Tag Archives: Allocated

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.

Central Banks’ secrecy and silence on gold storage arrangements

Whereas some central banks have become more forthcoming on where they claim their official gold reserves are stored (see my recent blog post ‘Central bank gold at the Bank of England‘), many of the world’s central banks remain secretive in this regard, with some central bank staff saying that they are not allowed to provide this information, and some central banks just ignoring the question when asked.

In the ‘Central bank gold at the Bank of England’ article, I said that “A number of central banks refuse to confirm the location of their gold reserves. I will document this in a future posting.” As promised, this blog post explains what I meant by the above statement.

Some of those central banks may have made it into the Bank of England storage list if they had been more transparent in providing gold storage information. However, since they weren’t transparent, these banks make it into the alternative ‘non-cooperative’ list. One subset of this list is central banks, which to be fair to them, did actually respond and said that they cannot divulge gold storage information. The other subset is central banks which didn’t reply at all when I asked them about their official gold storage location details.

The below list, although not complete, highlights 7 central banks and 1 official sector financial institution (the BIS), which, when asked where do they store their gold reserves, responded with various similar phrases saying that they could not provide this information. Between them, these 7 central banks claim to hold 1,500 tonnes of gold. Adding in the BIS which represents another 900 tonnes, in total that’s 2,400 tonnes of gold where the central banks in charge of that gold will not provide any information as to its whereabouts. Much of this 2,400 tonnes is no doubt stored (at least in name) at the FRBNY and the Bank of England, with some stored in the home countries of some of the central banks.

I have included the 8 responses below, but have deleted any references to individuals’ names or email addresses:

 

Bank of Japan: 765.2 tonnes of gold

Bank of Japan

 

 

Bank for International Settlements (BIS): > 900 tonnes of gold

  • BIS manages 443 tonnes of gold under custody for central banks
  • BIS owns 108 tonnes of gold itself
  • BIS manages 356 tonnes of gold deposits from central banks
  • BIS has 47 tonnes of gold swaps outstanding

BIS

 

 

Spain: 281.6 tonnes of gold

Banco de Espana

 

 

 

South Africa: 125.2 tonnes of gold

SARB

 

 

Thailand: 152.4 tonnes of gold

Bank of Thailand

 

 

Singapore: 127.4 tonnes of gold

Monetary Authority of Singapore

 

 

Malaysia: 37.9 tonnes of gold

Bank Negara Malaysia

 

 

Paraguay: 8.2 tonnes of gold

Banco Central Paraguay

…which translates into English as …..”That information is classified and cannot be disclosed. I hope you understand“.

 

‘No Answer’ central banks

I also emailed some central banks which didn’t respond to the question, ‘where are your gold reserves stored?’. They may not have responded for various reasons, including the emails may not have reached the relevant people who would normally be responsible for such matters. These banks account for another 500+ tonnes of gold reserves. Again, some of this gold is probably at the Bank of England, such as, some of Jordan’s and Kuwait’s gold, due to historical ties with the Bank of England.

  • Banque du Liban (Lebanon): 286.8 tonnes  (said to be in Lebanon and FRB New York)
  • National Bank of Kazakhstan: 208.1 tonnes
  • Central Bank of Kuwait: 79 tonnes
  • Central Bank of Jordan: 34.2 tonnes
  • Bank Al-Maghrib (Morocco): 22.1 tonnes
  • National Bank of Cambodia: 12.4 tonnes

 

 

BIS – Transparency in name only

The following slide, from a 2007 Bank for International Settlements presentation, shows how ridiculous the claims of central banks are when they use the meme that they are transparent and accountable, when in fact, they are nothing of the sort.

The BIS’ response above on the gold storage question, i.e. “the information that you have requested is not made publicly available” makes a mockery of its own claims in the below slide that central banks are required to be transparent and accountable.

