Spotlight on Greece’s Gold Reserves and Grexit
With the Greek Government and the Troika back in the news right now, it’s a good time to take a look at Greece’s official gold reserves and examine how much gold Greece claims to hold, where this gold might be located, and explore the impact that the European bailouts or a Greek Euro exit might have on the Greek gold holdings.
The 2012 Annual report of the Bank of Greece, the most recent full annual report available, provides some useful background on the Greek gold reserves. The Bank’s full 2013 annual report has not yet been posted on its website, and the 2014 annual report has not yet been published.
In the 2012 report, the Bank of Greece claims to hold on its balance sheet, ‘gold and gold receivables’ of 4,746,000 fine troy ounces (147.6 tonnes).
As of 31st December 2012, based on a gold price of €1,261.179 per fine ounce, this ‘gold and gold receivables’ asset item was valued in the balance sheet at €5.985 billion.
The 147.6 tonne total of gold reserves might seem a lot higher than figures of 112 tonnes or 117 tonnes that are sometimes quoted in economic statistics or in the media. However, the 147.6 tonne figure includes a claim, by the Bank of Greece on the Greek State, for gold that was paid by the Bank of Greece to the IMF (subscriptions and quota increases etc) on behalf of the Greek State.
As the 2012 annual report states:
“The amounts reported above comprise the Bank’s gold holdings (3,597 thousand ounces) and gold receivables from the Greek State (986 thousand ounces) corresponding to Greece’s participation in the IMF (the gold component of Greece’s quota has been paid by the Bank of Greece on behalf of the Greek State), as well as scrap gold and gold coins for melting (163 thousand ounces). A large part of gold holdings is kept with banks abroad.“
(Source: ‘Notes on the balance Sheet’ 2012 Annual Report, Page 209 of the pdf, page A15 of the report).
Gold Claim on Hellenic Republic
Why the Greek State has never paid back this 986,000 oz gold debt to the Bank of Greece is puzzling, but there would appear to be little chance of the repayment happening any time soon given the Greek State’s current fiscal position.
Since Greece was one of the original members of he IMF back in 1945, the Bank of Greece gold claim on the Greek State may be a very long-standing claim and would comprise some or all of the initial gold subscription to the IMF in 1947, and various IMF quota increases that were implemented in 1958-59, 1965 and 1970.
I think it’s misleading for the Bank of Greece to throw in this gold claim against the Greek State within its “gold and gold receivables” line item in the balance sheet. Even though it is a receivable in gold, it is not even the type of gold receivable that the European central banks had in mind when they pressured the IMF back in 1999 to deem the “gold and gold receivable” classification device as a legitimate accounting approach. (See below for a background on that issue).
In my view this 986,000 Oz gold obligation on the Greek State should be itemised separately and not listed as part of the monetary gold holding line item. Where is this 986,000 Ozs of gold? It doesn’t even exist, except as a gold holding of the IMF and should not be double counted.
Excluding this 986,000 oz (30.66 tonnes) IMF related claim on the Greek State, the Bank of Greece says it holds a total of 3.76 million ozs of gold (3,597,000 ozs + 163,000 ozs) which is roughly 117 tonnes. Excluding the scrap gold and gold coins, the figure is 3.597 million ozs, which is approximately 112 tonnes.
The Fantasy of ‘Gold and Gold Receivables’
Note that the 3.76 million ounce figure from 2012, excluding the IMF gold claim, is still in itself ‘gold and gold receivables’ and not necessarily earmarked gold held. The percentage of ‘gold receivables’ within the 3.76 million ounce figure, such as gold lent or gold swapped, is not divulged.
The Bank of Greece uses the ‘gold and gold receivables’ gimmick because the Bank, along with all Eurosystem banks and most other central banks around the world, follows IMF central bank accounting guidelines when accounting for its gold holdings. And IMF accounting guidelines do not follow generally accepted accounting principles in this area.
