accounts at the Bank of England.”
Additionally, the LPMCL website states that their
“clearing and vaulting services help facilitate physical precious metal movement logistics, location swaps, quality swaps and liquidity management.”
The Bank of England’s reference in its new ‘Gold Policy’ document to commercial banks needing to be “committed to honour buy and sell prices” is a reference to market makersand would cover all 13 LBMA market makers in gold, which are the 5 LPMCL members and also BNP Paribas, Citibank, Goldman Sachs, Merrill Lynch, Morgan Stanley, Société Générale, Standard Chartered Bank, Toronto-Dominion Bank. But there are also gold trading banks that make a market in gold which are not officially LBMA market makers, such as Commerzbank in Luxembourg which claims to be one of the biggest bullion banks in the world.
So I would say that lots of other bullion banks (of which there about 40 in total) have gold accounts at the Bank of England in addition to the 13 official LBMA market makers.
More fundamentally, any bullion bank that is engaged in gold lending with central banks (the central banks being the lenders and the bullion banks being the borrowers) would need a gold account at the Bank of England. I counted 28 bullion banks that have been involved with borrowing the gold of just one central bank, the central bank of Bolivia (Banco Central de Bolivia – BCB) between 1998 and 2016. Some of these banks have since merged or exited precious metals trading, but still, it gives an estimate of the number of bullion banks that have been involved in the gold lending market. The Banco Central de Bolivia’s gold lending activities will be covered in some forthcoming blog posts.
Bullion banks that are Authorised Participants (APs) for gold-backed ETFs such as the SPDR Gold Trust (GLD) or iShares Gold Trust (IAU) may also have gold accounts at the Bank of England. I say may have, because in practice the APs leave it up to the custodians such as HSBC and JP Morgan to allocate or deallocate the actual physical gold flowing in and out of the ETFs, but HSBC on occasion uses the Bank of England as a sub-custodian for GLD gold (see “SPDR Gold Trust gold bars at the Bank of England vaults” for details), so if some of the APs want to keep their own stash of allocated physical gold in relation to ETF trading, it would make sense for them to have a gold account at the Bank of England.
As to how much gold the GLD stores at the Bank of England and how regularly this occurs is still opaque because the SEC does not require the GLD filings to be very granular, however there is a very close correlation between inflows and outflows from GLD and the inflows and outflows from the Bank of England vaults, as the following chart clearly illustrates.
As gold was extracted from the GLD beginning in late 2012, a few months later the Bank of England gold holdings began to shrink also. This trend continues all the way through 2013, 2014 and 2015. Then as the amount of gold began to increase in the GLD at the end of 2015, the gold holdings at the Bank of England began to increase also. Could this be bullion banks extracting gold from the GLD, then holding this gold at the Bank of England and then subsequently exporting it out of the UK?
Some of it could, but UK gold net exports figures suggest that gold was withdrawn from both the Bank of England vaults and from the ETF gold stored at commercial gold vaults (run by HSBC and JP Morgan), after which it was exported.
Looking at the above chart which plots Bank of England gold holdings and UK gold imports and exports (and net exports) is revealing. As Nick Laird points out in this chart, over the 2013 to 2015 period during which the Bank of England gold holdings fell by 1500 tonnes, there were UK net gold export flows of 2500 tonnes, i.e. 2500 tonnes of gold flowed out of London gold vaults, so an additional 1000 tonnes had to come from somewhere apart from the Bank of England vaults.
The new monthly vault holdings data from the Bank of England can now also be compared to the amount of gold reported by the Bank of England in its annual reports. The figures the Bank reports in the annual report are as of the end of February. These figures are only reported in Pounds Sterling, not quantities, so they need to be either converted to USD and divided by the USD LBMA Gold Price on the last day of February, or else just divided by the GBP LBMA Gold Price on that day.
For end of February 2015, the calculated total for gold held at the Bank of England (based on the annual report) came out at 5,134 tonnes. Now the Bank of England data says 5126 tonnes which is very close to the calculation. For February 2016, the calculation came out at 4725 tonnes. The new Bank of England data now says 4730 tonnes, so that’s pretty close also.
This new Bank of England data is welcome and the Bank of England has taken a step towards greater transparency. However, it would be more useful if the Bank published a breakdown of how much of this gold is held by central banks and how much is held by bullion banks, along with the number of central banks and number of bullion banks that the data represents. Two distinct sets of data would be ideal, one for central bank custody holdings and the other for bullion bank custody holdings. The Bank most likely would never publish two sets of data as it would show bullion bank gold storage activity for the whole world to see.
While the Bank of England has now followed through with its promise to publish its gold vault holdings, the LBMA has still not published gold vault data for the commercial gold vault providers, i.e. its members HSBC, JP Morgan, ICBC Standard Bank, Brinks, Malca Amit, Loomis and G4S. Where is this data, why is there a delay, and why has it not yet been published?
As a reminder, the Financial Times article in early February said that the LBMA would publish gold vault holdings data that would:
“show gold bars held by the BoE, the gold clearing banks, and those [vaults] operated by the security companies such as Brink’s”
The Financial Times article also said that:
“HSBC and JPMorgan, London’s biggest bullion banks, are backing the initiatives by the LBMA to improve transparency.”
With the gold holdings data on the other London vaults still not published, it begs the question, has there been a change of mind by HSBC and JP Morgan, two of the LBMA’s largest and most powerful members?
“Reputedly [the Bank of England vaults are] the second largest vault in the world with approximately 500,000 gold bars held in safe custody on behalf of its customers, including LBMA members, central banks, international financial institutions and Her Majesty’s Treasury.”
A holding of 500,000 Good Delivery gold bars is equal to 6250 tonnes. However, according to the Bank of England’s own figure for month end December 2016, the Bank of England only holds 5100 tonnes of gold in custody (408,000 Good delivery gold bars). Therefore, the LBMA is overstating the Bank of England’s holdings by 1150 tonnes, unless, and it’s unlikely, that the BoE vaults have seen huge gold bar inflows in the last 4 months.
In early February 2017 while preparing for a presentation in Gothenburg about central bank gold, I emailed Sweden’s central bank, the Riksbank, enquiring whether the bank physically audits Sweden’s gold and whether it would provide me with a gold bar weight list of Sweden’s gold reserves (gold bar holdings). The Swedish official gold reserves are significant and amount to 125.7 tonnes, making the Swedish nation the world’s 28th largest official gold holder.
Before looking at the questions put to the Riksbank and the Riksbank’s responses, some background information is useful. Sweden’s central bank, Sveriges Riksbank aka Riksbanken or Riksbank, has the distinction of being the world’s oldest central bank (founded in 1668). The bank is responsible for the administration of Swedish monetary policy and the issuance of the Swedish currency, the Krona.
Since Sweden is a member of the EU, the Riksbank is a member of the European System of Central Banks (ESCB), but since Sweden does not use the Euro, the Riksbank is not a central bank member of the European Central Bank (ECB). Therefore the Riksbank has a degree of independence that ECB member central banks lack, but still finds itself under the umbrella of the ESCB. Since it issues its own currency, the Riksbank is responsible for the management of the Swedish Krona exchange rate against other currencies, a task which should be borne in mind while reading the below.
On 28 October 2013, the Riksbank for the first time revealed the storage locations of its gold reserves via publication of the following list of five storage locations (four of these locations are outside Sweden) and the percentage and gold tonnage stored at each location:
Bank of England 61.4 tonnes (48.8%)
Bank of Canada 33.2 tonnes (26.4%)
Federal Reserve Bank 13.2 tonnes (10.5%)
Swiss National Bank 2.8 tonnes (2.2%)
Sveriges Riksbank 15.1 tonnes (12.0%)
The storage locations of Sweden’s official Gold Reserves: Total 125.7 tonnes
Nearly half of Sweden’s gold is stored at the Bank of England in London. Another quarter of the Swedish gold is supposedly stored with the Bank of Canada. The Bank of Canada’s gold vault was located under it’s headquarters building on Wellington Street in Ottawa. However, this Bank of Canada building has undergone a complete renovation and has been completely empty for a number of years, so wherever Sweden’s gold is in Ottawa, it has not been in the Bank of Canada’s gold vault for the last number of years.
The Swedish gold in Canada (along with gold holdings of the central banks of Switzerland, the Netherlands and Belgium) could, however, have been moved to the Royal Canadian Mint’s vault which is also in Ottawa. Bank of Canada staff are now moving back into the Wellington Street building this year. But is the Swedish gold moving back also or does it even exist? The location of the Swedish gold in Ottawa is a critical question which the Swedish population should be asking their elected representatives at this time, and also asking the Riksbank the same question.