The only ‘gold’ that the BIS is willing to discuss is its pie-in-the-sky corporate-speak ‘Golden Triangle’ of central bank Autonomy complimented by Transparency and Accountability when it states:

 – TRANSPARENCY – important for holding central bank to account

- ACCOUNTABILITY – crucial counterpart of autonomy in an open society, makes transparency more credible

 (I added the 2 red arrows to the slide to highlight these points)

BIS transparency

 

 

Conclusion: Finland’s change of heart

The fact that staff of some central banks won’t discuss that bank’s gold storage arrangements is no doubt an internal rule, or a storage depository rule, or some such nonsense. The nonsensical nature of their non-cooperation and evasion is highlighted by the below about-turn from the Bank of Finland, when in January 2013 it childishly told me that “We are not allowed to tell the exact depository, town or country“, and then 9 months later in October 2013, the powers-that-be at the gold depositories gave the go-ahead, for the Bank of Finland then spilled the beans, squealing that its gold was stored at a cornucopia of the usual suspects, namely, the Bank of England, the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, the Swiss National Bank, and smaller amounts at the Swedish Riksbank and the Bank of Finland.

Given that the Bank of England, the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, and the Swiss National Bank all agreed to the Bank of Finland’s request in 2013 to publish the individual storage locations of its gold, and given that the vaults of these 3 banks store the vast majority of internationally stored central bank gold, therefore it also makes a mockery of central banks which persists in claiming that they cannot divulge information on the storage of their own gold, which in most cases is supposedly spread between the very same 3 sets of vaults.

And after the Bank of Finland press release, which most Finns and most of the world probably didn’t even see, Helsinki and the world continued about its business as before. The point being that the storage locations of central banks’ gold reserves is not that big of a deal. Its only the central banks that make it into a big deal with their secrecy….unless of course, they are hiding something bigger, and the gold is not even where its supposed to be.

Bank of Finland – 31 January 2013

Bank of Finland January 2013

 

Bank of Finland – 25 October 2013

Bank of Finland

How many Good Delivery gold bars are in all the London Vaults?….including the Bank of England vaults

Each year in June, the Bank of England publishes its annual report which quotes financial data up to the end of February (its financial year-end). The Bank’s annual report also states the amount of gold, valued at a market price in Pounds sterling, that it holds under custody for its customers, which comprise central banks, international financial institutions, and LBMA member banks.

The Bank of England as gold Custodian

In 2014, the Bank of England stated that, as at 28th February 2014, it held gold assets in custody worth £140 billion for its gold account customers, while in 2013, the corresponding figure was £210 billion. In June 2014, Koos Jansen of Bullionstar calculated that the Bank of England therefore held 5,485 tonnes of customer gold at the end of February 2014, and 6,240 tonnes of customer gold at the end of February 2013. This meant that between the two year end dates, end of February 2013 to end of February 2014, the amount of gold in custody at the Bank of England fell by 755 tonnes.

In his personal blog in June 2014, Bron Suchecki of the Perth Mint, also discussed the 2013 and 2014 Bank of England gold custody tonnage numbers, and derived the same 755 tonne drop between February 2013 and February 2014, and he also went back all the way to 2005 and calculated yearly figures for each February year-end from 2005 to 2014. (See table in Bron Suchecki’s blog).

Bank of England gold in custody down another 350 tonnes during 2014

Applying a similar exercise to the Bank of England 2015 Annual Report (large file), the report states (on page 34) that:

“As of 28 February 2015, total assets held by the Bank as custodian were £514 billion (28 February 2014: £594 billion), of which £130 billion (28 February 2014: £140 billion) were holdings of gold.” 

Since 28th February 2015 was a Saturday, the afternoon London Gold Fixing price in GBP on Friday 27th February 2015 was £787.545 per ounce.

£130 billion @ £787.545 per ounce = 5134.37 tonnes = ~ 410,720 Good Delivery bars

This means that between 28th February 2014 and 28th February 2015, the amount of gold stored in custody at the Bank of England fell by another 350 tonnes, from 5,485 tonnes in February 2014, to 5,134 tonnes on 28th February 2015.