In 1999, the IMF, following objections from European central bank officials at the Bank of England, Deutsche Bundesbank, European Central bank (ECB) and Banque de France, back-tracked on a plan to introduce individual line item categories for gold and ‘gold receivables’ in the reserves data template of its Special Data Dissemination Standard, because breaking out this data into separate items would have revealed the workings of the gold loan and gold swap market, or what the IMF calls ‘highly market sensitive’ information.
An IMF Executive Board paper from 1999, explains the issue:
“15. Central bank officials** indicated that they considered information on gold loans and swaps to be highly market-sensitive, in view of the limited number of participants in such transactions. Thus, they considered that the SDDS reserves template should not require the separate disclosure of such information but should instead treat all monetary gold assets, including gold on loan or subject to swap agreements, as a single data item. (page 6)“
** The ‘central bank officials’ referred to above were as follows:
“7. ……At the same time the (IMF) staff consulted the Bank of England, the Deutsche Bundesbank, the Banque de France, and the European Central Bank to review practical and methodological difficulties they might encounter in implementing the CGFS template, in light of recent decisions on publication of reserves data in the Eurosystem. (page 4)”
According to the latest IMF official reserves asset data for Greece, the Bank of Greece now claims to have monetary gold holding of 3.62 million ozs, marginally up from 3.597 million ozs. In fact, the monthly foreign reserves figures for the Bank of Greece (xls) frequently show small increases in the ‘Monetary gold (millions of the troy ounces)’ category, about 9,000 ozs per year or slightly less than 1,000 ozs per month.
This increase in gold holdings could be reflecting interest in the form of gold received on gold deposits (gold loans) with bullion banks, and may suggest that the Bank of Greece has outstanding short-term gold loans that are being rolled over with the bullion banks (in the London gold market). Interest received on central bank gold deposits (time deposits) with bullion banks is often in the form of gold (accrued interest in gold).
Where is the Greek gold?
On the question of the location of the Bank of Greece gold reserves, the only locational information provided on the gold reserves in the 2012 annual report, was that ‘a large part‘ of the gold was held abroad.
Earlier Bank of Greece annual reports, from 2007 – 2010, state that “The largest part of gold holdings is kept in banks abroad.” It was only since 2011 that the wording ‘a large part is kept abroad‘ was introduced. Semantics maybe, however, the change in wording could indicate that some of the gold that was held abroad had been repatriated back to Greece sometime between 2010 and 2011. This was around the time that the Greek fiscal budget started to deteriorate rapidly.
Alternatively, the previous phraseology could have included the Bank’s IMF gold claim since by definition, this gold is held by the IMF in its gold despositories, which are all located outside of Greece. But it’s not clear from the wording whether the gold claim on the Greek State has ever been included or excluded from the reference to where the gold reserves were located.
Whatever the reason, it became less important on 1st March 2013, when Bloomberg published an article about the size and location of the Greek gold reserves. This article was based on a letter written by the Bank of Greece that had been forwarded by the Finance Ministry to a lawmaker in the Greek Parliament in response to the lawmaker’s query.
The letter stated that as of 31st December 2012, Greek gold reserves totalled 3.76 millon ounces (approximately 117 tonnes). This figure tallies with the figure from the above 2012 annual report.
On the location of the gold, Bloomberg said that, according to the document:
“Half is held at the central bank in Greece while the remainder is held at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, the Bank of England and in Switzerland.”
The same day, 1st March 2013, the Greek Ministry of Foreign Affairs and various Greek news agencies confirmed the Bloomberg story in slightly more detail, with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs releasing a statement stating that:
“Greece’s gold reserves totalled 3.760 million ounces at the end of 2012, worth 4.74 billion euros, the country’s central Bank of Greece (BoG) said on Friday.
In a report to Parliament, communicated through Finance Minister Yannis Stournaras responding to a question by parliament deputies over the country’s gold reserves, the central bank said that Greece’s natural gold reserves at the end of 2012 amounted to 3.760 million ounces, worth 4.74 billion euros, of which half were under the custody of the Bank of Greece and the remaining under the custody of the Federal Bank of New York, the Bank of England and Switzerland.
The central bank noted that gold reserves which had been transferred for custody to the Bank of England during the Second World War were repatriated gradually in 1946-1956.”