Just over 10% of the Swedish gold is supposedly in the famous (infamous) Manhattan gold vault of the Federal Reserve under the 33 Liberty building. Given the complete lack of cooperation of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York (FRBNY) in answering any questions about foreign gold holdings in this vault, then good luck to Swedish citizens in trying to ascertain that gold’s whereabouts or convincing the Riksbank to possibly repatriate that gold.
A very tiny 2% of Swedish gold is also listed as being held with the Swiss National Bank (SNB). The SNB gold vault is in Berne under its headquarters building on Bundesplatz.
The Riksbank also claims to hold 15.1 tonnes of its gold (12%) in its own storage, i.e. stored domestically in Sweden. Interestingly, on 30 October 2013, just two days after the Riksbank released details of its gold storage locations, Finland’s central bank in neighbouring Helsinki, the Bank of Finland, also released the storage locations of its 49 tonnes gold reserves. The Bank of Finland claims its 49 tonnes of gold is spread out as follows: 51% at the Bank of England, 20% at the Riksbank in Sweden, 18% at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, 7% in Switzerland at the Swiss National Bank and 4% held in Finland by the Bank of Finland. This means that not only is the Riksbank storing 15.1 tonnes of Swedish gold, it also apparently is also storing 9.8 tonnes of Finland’s gold, making a grand total of 24.9 tonnes of gold stored with the Riksbank. The storage location of this 24.9 tonnes gold is unknown, but one possibility suggested by the Swedish blogger Cornucopia (Lars Wilderäng) is that this gold is being stored in the recently built Riksbank cash management building beside Stockholm’s Arlanda International Airport, a building which was completed in 2012.
On its website, the Riksbank states that its 125.7 tonnes of gold “is equivalent to around 10,000 gold bars”. A rough rule of thumb is that 1 tonne of gold consists of 80 Good Delivery Bars. These Good Delivery Gold gold bars are wholesale market gold bars which, although they are variable weight bars, usually each weigh in the region of 400 troy ounces or 12.5 kilograms. Hence 125.7 tonnes is roughly equal to 125.7 * 80 bars = 10,056 bars, which explains where the Riksbank gets its 10,000 gold bar total figure from.
Using Gold for Foreign Exchange Interventions
On another page on its web site titled ‘Gold and Foreign Currency Reserve’, the Riksbank is surprisingly open about the uses to which it puts its gold holdings, uses such as foreign exchange interventions and emergency liquidity:
“The gold and foreign currency reserve can primarily be used to provide emergency liquidity assistance to banks, to fulfil Sweden’s share of the international lending of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and to intervene on the foreign exchange market, if need be.”
This is not a misprint and is not a statement that somehow only applies to the ‘foreign currency reserve’ component of the reserves, since the same web page goes on to specifically say that:
“The gold can be used to fund emergency liquidity assistance or foreign exchange interventions, among other things.”
Therefore, the Riksbank is conceding that at least some of its gold is actively used in central bank operations and that this gold does not merely sit in quiet unencumbered storage. On the contrary, this gold at times has additional claims and titles attached to it due to being loaned or swapped.
When the Riksbank revealed its gold storage locations back in October 2013, this news was covered by a number of Swedish media outlets, one of which was the Stockholm-based financial newspaper Dagens Industri, commonly known as DI. DI’s article on the topic, published in Swedish with a title translated as “Here is the Swedish Gold“, also featured a series of questions and answers from personnel from the Riksbank asset management department. Some of these answers are worth highlighting here as they touch on the active management of the Swedish gold and also the shockingly poor auditing of the Swedish gold.
In the DI article, Göran Robertsson, Deputy Head of Riksbank’s asset management department, noted that historically the Swedish gold was stored at geographically diversified locations for security reasons, but that this same geographic distribution is now primarily aimed at facilitating the rapid exchange of Swedish gold for major foreign currencies, hence the reason that nearly half of the Swedish gold is held in the Bank of England gold vaults – since the Bank of England London vaults are where gold swaps and gold loans take place.
Robertsson noted that over the 2008-2009 period,50 tonnes of gold Swedish gold located at the Bank of England was exchanged for US dollars:
“London is the dominant international marketplace for gold.We used the gold 2008-2009 during the financial crisis when we switched it to the dollar we then lent to Swedish banks”
One of these Riskbank gold-US Dollar swap transaction was also referenced in a 2011 World Gold Council report on gold market liquidity. This report stated that in 2008 following the Lehman collapse:
“In order to be able to provide liquidity to the Scandinavian banking system, the Swedish Riksbank utilised its gold reserves by swapping some of its gold to obtain dollar liquidity before it was able to gain access to the US dollar swap facilities with the Federal Reserve.”
In the October 2013 DI interview, Göran Robertsson also noted that at some point following this gold – dollar exchange, “the size of the reserve was restored“, which presumably means that the Riksbank received back 50 tonnes of gold. As to whether the restoration of the gold holdings was the exact same 50 tonnes of gold as had been previously held (the same gold bars) is not clear.
Sophie Degenne, Head of the Riksbank’s asset management department, also noted that:
“The main purpose of the gold and foreign exchange reserves is to use it when needed, as in the financial crisis”
Auditing of the Swedish Gold
On the subject of so-called transparency and auditing of the gold, Sophie Degenne said the following in the same DI interview:
“Why do you reveal at which central banks the gold is located? It is a part of the Riksbank endeavours to be as transparent as we can. We have engaged in dialogue with the relevant central banks”
How do you verify that the gold is really where it should be? “We have our own listings of where it is.We reconcile these against extracts that we receive once a year.From now on, we will also start with our own inspections.”
Therefore, the Riksbank gold auditing procedure at that time was one of merely comparing one piece of paper to another piece of paper and in no way involved physically auditing the gold bars in any of the foreign locations. These weak audit methods of the Swedish gold were first highlighted by Liberty Silver CEO, Mikael From in Stockholm-based news daily Aftonbladet’s coverage of the Swedish gold storage locations in an article in early November 2013 titled “Questions about Sweden’s gold reserves persist“.
In Aftonbladet’s article, Mikael From stated that while it was welcome that the Riksbank was at that point signalling an ambition to inspect the Swedish gold reserves, it was not clear that the Riksbank would be conducting a proper audit of the gold reserves at the time of inspection, although such a proper audit would be highly desirable. Mikael stated that without such a proper audit, and without witnessing the gold with their own eyes, the Riksbank and the Swedish State could not be certain that the Swedish gold actually existed.
Turning now to the questions which I posed to the Swedish Riksbank in early February 2017 about its gold reserves. I asked the Riskbank two basic and simple questions as follows:
“I am undertaking research into central bank gold reserves, including the gold reserves held by the Riksbank at its 5 storage facilities.
1. Are the gold bars held by the Riksbank in its foreign storage facilities physically audited by the Riksbank (i.e. stored at Bank of England, Bank of Canada, Federal Reserve New York and Swiss National Bank)? In other words, does the Riksbank have a physical audit program for this gold?
2. Secondly, would the Riksbank be able to send me a gold bar weight list which shows the gold bar holdings details for the 125.7 tonnes of gold held by the Riksbank. A weight list being the industry standard list showing bar brand (refiner), serial number, gross weight, fineness, fine weight etc.
A few days after I submitted my questions, the Presschef/Chief Press Officer of the Riksbank responded as follows. On the subject of auditing:
“Answer 1: Yes, the Riksbank performs regularly physical audits of its gold.“
In response to the question about a gold bar weight list, the Chief Press Officer said:
Answer 2: The Riksbank publishes information about where the gold is stored and how much in tonnes is at each place. See table (same distribution table as above). However, the Riksbank does not publish weight lists or other details of the gold holdings.“
So here we have the Riksbank claiming that it personally now performs physical audits of its gold on a regular basis. This is the first time in the public domain, as far as I know, that the Riksbank is claiming to have undertaken physical gold audits of its gold holdings, and it goes beyond the 2013 statement from the Riksbank’s Sophie Degenne when she said “we will also start with our own inspections“.
But critically ,there was zero proof offered by the Riksbank to me, or on its website, that it has undertaken any physical gold audits. There is no documentation or evidence whatsoever that any physical audits have ever been conducted on any of the 10,000 gold bars in any of the 5 supposed storage locations that the Riksbank claims to store gold bars at. Contrast this to the bi-annual physical audits which are carried out on the gold bars in the SPDR Gold Trust (GLD) which are published on the GLD website.
In any other industry, there would be an outcry and court cases and litigation if an entity claimed it had conducted audits while offering no proof of said audits. However, in the world of central banking, perversely, this secrecy is allowed to persist. This is outrageous to say the least and Swedish citizens should be very concerned about this lack of transparency of the Swedish gold reserves.
Official Secrecy about Swedish Gold Reserves
Given the brief and not very useful Riksbank responses to my 2 questions above, I sent a follow on email to the Riksbank asking why the Swedish central bank did not publish a gold bar weight list. My question was as follows:
“Is there any specific reason why the Riksbank does not publish a gold bar weight list in the way, for example, that a gold-backed ETF does publish such a weight list every trading day?
i.e. Why is the Riksbank not transparent about its gold bar holdings?”
