Category Archives: Uncategorized

A Chink of Light into London’s Gold Vaults?

On 5 February, the Financial Times of London (FT) featured a story revealing that the London Bullion Market Association (LBMA) plans to begin publishing data on the amount of real physical gold actually stored in the London precious metals vaulting network. The article titled “London gold traders to open vaults in transparency push” can be read here (accessible via FT subscription or via free monthly FT read limit).

This new LBMA ‘monthly vault data’ will, according to the FT’s sources, be published on a three-month lagged basis, and will:

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 shadowy source quoted in the FT article is attributed to “a person involved in setting up the programme”, but at the same time, although “the move [to publish the data] is being led by the LBMA“, the same LBMA ”declined to comment” for the FT story. This then has all the hallmarks of a typical authorised leak to the media so as to prepare the wider market for the data release.

On 16 February, the World Gold Council in its “Gold Investor, February 2017″ publication featured a focus box on the same gold vault topic in its “In the News” section on page 4, where it states:

“Enhanced transparency from the Bank of England

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.

 As a leading custodian of gold, with one of the largest vaults in the world, the Bank of England’s decision is highly significant. Not only will it enhance the transparency of the Bank’s own gold operations; it will also support the drive towards greater transparency across the gold market.

The data reveals the total weight of gold held within the Bank of England’s vaults and includes five years of historical data.”

The Proposed Data

Based on these two announcements, it therefore looks like the gold vault data release will be a combined effort between the LBMA and the Bank of England, the blood brothers of the London Gold Market, with the Bank of England data being a subset of the overall LBMA data. While neither of the above pieces mention a release date for the first set of data, I understand that it will be this quarter, i.e. sometime before the end of March. On a 3 month lagged basis, the first lot of data would therefore probably cover month-end December 2016, because that would be a logical place to start the current dataset, rather than, for example, November 2016.

While the Bank of England data looks set to cover a 5 year historical period, there is no indication (from the FT article) that the wider LBMA vault data will do likewise. From the sparse information in the FT article, the LBMA data will “show gold bars held“. Does it mean number of gold bars, or combined weight of gold bars? What exactly it means, we will have to wait and see.

The Bank of England data will capture “total weight of gold held“. Notice that in the above World Gold Council piece it also states that the data will cover the amount of gold that the Bank of England “holds on behalf of other central banks.” There is no mention of the amount of gold that the Bank of England holds on behalf of commercial bullion banks.

Overall, this doesn’t exactly sound like it is “enhancing the transparency of the Bank’s own gold operations” as the World Gold Council puts it. Far from it. Enhancing the transparency of the Bank of England’s gold operations would require something along the lines of the following:

  • Identities of all central banks and official sector institutions (ECB / IMF / BIS / World Bank) holding active gold accounts at the Bank of England. Active gold accounts meaning non-zero balances
  • Identities of all commercial / bullion banks holding active gold accounts at the Bank of England
  • A percentage breakdown between the central bank gold held in the Bank of England vaults and the bullion bank gold held in the Bank of England vaults
  • An indicator for each gold account as to whether it is a set-aside earmarked custody account or whether it is a fine troy ounce balance account
  • Information for each central bank and official sector institution as to whether any of “its” gold is lent, swapped or repo’d
  • Information for the bullion bank gold accounts as to whether the gold recorded in those accounts is borrowed, sourced from swaps, sourced from repos, or otherwise held as collateral for loans
  • Information on the gold accounts of the 5 LPMCL clearing banks showing how much gold each of these institutions holds each month and whether the Bank of England supplies physical gold clearing balances to these banks
  • Information on when and how often the London-based gold-backed ETFs store gold at the Bank of England, not just using the Bank of England as sub-custodian, but also storage in their own names, i.e. does HSBC store gold in its own name at the Bank of England which is used to supply gold to the SPDR Gold Trust
  • Information on whether and how often the Bank of England intervenes into the London Gold Market and the LBMA Gold Price auctions so as to supply gold in price smoothing and price stabilisation operations in the way that the Bank of England’s Terry Smeeton seems to have been intervening into the London Gold Market in the 1980s
  • Information on the BIS gold holding and gold transactions settlements accounts at the Bank of England and the client sub-account  details and central bank identities for these accounts
  • Information on gold location swaps between gold account holders at the Bank of England and gold accounts at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, the Banque de France, and the Swiss National Bank, and BIS accounts in those locations
  • Gold for oil swaps and oil for gold swaps

Anything less is just not cricket and does not constitute transparency.

And its important to remember that any publication of gold vault data by the LBMA and Bank of England is not being done because the LBMA suddenly felt guilty, or suddenly had an epiphany on the road to Damascus, but, as the FT correctly points out:

“the LBMA, whose members include HSBC and JPMorgan, hopes to head off the challenge and persuade regulators that banks trading bullion should not have to face more onerous funding requirements.”

Bank of England

The Current Data

As a reminder, there is currently no official direct data published on the quantity of real physical gold bars held within the London gold vaulting system. This vaulting system comprises the vaults of eight vault operators (see below for list).

Once a year in its annual report, the Bank of England provides a Sterling (GBP) value of gold held by its gold custody customers, while the LBMA website states a relatively static total figure of “approximately 6,500 tonnes of gold held in London vaults” that it claims are in the vaults in its network. But beyond these figures, there is currently no official visibility into the quantity of London Good Delivery gold bars held in the London vaults. There are, various ways of estimating London gold vault data using the Bank of England annual figure and the LBMA figure together with Exchange Traded Fund gold holdings and central bank divulged gold holdings at the Bank of England.

These approaches have been documented in BullionStar articles “Central bank gold at the Bank of England” and “How many Good Delivery gold bars are in all the London Vaults?….including the Bank of England vaults“, both from September 2015, and more recently “Tracking the gold held in London: An update on ETF and BoE holdings” from September 2016.

The September 2015 estimates calculated that there were 6,256 tonnes of gold in total in the London vaults, with 5,134 tonnes at the Bank of England (as of end February 2015), and 1,122 tonnes in London “not at the Bank of England“, all of which was accounted for by gold-backed ETFs which store their gold in London. These calculations implied that there was nearly zero gold stored in London outside the Bank of England that was not accounted for by ETF holdings.

The “Tracking the gold held in London” estimates from September 2016 used a figure of 6,500 tonnes of gold in total in the London vaults, and showed that there were 4,725 tonnes inside the Bank of England vaults, of which about 3,800 tonnes was known to be held by central banks (and probably a lot of the remainder was held by central banks also) and that there were 1,775 tonnes of gold outside the Bank of England. The article also calculated that there were 1,679 tonnes of gold in the gold backed ETFs that store their gold in London, so again, there was very little gold in the London vault network that was not accounted for by ETFs and central bank gold.

BoE-Gold

The Vaults of London

Overall, there are 8 vault operators for gold within the LBMA vaulting network. These 8 vault operators are as follows:

  • The Bank of England
  • HSBC Bank plc
  • JP Morgan Chase
  • ICBC Standard Bank Plc
  • Brink’s Limited
  • Malca-Amit Commodities Ltd
  • G4S Cash Solutions (UK) Limited
  • Loomis International (UK) Ltd

HSBC, JP Morgan and ICBC Standard are 3 of the London Gold Market’s clearing banks that form the private company London Precious Metals Clearing Limited (LPMCL). The other two member of LPMCL are Scotia Mocatta and UBS. Brink’s, Malca-Amit, G4S and Loomis are the aforementioned security companies. The LBMA website lists these operators, alongside their headquarters addresses.

Bizarrely, the FT article still parrots the LBMA’s spoon-fed line that the vaults are “in secret locations within the M25 orbital motorway”. But this is far from the truth. Many of the London vault locations are in the public domain as has been covered, for example, on this website, and the FT knows this:

JP Morgan: https://www.bullionstar.com/gold-university/jp-morgan-gold-vault-london

Malca-Amit https://www.bullionstar.com/gold-university/malca-amit-london-gold-vault

G4S: https://www.bullionstar.com/gold-university/g4s-london-gold-vault

And perhaps HSBC: https://www.bullionstar.com/gold-university/hsbc-gold-vault-london

G4S location https://www.bullionstar.com/blogs/ronan-manly/g4s-london-gold-vault-2-0-icbc-standard-bank-in-deutsche-bank-out

Malca-Amit location https://www.bullionstar.com/blogs/ronan-manly/gold-vaults-london-malca-amit

HSBC possible location https://www.bullionstar.com/blogs/ronan-manly/hsbcs-london-gold-vault

And obviously, the Bank of England vaults are where they always have been, under the Bank’s headquarters in the City of London: https://www.bullionstar.com/gold-university/bank-england-gold-vaults

It’s slightly disappointing that we spend time and effort informing the London financial media where some of the London gold vaults are, and then they continue to parrot the LBMA’s misleading “secret locations” line. I put this fake news down to a decision by the FT editors, who presumably have a stake in playing along with this charade so as not to rock the boat with the powerful investment banks that they are beholden to.

The FT also reminds us in its article that “last year a gold vault owned by Barclays, which can house $80bn of bullion, was bought by China’s ICBC Standard Bank.

This Barclays vault in London was built by and is operated by Brink’s, and presumably after being taken over by ICBC Standard, it is still operated by Brink’s. Logistically then, this ICBC Standard vault is most likely within the Brink’s complex, a location which is also in the public domain, and which even hosts an assay office as was previously mentioned here over a year ago. The Barclays vault (operated by Brink’s) is even mentioned in a Brink’s letter to the SEC in February 2014, which can also be seen here -> Brinks letter to SEC February 2014.

brinks1

brinks2
Brink’s letter to SEC, February 2014

Given the fact that there are eight sets of vaults in the London vault system (as overseen by various groups affiliated to the LBMA such as the LBMA Physical Committee, the LBMA Vault Managers Working Party,  the gold clearers (London Precious Metals Clearing Limited), and even the LBMA Good Delivery List referees and staff, then one would expect that whatever monthly vault data that the LBMA or its affiliates publishes in the near future, will break out the gold bar holdings and have a distinct line item in the list for each vault operator such as:

  • HSBC – w tonnes
  • JP Morgan – x tonnes
  • ICBC Standard – y tonnes
  • Brink’s – z tonnes

dsc_0102_800.jpg

Conclusion

At the LBMA conference in Singapore last October, there was talk that there were moves afoot for the Bank of England to begin publishing data on the custody gold it holds on a more regular basis. It was also mentioned that this data could be extended to include the commercial bank and security carrier vaults but that some of the interested parties were not in favour of the idea (perhaps the representative contingents of the powerful HSBC and JP Morgan). Whatever has happened in the meantime, it looks like some data will now be released in the near future covering all of the participating vaults. What this data will cover only time will tell, but more data than less is always welcome, and these data releases might also help show how near or how far we were with earlier estimates in trying to ascertain how much gold is in the London vaulting system that is not accounted for by ETF holding or central bank holdings.

Revealing the extent of the gold lending market in London is critical though, but this is sure to remain a well-kept secret, since the LBMA bullion banks and the Bank of England will surely not want the general market to have any clue as to which central banks don’t really have any gold while still claiming to have gold (the old gold and gold receivables trick), in other words, that there is serious double counting going on, and that some of the central bank gold has long gone out the door.

 

Lukewarm start for new London Gold Futures Contracts

The second half of 2016 saw announcements by three exchange providers for plans to compete in the London Gold Market through offerings of exchange-traded London gold futures contracts.

First off the mark was the London Metal Exchange (LME) in conjunction with the World Gold Council with a planned platform called LMEprecious. There were rumblings of this initiative in the London financial media from as early as January 2015,  but concrete details for the actual platform were only announced on 9 August 2016. See LME press release “World Gold Council, LME and key market participants to launch LMEprecious.” The LME plans to call its gold futures contract LME Gold. There will also be an “LME Silver”. Each is a suite of contracts of varying lengths including a daily futures (spot settlement) contract. See also BullionStar blog “The Charade Continues – London Gold and Silver Markets set for even more paper trading” from August 2016 which took a first look at the LMEprecious suite.

Two months after the LME announcement, during the annual conference of the London Bullion Market Association (LBMA), Intercontinental Exchange (ICE) announced on 17 October that it too planned the launch of a gold futures contract in the London market. See Bullion Desk’s “ICE to launch gold futures in 2017, competition in gold market grows” as well as the ICE press release. The ICE contract is named “Gold Daily Futures” and resides on the ICE Futures US platform. It too is a daily futures contract.

Not to be outdone, the CME Group then followed suit on 1 November 2016 and it too announced plans for a “London Spot Gold Futures contract” as well as a “London Spot Silver futures contract”. See CME press release “CME Group Announces New Precious Metals Spot Spread” from 1 November 2016, and “CME to launch London spot gold, silver futures for spot spread” from the Bullion Desk, 1 November 2016. The CME contract was to trade on COMEX (Globex and Clearport) as a daily futures contract, and was devised so as to offer traders a spot spread between COMEX and London OTC Spot gold.

As of August 2016, the LME’s target launch date was said to be “the first half of 2017”. ICE was more specific with a target launch of February 2017 (subject to regulatory review). In it’s announcement, CME went for an even earlier planned launch date of 9 January 2017 (subject to regulatory approval).

cme ice lme

Two Launches – No Volume

Why the update? Over the 2 weeks, there have been a number of developments surrounding these 3 contracts. The CME and ICE gold futures contracts have both been launched, and additionally, LME has provided more clarity around the launch date of its offering.

Surprisingly, while there was plenty of financial media coverage of these 3 gold futures contracts when their plans were initially publicised from August – November 2016, there has been little to no financial media coverage of the contracts now that 2 of the 3 have been launched.

On 25 January, I took a look at the CME website to see what the status of the CME gold futures contract might be. Strangely, the contract itself was defined on the CME website (with a code of GSP) but it had no trading volume. From the website, it was not clear when the contract actually launched, but it looked to be sometime during the last week of January.

On 25 January, I also sent a short email to CME asking:

“Has the London Spot Gold contract started trading yet?

http://www.cmegroup.com/trading/metals/precious/london-spot-gold.html 

It doesn’t look like it has, even though the contract is defined on your website. Could CME confirm when it will start trading?”

Next day on 26 January, I received this response from the CME:

“Thank you for reaching out to the CME Group with your query.  The London Spot Gold and Silver products are available to trade but at this time no trades have been made in the listed contract months.”

Fast forward to end-of-day 7 February. From the CME website, I still cannot see that there have been any trades in this gold futures since it was launched. The volumes are all zero. The same applies to the London Spot Silver futures contract (code SSP).

Next up the ICE gold futures contract (AUD). Upon checking the ICE website under section “Products”,  the new ICE Gold Daily Futures contract has been defined, and the description states “The Daily Gold Futures contract will begin trading on trade date Monday, January 30, 2017“.

Turning to the ICE reporting section of the website for futures products, and selecting the end of day ICE Futures US report page, and then selecting the reports for AUD, there are 6 daily reports available for download, namely, from 30 and 31 January, and 1, 2, 3 and 6 February. Again, looking at each of these reports, there are varying prices specified in the reports but there are no trading volumes. All of the volumes are zero.

Therefore, as far as the CME and ICE websites show, both of these new gold futures contracts have been launched and are available to trade, but there hasn’t been a single trade in either of the contracts. Not a very good start to what was trumpeted and cheer-led as a new dawn for the London Gold Market by outlets such as Bloomberg with the article “Finance Titans Face Off Over $5 Trillion London Gold Market“.

LMEprecious – To Launch Monday 5 June 2017

Finally, possibly so as not to be forgotten while its rivals were launching their London gold futures offerings, the LME on Friday 3 February announced in a general LME and LME Clear update memo that the planned launch date of its LMEprecious platform is now going to be Monday 5 June, i.e. 4 months from now.

LME update header

LME footer

As a reminder, the LMEprecious contracts will be supported by a group of market maker investment banks, namely Goldman Sachs,Morgan Stanley, Société Générale, Natixis and ICBC Standard Bank.

It’s also important to remember that all 3 of these gold futures contract product sets are for the trading of unallocated gold, (i.e. claims on a bullion bank for gold, aka synthetic / fictional gold). All 3 contracts claim to be physically-settled but this is essentially a play on words, because in the world of the London Gold Market, physically-settled does not mean physically-settled in the way any normal person would define it. LBMA physically-settled just means passing unallocated balances around, a.k.a. pass the parcel. To wit:

ICE London gold futures settle via unallocated accounts:

“The contract will be settled through unallocated loco London gold vault accounts using LBMA Good Delivery Rules.”

CME London gold futures settle via unallocated accounts:

London Spot Gold futures contract will represent 100 troy ounces of unallocated gold

And for LMEprecious, settlement will be:

“Physical settlement one day following termination of trading. Seller transfers unallocated gold to [LME Clearing] LMEC account at any LPMCL member bank, and buyers receive unallocated gold from LMEC account at any LPMCL member bank.”

Conclusion

With neither the CME nor the ICE gold futures contracts registering any trades as of yet (according to their websites), it will be interesting to see how this drama pans out. Will they be dud contracts, like so many gold futures contracts before them that have gone to the gold futures contracts graveyard, or will they see a pick up in activity? All eyes will also be on the LME contract from 5 June onwards.

The lack of coverage of the new CME and ICE London gold futures contracts is also quite unusual. Have the London financial media already forgotten about them? According to Reuters it would seem so. On 22 January, Reuters published an article titled “LME’s pitch for share of gold market faces bumpy ride” which exclusively questioned whether the LME gold contract would be a success, while not even mentioning the CME and ICE contracts. Given that 22 January was right before the CME and ICE contracts were about to be launched, this is quite bizarre. Presumably Bloomberg will come to the rescue of its ‘financial titans’ heros, and will write glowing tributes about the new contracts, but this will be tricky given the zero trade volumes. We await with bated breath.

Ireland’s Monetary Gold Reserves: High Level Secrecy vs. Freedom of Information – Part 2

This is Part 2 of a two-part series. Part 1 of this series, “Ireland’s Monetary Gold Reserves: High Level Secrecy vs. Freedom of Information – Part 1” published on 23 January, looked at initial attempts in 2011 and 2012 to extract basic information about Ireland’s monetary gold reserves from the Central Bank of Ireland and the Irish Department of Finance. These attempts proved unsuccessful due to non-cooperation from the central bank which at that time was not covered under the Irish Freedom of Information Act (FOI Act), and also a bizarre refusal of a FOI request from the Department of Finance and a subsequent claim by that Department that it had zero records of said gold reserves that it has entrusted to the Central Bank of Ireland (a central bank which it owns).

On 14 October 2014, a new and expanded Freedom of Information Act was enacted into law in the Republic of Ireland. This news FOI Act (2014) extended the scope of coverage of Freedom of Information requests to “All Public Bodies” in the Irish State, and for the first time included Ireland’s central bank, the Central Bank of Ireland. Information and records relating to the expanded list of public bodies are not fully retrospective, and FOI requests under the new FOI Act (2014) only cover the right of access to records created by these additional public bodies on or after 21 April 2008.

FOI to the Central Bank of Ireland – 2015

Given the introduction of the new FOI Act (2014) and the fact that it covered the Central Bank of Ireland, on 21 June 2015 I submitted a FOI Request to the Central Bank of Ireland with a series of questions about Ireland’s gold reserves. I was cognizant of the fact that the FOI Act only covered records after 20 April 2008 so I structured the questions to take account of this time limitation. The Central Bank of Ireland financial year follows the calendar year, with the annual financial accounts being made up to 31 December (i.e. calendar year-end). Therefore, the logical place to start was with the central bank’s 2009 Annual Report and 2010 Annual Report.

In the 2009 annual report, page 77, note 10 to the Balance Sheet for the line item “Gold and Gold Receivables” states that:

“With the exception of coin stocks held in the Bank, gold holdings consist of deposits with foreign banks. The change in the balance in 2009 is due to the change in the market value of gold during the year.”

In the 2010 annual report, page 98, note 10 to the Balance Sheet for line item “Gold and Gold Receivables” states that:

“Gold and gold receivables represent coin stocks held in the Bank, together with gold bars held at the Bank of England. The increase in the balance in 2010 is due to the change in the market value of gold during the year.”

Notice the difference in wording between the 2009 and 2010 annual reports. Exclusive of the gold coin holdings, the gold reserves in 2009 were stated as consisting of “deposits with foreign banks” while in 2010, the gold reserves were stated as consisting of “gold bars held at the Bank of England“, i.e. one is gold deposits with foreign banks (plural) and the other is allocated gold bars at a specific location (i.e. the Bank of England).

If you go back further and look at earlier annual reports of the Central Bank of Ireland from the years 2008 and 2007, the wording used is “ gold holdings consist of deposits with foreign banks. Going back another year to 2006, that year’s annual report contained a critical passage on the Irish gold holdings which stated that:

“The gold is held in physical form and ….may be placed on deposit in the London gold market depending on market conditions”.

See screenshot below.

Note 10 to the Balance Sheet for line item “Gold and Gold Receivables” in the 2006 annual report, page 89, stated in a similar way to the 2007 -2009 annual reports, that:

“With the exception of coin stocks held in the Bank, gold holdings consist of deposits with foreign banks. The change in value is due mainly to the change in the market value of gold during the year.”

The phrase “gold holdings consist of deposits with foreign banks” refers to gold placed on deposit in the London Gold Market, i.e. these gold deposits are central bank gold lending deposits placed with commercial bullion banks.

2006 annual report
Excerpt from Central Bank of Ireland Annual Report 2006 – Gold Holdings

In fact, the phrase “gold holdings consist of deposits with foreign banks” is stated in all the Central Bank of Ireland annual reports from 2009 all the way back to the 2000 Annual Report.

Given that the Central Bank of Ireland Annual Report 2010 stated that the gold holdings consisted of “gold bars held at the Bank of England, my FOI request asked for details of these gold bars in the form of a gold bar weight list. Because, if one claims to have physical gold bars stored at the Bank of England, one certainly has access to produce a weight list with the details of said gold bars.

Since the form of the Central Bank of Ireland’s gold holdings changed from “deposits with foreign banks” in 2009 to gold bars held at the Bank of England in 2010, my FOI Request also asked for records of any correspondence relating to this change. Gold deposits are on a fine ounce basis, gold bars held are on an allocated bar set-aside basis. They are two very different things. When you put gold on deposit with a bullion bank (i.e. lend it), you get back the same amount of gold that you placed on deposit (and maybe interest in the form of gold), but you don’t necessarily get back the same gold bars, since the bullion bank probably sold or lent on the gold that you deposited.

FOI Request Wording

The FOI Request I submitted to the Central Bank of Ireland on 21 June 2015 was as follows (in blue text) and contained 2 parts, the second part of which had 2 questions:

Dear FOI Unit,

This is a request being made under the Freedom of Information Act 2014.

I would like to request that a copy of documents (such as paper records, records held electronically, email correspondence) containing the following information be provided to me:

“1. Details of the gold holdings of the Central Bank of Ireland during 2009 which consisted of “deposits with foreign banks” as specified on page 77 of the 2009 Annual Report.

The details I am requesting are:

- the names of the foreign banks that the Central Bank of Ireland gold was deposited with during 2009, the duration of these gold deposits during 2009, details of the interest earned on these gold deposits, and information on the dates on which these gold deposits ended (since the gold holdings were not on deposit in 2010).

Source for reference: In the 2009 Annual Report, Note 10 to the Statement of Accounts, Page 77 states: “Gold and Gold Receivables With the exception of coin stocks held in the Bank, gold holdings consist of deposits with foreign banks”

2. Details of the gold holdings of the Central Bank of Ireland during 2010 which consisted of “gold bars held at the Bank of England” as specified on page 98 of the 2010 Annual Report.

I am requesting the following information on the “gold bars held at the Bank of England”:

- A document, such as a weight list, bar list, or bullion weight list, that uniquely identifies the bars of gold held on behalf of the Central Bank of Ireland by the Bank of England. This list would include (for each bar), details such as bar brand, bar serial number (serial number from refiner, not Bank of England number), year of manufacture of bar, gross weight, fineness, fine ounces.

- Information or correspondence that discusses the rationale for switching the Central Bank of Ireland’s gold holdings from “deposits with foreign banks” in 2009 (see above) into “gold bars held at the Bank of England” in 2010.

Source for reference: In the 2010 Annual Report, Note 10 to the Statement of Accounts, Page 98 states “Gold and Gold Receivables Gold and gold receivables represent coin stocks held in the Bank, together with gold bars held at the Bank of England.”

On 6 July 2015, the Central Bank of Ireland FOI Unit responded to me by email with an acknowledgement of my FOI Request, which can be viewed here -> Acknowledgement Letter CB of Ireland FOI gold 20150706. This letter also includes my full FOI request as per the blue text above.

FOI Request Refused in Entirety

On 20 July 2015, I received an email from a “FOI Decision Maker” at the Central Bank of Ireland with an attached letter detailing the fact that he had fully refused by FOI Request and his rationale for doing so. That letter can be viewed here -> FOI gold reserves Decision Letter refusing FOI Request – 20 July 2015. The introduction to the letter stated:

 “A final decision was made to refuse your request by myself, Xxxxxxx Xxxxx, FOI Decision
Maker, today, 20 July 2015. I may be contacted by telephone on (01) xxx xxxx in order to
answer any questions you may have, and to assist you generally in this matter.”
 

Recall that my first question was asking the central bank to provide records “containing the names of the foreign banks that the Central Bank of Ireland gold was deposited with during 2009, the duration of these gold deposits during 2009, details of the interest earned on these gold deposits, and information on the dates on which these gold deposits ended” i.e. information about gold deposits a.ka. gold lending.

In his response, the FOI Decision Maker referred to this question as ‘Category 1′. He completely ignored the fact that I was asking about gold lending and stated that “Please note that the Central Bank of Ireland’s gold bars were held with the Bank of England during the course of 2009.

This was a completely redundant and misleading statement because with gold lending, the lent gold does not necessarily leave the Bank of England. It stays in the Bank of England vault wherein title is transferred to bullion bank gold accounts during the deposit period and more than likely the deposits are then rolled over into other short-term gold deposits with additional bullion banks. It was also a deflection of my question since it ignored the fact that the 2009 Annual Report had stated that “gold holdings consist of deposits with foreign banks“, and failed to explain why the Annual report had referred to deposits with foreign banks (plural).

The FOI Decision Maker went on to say that he had “identified one record falling within the scope of your request, namely a statement from the Bank of England dated 31 December 2009 confirming the number of gold bars held with the Bank of England on that date”, but that he had “made a decision to refuse this part of your request for the following reasons“.

This is where the central bank FOI fiasco became even more bizarre and ludicrous, or in the words of an ex-Irish Taoiseach (Prime Minister), it became “grotesque, unbelievable, bizarre and unprecedented (GUBU)”, because the FOI Decision Maker claimed he was refusing the request to provide the Bank of England gold bar statement by invoking a clause in the FOI Act (2014) [Section 40 (1) of the Act] that allowed an exemption if:

access to the record could reasonably be expected to have a serious, adverse effect on the ability of the Government to manage the national economy or on the financial interests of the State…” 

The FOI Decision Maker also stated that in his view “the release of detailed information regarding the gold bars held at the Bank of England on behalf of the Central Bank of Ireland could have a serious, adverse effect on the financial interests of the State, as it would disclose important information about the Central Bank’s gold holdings.”

Releasing information about gold bars would disclose important information about those same gold bars? No kidding?

He went on to state: “Furthermore the release of this information, which is of substantial value, would identify the stock of gold coins held at the Central Bank from the stock of gold bars held at the Bank of England and from which a market valuation for the separate holdings could easily be calculated.” And? Why would this be a big deal? It would not be a big deal. The gold coin holdings of the Central Bank of Ireland are quite immaterial and completely incidental to the questions raised in my FOI request.

Not to labour the point, but this FOI Decision Maker continued to dig a hole with the embarrassing excuses as he considered “public interest factors for and against the release of this information” and stated that while there is public interest in ensuring transparency and accountability of public bodies, I believe that interest is outweighed by the public interest in protecting the confidentiality of asset valuation information, pertaining to the financial circumstances of the Central Bank” so that “accordingly, I believe the public interest is better served by refusing, rather than granting, access to this record.

Now you can see what we are up against when small-minded central bank bureaucrats are unleashed and given a small amount of power in their FOI Unit fiefdoms to pronounce and decide on what they think is and is not in the public interest.

Question: Who voted that these anonymous central bank staffers should have the power to say what is and what is not in the public interest? Answer: Nobody did.

Category 2(a)

The second part of my FOI Request asked the Central Bank of Ireland to provide “a weight list, bar list or bullion weight list that uniquely identifies the bars of gold held on behalf of the Central Bank of Ireland by the Bank of England“. After all, the 2010 Annual Report stated that the gold holdings of the Central Bank of Ireland were in the form of “gold bars held at the Bank of England.

A gold bar weight list is an itemised list of all the gold bars held within a holding that uniquely identifies each bar. In the London Gold Market, the LBMA’s “Good Delivery Rules” specifies the data that this list should contain for the large 400 oz bars as held by central banks. The data in a weight list includes such details as the bar serial number, the refiner name, the gross weight of the bar in troy ounces, the gold purity of the bar and the fine weight of the bar in troy ounces. All gold being shipped in and out of gold vaults in the London Gold Market, including in and out of the Bank of England vaults, has to be accompanied by a proper industry standard weight list. Gold Backed Exchange Traded Funds (ETFs) produce these weight lists for their gold holdings at the end of each and every trading day so it’s not a big task to produce such a list via a position / accounting system.

So, if you have gold bars held at the Bank of England, like the Central Bank of Ireland claims to have, then you certainly have access to a weight list provided by the Bank of England since the Bank of England has a gold bar accounting system which records all of this information. In fact, the Bank of England has provided such a gold bar list to the Reserve Bank of Australia (RBA) for the 80 tonnes of gold that the RBA stores at the Bank of England. This list came to light via an Australian FOI request, and the Aussie list can be seen here.