The Bank of Greece therefore appears to currently maintain a 50/50 split between domestic and foreign held gold. This again may suggest that something changed after 2010 which altered the wording of ‘the largest part’ of the reserves being stored abroad. Where the domestically stored Greek gold is held, I’m not sure. Possibly in a vault in the Bank’s headquarters in Athens. Who knows.
The Federal Reserve Bank of New York (FRBNY) and Bank of England as gold custodians for Greece’s gold is not surprising given that many foreign central banks store gold with these two institutions.
The Bank of Greece has historically had a gold set-aside account at the Bank of England, not least for the Tripartite Commission’s gold distributions. Separately, in the IMF gold restitutions to its members in the late 1970s, the Bank of Greece did not use the Bank of England or the Banque de France or the Reserve Bank of India to receive restituted gold, so this implies that Greece used the FRBNY and would have needed a gold account at the FRBNY.
The reference to Switzerland by the Greeks would either be a) a gold deposit or earmarked gold held with the Bank for International Settlements (BIS), b) earmarked gold held directly with the Swiss National Bank in Berne, or c) gold held with a Swiss commercial bank in Zurich such as Credit Suisse or UBS.
As to how much of the 50% of the Greek gold that’s stored abroad is in each of the three storage locations (New York, London and Switzerland), or how much of this gold is actually earmarked in custody is unclear. Some or all of this gold could be loaned or swapped or, as central banks like to say in their gold legal agreements, the gold may have other “liens, claims or encumbrances” against it.
Given the perilous state of Greek finances, the custodial status of the Greek gold held with the Bank of England, FRBNY and in Switzerland deserves scrutiny. This would also apply to the 50% of the Greek gold that’s supposedly held by the Bank of Greece within Greece. This scrutiny will probably never be forthcoming however due to the unaccountability and lack of transparency on everything gold related within the world of central banking.
Seizing the Greek Gold? Not like Cyprus
In February 2012 during negotiations on Greece’s 2nd bailout (Second Economic Adjustment Programme of March 2012), the New York Times wrote an article quoting a Greek politician, Louka Katseli, who was unhappy that the loan deal undermined Greek sovereignty and believed that under the bailout deal, Greece’s creditors had a claim over the Bank of Greece gold reserves. As the NYTimes stated:
“Ms. Katseli, an economist who was labor minister in the government of George Papandreou until she left in a cabinet reshuffle last June, was also upset that Greece’s lenders will have the right to seize the gold reserves in the Bank of Greece under the terms of the new deal, and that future bonds issued will be governed by English law and in Luxembourg courts, conditions more favorable to creditors.”
According to the NYTimes, Katseli stated that:
“This is the first time ever that a European and probably an O.E.C.D. state abdicates its rights of immunity over all its assets to its lenders.“
Although the NYTimes referred in its article to “the fine print of the 400-plus-page document — which Parliament members had a weekend to read and sign“, I am not sure which 400 plus page document was being referred to. I cannot find any reference to gold or gold collateral in the European Commission’s ‘Financial Assistance to Greece’ web pages, nor in the Commission’s “The Second Economic Adjustment Programme for Greece” document.
There isn’t, as far as I am aware, any collateral connection between the Bank of Greece gold reserves and the sovereign debt of the Greek State. I only say that because I can’t find the specific documentation that Katseli was referring to. However, Louka Katseli is a very credible source for making such a statement, having worked at a high level in the Greek Government, the OECD, and European Community, amongst other posts.
In comparison to the possible lack of Greek documentation, the Troika’s (ECB, IMF and European Commission) bailout deal of the Cypriot banking sector in 2013 (“The Economic Adjustment Programme for Cyprus”) did explicitly mention Cypriot gold and the possible sale of €400 million worth of gold, as follows:
27. The “programme” scenario takes into account a number of policy measures to strengthen debt sustainability, in particular (i) proceeds generated by privatisation of state-owned assets; (ii) the proceeds from the sale of excess gold reserves owned by the Republic of Cyprus;
29. Sale of excess gold reserves: It is envisaged to use the allocation of future central profits of approx. EUR 0.4 bn, subject to the principle of central bank independence and provided such profit allocation is in line with CBC rules and does not undermine the CBC duties under the Treaties and the Statute. This is estimated to generate one-off revenues to the state.