This second email was answered by the Riksbank Head of Communications, as follows:
“This kind of information is covered by secrecy relating to foreign affairs, as well as security secrecy and surveillance secrecy in accordance with the relevant provisions in the Swedish Public Access to Information and Secrecy Act.
As far as we are aware of, the Riksbank is among the most transparent central banks, being public with information about the storage locations and volumes, but do let us know if any other central banks are offering the level of transparency you are asking for (except for Germany of course, which we are aware about).”
So here you can see here that gold, which in the words of the Wall Street Journal is just a ‘Pet Rock’, is covered by some very strong secrecy laws in Sweden. Why would a pet rock need ultra strong secrecy laws?
An explanatory document on Sweden’s “Public Access to Information and Secrecy Act” can be accessed here. In Sweden, the rules governing public access to official documents are covered by the Freedom of the Press Act. While its beyond topic to go into the details of Swedish secrecy laws right now, there is a short section in the document titled “What official documents may be kept secret?” (Section 2.2) which includes the following:
“The Freedom of the Press Act lists the interests that may be protected by keeping official documents secret:
National security or Sweden’s relations with a foreign state or an international organisation;
The central financial policy, the monetary policy, or the national foreign exchange policy;
Inspection, control or other supervisory activities of a public authority;
The interest of preventing or prosecuting crime;
The public economic interest;
The protection of the personal or economic circumstances of private subjects; or
The preservation of animal or plant species.
Given that the Riksbank stated that the information in its gold bar weight lists was “covered by secrecy relating to foreign affairs, as well as security secrecy and surveillance secrecy”, I would hazard a guess that the Riksbank would try to reject Freedom of Information requests in this area by pointing to central bank gold storage and gold operations as falling under points 1 or 2, i.e. falling under national security or relations with a foreign state or international organisation, or else monetary policy / foreign exchange policy (especially given that the Riksbank uses gold reserves in its foreign currency interventions). Perhaps the Riksbank would also try to twist point 5 as an excuse, i.e. that it wouldn’t be in the public economic interest to release the Swedish gold bar details.
As to why the Riksbank and nearly all other central banks are ultra secretive about gold bar weight lists and even physical auditing of gold bar holdings usually boils down to the fact that, like the Riksbank, these gold bar holdings are actively managed and are often used in gold loans, gold swaps and even gold location swaps. If identifiable details of the gold bars of such central banks were in the public domain, given that these bars are involved in loans, currency swaps and location swaps, these gold bar details could begin to show up in the gold bar lists of other central banks or of the gold bar lists of publicly listed gold-backed Exchange Traded Funds. This would then blow the cover of the central banks which continue to maintain the fiction that their loaned and swapped gold is still held in unencumbered custody on their balance sheets, and would blow a hole in their contrived and corrupt accounting policies.
A Proposal to the Oldest Central Bank in the World
Since the Riksbank happened to ask me were there any central banks “offering the level of transparency [I was] asking for” i.e. providing gold bar weight lists, I decided to send a final response back to the Riksbank in early March highlighting the central banks that I am aware of that have published such gold bar weight lists, and I also took the opportunity of proposing that the Riksbank should follow suit in publishing its gold bar weight list. My letter to the Riksbank was as follows:
“You had asked which central banks offered a level of transparency on their gold holdings that include publication of a gold bar weight list. Apart from the Deutsche Bundesbank, which you know about, I can think of 3 central banks which have released weight lists of their gold bar holdings.
The 3 examples below (together with the Bundesbank) show that some of the most important central banks and monetary authorities in the world have now deemed it acceptable to include the release of gold bar weight lists as part of their gold communication transparency strategies.
The 4 sets of weight lists below include gold bar holdings at the Bank of England (stored by Mexico, Australia, Germany), and at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York (stored by the US Treasury and Bundesbank). Together these two storage locations account for 60% of the Riksbank’s gold holdings (74.6 tonnes).
The Riksbank is the world’s oldest central bank and has a long track record of being progressive and transparent. By releasing the Riksbank’s gold bar weight lists for the gold bars stored over the 5 storage locations (London, New York, Ottawa, Berne and in Sweden), the Swedish central bank would be joining an elite group of central banks and monetary institutions that could be considered the early stage adopters of much needed transparency in this area.”
The RBA list includes refiner brand, gross weight, assay (fineness), and fine weight, as well as bank of England account number.
3. US Treasury
In 2011, the US Treasury’s full detailed schedules of gold bars was published by the US House Committee on Financial Services as part of submissions for its hearing titled “Investigating the Gold: H.R. 1495, the Gold Reserve Transparency Act of 2011 and the Oversight of United States Gold Holdings”.
These US Treasury weight lists are as follows, and are downloadable from the financial services section of the “house.gov” web site.
Weight list of all Treasury gold held at Fort Knox, Denver and West Point – 699,515 bars – pdf format
The Bundesbank list show all the German gold bars held at the Bank of England, NY fed and Banque de France as well as in Frankfurt.”
As of now, the Swedish Riksbank has a) not published a gold bar weight list of any of its gold bar holdings and b) not acknowledged my follow up email where I listed the central banks that have produced such lists and suggested that the Riksbank do likewise.
The Swedish Riksbank claims to hold 10,000 large Good Delivery gold bars in 5 locations across the world and now claims to have conducted physical gold audits of this gold. Yet it has never published any physical gold audit results of any of these gold bars nor published any of the serial numbers of any of the 10,000 gold bars it claims to have in storage. For a so-called progressive democracy this is shocking, although not surprising given the arrogant and unaccountable company that central bankers keep with each other.
If someone with time on their hands, ideally a Swedish citizen, has an interest in this area, it would be worthwhile for them to research the rules of the Swedish Freedom of Information Act, and then craft a few carefully worded Freedom of Information requests to the Riksbank requesting physical audit documents and gold bar weight lists of Sweden’s 125.7 tonnes of gold that is supposedly held in London, New York, Ottawa, Berne and in Sweden, possibly in or around Stockholm or beside Arlanda airport.
While these Freedom of Information requests would probably get rejected due to some spurious secrecy excuse and thrown back at the applicant in short order, at least its worth trying, and might make a good story for one of the Swedish financial newspapers to cover.
In a bizarre series of events that have had limited coverage but which are sure to have far-reaching consequences for benchmark pricing in the precious metals markets, the LBMA Gold Price and LBMA Silver Price auctions both experienced embarrassing trading glitches over consecutive trading days on Monday 10 April and Tuesday 11 April. At the outset, its worth remembering that both of these London-based benchmarks are Regulated Benchmarks, regulated by the UK’s Financial Conduct Authority (FCA).
In both cases, the trading glitches had real impact on the benchmark prices being derived in the respective auctions, with the auction prices deviating noticeably from the respective spot prices during the auctions. It’s also worth remembering that the LBMA Gold Price and LBMA Silver Price reference prices that are ‘discovered’ each day in the daily auctions are used to value everything from gold-backed and silver-backed Exchange Traded Funds (ETFs) to precious metals interest rate swaps, and are also used widely as reference prices by thousands of precious metals market participants, such as wholesalers, refineries, and bullion retailers, to value their own bi-lateral transactions.
Although the gold and silver auctions are separately administered, they both suffer from limited direct participation due to the LBMA only authorising a handful of banks to directly take part. Only 7 banks are allowed to participate directly in the Silver auction while the gold auction is only currently open to 14 entities, all of which are banks. Limited participation can in theory cause a lack of trading liquidity. Added to the mix, a central clearing option was introduced to the LBMA Gold Price auction on Monday 10 April, a day before Tuesday’s gold auction screw-up. The introduction of this central clearing process change saw four of the direct participants suspended from the auction since they had not made the necessary system changes in time to process central clearing. This in itself could have caused a drop in liquidity within Tuesday’s gold auction as it reduced the number of possible participants.
Other theories have been put forward to explain the price divergences, such as the banks being unwilling to hedge or arbitrage auction trades due to the advent of more stringent regulatory changes to prevent price manipulation. While this may sound logical in theory, no one, as far as I know, has presented empirical trade evidence to back up this theory. There is also the possibility of deliberate price manipulation of the auction prices by a participant(s) or their clients, a scenario that needs to be addressed and either ruled out or confirmed.
ICE Benchmark Administration (IBA), the administrator of the LBMA Gold Price, also introduced a price calculation Algorithm into the gold auction in mid-March 2017, a change which should also be considered by those seeking to find a valid explanation for the gold auction price divergence where the opening price kept falling through multiple auctions rounds whilst the spot price remained far higher. Could the algorithm have screwed up on 11 April?