A full weight list would also be needed when undertaking a physical gold bar audit, which is something that the large gold-backed ETFs perform twice per year. Keep this in mind for anyone wanting to ask the Central Bank of Ireland how, if ever, they audit the Irish gold stored at the Bank of England.

Given all of this background, the following statement from the Central Bank of Ireland FOI Decision Maker as to why he was refusing my request for a gold bar weight list is nothing short of incredible, because he said:

 “Section 15(1)(a) of the Act states that a FOI request may be refused if:

the record concerned does not exist or cannot be found after all reasonable steps to
ascertain its whereabouts have been taken,’

Your request was referred to two divisions within the Central Bank of Ireland, the Payment and Securities Settlement Division and the Currency Issue Division. Both divisions have confirmed that they do not hold any such records which fall within the scope of this part of your request. Accordingly, this part of your request is refused.”

If the Central Bank of Ireland holds gold bars at the Bank of England, then it is a lie to state that a weight list does not exist, because a weight list has to exist even if it is in the gold bar accounting system of the Bank of England and has not been printed.

If the Central Bank of Ireland is claiming that it doesn’t have such a list, then this shows a shocking lack of oversight with regards to the Irish gold holdings at the Bank of England. It could arguably also show a convenient laziness to acquiring such a list which the central bank could then use as a plausible deniability scenario.

Category 2(b)

On my request for records which addressed “the rationale for switching the Central Bank of Ireland’s gold holdings from “deposits with foreign banks” in 2009…into “gold bars held at the Bank of England” in 2010, the FOI Decision Maker again avoided any discussion of gold lending and reverted to reiterating that:

“the Central Bank of Ireland’s gold bars were held with the Bank of England during both 2009 and 2010. Given that there was no switching from foreign banks to the Bank of England, no records exist which fall within the scope of this part of your request and this part of your request is, therefore, refused.”

There was no explanation offered by this Decision Maker as to why the wording between the 2009 and 2010 annual reports had changed.

The FOI Refusal letter wrapped up with a “Right of Review” paragraph which explained that it was possible to seek an internal review of the decision by a more senior staff member of the Central Bank by a written submission to the Central Bank of Ireland FOI Unit stating the reasons for seeking a review and accompanied by a €30 internal review fee.

The refusal letter ended by saying “should you have any questions or concerns regarding the above, please contact me by telephone on +353 1 xxxxxxx“. So I decided to take up the offer of the FOI Decision Maker, and gave him a call the next day.

Phone Call with the FOI Decision Maker

The following is a summary of the phone call I had with the Central Bank of Ireland FOI Decision Maker after he had refused my FOI Request.

Part of my FOI had asked the central bank to explain the change in wording between 2009 and 2010 where the annual report in 2009 had said the gold was on deposit with foreign banks, while the 2010 annual report said the gold was held in the form of gold bars at the Bank of England.

On the phone call, the FOI Decision Maker said that these two descriptions were referring to the same gold and that the Central Bank of Ireland just changed the wording in the 2010 annual report to be more specific. I don’t believe this, but anyway, he said the justification that it was the same thing being described was because the 2010 report lists both the 2010 data and the 2009 data in two columns side by side with the same footnote (gold held in the Bank of England).

He said the central bank senior accounting person had explained this to him and that she had said that ‘there was no change in investment policy‘. [This could mean anything, including that the gold might still be on loan]. Given that one of my previous questions to the central bank prior to 2014 asking it to explain its investment policy on gold had been met with non-cooperation and “talk to the hand” (see Part 1), then its impossible to know what the Central Bank of Ireland’s investment policy on gold is or was in the first place.

I then explained to the FOI Decision Maker about gold lending with commercial banks using Bank of England customer gold, and asked him to explain why the wording had said ‘gold deposits’ with ‘foreign banks’ (plural) all the way through from 2000 to 2009 and that its documented in the 2006 annual report that the bank engaged in gold lending in the London Gold Market. He could not explain this, but he seemed to be hesitant when I was talking about gold lending. He also said that since the Central Bank of Ireland is only subject to the Irish FOI Act for any data since mid 2008 (which is true), then he couldn’t comment on anything in the year 2008 or before that. A nice handy get out clause for him.

Next up, he said that they found one ‘custodian statement’ dated 2009 from the Bank of England which specified number of gold bars and fine ounces held, and they were considering providing this statement to me. This is where the FOI gets bizarre.

He said that they had 2 conference calls with the Bank of England trying to find out if there was a weight list and also about releasing this statement to me. The second conference call even included the “chief security officer” from the Bank of England FOI office, but that the Bank of England told the Central Bank of Ireland guy that ‘you absolutely cannot‘ send this statement out with bars total and fine ounces since its ‘highly classified‘  and  ‘highly‘ something else (I didn’t catch the 2nd ‘highly’ as I was stunned while trying to jot down the notes during the call).

Talk about national security. So here we have the Bank of England instructing another sovereign central bank (the Central Bank of Ireland) in what it’s allowed to and not allowed to release in its own FOIs. I think the Irish Office of the Information Commissioner and any decent Irish journalists might be interested in this, and how the Bank of England was meddling in an Irish FOI Request.

The FOI Decision Maker had said in his letter that the data I was looking for concerned ‘important information about the Central Bank gold reserves‘. When I pointed out that of course it does, that was the whole point of my FOI request, he said ‘well, the FOI Act was not designed with the Central Bank in mind. we have a lot of confidential data etc‘. Again you can see this typical aloof central banker interpretation of the FOI legislation.

I concluded by asking him if there was any point in sending in fresh FOI requests. He said if they are for records, yes, but he tried to steer me in the direction of asking questions to their press office.

Bank of England and Central Bank of Ireland

FOI Appeal to the Central Bank of Ireland

Next up, I decided to appeal the FOI response by annihilating the spurious excuses put forward by the Central Bank of Ireland FOI Decision Maker, and also by arguing that a UK central bank has no right to interfere in determining a FOI Request that falls under Irish law. I sent the following FOI Internal Review / Appeal request to the Central Bank of Ireland on 18 August 2015:

“Hello FOI Unit,

I would like to seek an internal review / appeal of the final decision of Freedom of Information request (ref: 2015-000132)  made by Xxxxxxx Xxxxx, FOI Decision Maker, sent by email to me on 20th July 2015. This decision refused my request of 21st June 2015.

Reasons for seeking the Review

I have documented below the reasons why I am seeking a review of the decision, and listed them by number.

Part of my request was to obtain details of the gold bars held on behalf of the Central bank of Ireland at the Bank of England. Such a record does exist.

The FOI Decision Maker says in his decision: “I have identified one record falling within the scope of your request, namely a statement from the Bank of England dated 31 December 2009 confirming the number of gold bars held with the Bank of England on that date.”

The FOI Decision Maker quotes from “Section 40 (1) of the Act”:

(a) access to the record could reasonably be expected to have a serious, adverse effect on the ability of the Government to manage the national economy or on the financial interests of the State…”

and he specifically says:

“In my view, the release of detailed information regarding the gold bars held at the Bank of England on behalf of the Central Bank of Ireland could have a serious, adverse effect on the financial interests of the State, as it would disclose important information about the Central Bank’s gold holdings.”

  1. There was no proof proved by the FOI Decision Maker as to how releasing a statistic stating the number of gold bars held by the Central Bank of Ireland could “have a serious, adverse effect on the financial interests of the State.”

Likewise, there was no proof provided as to how disclosing “important information about the Central Bank’s gold holdings” could have a “could have a serious, adverse effect on the financial interests of the State.”

I would like a review of the decision to withhold the Bank of England statement dated 31st December 2009 reviewed, with a view to releasing said statement to me.

A follow-up call with the FOI Decision Maker on 21st July about the decision revealed that the Central Bank of Ireland had conducted 2 conference calls with the Bank of England about my request, with the second conference call even including a ‘chief security officer’ or similar from the Bank of England FOI office, and that the Bank of England told the Central Bank of Ireland that ‘you absolutely cannot’ send this statement out with bars total and fine ounces since its ‘highly classified’.

  1. I find it unacceptable that a request made under the Freedom of Information Act of Ireland can allow interference from a foreign central bank in determining its outcome. This is the Bank of England interfering in the Freedom of Information Act of another sovereign nation. Any input from the Bank of England in this matter should be inadmissible and I would like these interactions with the Bank of England to be reviewed as part of the appeal, and how a statement of gold bars can be said to be ‘highly classified’.

The FOI Decision Maker says “the release of this information, which is of substantial value, would identify the stock of gold coins held at the Central Bank from the stock of gold bars held at the Bank of England and from which a market valuation for the separate holdings could easily be calculated.”

“While there is public interest in ensuring transparency and accountability of public bodies, I believe that interest is outweighed by the public interest in protecting the confidentiality of asset valuation information, pertaining to the financial circumstances of the Central Bank.”

3. The asset valuation information of gold holdings is not confidential. In line with international accounting standards Central Bank of Ireland gold is valued at market value in the Balance sheet. The FOI Decision Maker’s explanation does not make any sense, and only serves to deflect my request. My request is not about gold coins. Introducing that argument is spurious and irrelevant.

The FOI Decision Maker says: “Your request was referred to two divisions within the Central Bank of Ireland, the Payment and Securities Settlement Division and the Currency Issue Division. Both divisions have confirmed that they do not hold any such records which fall within the scope of this part of your request.”

All foreign gold held in custody at the Bank of England is weight listed. I am submitting to you evidence of this fact in the form of a response to a Reserve Bank of Australia (RBI) freedom of information request in 2014 where the RBI responded to the request with a full Excel spreadsheet “Listing of the Reserve Bank of Australia’s gold inventory as held at the Bank of England”. See details below.

A freedom of Information request to the Reserve Bank of Australia in 2014

http://www.rba.gov.au/foi/disclosure-log/rbafoi-131418.html

Reference No.: RBAFOI-131418

Summary of Request: Listing of the Reserve Bank of Australia’s gold inventory as held at the Bank of England.

Date Released: 17 July 2014

Contents: One XLS file.

http://www.rba.gov.au/foi/disclosure-log/xls/131418.xls

It is a minimal requirement in international auditing standards to have access to details of assets held in custody.

  1.  In refusing my request, there was no explanation as to why the Bank of England has not provided such as weight list of gold bars to the Central Bank of Ireland. I would therefore like to appeal this finding also that the Central Bank of Ireland cannot request and provide a weight when other central banks, such as the RBI, can.

The 2009 Central bank of Ireland annual report states that gold holdings consisted of “deposits with foreign banks” as specified on page 77 of the 2009 Annual Report.

The 2010 Central Bank of Ireland annual report states that gold holdings during 2010 consisted of “gold bars held at the Bank of England” as specified on page 98 of the 2010 Annual Report.

The 2009 reference refers to gold deposits as distinct to gold in custody. The 2009 reference also refers to foreign banks in the plural.

The FOI response did not provide any explanation as to why the 2009 annual report used the wording of gold ‘deposits with foreign banks’ (in the plural).

The response merely stated that “the Central Bank of Ireland’s gold bars were held with the Bank of England during the course of 2009.” Gold on loan does not move, it stays in the Bank of England, and so this statement that “the Central Bank of Ireland’s gold bars were held with the Bank of England during the course of 2009” does not address the issue of the “deposits with foreign banks”.

  1. The FOI refusal of ‘Category 2(b)” of my request uses the above justification (i.e. “the Central Bank of Ireland’s gold bars were held with the Bank of England during the course of 2009”). Since there was no adequate explanation of the references to “deposits with foreign banks”, then this is not adequate grounds for refusal and I would like this reviewed.

The FOI Decision Maker says: “there is sufficient information in the public domain regarding the gold holdings of the Central Bank of Ireland.”

This is a subjective assessment. If there was sufficient information in the public domain regarding the gold holdings of the Central Bank of Ireland I would not have felt the need to submit a Freedom of Information request.

The public interest calls for transparency and accountability by the Central Bank of Ireland. The Central Bank of Ireland reports to the Minister of Finance who, as part of the Irish Government, works on behalf of the citizens of Ireland. In my view, refusing my request undermines the public interest and erodes transparency and accountability, and is not in the spirit and keeping of the Freedom of Information Act.

The Response

On 4 September 2015, I received a response and decision from the Central Bank of Ireland in relation to the request for an internal review. This response letter is uploaded here -> 20150904_Letter_to_requester_internal_review_decision_redacted.

In summary, the response letter, which was written by a separate FOI Decision Maker stated that:

I am a more senior member of staff than the original decision maker in this case and I have decided on 2nd September 2015 to vary the original decision on your request.” 

“In making my decision, I have had regard to the original request, the records
which were located as part of that request, and the appeal letter which you submitted in 
this regard.”

I have identified two records which fall within the scope of the first part of your
request, namely the 2009 and 2010 statements received from Bank of England. I
have decided to vary the original decision in respect of releasing the main text of
these statements
 

In my opinion, disclosing the total gold holdings in the Bank of England from which an estimate of the gold holdings in the Currency centre could be deduced would not unduly increase the security threat to the Currency centre when compared to the value of banknotes issued into circulation by the Central Bank. Therefore, in my view, the disclosure of the number of gold bars and fine ounces held in the Bank of England in 2009 and 2010, as recorded in the two statements, is unlikely to have a ‘serious adverse effect’ on the financial interests of the State

“With regard to the second part of your request, I am satisfied that there is no record
detailing the weight list, bar list, or bullion weight list, that uniquely identifies the bars of gold held on behalf of the Central Bank of Ireland by the Bank of England for the period 2009/10. I am advised that the Bank of England is unable to provide holdings bar lists which are past dated.

Accordingly, I have decided to affirm the original decision in respect of the second part of your request and …on the grounds that “the record concerned does not exist or cannot be found after all reasonable steps to ascertain its whereabouts have been taken.

You were also advised verbally by the original Decision Maker that a redrafting of
note 10 to the Statement of Accounts took place in 2010 to provide a more accurate
reflection of the external gold holdings of the Central Bank of Ireland.

 From the above you can see that:

a) There was no explanation offered by this second FOI Decision Maker to explain why the first FOI Decision Maker had made a misleading and erroneous statement that the release of record would have a “serious adverse effect  on the financial interest of the State. Putting it into context, this statement by the first FOI Decision Maker was just bluff or in common parlance it was ‘horse manure’.

b) There was no comment or acknowledgement by the second FOI Decision Maker about a foreign central bank, i.e. the Bank of England, meddling in and sabotaging an initial FOI Request, or the presence of a Bank of England FOI security officer on a conference call saying “absolutely this guy cannot have this gold bar statement” since its “highly classified”.

c) This second FOI Decision Maker inadvertently stated that the gold coin holdings held by the Central Bank of Ireland are stored in its ‘Currency centre’ premises, which is located in Sandyford, County Dublin, in a low rise secure building in campus type grounds. No part of my FOI Request or Review asked about these gold coin holdings. But since the second FOI Decision Maker volunteered this information, we now know where the domestically stored gold coin holdings are located.

Central Bank of Ireland Currency Centre, Sandyford, Dublin - Home of the irish gold coin reserves holdings
Central Bank of Ireland Currency Centre, Sandyford, Dublin – Home of the Irish gold coin reserve holdings

d) The second FOI Decision Maker stated that there is no record “that uniquely identifies the bars of gold held on behalf of the Central Bank of Ireland by the Bank of England for the period 2009/10.

If the Irish gold couldn’t be uniquely identified over these years (2009 and 2010), then it would suggest that is was not held in custody on a set-aside / earmarked / allocated basis as specific gold bars, and therefore the claim of the Central Bank of Ireland in its 2010 annual report that it held “gold bars at the Bank of England” is misleading.

 e) “I am advised that the Bank of England is unable to provide holdings bar lists which are past dated.This sounds unbelievable. The Bank of England has a sophisticated gold bar accounting system, and has had one since at least the late 1970s. The Bank of England currently also uses a Book Entry Transfer system (BETs) to transfer gold bars between accounts, a system which would itself need archiving capabilities.

All financial market position and transaction systems have archive capabilities. Historic records in financial markets have to be held for multiple years on electronic storage backup and in offsite backup should clients/customers request such details. To use an excuse that the Bank of England cannot generate a gold bar list for any past date is insulting and infantile. It also shows that the Central Bank of Ireland has no independent oversight or control over the reporting of its gold holdings at the Bank of England.

f) “A redrafting of note 10 to the Statement of Accounts took place in 2010 to provide a more accurate reflection of the external gold holdings of the Central Bank of Ireland”. Taken on face value, this would imply that the 2009 Annual Report of the Central Bank of Ireland was misleading and not accurate. However, at no point in any annual report was there any note or explanation to acknowledge that any redrafting had taken place to provide a more accurate explanation.

There was also no explanation offered by the second FOI Decision Maker as to what “deposits with foreign banks” (in the plural) referred to in the 2009 annual report, as per point 5 in my FOI Review Request.

The Released Records

The 2 statements that the second FOI Decision Maker decided to allow to be released were 2 Swift statements of gold balances for year-end 2009 and 2010, sent from the Bank of England to the Central Bank of Ireland. The release schedule for the statements can be viewed here -> 2015-000132 Schedule. The actual statements, which the Central Bank of Ireland redacted in parts to remove swift codes, can be seen here -> 2015-000132 Records swift. Each of the statements is 6 pages long but contains mostly irrelevant swift formatting etc. The only relevant part of each statement is at the bottom of page 1 of each respective statement, where a varying gold balance is stated, against a total number of bars. That a weight list cannot be produced shows that this gold is not held on an earmarked set-aside basis but merely on a fine ounce basis  (like a cash account) and that the number of bars mentioned on the statement is just an input that was added at some historical point in time when the account became a gold balance account.

For 2009 the statement is as follows:

GOLD BAL 258

WE CAN CONFIRM THE FOLLOWING BALANCE HELD IN YOUR ACCOUNT

ACCOUNT TITLE: CENTRAL BANK OF IRELAND

COB: 31/12/2009

NO OF BARS: 453

FINE OUNCES GOLD: 182,556.209

 

For 2010, the statement is as follows:

GOLD BAL 258

WE CAN CONFIRM THE FOLLOWING BALANCE HELD IN YOUR ACCOUNT

ACCOUNT TITLE: CENTRAL BANK OF IRELAND

COB: 31/12/2010

NO OF BARS: 453

FINE OUNCES GOLD: 182,555.914

This is the data which the first FOI Decision Maker said that “access to the record could reasonably be expected to have a serious, adverse effect on the ability of the Government to manage the national economy or on the financial interests of the State…He has got to be joking, right?

Conclusion

The examples set out in Parts 1 and 2 of this series will hopefully demonstrate to readers the disdain with which the Central Bank of Ireland and the Irish Department of Finance treat Freedom of Information Requests. I have detailed numerous examples where simple questions about the Irish gold reserves have been ignored, blocked, and refused, even when under the remit of the FOI legislation.

However the Central Bank of Ireland has complete contempt for FOI Acts and everything the FOI Act stands for. This is a wide ranging and live issue as the following recent article in the Irish media highlights. An Irish Times article dated 10 June 2016 and titled  “Central Bank ordered to review refusal of access to records“, highlights that the independent Information Commissioner said that his office had had “great difficulty in dealing with the bank in respect of the extent of our jurisdiction”, and said that a recent FOI case that was raised showed “the Bank was ‘entirely at odds’ with the spirit and intent of the FOI legislation.”

The same article quoted the Central Bank as saying that is was “fully committed to meeting the Freedom of Information principles of openness, transparency and accountability, and to the provision of access to records in accordance with its obligations under the Freedom of Information Act.

But this is a complete lie. As demonstrated by the arrogance and lack of cooperation of the Central Bank of Ireland on the topic of the Irish gold reserves, nothing could be further from the truth. Furthermore, there do not seem to be any political representatives willing to push the central bank on FOI issues, not any investigative journalists with the will to cover the topic of the Irish gold reserves at the Bank of England. Have these gold reserves ever even been physically audited? Given the lack of oversight with which the Central Bank of Ireland treats this gold holding, it would appear not. The crux of the issue in my view is the gold lending market, which the world’s central banks do not want the public to know any information about, hence the secrecy about gold bar weight lists.

Ireland’s Monetary Gold Reserves: High Level Secrecy vs. Freedom of Information – Part I

This article and a sequel article together chronicle a long-running investigation that has attempted, with limited success to date, to establish a number of basic details about Ireland’s official monetary gold reserves, basic details such as whether this gold is actually allocated, what type of storage contract the gold is stored under, and supporting documentation in the form of a gold bar weight list. Ireland’s gold reserves are held by the Central Bank of Ireland but are predominantly stored (supposedly) with the Bank of England in London.

At many points along the way, this investigation has been hindered and stymied by lack of cooperation from the Central Bank of Ireland and the Irish Government’s Department of Finance. Freedom of Information requests have been ignored, rejected and refused, and there has also been outright interference from the Bank of England. Many of these obstacles are featured below and in the sequel article.

6 Tonnes of Gold

Ireland ‘only’ owns 6 tonnes of gold in its monetary reserves, which is a fraction of the gold holdings that many of the large European central banks are said to hold. For such a small holding, it may be surprising that basic details of the Irish gold remain a closely guarded secret. However, it’s worth remembering that Ireland is a member of the Eurozone, that the Central Bank of Ireland is a member bank of the European Central Bank (ECB), and that the Irish gold is (supposedly) stored at the Bank of England vaults. Given the clubs that the Central Bank of Ireland is in or is a part of, it is arguably ECB policy and Bank of England policy on gold secrecy which primarily dictates what the Central Bank of Ireland is allowed to say or not to say about the Irish gold reserves.

But don’t forget though that central bankers in general, and Irish central bankers included, are an arrogant and narcissistic bunch who consider themselves immune from having to answer to anyone other than themselves and sometimes their governments. Furthermore, the out of control arrogant culture and ‘cult’ of independence of these organisations also explains their disdain for public discourse, especially on a topic as highly sensitive to them as monetary gold.

For many years Ireland held 14 tonnes in its monetary gold reserves. This remained the case until the end of 1998. In January 1999, as part of Eurozone foreign exchange transfers to the newly established ECB, the Central Bank of Ireland transferred 8 tonnes of gold to the ECB at the birth of the Euro, leaving it as the guardian of just 6 tonnes of gold. This 6 tonne holding has remained static ever since, at least at a reporting level. Most of this 6 tonnes of gold is supposedly stored at the Bank of England in London in the form of gold bars. A small residual of the 6 tonnes is held in the form of gold coins and stored at one of the Central Bank of Ireland sites in Dublin.

Central Bank Act (1942) and FOI Acts

The Central bank of Ireland was established via “The Central Bank Act, 1942″ which states that:

“The Bank is a state corporation established under Statute (the 1942 Act) wherein its capital is held by the Minister. The Minister for Finance is the sole shareholder of the Bank.

In Ireland, the Minister for Finance heads up the Department of Finance and this Minister is also a member of the Cabinet, i.e. the Government or Executive branch. The current Minister for Finance is Michael Noonan who has held this position since March 2011.

Freedom of Information requests in Ireland were introduced in Ireland by the relatively recent Freedom of Information (FOI) Act 1997 which was enacted by a coalition government and which advanced the concepts of transparency and openness in government records and cabinet meetings etc. However, the powers of this 1997 Act were diluted somewhat by a 2003 Amendment to the 1997 Act which aimed to row back on some of the advances of the 1997 Act and which introduced fees for submitting FOI requests.

I first examined the Irish gold reserves in August 2011. At that time the FOI Act covered government departments such as the Department of Finance, but not the Central Bank of Ireland. A subsequent FOI Act of 2014 replaced the 1997 FOI Act and the 2003 FOI Amendment, and also extended the coverage of FOI requests to all public bodies including the Central Bank of Ireland. The 2014 Act (in section 42 and Schedule 1 ) specifies a number of exemptions for certain types of information of certain types of public bodies including a few exemptions for certain types of central bank information. A government website http://foi.gov.ie summaries the basic framework for FOI’s in Ireland. An independent Office of the Information Commissioner (OIC) also exists to review decisions made by public bodies in relation to the FOI.

At the time in 2011, I began noticing the difficulties which gold researchers in other countries were having in obtaining basic information from their central banks about other countries’ gold reserves, and I thought that going through an investigative process with the Irish equivalent might prove easier to navigate given that the Irish gold holdings were far smaller, and given that the Central Bank of Ireland is not exactly as big as the behemoths of the Bundesbank or Banque de France, and so might be more approachable. However, what the process ended up proving was exactly what others had experienced, that the subject of monetary gold reserves is a subject which central banks do their utmost not to discuss any real details of.

This investigative summary into Ireland’s gold reserves is divided into 2 parts. Part 1 here details all of the investigations submitted to the Department of Finance and Central Bank of Ireland prior to my submission of a FOI request to the Central Bank of Ireland in 2015. The Central Bank of Ireland became subject to Freedom of Information requests in 2014 after the FOI Act of 2014 was enacted.

Part 2 looks at the FOI submitted to the Central Bank of Ireland in 2015, how this was rejected, and how it was then appealed and became ‘partially’ successful. I have redacted certain information in emails and FOI letters such as names of FOI officers and various addresses and phone numbers.

Dame Street

2011 – Central Bank First Refusal

The saga began on 26th August 2011 with an email to the Central Bank of Ireland posing a number of seemingly innocuous questions about Ireland’s gold reserves. My questions were as follows:

Could you clarify a number of points on the gold holdings of the Central Bank of Ireland.

Note 10 on page 98 of the Bank’s 2010 annual report states that ‘Gold and gold receivables represent coin stocks held in the Bank, together with gold bars held at the Bank of England’.

Of the Central Bank of Ireland’s bars held at the Bank of England, could you clarify if any of this holding is swapped or loaned out or has any other receivable status recorded against it, and if so, what percentage? Additionally, is this held in an allocated account and do you have a gold bar list for the custody that you can provide?

The Central Bank of Ireland responded a week later on 01 September 2011:

“Good morning,

We received your query in connection with gold custody, please find our response below.

The notes to our accounts confirm the locations at which the Central Bank of Ireland maintains its Gold Holdings.  The Bank is not, however, in a position to provide further information nor to outline its investment strategy in relation to the Gold Holdings.

Trusting this is our assistance to you.”

Knowing at that time that the FOI Act did not cover the Central Bank of Ireland but did cover the Irish Government’s Department of Finance, I emailed the (independent) Office of the Information Commissioner in September 2011 and asked if they thought that a FOI request to the Department of Finance about a topic connected to the central bank would be within the scope of FOI coverage given that the central bank itself was not covered by the Act at that time.

The Office of the Information Commissioner replied to me on 20 September 2011 and advised me as follows:

“you should contact the FOI Central Policy Unit of the Department of Finance for advice
in relation to whether or not certain information might be releasable or not under the FOI Acts. Their email address is: cpu@finance.gov.ie

The same day I sent the following email to the Department of Finance FOI CPU:

I have a hypothetical question regarding a FOI to the Department of Finance, on a matter that might refer to the Central Bank. The scenario would be as follows:
 
If I made a FOI request to the Department of Finance on a topic that included correspondence between the Department of Finance and the Central Bank, would the information released to me still include items on the Department of Finance side that might reference the Central Bank, or would references or communications with the Central Bank exclude that particular document or communication from the FOI response.”
The Department of Finance FOI CPU responded same day:

“Good afternoon

Under the Freedom of Information Act, the decision to grant or not grant records lies with the decision maker in the organization that holds the records. The Central Bank does not come under the remit of Freedom of Information.  More information can be found at www.foi.gov.ie;”

Slightly cryptic and not very helpful, so I decided to submit a FOI request to the Department of Finance.

Department of Finance – Irresponsible or Incompetent?

On 8 November 2011, I submitted the following FOI request to the Department of Finance:

“Please direct this email to FOI officer XXXX XXXXXXX, or the appropriate FOI officer at the Department of Finance.

I would like to make the following request under the FOI Act.

In accordance with the Freedom of Information Act, I request access from the Department of Finance of all records and correspondence between 1997 and 2011 relating to:

  • The Irish State’s gold reserves managed by the Central Bank of Ireland, which are custodied at the Bank of England
  • The investment strategy of the State’s gold reserves
  • The Irish State’s gold reserves transferred to the ECB between 1999 and 2011″

More than four weeks later I had still not received either an acknowledgement or a response from the Department of Finance about my FOI submission. Under the Irish FOI Acts, a lack of reply within 4 weeks of your initial application is deemed a refusal of your request and allows you to seek to have the refusal decision re-examined.

On 13 December 2011, I sent the following email to the Department of Finance FOI unit:

“Since you have not sent me a decision on my FOI request within the four-week deadline as stipulated by the Office of the Information Commissioner, and I note that I did not receive a reply or even an acknowledgement, this issue has now become a “refusal of my FOI request by non-reply” and I wish to escalate this as an ‘internal review’.

Can you confirm receipt of this internal review request immediately or I will be informing the Office of the Information Commissioner of this matter by end of day tomorrow.”

 Two days later the Department responded as follows with what can only be described as an incredible excuse:

“Thank you for your e-mail and apologies for the delay in processing your case.  Unfortunately the FOI Officer in the division has been out for sometime. If you could give me a call on 669xxxx we can go through it.  Requests are processed on receipt of a €15.00 fee. I am not quite sure what happened in your case but I am happy to discuss it further with you. I am in the Office in the mornings only.

Kind regards, Xxxxxxx Xxx, FOI Unit, Extn xxxx

 To which I replied:

“What happened is that no one responded to me within the four-week timeframe and I have informed the Office of the Information Commissioner of this lack of coverage at your department. If an FOI officer is unavailable, there has to be an alternative officer available. That is part of the OIC guidelines. That is why I also stated in my original email that the request was to “FOI officer Xxxx Xxxxxxx, or the appropriate FOI officer”.