CBC is the Central Bank of Cyprus. But as the above ‘adjustment programme’ points make note of, Eurosystem central banks cannot be forced to sell their gold reserves to meet their government’s financing needs. This is due to Article 7 of the protocols on the European System of Central Banks (ESCB) and the ECB which states that the ECB and national central banks can’t seek or take direction from European Union government or institutions and, likewise, European Union governments and institutions are not allowed to influence the national central banks or the ECB.
The Central Bank of Cyprus never did sell any of its gold, but the rumours at the time, especially in April 2013, caused weakness in the gold price and were undoubtedly used by some as justification to accelerate the gold price weakness. Cyprus had, and still has, only 13.9 tonnes of gold and the sale proceeds from any Cypriot gold sale, would, like Greece, have only covered a small fraction of its bailout obligations to the Troika.
By December 2013, Reuters had released an article saying that Cyprus had “no plan to sell gold reserves to fund its €10 billion euro bailout”:
‘”We do not intend to sell the gold,’ a senior official at the central bank told Reuters, declining to be identified.”
“Asked about any alternative method to raise the 400 million euros, the official said: ‘They (the government) have to go back to the troika and say this (a gold sale) is not going to happen.'”
“While the Cypriot government had said sales would be considered, the central bank had typically been cool to the idea. The governor of the central bank would have the final say in such a sale, the central bank sources said.”
With Greek gold reserves eight times the size of those of Cyprus, any talk of Greek gold sales would be sure to have an adverse affect on the gold price. However, given that there does not seem to be any evidence that the Troika have discussed or planned for such gold sales, any suggestions of this in the media would be irresponsible.
Grexit and Greece’s gold claim on the ECB
In its balance sheet, the Bank of Greece also lists a claim on the European Central Bank under an item called “Claims equivalent to the transfer of foreign reserves to the ECB” (9.2).
In 1999, the founding member national central banks of the Euro (stage 3 of Economic and Monetary Union) transferred about €40 billion in foreign reserve assets to the ECB, with 85% of this total paid in US dollars and Yen and 15% paid in gold. There are now 19 European national central banks in the Euro, and Greece has a little less than a 2.8% share in the claims on this foreign reserve pool, 15% of which is in gold. The gold in this pool is managed on a decentralised basis by the member national central banks on behalf of the ECB.
In September 2011 (after the first Greek bailout [May 2010] but before the second Greek bailout [March 2012]), when fears of Greece leaving the EU were in full flight, I wrote to the ECB press office and asked them, in quite precise language, what would become of Greece’s gold contribution to the Eurozone if Greece exited from the Euro. My question to the ECB was as follows:
“In a scenario under which a Eurozone member state left the common currency zone, would the foreign reserve assets of that member state which had been contributed by that member state’s central bank to the ECB (i.e. the claims on the ECB established via Article 30 of the ESCB Statute, initially comprising 15% gold and 85% other currencies and subsequent top ups), be reimbursed to the departing members state’s central bank, or, given that a departing member state would most likely have been one to which the ECB had an outstanding loan (and so having a liability to the ECB), would the ECB seek to net the loan against the member state’s claims (made up of major currencies and gold)?”
The Communications Directorate of the ECB’s Press and Information Division promptly responded that:
“Please note that there are no legal provisions for a hypothetical scenario of the kind you describe.
You may be interested in the following Legal Working Paper, although the views expressed in it do not necessarily reflect the views of the ECB:
The document that the ECB refered me to is titled Withdrawal and Expulsion from the EU and EMU – Some Reflections – by Phoebus Athanassiou, Legal Working Paper Series. No 10, December 2009.
Coincidentally, or not, Phoebus Athanassiou, the author of the paper, is Greek. According to his faculty profile at the Institute For Law And Finance (ILF) in Frankfurt, Dr Phoebus Athanassiou is “Senior Legal Counsel with the Directorate General Legal Services of the European Central Bank (ECB).”