Whatever the explanations for the price divergences, these incidents again raise the question as to whether these particular precious metals auctions are fit for purpose, and why they were designed (and allowed to be designed) at the outset to explicitly block direct participation by nearly every precious metals trading entity on the planet except for a limited number of London-based bullion bank members of the LBMA.
LBMA Silver Price fiasco
First up, on Monday 10 April, buried at the end of a Reuters News precious metals market daily news wrap was a very brief snippet of news referring to an incident which dogged the LBMA Silver Price during Monday’s daily auction (an auction which starts at midday London time). According to Reuters:
“silver prices slipped after the LBMA silver price benchmark auction was paused for 17 minutes after a circuit breaker was triggered when the auction price moved outside of the spot range, the CME said in a statement.”
What exactly the CME meant is unclear because whatever statement Reuters was referring to has not been released on the CME Group website or elsewhere, and Reuters did not write a separate news article about the incident.
To recap, the LBMA Silver Price is administered by Thomson Reuters on a calculation platform run by the CME Group, and operated on a contract basis on behalf of the London Bullion Market Association (LBMA). However, there is nothing anywhere on the CME’s LBMA Silver Price web page, or on the Thomson Reuters LBMA Silver Price web page, or on the LBMA website, in the form of a statement, comment or otherwise, referring to this ‘circuit breaker’ that persisted for ’17 minutes’ in the LBMA Silver Price auctionduring which time the ‘auction price moved outside of the spot range‘
On its calculation platform, CME makes use of a pricing algorithm to automatically calculate a price for each round of the LBMA Silver Price auction (excluding the first auction round). From page 8 of its LBMA Silver Price Methodology Guide:
“3.7 Starting Price
The initial auction price value is determined by the auction platform operator by comparing multiple Market Data sources prior to the auction opening to form a consensus price based on the individual sources of Market Data. The auction platform operator enters the initial auction price before the first round of the auction begins….”
“3.4 End of Round Comparison
If the difference between the total buy and sell quantity is greater than the tolerance value, the auction platform determines that the auction is not balanced, automatically cancels orders entered in the auction round by all participants, calculates a new price, and starts a new round with the new price.”
There is also a manual price override facility which can be invoked if needed:
3.8 Manual Price Override
In exceptional circumstances, CME Benchmark Europe Ltd can overrule the automated new price of the next auction round in cases when more significant or finer changes are required. When doing so, the auction platform operator will refer to a composition of live Market Data sources while the auction is in progress.”
As to why the “auction platform operator” did not invoke these manual override powers and seek market data sources during the time in which the silver auction was ‘stuck’ for 17 minutes is unclear. A 17 minute pause would presumably be, in the CME’s words, ‘exceptional circumstances’.
Unfortunately, neither the CME website, the Thomson Reuters website, or the LBMA website provides intra-round pricing data for the LBMA Silver Price, so anyone who doesn’t have a subscription to the live data of the auction is well and truly left in the dark as to what actually happened on Monday 10 April. Unlike the LBMA Gold Price auction which at least provides an ‘Auction Transparency Report’ for each auction (see below), the LBMA Silver Price auction is sorely lacking in any public transparency whatsoever.
But what is clear from the Reuters information snippet is that the LBMA Silver Price auction on Monday 10 April suffered a serious trading glitch, that saw the prices that were being formed in the auction deviate from where the silver spot price was trading during that time. This price deviation suggests a lack of trading liquidity in the auction and/or an inability of the participants to hedge their trades in other trading venues. As to whether the final LBMA Silver Price that was derived and published as the daily benchmark price on 10 March was outside the spot range (and above or below spot) is not mentioned in the Reuters report.
The complete opacity about this incident is concerning but not really surprising since nearly everything in the London precious metals markets is shrouded in secrecy, and corporate communication in this area is truly abysmal.
Recalling that Thomson Reuters and CME announced in early March that they are abruptly pulling out of the contract for administrating and calculating the LBMA Silver Price, this latest fiasco is unwelcome news for the LBMA – CME – Thomson Reuters triumvirate, and raises further questions for the FCA as to whether this Silver auction and benchmark should even be allowed to continue in its present or similar form.
LBMA Gold Price fiasco
Turning to the London gold auction, on the afternoon of Tuesday 11 April, the LBMA Gold Price auction (which starts at 3:00pm London time) experienced what can only be described as a shocking and serious trading fiasco which has real world consequences for all trading entities that use the LBMA Gold Price Benchmark reference price (and there are many that do so). As a reminder, ICE benchmark Administration (IBA) administers the daily LBMA Gold Price auctions on behalf of the LBMA.
“London’s gold price benchmark fixed some $12 below the spot price on Tuesday afternoon as the auction appeared to become locked in a downward spiral. From an initial $1,265.75, close to the spot price at the time, the auction price ratcheted steadily lower before fixing at $1,252.90 in the ninth round. From the fifth round to the eighth the bid and offer volumes remained frozen, unable to match.“
“This came a day after ICE introduced clearing for the LBMA Gold Price auction”
Reuters concludes its article by noting that the ICE clearing was introduced:“before several participating banks had the necessary systems in place.”
“As a result, China Construction Bank, Societe Generale, Standard Chartered and UBS are yet to confirm a date for their participation in the cleared auction.. ICE declined to comment. The LBMA, which owns the intellectual property rights to the auction, was not immediately available to comment.”
This forced reduction in the number of participants in the auction seems to be relevant to the issue and therefore requires further scrutiny.
ICE Central Clearing – Foisted on the LBMA Gold Price auction?
In mid-October 2016 during the LBMA precious metals conference in Singapore, ICE Benchmark Administration announced that it would introduce central clearing into the London Gold Price by utilizing a series of daily futures contracts which it planned to launch in February 2017. The introduction of central clearing into the auction was initially planned for March 2017.
“IBA gave a central clearing update to the Committee, notifying them that the cleared instrument would be launched in January 2017 and the auction trades could be routed there from March 2017. The Committee were informed that IBA had spoken to every bank and every bank wanted to move. Discussion moved to the technical implications for this new model and IBA’s primary wish to keep running a healthy auction.”
“From March 2017, subject to regulatory review, centrally cleared settlement will be available for transactions which originate from IBA’s gold auction underlying the LBMA Gold Price.
This will give firms the choice of settling their trades bilaterally against each counterparty (as they currently do), or submitting their trades to clearing and settling versus the clearing house. This mechanism removes the requirement for firms to have bilateral credit lines in place with all of the other Direct Participants in the auction.
Central clearing opens the auction to a broader cross-section of the market. It also facilitates greater volume in the auction.“
By the end of March 2017, the above statement had been altered from March 2017 to “Q2 2017″ with ICE pushing back the launch date for the introduction of central clearing:
“From Q2 2017, subject to regulatory review, centrally cleared settlement will be available for transactions which originate from IBAs gold auction underlying the LBMA Gold Price….”
Reuters again covered these ICE clearing delays in a series of articles during March, highlighting the fact that 4 of the 13 banks that are direct participants in the LBMA Gold Price auction were not ready for the introduction of central clearing due to delays in making unspecified changes to their internal IT systems that would allow such central clearing processing. So anybody who had been reading these Reuters articles would have been aware that there were risks on the horizon in terms of some of the LBMA Gold Price auction participants being slow in being ready for the changes.
“U.S.-based exchange operator ICE has already pushed back the launch of its service by several weeks to allow the banks and brokers who participate in the auction to adapt their IT systems, four sources with direct knowledge of the matter told Reuters.”
“Sources at many participant banks said that they were unhappy with the speed at which ICE was seeking to introduce clearing, which require investment in IT processes and back office systems and raise complex compliance issues.”
“However, at least four of the 14 banks and brokers who participate in the LBMA Gold Price auction will still not be ready to use the new system.
Banks that are not ready would be suspended from the auction until they have the necessary IT infrastructure in place or would have to participate through other players who could clear deals, according to the sources.
ICE’s readiness to provoke such disruption illustrates how much it wants to avoid further delays that could torpedo its ambitions to become the dominant exchange in London’s vast bullion market, market sources said”
“two sources told Reuters that ICE had again delayed and there was now no set start date.”
“Sources earlier told Reuters that Societe Generale, Standard Chartered, ICBC Standard Bank and China Construction Bank would not be ready to clear the LBMA auction in time for April 3.”
Again interestingly, ICE’s desire to promote its own gold futures contracts was seen as a primary driver for trying to rush through the introduction of central clearing for the gold auction, as doing so would add volume to ICE’s daily gold futures contracts:
“market sources say ICE plans to use clearing of the LBMA Gold Price auction, which it administers, to funnel business to its contracts and give it a head start over rivals.”
As a reminder, ICE and CME have both recently launched gold futures contracts connected to the London market, and the London Metal Exchange (LME) plans to launch its own suite of London gold futures contracts in early June.