Now only 500,000 bars in the entire London vaults system

On page 19 of a London Bullion Market Association (LBMA) presentation on 15th June 2015 in Texas, given by LBMA CEO Ruth Crowell to the International Precious Metals Institute (IPMI), it stated that:

There are ~500,000 bars in the London vaults, worth a total of ~US$237 billion

Page 19 of LBMA presentation from 15th June 2015
Page 19 of LBMA presentation from 15th June 2015

 

500,000 bars ~= 6,250 tonnes

On 15th June 2015, the morning LBMA Gold Price was set at $1178.25, which would make $237 billion worth of gold equal to 201.145 million ounces, which is 6,256 tonnes.

So, there are now only about 6,250 tonnes of gold in the London vaults, including the gold in the Bank of England vaults.

 

From 9,000 tonnes to 7,500 tonnes to 6250 tonnes

The LBMA stated earlier this year on a vaulting page on its website 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.

Based on this metric, that comes out as (7500 * 0.75) or 5,625 tonnes of gold bars in the Bank of England vaults, and 1,875 tonnes of gold bar in other London vaults.

An earlier version of the same LBMA vaulting page with a website imprint from April 2014 stated that:

In total there is approximately 9,000 tonnes of gold held in London vaults, of which about two-thirds is stored in the Bank of England.”

So that earlier reference would have been (9000 * 0.66) or 6,000 tonnes in the Bank of England and 3,000 tonnes in the other vaults. To summarise:

Earliest quotation

  • 9,000 tonnes in all London  vaults = 720,000 bars
  • 6,000 tonnes in Bank of England (BoE) = about 482,000 bars
  • 3,000 tonnes in  London ex BoE vaults = 238,000 bars

Second quotation

  • 7,500 tonnes in all London vaults  = ~600,000 bars   => lost 120,000 bars (1500 tonnes)
  • 5,625 tonnes in Bank of England = ~ 450,000 bars  => lost 32,000 bars (375tonnes)
  • 1,875 tonnes in Ldn ex BoE  vaults = ~150,000 bars  => lost 88,000 bars (1125tonnes)

Third quotation: June 2015

  • There are ~500,000 bars in the London vaults, worth a total of ~US$237 billion

 

The London vaults refer to at least the LBMA London vaults, and may include other non-LBMA gold vaults in London, depending on how the LBMA collected these figures from the vault operators. Apart from the Bank of England gold vaults, the LBMA ‘London’ vaults, are the vaults of JP Morgan and HSBC Bank in the City of London, the vaults of Brinks, Malca Amit and Via Mat (Loomis) out near Heathrow, and the vault of G4S in Park Royal, and not to forget the Barclays vault which is run by Brinks.

In the cases of the 9,000 tonnes and 7,500 tonnes quotations, the tonnage figures and the fractions are probably rounded to an extent for simplicity, so are ballpark figures, but a comparison between the two earlier quotations indicates that the Bank of England lost 375 tonnes, and the rest of the London vaults lost 1,125 tonnes. In total that’s 1,500 tonnes less gold in London between the time the first figure was complied and the time the updated (second) figure was published.

Factoring in the “There are ~500,000 bars in the London vaults, worth a total of ~US$237 billion  quotation, which equates to 6,250 tonnes, this means that another 1,250 tonnes of gold (approximately 100,000 Good Delivery bars) has now gone from the London gold vaults compared to when there was 7,500 tonnes of gold in the London vaults, as quoted on the vaulting page of the LBMA’s web site as recently as earlier this year.

A total of 6,250 tonnes is also 2,750 tonnes (about 220,000 Good Delivery bars) less than the 9,000 tonnes quoted on the LBMA web site in April 2014, which may have referred to a period earlier than  2014.

All of the gold in the Bank of England would be London Good Delivery bars (i.e. variable weight bars each weighing about 400 oz or 12.5kgs), and most, if not all, of the gold in the other London vaults would also be London Good Delivery bars, because importantly, all the gold held by the ETFs in London, primarily the SPDR Gold Trust at the HSBC vault in London, is required by the ETF prospectuses to be in the form of London Good Delivery gold bars.