 As per the FOI Acts,  “A person should be available to handle queries from members of the public in each organisation.”

Additionally, since your department hosts the FOI Central Policy Unit [for the entire Irish Government], I find it hard to believe that you don’t have multiple FOI officers. 

So I would like a full explanation of why my request was ignored and a fee waiver since I have been waiting for over 5 weeks now.”

Merrion Street

On 20 December 2011, just before Christmas, I received a phone call from a FOI officer at the Department of Finance. The FOI Officer told me, and I quote the conversation, since I jotted it down:

“there are no records or correspondence of gold reserves. I talked to various people in the Department and they told me to tell you there are no records. They said responsibility for gold reserves was transferred to the central bank prior to 1999.”

The FOI Officer said she would send a letter confirming this, and said that I could appeal, and that “a principal officer will check the type of searches undertaken”.

The next day, an email from the same FOI Officer arrived which stated:

“Further to our telephone conversation. A request for Internal Review has to be submitted to this Office within 15 days of receipt of our letter.  The cost of an Internal Review is €75. The letter will issue to-morrow.”

The official letter duly arrived in the post, and it’s uploaded and can be viewed here -> FOI Response Dept of Finance Dec 2011. In summary, the letter said:

“22nd December 2011

Your request was received by email in this Department on 9th November. I as the deciding officer have today made a final decision on your request. I may be contacted by telephone. The delay in responding to your request is regretted.

I regret to inform you that a search of the Department has not yielded any of the records sought by you. Consequently I must refuse your request in accordance with section 10(1)(a) of the FOI Act.  

…Right of Appeal (as above)”

Given that I had no confidence in a Department of Finance internal review finding anything after being told on the phone that “they told me to tell you there are no records“,  I did not see the point of wasting €75 in confirming this with an internal review. As an aside, unless an internal review is pursued, the independent Information Commissioner cannot normally review the FOI. As the Office of the Information Commissioner told me when I reported the Department of Finance shenanigans to them:

“Under  the  terms  of the FOI Acts, requesters must, apart from a number of exceptional  circumstances, avail of their right to seek internal review by the public body before the Commissioner can review the matter.

If after three weeks (15 working days) you have received no internal review decision,  or  if  you  are not satisfied with the internal review decision that  the Department issues, you can then apply to this Office for a review of your case by the Information Commissioner.”

However, for a number of reasons, it’s quite unbelievable that the Irish Department of Finance would have zero records or correspondence about the Irish gold reserves.

Firstly, it was only a few months earlier on 16 June 2011, in Dáil Éireann (the Irish Parliament), that the very  head of the Department of Finance, the Minister for Finance, Michael Noonan, in answer to a parliamentary question, stated that he had been “informed by the Central Bank that the value of gold and gold receivables held by the Bank at the end of 2010 was some €203.792 million (€147.975 million at end-2009)”. To wit:

Deputy Seamus Kirk asked the Minister for Finance  if the suggestion that gold profits in the EU central banks should be used to tackle the debt crisis in the peripheral countries in the eurozone such as Greece, Portugal and Ireland; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [15924/11]

Minister for Finance (Deputy Michael Noonan):  I am informed by the Central Bank that the value of gold and gold receivables held by the Bank at the end of 2010 was some €203.792 million (€147.975 million at end-2009). Gold is valued at the closing market price and securities at mid-market closing prices at year-end. The increase in the balance sheet entry for the value of the Bank’s gold holdings at end-2010 is due to the change in the market value of gold during the year.

Note that Noonan did not say that he or one of his juniors had looked in the central bank’s annual report. He said that he was informed by the central bank. If Noonan was informed by the central bank, this would have to have been documented in Department of Finance files as part of official departmental and parliamentary business. If these files don’t exist as the FOI response from the Department of Finance claimed, then it would indicate that the Department of Finance engages in sloppy record keeping and operates in an unprofessional and irresponsible manner. If files do exist about Noonan’s interactions with the central bank concerning the gold reserves, it shows that the Department of Finance had records about Irish gold reserves and lied when they said to me that they didn’t.

More fundamentally, the Irish Nation and people of Ireland essentially entrust to the care of the Irish State and it’s Department of Finance, the Nation’s gold reserves. In turn, the Department of Finance employs the Central Bank of Ireland as an agent or custodian, and so the Central Bank of Ireland is answerable to the Minister for Finance on these gold reserves. Also, the Bank of England is (on paper) acting as sub-custodian (or maybe deposit taker) to the Central Bank of Ireland.

The FOI response and phone call from the Department of Finance stating that it had no record whatsoever of the Irish gold reserves, no records of how these reserves are managed, and no records of the gold transferred to the ECB, if true, indicates complete lack of oversight by the Irish Government and Department of Finance into an important component of Ireland’s foreign exchange reserves, and indicates a complete dereliction of due diligence over a substantial monetary asset of the Irish State.

2012 – Central Bank Second Refusal

The Central Bank of Ireland annual report is usually published in late April of the year following financial year-end. After the 2011 Central Bank of Ireland Annual Report was published in late April 2012, I decided in May 2012 to submit some additional questions about the gold reserves to the central bank in the hope that whoever answered might be more cooperative than the previous non-cooperative individual in September 2011 (see above).

On 24 May 2012, after reading the relevant sections of the annual report and establishing how the auditors and bank staff prepared the annual accounts in relation to the balance sheet items, I posed the following seven specific and reasonable questions about the Irish gold reserves to the publications@centralbank.ie email address of the central bank:

“Hello, I have some questions on an item in the annual accounts 2011 Central Bank of Ireland annual report.

 Item 1 in the balance sheet on page 98 as of 31 December 2011 lists “Gold and gold receivables“ of € 234,967,000. Note 10 to the accounts on page 112 states that “Gold and gold receivables represent coin stocks held in the Bank, together with gold bars held at the Bank of England“.

Given that the valuation difference in this line item between 2010 and 2011 represents an increased gold price and no holding increase, the 2011 valuation represents approximately 193,000 fine troy ounces, which is equivalent to  6 fine troy tonnes, or about 485 london good delivery bars.

 My questions are as follows – 

Is the Central Bank of Ireland bar gold held at the Bank of England on a specific bar basis or a fine ounce basis?

Is the Central Bank of Ireland bar gold held at the Bank of England earmarked in a set-aside account or is it construed as a gold deposit? 

Is the Central Bank of Ireland bar gold held at the Bank of England held under a contract of bailment (with the Central Bank of Ireland as bailor and the Bank of England as bailee), or is the relationship a creditor/debtor relationship?

Is the Central Bank of Ireland bar gold held at the Bank of England beneficially and legally owned by the Central Bank of Ireland free and clear of liens, charges, encumbrances, claims or defects?

Is any of the Central Bank of Ireland bar gold held at the Bank of England currently loaned or swapped out to the Bank of England or other parties?

Given that the quantity of the Central Bank of Ireland bar gold held at the Bank of England did not vary between 2010 and 2011, what verifications and checks did the members of the Central Bank Commission use for gold and gold receivables when preparing the 2011 Statement of Accounts?

And finally, given that the quantity of the Central Bank of Ireland bar gold held at the Bank of England did not vary between 2010 and 2011, what sources of material did the Comptroller and Auditor General use for verification of gold and gold receivables in his audit of the 2011 accounts?”

 On 12 June 2012, the Central Bank of Ireland responded as follows:

“Thank you for your email request of 24th May 2012 to our Publications email address . As I do not have a postal address for you, I am responding by this email.

I can inform you that the gold bars held by the Central Bank of Ireland are held in safe custody at the Bank of England.

It is not Bank policy to enter into financial/commercial detail (beyond that contained in the Bank’s Annual Report & Accounts) relating to these or other financial assets that are held. You will note that the Bank’s external auditors have certified that its statement of Accounts gives a true and fair view of the Bank’s affairs.

Xxxxxxx Xxxxxxx, Strategy, Planning  & Publications, General Secretariat Division

 On the same day, 12 June 2012, I sent a follow-up email to the central bank employee from this Strategy, Planning  & Publications group.

“Dear Mr Xxxxxxx,

Thank you for your reply. Could you direct me to the published Bank Policy, statutory, compliance or otherwise, that covers Bank discussion of its financial assets and investments, so that I can relate this policy to my questions?

 On 20 June 2012, I received a reply from this individual:

“Dear Mr Manly, Thank you for your email of 12th June 2012.

The Bank’s management and staff comply with an employment provision that the Bank’s business must not be disclosed, or discussed with, outside parties.

The duties and obligations of management and staff in this regard are governed by Section 33AK of the Central Bank Act, 1942 (as inserted).  All staff are given copy of this Section on appointment and are required to familiarise themselves with its provisions and to comply with them at all times.

Xxxxxxx Xxxxxx, Strategy, Planning  & Publications, General Secretariat Division”

Section 33AK of the Central Bank Act of 1942 is a long and restrictive section that was only inserted into Act in 2003. It details specific circumstances of the central bank not disclosing confidential information, one part of which relates to:

“any matter arising in connection with the performance of the functions of the Bank or the exercise of its powers”

Importantly, Section 33AK of the Central Bank Act of 1942 has been routinely criticised in Ireland as a ridiculous secrecy cop-out by the Department of Finance and Central Bank to allow them not to answer all manner of questions in relation to the activities of the central bank, for example it has been used by the Minister of Finance to avoid discussing multiple issues related to Ireland’s economic collapse and subsequent bail-outs. The frequent abuses of Section 33AK were succinctly summed up in an Irish bailout blog in 2013 in an article titled “Is 33AK undermining the banking sector in Ireland?“:

“Section 33AK had never been mentioned by Minister Noonan before November 2012, but 33AK is now routinely used by Minister Noonan to tell pesky TDs (Members of Parliament) to “get lost” when they try to ask important questions about the banking sector…”

“No doubt the mandarin discoverer of Section 33AK in the Department of Finance is regularly patted on the back, but for the sake of our Republic, shouldn’t this legislation be repealed?”

According to Ireland’s independent Information Commissioner whose role it is to oversee compliance with the FOI Act, the Central Bank of Ireland had described Section 33AK as deriving:

“primarily from the obligations of ‘professional secrecy’ that arise as a result of certain EU law obligations contained within what were previously called the Supervisory Directives and are now called the supervisory EU legal acts”.

In my opinion, this invocation of Section 33AK by the above mentioned Central Bank of Ireland employee of the Strategy, Planning  & Publications group to decline answering simple questions about Ireland’s gold reserves and the central bank’s published financial statements is pure obstruction, it is an abuse of power, it is an abuse of the legislation, it is an outrage, it has nothing to do with the EU, and it goes far beyond the meaning of the legislation’s original intention.

OIC

Freedom of Information Act (2014) – A New Hope

In October 2014, the Irish President signed the Freedom of Information Act (2014) into law. This repealed and replaced the FOI Acts of 1997 and 2003. The FOI Act (2014) extended “FOI bodies” to “all Public Bodies” unless specifically exempted. Exemptions were either full or partial. Importantly, the Central Bank of Ireland was included under the FOI Act (2014) but with partial exemptions.  But for new public bodies (with exemptions), the Act only covers access to information and records created from 21 April 2008 onwards.

Part 2 of this article (forthcoming) details a FOI request about the Irish gold reserves that I made to the Central Bank of Ireland in the 2015 on the back the introduction of this updated FOI Act. As you will see, the central bank deciding officer initially refused all parts of my request and even liaised with the Bank of England on a number of occasions where they discussed by FOI request. That refusal contained such gems as:

“the release of detailed information regarding the gold bars held at the Bank of England on behalf of the Central Bank of Ireland could have a serious, adverse effect on the financial interests of the State”

“‘the record concerned [a gold bar weight list] does not exist or cannot be found after all reasonable steps to ascertain its whereabouts have been taken,’

I appealed this FOI refusal. The appeal was partially successful in producing some very limited details of the supposed Irish gold reserve holdings, including at the Bank of England and gold coins within storage in Dublin, Ireland. Full details in Part 2.

COMEX and ICE Gold Vault Reports both Overstate Eligible Gold Inventory

Introduction

In the world of gold market reportage, much is written about gold futures prices, with the vast majority of reporting concentrating on the CME’s COMEX contracts. Indeed, when it comes to COMEX gold, a veritable cottage industry of websites and commentators makes its bread and butter commentating on COMEX gold price gyrations and the scraps of news connected to the COMEX. The reason for the commentators’ COMEX fixation is admittedly because that’s where the trading volume is. But such fixation tends to obscure the fact that there is another set of gold futures contracts on ‘The Street’, namely the Intercontinental Exchange (ICE) gold futures contracts that trade on the ICE Futures US platform.

These ICE gold futures see little trading volume. Nonetheless, they have a setup and infrastructure rivaling that of COMEX gold futures, for example, in the reporting of the gold inventories from the vault providers that have been approved and licensed by ICE for delivery of gold against its gold futures contracts.

At the end of each trading day, both CME and ICE publish reports showing warehouse inventories of gold in Exchange licensed facilities/depositories which meet the requirements for delivery against the Exchanges’ gold futures contracts. These inventories are reported in two categories, Eligible gold and Registered gold. Many people will be familiar with the COMEX version of the report. A lot less people appear to know about the ICE version of the report. For all intents and purposes they are similar reports with identical formats.

Most importantly, however, both reports are technically incorrect for the approved vaults that they have in common because neither Exchange report takes into account the Registered gold reported by the other Exchange. Therefore, the non-registered gold in each of the vaults in common is being overstated, in a small way for COMEX, and in a big way for ICE. And since COMEX and ICE have many approved vaults in common, technically this is a problem.

The Background

Before looking at the issues surrounding the accuracy of the reports, here is some background about CME and ICE which explains how both Exchanges ended up offering gold futures contracts using vaults in New York. The Commodity Exchange (COMEX) launched gold futures on 31 December 1974, the date on which the prohibition on private ownership of gold in the US was lifted. In 1994, COMEX became a subsidiary of the New York Mercantile Exchange (NYMEX).

In 2001, Euronext acquired the London International Financial Futures and Options Exchange (LIFFE) to form the Euronext.LIFFE futures exchange. In April 2007, NYSE and Euronext merged to form NYSE Euronext. Following the merger with NYSE, this merged futures exchange was renamed NYSE Liffe US.

In July 2007, Chicago Mercantile Exchange (CME) merged with the Chicago Board of Trade (CBOT) and CME and CBOT both became subsidiaries of ‘CME Group Inc’. CBOT had traded a 100 oz gold futures contract from 2004 and a ‘CBOT mini-sized’ gold futures contract (33.2 ozs) from 2001. During 2007, NYSE Euronext had also been attempting to acquire CBOT at the same time as CME.

In August 2008, the CME Group acquired NYMEX (as well as COMEX), and NYMEX (including COMEX) became a fully-owned subsidiary of holding company CME Group Inc. Just prior to acquiring NYMEX/COMEX and its precious metals products, the CME sold the CBOT products to NYSE Euronext in March 2008. This included the CBOT 100 oz and mini gold futures contracts, and the CBOT options on gold futures. NYSE Euronext then added these gold contract products to its NYSE Liffe US platform.

In 2013, ICE acquired NYSE Liffe. In mid 2014, ICE transferred the NYSE Liffe US precious metals contracts to its ICE Futures US platformICE then spun off Euronext in 2014. ICE Futures US had been formerly known as the New York Board of Trade (NYBOT). ICE had acquired NYBOT in January 2007 and renamed it as ICE Futures US in September 2007.

Both COMEX and ICE Futures US are “Designated Contract Markets” (DCMs), and both are regulated by the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC). Any precious metals vault that wants to act as an approved vault for either COMEX or ICE, or both, has had to go through the COMEX / ICE approval process, and the CFTC has to be kept in the loop on these approvals also.

The Vault Providers

For its gold futures contracts, COMEX has approved the facilities of 8 vault providers in and around New York City and the surrounding area including Delaware. These vaults are run by Brink’s, Delaware Depository, HSBC, International Depository Service  (IDS) Delaware, JP Morgan Chase, Malca-Amit, ‘Manfra, Tordella & Brookes’ (MTB), and The Bank of Nova Scotia (Scotia). Their vault addresses are:

  • Brinks Inc:  652 Kent Ave. Brooklyn, NY and 580 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY 10036
  • Delaware Depository: 3601 North Market St and 4200 Governor Printz Blvd, Wilmington, DE
  • HSBC Bank USA: 1 West 39th Street, SC 2 Level, New York, NY
  • International Depository Services (IDS) of Delaware: 406 West Basin Road, New Castle, DE
  • JP Morgan Chase NA: 1 Chase Manhattan Plaza, New York, NY
  • Malca-Amit USA LLC, New York, NY (same building as MTB)
  • Manfra, Tordella & Brookes (MTB): 50 West 47th Street, New York, NY
  • Scotia Mocatta: 23059 International Airport Center Blvd., Building C, Suite 120, Jamaica, NY

Malca-Amit and IDS of Delaware were the most recent vault providers to be approved as COMEX vault facilities in December 2015/January 2016.

ICE has approved the facilities of 9 vault providers in and around New York City and the surrounding area including Delaware and also Bridgewater in Massachusetts. A lot of the ICE vaults in New York and the surrounding region were approved when its gold futures were part of NYSE Liffe. The ICE approved vaults are run by Brink’s, Coins N’ Things (CNT), Delaware Depository, HSBC, IDS Delaware, JP Morgan Chase, MTB, Loomis, and Scotia. From these lists you can see that Malca-Amit is unique to COMEX, and that CNT and Loomis are unique to ICE. The addresses of CNT and Loomis are as follows:

  • CNT Depository in Massachusetts: 722 Bedford St, Bridgewater, MA 02324
  • Loomis International (US) Inc: 130 Sheridan Blvd, Inwood, NY 11096

There are therefore 10 vault providers overall: Brink’s, CNT, Delaware Depository, HSBC, IDS Delaware, JP Morgan, Loomis, Malca-Amit, MTB, and Scotia. Three of the vaults are run by security transport and storage operators (Brink’s, Malca, and Loomis), three are owned by banks (HSBC, JP Morgan and Scotia), three are parts of US precious metals wholesaler groups (MTB, CNT and Dillon Gage’s IDS of Delaware), and one Delaware Depository is a privately held precious metals custody company.

Importantly, there are 7 vault provider facilities common to both COMEX and ICE. These 7 common vault providers are Brink’s, Delaware Depository, HSBC, IDS Delaware, JP Morgan, MTB, and Scotia.

The Inventory Reports

Each afternoon New York time, CME publishes a COMEX ‘Metal Depository Statistics’ report for the previous trading day’s gold inventory activity, which details gold inventory positions (in troy ounces) as well as changes in those positions within its approved vault facilities at Brink’s, Delaware Depository, HSBC, IDS Delaware, JP Morgan, Malca-Amit, MTB and Scotia. The COMEX report is published as an Excel file called Gold_Stocks and its uploaded as the same filename to the same CME Group public directory each day. Therefore it gets overwritten each day: https://www.cmegroup.com/delivery_reports/Gold_Stocks.xls.

Below are screenshots of this COMEX report for activity date Friday 16 December 2016 (end of week), which were reported on Monday 19 December 2016. For each depository, the report lists prior total of gold reported by that depository, the activity for that day (gold received or withdrawn) and the resulting updated total for that day. The report also breaks down the total of each depository into ‘Registered’, and ‘Eligible’ gold categories.

Eligible gold is all the gold residing in a reporting facility / vault  which is acceptable by the Exchange for delivery against its gold futures contracts and for which a warrant (see below) has not been issued, i.e. the bars are of acceptable size, gold purity and bar brand. In practice, this just applies to 100 oz and 1 kilo gold bars. This ‘eligible gold’ could be gold owned by anyone, and it does not necessarily have any connection to the gold futures traders on that Exchange.

For example, 400 oz gold bars in a COMEX or ICE approved vault would not be eligible gold. Neither would 100 oz bars or kilo bars arriving in a vault if  the bars had been outside the chain of custody and had not yet been assayed.

Registered gold is eligible gold (acceptable gold) for which a vault has issued a warehouse receipt (warrant). These warrants are documents of title issued by the vault in satisfaction of delivery of a gold futures contract, i.e. the vault receipts are delivered in settlement of the futures contract. This is analogous to set-aside or earmarked gold.

For the COMEX 100 oz gold futures contract (GC), physical delivery can be either through 1 unit of a 100 troy ounce gold bar, or 3 units of 1 kilo bars, therefore eligible gold on the CME report would include 100 troy ounces bars of gold, minimum 995 fineness, CME approved brand, and 1 kilo gold bars, CME approved brand. The CME E-Mini gold futures contract (QO) is exclusively cash settled and has no bearing on the licensed vault report. CME E-micro gold futures (MGC) can indirectly settle against the CME 100 oz GC contract through ‘Accumulated Certificates of Exchange’ (ACEs) which represent a 10% claim on a GC (100 oz) warrant. Therefore, the only gold bars reported included on the CME Metal Depository Statistics reports are 100 oz and 1 kilo gold bars.

 

cme-logo

comex-1

comex-2
COMEX Warehouse Inventory Report – Gold. Click to Enlarge

Each afternoon New York time, ICE publishes a “Metal Vault Statistics” report as an Excel file which is uploaded to an ICE public web directory. The report lists the previous trading day’s gold inventory activity, and like the CME report, shows gold inventory positions and changes in those positions (receipts and withdrawals) in troy ounces within its approved vault facilities. The ICE report also breaks down the total of each depository into ‘Registered’ and ‘Eligible’ gold.

The ICE licensed vault reports are saved as individually dated reports. The ICE report dated 19 December 2016 for activity on 16 December 2016, can be seen at https://www.theice.com/publicdocs/futures_us_reports/precious_metals/Precious_Metals_Vault_Stocks_Dec_19_2016.xls.

Two gold futures contracts trade on ICE Futures US, a 100 oz gold futures contract (ZG), and a Mini gold futures contract (YG). YG which has a contract size of 32.15 troy ounces (1 kilo). Both of these ICE gold contracts can be physically settled. The gold reported on the ICE Metal Vault Statistics report therefore comprises 100 oz and 1 kilo gold bars that are ICE approved brands. In practice, CME and ICE approved brands are the same brands.

ice-logo

ice-1

ice-2

ice-3
ICE Warehouse Inventory Report – Gold. Click to Enlarge

The Rules

The data required to be conveyed to CME each day by the approved depositories is covered in NYMEX Rulebook Chapter 7, section 703.A.7 which states that:

“on a daily basis, the facility shall provide, in an Exchange-approved format, the following information regarding its stocks:

  • a. The total quantity of registered metal stored at the facility.
  • b. The total quantity of eligible metal stored at the facility.
  • c. The quantity of eligible metal and registered metal received and shipped from the facility.”

The ICE Futures US documentation on gold futures does not appear to specifically cover the data that its approved vaults are required to send to ICE each day. Neither does it appear to be covered in the old NYSE Liffe Rulebook from 2014. In practice, since ICE generate a report for each trading day which is very similar to the CME version of the report, then it’s realistic to assume that the vaults send the same type of data to ICE. But as you will see below, the vaults seem to just send each Exchange a ‘number’ specifying the registered amount of gold connected to warrants related to the Exchange, and then another ‘number’ for acceptable gold that is not registered to warrants connected to that Exchange.

The Comparisons

What is immediately obvious when looking at the CME and ICE reports side by side is:

  • a) they are both reporting the same total amounts of gold at each of the approved facilities (vaults) that they have in common, and also reporting the same receipts and withdraws to and from each vault. This would be as expected.
  • b) CME and ICE are reporting different amounts of ‘Registered’ gold at each facility because they only report on the gold Registered connected to their respective Exchange contracts…
  • c)… which means that CME and ICE are also reporting different amounts of ‘eligible’ gold at each approved facility that they have in common.

In other words, because neither Exchange takes into account the ‘Registered’ gold at the other Exchange, each of CME and ICE is overstating the amount of Eligible gold at each of the vaults that they both report on.

Brink’s Example

Look at the below Brinks vault line items as an example. For activity date Friday 16 December 2016, CME states that at the end of the day there were 588,468.428 troy ounces of gold Registered, leaving 223,946.744 ounces in Eligible, and 812,415.172 ounces in Total. ICE also states the same Total amount of 812,415.195 ounces (probably differs by 0.023 ozs due to rounded balances carried forward), but from ICE’s perspective, its report lists that there were 321.51 ounces (10 kilo bars) registered in this Brink’s vault, so therefore ICE states that there are 812,093.685 ounces of eligible gold in the Brinks vaults. However, CME has 588,468.428 troy ounces of gold ‘earmarked’ or Registered against the total amount of reported 100 oz and 1 kilo gold bars in the Brink’s facility. In practice, if the situation ever arose, the Brink’s vault could issue warrants against ICE gold futures of more than 223,635.234 ozs, because this is the maximum amount of eligible gold in the vault which is neither registered with the COMEX exchange or registered with the ICE exchange.

cme-brinks

CME Brinks gold – Report date: 19 December 2016, Activity date: 16 December 2016

ice-brinks
ICE Brinks gold – Report date: 19 December 2016, Activity date: 16 December 2016

Therefore in this example, both the CME and ICE reports are not fully correct, but the ICE report is far ‘more’ incorrect than the CME report because the ICE report substantially understates the true amount of Eligible (non-registered) gold in the Brink’s vault. This trend is evident across most ‘Eligible’ numbers for the vaults in the ICE report. Since the trading volume in ICE gold futures is very low overall, the number of ICE gold futures contracts that have ultimately generated warrants is also very low.

Although the relatively tiny amounts of ‘Registered’ ounces listed on the ICE report won’t really affect the overall accuracy of the COMEX reporting, a more correct approach to reflect reality would be for the vault providers to combine the Registered numbers from the two Exchanges, and subtract this combined amount from the reported Total at each facility so as to derive an accurate and real Eligible amount for each vault facility.

MTB Example

But what about a scenario in which very little non-registered gold is actually left in a vault right now due to a high Registered amount having been generated from COMEX activity? In such a situation, the ICE report will overestimate the amount of Eligible gold in a big way and a reader of that report would be oblivious of this fact. This is the case for the Manfra, Tordella & Brookes (MTB) vault data on the ICE report.

According to the CME report, as of Friday 16 December, there were 104,507.221 ozs of gold in the MTB vault in the form of acceptable 100 oz or 1 kilo bars, with 99,698.357 ozs of this gold registered against warrants for COMEX, and only 4,808.864 ozs not Registered (i.e. Eligible to be Registered).

cme-mtb
CME MTB gold – Report date: 19 December 2016, Activity date: 16 December 2016

The ICE report for the same date and same vault states that there are the same amount of Total ounces in the vault i.e. 104,507.217 ounces (0.004 oz delta). However, the ICE report states that 104,153.567 ozs are Eligible to be registered, since from ICE’s perspective, only 353.65 ozs (11 kilo bars) are actually Registered. But this ICE Eligible figure is misleading since there are a combined 100,052.007 ozs (99,698.357 ozs + 353.65 ozs) Registered between the 2 Exchanges, and only another 4,455.214 ozs of Eligible gold in total in the vault.

ice-mtb
ICE MTB gold – Report date: 19 December 2016, Activity date: 16 December 2016

IDS Delaware Example

The reporting for International Depository Services (IDS) of Delaware is probably the most eye-opening example within the entire set of vault providers, because when looking at the 2 reports side by side, it becomes clear that there is no ‘Eligible’ (non-Registered) gold in the entire vault. CME states that 675.15 ozs (21 kilo bars) are Registered and that 514.4 ozs (16 kilo bars) are Eligible, giving a total of 1,189.55 ozs (37 kilo bars), but ICE states that 514.4 ozs (16 kilo bars) are Registered and thinks that 675.15 ozs (21 kilo bars) are Eligible. But in reality, between the two Exchanges, the entire 1,189.55 ozs (37 kilo bars) is Registered and there are zero ozs Eligible to be Registered. CME thinks whatever is not Registered is Eligible, and ICE thinks likewise. But all 37 kilo bars are Registered by the combined CME and ICE. IDS therefore sums up very well the dilemma created by the Exchanges not taking into account the warrants held against each other’s futures contracts.

cme-ids
ICE IDS gold – Report date: 19 December 2016, Activity date: 16 December 2016

 

ice-ids
ICE IDS gold – Report date: 19 December 2016, Activity date: 16 December 2016

Delaware Depository Example

Based on a report comparison, Delaware Depository (DD) is unusual in that there are different ‘Total’ amounts reported by each of CME and ICE. CME states that there are 110,336.484 ozs of acceptable gold in the DD vault, whereas ICE states that there are 112,008.284 ozs. This difference is 1,671.80 ozs which is equivalent to 52 kilo bars. So, for some unexplained reason, the vault has provided different total figures to CME and ICE.

cme-delaware
CME Delaware Dep gold – Report date: 19 December 2016, Activity date: 16 December 2016

 

ice-delaware
ICE Delaware Dep gold – Report date: 19 December 2016, Activity date: 16 December 2016

The above comparison exercise can be performed for the other 3 vaults that both CME and ICE have in common, namely the 3 bank vaults of HSBC, JP Morgan and Scotia. These 3 vaults  hold the largest quantities of metal in the entire series of New York area licensed vaults. The ICE contracts have very tiny registered amounts in these vaults, but the Eligible amounts listed on the ICE report for these vaults should technically take account of the Registered amounts listed on the CME report for these same 3 vaults.

The licensed vault that is unique to CME, i.e. the vault of Malca-Amit, surprisingly only reports holding 1060.983 ozs of gold (33 kilo bars), with all 33 bars reported as Registered. This is surprising since given that Malca operates a vault in the recently built International Gem Tower on West 47th Street, one would expect that Malca would be holding far more than just 33 gold kilo bars which would only take up a tiny amount of shelf space.