Central clearing uses exchange for physical (EFP) transactions in the daily futures contracts which are then cleared at ICE Clear US. The futures have daily settlement each day between 3:00 pm and 3:05 pm London time. But how the whole process ties together is still quite puzzling. An email to the IBA CEO asking for details of how the futures are linked to the auction went unanswered.
So what was this downward spiral that the LBMA Gold Price auction experienced on the afternoon of Tuesday 11 April when it became, in the words of Reuters, locked in a downward spiral?
Let’s look at the ICE Auction Transparency Reports for the few days before and during the 11 April afternoon fiasco. These reports show the number of auction rounds, the number of participants,and the bid and offer volumes for each round as well as the price at the end of each round.
Fourteen entities are now authorized to be direct participants in the LBMA Gold Price auction, 13 of which are banks, the other being new participant INTL FCStone since early April. INTL FCStone is a financial services company that has a slant towards commodities. The 13 banks are:
Bank of China
Bank of Communications
China Construction Bank
Industrial and Commercial Bank of China (ICBC)
HSBC Bank USA
JPMorgan Chase Bank (London Branch)
The Bank of Nova Scotia – ScotiaMocatta
Unlike the old London Gold Fixing which had 5 member banks that were obliged to always turn up (and since 2004 dial in) for every auction, this LBMA Gold Price auction does not require all the authorized participants to dial-in. Most of the time, far fewer than the full contingent turn up. For example on Friday 7 April, 8 banks turned up at the morning auction while only 7 banks turned up at the afternoon auction (i.e only a 50% turnout). However, Friday 7 April is also relevant since that was the last day before ICE introduced central clearing to the gold auction.
Fast forwarding to the morning gold auction on Monday 10 April when ICE first introduced central clearing, you can see from the below auction report that only 5 banks participated. This is the same small number that took part in the former London Gold Fixing which was run by the infamous and scandal ridden London Gold Market Fixing Limited and which consisted of Deutsche Bank, Barclays, HSBC, Scotiabank and Société Générale.
The reason the turnouts after the introduction of central clearing are so low is that 4 of the direct participant banks have been excluded from the auction due to not being ready to implement central clearing – a fact predicted by Reuters News in March. This means that the usual number of between 7-10 banks participating in the auction has now been reduced by 4, as four banks cannot take part. As Reuters said on 21 March “Banks that are not ready would be suspended from the auction until they have the necessary IT infrastructure in place”.
The irony of this debacle is that the participating banks all already have bilateral credit limits with each other and so don’t need to do central clearing in the auction. Only new /future direct participants which do not have bilateral credit lines technically need to utilize the clearing solution.
Central clearing is supposed to make it easier for a far wider range and number of participants to take part. But if this entails enhancements to IT systems that some of the most sophisticated investment banks on the planet are struggling with, what hope is there for other precious metals trading entities to participate.
But some reason – probably to try to kickstart the trading volume in its daily gold futures contracts – ICE has made it mandatory for all existing direct participants (the bullion banks) to open clearing accounts and get their IT systems in shape to use clearing.
“Central clearing for the auction is enabled by effecting Exchange for Physical (“EFP”) transactions into the new physically settled, loco London gold daily futures contract which is traded on ICE Futures U.S. The EFPs establish positions in the futures contract which are cleared and can be physically delivered at ICE Clear U.S“
and Direct participants (DPs) “must establish a clearing account with an ICE Clear U.S. Clearing member” so as to be able to use this account to clear auction trades.
However, “DPs may still maintain credit lines to settle bilaterally against other DPs” and “DPs can elect, for each counterparty, to clear or settle their auction transactions bilaterally.” If this is so, then why the need to force these banks to open a clearing account and push through complex IT changes?
The ICE LBMA Gold Price web page now includes a double asterisk next to the names of the culprit banks that are not ready for central clearing. These banks are China Construction Bank, Société Générale, Standard Chartered, and UBS. the double asterisk states that “** Date of participating in the cleared auction to be determined.”
So now, more than 2 years after the LBMA Gold Price has been introduced, we are back to a situation where only 5 large bullion banks are participating in a daily gold price auction, an auction which has huge ramifications for the reference pricing of gold across myriad gold markets around the world.
Both of the auctions on 10 April finished within the first round, with buy volume and sell volume in balance, so there was no need for subsequent auction rounds.
Turning to the morning auction of Tuesday 11 April, only a measly 4 banks took part in the first round of the auction, and 5 participants took part in rounds 2 and 3. The bid and ask volumes were not that much out of balance, and the auction finished after 3 rounds.
Turning to the afternoon auction of 11 April, the price action commentary provided by Reuters was as follows:
“from an initial $1,265.75, close to the spot price at the time, the auction price ratcheted steadily lower before fixing at $1,252.90 in the ninth round. From the fifth round to the eighth the bid and offer volumes remained frozen, unable to match.“
Below you can see visually see what happened round by round from the first round price of $1,265.75 where there was zero bid volume and 125,217 ozs (nearly 4 tonnes) of ask volume, through the fifth to (actually) the ninth rounds where bid volume was an unchanging 92,873 ozs and ask volume was an unchanging 107,090 ozs, but still the price fell from $1,260.50 to fix in round 9 at $1,252.90, i,e, the price fell $7.60 in 2 minutes while the volumes didn’t budge. And most critically, the fixing price was $1252.90 while the spot price was trading at $1267 at that time.
“the benchmark ended up being set almost $15 dollars below where spot prices were trading at the time. The PM Gold Price showed a benchmark at $1,252.90 an ounce; however at the time, spot gold prices were trading around $1,267 an ounce, with prices heading towards a new five-month high.”
How could this happen? How could the auction price diverge so much from the spot price at that time and how could the auction go through round after round lowering the price while the bid and ask volumes did not change and while the spot price was actually far higher than any of the prices in the auction?
Kitco’s explanation, which is mostly based on the view of one person, Jeff Christian of the CPM Group, put the problem down to “poorly conceived regulations and a faulty price discovery mechanism“, i.e. a lack of liquidity due to banks being scared off by tightening regulations, and that this “sharp reduction in liquidity during the auction process” is causing “a large discrepancy in prices“. Christian also said that “because of regulations, banks and other financial institutions are backing away from becoming market makers.”
But this reasoning of backing away due to regulations is not backed up by the facts for the simple reason that banks have continued to join the LBMA Gold Price auction at a rapid rate over the last 2 years, i.e. there is a trend of ever more banks applying to be authorized to participate in the auction. For example, since the auction was launched on 20 March 2015 with 6 banks, 9 more banks have signed up JP Morgan, Morgan Stanley, Standard Chartered, Bank of China, ICBC, China Construction Bank, Bank of Communications, Toronto Dominion Bank, and INTL FCStone. Note that Barclays was one of the original six banks in the auction but dropped out after it downscaled its the precious metals business in London. There are also the same number of LBMA Market Makers now as there were two years ago, in both cases 13 LBMA Market Makers.
Kitco’s article also fails to mention the central clearing implementation fiasco brought about by ICE’s rush to channel activity into its gold futures contracts and Kitco even fails to realize that 4 banks were suspended from the auction due to this central clearing issue.
Another factor relevant to the screwed up afternoon auction on 11 April that should be considered is the fact that in mid-March 2017, ICE Benchmark Administration introduced a price algorithm into the LBMA Gold Price auction. This fact has been totally ignored by the financial media.
From a human Chairperson to an automated Algorithm
Up until mid March 2017, the LBMA Gold Price auction used a human ‘independent chairperson’ to choose the opening price in the auction and also the auction price in each subsequent round. The identities of these independent chairpersons have never been divulged by ICE nor the LBMA.
Critically, sometime during the 3rd week of March 2017, ICE Benchmark Administration (IBA) introduced a pricing algorithm into the LBMA Gold Price auction. This change in procedure (moving from an auction chairperson to an auction pricing algorithm) was not actively highlighted by either ICE or the LBMA but is clear from looking at Internet Archive imprints of the ICE LBMA Gold Price webpage.
“The auction process has an independent chairperson, appointed by IBA to determine the price for each round and ensure that the price responds appropriately to market conditions.”
See screenshot below for the same statement – taken from the same webpage:
Bullet point 1 of the Auction Process for the 9 March version of the webpage also refers to the chairperson as being responsible for setting the starting price and the price of each subsequent round “in line with current market conditions and the activity in the auction.”
But by 16 March, when the next imprint of the LBMA Gold Price page was made by the Internet Archive, the reference in the methodology section to an independent chairperson had been fully deleted, and bullet point 1 had been changed from mentioning a chairperson to discussing an algorithm, specifically changed to “IBA sets the starting price and the price for each round using an algorithm that takes into account current market conditions and the activity in the auction.”