In fact, Stewart Murray, the then CEO of the LBMA stated at a presentation held in Paris in November 2011 that the gold in the London vaults was “Virtually all in the form of Good Delivery bars”, although by August 2015, a very recent presentation (slow file to load) by current LBMA CEO Ruth Crowell in Goa India, stated that, in the London gold market, “Almost all gold is held in the form of Good Delivery bars“.

Symantics maybe between ‘virtually‘ and ‘almost all‘, but there are probably some kilobars held in the London gold vaults now that might not have been as common in 2011. Note that the LBMA and the Shanghai Gold Exchange recently executed a mutual recognition agreement for a 9999 gold kilobar standard, so each body now recognises the kg bars manufactured by all of the gold refiners that each body has accredited.

The LBMA has also recently made reference to a potential 995 gold kilobar standard which it has referred to as a ‘draft for discussion and possible endorsement”. See the Goa presentation from Ruth Crowell, above.

BoE Gold and forklift

What time period did 9,000 tonnes refer to?

LBMA launched a new version of its website in approximately March 2014. It’s not clear what exact month this 9,000 tonnes of gold in the London vaults figure refers to, but a lot of the text on the new LBMA website in 2014 was already on the previous version of the website prior to the revamp, so the tonnages specified on the new website in April 2014 could have been on the previous version of the website before April 2014 and merely been copied across to the new website. However, there is a way to infer the latest date at which the 9,000 tonne figure could have been referring to.

At the Fifth LBMA Assaying & Refining Seminar, held in London between 10th and 12th March 2013, Luke Thorn from the Bank of England gave a talk about the “Bank of England’s role in the physical gold market”, in which he stated:

“At our premises at Threadneedle Street, London, we have approximately £200 billion worth of gold stored over 10 vaults.”

On 11th March 2013, the GBP price for an ounce of gold was £1059 (average of AM and PM fixes in Sterling). At £1059 per oz, $200 billion of gold is 188,857,412 ounces, or 5,874 tonnes, or about 469,940 Good Delivery bars.

Recalling the two totals discussed above at the Bank of England of 6,000 tonnes and 5,625 tonnes, this 5,874 tonnes figure is quite close to being halfway between 6000 and 5625 (i.e. 6000 + 5625 / 2 = 5812.5 tonnes). So its realistic to assume that Luke Thorn’s number lay somewhee in time between the two LBMA quotations, and that therefore, the 6,000 tonnes total at the Bank of England, and by extension the 9,000 tonne total in all London vaults, most likely referred to the state of the London gold market before 11 March 2013.

In other words, the 9,000 tonnes in the London vaults, and the 6,000 tonnes in the Bank of England, were referring to the amount of gold in the London vaults before the major drop in the gold price in April 2013 and June 2013, and before the huge 2013 withdrawals of gold from the gold ETFs which store their gold in London, and before most of the 755 tonnes of gold was withdrawn from the Bank of England (BoE) between 28th February 2013 and 28th February 2014.

 

 Only 90,000 Good Delivery bars outside BoE vaults – this includes all London ETF gold

If there are now only 500,000 Good Delivery bars in the London vaults, as LBMA CEO Ruth Crowell’s presentation of June 2015 states, then with 410,000 Good Delivery gold bars in the Bank of England vaults (5,134 tonnes from 28th February 2015), then there are only 90,000 Good Delivery gold bars in the other London gold vaults, which is 1,125 tonnes.

Not only that, but nearly all of this 1,125 tonnes in the other London vaults is gold belonging to the physical gold-backed ETFs which store their gold in London. The ETFs that store their gold bars in London are as follows:

(Note: PHAU and PHGP are the same ETF. They are just two ISINs of the same underlying ETF. PHAU is in USD, PHGP is in GBP. The same structure applies to the other ETF Securities ETF known as GBS. GBS and GBSS are the same ETF. GBS is the USD ISIN and GBSS is the GBP ISIN).

The SPDR Gold Trust (GLD) currently holds 682 tonnes of gold in the vault of HSBC in London. That leaves only 443 tonnes of gold from the 1,125 tonnes above that is not in the GLD.