The two vaults that are unique to ICE, namely CMT and Loomis, also report holding only small amounts of acceptable gold. CNT has 9966.154 ozs (310 kilo bars), 90% of which is Registered, while Loomis reports holding just 7064.07 ozs, all of which is non-registered. 

Conclusion

In gold futures physical settlement process, it’s the responsibility of the exchanges (COMEX and ICE) to assign the delivery (of a warrant) to a specific vault (the vault which is ‘stopped’ and whose warehouse receipt represents the gold delivered). Presumably, the settlement staff at both CME and ICE both know about each other’s registered amounts at the approved vaults, and obviously the vaults do since they track the warrants. But then, if this is so, why not indicate this on the respective reports?

The CME and ICE reports both have disclaimers attached as footnotes:

CME states:

“The information in this report is taken from sources believed to be reliable; however, the Commodity Exchange, Inc. disclaims all liability whatsoever with regard to its accuracy or completeness. This report is produced for information purposes only.”

ICE states:

“The Exchange has made every attempt to provide accurate and complete data. The information contained in this report is compiled for you convenience and is furnished for informational purpose only without responsibility for accuracy.”

The exact definition of ‘Eligible’, taken from the COMEX Rulebook, is as follows:

“Eligible metal shall mean all such metal that is acceptable for delivery against the applicable metal futures contract for which a warrant has not been issued

However, in the case of ICE, its report is vastly overstating figures for Eligible gold at the vaults in which COMEX is reporting large registered amounts. In these cases, a warrant has been issued against the metal, it’s just not for ICE contracts, but for the contracts of its competitor, the COMEX. Surely, at a minimum, these footnote disclaimers of the ICE and CME vault inventory reports should begin to mention this oversight?

Guest Post: How to Trigger a Silver Avalanche by a Pebble: “Smash(ed) it Good”

UBS and other precious metals traders on how to wreak havoc in silver markets

Written by Allan Flynn, specialist researcher in aspects of gold and silver.

avalanche

“An avalanche can be triggered by a pebble if you get the timing right” 

Earlier this year at April’s hearings for London Silver and Gold Fix lawsuits, the judge and defendant’s attorney quipped about trader chats named “the mafia” and “the bandits” published in prosecutors findings of Forex investigations but conspicuously absent from precious metals investigation findings, and the silver and gold antitrust lawsuits under consideration.

THE COURT: “Those were bad facts for the defendants.”

LACOVARA: “I think, your Honor, that if we had chat rooms that said “The Cartel”, we might be having a different focus to oral argument today.”

THE COURT: “I think that is correct.”

Given the judges skepticism of the allegations described in an earlier article, it came as a surprise early October when the banks listed were ordered by magistrate Valerie E. Caproni to face charges. More surprising perhaps was the exemption granted Swiss bank UBS, which despite having been found guilty and fined for “precious metals misconduct” by the Swiss Financial Market Supervisory Authority FINMA in November 2014, was granted motion to dismiss from both silver and gold lawsuits.

All that may be about to change according to documents filed in a New York district court December 7th, where plaintiffs claim that transcripts showing conspiracy to manipulate silver, provided by Deutsche Bank as part of an April settlement agreement, includes extensive smoking gun evidence involving UBS and other banks. Plaintiffs describe a “multi-year, well-coordinated and wide-ranging conspiracy to rig the prices of silver and silver financial instruments that far surpasses” that of the previous complaint, including potentially incriminating evidence of UBS precious metals traders allegedly conspiring with other banks.

Five additional banks to the remaining defendants HSBC and Bank of Nova Scotia are mentioned including Barclays Bank, BNP Paribas, Standard Chartered Bank, Bank of America and Merrill Lynch. The Memorandum of Law signed by Vincent Briganti on behalf of Lowey Dannenberg Cohen & Hart for plaintiffs on Wednesday 7th December seeks leave to amend the existing complaint filed with the United States District Court Southern District of New York.

Included in the memo are numerous astounding transcripts indicating coordination between UBS and other banks of “pushing,” ”smashing,” ”bending,” ”hammering,” ”blading,” ”muscling,” and “ramping” the prices of silver and silver financial instruments.

In support of claims of conspiracy to manipulate the price of silver downward the following gem is attributed to UBS Trader A: “so we both went short” “f*cking hell it just kept going higher” “63,65, then my guy falls asleep, it goes to 69 paid!” “then finally another reinforcement came in.

Discussions supposedly of coordination between UBS and their competitors about fixing the price of physical silver by offering only wide spreads between the bid and ask (where a “lac” is reference to an Indian measure equaling 100,000 units) go like this:

UBS Trader B: “what did u quote let me check”

Deutsche Bank Silver Fix Trader-Submitter A: “44/49”

UBS Trader A: “just quote wider if they call me in 1 lac I will quote 7-8 cents”

Deutsche Bank Trader B: “how wide u making 1 lac today 5 cents?”

UBS Trader A: “silver actually steadier than gold i would make 5-6 cents wide in silver”

UBS Trader A: how wide would you quote 5 lacs silver?”

Deutsche Bank Trader B: “10cu>?”

Deutsche Bank Trader B:”how wide u quote for 3 lacs?”

UBS Trader A: 10 cents”).

Manipulation of the Silver Fix price to benefit their silver trading positions in derivatives by UBS is claimed in the following exchanges:

Deutsche Bank Trader B: “u guys short some funky options” “well you told me to no one u just said you sold on fix”

UBS Trader A: “we smashed it good.”

Deutsche Bank Silver Fix Trader-Submitter A: “UBS boring the market again”…”just like them to bid it up before the fix then go in as a seller…they sell to try and push it back.”

It’s further alleged by plaintiffs that UBS implemented an “11 oclock rule” where both UBS and Deutsche Bank would short silver at 11A.M.

As examples of the comparative ease by which UBS moved the silver market the memo reveals Deutsche Bank Trader B added UBS Trader A to a chat with HSBC Trader B, which UBS Trader A deemed “the mother of all chats,” and leading to the trader’s own analysis:

UBS Trader A to Deutsche Bank Trader B: “if we are correct and do it together, we screw other people harder”

UBS Trader A: “an avalanche can be triggered by a pebble if you get the timing right” and “silver still here, u can easily manipulate silver”, and in reference to UBS supposed manipulative influence by an unnamed party: “u guys WERE THE SILVER MKT.”

hobo

UBS intended to reap financial rewards by manipulation of the price of physical silver and associated financial instruments, the memo says as UBS Trader A suggested: “go make your millions now jedi master…”pls write me a check when u aer a billionare,” and “i teach u a fun trick with silver” to which Deutsche Bank Trader B replied: “show me the money.

Confident of their ability to manipulate UBS made bold predictions according to the following alleged extracts:

UBS Trader A: “gonna bend this silver lower”; “i will bend it lower told u”; ”hah cool its gonna get ugly”; “use the blade on silver rg tnow it’ll hold it up,

Deutsche Bank Trader B: “yeah,

UBS Trader A: “gona blade silver now.

Of course all the secrecy in the world about the operations was required of the chat groups by UBS Trader A stating: “pls keep all these trick to yourself,” “btw keep it to yourself…,” and “ok rule of thumb EVERYTHING here stays here.

Examples of other banks alleged transcripts are included in the following:

Barclays

Deutsche Bank Trader B instructing Barclays trader A: “today u smash,

Barclays Trader A: “yeah” and “10k silver” “im short.

It’s alleged that Barclays and Deutsche Bank shared information so often that Barclays Trader A remarked “we are one team one dream.”

Materials in the memo even include the Deutsche Bank and Barclays precious metals traders agreeing at one stage to “stay away” from silver for a week.

The traders of course knew it was terribly wrong with Barclays Trader A responding to Deutsche Bank’s Trader B instruction to “push silver”: “HAHAHA lol i don’t think this is politically correct leh on chat.

Merrill Lynch

Allegedly fixing the bid-ask spread they offered clients on silver:

Merrill Lynch Trader A: “How wide r u on spot? Id assume 10 cents for a few lacs?

Deutsche Bank Silver Fix Trade-Submitter A: “im getting ntg but stops”

…Merrill Lynch Trader A: “we had similar” “I sweep them…Fuk these guys.

Showing disregard to global regulators even after noting their activities the two continued to “sweep” the silver market, allegedly observing at one stage: “Someone got stopped messily.

smash

BNP Paribas Fortis

Fortis Bank Trader B allegedly conspired with Deutsche Bank to manipulate silver prices, using what he termed a “bulldozer” on the silver market.

Standard Chartered

Conversations between Deutsche Bank Silver Fix Trade-Submitter A and Standard Chartered Trader A as follows:

 “Yeh” “small long out of the fix…” “ok where to sell sivler then?

23.40 thru that use it as a stop profit and let it runnnnnnnnnnnnn

were on the same wavelength

im long silver”…”ilke both [silver and gold] to get the absolute sht squeezed out of them” “im longer silver than i am gold

Conclusion

Assuming the transcripts submitted are accepted and plaintiffs are permitted to file their Third Amended Complaint, the possible pending “avalanche” of settlements in silver lawsuits will speak volumes for the investigative prowess of the CFTC and the DOJ, both of which were commissioned to investigate long running allegations of silver and precious metals market manipulation over recent years, and came up completely empty.

It appears Judge Caproni, former FBI General Counsel, was on the money when considering the potential of ineptitude in government investigations of precious metals markets at April’s gold hearing: “I don’t put a lot of stock in the fact that there are investigations because I was a government lawyer for a long time and I know what you need to open an investigation. By the same token, the fact that they closed it without charging anybody doesn’t mean that everybody is innocent. So I don’t put a lot of stock in it one way or the other.”

The CFTC proudly announced in September 2013 they had spent five years and seven thousand enforcement hours investigating complaints of manipulation in the silver market, including with assistance by the Commission’s Division of Market Oversight, the Commission’s Office of Chief Economist, and outside experts, but yet found nothing.

The Department of Justice Antitrust Division which were so confident of their investigation of collusion in precious metals they went to the extraordinary lengths in January of this year of providing a letter to silver and gold lawsuit defendants advising they had closed their investigation without findings of wrongdoing.

The Swiss Financial Services watchdog FINMA investigated, published and prosecuted UBS for forex and precious metals trading misconduct but yet said so little about precious metals findings in their November 2014 investigation report, it was impossible for the court to withstand UBS motion to dismiss in both metals.

And finally of the ability of authorities to reign in rogue banks in the precious metals or any other markets, the memorandum flags a fact that should draw the attention of those trying to figure out if they can indeed trust that their bullion bank has their best interests at heart simply by banning participation in trader chat rooms.

“The chats contained in the DB material are just the tip of the iceberg, as evidence suggests that Defendants intentionally communicated in undocumented ways to keep their manipulation hidden.”

For example the memo includes the salient reminder that banks will always find a way “to evade detection,” in this case where two traders are described as also communicating “via email and personal cell phone.”

The above article was first published at Allan Flynn’s website here.

Allan Flynn is a specialist researcher in aspects of gold and silver. He is currently investigating for future publication on the same topic and works in property and commercial architecture when he needs to eat. He holds shares in precious metals producers and banks.

 

European Central Bank gold reserves held across 5 locations. ECB will not disclose Gold Bar List.

The European Central Bank (ECB), creator of the Euro, currently claims to hold 504.8 tonnes of gold reserves. These gold holdings are reflected on the ECB balance sheet and arose from transfers made to the ECB by Euro member national central banks, mainly in January 1999 at the birth of the Euro. As of the end of December 2015, these ECB gold reserves were valued on the ECB balance sheet at market prices and amounted to €15.79 billion. 

The ECB very recently confirmed to BullionStar that its gold reserves are stored across 5 international locations. However, the ECB also confirmed that it does not physically audit its gold, nor will it divulge a bar list / weight list of these gold bar holdings.

Questions and Answers

BullionStar recently put a number of questions to the European Central Bank about the ECB’s gold holdings. The ECB Communications Directorate replied to these questions with answers that appear to include a number of facts about the ECB gold reserves which have not previously been published. The questions put to the ECB and its responses are listed below (underlining added):

Question 1:The 2015 ECB Annual Report states that as at 31 December 2015, the ECB held 16,229,522 ounces of fine gold equivalent to 504.8 tonnes of goldGiven that the ECB gold holdings arose from transfers by the respective member central banks, could you confirm the storage locations in which this ECB gold is currently held (for example at the Bank of England etc), and the percentage breakdown of amount stored per storage location.”

ECB Response:The gold of the ECB is located in London, Paris, Lisbon, New York and Rome. The ECB does not disclose its distribution over these places. The gold of the ECB is stored there because it was already stored there before ownership was transferred to the ECB and moving it was seen and is seen as too costly.

Question 2: “Could you clarify as to how, if at all, this gold is audited, and whether it physical audited by the ECB or by a 3rd party?”

ECB Response:The ECB has no physical audit of its gold bars. The gold bars that the ECB owns are individually identified and each year the ECB receives a detailed statement of these gold deposits. The central banks where the gold is stored are totally reliable.

Question 3: “Finally, can the ECB supply a full weight list of the gold bars that comprise the 504.8 tonnes of gold referred to above?”

ECB Response:The ECB does not disclose this information.

euro-sign-frankfurt

London, New York, Paris, Rome, Lisbon

Given that some of the information shared by the ECB has arguably not been in the public record before, each of the 3 ECB answers above is worth further exploration.

In January 1999, when the Euro currency was created (Stage 3 of Economic and Monetary Union), each founding member national central bank (NCB) of the Euro transferred a quantity of foreign reserve assets to the ECB. Of these transfers, 85% was paid to the ECB in the form of US dollars and Japanese Yen, and 15% was paid to the ECB in the form of physical gold.

Initially in January 1999, central banks of 11 countries that joined the Euro made these transfers to the ECB, and subsequently the central banks of a further 8 countries that later joined the Euro also executed similar transfers to the ECB.

All of the foreign exchange and gold reserves that were transferred to and are owned by the ECB are managed in a decentralised manner by the national central banks that initiated the transfers. Essentially, each national central bank acts as an agent for the ECB and each NCB still manages that portion of reserves that it transferred to the ECB. This also applies to the transferred gold and means that the gold transferred to the ECB never physically moved anywhere, it just stayed where it had been when the transfers of ownership were made.

That is why, as the ECB response to Question 1 states: “The gold of the ECB is stored there because it was already stored there before ownership was transferred to the ECB”.

What is probably most interesting about the latest ECB statement is that it names 5 city locations over which the ECB’s gold is stored. The 5 gold storage locations stated by the ECB are London, New York, Paris, Rome and Lisbon. Since the gold transferred to the ECB in 1999 by the national central banks would have already been stored in central banks gold vaults, these 5 city locations undoubtedly refer to the gold vaults of:

  • the Bank of England
  • the Federal Reserve Bank of New York
  • the Banque de France
  • the Banca d’Italia
  • Banco de Portugal

The fact the ECB’s gold holdings are supposedly stored at these 5 locations can be explained as follows:

ecb-transfers
Table 1: Central bank FX and Gold transfers to the ECB, January 1999

Between 4th and 7th January 1999, 11 central banks transferred a total of €39.469 billion in reserve assets to the ECB (in the form of gold, cash and securities). Of this total, 15% was in the form of gold, amounting to 24 million ounces of gold (747 tonnes of gold) which was valued at that time at €246.368 per fine ounce of gold, or €5.92 billion. The 85% transferred in the form of currencies comprised 90% US Dollars and 10% Japanese Yen. See pages 152 and 153 of ECB annual report 1999 for more details.

The 11 central banks that made the transfers to the ECB in January 1999 were the central banks of Belgium, Netherlands, Germany, France, Luxembourg, Italy, Ireland, Austria, Finland, Spain and Portugal. See Table 1 for details of these gold transfers, and the amount of gold transferred to ECB ownership by each central bank.

The value of reserves transferred to the ECB by each national central bank were based on a percentage formula called a ‘capital key’ which also determined how much each central bank subscribed to the founding capital of the ECB. This capital key was based on equally weighting the percentage of population and GDP each Euro founding member economy represented, therefore central banks such as Deutsche Bundesbank, Banque de France, and Banca d’Italia comprised the largest transfers, as can be see in Table 1. It also meant that these 3 central banks transferred the largest amounts of gold to the ECB, with the Bundesbank for example transferring 232 tonnes of gold to the ECB.

The Bundesbank gold transfer to the ECB in January 1999 took place at the Bank of England. The Bundesbank actually confirmed in its own published gold holdings spreadsheet that this transfer took place at the Bank of England. See spreadsheet Column 5 (BoE tonnes), Rows 1998 and 1999, where the Bundesbank gold holdings fell by 332 tonnes between 1998 and 1999 from 1,521 tonnes to 1,189 tonnes and also see Column 20 where gold lending rose from 149 tonnes to 249 tonnes. Therefore, between 1998 and 1999, 232 tonnes of gold was transferred from the Bundesbank gold account at the bank of England to the ECB account at the Bank of England, and 100 tonnes was added to the Bundesbank’s gold loans.

Paris and Rome

The Banque de France currently stores the majority (over 90%) of its gold reserves in its own vaults in Paris, so it it realistic to assume that when the Banque de France transferred 159 tonnes of gold to the ECB in January 1999, it did so using gold stored in the Banque de France vaults in Paris. Likewise, it is realistic to assume that the Banca d’Italia, which currently stores half of its gold reserves at its own vaults in Rome, transferred 141 gold stored in its Rome vaults to the ECB in 1999. This would explain the Paris and Rome gold holdings of the ECB. While a few ex French colony central banks are known to have historically stored gold with the Banque de France in Paris, none of the founding members of the Euro (apart from the Bundesbank) are on the record as having stored gold in Paris, at least not for a long time. The Banca d’Italia is not known for storing gold on behalf of other national central banks.

Lisbon and New York

The Banco de Portugal currently holds its gold reserves in Lisbon and also at the Bank of England, the Federal Reserve Bank of New York (FRBNY), and with the BIS. The ECB gold stored in Lisbon, Portugal most likely refers to the 18.2 tonnes of gold transferred by the Banco de Portugal to the ECB in January 1999, because a) that makes most sense, and b) the Banco de Portugal is not known as a contemporary gold custodian for other central banks.

Of the other 7 central banks that transferred gold to the ECB in January 1999, the central banks of Austria, Belgium and Ireland store most of their gold at the Bank of England so are the most likely candidates to have made gold transfers to the ECB at the Bank of England. See BullionStar blog “Central bank gold at the Bank of England” for more details of where central banks are known to store gold.

The Netherlands and Finland currently store some of their gold reserves at the Bank of England and at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York and probably also did so in 1998/99, so one or both of these banks could have made transfers to the ECB at the FRBNY. Another contender for transferring gold held at the FRBNY is the Spanish central bank since it historically was a holder of gold at the NYFED. It’s not clear where the central bank of Luxembourg held or holds gold but it’s not material since Luxembourg only transferred just over 1 tonne to the ECB in January 1999.

Greece and Later Euro members

Greece joined the Euro in January 2001 and upon joining it transferred 19.5 tonnes of gold to the ECB. Greece is known for storing some of its gold at the FRBNY and some at the Bank of England, so Greece too is a candidate for possibly transferring New York held gold to the ECB. In theory, the ECB’s New York held gold may not have even arisen from direct transfers from Euro member central banks but could be the result of a location swap. Without the national central banks or the ECB providing this information, we just don’t know for sure how the ECB’s New York gold holdings arose.

Another 7 countries joined the Euro after Greece. These countries were Slovenia on 1st January 2007, Malta and Cyprus 1st January 2008, Slovakia 1st January 2009, Estonia 1st January 2011, Latvia 1st January 2014, and Lithuania 1st January 2015. The majority of these central banks made gold transfers to the ECB at the Bank of England. In total these 7 central banks only transferred 9.4 tonnes of gold to the ECB, so their transfers are not really material to the ECB’s gold holdings.

ECB Gold Sales: 271.5 tonnes

More importantly, the ECB sold 271.5 tonnes of gold between Q1 2005 and Q1 2009. These sales comprised 47 tonnes announced on 31 March 2005, 57 tonnes announced 31 March 2006,  37 tonnes over April and May 2007 announced 1 June 2007, 23 tonnes of sales completed on 30 November 2006, 42 tonnes announced 30 November 2007, 30 tonnes of completed sales announced 30 June 2008, and 35.5 tonnes completed in Q1 2009.

These sales explain why the ECB currently only holds 504.8 tonnes of gold:

i.e. 766.9 t (including Greece) – 271.5 t sales + 9.4 t smaller member transfers = 504.8 t

The ECB does not provide, nor has ever provided, any information as to where the 271.5 tonnes of gold  involved in these 2005-2009 sales was stored when it was sold. The fact that the ECB still claims to hold gold in Paris, Rome and Lisbon, as well as London and New York, suggests that at least some of the gold transferred by the Banque de France, Banca d’Italia and Banco de Portugal in 1999 is still held by the ECB.

If the ECB had sold all the gold originally transferred to it by all central banks other than France, Italy, Portugal and Germany, this would only amount to 197 tonnes, so another 74 tonnes would have been needed to make up the shortfall, which would probably have come from the ECB holdings at the Bank of England since that is where most potential central bank and bullion bank buyers hold gold accounts and where most gold is traded on the international market.

Even taking into account Greece’s 19.4 tonne gold transfer to the ECB in January 2001, and excluding the French, Italian, German and Portuguese transfers in 1999, the ECB’s 271.5 tonnes of gold sales would still have burned through all the smaller transfers and left a shortfall. So the ECB gold sales may have come from gold sourced from all of its 5 storage loacations.

It’s also possible that one or more of the original 11 central banks transferred gold to the ECB that was stored at a location entirely distinct from the 5 currently named locations, for example gold stored at the Swiss National Bank. If that particular gold was then sold over the 2005-2009 period, it would not get picked up in the current locations. It’s also possible that some or all of the 271.5 tonnes of gold sold by the ECB over 2005-2009 had been loaned out, and that the ‘sales’ were just a book squaring exercise in ‘selling’ gold which the lenders failed to return, with the loan transactions being cash-settled.

Draghi resumes ECB press conference after being attacked by protester

No Physical Audit of ECB Gold

Given that the Euro is the 2nd largest reserve currency in the world and the 2nd most traded currency in the world, the ECB’s gold and how that gold is accounted for is certainly a topic of interest. Although the ECB’s gold doesn’t directly back the Euro, it backs the balance sheet of the central bank that manages and administers the Euro, i.e. the ECB.

The valuation of gold on the ECB’s annual balance sheet also adds to unrecognised gains on gold in the ECB’s revaluation account. Given gold’s substantial price appreciation between 1999 and 2015, the ECB’s unrecognised gains on gold amount to €11.9 billion as of 31 December 2015.

It is therefore shocking, but not entirely surprising, that the ECB doesn’t perform a physical audit of its gold bars and has never done so since initiating ownership of this gold in 1999. Shocking because this lack of physical audit goes against even the most basic accounting conventions and fails to independently prove that the gold is where its claimed to be, but not surprising because the world of central banking and gold arrogantly ignores and bulldozes through all generally accepted accounting conventions. Geographically, 2 of the locations where the ECB claims to store a percentage of its gold are not even in the Eurozone (London and New York), and infamously, the Bundesbank is taking 7 years to repatriate a large portion of its gold from New York, so the New York storage location of ECB gold holdings should immediately raise a red flag. Furthermore, the UK is moving (slowly) towards Brexit and away from the EU.

Recall the response above from the ECB:

The ECB has no physical audit of its gold bars. The gold bars that the ECB owns are individually identified and each year the ECB receives a detailed statement of these gold deposits. The central banks where the gold is stored are totally reliable.

Imagine a physical-gold backed Exchange Traded Fund (ETF) such as the SPDR Gold Trust or iShares Gold Trust coming out with such a statement. They would be run out of town. References to ‘totally reliable’ are all very fine, but ‘totally reliable’ wouldn’t stand up in court during an ownership claim case, and assurances of ‘totally reliable’ are not enough, especially in the gold storage and auditing businesses.

The ECB is essentially saying that these ‘statements’ of its gold deposits that it receives from its storage custodians are all that is needed to for an “audit” since the custodians are ‘totally reliable‘.

This auditing of pieces of paper (statements) by the ECB also sounds very similar to how the Banca d’Italia and the Deutsche Bundesbank conduct their gold auditing on externally held gold i.e. they also merely read pieces of paper. Banca d’Italia auditsannual certificates issued by the central banks that act as the depositories” (the FRBNY, the Bank of England, and the SNB/BIS).

The Bundesbank does likewise for its externally held gold (it audits bits of paper), and solely relies on statements from custodians that hold its gold abroad. The Bundesbank actually got into a lot of heat over this procedure in 2012 from the German Federal Court of Auditors who criticised the Bundesbank’s blasé attitude and lack of physical auditing, criticism which the Bundesbank’s executive director Andreas Dombret hilariously and unsuccessfully tried to bury in a speech to the FRBNY  in New York in November 2012 in which he called the controversy a “bizarre public discussion” and “a phantom debate on the safety of our gold reserves“, and ridiculously referred to the movies Die Hard with a Vengeance and Goldfinger, to wit:

“The days in which Hollywood Germans such as Gerd Fröbe, better known as Goldfinger, and East German terrorist Simon Gruber, masterminded gold heists in US vaults are long gone. Nobody can seriously imagine scenarios like these, which are reminiscent of a James Bond movie with Goldfinger playing the role of a US Fed accounting clerk.”

Where is the ECB Gold Bar Weight List?

Since, as the ECB states, it’s gold bars are “individually identified“, then gold bar weight lists of the ECB’s gold do indeed exist. This then begs the question, where are these weight lists, and why not release them if the ECB has nothing to hide?

Quickly, to define a weight list, a gold bar weight list is an itemised list of all the gold bars held within a holding which uniquely identifies each bar in the holding. In the wholesale gold market, such as the London Gold Market, the LBMA’s “Good Delivery Rules” address weight lists, and state that for each gold bar on a weight list, it must list the bar serial number, the refiner name, the gross weight of the bar, the gold purity of the bar and the fine weight of the bar. The LBMA also state that “year of manufacture is one of the required ‘marks’ on the bar”.

Recall from above that when the ECB was asked to provide a full weight list of its 504.8 tonnes of gold bars, it responded: The ECB does not disclose this information.

After receiving this response, BullionStar then asked in a followup question as to why the ECB doesn’t disclose a weight list of the gold bars. The ECB responded (underlining added):

“We would like to inform you that, while the total weight and value of the gold held by the European Central Bank (ECB) can be considered to be of interest to the public, the weight of each gold bar is a technicality that does not affect the economic characteristics of the ECB’s gold holdings. Therefore the latter does not warrant a publication.

It is a very simple task to publish such a weight list in an automated fashion. The large gold backed ETFs publish such weight lists online each and every day, which run in to the hundreds of pages. Publication of a weight list by the ECB would be a very simple process and would prove that the claimed bars are actually allocated and audited.

This ECB excuse is frankly foolish and pathetic and is yet another poorly crafted excuse in the litany of poorly crafted excuses issued by large gold holding central banks in Europe to justify not publishing gold bar weight lists. The Dutch central bank recently refused to issue a gold bar weight list since it said it would be too costly and administratively burdensome. The Austrian central bank in refusing to publish a weight list claimed as an excuse that it “does not have the required list online“. Last year in 2015, the German Bundesbank issued a half-baked useless list of its gold bar holdings which was without the industry standard required refiner brand and bar serial number details.  (For more details, see Koos Jansen BullionStar blogs “Dutch Central Bank Refuses To Publish Gold Bar List For Dubious Reasons“, and “Central Bank Austria Claims To Have Audited Gold at BOE. Refuses To Release Audit Reports & Gold Bar List“, and a Peter Boehringer guest post “Guest Post: 47 years after 1968, Bundesbank STILL fails to deliver a gold bar number list“).

The more evidence that is gathered about the refusal of central banks to issue industry standard gold bar weight lists, the more it becomes obvious that there is a coordinated understanding between central banks never to release this information into the public domain.

The most likely reason for this gold bar weight list secrecy is that knowledge of the contents of central bank gold bar weight lists could begin to provide some visibility into central bank gold operations such as gold lending, gold swaps, location swaps, undisclosed central bank gold sales, and importantly, foreign exchange and gold market interventions. This is because with weight list comparisons, gold bars from one central bank weight list could begin turning up in another central bank weight list or else turning up in the transparent gold holdings of vehicles such as gold-backed Exchange Traded Funds.

Conclusion

Instead of being fixated with the ECB’s continual disastrous and extended QE policy, perhaps some financial journalists could bring themselves to asking Mario Draghi some questions about the ECB gold reserves at the next ECB press briefing, questions such as the percentage split in storage distribution between the 5 ECB gold storage locations, why ECB gold is being held in New York, why is there no physical audit of the gold by the ECB, why does the ECB not publish a weight list of gold bar holdings, and do the ECB or its national central bank agents intervene into the gold market using ECB gold reserves.

The lackadaisical attitude of the ECB to its gold reserves by never physically auditing them is also a poor example to set for all 28 of the central bank members of the European System of Central Banks (ESCB), and doesn’t bode well for any ESCB member central bank in being any less secretive than the ECB headquarters mothership.

If gold does re-emerge at the core of a revitalised international monetary system and takes on a currency backing role in the future, the haphazard and non-disclosed distribution of the ECB’s current gold reserves over 5 locations, the lack of physical gold audits, and the lack of public details of any of the ECB gold holdings won’t really inspire market confidence, and is proving to be even less transparent than similar metrics from that other secretive large gold holding bloc, i.e the USA.

Swiss gold refinery Argor-Heraeus to be acquired by Private Equity investors

News has just emerged in the gold market that the giant Swiss precious metals refiner, Argor-Heraeus, has held discussions to be acquired, and that the likely outcome is an acquisition by a private equity group. This private equity group is believed to be London-based WRM CapInvest, part of Zurich headquartered WRM Capital. Other interested buyers are also believed to have examined a bid for Argor-Heraeus, including Japanese refining group Asahi and Swiss refining group MKS-PAMP, however, neither of these are thought to be in the running at this stage. Since this news is developing, details of the discussions and potential acquisition are still thin on the ground.