Athanassiou also has an interesting connection to Cyprus since, according to the ILF profile, he “specialises in European Union, Greek and Cypriot financial law.” Prior to joining the ECB in 2004, Athanassiou “was in private practice, with the Athens Law Firm of Tsibanoulis & Partners, inter alia acting as consultant to the Government of the Republic of Cyprus on the transposition of the acquis in the fields of securities, banking and insurance law.” Acquis refers to Acquis communautaire, which just means the entire body of European laws (treaties, directives and regulations etc).
Athanassiou’s paper is very detailed and technical, and while there has been lots of coverage of it in the media over the last few years, the paper only discusses whether a country is allowed to exit the EU or exit EMU, not whether a departing country would get its gold back if it left EMU.
In summary, Athanassiou says in his 2009 paper:
– that before the Lisbon Treaty of 2007, there was no legal way for a member country to exit from the European Union (EU), and even though there is now (Article 50), it would be still legally problematic;
– that a member country of EMU (in the Euro) could not exit the Euro without exiting the EU;
– that “no right of withdrawal from EMU was ever intended to exist“;
– and that a member of the EU or EMU cannot be forced out because it requires the consent of all members including the member being expelled, i.e. “A Member State’s expulsion from the EU or EMU would inevitably result in an amendment of the treaties, for which the unanimous consent of all Member States is necessary under Article 48 TEU.”
Deal on the Table
With a Greek-Eurogroup deal now back on the table, the Athanassiou legal arguments still look to be sound. Just before the deal, there were reports of the ECB preparing for a Greek exit from the Euro. How this could even be legally undertaken is unclear. On 20th February 2015 Reuters reported that:
“The European Central Bank is preparing for the event that Greece leaves the euro zone and its staff are readying contingency plans for how the rest of the bloc could be kept intact, German news magazine Spiegel reported in a preview of its magazine.”
There is no legal way for a Euro member to exit the Euro. If it did somehow happen, a Greek exit from the Euro would have serious ramifications both financially and politically. Would the Bank of Greece also have to leave the ESCB group?
Anytime the prospect of Greece leaving the Eurozone flares up, there is always chatter that Greece would be somehow forced into selling its gold reserves.
Even though the European Central Bank Gold Agreements (CBGAs) on gold sales are supposedly not legally binding, the Bank of Greece gold holdings, worth less than €4 billion, are tiny in comparison to the colossal sovereign debts the Hellenic Republic faces, and would only make a small dent in the debt repayments.
The gold price should in theory benefit more from the financial volatility of a Grexit than it would suffer from the fear of Greek gold sales. However, the case of the feared Cypriot gold sales in 2013 shows that gold market players can use these fears to their advantage in pushing the gold price around.
If Greece stays in the Eurozone, which looks likely, it cannot independently sell its gold without the go-head of the ECB. This is because the ECB controls, or has a say in, the management of not just the gold transferred to it as part of the foreign reserve transfers of the participating national central banks, but all the monetary gold held as reserve assets by the member national central banks (under the ECB definition, reserve assets includes monetary gold).
Article 31 of the Statute of the ESCB and ECB, which addresses foreign reserve assets held by national central banks, says that beyond certain pre-existing obligations to various international organisations, “all other operations in foreign reserve assets remaining with the national central banks” are “subject to approval by the ECB in order to ensure consistency with the exchange rate and monetary policies of the Union.” So, any Euro member central bank would have to get the approval of the ECB before buying or selling any of its monetary gold.
In conclusion, Greece is not an insignificant holder of monetary gold. Its holding of 110+ tonnes makes it a reasonably sized gold holder amongst the world’s central banks. The supposed storage locations of Greece’s gold are not surprising but as to whether the gold is there and in what form the various holdings are is anyone’s guess.
Greece cannot just walk away from the Euro since such a scenario was never envisaged by the Eurocrates, and they will do whatever it takes to prevent such a scenario happening. As to whether Greece, or any Euro member, would get its gold back if it somehow managed to escape from the Euro, that is a scenario that as the ECB told me, “there are no legal provisions for.”