The iShares Gold Trust (IAU) gold is held in 3 vaults in 3 countries, namely the JP Morgan vault in London, the JP Morgan vault in New York, and the Scotia vault in Toronto. On the surface, this is an unusual vaulting arrangement for IAU. This arrangement just arose due to the way the IAU prospectus was worded in 2004, and the way the original iShares Gold Trust custodian, Scotia Mocatta, stored the gold in London, New York and Canada. JP Morgan took over as custodian for IAU in the second half of 2010, and just maintained this 3 vaults in 3 countries arrangement for whatever reason. Some of the Authorised Participants of IAU include Barclays, Citibank, Credit Suisse, Goldman Sachs, JP Morgan, Merrill Lynch, Morgan Stanley, Scotia, and UBS.

In the JP Morgan vault in London, IAU currently holds 7,265 Good Delivery gold bars (2.907 million ounces), which is 90 tonnes. That leave only 353 tonnes in the London vaults, that is not at the Bank of England, not in the SPDR Gold Trust, and not in the iShares Gold Trust.

As of 3rd September 2015, the ETFS Physical Gold ETF (PHAU) held 3,271,164 troy oz of gold in London at HSBC’s vault. That’s 101.7 tonnes in PHAU, which leaves only 251 tonnes unaccounted for in the London vaults.

There is also another ETFS physical gold ETF called Gold Bullion Securities (GBS) which also holds its gold in the HSBC London vault. As of 3rd September 2015, GBS held 2,233,662 troy oz of gold. That’s 69 tonnes. Subtracting this 69 tonnes from the residual 251 tonnes above, leaves only 182 tonnes of unaccounted for gold in the London vaults.

Some of the Authorised Participants of the ETFS ETFs are Credit Suisse, Deutsche Bank, Goldman Sachs, HSBC, JP Morgan, Merrill Lynch, Morgan Stanley, Scotia, and UBS.

The ‘Source Physical Gold ETC (P-ETC)‘ also stores its allocated gold in the JP Morgan vault in London.  This gold is held for the trustee Deutsche Bank by the custodian JP Morgan Chase. The Authorised Participants for this Source ETC are Goldman Sachs, JP Morgan, Bank of America, Morgan Stanley, Nomura and Virtu Financial. According to a Source gold bar list dated 28th August 2015, the Source Physical gold ETC held 1.571 million fine ozs of gold in bars that weighed 1.574 million gross ozs, so that’s about 3,925 Good Delivery bars, which is about 49 tonnes.

Subtracting this 49 tonnes from the remaining 182 tonnes above, which are not held within the Bank of England, and which are not held by the other physically backed gold ETFs described above, leaves only 133 tonnes of unaccouted for gold in the London vaults.

Other companies store some of their customer gold in the London vaults, such as GoldMoney and BullionVault. Based on its daily update, BullionVault had 6709 kgs of gold, or 6.7 tonnes, stored in London, while GoldMoney, based on an audit from 1st December 2014, had 410 Good Delivery bars, or about 5.14 tonnes, stored in Via Mat’s (Loomis) London vault. Combined, that’s another ~14 tonnes of gold which can be substracted from the 133 tonnes above, leaving only 119 tonnes that is not  accounted for.

To put a figure such as 119 tonnes of gold into perspective, this is about the same amount as 1-2 weeks worth of gold withdrawals from the Shanghai Gold Exchange, or about 1 month’s worth of official gold imports into India.

Unallocated Musical Chairs, without any chairs

In a May 2011 presentation at the LBMA Bullion Market Forum in Shanghai, while discussing London gold vaults, former LBMA CEO Stewart Murray had a slide which read:

Investment – more than ETFs

ETFs

  • Gold Holdings have increased by ~1,800 tonnes in past 5 years, almost all held in London vaults
  • Many thousands of tonnes of ETF silver are held in London

Other holdings

  • Central banks hold large amounts of allocated gold at the Bank of England
  • Various investors hold very substantial amounts unallocated gold and silver in the London vaults

 

There are 2 interesting things about the above slide. If central banks ‘hold large amounts of allocated gold at the Bank of England”, which totalled 6,000 tonnes and then 5,625 tonnes, and more recently 5,134 tonnes, and if this is a proxy for an amount being ‘large’, then the 2nd statement with the quantum “very substantial amounts’ and especially the qualifier ‘very’, implies that the unallocated amounts represent larger amounts than the ‘allocated’ amounts, perhaps ‘very’ much larger amounts.