If Argor-Heraeus is acquired, it will mean that 3 of the 4 giant Swiss gold refineries will have been taken over within less than a year and a half of each other.

In July 2015, Indian headquartered Rajesh Exports, the world’s largest gold jewellery fabricator, announced the agreed acquisition of the giant Swiss gold refinery Valcambi. See BullionStar article “Swiss Gold Refineries and the sale of Valcambi” for full details. In July 2016, Japanese precious metals refiner Tanaka Kikinzoku Kogyo K.K , part of the Tanaka Precious Metals group, announced the agreed acquisition of Metalor Technologies, another of the large Swiss gold refineries. Retrospectively, the acquisition of Valcambi by Rajesh Exports now looks to have initiated a flurry of take-over activity in the normally low-key Swiss precious metals refining world.

While Metalor is based in Marin-Epagnier in the Canton of Neuchâtel in northwest Switzerland, the other 3 giant Swiss gold refineries, Argor-Heraeus, Valcambi and MKS-owned PAMP are all located literally within a few kilometres of each other in the Italian speaking Canton of Ticino, in southern Switzerland, near the Swiss-Italian border. Argor-Heraeus is in Mendrisio, Valcambi is in Balerna, and PAMP is in Castel San Pietro. Mendrisio is 4 kms from Balerna and 2kms from Castel San Pietro.

mendrisio-2-651x380

The Golden Triangle of Swiss gold refineries, Canton of Ticino

Argor-Heraeus is currently jointly-owned by German bank Commerzbank, German industrial and refining group Heraeus, the Austrian Mint, and Argor-Heraeus management. See BullionStar Gold University for a full profile of Argor-Heraeus.

Commerzbank owns 32.7% of Argor-Heraeus’ share capital. The Austrian Mint holds another 30% of Argor-Heraeus shares. In its annual report, Heraeus doesn’t reveal its holding in Argor-Heraeus, but with the Austrian Mint and Commerzbank owning a combined 62.7%, this means 40.2% of the shares are held by Heraeus and Argor-Heraeus management. On the Argor-Heraeus website, Heraeus is listed first on the shareholder list, which could signify that it’s the largest shareholder. This would put Heraeus’ shareholding above Commerzbank’s 32.7% stake, and mean that Argor-Heraeus management probably hold a shareholding somewhere below 7%.

A Precedent for Private Equity Ownership

Interestingly, there is a precedent of private equity ownership in the Swiss precious metals refining sector. Until Tanaka’s take-over of Metalor technologies last July, Metalor was majority owned by French private equity company Astorg Partners and Belgian private equity company Sofina, which between them held approximately 60% of Metalor’s shares. The remainer of Metalor’s shares were held by Metalor management, as well as by Martin Bisang and Daniel Schlatter. Bisang and Schlatter are connected with Swiss boutique investment bank Bellevue Group, which has in the past also acted as a strategic adviser to Metalor. Bisang had bought into Metalor in 1998 along with Swiss executives Ernst Thomke, Rolf Soiron and Giorgio Behr, and an additional group of Swiss executives bought into Metalor in 2004. These additional buyers were a secretive bunch, only known as the ‘Partners Only’, a group which was said by Swiss media at the time to have been connected to the Swiss Roche group.

Likewise, when Valcambi was sold to Rajesh Exports in July 2015, the then owners of Valcambi were a combination of US gold mining company Newmont (with an approximate 60% shareholding) and a group of shy Swiss private investors (who held the remaining shares) the largest of which were Emilio Camponovo and the Camponovo family. Technically, you could call these Swiss private investors direct private equity investors, or equivalent.

Even the PAMP refinery, which is owned by the Geneva based MKS-PAMP group, could be described as private equity, or at least concentrated privately-owned equity, since the group is controlled by the founding Shakarchi family. Note that MKS-PAMP has a parent company MKS PAMP Group BV based in Amsterdam, but this appears to be purely for corporate structure reasons.

ah-1

The Sellers – Heraeus, Commerzbank and Austrian Mint

Since Argor-Heraeus has multiple owners, any sale would in theory be more complex than if the refinery only had a single owner. Looking quickly at the current owners, Commerzbank in its bullion banking marketing literature usually draws attention to the fact that its partial owner of a gold refinery, and uses this as a selling point by trumpeting the fact that it has direct connections to the physical gold world. Selling Argor would probably be a negative for Commerzbank, however, it may need the cash given that german banking is in a crisis at the moment. The Austrian Mint is owned by the Austrian central bank (OeNB), which in turn is owned by the Austrian State. Any sale of the Austrian Mint’s shares in Argor would be a one-off profit boost to the OeNB. In 2015, the Austrian Mint sold a stake it held in Casinos Austria (yes, a casino company), so maybe the Mint has a new-found strategy to jettison its non-core investments. Although presumably the Mint gets preferential precious metal supply from Argor, or one would think that it does.

Heraeus also has close relationships with Argor-Heraeus, for example, in the production of various precious metals products, so a sale by Heraeus of its stake in Argor could in theory affect these synergistic relationships. All of these shareholders also receive a substantial annual cash dividend from Argor-Heraeus which is a nice to have to say the least. Selling their stakes would obviously be a loss of their cash dividends. I personally was surprised that Argor-Heraeus would be up for sale, since it definitely has what looks like a very stable, secure and content set of shareholders. As per BullionDesk coverage of this potential deal, Commerzbank and Heraeus have yet to respond or comment on the potential sale of Argor-Heraeus.

Interested Parties in an Argor Bid

Presuming that the private equity company WRM CapInvest, as well as Asahi Refining, and MKS-PAMP all looked at potentially acquiring Argor-Heraeus (and that’s the word in the gold market right now), let’s have a quick look at these players.

The current Asahi Refining group, headed by Asahi Holdings, owns precious metals refinery operations in 5 locations worldwide, namely Tokyo, Salt lake City, Utah (US), Brampton, Ontario (Canada), Mexico City, and Santiago (Chile). Some readers will be familiar with Asahi’s takeover of the US and Canadian gold and silver refining operations of Johnson Matthey, which was completed in March 2015.  If Asahi had emerged as the favourite suitor to acquire Argor-Heraeus, it would mean that 2 Japanese headquartered precious metals refiners, Tanaka and Asahi, would both own a Swiss precious metals refinery, namely Metalor and Argor-Heraeus. Market sources indicate that Asahi’s bid value for Argor-Heraeus wasn’t as high as the bid tabled by the favoured private equity group bidder. Argor-Heraeus also operates a precious metals processing plant in Santiago in Chile, which could feasibly provide synergies to Asahi, since Asahi runs a refining operation in Santiago.

Its interesting that MKS-PAMP has been mentioned as a possible acquirer of Argor-Heraeus. As mentioned, the PAMP precious metals refinery is literally ‘down the road’ from the Argor-Heraeus refinery, i.e. 2 kms down the road. PAMP is a prestigious global brand in precious metals refining and bar production, and so is Argor-Heraeus. But would the resulting consolidation in the Swiss precious metals refining industry make sense, and how would this affect the PAMP and Argor-Heraeus brands. That’s a difficult question to answer, and only PAMP could accurately answer that at this time. Market sources say that MKS PAMP was shy in revealing its full financials, data that would presumably be necessary if it put in a bid for Argor-Heraeus.

Argor-Heraeus opened a new refining headquarters in Mendrisio in 2013 which doubled its former refining capacity. According to its 2014 corporate responsibility report, the new Argor-Heraeus refinery has an annual refining capacity for gold of between 350 and 400 tonnes. The PAMP refinery has an annual refining capacity of 450 tonnes of gold, and an annual silver refining capacity of over 600 tonnes.  A merged PAMP and Argor-Heraeus would have an annual refining capacity for gold of about 900 tonnes. Their neighbour Valcambi has an annual refining capacity for gold of 1600 tonnes. A combined PAMP and Argor-Heraeus would therefore start to approach the production capacity of Valcambi. Each of Valcambi and a combined PAMP ~ Argor would also have a refining presence in India also, since PAMP has an Indian refining joint-venture with MMTC, and Valcambi, owned by Rajesh Exports, has refining operations in India. Argor-Heraeus is also one of only five refinery members of the London Bullion Market Associations (LBMA) good delivery referee panel. PAMP is also on this panel, as is Metalor and Tanaka. This panel assists the LBMA is maintaining quality standards of refinery members worldwide. Argor-Heraeus is also a full member of the LBMA, one of the few refineries to be a full LBMA member.

Finally, turning to the private equity company WRM CapInvest, which is said by sources in the gold market to be the preferred bidder for Argor-Heraeus, what is known about this company? According to its website,  WRM CapInvest is a division of the WRM Capital group of companies. The WRM Group was founded by Raffaele Mincione, who is Italian, but who resides in Switzerland. WRM Group seems to have started as a private wealth management / family office type company but has expanded into private equity.

WRM CapInvest is based in Berkeley Square in Mayfair in London, Mayfair being a very popular location for hedge funds and private equity funds to locate in. WRM CapInvest was incorporated in the UK in March 2012 as Capital Investment Advisors Ltd, but changed name to WRM CapInvest on 11 May 2016. The original single director of WRM CapInvest was Massimo Cattizone, also an Italian. Massimo Cattizone and Raffaele Minicone were listed as shareholders, with Minicone holdings 80% of the WRM CapInvest shares and Cattizone holding 20% of the shares. In July 2013, Leonidas Klemos (Italian), and Michele Cerqua (Italian) were appointed as directors of WRM CapInvest, and Massimo Cattizone ceased to be a director. Between May 2014 and March 2015, Roberto Agostini (Italian) was also a director. In July 2015, Raffaele Minicone was appointed as a director. In February 2016, Leonidas Klemos ceased to be a director. By April 2016, Raffaele Minicone was listed as owning the entire share capital of WRM CapInvest. The current directors are therefore Raffaele Minicone and Michele Cerqua. The reason for listing the above is to highlight that all the directors of WRM CapInvest since it was incorporated have been Italian, and there is a Swiss connection since Raffaele Minicone is based in Switzerland, and the WRM Group is headquartered in Zurich, Switzerland.

Therefore, the fact that Argor-Heraeus is based in the Italian speaking Swiss Canton of Ticino, right beside the Italian border, and that CapInvest is operated by an Italian team, owned by an Italian, and part of a Swiss based group is probably of relevance to a potential acquisition of Argor by CapInvest. Additionally, Knight Frank, a large commercial real estate agent, mentioned on its website in a 2013 article that “CapInvest, which is also backed by private Italian investors, purchased 60 Sloane Avenue for US$206m.”

So the question is, assuming CapInvest acquires Argor-Heraeus, is it acquiring the company on behalf of CapInvest, or on behalf of some other Italian or Swiss investors, or Italian Swiss, or Swiss Italians? And if an acquisition is on behalf of other investors, who are these investors? Could the private investors who were involved in Metalor (such as Martin Bisang and his circle of business acquaintances), or the private investors that were involved in Valcambi (such as Emilio Camponovo and friends) be re-entering the Swiss refining industry with an acquisition of Argor-Heraeus. They would definitely be some of the best placed people around that understand how the precious metals refining industry works, given their experience. Or possibly the Argor-Heraeus management and other local business people in Ticino are moving to take ownership of Argor through a private equity route?

Another potential connection is UBS. Swiss investment bank UBS previously owned the Argor-Heraeus refinery, and only exited its shareholding in 1999, so it’s also possible that a UBS connection could pop up in a Argor-Heraeus acquisition deal. This has a precedent since when Valcambi was acquired by Rajesh Exports in 2015, Credit Suisse, which itself used to own Valcambi (and which Valcambi executives had close ties to), provided strategic corporate finance advice on the Valcambi acquisition and also actually partially funded the Rajesh acquisition.

Whatever the outcome of these developments with Argor-Heraeus, further details should emerge sooner rather than later. So, as they say, watch this space.

Bullion Banks pass the parcel on El Salvador’s gold reserves

Eighteen months ago I wrote a short synopsis of a gold sales transaction by the central bank of El Salvador wherein it had sold 80% (about 5.5 tonnes) of its official gold reserves. The title of the post was “El Salvador’s gold reserves, the BIS, and the bullion banks“. If you thought, why the focus on the Banco Central de Reserva de El Salvador (BCR), it’s not a major player on the world gold market, you’d be correct, it’s not in its own right that important.

However, the point of the article was not to profile the gold transactions of a relatively obscure central bank in Central America, but to introduce the topic of central bank gold lending to LBMA bullion banks, and the use of short-term ‘gold deposits‘ offered by these bullion banks. The reason being is this is a very under-analysed topic and one which I will be devoting more time to in the future.  Gold loans by central banks to bullion banks are one of the most opaque areas of the global gold market. The fact that I’m using the central bank of El Salvador as the example is immaterial, it’s just convenient since the BCR happens to report the details of its gold lending operations, unlike most central banks.

A Quick Recap

At the end of September 2014, the BCR claimed to hold 223,113 ozs of gold (6.94 tonnes), of which 189,646 ozs (5.9 tonnes) was held in the form of “deposits of physical gold” with the Bank for International Settlements (BIS), and 33,467 ozs (1.04 tonnes) which was held as “time deposits” of gold (up to 31 days) with 2 commercial bullion banks, namely Barclays Bank and the Bank of Nova Scotia.

The following table and all similar tables below are taken from the BCR’s ‘Statement of Assets backing the Liquidity Reserve’, or ‘Estado de Los Activos Que Respaldan la Reserva de Liquidez’, which it publishes every 3 months.

bcr-sept-2014
BCR gold position as of 30 September 2014

In November 2014, the BCR executed a small sale of 5007 ozs of its gold from its quantity held with the BIS, leaving a holding of 218,106 ozs (6.784 tonnes) as of 31 December 2014, comprising 184,639 ozs held in “deposits of physical gold” with the BIS, and 33,467 ozs of “time deposits” (of between 2 and 14 days duration) with 2 bullion banks, namely BNP Paribas and the Bank of Nova Scotia. Notice that as of the end of 2014, BNP Paribas was now holding one of the time deposits of gold, and that Barclays was not listed.

bcr-dec-2014
BCR gold position as of 31 December 2014

Notice also in the above table the tiny residual time deposit gold holding attributed to Standard Chartered Bank Plc. Rewind for a moment to 30 June 2014. At the end of June 2014, the BCR’s gold deposits were placed with 3 LBMA bullion banks, namely, Barclays, Bank of Nova Scotia, and Standard Chartered.

This is the way short-term gold deposit transactions work. A central bank places the short-term gold deposit with one of a small number of bullion banks, most likely at the Bank of England, and when the deposit expires after e.g. 1 month, the central bank places the deposit again, but not necessarily with the same bullion bank. The deposit rates on offer (by the bullion banks) and the placements by the central banks are communicated over a combination of Bloomberg terminals, or by phone and then the transactions are settled by Swift messages. More about the actual mechanics of this process in a future article.

bcr-june-2014
BCR gold position as of 30 June 2014

bullion-banks

BCR sold its gold at the BIS, put the rest on deposit

In March 2015, the BCR sold 174,000 ozs (5.412 tonnes ) of gold, which left El Salvador with 44,000 ozs. When I wrote about this transaction 18 months ago I had speculated that:

“Since the Salvadoreans had 189,646 ozs on deposit with the BIS and needed to sell 179,000 ozs, the gold sold was most definitely sold to the BIS or to another party with the BIS acting as agent.

It would not make sense to sell some or all of the time deposits that are out with the bullion banks such as Barclays and Scotia, since a large chunk of the BCR gold at the BIS would have to be sold also. It would be far easier to just deal with one set of transactions at the BIS

The above would leave the time deposits of 33,467 ozs (and accrued interest) out with the bullion banks, rolling over each month as usual. The other roughly 11,000 ozs that the BCR held with the BIS could be left with the BIS, or else this too could be put out on deposit with the bullion banks.”

This speculation turns out to have been correct. By 31 March 2015, the BCR held 10,639 ozs of gold “deposits of physical gold” with the BIS, and the same 33,467 ozs of “time deposits“, but this time split evenly between BNP Paribas and Barclays. The entire 174,000 ozs of gold sold came from the “deposits of physical gold” that El Salvador held with the BIS.

bcr-mar-2015
BCR gold position as of 30 March 2015

By 30 June 2015, the central bank of El Salvador had moved its remaining 10,639 ozs of “deposits of physical gold” from the BIS, and placed it into “time deposits” with bullion banks, with the entire 44,106 ozs being evenly split across Bank of Nova Scotia, BNP Parias and Standard Chartered, each holding 14,702 ozs.

bcr-june-2015
BCR gold position as of 30 June 2015

Over the 12 months from end of June 2014 to 30 June 2015, a combination of at least 4 LBMA bullion banks, namely, Barclays, Bank of Nova Scotia, Standard Chartered and BNP Paribas were holding short-term gold deposits on behalf of the central bank of El Salvador. I say at least 4 banks, because there could have been more. The snapshots every 3 months only reveal which banks held gold deposits on those dates, not the full list of deposits that could have been placed and matured over each 3 month period.

These time deposits are essentially obligations by the bullion bank in question to repay the central bank that amount of gold. The original gold which was first deposited into the LBMA system could have been sold, lent or otherwise encumbered. It has become a credit in the LBMA unallocated gold system. Ultimately it needs to be paid back to the central bank by whichever bullion bank holds the deposit when the central bank decides that it no longer wants to roll its short-term deposits. This is why the anology of pass the parcel is a suitable one.

Looking at the more recent 3 monthly snapshots from September 2015 to June 2016, the same 4 LBMA bullion bank names were still holding the BCR’s gold deposits, namely Bank of Nova Scotia, Barclays, Standard Chartered and BNP Paribas.

As of 30 September 2015 – Bank of Nova Scotia, Barclays and BNP Paribas, evenly split between the 3 of them.

bcr-sept-2015
BCR gold position as of 30 September 2015

On 31 December 2015 – Bank of Nova Scotia, BNP Paribas, and Standard Chartered, evenly split between the 3 of them.

bcr-dec-2015
BCR gold position as of 30 December 2015

On 30 March 2016 – Bank of Nova Scotia and BNP Paribas, evenly split between the 2 of them.

bcr-mar-2016
BCR gold position as of 30 March 2016

On 30 June 2016, the BCR gold deposits were held by Bank of Nova Scotia and BNP Paribas, evenly spilt between the 2. The 30 June 2016 file on the BCR website doesn’t open correctly so this data was taken from the Google cache of the file.

IMF Reporting standards

Finally, let’s take a quick look at what monetary gold and gold deposits actually are, as defined by the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

“Monetary gold is gold owned by the authorities and held as a reserve asset.  Monetary Gold is a reserve asset for which there is no outstanding financial liability”, IMF Balance of Payments Manual (BPM)

In April 2006, Hidetoshi Takeda, of the IMF Statistics Department published a short opinion paper on the ‘Treatment of Gold Swaps and Gold Deposits (loans)‘ on behalf of the Reserve Assets Technical Expert Group (RESTEG) of the IMF Committee on Balance of Payments (BoP) Statistics. The paper was called “Issues Paper (RESTEG) #11“. In the Issues paper, Takeda states:

“monetary authority make  gold deposits ‘to have their bullion physically deposited with a bullion bank, which may use the gold for trading purpose in world gold markets‘”

“‘The ownership of the gold effectively remains with the monetary authorities, which earn interest on the deposits, and the gold is returned to the monetary authorities on maturity of the deposits'”

 ” Balance of Payments Manual, fifth Edition (BPM5) is silent on the treatment of gold deposits/loans. However, the Guidelines states that, “To qualify as reserve assets, gold deposits must be available upon demand to the monetary authorities” 

You can see from the above that once the gold balance that is represented by the gold deposit is under the control of a bullion bank as a unallocated balance, then it becomes an asset of the bullion bank and can be used in subsequent bullion bank transactions, such as being lent again,  or used to support its trading book, etc.

The big question is whether the gold as represented by the gold deposit is available on demand by the central bank which lent it. For ‘available on demand’ think using an ATM or walking into your local bank and withdrawing some cash from your account. It’s as simple as that.

Takeda said:

“Regarding the statistical treatment of gold deposits/loans, keeping the status quo is suggested. That is, if the deposited/loaned gold is available upon demand to the monetary authorities, it can be included in reserve assets as monetary gold. However, if the gold is not available upon demand, it should be removed from reserve assets

Takeda’s paper also covers the topic of “Double counting of gold from outright sales of gold acquired through gold swaps or gold deposits/loans” where he says logically:

“double counting of gold can occur when a bullion bank sells outright gold acquired through gold deposits/loans from… monetary authorities”

If the gold sold is not removed from the central bank’s balance sheet, it could:

“pose a problem when international statistical standards allow swapped/deposited gold to remain in the reserve assets of the gold provider.”

Given that nothing has changed in the IMF’s reporting standards since 2006, i.e. the IMF did not take on board Takeda’s recommendations on gold loan accounting treatment, and given that all central banks still report gold as one line item of “gold and gold receivables”, then you can see how these gold deposits that are being continually rolled over by central banks using a small number of LBMA bullion banks based in London a) are being double counted if the gold involved has been sold, b) only represent claims by a central bank on a bullion bank, and c) allow bullion banks to increase their unallocated balances which can then be used in myriad leveraged and hypothecated ‘gold’ trading transactions

If you think 4 LBMA bullion banks passing a parcel of central bank gold claims around between them is excessive, wait until you see 28 bullion banks doing the same thing! Coming soon in a future article.

Tracking the gold held in London: An update on ETF and BoE holdings

Just over a year ago, gold researchers Nick Laird, Bron Suchecki, Koos Jansen and myself took a shot at estimating how much physical gold was accounted for in London within the gold-backed ETFs and under Bank of England custody. The results of that exercise are highlighted in September 2015 articles “How many Good Delivery gold bars are in all the London Vaults?….including the Bank of England vaults”, and “Central Bank Gold at the Bank of England”, and also on Nick Laird’s website in a post titled “The London Float” which contains some very impressive charts that visualize the data. Some of the latest updated versions of these charts from www.goldchartsrus.com are featured below.

Given that it’s now just over a year since that last set of calculations, it made sense at this point to update the data so as to grasp how many Good Delivery golds bars held in London is spoken for in terms of ownership, versus how much may be unaccounted for. Estimating gold held in London vaults is by definition a tricky exercise, since it must rely on whatever data and statements are made available in what is a notoriously secret market, and there will usually be timing mismatches between the various data points. However, using a combination of published sources from the Bank of England, the London Bullion Market Association (LBMA), the Exchange Traded Fund websites, and UK gold import/export data, it is possible to produce some factual numbers.

In the Bank of England vaults

Exactly once per year, the Bank of England publishes a snapshot of how much gold it is holding in custody for its central bank and commercial bank customers. This snapshot is featured in the Bank’s annual report which is usually published around July each year, and reports on its financial year-end, as of end of February. In its 2016 Annual Report, the Bank of England states (on page 31) that:

“At end-February 2016, total assets held by the Bank as custodian were £567 billion (2015: £514 billion), of which £135 billion (2015: £130 billion) were holdings of gold”

With an afternoon LBMA Gold Price fix of £888.588 on Monday 29 February 2016, this equates to 151,926,427 fine troy ounces of gold, or 4725 tonnes held in custody at the Bank of England. This equates to approximately 380,000 London Good Delivery gold bars, each weighing 400 fine troy ounces.

The corresponding figure for end of February 2015 was £130 billion, which, valued at the afternoon fix on that day of £787.545 per ounce, equalled 5,134 tonnes. Therefore between the end of February 2015 end of February 2016, the amount of gold held in custody by the Bank of England fell by 409 tonnes. Since, according to World Gold Council data, there were no central bank sellers of gold over that period apart from Venezuela whose gold was predominantly held in Venezuela at that time, then most of this 409 tonne decline must be either due to unreported central bank sales, central bank gold repatriation movements, London bullion bank sales, or some combination of all three.

The year-on-year drop of 409 tonnes came after a previous decline of 350 tonnes to end of February 2015, and before that a drop of 755 tonnes between February 2013 and February 2014. So overall between February 2013 and February 2016, the amount of gold held in custody in the Bank of England’s vaults fell by 1,514 tonnes.

LBMA Ballpark: 6,500 tonnes in London

Up until at least October 2015, the vaulting page on the LBMA website stated that:

“In total it is estimated that there are approximately 7,500 tonnes of gold held in London vaults, of which about three-quarters is stored in the Bank of England.”

This is based on a Wayback Machine Internet Archive page cache from 9 October 2015.

The current version of that page on the LBMA website now states:

In total it is estimated that there are approximately 6,500 tonnes of gold held in London vaults, of which about three-quarters is stored in the Bank of England.

The earliest Internet Archive page cache mentioning 6,500 tonnes is from 8 February 2016. So sometime between October 2015 and February 2016, the LBMA changed its ballpark figure, revising it down by 1000 tonnes. Wayback Machine Archive web crawlers usually update a web page following a change to that page, so its likely that the revision to 6,500 tonnes was done nearer February than October. Using a figure from a LBMA website page is admittedly quite general, but at least it’s an anchor, and someone at the LBMA saw fit to make that actual change from 7,500 tonnes to 6,500 tonnes. In June 2015 (as some readers might recall), the LBMA had said that there were 500,000 Good Delivery gold bars in all the London vaults, which is approximately 6256 tonnes, so perhaps the 6500 tonne estimate was partially based on this statistic from mid-year 2015 that the LBMA was playing catch-up with.

With 6,500 tonnes in London vaults, ~ 75% of which is at the Bank of England, this would mean 4,875 tonnes at the Bank of England, and another 1,625 tonnes at other (commercial) gold vaults in London, mostly at HSBC’s and JP Morgan’s vaults. As per the Bank of England’s annual report as of 29 February 2016, we know now that there were 4,725 tonnes in custody at the Bank, so the LBMA ballpark of 4875 is actually very close to the actual 4725 tonnes reported by the Bank, and the difference is only 150 tonnes. Lets’s move on to the vaulted gold held in London but held outside the Bank of England vaults.

ETF Gold held in London

In the September 2015 calculation exercise, we estimated that there were 1,116 tonnes of gold held in the London vaults within a series of gold-backed Exchange Traded Funds.

The known ETFs and other companies that hold their Good Delivery bar gold in London are as follows:

  • SPDR Gold Trust: GLD. Custodian HSBC London, all GLD gold held at HSBC vault
  • iShares Gold Trust: IAU. Custodian JP Morgan, majority of IAU gold held in London
  • iShares Physical Gold ETC: Custodian JP Morgan, code SGLN
  • ETF Securities: Six separate ETFs – their short codes are PHAU, GBS, ASX GOLD, HMSL, PHPM, and GLTR. Custodian HSBC London
  • SOURCE: Custodian JP Morgan, all gold held in London
  • Deutsche Bank: There are 5 Deutsche Bank ETFs that store gold in London. Custodian is JP Morgan London
  • ABSA/NewgoldCustodian Brinks, London
  • BullionVault: Some of BullionVault customer gold is held in London
  • GoldMoney: *It’s not clear how much gold Goldmoney stored in London so the previous figure from September 2015 is used again
  • VanEck Merk Gold Trust: Custodian JP Morgan London
  • Betashares: Custodian JP Morgan, London
  • Standard Bank AfricaGold ETF: Custodian JP Morgan London

The 1,116 tonnes of gold ETF holdings in London, calculated in September 2015, were as follows, with the SPDR Gold Trust accounting for the largest share:

lbma-vaults-etf-gold-in-london-au-06
2015: Vaulted gold held by gold-backed ETFs in London

The total figure for all gold held in London that we used in September 2015 was the 6,256 tonne figure implied by the LBMA’s 500,000 gold bars statement from June 2015. With 6,256 tonnes in total, and 5,134 tonnes at the Bank of England (as of end February 2015), this left 1,122 tonnes in London but “not at the Bank of England“, which implied that there was nearly no gold in London outside the Bank of England that was not accounted for by ETF holdings. in other words the ‘London Gold Float’ looks to have been near zero as of September 2015.

Assuming 6,500 tonnes of gold held in London in February 2016, and with 4,725 tonnes at the Bank of England in February 2016, we can repeat this exercise and say that the would leave 1,775 tonnes of gold in London but “not at the Bank of England“, as the following chart shows:

2016-lbma-gold-vaulted-in-london
2016 – LBMA vaulted gold held in London: Outside vs Inside Bank of England

Its well-known by now that the tide of significant gold ETF outflows that occurred in 2015 suddenly turned to very strong inflows into gold ETFs beginning in early 2016. Although our gold ETF holdings data was updated using holdings information as of 30 September 2016, it’s still worth seeing how well the latest London holdings of the gold ETFs help to explain this 1775 tonnes “not in the Bank of England” figure. As it turns out, as of the end of September 2016, the above ETFs collectively held 1,679 tonnes of gold, so right now, if there were 1775 tonnes of gold in London outside of the Bank of England, the ETF holdings would explain all but 96 tonnes of this total.

etfs-2016-overview
2016: 1679 tonnes held in ETFs in London – Yellow Bar
etfs-2016-details
2016: Vaulted gold held by gold-backed ETFs in London

Taking a quick look at some of the individual ETF holdings, the massive SPDR Gold Trust is currently holding around 950 tonnes of gold in London. The iShares figure reported in the charts of 214.89 tonnes comprises 2 components a) the London held gold within IAU (which can be seen in this daily JP Morgan weight list), and b) the gold bars held in iShares trust SGLN. The bulk of the ETF Securities figure of 276.68 tonnes represents gold held in PHAU (over 150 tonnes), and GBS (over 100 tonnes). The Deutsche Bank total is quite hard to calculate and comprises gold held in 5 Deutsche bank ETFs. Nick Laird receives daily holdings files for these ETFs from Deutsche Bank and performs a number of calculations such as fractional ounces per ETF unit to arrive at a total figure of 88 tonnes. The SOURCE and ABSA ETFs make up the vast majority of the remainder, with the other entities listed, such as BetaShares and Standard Bank ETF, being immaterial to the calculation.