See screenshot below for the same statement – taken from the same webpage:
So if there is an algorithm that is taking into account current market conditions in addition to activity in the auction, why did this algorithm not take the current spot prices into account over rounds 4 – 9 of the LBMA Gold Price auction on the afternoon of Tuesday 11 April?
Furthermore, for such a major change to the methodology and auction process in an auction whose benchmark price is widely used in the gold world, it’s very surprising that neither ICE, nor the LBMA, nor the London financial media mentioned this substantial algorithmic change.
In early December 2016, ICE published an LBMA GOLD PRICE Methodology Consultation in which one of the consultation’s proposed changes was “the introduction of an algorithm to determine the price for each auction round“.
The December 2016 document noted that:
“IBA’s auction process is currently that the auction chair sets the price for each Round in line with current market conditions and the activity in the auction”
“IBA currently has a panel of auction chairs who are independent of any firm associated with the auction, including Direct Participants. The chairs are externally sourced but work with IBA to deliver a robust process for determination of the LBMA Gold Price.
The chairs use their extensive market experience to set the round prices based on a pricing framework agreed with IBA. IBA chose to operate the auction using human chairs to make sure that the price could respond appropriately to market conditions from the outset.
IBA’s feedback from the market was that, at least in the early stages, the professional judgement of a human chairman was needed.“
“After operating the auction for more than a year, IBA started to develop an algorithm to set the auction’s starting price and subsequent round prices. IBA has now been testing and refining the algorithm over a number of months“
As per the proposal, the algorithm would replace the human chair, after which:
“Each auction will continue to be supervised by IBA’s analysts, and, if for any reason an auction did not progress as expected, IBA’s existing safeguards would be deployed to protect the integrity of the auction and the LBMA Gold Price benchmark“
These safeguards were stated as being three, namely:
- Pause the auction and restart, to give Participants an opportunity to contact clients or re-evaluate their positions
- Increase the imbalance threshold, if it appears that the auction will otherwise not finish
- Cancel an order, if it is compromising the integrity of the process and the relevant participant cannot be reached.
The proposals were pencilled in for implementation in Quarter 1, 2017.
Following the consultation, a “Methodology Consultation Feedback” document was published on the ICE Benchmark Administration website. One feedback respondent was concerned about who would be overseeing the daily auctions in the absence of a human chairperson, to which ICE answered:
“IBA can confirm that the auction will always be supervised by at least two IBA analysts. This approach is consistent with how we operate our other benchmarks.
Our aim is to put the auction on auto-pilot, not to make it driverless.
Unfortunately, from the wider gold market’s perspective, the LBMA Gold Price auction on the afternoon of Tuesday 11 April does indeed appear to have been ‘driverless‘ as it “did not progress as expected“, so it is now up to the LBMA and ICE to establish what the ‘IBA analysts’ were up to behind the driving wheel that day.
On its website, ICE states that the LBMA Gold Price methodology is “reviewed by the LBMA Gold Price Oversight Committee as documented in its Terms of Reference.” This Oversight Committee should also explain to the gold world what actually happened on the afternoon of 11 April.
Additionally, I find no explanation on ICE’s LBMA Gold Price webpage as to how exactly the automated algorithm works, what its logic rules are, how it was programmed etc.
The trading glitch with the LBMA Silver Price on Monday 10 April seems to have been completely missed by London’s financial media except for the brief reference by Reuters. The fact that there is no information on the CME, Thomson Reuters and LBMA websites about the issue should raise concern for users of this benchmark and for the UK’s regulator, the FCA. In an ideal world, there should be a full ‘outage’ report published on each of the 3 websites explaining what happened, but this will not happen in the shadowy and secretive London Silver Market.
Perhaps the auction price divergence in the LBMA Silver Price stems from a lack of liquidity brought on by the limited presence of auction participants, or due to the inability or unwillingness of participants to hedge or arbitrage their auction trades against the London OTC spot or other trading venues? The simple thing to do would be for CME, Thomson Reuters and the LBMA to explain themselves since this would minimize guesswork and to provide global silver market entities with clarity. Anything short of a full explanation by the parties concerned is irresponsible.
For the LBMA Gold Price auction, ICE Benchmark Administration needs to release a full ‘outage’ report and explanation on what exactly happened in the afternoon auction on 11 April and explain to the global gold market whether the introduction of central clearing was in any way responsible for the price divergence, and whether there are any conflicts of interest in trying to get banks to use its daily gold futures contracts. While they are at it, ICE should fully explain how the recent introduction of a pricing algorithm impacts the gold auction and whether this too had an impact on the auction price entering a downward spiral.
As the LBMA Silver Price and LBMA Gold Price are both Regulated Benchmarks, the FCA regulator needs to step up to the plate and for once show that it is on the side of the users of these benchmarks and not the powerful London banks.
Both of these auctions require full transparency and ease of direct participation by the full spectrum of the world’s gold and silver trading entities. Currently, they fall far short of these goals.
German precious metals group Heraeus Precious Metals (HPM), part of the Heraeus industrial group, has just announced the full acquisition of Swiss precious metals refining group Argor-Heraeus. Heraeus is headquartered in Hanau, just outside Frankfurt. Argor-Heraeus is headquartered in Mendrisio in the Swiss Canton of Ticino, beside the Italian border.
In early November 2016, BullionStar was among the first to report that Swiss Argor-Heraeus was indeed an acquisition target. At the time, market sources had indicated that the most likely acquirer was a private equity company Capinvest, with other suitors said to be Japanese group Asahi and Swiss based MKS-PAMP.
In late 2016, S&P Global Platts reported that Swiss private equity company “Capvis” was in talks to acquire Argor-Heraeus, with one of Platts sources quoting a purchase price in the region of €200 million with completion in Q1 2017, while another source said €200 million was too high a figure. At the end of the day, a Capvis takeover did not materialise and earlier this year market sources said that Argor-Heraeus was no longer for sale (externally). In hindsight, it was probably at this stage that Heraeus decided to make its move. Alternatively, the discussions with external buyers may have just been conducted so as to gauge sentiment and establish a series of potential valuations for the Swiss refiner.
As a reminder, Argor-Hereaus had an unusual ownership structure in that it was jointly owned by 4 shareholders, namely German group Heraeus, German bank Commerzbank, the Austrian Mint, and Argor-Heraeus management. Prior to the takeover, Heraeus was the largest shareholder holding 33% of Argor-Heraeus shares, with Commerzbank holding a further 32.7% of the equity, the Austrian Mint holding another 30%, and Argor-Heraeus’s management holding the balance of shares.
As an existing shareholder and board member of Argor-Heraeus, the Heraeus group would have been privy to all of Argor-Heraeus’s financial and operational details, and so would have been in an advantageous position to negotiate purchase price details with Commerzbank and the Austrian Mint, which would have been a natural advantage relative to external potential acquirers.
However, the exact purchase price Argor-Heraeus is not known, since, according to the Heraeus press release “the parties have agreed not to disclose financial details of the deal”. Notwithstanding this, German newspaper Handelsblatt is claiming that the Heraeus takeover values Argor-Heraeus at “half a billion Swiss Francs“, since according to Handelsblatt’s sources, Heraeus paid “few hundred million euros for the remaining Argor shares“. With CHF 500 million equal to approximately €468 million, the Handelsblatt claim would mean that Heraeus may have paid €313 million for the 67% of Argor-Heraeus that it did not own. This would be far higher than the €200 million figure that S&P Platts mentioned in December.
Motivations for Acquisition
According to Heraeus, one of its motivations in acquiring Argor-Heraeus is to strengthen its capabilities in gold and silver refining by tapping “Argor’s expertise and processing capacity for gold and silver”, since Heraeus considers itself strongest in platinum group metals. Heraeus states that another driver of the acquisition is geographical diversification given that Argor-Heraeus has facilities on the ground in Chile, as well as in Italy, Germany and of course Switzerland, while Heraeus has a strong presence in Asia, North America and India in addition to Germany.
With 3 of the 4 giant Swiss precious metals refineries having now been acquired by new owners within less than 2 years of each other, this leaves the PAMP refinery, owned by MKS PAMP, as the only one of the “Big 4″ Swiss refineries to have bypassed this recent flurry of corporate control activity. As to whether MKS PAMP will itself become a takeover target is debatable, but it would be surprising if MKS isn’t thinking about this very question right now.
Guillermo Barba, the Mexican financial and economic journalist, has recently published an article on his website confirming that through an information request that he had made to Mexico’s central bank, Banco de México (Banxico), the central bank has now released what amounts to a relatively comprehensive list of Mexico’s gold bars held in storage at the Bank of England gold vaults in London.