Central Bank gold at the Bank of England

For the purposes of this exercise, data on central bank gold holdings at the Bank of England does not need to be updated since there hasn’t been any reported gold buying or selling activity by any of the relevant central banks since September 2015 (except for Venezuela), so the ‘known figure’ of 3779 tonnes attributed to identified banks in September 2015 remains unchanged. If anything, since the Bank of England revealed last February that its gold under custody fell to 4,725 tonnes, it means that there are now approximately 946 tonnes of gold at the Bank of England that are not explained by known central bank holders.

Totoal gold held at the Bank of England, February 2016: 4725 tonnes
Total gold held in custody at the Bank of England, February 2016: 4725 tonnes

Given that many central banks around the world will not cooperate in confirming where they store their foreign stored gold, then there are definitely additional central banks storing gold in the Bank of England vaults which would reduce this 946 tonnes of gold with unknown ownership. Therefore some of this total is unknown central bank gold holdings. Some is presumably also gold and borrowed gold held by bullion banks that have gold accounts at the Bank of England. Given that the Bank of England and the LBMA bullion banks maintain a total information blackout about the real extent of the gold lending market out of London, it is difficult to know how much borrowed gold is being held at the Bank of England by bullion bank account holders.

Some of the growth in the SPDR Gold Trust gold holdings this year looks to have been sourced from gold originating from the Bank of England, as was detailed in a July BullionStar article “SPDR Gold Trust gold bars at the Bank of England vaults“, which highlighted that the Bank of England was a subcustodian of the SPDR Golf Trust during Q1 2016. As a SPDR Gold Trust filing stated:

During the quarter ended March 31, 2016, the greatest amount of gold held by subcustodians was approximately 29 tonnes or approximately 3.8% of the Trust’s gold at such date. The Bank of England held that gold as subcustodian.

bank-of-england-known-gold
Bank of England vaulted attributed to individual central banks

Year to Date ETF changes and UK Gold Imports

It’s important to highlight that the 6,500 tonnes figure reported by the LBMA and the 4,725 tonne figure reported by the Bank of England relate to the February 2016 period, while the ETF gold holdings totals calculated above are from the end of September 2016. So there is a date mismatch. Nick Laird has calculated that during the February to September 2016 period, the London gold ETFs added 399 tonnes of gold, and during the same period the UK net imported (imports – exports) more than 800 tonnes of non-monetary gold. Given the apparent low float of gold in London late last year, its realistic to assume that gold inflows into the London-based ETFs this year were mostly sourced from non-monetary gold imports into the UK because there was apparently no other gold at hand from which to source the ETF gold inflows. ETF demand would also help explain the drivers of UK gold imports year-to-date. Note that monetary gold imports (central bank gold trade flows) are not reported by the respective trade bodies since the opaque basket of deplorables (i.e. central bankers) get an unfair exemption, therefore the 800 tonnes of net gold imports into the UK refers to non-monetary gold imports.

UK gold imports to July 2016
Net UK gold imports to July 2016: 735 tonnes 

According to the latest comprehensive trade statistics, from January to July 2016 inclusive the UK net imported 735 tonnes of gold from the Rest of the World. To this figure we can add another 84.6 tonnes of gold that the UK net imported from Switzerland in August 2016. This gives total UK gold imports up to August 2016 inclusive of 819.6 tonnes, hence the statement, the UK net imported over 800 tonnes of gold year-to-date.

UK gold imports from Switzerland, August 2016: 84.6 tonnes
UK gold imports from Switzerland, August 2016: 84.6 tonnes

If 399 tonnes of the 800 tonnes of non-monetary gold imported into the UK during 2016 was channeled into the holdings of gold-backed ETFs, this would still mean that the ‘London Float’ of gold could have been augmented by approximately 400 tonnes year-to-date. However, since most non-monetary gold imports into the UK are for bullion bank customers such as Scotia and Barclays, some of these extra imports could have been for repaying borrowed gold liabilities to central bank customers, and the quantity of gold now held at the Bank of England may be higher than reported by the Bank last February.

londongold2016
Full Overview chart courtesy of Jesse’s Café Américain, highlighting ETF and Bank of England gold holdings – Click the above chart to enlarge it

In summary, given the large UK gold imports year-to-date, there may now be over 7,000 tonnes of Good Delivery gold bars held in London vaults. But the fact that very large quantities of gold bars had to be imported into the London market during 2016 does suggest that our calculations from September 2015 were valid and that there was a very low float of gold in the London market. This float may now be a few hundred tonnes higher given the imports, but there is still an unquantifiably large number of claims in the form of ‘unallocated gold’ holdings in the London market which are liabilities against the LBMA bullion banks.

Remember that the London Gold Market trades nearly 6000 tonnes of predominantly paper gold each and every day. The latest LBMA ‘gold’ clearing statistics show that on average, 18.8 million ounces (585 tonnes) of ‘gold’ was cleared per trading day in September 2016 which on a 10:1 trading to clearing ratio equates to 5,850 tonnes traded per day, and 128,000 tonnes traded during September. So the LBMA administered market nearly trades as much ‘gold’ connected transaction per day as is held in the entire London vaulting network.

If gold demand from the Rest of the World ticks up, such as from India, then the London market will not have the luxury of being able to import large quantities of gold in the absence of that excess demand putting upward pressure on the gold price. Until then, the London Gold Market looks likely to continue its physical re-stock with one hand, while trading leveraged paper gold with the other hand, all the while rolling over outstanding borrowed central bank gold obligations, such as the short-term gold deposits held by Banco Central de Bolivia, which will be the subject of an upcoming case study into the hidden London gold lending market consortium.

From Bank of England to LBMA: The ‘independent’ Chair of the LBMA Board

In a recent article titled “Blood Brothers: The Bank of England and the London Bullion Market Association (LBMA)“, I charted the extremely close historical and contemporary relationship between the LBMA and the Bank of England. This article highlighted that:

  • the LBMA was established in 1987 by the Bank of England
  • the original bullion bank founding members and steering committee members of the LBMA represented 6 commercial banks active in the London Gold Market, namely, N.M. Rothschild, Mocatta & Goldsmid, Morgan Guaranty Trust, J. Aron, Sharps Pixley (former Sharps Pixley), and Rudolf Wolff & Co.
  • the Bank of England has been involved in the affairs of the LBMA from Day 1 in 1987, and continues to this day to have observer status on the LBMA Management Committee
  • the Bank of England has observer status on not just the LBMA Management Committee, but also on the LBMA Physical Committee and in the LBMA Vault Managers group
  • the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) also has observer status on the LBMA Management Committee
  • although there are 2 other London financial market committees closely aligned with the Bank of England, and populated by bank representatives, that publish the minutes of their regular meetings, namely the Foreign Exchange Joint Standing Committee, the Sterling Money Markets Liaison Committee, the LBMA Management Committee does not publish the minutes of its meetings, so the public is in the dark as to what’s discussed in those meetings

Note that “observer status” does not mean to sit and observe on a committee, it just means that the observer has no voting rights at committee meetings. Note also that the structure of the LBMA Management Committee has recently changed to that of a Board, so the Committee is now called the LBMA Board.

One of the most interesting points in the previous article referred to the very recent appointment of a very recently departed Bank of England senior staff member, and former head of the Bank of England Foreign exchange Division, Paul Fisher, as the new ‘independent‘ chairman of the LBMA Management Committee / ‘Board’. Paul Fisher has also in the past, been the Bank of England’s representative, with observer status, on this very same LBMA Management Committee (now LBMA Board) that he is now becoming independent chairman of. Fisher is replacing outgoing LBMA Board chairman Grant Angwin, who if from Asahi Refining (formerly representing Johnson Matthey).

‘Independent’ Non-Executive Chairman

This article continues where the above analysis left off, and looks at the appointment of Fisher as the new ‘independent’ Non-Executive Chairman of the LBMA Board, considers the ‘independence’ of the appointment given the aforementioned very close relationship between the Bank of England and the LBMA, and examines the chairman’s appointment in the context of the UK Corporate Governance Code, which now governs the Constitution and operation of the LBMA Board.

As I commented previously:

Arguably, the pièce de résistance of these Bank of England / FCA relationships with the LBMA Management Committee, is the fact that Paul Fisher, the newly appointed ‘independent‘ Chairman of the LBMA Board, a.k.a. LBMA Management Committee, has already previously been the Bank of England’s “observer” on the LBMA Management Committee.”

This was confirmed in Fisher’s speech to the 2004 LBMA Annual Conference in Shanghai, Fisher, when then Head of Foreign Exchange at the Bank of England, he stated:

I am glad to be invited to the LBMA’s Management Committee meetings as an observer.”

Fisher was Head of Foreign Exchange Division at the Bank of England from 2000 to 2009, so could in theory have been a Bank of England observer on the LBMA Management Committee throughout this period. The Foreign Exchange Division of the Bank of England is responsible for managing the Sterling exchange rate, and for managing HM Treasury’s official reserves held in the Exchange Equalisation Account (EEA), including HM Treasury’s official gold reserves. One would think that when the LBMA announced in a press release in July of this year that Fisher was being appointed as the new LBMA chairman, that the fact that he had previously attended the LBMA Management Committee meetings would be a fact of relevance to the appointment. However, surprisingly, or maybe not so surprisingly, this fact was omitted from the press release.

The LBMA press release, titled “Dr Paul Fisher to be the new LBMA chairman“, dated 13 July 2016, begins:

The LBMA is delighted to announce the appointment of Dr Paul Fisher as the new Chairman of the Association, effective from 5 September, 2016. Paul is due to retire from the Bank of England at the end of July.”

The press release goes on to say:

“Paul brings with him a wealth of financial market experience following his 26 years at the Bank of England. Prior to joining the LBMA, his last role was as Deputy Head of the Prudential Regulation Authority. Paul was selected by the LBMA Board following an independent Executive search procedure.”

“Previously, from 2002, he [Paul Fisher] ran the Bank’s Foreign Exchange Division where he had a constructive relationship with the LBMA and developed a working knowledge of the bullion market.”

Notwithstanding the capability of the appointment, there is absolutely zero mention in this press release of the fact that Paul Fisher used to be the Bank of England observer on the LBMA Management Committee, a committee that he is now being made chair of. Why so? Was it to make the relationship appear more distant that it actually was, thereby reinforcing the perception of ‘independence’?

In addition, the recently added bio of Paul Fisher on the LBMA Board listings features text identical to the press release, with no indication that Fisher previously attended the LBMA Management Committee meetings.

Notice also the reference to an “Executive search procedure” being used to support the new chairman’s appointment.

LBMA Board

At this point, it’s instructive to examine what drove the re-definition of the LBMA Management Committee to become the LBMA “Board”, and the appointment process to that board of an ‘independent‘ Non-Executive Chairperson. It can be seen from the LBMA website archive that until July of this year, the entity providing oversight and strategic direction to the LBMA was the ‘LBMA Management Committee':

mgt

Only in July following a LBMA General Meeting on 29 June did the website description change to LBMA Board:

 

board

The new Board structure of the LBMA allows it to have 3 representatives from LBMA Market Making firms, 3 representatives from LBMA Full Member entities, 3 ‘independent’ non -executive directors (inclusive of the ‘independent’ chairman), and up to 3 representatives from the LBMA Executive staff, including the LBMA CEO.

One of the first references to a future change in governance structure at the LBMA came in October 2015 at the LBMA annual conference, held in Rome. At this conference, Ruth Crowell, CEO projected that in the future:

“To enhance its governance, the new Board will include for the first time Non-Executive Directors whilst giving more power to the Executive so as to ensure any conflicts of interest are eliminated.”

On 29 April 2016, a LBMA “Future Events” summary document confirmed that a General Meeting (akin to an EGM) of LBMA members would be convened on Wednesday 29 June 2016 in London so as to “update the LBMA’s legal structure and governance“.  The same “Future Events” summary also highlighted a change in schedule to the LBMA’s Annual General Meeting (AGM), which due to the 29 June General Meeting, would now be held on 27 September 2016 with an agenda item to “incorporate, into the constitution of the LBMA, the governance and legal structure changes agreed at the General Meeting in June“. 

It would be quite presumptuous for any normal organisation of members, in the month of April, to not only assume that resolutions that were only being put to its membership in the month of June would be passed, but to also actually hard-code these assumptions into the agenda of a scheduled September meeting. However, this was what was written in the “Future Events” document and appears to be the pre-ordained roadmap that the LBMA Management Committee had already set in stone.

On Thursday 30 June, the day after its General Meeting in London, the LBMA issued a press release in which it confirmed (as it had predicted) that “Members of the LBMA approved by an overwhelming majority a number of important changes to its Memorandum & Articles of Association“.

As well as endorsing the LBMA’s expansion to acquire the responsibilities of the London Platinum and Palladium Market (LPPM), which was the first motion for consideration at the meeting, the press release confirmed that the membership had endorsed the appointment of an independent Non-Executive Chairman:

“The second change was to further enhance the governance of the Association. The UK Corporate Governance Code was incorporated and will govern both the Constitution as well as the operation of the Board. While it is vital for the Board to have a strong voice for its Members, it is important that any actual and perceived conflicts between these parties are balanced by having independence on that Board. This independence protects the interests of the wider membership as well as the individuals themselves serving on the Board. To address this, the LBMA has added an independent Non-Executive Chairman as well as two additional Non-Executive Directors (NEDs).”

Notice the reference to 2 other independent non-executive directors. Nine business days later, on 13 July 2016, the LBMA issued a further press release revealing that ex Bank of England Head of Foreign Exchange and former observer on the LBMA Management Committee, Paul Fisher had been appointed as the “independent Non-Executive Chairman“.

Executive Search Procedure

Recall also that the 13 July press release stated “Paul was selected by the LBMA Board following an independent Executive search procedure.””

Nine days is an extremely short period of time to commence, execute, and complete an ‘independent Executive search procedure‘.  It immediately throws up questions such as which search firm was retained to run the independent Executive search procedure?, which candidates did the search firm identify?, was there a short-list of candidates?, who was on such a short-list?, what were the criteria that led to the selection of the winning candidate above other candidates?, and how could such a process have been run and completed in such a limited period of time when similar search and selection processes for chairpersons of corporate boards usually take months to complete?

How independent is it also to have a former divisional head of the Bank of England as chairman of the London Gold Market when the Bank of England is the largest custodian of gold in the London Gold Market, and operates in the London Gold Market with absolute secrecy on behalf of its central bank and bullion bank customers.

Since the LBMA voluntarily incorporated the UK Corporate Governance Code into the operations of its Board following the General Meeting on 29 June, its instructive to examine what this UK Corporate Governance Code has to say about the appointment of an independent chairman to a board, and to what extent the Corporate Governance Code principles were adhered to in the LBMA’s ‘independent‘ chairman selection process.

 UK Corporate Governance Code

The LBMA is a private company (company number 02205480) limited by guarantee without share capital, with an incorporation filing at UK Companies House on 14 December 1987. Stock exchange-listed companies in the UK are required to implement the principles of the UK Corporate Governance Code and comply with these principles or else explain (to their shareholders) why they have not complied (called the “comply or explain” doctrine). In the world of listed equities, monitoring and interacting with companies about their corporate governance is a very important area of  institutional and hedge fund management. It has to be so as the share owners are able to monitor and grasp if any governance issues arise at any of companies held within their institutional / hedge fund equity portfolios.

Non-listed companies in the UK are also encouraged to apply the principles of the Code, but are not obliged to. When a private company chooses to incorporate the UK Corporate Governance Code to govern its Constitution and operation of its Board, one would expect that it would also then ‘comply’ to the principles of the Code or else ‘explain’ in the spirit of the Code, why it is not in compliance.

comply-or-explain

The UK Corporate Governance Code is administered by the Financial Reporting Council (FRC). The April 2016 version of the Code can be read here. The main principles of the Code are divided into 5 sections, namely, Leadership (section A), Effectiveness (section B), Accountability (section C), Remuneration (section D), and Relations with Shareholders (Section E).

One of the main principles of Section B is as follows:

There should be a formal, rigorous and transparent procedure for the appointment of new directors to the board. “

Section A also addresses the independence of the chairman, and Section A.3.1. states that:

“The chairman should on appointment meet the independence criteria set out in B.1.1″

Section B.1.1, in part, states that:

“The board should determine whether the director is independent in character and judgement and whether there are relationships or circumstances which are likely to affect, or could appear to affect, the director’s judgement. The board should state its reasons if it determines that a director is independent notwithstanding the existence of relationships or circumstances which may appear relevant to its determination, including if the director:

  • has, or has had within the last three years, a material business relationship with the company either directly, or as a partner, shareholder, director or senior employee of a body that has such a relationship with the company;
  • represents a significant shareholder;”

It goes without saying that the Bank of England has a material business relationship with the commercial banks which are represented on the LBMA Board, and I would argue that although the LBMA has no share capital, because the Bank of England has a material business relationship with the LBMA, and because since Paul Fisher was a senior employee of the Bank of England until July of this year, then the LBMA should “state its reasons as to why it determines that this director is independent“.

Furthermore, although the Bank of England is not a ‘significant shareholder’ of the LBMA, it is the next best thing, i.e. it has a significant and vested interest in the workings of the LBMA and interacts with LBMA banks through the London vaulting system, the gold lending market, and in its regulatory capacity of the LBMA member banks. The Bank of England also established the LBMA in 1987 don’t forget, so the extremely close relationship between the two is of material concern when a senior employee of the former suddenly becomes chairman of the latter.

Section B.2 addresses ‘Appointments to the Board':

“Main Principle

There should be a formal, rigorous and transparent procedure for the appointment of new directors to the board

Section B.2.1.:

“There should be a nomination committee which should lead the process for board appointments and make recommendations to the board. A majority of members of the nomination committee should be independent non-executive directors.

The nomination committee should make available its terms of reference, explaining its role and the authority delegated to it by the board. [7]

[Footnote 7]: The requirement to make the information available would be met by including the information on a website that is maintained by or on behalf of the company.

Was there a nomination committee? As of the time of appointing the new chairman to the LBMA Board, there were zero independent non-executive directors on the Board. And, excluding the newly appointed chairman, there are still zero other independent non-executive directors on the LBMA Board.

If there was a nomination committee, notwithstanding that it couldn’t by definition have a majority of independent non-executive directors when overseeing a search process for an independent chairman, then did it “make available its terms of reference” “on a website that is maintained by or on behalf of the company.” Not that I can see on any part of the LBMA website.

Section B.2.4. of the UK Corporate Governance Code includes the text:

Where an external search consultancy has been used, it should be identified in the annual report and a statement made as to whether it has any other connection with the company.

The company here being the LBMA (which is a private company). There has been no public identification as to the identity of the external search consultancy that the LBMA state was used in the appointment of Paul Fisher as ‘independent’ non-executive chairman.

Section  B.3.2. states:

“The terms and conditions of appointment of non-executive directors should be made available for inspection.[9]

[Footnote 9]: The terms and conditions of appointment of non-executive directors should be made available for inspection by any person at the company’s registered office during normal business hours and at the AGM (for 15 minutes prior to the meeting and during the meeting).

There is no reference on the LBMA website as to the terms and conditions of appointment of non-executive directors being made available for inspection by any person at the company’s registered office, nor was this communicated in the LBMA’s press release wherein it announced the appointment of the ‘independent’ non-executive chairman. It is one thing to claim to incorporate the UK Corporate Governance Code into a Board’s operations, but an entirely different matter to actually implement the principles into the operations of the Board. Given the above, I can’t see how the LBMA has done much of the latter.

Bank of England

Further ‘Independent’ Non-Executive Director Appointments

Given the opacity in the appointment of the Bank of England’s Paul Fisher as the new ‘independent’ non-executive chairman, it is therefore not unreasonable to suggest that the entire appointment process was a pre-ordained shoo-in. Without substantially more transparency from the LBMA, this view is understandable. Nor have there been any announcements about the appointment of “two additional Non-Executive Directors (NEDs)” that was claimed in the LBMA’s 30 June press release.

The LBMA held its Annual General Meeting this past week, on Tuesday 27 September. During the AGM, the outgoing chairman, Grant Angwin commented in his speech that:

I’m delighted to have by my side Dr. Paul Fisher who will be replacing me as the first Independent Non-Executive Chairman of your Association – Paul will introduce himself to you in a moment. Paul and I will Co-Chair the Board until the end of this year. This is the first major step to making the Board more independent, Paul will be joined by up to 2 other Independent Directors in the near future.

“The Board will now comprise of 6 representatives from the market – three each in the categories of Market Markers and Full Members, up to 3 Independent Non-Executive Directors (of which one will be the Chairman) and up to 3 LBMA Executive Directors. We expect to make further announcements on these roles very shortly.”

Given that the new chairman has been appointed, it is odd, in my view, that the 2 other independent directors have yet to be appointed and their identities announced. Likewise, for the 2 new directors from the LBMA Executive, who, if and when they join the Board, will give the LBMA Executive 3 seats on the Board.  Surely the AGM would have been the ideal venue in which to make these announcements, since other board changes were being voted on at this meeting.

The New Board Profile

For completeness, the changes to the LBMA Board’s composition that did take place at the AGM, based on Board member resolutions that were put to a vote, are explained below:

Prior to the AGM last week, the LBMA Board consisted of the following members:

  • Grant Anwin – Asahi Refining (co-chairman of Board)
  • Paul Fisher (new chairman of Board)
  • Ruth Crowell – Chief Executive of LBMA
  • Steven Lowe – Bank of Nova Scotia-ScotiaMocatta (and vice-chairman of Board)
  • Peter Drabwell – HSBC Bank
  • Sid Tipples – JP Morgan Chase
  • Jeremy East – Standard Chartered
  • Robert Davis, Toronto Dominion Bank
  • Philip Aubertin – UBS (‘Observer’ status)
  • Alan Finn, Malca-Amit
  • Mehdi Barkhordar, PAMP

Notice that there were 5 LBMA Marking Making reps on the Board, namely from HSBC, JP Morgan, Scotia, Standard Chartered and Toronto Dominion Bank. There was also an ‘observer’ from full LBMA Market Maker UBS. There were 3 Full Member representatives, namely from PAMP, Malca-Amit (the security carrier), and Asahi Refining.

At the AGM on 27 September, there was a vote on the Full Member reps to the Board, of which there are 3 positions in the new Board. The existing Full Member reps had to stand down and they, and other Full Member candidates, could re-stand for election:

The voting results elected / re-elected the following:

  • Grant Angwin, Asahi Refining (and co-chairman of the Board)
  • Mehdi Barkhordar, PAMP
  • Hitoshi Kosai, Tanaka Kikinzoku Kogyo

Because there were 5 Market Maker reps already on the Board, and the new Board structure only allowed 3, there was also an election on which 3 of the 5 would remain: The results were:

  • Steven Lowe, Bank of Nova Scotia-ScotiaMocatta
  • Peter Drabwell, HSBC Bank
  • Sid Tipples, JP Morgan Chase

Noticeably, these 3 remaining reps represent what are probably the 3 most powerful bullion banks in the LBMA / LPMCL system, HSBC,  JP Morgan and Scotia, two of which, HSBC and JP Morgan, operate large commercial gold vaults in London, and all 3 of which operate large commercial COMEX approved gold vaults in New York City. The reps from HSBC and Scotia have also been very long serving members of the LBMA Management Committee / Board, having been re-elected in 2015.

The AGM voting results press release also added that:

“The other two Non-Executive Directors of the LBMA Board will be announced in the near future.”

Given the aforementioned profile of the new ‘independent’ LBMA Board Chairman and ex Bank of England senior staffer Paul Fisher, it will be intriguing to examine the new independence credentials of these 2 new Non-Executive Directors who will be announced in the near future. Will they be truly independent, or will they be former bullion bankers previously affiliated with the LBMA and the London Gold Market, or ex FCA people previously affiliated with the LBMA, or maybe a combination of the two.

As per the UK Corporate Governance Code:

There should be a formal, rigorous and transparent procedure for the appointment of new directors to the board”. The board should also “state its reasons if it determines that a director is independent“. If an external search consultancy is used in finding either of the 2 new non-executive directors, there should be a “statement made as to whether it [the search consultancy] has any other connection with the company [the LBMA]“.

If 2 extra executive directors are also added to the Board from the LBMA’s staffers, to bring the number of Board directors up to 12, who will these 2 people be? My money in the first instance would be on the LBMA’s senior legal counsel (for regulatory reasons) and the LBMA’s communications officer. Whether the minutes of future or past LBMA Board meetings will ever be made public is another matter, but given the persistent secrecy that surrounds all important matters in the London Gold Market, it would probably be very naive to think that real LBMA communication via, for example LBMA Board meeting minutes, will ever see the light of day.

Blood Brothers: The Bank of England and the London Bullion Market Association (LBMA)

The London Bullion Market Association (LBMA) is a London-based, globally active, trade association for “the promotion and regulation of commerce relating to the London Bullion Market”. The “London Bullion Market” here collectively refers to the London Gold Market and the London Silver Market. The remit of the LBMA has very recently also been extended to cover the London Platinum and Palladium Market (LPPM).

While it is generally known to many, vaguely or otherwise, that the Bank of England has a vested ‘interest’ in the London gold market, the consistently close relationship between the Bank of England and the LBMA tends not to be fully appreciated. This close and familial relationship even extends to the very recent appointment of a very recently departed Bank of England senior staff member, and former head of the Bank of England Foreign exchange Division, Paul Fisher, as the new ‘independent‘ chairman of the LBMA Management Committee (a committee which has recently been rechristened as a ‘Board’). Note that at the Bank of England, the Bank’s gold trading activities fall under the remit of the ‘Foreign Exchange’ area, so should be more correctly called Bank of England Foreign Exchange and Gold Division. For example, a former holder of this position in the 1980s, Terry Smeeton, had a title of Head of Foreign Exchange and Gold at the Bank of England.

What is also unappreciated is that the same Paul Fisher has in the past, been the Bank of England’s representative, with observer status, on this very same LBMA Management Committee that he is now becoming independent chairman of. This is an ‘elephant in the room’ if ever there was one, which the mainstream financial media in London conveniently chooses to ignore.

As you will see below, the UK’s Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) also has a close, and again, very low-key but embedded relationship with this LBMA Management Committee.

threadneddle-st

At the ‘Behest’ of the Bank of England

The LBMA states in one of its Alchemist magazine articles, that its Association “was established at the behest of the Bank of England” in 1987, with Robert Guy of N.M. Rothschild, the then chairman of the London Gold Fixing, spearheading the coordination of the Association’s formation. Elsewhere, in a recent summary brochure of its activities, the LBMA states that it was “set up in 1987 by the Bank of England, which was at the time the bullion market’s regulator”, while a recently added historical timeline on the LBMA website, under the year 1987, states “LBMA established by the Bank of England as an umbrella association for the London Bullion Market.”

Established at the behest of“, “set up by” or “established by“, take your pick, but they all clearly mean the same thing; that the Bank of England was the guiding hand behind the LBMA’s formation.

Prior to the formation of the LBMA, and before a change of regulatory focus in 1986, the London Gold Market and London Silver Market had primarily followed a model of self-regulation, but the Bank of England had always been heavily involved in the market’s supervision and operations, especially in the Gold Market. Even reading a random sample of the Bank of England’s archive catalogue material will make it patently clear how close the Bank of England has always been to the commercial London Gold Market. For scores of years, the London Gold Market to a large extent merely constituted the Bank of England and the five member firms of the London gold fixing,  namely NM Rothschild, Mocatta & Goldsmid, Sharps Pixley, Samuel Montagu, and Johnson Matthey.

According to the 1993 book, “The International Gold Trade” by Tony Warwick-Ching, a combination of the advent of the Financial Services Act of 1986 which introduced supervisory changes to the UK’s markets, and the growing power of other bullion banks and brokers in the London precious metals market in the 1980s, acted as a combined impetus for the LBMA’s formation in 1987.

As Warwick-Ching stated:

“The LBMA was partly a response to a growing demand of concerns who were not members of the [gold] fixing for a greater involvement at the heart of the bullion market.” 

Morgan and J.Aron join the Party

Specifically, according to its Memorandum of Association, the LBMA was formed into a Company on 24 November 1987 by N.M. Rothschild & Sons Limited, J.Aron & Company (UK) Limited, Mocatta & Goldsmid Limited, Morgan Guaranty Trust Company of New York, Sharps Pixley Limited, and Rudolf Wolff & Company Limited. This company is “a company limited by guarantee and not having a share capital”. Given their participation from the outset, presumably J Aron (now part of Goldman Sachs) and Morgan Guaranty (now part of JP Morgan Chase) were members of the ‘growing demand of concern‘ contingent alluded to by Warwick-Ching, who wanted a bigger say in the gold market’s inner sanctum.

lbma-signatories
Signatories to the original LBMA Memorandum of Association

The authorising subscribers of the original Memorandum, on behalf of their respective companies were, Robert Guy (Rothschild), Neil Newitt (J. Aron), Keith Smith (Mocatta & Goldsmid), Guy Field (Morgan Guaranty Trust), Les Edgar (Sharps Pixley), and John Wolff (Rudolf Wolff & Company), and they requested that “We, the subscribers to the Memorandum of Association, wish to be formed into a company pursuant to this Memorandum.” The original steering committee of the LBMA comprised five of the above, Robert Guy (Chairman), Guy Field (Vice Chairman), Keith Smith, John Wolff, Neil Newitt, as well as Jack Spall of Sharps Pixley, the father of Jonathan Spall (current consultant to the LBMA). Note that the incorporation filing at UK Companies House for the LBMA is dated 14 December 1987, about 3 weeks after the date listed on the original Memorandum of Association.