Mexico’s list is an inventory of wholesale market gold bars that Banixco owns and stores in custody at the Bank of England vaults in London. In the contemporary parlance of the gold market, most people would call this type of holding an allocated gold holding, but more historically in the Bank of England world, it has been known as an “earmarked gold” holding or a “set-aside gold” holding because the specific bars are set-aside for a specific central bank, in other words the central bank has its name attached to those particular bars (earmarked).
Wholesale gold bars are also known as London Good Delivery gold bars or variable weight gold bars, and each weighs in the region of 400 troy ounces ( ~ 12.5 kilos). On the Banixco list, there are 7,265 wholesale gold bars listed. This new list is one of the very few detailed central bank gold bars lists (weight lists) which exists in the public domain, and it could be useful for a number of purposes (see below).
Barba has done persistent and diligent work over the last 6 years, by patiently obtaining more and more information from the Mexican central bank about its gold reserves via various Freedom of Information Requests (FOIA), and shedding some light on this usually opaque area of gold and central banking.
2011: Gold Reserves Skyrocket, Central Bank Secrecy
Before we examine this newly published list from the Banco de México, a little background is useful. As of February 2017, Mexico held about 120.7 tonnes of gold in its official gold reserves, which puts the country at the tail-end of the world’s Top 30 official/country gold holders.
All through the 2000s, Banixco only held a few tonnes of gold in its official reserves, ranging from about 4 tonnes and 9 tonnes. This situation changed in early 2011 when the Mexican central bank purchased just over 93 tonnes of gold in March 2011 (first reported by the FT in early May 2011). This brought Mexico’s gold holdings up from 7.1 tonnes to about 100.2 tonnes by the end of Q1 2011. The country’s official gold holdings were boosted further to about 125.2 tonnes by Q2 2012 when Banixco bought more than 16 tonnes in March 2012. See World Gold Council quarterly changes of central bank gold holdings for the underlying data.
After Mexico made these sizeable gold purchases in early 2011, Guillermo Barba submitted various FOIAs to the Mexican central bank about the country’s newly acquired gold stash. Unfortunately, most of these information requests received weak responses from the Bank. For example, the question:
“How many bars of gold make up the recent acquisition of 93 tonnes of gold made by Banxico en the first quarter of 2011”
received a response from Banixco of:
“…we inform you that the information that you request is classified as reserved”
The Mexican central bank also added that:
“due to the variability of the content of gold in the bars, it is not possible to specify with certainty the exact number of bars purchased.”
We later learned that the Bank of England purchased this “gold” on behalf of Mexico. On the surface, Banixco saying that it could not “specify with certainty the exact number of bars purchased” seems to suggest that at least some of the Mexican gold at that time in 2011 was held on a unallocated basis and possibly out on loan to bullion banks in the London gold lending market.
If Mexico bought actual gold bars at the outset in Q1 2011, the gold bought for Mexico was probably already sitting in the Bank of England vaults. Some of it may then have been lent out to bullion banks immediately. Alternatively, at the outset in Q1 2011, the Bank of England could have ‘sold’ to Mexico a fine ounce claim on a number of gold ounces, that could then be allocated to actual gold bars on a future date. Without seeing the purchase invoices of the Mexican gold transactions, it’s hard to say what the initial purchase transactions referred to.
Another question Barba put to Banixco in 2011 was:
“In what country or countries is the gold that forms part of the International Reserves of Mexico physically located?”
“access to the requested information will not be granted, since it is classified as reserved”
Barba’s article addressing his questions in 2011 and Banixco’s responses, which was published in September 2011, can be read here.
“At month’s end, April 2012, Banco de Mexico maintained a position in fine gold of 4,034,802 ounces, of which only 194,539 ounces are located in the territory of the United Mexican States.
“countries where these reserves are located are ‘United States of America, England and Mexico.‘
‘the acquisitions of gold during March and April 2012 are under custody in England’.”
[the gold is stored in] “the city of London, England, where more than 99% of the gold which the Bank of Mexico maintains outside the country is presently under custody…”
With 4,034,802 ounces (125.5 tonnes) held in total, and 194,539 ounces (6.05 tonnes) held in Mexico, there were 3,840,263 ounces (119.44 tonnes) held outside Mexico, which was 95.2% of Mexico’s total gold holdings. With 99% of the foreign gold in London, this equated to about 3.8 million ounces (118 tonnes) held in London, and about 38,000 ounces (1.2 tonnes) held in the US with the Federal Reserve Bank (FRB).
Mexican Federal Auditors not happy with Banixco
In February 2013, Guillermo Barba also highlighted that the Mexican Federal Audit Office (Auditoría Superior de la Federación or ‘ASF’) Report for the Year 2011 was highly critical of Banixco’s relaxed approach to its gold purchases at the Bank of England.
The ASF reprimanded Banixco, saying that it:
“has not conducted physical inspections to gold to verify compliance with the terms of acquisition and the conditions regarding its storage, in order to be certain of the physical custody of this asset”
According to the ASF, Banixco only held documents about the “Terms and Conditions” of the gold holdings contract with the Bank of England, with records of “the dates of the transactions” and also some “payment vouchers”.
ASF also recommended that the Mexican central bank:
“make a physical inspection with the counterparty [Bank of England] that has the gold under its custody, in order to be able to verify and validate its physical wholeness.”
February 2017: Partial Glimpse of Bar List
Fast forward to 17 February 2017, and Barba published another article confirming that following some further information requests to the Mexican central bank, Banixco had clarified the following facts about its gold holdings:
“Of the 3.881 million ounces of gold that the Bank of Mexico has at the close of October 2016, 98.95% are held in the United Kingdom, 0.0004% in the Federal Reserve Bank of the United States and the remaining 1.05 % In Mexico.”
“The Bank of Mexico has the serial number of each ingot protected in accounts assigned abroad. From these accounts, the number of ingots rises to 7,265. It should be noted that for unallocated accounts there is no specific serial number and therefore the number of ingots cannot be determined.”
“Assigned accounts are those that are owned on specific ingots with serial numbers, and segregated from the rest.“
Therefore, for each gold ingot held in a foreign domiciled allocated gold account, Bank of Mexico is in possession of the bar serial numbers. This was the first information from Banixco that specifically addressed the number of gold bars held by the Mexican central bank at the Bank of England.
As of October 2016, with 3,881,000 ounces of gold held by Mexico in total, 98.95% of which was held at the Bank of England in London, that would infer that 3,840,250 ounces of gold (119.4 tonnes) were held in London, with only about 1,550 ounces (0.0004%) held at the FRB in New York.
Assuming each gold bar contains 400 oz troy ounces of gold, then 7,265 bars would contain 2.906 million troy ounces. It would also mean that about 934,000 troy ounces (29 tonnes) of Mexico’s gold are held unallocated accounts (where the gold is not unassigned as specific gold bars). The existence of unallocated gold accounts is revealing since it proves that the Bank of England doesn’t just offer its central bank customers the traditional custody facility of earmarked / set-aside / allocated gold bars. It also offers what either amounts to gold accounts that are denominated on a fine ounces basis but are fully backed by a pool of gold, or alternatively these unallocated accounts may not be fully backed (i.e. fractionally-backed).
To facilitate gold lending in the London Gold Market between central banks (the lenders) and commercial bullion banks (the borrowers), the Bank of England would have to operate account facilities for its customers that were in a sense dematerialised because when a central bank lends gold bars to a bullion bank, it does not necessarily (and probably doesn’t) receive back the same gold bars, because those bars have either been sold in the market or onward lent in the market. Therefore an account convention with specific bars earmarked to a customer would not facilitate this process. Only an account where the unit is a balance of fine troy ounces of gold would allow these transfers to occur. In this scenario, the central bank still insists it has a fine troy ounce gold holding, even though its gold has been lent out to a bullion bank.
The other alternative is that the Bank of England is selling its central bank customers a gold account service where, for example, Central Bank A pays dollar cash upfront for 100 tonnes of gold, and the Bank of England signs a piece of paper saying “We the Bank of England have a liability to Central Bank A for 100 tonnes of gold“, but that gold is not necessarily in the Bank of England vaults or anywhere else. The Bank of England just has to be able to allocated the claim to real physical gold bars if Central Bank A ever decides that its 100 tonne gold asset be converted to allocated gold bars.
Without seeing the “Terms and Conditions” of these “unassigned gold” contracts with the Bank of England, its hard to say how exactly the “unassigned gold” is backed up, and to what extent it’s backed up.
Historically, the Bank of England only ever offered earmarked gold accounts to its central bank customers, and on a few occasions in the 1950s and 1970s it actually pushed back on plans to offer customers fine gold ounce balance accounts (and got legal advice on this), because the Bank did not want to go down the road of ending up with one pool of gold backing multiple central bank customer accounts, as this went against the concept of custody of assets and title to specific gold, and furthermore the Bank was afraid of the legal implications of central banks depositing specific bars but getting back different bars which might not be of the same quality etc.