As early as April 1988, there were 13 “Market Maker” members and 48 ‘Ordinary’ members in the LBMA. The market maker members had to be ‘listed money market institutions’, which meant that they were institutions listed under section 43 of the Financial Services Act 1986 (on a list actually maintained by the Bank of England) who conducted  various transactions, including bullion market transactions, which were exempt from authorisation.

The Shadowy Observers: Bank of England

According to the LBMA website:

“The Bank of England has been intrinsically linked with the London bullion market since its foundation in 1694.” 

“Although the Bank isn’t a member of the LBMA, members of the LBMA hold gold custody accounts with the Bank”

“The Bank’s vaults hold approximately two-thirds of all the gold held in London vaults and as such plays a significant role in the liquidity within the London gold market. Customers are able to buy or sell gold to other customers, by making or receiving book entry transfers, with ownership transferred in the Bank’s back office system… The service provides a very important element of the gold market infrastructure in London, helping LBMA members and central banks to trade in a secure and efficient way.”

A Bank of England presentation to the 2013 LBMA conference in Rome, titled the-bank-of-englands-gold-vault-operations, gives a good overview of the Bank’s provision of book entry transfers to its central bank and bullion bank clients for the smooth running of the London Gold Lending Market, a market which is totally opaque and completely undocumented. In fact the Bank of England sits at the heart of this gold lending market.

Furthermore, on the clearing side,

“The London bullion clearing members role involves a considerable degree of direct client contact, electronic interfaces between the clearing members and close liaison with the Bank of England…”

From its very foundation in late 1987, the Bank of England was involved in the first steering committee of the LBMA and the activities of the Association. And to this day, Bank of England ‘observers’ attend LBMA Management Committee monthly meetings.

As a historical account of the LBMA’s 1987 formation states:

“From the Steering Committee’s inception, The Bank of England, which held responsibility for the supervision of the wholesale bullion market, was involved in the Association’s affairs and assisted in the drafting of the relevant Code of Conduct. Observers continue to attend Management Committee Meetings to the present day.”

This steering committee ultimately became the LBMA Management Committee, and, in the last few months, has become the LBMA ‘Board’. So the Bank of England is, for all intents and purposes, a highly active partner within the LBMA’s governance structure. As a confirmation of this point, at the LBMA annual general meeting in July 2014, the then chairman of the LBMA Management Committee chairman, David Gornall, of Natixis stated in his speech that:

“The LBMA is also privileged in having an observer from the Bank of England on the Management Committee. The Bank’s presence is of inestimable benefit to us.”

As to what inestimable benefit David Gornall was referring to, or in what way a Bank of England observer participates on the LBMA Management Committee, was not elaborated on. Nor can it be gleaned from any meeting minutes from LBMA Management Committee meetings, because such minutes are not made publicly available (See below).

For anyone not familiar with the concept of an observer on a corporate committee or board, it does not refer to someone who just sits there and observes, as the name may suggest. An observer refers to an attendee at the committee / board meetings who actively participates in discussions but who has no voting rights on committee / board resolutions. Observers can and do fully participate in meeting apart from voting. When voting occurs, they may (or may not) be asked to leave the room.

At the LBMA annual general meeting in June 2013, David Gornall, also chairman of the LBMA Management Committee at that time, revealed that not only was there a Bank of England observer on the Management committee, but there was also an observer from the UK financial regulator, the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA), on the same committee:

“The LBMA is also privileged in having observers from both the Bank of England and the FCA on the Management Committee. Their presence is of inestimable benefit to us.”

In fact, there are many such references within various LBMA related speeches. At the LBMA Precious Metals Conference in September 2013, Matthew Hunt of the Bank of England stated:

“More specifically on gold, even though we are not active traders in the market but we are a large custodian, some of the people in our team responsible for gold observation sit on the LBMA Management Committee and the LBMA Physical Committee as observers. Thus we retain a significant engagement with the gold market via that route.” 

Notably the Bank of England has a team of people responsible for gold observation, but not for the observation of other commodities such as zinc, lean hogs, live cattle, heating oil, soybeans, sugar, beaver pelts etc etc.

In March 2013, Luke Thorn of the Bank of England, while addressing a LBMA Assaying and Refining Seminar, stated:

“We are not a member of the LBMA, but we continue to play a key role in the London market. We have observer status on the Management, Physical and Vault Committees.” 

There are therefore Bank of England observers on 3 LBMA Committees. So, who are these Bank of England and FCA observer representatives? That is not an easy question to answer. There is no mention on the LBMA website’s committee page, and has never been any mention, of any Bank of England observers or FCA observers on the LBMA Management Committee (now Board). Nor are there any published minutes on the LBMA website of any LBMA Management Committee meetings, or the meetings of any of the other five LBMA sub-committees, such meeting minutes as would generally list the attendees of such meetings. More about the lack of minutes below.

Turning briefly to the physical and vault committees, the LBMA website has a listing for its physical committee and does mention that a Bank of England observer called Jennifer Ashton currently is on this committee.

According to the LBMA’s good delivery summary:

“The Physical Committee is made up of industry experts from the physical bullion market. It is responsible for monitoring, developing and protecting the Good Delivery List and works closely with sub-Groups such as the LBMA Referees and the LBMA’s Vault Managers Working Party

There is however, no formal listing of the Vault Manager ‘s group as a LBMA committee within the LBMA’s committee listings section. The only informative reference to such a committee on the LBMA web site is in the good delivery rules explained section, which states:

 “The Vault Managers Working Group, comprising the Bank of England and representatives from those LBMA members with their own vaulting facilities in London, meet regularly to consider issues relating to bar quality and vault procedures. Vault Managers are required to document every case of bar rejection and provide the associated information to the LBMA Executive”

Who is on this committee from the Bank of England, let alone from any of the other committee member companies is not disclosed.

Turning again to the identities of LBMA Management Committee observers, and going back slightly further to the LBMA Annual General Meeting on 20 June 2012, the Chairman, the omnipresent David Gornall of Natixis London Branch, stated:

“Talking of the Management Committee, let me remind you that we are very fortunate to have observers from both the Bank of England and the FSA on the committee. I would like to thank Trevor Stone and Don Groves for their participation in our affairs”.

From a speech at the 2009 LBMA annual conference by Michael Cross, the then Head of Foreign Exchange at the Bank of England, we learn that the Bank of England’s Banking Services area:

“is where Trevor Stone and his colleagues, who will also be known to many of you, work. The Banking Services area provides wholesale banking and custody services to a wide range of bank customers”

These ‘Banking Services’ functions at the Bank of England are similar to Central Bank and International Account Services (CBIAS) services offered to central bank customers by the New York Fed, and include gold custody services.

fca stairs

The Embedded Observers – FCA, Don Groves

On 30 September 2013, the ever-present David Gornall in another speech, this time to the LBMA annual conference in Rome, had this to say:

“We are grateful for the communication and feedback on our work from regulators, particularly that of own regulator the FCA. We are delighted to be joined by Don Groves of the FCA during tomorrow’s financial market regulation session. Don is a long-time observer on the LBMA Management Committee and we thank him for his participation and continued dialogue on our regulatory questions facing the London Market.”

The next day, on 1 October 2013, at the same conference, Ruth Crowell, the then Deputy CEO of the LBMA (and current LBMA CEO) introduced Don Groves as follows:

“With that, I am going to turn it over to Don Groves from the Financial Conduct Authority. Don is a technical specialist in the market contact area of the FCA’s Market Monitoring Department, where he is responsible for reviewing allegations of market misconduct, including market abuse and insider dealing.

Don specialises in the UK commodity markets and has been in market conduct for a number of years. We are also very privileged to have Don as an observer on the LBMA’s Management Committee.

Groves joined the FCA in 1999, and left the FCA in March 2015. While his LinkedIn profile has very detailed listings of his duties while at the FCA, there is no reference to the fact that he ever sat on the LBMA Management Committee, which strikes me as odd, unless that is a deliberate omission.  A previous version of Groves’ LinkedIn profile states:

I am considered to be an expert in Market Conduct matters and market abuse in the UK. I conduct project work pertaining to market conduct issues, contribute to the drafting of European legislation pertaining to market abuse and am an experienced public speaker. My main area of interest is the UK’s commodities markets.

Is it not odd that a FCA regulator was a long-time observer sitting on the LBMA Management Committee, but that the FCA has never had anything to say about the London Gold Market. Perhaps it’s because of the following, which gives the impression of a compliant and embedded regulator. As the FT wrote in October 2013 in an article titled “Gold and oil benchmarks face tighter regulation“:

“I don‘t want to give the impression that the UK is picking on the bullion market or anything else,” Mr Groves told the London Bullion Market Association precious metals conference in Rome. “But a consumer focus is what politicians are looking at…so there’s going to be more focus from us as regulators, on consumer issues.”

“However, [Groves] admitted the regulator did not know enough about physical markets and had launched a project to increase its knowledge. “We are going out as the FCA and learning about those markets,” he said.

What exactly the FCA was doing sitting on the LBMA Management Committee remains unclear, because, to reiterate, there are no publicly available minutes of the Committee’s meetings. At a guess, perhaps Groves was “learning about physical markets“, specifically the physical gold market.

Its also relevant to note that the Bank of England and FCA both crop up as observers when the LBMA holds various seminars, such as the seminar it held in the City of London on 24 October 2014 to showcase various solution providers that were competing to provide the infrastructure for the LBMA Gold Price fixing auction competition that was running at that time:

According to the LBMA press release, “Both the Bank of England and the Financial Conduct Authority attended the seminar as observers.

meeting-minutes

Where are the LBMA Mgt Committee Meeting Minutes?

Through the Non-Investment Products Code (NIPs), the Bank of England interfaces closely with the UK’s foreign exchange, money and bullion markets. The Bank of England explains NIPs as follows:

“The Non-Investment Products Code

This Code has been drawn up by market practitioners in the United Kingdom representing principals and brokers in the foreign exchange, money and bullion markets to underpin the professionalism and high standards of these markets.[1]

It applies to trading in the wholesale markets in Non-Investment Products (NIPs), specifically the sterling, foreign exchange and bullion wholesale deposit markets, and the spot and forward foreign exchange and bullion markets.”

Footnote [1]: Co-ordinated by the Foreign Exchange Joint Standing Committee, the Sterling Money Markets Liaison Group and the Management Committee of the London Bullion Market Association

Of the three, the  Foreign Exchange Joint Standing Committee is chaired and administered by the Bank of England. The Sterling Money Markets Liaison Group (now known as the Sterling Money Markets Liaison Committee) is also chaired and administered by the Bank of England.

On the Bank of England’s web site, there are very extensive informational resources about the Foreign exchange Joint Standing Committee and the Sterling Money Markets Liaison Committee, but surprise, surprise, there is nothing about the LBMA Management Committee. The Bank of England website offers publicly accessible documents of all meeting minutes of the FX Joint Standing Committee, including the representatives names of attendees and the banks and institutions represented at each meeting. These meeting minutes are highly detailed. See May 2016 FX Joint Standing Committee minutes as an example. Likewise, for the Sterling Money Markets Liaison Committee, the minutes of every meeting have been uploaded to the Bank of England website and are publicly accessible. These minutes are highly detailed. See for example the February 2016 Sterling Money Markets Liaison Committee meeting minutes.

However, the only tiny piece of information offered about the LBMA on the Bank of England website is as follows:

“The Bullion element of the NIPs Code is being replaced by a new code which will be established by the London Bullion Markets Association (LBMA). Further information on the bullion code can be found on the LMBA website.” 

Conveniently, the Bank of England passes the buck back to a web site (LBMA’s website) which is notoriously bereft of any information about the meetings of the LBMA Management Committee, the agendas of such meetings, the minutes of such meetings, and the attendees at these meetings. Why is this opacity allowed by the FCA and Bank of England when the foreign exchange and money market brethren have to submit to published minutes of their meetings, which in many cases involve the same banks and institutions? Could it be that discussion of the London Gold Market is highly secretive and a no-go area, and that the institutions involved have a free pass from the Bank of England and FCA to continue their discussions in private, away from the public eye?

Mark Carney and Paul FIsher
Mark Carney and Paul FIsher

 Pièce de Résistance

Arguably, the pièce de résistance of these Bank of England / FCA relationships with the LBMA Management Committee, is the fact that Paul Fisher, the newly appointed ‘independent‘ Chairman of the LBMA Board, formerly known as the LBMA Management Committee, has already previously been the Bank of England’s “observer” on the LBMA Management Committee.

In his speech to the 2004 LBMA Annual Conference in Shanghai, Fisher, the then Head of Foreign Exchange at the Bank of England, while discussing the “Non-Investment Products Code”, a code which regulates the bullion market, the foreign exchange market, and the wholesale money market, stated that:

“In the bullion section, the work is led by the LBMA and the whole is coordinated by the Bank of England. Partly on that basis, I am glad to be invited to the LBMA’s Management Committee meetings as an observer. I’d just like to pay tribute to the professionalism and integrity with which I see the Management Committee operating for the best interests of the global marketplace for bullion.”

One of the more bizarre parts of Fisher’s appointment, in my view,  is that when the LBMA announced in a press release last July (2016) that Fisher was being appointed as the new LBMA chairman, there was no mention of the fact that he had previously attended the LBMA Management Committee meetings. One would think that this would be a very relevant when considering the ‘independence’ of the appointment?

On hearing the news on 13 July about the appointment of the Bank of England’s Paul Fisher as ‘independent’ non-executive chairman of the LBMA Board, James G Rickards, the well-known gold author and commentator, tweeted the below, which succinctly sums up the elephant in the room, which the mainstream media chooses to ignore.

This appointment reinforces the link, or bridge, between the two entities, which is now even more set in stone than previously. It’s as if the Bank of England, at this time, has felt the need to put it’s man directly at the head of the LBMA. The timing may be relevant, but in what way is not yet clear.

A forthcoming article looks at this appointment of a former Bank of England Head of Foreign Exchange as the new ‘independent’ Non-Executive Chairman of the LBMA Board, considers what, if anything, is independent about the appointment given the extremely close relationship between the Bank of England and the LBMA, and examines the appointment in the context of the UK Corporate Governance Code, which now governs the Constitution and operation of the LBMA Board.

From Gold Trains to Gold Loans – Banca d’Italia’s Mammoth Gold Reserves

Italy’s gold has had an eventful history. Robbed by the Nazis and taken to Berlin. Loaded on to gold trains and sent to Switzerland. Flown from London to Milan and Rome. Used as super-sized collateral for gold backed loans from West Germany while sitting quietly in a vault in New York. Leveraged as a springboard to prepare for Euro membership entry.  Inspired Italian senators to visit the Palazzo Koch in Rome. Half of it is now in permanent residency in downtown Manhattan, or is it? Even Mario Draghi, European Central Bank (ECB) president, has a view on Italy’s gold. The below commentary tries to make sense of it all by bringing together pieces of the Italian gold jigsaw that I have collected.

2,451.8 tonnes

According to officially reported gold holdings, and excluding the gold holdings of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), Italy’s central bank, the Banca d’Italia, which holds Italy’s gold reserves, is ranked as the world’s third largest official holder of gold after the US and Germany, with total gold holdings of 2,451.8 tonnes, worth more than US$ 105 billion at current market prices. Notable, Italy’s gold is owned by the Banca d’Italia, and not owned by the Italian State. This contrasts to most European nations where the gold reserves are owned by the state and are merely held and managed by that country’s respective central bank under an official mandate.

Italy’s gold reserves have remained constant at 2451.8 tonnes since 1999. Although the Banca d’Italia has been a signatory to all 4 Central Bank Gold Agreements and could have conducted gold sales within the limits of the agreements between 1999 and the present, it did not engage in any gold sales under either CBGA1 (1999-2004), CBGA2 (2004-2009), or CBGA3 (2009-2014), and as of now, has not conducted any sales under CBGA4 (2014-2019). With 2,451.8 tonnes of gold, the Banca d’Italia holds marginally more than the Banque de France, which claims official gold holdings of 2,435.8 tonnes.

Gold as a percentage of total reserves for both banks is very similar, with Italy’s gold comprising 69.7% of total reserve assets against 67.2% for France. Similarly, German’s gold reserves, at 3,378.2 tonnes, are 70.1% of its total reserves. See the World Gold Council’s Latest World Official Gold Reserves data for details.

So it appears that the big three European gold holders consider their gold to be a critical part of their foreign reserves and are keeping the ratio of their gold to total reserves within around the 70% mark.

Towards Transparency?

In April 2014, Banca d’Italia published a 3 page report about Italy’s gold reserves titled “Le Riserve Auree della Banca D’Italia” (published only in Italian). The report highlights that Italy’s gold is held in four storage locations, one of which is in Italy.

Specifically, in the report, Banca d’Italia confirmed that 1,199.4 tonnes of its gold, approximately half the total, is held in the Bank’s vaults which are located in the basement levels of its Palazzo Koch headquarters in Rome. The majority of remainder is stored in the Federal Reserve Bank’s gold vault in New York. The report also states that small amounts of Banca d’Italia gold are stored at the vaults of the Swiss National Bank in Berne, Switzerland, and at the vaults of the Bank of England in London.

As to why Italian gold is stored abroad in New York, London and Berne and not in other countries, is explained by historical data, and explained below.

++ Bankitalia: Visco, statuto riafferma indipendenza ++

Palazzo Koch

In its Palazza Koch vaults in Rome, the Banca d’Italia claims to store 1199.4 tonnes of gold. Of this total, 1195.3 tonnes are in the form of gold bars (represented by 95,493 bars), and 4.1 tonnes are in the form of gold coins (represented by 871,713 coins). While most of the bars in Rome are prism-shaped (trapezoidal), there are also brick-shaped bars with rounded corners (made by the US Mint’s New York Assay Office) and also ‘panetto’ (loaf-shaped) ‘English’ bars. The average weight of the bars in Palazzo Koch is 12.5 kg (400 oz), with bar weights ranging from relatively small 4.2 kgs up to some very large 19.7 kgs bars. The average fineness / gold purity of the Rome stored bars is 996.2 fine, with some of the holdings being 999.99 fine bars.

The Banca d’Italia also states that 141 tonnes of gold that it transferred to the ECB in 1999 as a requirement for membership of the Euro is also stored in Palazzo Koch. This would put the total gold holdings in the Palazzo Koch vaults at 1340 tonnes. Gold transferred to the ECB by its Euro member central banks is managed by the ECB on a decentralised basis, and is held by the ECB in whatever location it was stored in when the initial transfers occurred, subject to various location swaps which may have taken place since 1999.

The Vault is revealed

While the Banca d’Italia’s 3 page report appears to be the first official written and self-published confirmation from the Bank which lists the exact storage sites of its gold reserves, these four storage locations were also confirmed to Italian TV station RAI in 2010 when an RAI presenter and crew were allowed to film a report from inside the Bank’s gold vaults in Rome.

This RAI broadcast was for an episode of ‘Passaggio a Nord Ovest’, presented by Alberto Angela.

Translation of Video

For those who don’t speak Italian, such as myself, I asked an Italian friend to translate Alberto Angela’s video report and the other voice-overs in the report. The translation of the above video is as follows:

Banca D’Italia features a secret and extremely important place which represents Italy’s wealth: it’s our gold reserve.

We’ve had a special permission to visit this place, called “the sacristy of gold.” Here there’s a big protected door, and three high personnel from Banca d’Italia who are opening the door for me. Three keys are needed to open the door of the vault, one after the other and operated by three different people. Obviously we can’t show the security systems nor the faces of these men, but the door is huge, at least half a metre, and leads to another gate where again three keys must be used. Past this, that’s where our country’s gold is kept. 

Here we are. It’s exciting to get in here, the environment is simple, sober. [general commentary, then camera shows a large amount of gold]

This is not all the gold we own, as part of it is also stored in The Federal Reserve in the US, in the Bank of England in the UK and in Banca dei Regolamenti Nazionali in Switzerland. I’m speechless when exploring the sacristy, … you don’t see this every day. 

The value of all this gold is established by the  European Central Bank, that also establishes its price. The overall value appears in the end of year balance. In 2005 the gold was valued at 20 miliardi of Euros (billions)

There are three types of lingotti (square-shaped gold). {he says how much the bars weigh}

They feature some signs on them, to say that they have been checked. Some are almost 100% gold, pure gold. There’s also a serial number on the gold, and a swastika on some of them as the Nazi took away all our gold, transferring it first to the north of Italy and then to Germany and Switzerland. At the end of the war part of it came back featuring the Nazi sign.

This gold represents the symbol of our wealth, without this we wouldn’t be able to deal with the rest of the world, it’s a symbol for Italy, a guarantee, like a family’s jewelry. They can be used to get loans as happened when Italy asked for a loan from Germany and they demanded, as a guarantee, the value in gold. So the name Germany was put on this gold at the time.

{the reporter then talks about going from gold to notes and ‘convertibility’ – trust in the States is now the guarantee for exchanges, and not gold, says the voice. It’s a relation of trust … Banca d’Italia keeps an eye on this. After Maastricht, a lot of our gold has left Italy to join the other countries’ gold to create the communitarian reserve of the Euro}”

Note that the reporter, Angela, states that in addition to Rome, the Italian gold is stored at the Federal Reserve Bank in New York, the Bank of England in London, and at the Bank of International Settlements (BIS) in Switzerland. The reporter uses the exact words “Banca dei Regolamenti Nazionali”.

The BIS and SNB

This BIS as Italy’s gold custodian was also confirmed in 2009 by Italian newspaper “La Repubblica”, which published an article about Italy’s gold, stating that it was held in Rome, at the Federal Reserve in New York, in the ‘vaults’ of the BIS in Basel, and in the vaults of the Bank of England.

This apparent inconsistency between a) the Banca d’Italia’s report, which claims that its gold in Switzerland is at the Swiss National Bank (SNB) in Berne, and b) the RAI broadcast, which states that some Italian gold is stored with the BIS in Switzerland, is technically not a contradiction since the BIS does not maintain its own gold storage facilities in Switzerland. The BIS just makes use of the SNB’s gold vaults in Berne.

If you look on its website, under foreign exchange and gold services, the BIS specifically states that it uses ‘Berne’ as one of its safekeeping facilities for gold, i.e. it offers its clients “safekeeping and settlements facilities available loco London, Berne or New York”. Loco refers to settlement location of a precious metals transaction. By confirming that its Swiss storage is with the BIS, and that it also stores gold at the Swiss National Bank in Berne, the Banca d’Italia has, maybe inadvertently, confirmed that the BIS makes use of the Swiss National Bank’s gold vaults, and that the SNB vaults are in fact in Berne. while its knwn that the SNB gold vaults are in Berne, the SNB rarely, if ever, talks about this.

However, in 2008, Berne-based Swiss newspaper “Der Bund” published an article revealing that the SNB’s gold vaults are in Berne underneath the Bundesplatz Square. Bundesplatz Square is adjacent to the SNB’s headquarters at No. 1 Bundsplatz. BIS literature, such as the official BIS history publication “Central bank Cooperation at the Bank for International Settlements, 1930 – 1973” also confirms that the SNB gold vaults are in Berne and that the BIS and the Banca d’Italia have held gold accounts with the SNB in Berne since at least the 1930s. Note that the SNB actually has two headquarters, one in Berne, the other in Zurich at Börsenstrasse.Its quite possible that some of the SNB custodied gold is also stored in the vaults of its Zurich headquarters under Paradeplatz or Bürkliplatz.

Simple Questions met with Ultra-Secrecy

In April 2014, in two emails, I asked the Banca d’Italia’s press office specifically about this SNB / BIS situation, and also about the Banca d’Italia gold stored in New York, (and also about gold leasing – see separate section below). My questions were as follows:

“The Banca dItalia states in its April (2014) gold document that the Italian gold held in Switzerland is stored at the Swiss National Bank in Berne. Previous profiles of the Banca dItalia gold storage arrangements in an RAI TV broadcast in 2010 and in a La Republica newspaper article in 2009 state that the Italian gold in Switzerland is deposited with the Bank of International Settlements (BIS).

Given that the BIS use the SNB vaults in Berne to store gold deposited with them (since they don’t have their own gold storage facilities in Switzerland), then the reference to the SNB is not surprising.

However, my question is, does the Banca dItalia store its gold in Berne as gold sight deposits with the BIS or as earmarked custody gold with the SNB, or a combination of the two?”

“Is the gold of the Banca d’Italia that is held by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York held under earmark (custody), or held in a sight account?”

The Banca d’Italia responded (simultaneously on all questions):
“This is to inform you that unfortunately Banca d’Italia will not be giving information in addition to the website note.
Regards
Press and External Relations Division, Secretariat To The Governing Board And Communications Directorate, Bank of Italy”

By ‘website note’, the press and external relations division was referring to the 3 page report on gold reserves (see above) that the Bank published in April 2014.

Nazi Bars in Rome

The RAI television broadcast from 2010 was also notable in that it revealed that the Banca d’Italia holds bars of varied origins in its Rome vaults, including bars stamped with the official Bank of England stamp, and bars from the US Assay Office in New York including a featured bar from 1947. There are also Russian bars shown in the RAI video, one of which is shown in the video with the CCCP lettering, the hammer and sickle stamp, and the letters HKUM.

More surprisingly perhaps, is the fact that the Banca d’Italia also holds Nazi gold bars from the Prussian Mint in Berlin. The RAI broadcast video shows a 1940 Nazi bar from Berlin, stamped with the eagle and swastika insignia and with Prussian mint markings. The Nazi bar holdings can be explained by the fact that the Italian gold was confiscated by the Nazis during World War 2 and ended up being moved out of Rome up to the north of Italy and then most of it was transported onwards to Berlin in Germany or else to Switzerland. Following the war, some of the gold given back to the Italians as part of the Tripartite Commission payouts happened to be Prussian Mint bars stamped with the Nazi symbol (see below for historical account of Italian gold movements during World War 2).

riserve auree1
A view of the gold on shelves in the Palazzo Koch vaults, Rome

The Foreign held Italian gold

The Banca d’Italia gold document does not specify how much of the Italian gold is held in New York, London and Berne, apart from stating that most of the gold that is not stored in Rome is stored in New York. Note that this is even less transparent than the brief information that the Deutsche Bundesbank publishes about its gold reserves storage locations. However, the Banca d’Italia document does state that “the bulk” of foreign stored gold is in New York (“la parte più consistente è custodita a New York“), and that  “contingents of smaller size” are located in London and Berne (“Altri contingenti di dimensioni più contenute si trovano a Berna, presso la Banca Nazionale Svizzera, e a Londra presso la Banca d’Inghilterra“).

While one could argue about the meaning of ‘the bulk’ in terms of quantity, essentially the Banca d’Italia gold document implies that the London and Berne holdings are not very large. More specifically, it is possible using historical data and records of Italian gold movements to infer that there is little Italian gold in London and Berne.

Not a lot in London

It does not look like Banca d’Italia holds anything other than a very small amount of gold in London. During the late 1960s, mainly between 1966 and 1968, the Banca d’Italia transported most of the gold that it had stored at the Bank of England vaults back to Italy. Regular shipments were exported and delivered by MAT (the secure transport company) to the Banca d’Italia’s vaults in both Rome and Milan, sometimes about 4 tonnes at a time, sometimes 10 tonnes at a time. Historic Bank of England gold account “set-aside” ledger entries (C142/5 Bullion Office Set Aside Ledger, A-K, 1943-1971) show that by the end of 1969, the Banca d’Italia only held 988 gold bars in London, weighing 396,000 ozs,  or approximately 12.34 tonnes. In support of the veracity of this statement, see the specific ledger entry below.

banca-d-italia-boe-dec-1969-12-3-tonnes

During the Banca d’Italia’s gold transport period out of the Bank of England, various other transfers were also made from the Banca d’Italia gold account to the BIS gold account at the Bank of England. Since Italian gold reserves have not in total changed very much since December 1969, it is realistic to assume that the Banca d’Italia’s London gold holdings have not changed dramatically since December 1969, unless there have been location swaps executed since that time between London and New York or between London and Berne. This would generally only have been done for a specific reason such as to allow Italian gold lending through the London market. Significant gold lending only began in London in the mid-1980s, and the Banca d’Italia has never been on public record as having engaged in gold lending on the London Gold Lending Market.

Another possibility is that the Italians now use the BIS gold account(s) to hold gold in London in the same way that they do in Berne. This would allow the statement that some of the Italian gold is held in London to be true, even though the gold would, in this case, be held via the BIS gold account at the Bank of England, and not directly by a Banca d’Italia gold custody account in London.

Little in Berne

There does not appear to have been any Italian gold left in Berne after WWII (see historical details below), so whatever Italian balance is currently in Berne has been built up since 1946. Of relevance to the gold vaults in Berne, both the central banks of Finland (Bank of Finland) and Sweden (Riksbank) recently published the international locations of their gold reserves, and revealed that only very small percentages of their gold is kept in the Swiss National Bank vaults in Switzerland. Of the Riksbank’s 125.7 tonnes of gold reserves, only 2.8 tonnes (2.2%) is stored in the SNB vaults. For the Bank of Finland, only 7%, or 3.4 tonnes of its 49.1 tonnes of gold reserves are stored with the SNB in Switzerland.

Mostly in Manhattan

If this Swedish-Finnish 2-7% range of allocations held at the SNB was applied to the Italian gold that held outside Italy, it would result in between 25 tonnes and 87.6 tonnes of Italian gold being held at the SNB vaults in Berne. Factoring in 12 tonnes held at the Bank of England and a small amount held in Berne, this would imply nearly 1,200 tonnes of Italian gold at the Federal Reserve in New York.

There were at least 543 tonnes of Italian gold at the Federal Reserve in New York in the mid-1970s, since this was the quantity of Italian gold collateral that the Bundesbank held at the New York Fed during its first gold loan to Italy between 1974 and 1976 (see discussion below of the 1970s West Germany – Italy gold loan). If the quantities in London and Berne are as low as they appear to be, this 543 tonnes used as collateral might not have even been half the gold that Italy has custodied with the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.

A gold vault in Milan

It’s notable that the Banca d’Italia has used a vault in the city of Milan to store gold as recently as the late 1960s, although there is no mention of a Milan vault in the Banca d’Italia’s 2014 gold document. This would either imply that the gold stored in Milan in the 1960s was transported to Rome at a later date, or else that the Rome statistics may represent combined holdings stored in Rome and Milan, and are just rolled up to Rome for reporting purposes, since Rome is the head office of the Banca d’Italia. The Banca d’Italia’s Milan vault did feature as a key part of Italian gold movements during World War 2 (see below).

Historical Italian Gold

Like other central banks, the Banca d’Italia states that it uses 4 storage locations partly due to historical reasons and partly based on a deliberate strategy gold storage diversification strategy.

Although the Banca d’Italia held 498 tonnes of gold in 1925, Italian gold reserves fell to 420 tonnes in 1930, and continued to decline throughout the 1930s, falling to 240 tonnes in 1935, before another sharp fall to 122 tonnes in 1940 at the beginning of World War 2. With both Rome and Northern Italy under German occupation in 1943, the German occupiers pressurised the Banca d’Italia’s governor Azzolini to move the Italian gold north. Ultimately this led to 119 tonnes of Italian gold being transported by train from Rome to the Banca d’Italia’s vaults in Milan. But the transfer to Milan turned out to be just an interim stopover since the Germans continued to pile on pressure to move the Italian gold to Berlin.

The fascist government that controlled Northern Italy at that time initially resisted the German plan, but negotiated a compromise and agreed to move 92.3 tonnes of gold to a castle in Fortezza, in the far north of Italy near the Austrian border, close to the Brenner Pass and likewise very close (via Austria) to the German border.

Eventually the fascist government capitulated fully to the German demands and 49.6 tonnes of Italian was moved from Fortezza to the Reichsbank vaults in Berlin, followed by an additional transfer of 21.7 tonnes, so in total 71.3 tonnes of Italian gold ended up in the Reichsbank in Berlin. See here for graphic showing these wartime movements of Italian gold, and a comprehensive discussion (in Italian).

In the 1930s, the Bank for International Settlements Bank had invested substantially in Italian short-term treasury bills, which had a built-in gold conversion guarantee. Likewise, the Swiss National Bank held or was the representative for claims on some of the Italian gold. With the German pressure on the Italian gold in 1943, the BIS and SNB both became anxious about their investments and requested that their Italian gold-related be fully converted into gold with a view to moving the converted gold to the SNB vaults in Berne, Switzerland.

The Gold Trains to Berne

After intense negotiations, which the Banca d’Italia also supported (since it would allow some of the Italian gold to go to Switzerland and so avoid Berlin), the SNB and BIS succeeded in releasing the gold transfers, and over 72 years ago on 20th April 1944, 23.4 tonnes of Italian gold was sent by train from Como in Italy to Chiasso in Switzerland and then onwards by another train to Berne.

This required four railcars, two with 89 crates of gold weighing 12,605 kgs for the BIS (1,068 bars in total), and two other railcars of gold bars for the SNB which probably contained 9-10 tonnes – since this was the balance of Italian gold which did not go to Berlin or to the BIS but which had been moved to Fortezza from Milan.

A few days later on 25th April 1944, the Banca’Italia also executed an additional intra-account transfer in the Berne vault to the benefit of the BIS. This was part of a location swap with the BIS. To quote the official BIS historical narrative:

On 25th April 1944, the Bank of Italy transferred an additional 3,190 kgs of fine gold from its own gold account with the Swiss National Bank in Berne to the BIS gold account there.” (Central Bank Cooperation at the Bank for International Settlements, 1930-1973, Gianni Toniolo, BIS).

The actual transfer comprised 244 gold bars containing 2,966 kgs. An additional 233 kgs was debited from the Banca d’Italia sight account with the BIS, which suggests that the Italians only had 2,966 kgs in physical gold stored in Berne with the balance having to come from their sight deposit with the BIS (i.e. unallocated storage). (See “Note on gold shipments and gold exchanges organised by the Bank for International Settlements, 1st June 1938 – 31st May 1945.

The above suggests that the Banca d’Italia had no gold in Berne at the end of WWII. In fact, after WWII ended in 1945, the Italians essentially had very little gold anywhere except for small amounts that were left in Fortezza and found by the Allies, which was then returned to the Italians. Italy started buying gold again in 1946 with a 1.8 tonne purchase from the Banque de France. The Italians also began receiving gold back as reparations from the Tripartite Commission for the Restoration of Monetary Gold (TGC), getting 31.7 tonnes a few years after WWII ended, and another 12.7 tonnes in 1958. Since 71.4 tonnes had been taken by the Germans to Berlin, the Italians ended up with a net loss of about 27 tonnes due to theft and/or other war losses.

Some of these post-WWII gold reparations contained the Nazi Prussian Mint bars which are now stored in the Banca d’Italia’s Rome vaults. The initial gold bar reparations for Italy in the late 1940s came from the TGC account set up at the Bank of England. Records from the Clinton Library show that Italy received 575 Prussian bars set-aside from the TCG account in its early allocations. Prussian bars also made it to the Federal Reserve in New York. The same records show that were over 2,500 Prussian Mint bars held under earmark at the FRBNY for various customers as of January 1956 including the BIS, IMF, SNB, Bank of England, Netherlands and Canada among others. Some of these bars were later remelted into US Assay Office bars. (The Gold Report, Presidential Advisory Commission on Holocaust Assets in the United States, July 2000, Clinton Library).

In a similar way to other major European central banks, the Banca d’Italia’s gold reserves were mainly built up during the late 1950s and early 1960s. Although the Banca d’Italia was a relatively important official gold holder during the first half of the 20th century, it ‘only’ held 402 tonnes of gold as of 1957. But starting in 1958 and running through to the late 1960s, Italy’s gold reserves rose by nearly 600% to exceed 2,560 tonnes in 1970. See page 19 of “Central Bank Gold Reserves, An Historical perspective since 1845, by Timothy Green, Research Study No. 23, published by World Gold Council, for data on Italian gold reserve totals during the 1950s and 1960s.

Since 1970, Italy’s gold holdings have remained fairly constant, although at times some of the Italian gold has been used in various financial transactions such as:

  • gold collateral against a loan from Germany during the 1970s
  • contributions to the European Monetary Cooperation Fund (EMCF)
  • contributions to the European Central Bank (ECB)

The gold collateral transactions with Germany and the EMCF and ECB contributions explain why, in the absence of purchases or sales, Italy’s historic gold holdings statistics appear to fluctuate widely at various times since the mid-1970s.

l’Ufficio Italiano dei Cambi (UIC)

Until the 1960s, most, if not all of Italy’s official gold reserves were held not by the Banca d’Italia, but by an associated entity called l’Ufficio Italiano dei Cambi (UIC). In English, UIC translates as the “Italian Foreign Exchange Office”. The UIC was created in 1945. One of its tasks was the management of Italy’s foreign exchange reserves (also including gold).

Therefore the Italian gold purchases in the 1950s and 1960s were conducted for the account of the UIC, not the Banca d’Italia. However, during the 1960s there were two huge transfers of gold from the UIC to the Banca d’Italia, one transfer in 1960 and the second in 1965. In total, these two transactions represented a transfer of 1,889 tonnes from the UIC to the Banca d’Italia. The UIC’s main function then became the management of the national currency and not the nation’s gold. The UIC ceased to exist in January 2008 when all of its tasks and powers were transferred to the Banca d’Italia.

DB

Gold Collateral for the Bundesbank – 1970s

In 1974, Italy required international financial aid to overcome an economic and currency crisis and ended up negotiating financial help from the Deutsche Bundesbank. This took the form of a dollar-gold collateral transaction, with the Bundesbank providing a US$ 2 billion loan secured on Italian gold collateral of equivalent value. On 5th September 1974, Karl Klasen, President of the Bundesbank, sent the specifics of the collateral agreement to Guido Carli, Governor of the Banca ‘dItalia. The details of the transaction were as follows:

US$ 2 billion was transferred from the Bundesbank to the Banca d’Italia for value date 5th September. Simultaneously, for value date 5th September, the Banca d’Italia earmarked 16,778,523.49 ounces of gold (about 522 tonnes) from its gold holdings stored at the Federal Reserve Bank in New York into the name of the Bundesbank, and received a gold claim against the Bundesbank for the same amount.  (2A96 Deutsche Bundesbank Files, 1974, Bank of England Archives).

The gold collateral was valued at $149 per ounce based on a formula of 80% of the average London gold fixing price during July and August 1974. The loan was for a six month maturity but could be rolled over up to three times, i.e. up to two years in total. It turns out that the loan was rolled over up to the maximum two years allowed. Not only that, but the entire gold-backed dollar loan was renewed in September 1976 with larger gold collateral of 17.5 million ounces or about 543 tonnes. This gold loan renewal in 1976 was underwritten by the UIC, and the 543 tonnes of gold was transferred from the Banca’Italia to the UIC prior to the loan renewal. Note that Paolo Baffi had become Governor of the Banca d’Italia in 1975, taking over from Guido Carli.

In September 1978, at the 2 year maturity date of the renewal, the 543 tonnes of gold was returned to the ownership of the Italians but instead of being transferred to the Banca d’Italia, the 543 tonnes was transferred to the balance sheet of the UIC, since the UIC had been involved in underwriting the entire loan agreement. This 543 tonnes of gold stayed on the UIC books and was revalued over the years, thereby creating a large capital gain for the UIC.

Gold capital gain Controversy – 1997/98

When the gold held by the UIC was sold to the Banca d’Italia in 1997, the UIC realised a capital gain of 7.6 billion Lira which then became taxable. The UIC then owed the Italian Exchequer 4 billion Lira, 3.4 billion Lira of which was transferred to the Italian State in November 1997. At the time in 1997, Italy was preparing for entry to the Euro, and needed to keep its deficit under the 3% ceiling required by the Maastricht Treaty criteria. Eurostat ruled that this windfall transfer to the Italian Exchequer was not allowed to be offset against the government deficit. See here for January 1998 statement from Eurostat.

However, a European Parliament parliamentary set of question in March 1998 to the European Council seems to suggests that the UIC tax payment to the Italian Exchequer was offset against Italy’s public sector deficit, and that it helped to keep the Italian deficit under the critical 3% Masstrict ceiling, thereby helping Italy to qualify for Euro membership. The parliamentary questions were from Italian politician Umberto Bossi:

“Does the Council intend to finally ascertain the nature of this transaction?

Does the Council intend to establish whether it is permissible to encourage tax revenues of this kind to be offset against the public sector deficit?

If not, does the Council not consider that this incident shows yet again that Italy has not changed its ways and is prepared to stoop to dubious accounting practices in order to enter Europe?”

The answer to this parliamentary question in June 1998 seems vague, but did not deny that the tax windfall generated by the capital gain on the 543 tonnes of gold may have helped improve the Italian fiscal condition in the run-up to Euro qualification and entry.

EMCF and EURO

As referenced above, Italian gold has been contributed to various European monetary experiments since the 1970s. This explains why the yearly official total figures of Italian gold fluctuate widely over the 1970s-1990s period, and indeed have also fluctuated since 1999.

In 1979, Italy’s gold reserves dropped by 20% and stayed that way until 1998 when they increased again to the previous 1979 level. This was due to Italy contributing to the European Monetary Cooperation Fund (EMCF) which was a fund within the European Exchange Rate Mechanism (ERM) of the European Monetary System (EMS). In exchange for providing 20% of their gold and dollar reserves to the EMCF, member countries received claims denominated in European Currency Units (ECUs). [The ECU was an abstract precursor to the Euro]. The gold that was transferred to the EMCF was accounted for as gold swaps, but there was no physical movement of gold, it was just a book entry to represent a change in ownership to the EMCF.

In 1999, with the advent of the Euro (initially as a virtual currency), central bank members of the Eurozone had to again transfer gold, this time to the European Central Bank (ECB). The ECB stipulated that each member had to transfer foreign reserves assets, and 15% of these transfers had to be in the form of gold. In Italy’s case it transferred 141 tonnes of gold to the ECB, so Italy’s gold reserves fell by this amount.

The gold owned by the ECB is not centrally stored and managed by the ECB. It stays wherever it was when transferred by each member country, and the ECB delegates the management of its gold reserves to each member central bank, so essentially, it’s just another accounting transaction. It’s unclear whether the ECB gold managed by the Banca d’Italia on behalf of the ECB is “managed” any differently to the non-ECB gold (i.e. its unclear whether the same investment policy always applies to both gold holdings). One person who would certainly know the answer to that questions is Mario Draghi, current president of the ECB, former governor of the Banca d’Italia, and also born in Rome, home of the Palazzo Koch gold vault.

Is any Italian Gold pledged or leased out?

Banca d’Italia annual reports follow International Monetary Fund reporting conventions and classify the gold in its balance sheet as ‘gold and gold receivables‘. In September 2011, when I asked the Banca d’Italia to clarify what percentage of the asset category ‘gold and gold receivables’ in its 2010 balance sheet referred to gold held, and what percentage represented gold receivables, the Bank’s press office replied succinctly that “it’s only gold, no receivables.”

Following the publication of the Bank’s three page gold document in April 2014, I asked the Banca d’Italia press office a number of questions (see above), one of which was about gold leasing:

Are any of the Bank’s gold reserves subject to lease agreements, and if so, what percentage of the gold is leased out? Is any of the Bank’s gold swapped or pledged in any other way?

As mentioned above, the Banca d’Italia’s response was:

This is to inform you that unfortunately Banca d’Italia will not be giving information in addition to the website note.
Regards
Press and External Relations Division, Secretariat To The Governing Board And Communications Directorate, Bank of Italy”

 

Gold Audits

The Banca d’Italia states in its 3 page gold document that external auditors verify the gold held in Rome each year in conjunction with the Bank’s own internal auditors. For the gold held abroad, the external auditors are said to audit this using annual certificates issued by the central banks that act as the depositories (the  depositories being the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, the Bank of England, and either the BIS or perhaps the SNB depending on the type of certificate that is issued for BIS deposits).

This approach is analogous to the methodology used to audit the German gold reserves stored abroad, i.e. there is no independent physical audit of the gold stored abroad by the Bundesbank. The paper-pushing auditors merely audit pieces of paper.

As regards the Banca d’Italia’s gold holdings at the Bank for International Settlements (BIS), these holdings could either be in the form of a “Gold Sight Account” or a “Gold Ear-Marked Account”, as explained here by the Bank of Japan in 2000 when it switched its gold holdings at the BIS from a gold sight account to a gold earmarked account:

“The Bank of Japan has recently transferred its claims against the Bank for International Settlements (BIS) embodied in a “Gold Sight Account” to a “Gold Ear-marked Account” with the BIS.” (July 2000)

If the Banca d’Italia’s gold holdings at the BIS are just in a sight account, then this is just a claim on a balance of gold, not a holding of specific gold bars.

It’s also surprising to me that the mainstream media have taken a significant, albeit superficial, interest in the Bundesbank’s ongoing exercise to repatriate 300 tonnes of its gold reserves from New York to Frankfurt, but zero interest in the fact that the Banca d’Italia supposedly has a huge amount of gold stored in New York that has never physically audited it and does not even see a need to repatriate it.

Banca d’Italia office in Manhattan

Like the Bundesbank,  the Banca d’Italia also maintains a representative office in New York, at 800 Third Avenue – 26th Floor, New York – NY 10022 (see representative office contact details here). The head of this representative office is Giovanni D’Intignano (see LinkedIn). Therefore, it should be very easy for the Banca d’Italia to ask the Federal Reserve Bank of New York to conduct an on-site physical gold audit of the Italian gold at the vaults of the New York Fed, all 1000 plus tonnes of it.

In fact, the Banca d’Italia also maintains another of its only 3 representative offices abroad in London at 2 Royal Exchange, London EC3V 3DG, which is right across the road from the Bank of England’s headquarters and gold vaults. It should therefore also be a simple matter for the Banca d’Italia to also organise a physical on-site audit of its gold reserves stored at the Bank of England in London, something the Bank of England has been allowing its gold storage customers to do since 2013.

Political Awakening

There has been a developing political trend recently in Italy for more transparency on the Italian gold and also calls for its ownership and title to be protected against control by outside entities.

In January 2012, Italian politican Rampelli Fabio (co-signed by Marco Marsilio) submitted some written questions to the Italian Ministry of Economy and Finance, a department headed at the time by Mario Monti (Monti was also simultaneously Italian Prime Minister at that time), asking the following questions about the Italian gold (questions 4-14567 : Italian version and English version):

“When and under what agreement or statutory provision were the storage location decisions (regarding New York, London and BIS Switzerland) taken and whether that strategic decision is still considered to serve the interests of Italy?

Who owns the gold reserves held at Palazzo Koch (in Rome) and the gold reserves held at the foreign locations?

Does Italy have full availability to the gold reserves held at the Bank of Italy and at the foreign locations?”

Even though these questions were submitted nearly 5 years ago, the official status of the questions on the parliamentary website still says “In Progress”,  suggesting that they have not been answered by the Ministry of Finance. I can find no other evidence elsewhere either that these questions were ever answered.

Senators visit Palazzo Koch vault

Three Italian senators of the political party Movimento Cinque Stelle visited the Banca d’Italia gold vaults in Rome on 31 March 2014 and are calling for the ownership of the gold to be transferred from the Banca d’Italia to the Italian public so that its control cannot be compromised. See video below of their before and after visit which was broadcast from outside the Palazzo Koch vault in Rome.

These 3 representative (in the above video) are Senator Giuseppe Vacciano, Senator Andrea Cioffi and Senator Francesco Molinari.  I do not have a direct English translation of this video, however, anyone interested can translate this page from Italian,  which was published on 3 April 2014, and features Senator Vacciano explaining the senators’ vault visit.

In his report, Vacciano confirm some interesting facts, such as that the Italian gold belongs to the Banca d’Italia and not the Italian State.  The ownership issue is also confirmed by the Banca d’Italia’s 3 page gold report (see above) which states:

“La proprietà delle riserve ufficiali è assegnata per legge alla Banca d’Italia” – (Ownership of official reserves is assigned by law to the Bank of Italy)

Unusually for a central bank, Banca d’Italia’s share capital is held by a diverse range of Italian banks and other financial institutions as well as by the Italian state

Vaccciano also confirmed that in the vault they saw some South African gold bars, many American gold bars, and “several bearing the Nazi eagle”. And in a similar way to the RAI reporter Alberto Angela, who said in 2010 that he was speechless when viewing the gold in the sacristy, Vacciano says:

from a purely human perspective, we could see with our own eyes a quantity of precious metal that goes beyond an ordinary perception … I must say that arouses feelings that are difficult to explain“.

Italian Citizens

The Italian business community and public appear to be quite aware of the importance of the country’s gold reserves. In May 2013, the World Gold Council conducted a survey of Italian business leaders and citizens which included various questions about the Italian gold reserves. The findings showed that 92% of business leaders and 85% of citizens thought that the Italian gold reserves should play an important role in Italy’s economic recovery. There was very little appetite to sell any of the gold reserves, with only 4% of both citizens and business leaders being in favour of any gold sales. Finally, 61% of the business leaders and 52% of the citizens questioned were in favour of utilising the gold reserves in some way without selling any of them. The World Gold Council interpreted this sentiment as allowing the possibility for a future Italian gold-backed bond to be issued with Italian gold as collateral. The Italian gold could thus play a role similar to that used to collateralise the international loans from West Germany to Italy in the 1970s.

Mario Draghi – Last Word

For now, the last word on the Italian goes to Draghi. Even Mario Draghi, former governor of the Banca d’Italia, and current president of the European Central Bank, has a similar view to the Italian public about not selling the Italian gold. In the video below of a 2013 answer to a question from Sprott’s Tekoa Da Silva, Draghi says that he never thought it wise to sell Italy’s gold since it acts as a ‘reserve of safety’. However, as would be expected from a smoke-and-mirrors central banker, Draghi doesn’t reveal very much beyond generalities, and certainly no details of storage locations or whether the Italian gold comprises gold receivables as well as unencumbered gold.

 

Guest Post: Hanging by a Thread – “Very skeptical” judge – former FBI/SEC official eyes London gold and silver fix lawsuits

Written by Allan Flynn, specialist researcher in aspects of gold and silver. 

Five months have lapsed without decision, since London gold and silver benchmark-rigging class action lawsuits received a cool response in a Manhattan court. Transcripts from April hearings show, in the absence of direct evidence, the claims dissected by a “very skeptical” judge, and criticized by defendants for lack of facts suggesting collusion, among other things.

Judge Valerie E. Caproni, former white-collar defense attorney, SEC Regional Director and controversial FBI General Counsel, presided over oral arguments for motions-to-dismiss totaling 9 hours on April 18 and 20.

Its “based entirely on statistics with no other,” the judge said, pouring cold water on plaintiff’s claims of bank collusion in gold benchmark rigging. Defense attorney scoffed as much at the silver hearing. “There is not a single fact… that shows an agreement between my client and the other alleged conspirators to fix the fix.”

Seven banks are being sued in separate gold and silver class action lawsuits currently before the US. District Court, Southern District of New York. The plaintiffs: gold and silver bullion traders, and traders of various associated financial instruments, allege banks conspired in secret closed meetings, to rig the London PM Gold Fix, and Silver Fix benchmarks during the period from 2001 to 2013.

If the motions to dismiss are allowed, the complaints will be thrown out. Plaintiffs on the other hand, are hoping to crack open the door to “discovery,” where they get to access confidential bank communications and records. Turning the tables earlier in April Deutsche Bank surprised by promising to provide such evidence ratting out its former fellow defendants. “No. I cannot consider it at all,” the judge said, stonewalling plaintiffs’ arguments mentioning the move. The German mega-bank settled claims a week prior to the hearing but is yet to hand over records.

Evidence

Alleged proof of downward price manipulation is revealed by averaged charts showing “Anomalous” price drops from 2001 to 2013 in the London Silver Fix and PM Gold Fix. In sympathy, even as the gold price quadrupled from around $300 to $1200 through the period, something counter-intuitive happened. Plaintiffs’ claim during London hours between the AM and PM fixes, the average price declined for each of the 13 years, bar one being flat in 2013. More pronounced effects were seen in silver.

“Those were compelling charts,” the judge responded to a presentation of evidence during the silver hearing. “I mean, seriously, they truly show that something happened.”

av-normalized-gold-prices
Image courtesy of Commodity Exchange, Inc., Gold Futures and Options Trading Litigation, Dkt No. 14-MD-2548 (VEC)

Defendants argue rather than collusion, the price drops show normal “parallel conduct.” Loads of precious metals producers all needing to sell, and a bunch of savvy bankers hoping to buy low. Plaintiffs say the banks have a near-perfect record betting on the fix outcome. Well of course, they trade on “the best information in the world about supply and demand,” the banks’ attorneys retorted.

Findings

Inclusion of a non-fixing bank UBS, in the lawsuit, is described by defendants as “unfair,” and just to “suck in” a Swiss regulator’s findings. If the Court is to be believed, the FINMA report may be all the cases have going for them. Of its 19 pages, the dominating subject is foreign exchange misconduct, with only a few lines about precious metals. Tip-toeing around the topic of collusion, the report describes a process of “cooperation” between UBS and others in precious metals trading. It says the bank shared sensitive client trade information such as “client names”, “stop loss orders,” and “flow information on large or imminent orders” with “third parties.”

Sharing of client trade information by banks, including UBS, in currency trading, the UK Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) reported in 2014, was for the purpose of collusion. Such communication enabled different banks to plan trading strategies, and “attempt to manipulate fix rates and trigger client “stop loss” orders (which are designed to limit the losses a client could face if exposed to adverse currency rate movements).”

Strong similarities exist between the methods and tools used by currency traders to rig benchmarks, and those used by precious metals traders. Referring to the detailed description of UBS offences including collusion in currency benchmarks, the FINMA report said, “the conduct and techniques inadmissible from a regulatory perspective, were also applied at least in part to PM spot trading.”

steps1
Thurgood Marshall United States Courthouse, inset Judge Valerie E. Caproni

Hanging by a Thread

One “misconduct” the report emphasized in precious metals trading was UBS’ manipulation of the silver benchmark in the banks proprietary trading. “A substantial element of the conspicuous conduct in PM trading was the repeated front running (especially in the back book) of silver fix orders of one client.” According to the FCA, front running is a kind of insider trading.

“transaction for a “person’s own benefit, on the basis of and ahead of an order (including an order relating to a bid) which he is to carry out with or for another (in respect of which information concerning the order is inside information), which takes advantage of the anticipated impact of the order on the market or auction clearing price.”

Commenting on the brevity of plaintiffs’ evidence in silver, and the FINMA findings, Judge Caproni pointed out, “your hanging your hat pretty heavily on one line in that report.”

Attorney for defendants found the report favorably vague:

“Your Honor, I apologize. I must say he has made a misstatement three times. The FINMA settlement, Section 3.2.3 talks about UBS conduct with respect to silver. There’s not a not a word or hint about coordination with any other bank. It is between UBS and one of its customers or maybe more than one but no collusion.”

The judge responded, “We have the FINMA report. I knew that wasn’t exactly what it said.”

Confusion about the Swiss findings wasn’t helped by the events of the day. The conference call in German, reported FINMA boss Mark Branson alluding to perhaps more than the report dare, in, “clear attempts to manipulate precious metals benchmarks.” FINMA declined a request to supply a transcript or recording of the conference call, with a spokesperson responding, “We do not publish a transcript, and besides we have nothing to add to the report.”

A couple of things may help explain the regulators haziness, and thus the challenges for sensitive cases as these. Switzerland is a country long associated with gold and banking. In 1970 Zurich was home to the worlds largest gold market. Most of the worlds’ gold is imported to Switzerland for refining. Consider then this impressive feat: An official inquiry is conducted of Switzerland’s largest bank caught up in a scandal involving “precious metals.” Offenses were identified in its Zurich office. The agency reports “serious misconduct” in precious metals trading including sharing of secret client trade orders with “third parties.” The agency head rallies against manipulation of “precious metals benchmarks.” Action against 11 bank personnel, including industry bans of between one and five years, were brought against two managers and four traders for, “serious breaches of regulation in foreign exchange and precious metals trading.” But yet, the word “gold” is absent from the entire report and announcements.

Secondly, FINMA’s 2015 Annual Report describes the sanctions against four now-former UBS traders. It may concern some, that justice is left to financial market regulators when:

“Four further enhancement actions against UBS foreign exchange traders were discontinued in August 2015. Since there were indications that their behavior had contributed to serious breaches of regulatory provisions, FINMA issued reprimands without taking further action against these individuals.”

The Puzzle

If the cases proceed, US commodity futures markets may also come under scrutiny. The Court spotted a not-so-obvious paradox concerning allegations the banks suppress gold prices. “Why would they drive the price down when they are sitting on I don’t know how much bullion? They are driving down the price of their own asset,” Judge Caproni posed.

Plaintiffs claim the banks hold a majority of short gold and silver futures on the US-based Chicago Mercantile Futures Exchange, paper instruments tied to the value of London silver and gold, which increase in value as the bullion prices fall. The banks argue that it’s impossible to tell from mandatory government filings, which banks prosper during the declines, and to what extent. The judge agrees, and defendants are pleased. “I’m very skeptical they have a well-pleaded factual allegation of what the banks’…COMEX position is,” the judge said.

“Mr Feldberg: Then your Honor has said that much better than I ever could.”

Where direct evidence of collusion isn’t available, antitrust law allows the pleading of additional circumstantial evidence that lends plausibility to allegations. Other circumstantial evidence, or “plus-factors,“ listed by gold plaintiffs, namely problematic antitrust facts arising out of the very clubby arrangement of the fix meetings themselves, failed to impress particularly.

“The Court: But weren’t all of your plus factors just the natural – they are just a function of the fix?..I thought every plus factor you pointed to was just that’s the nature of the fix.”

Last Stand

The unconvinced magistrate was likely close to a decision, before four weeks back when the banks had one last throw at dismissal. The court in the silver case was asked to apply a recent ruling where warehouse aluminum price manipulation was deemed not to have impacted end users of aluminum. Any decision on this in silver will likely impact the gold case also.

The question of standing, or which plaintiff’s are close enough to the alleged activity to have suffered injury, was well discussed back in April. For example the Court put to defense: “I’m not saying the two guys at a swap meet from Ohio would be a particularly compelling class representative, but why wouldn’t they have standing?” Plaintiffs seemed to have convinced that the issue could be decided later, if it gets to that. Judge Caproni just wasn’t sure firstly if all the statistics, and facts complained were plausible enough to infer collusion, reminding frustrated gold plaintiffs where the balance lies.

“Unfortunately for you I’m the one who has to make the decision here.

Mr Brocket: Again, with the greatest respect, I am trying to resurrect this here but, look. Every fact alone doesn’t prove collusion.

The Court: I agree.”

inside-shot-of-thurgood-marshall-courthouse
A courtroom in the Thurgood Marshall Courthouse NYC

Decisions regarding motions to dismiss in the London gold and silver benchmark-rigging class actions against banks, initially expected around the end of August, could come any day sooner or later according to someone familiar with the cases.

 

The above article was first published at Allan Flynn’s website here.

Allan Flynn is a specialist researcher in aspects of gold and silver. He is currently investigating for future publication on the same topic and works in property and commercial architecture when he needs to eat. He holds shares in precious metals producers and banks.