March 2017: Banixco Releases Detailed Bar List
Initially, as per his 17 February article, Banixco only provided Barba with a list of the 7,265 gold bars showing two columns of data, the first column listing internal Bar-IDs from the Bank of England’s gold bar database, and the second column listing the refiner brand names of the bars. This first list can be seen here, but it’s not really that important, because a few weeks later, Banixco agreed to provide Barba with a second, much more comprehensive list. This second list is featured in Barba’s article dated 7 March 2017.
The latter Banixco gold bar list file can be downloaded here. For each of the 7,265 gold bars listed (in 7265 Rows), the list contains 7 columns or variables of data, namely:
Sequence Number from 1 to 7265
“Serial Number” (which is an internal Bank of England sequence number)
Brand Code (an 8-digit code)
Gross Weight (troy ounces to 2 decimal places)
Assay (gold Fineness)
Fine Weight (troy ounces to 3 decimal places)
Although the Banixco list does not include the real serial numbers that each gold refiner stamps on its own gold bars, the combination of columns “refiner brand – gross weight – assay – fine weight” in the list should be adequate to uniquely identify each bar, because don’t forget, these are variable weight bars and each bar for a given refiner will have a different fine weight when expressed to 3 decimal places. The start of the list looks as per the below screenshot:
Overall, the 7265 gold bars weigh 2,919,911.55 troy ounces and contain a total of 2,912,000 fine troy ounces of gold.The list provided by Banixco is sorted by ‘Brand Code’ which is an 8-digit Bank of England database table field that consists of refiner code (digits 1-4), refiner location (digits 5-6) and sequence number (digits 7-8). For example, Valcambi is VALCCH01 i.e. VALC, CH = Switzerland, and 01.
The 2nd column in the list is a Bank of England internal ID bar number which is either 6 or 7 digits. On Mexico’s list, the highest number is 1047712 and the lowest number is 704989, but the numbers present on the list run in short and broken sequential ranges of, for example, 1039142-1039221 or 880338-880446. If this is a sequential internal series of numbers that started at 000001, it would suggest that more than 1 million individual Good Delivery Bars have passed through the Bank of England’s 10 gold vaults since the numbering series was initiated. The series may not be fully sequential at all, and could possibly also include some part of the number signifying vault location, although this is doubtful.
The Refiner Bar Names on Mexico’s Gold Bar List
There are 24 ‘Brand Codes’ listed on the Mexico’s gold bar list, including such refiners as South Africa’s Rand Refinery, Australia’s Perth Mint, Switzerland’s Valcambi, Argor-Heraeus and Metalor, the Royal Canadian Mint, Germany’s Heraeus, Johnson Matthey, the US Assay Office, the State Refinery (Moscow), the Central Bank of the Philippines Gold Refinery, and N.M. Rothschild. Many of these brands held at the Bank of England are the same refiner brands which are trusted and popular in the retail investment gold bar market, and carried by BullionStar, such as Perth Mint, Argor-Heraeus, Heraeus, Royal Canadian Mint, and Johnson Matthey.
Some refiners have, or have had over time, refinery operations in multiple geographic locations, so some refiners have multiple Brand Codes listed in the Bank of England gold bar database. One example is Johnson Matthey, which on the Banixco list is listed as 4 separate entities, namely Johnson Matthey Salt Lake City USA, Johnson Matthey and Co Ltd [GB], Johnson Matthey & Mallory Ltd. Toronto, and Johnson Matthey Hong Kong Ltd. Another example is Metalor, which is present on the Banixco list in 3 guises, namely Metalor Hong Kong, Metalor USA, and Metalor Technologies SA (Switzerland).
Other long-standing refiners have gone through various mergers over time and their historic parts are now all part of a larger refining group. This applies to “Perth Mint” bars, which on the Banixco list are represented by Western Australia Mint (Trading as AGR) , AGR Joint Venture Melbourne and the Royal Mint (Perth).
On an individual Brand Code basis, the below table shows these refinery brand names, and the number of gold bars of each brand name that show up on Mexico’s gold bar weight list.
First up is the Rand Refinery, with Banixco holding 1735 rand Refinery gold bars. Nearly a quarter of Banixco’s earmarked bars are Rand Refinery bars. It’s not surprising that on a refiner name basis, Banixco holds more Rand Refinery gold bars than any other bar brand. After all, Rand Refinery of South Africa is said to have refined over 50,000 tonnes of gold since it was established in 1921, which is about 30% of all the gold that has ever been mined. A lot of Rand Refinery bars were also historically sold in the London Gold Market and held within the bank of England vaults. This is probably still the case.
For example, according to the Bank of England archives, most of the gold held by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) at the Bank of England was (as of the late 1970s) in the form of Rand Refinery gold bars. Whether this is still the case is unclear, as the IMF is ultra secretive about its remaining gold reserves and never reports facts such as gold bar weight lists.
Second up is AGR Joint Venture, which is now technically part of the Perth Mint, with the Bank of Mexico holding 1519 of these bars. Together with the Rand refinery bars, these two brands makeup 45% of Banixco’s total holdings. Adding in the bars of Johnson Matthey Toronto and Valcambi Switzerland, nearly 70% of Mexico’s bars are from just 4 bar brands.
Grouping refiner names where appropriate such as all Johnson Matthey names and all Perth Mint related names, results in a slightly different ranking, with Perth Mint taking pole position with 1892 bars held by Banixco, and with Rand Refinery and Johnson matthey in exact joint second place with 1736 bars a piece in the Mexican holdings.
Under this grouping approach, 74% of Mexico’s gold bars have been manufactured by just 3 refinery groups, rising to nearly 85% if Valcambi bars are included.
One of the reasons for highlighting this, is that it could be useful for extrapolating the frequency of gold bar brands that might be held across gold accounts generally at the Bank of England. While this extrapolation might be flawed, it does suggest that there are certain refinery bars brands that are more common than others within the Bank of England vault network.
The Bank of England did not just go and transfer newly refined gold bars into the Banixco account. It populated the Banixco allocated gold holding (in 2011 or after) with a selection of bars from lots of different eras. Hence the presence of NM Rothschild bars, US Assay Office bars, old Royal Mint (Perth) bars, as well as AGR Joint venture bars. Its also possible that a bullion bank or bullion banks executed the order on behalf of Mexico with gold that these banks store at the Bank of England (bullion banks also store gold at the bank of England for those who were not aware of this fact).
AGR Joint Venture bars were only produced until 2003. See here for details of AGR’s history. NM Rothschild bars have not been produced since 1967. Royal Mint (Perth) bars are extremely old and have not been produced under this name for a very long time. LBMA Good Delivery records don’t even specify when Royal Mint (Perth) bars ceased to be produced. The last Johnson Matthey bars produced in England were in 2005. US Assay Office bars (from the New York Assay Office) haven’t been produced since 1997 at the latest, and mostly well before that. Therefore, even though the Banixco gold bar list doesn’t list year of manufacture for each bar, some inferences can be made to show that a lot of the bars allocated to the Mexican gold account at the Bank of England are old bars that are no longer in production. But that’s not surprising because gold is a store of wealth and has been for 1000s of years, so an old bar is as good as a newer bar.
The bar list is also interesting in that it shows that when the Bank of England (or a bullion bank with a gold holding at the Bank of England) either buys physical gold bars on behalf of a central bank customer, or allocates specific bars to a central bank gold account for a gold balance that was previously in a unallocated account, it is either transferring gold from a Bank of England inventory holding, or by buying gold from another central bank that’s already in its vaults, or else buying gold from a bullion bank that probably also has gold stored at the Bank of England, part of which may be gold that has flowed out of gold-backed Exchange Traded Funds that store their gold in the London vaults.
Which brings us to some critical points. Using the “refiner brand – gross weight – assay – fine weight” combination for bars on the Banixco list, it should be possible to cross reference these bars against records of gold bars that have been held over time in gold-backed ETFs such as GLD and IAU. Various gold researchers such as Warren James maintain databases with records of all gold bars that are in and that have ever been in gold-backed ETFs. If a bar on the Banixco list has a match in those database tables, then it proves that the Bank of England sources gold for its central bank customers that was at one time held in one of the ETFs. And this probably happens, since the bullion banks such as HSBC and JP Morgan are active in allocating and deallocating gold in and out of ETFs, and they hold gold accounts at the Bank of England and are active in the gold lending market.
More importantly, if in the future, a gold-backed ETF flags up one or more gold bars that were among the 7265 gold bars on the Banixco list, and Banixco hasn’t reported selling any gold, then it will prove that Banixco either lent or swapped some of ts gold while still accounting for it under ‘gold and gold receivables’ in its balance sheet, and it will prove that central bank gold is being double counted while on loan, i.e. claimed to be held by a central bank, while really being held in a gold-backed ETF.
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