That 2nd statement is also a contradiction in terms. Unallocated gold is not necessarily held in vaults or held anywhere. Unallocated is just a claim against the bank that the investor holds an unallocated gold account with. There are no storage fees on an unallocated gold account in the London Gold Market precisely because one cannot charge a storage fee when there is not necessarily anything being stored.

So the ‘very substantial amounts‘ being held really means that investors have very substantial amounts of claims against the banks which offer the unallocated gold accounts, or in other words, the banks have very substantial liabilities in the form of unallocated gold obligations to the gold account holders. As to how much physical gold is on the balance sheets of the banks to cover these liabilities, if the figure of 500,000 bars in the entire set of London vaults is accurate, then there is hardly any gold in London to cover the unallocated gold accounts.

Bank of England

LBMA Member gold accounts at the Bank of England

A 2014 quarterly report of the Bank of England said that 72 central bank customers (including a smaller number of official sector financial organisations) held gold accounts with the Bank of England. That reference is on page 134 of the report, however, a small subset of the report, including page 134 can be viewed here (and is not a large file to download).

Then, in a slide from a presentation by then LBMA CEO Stewart Murray in London in 2011, one of the Powerpoint pages (page 15 of the pdf) stated that:

The Bank of England acts as gold custodian for about 100 customers, including central banks and international financial institutions, LBMA members and the UK government.”

If central bank customers with gold accounts, whose numbers would not change that much from 2011 to 2014,  represented ~72 gold accounts, that would mean that up to 28 LBMA members could have gold accounts at the Bank of England.

Is that number of LBMA member bullion banks a feasible number for maintaining a gold account at the Bank of England? Yes it is, primarily because of the gold lending market, but also due to the way the London gold clearing market works.

Bolivia’s gold and the Bullion Banks

Just as an example, the Central Bank of Bolivia’s gold that it lent to bullion banks in 1997 and that has never been returned to the Central Bank of Bolivia, has gone through the hands of at least 28 bullion banks between 1997 and the present day. These entities, some of which have merged with each other (*), and a few of which imploded, include Swiss Bank Corp*, Republic National Bank of New York*, Midland Bank (Montagu)*, Credit Suisse, SocGen, Natixis, BNP Paribas, Standard Chartered, ANZ, Scotia Mocatta, Barclays, Morgan Stanley, HSBC, Macquarie, Deutsche, Dresdner*, Bayerische Landesbank, Westdeutsche Landesbank*, JP Morgan*, Commerzbank*, Citibank, Rabobank, Morgan Guaranty* and Bayerische Vereinsbank. The IBRD (World Bank) even took on to its books the borrowed gold positions of the bullion banks during the financial crisis in 2009 because it had a higher credit rating than the investment banks after the Lehman crisis.

The lent gold of Central American banks during the 2000s, such as the gold of Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua,  had been on the books of additional banks Mitsui & Co, J Aron (Goldman), Mitsubishi, AIG, and N.M. Rothschild. Bullion banks ebb and flow as to their involvement in the gold market, and some merge and go bust or get forceably rescued and shoved together, but a lot of other banks are also LBMA members that are not in the aforementioned names, such as RBC, ICBC Standard Bank, Toronto Dominion Bank, Merrill Lynch and Zurcher Kantonalbank, not to mention the other Chinese and Russian bank members of the LBMA. So overall, it is quite conceivable that 28 LBMA member bullion banks each have a gold account at the Bank of England.

How much gold did the London-based gold ETFs lose in 2013

The year 2013 was a year of huge gold outflows from the gold backed ETFs. Of the ETFs based in London, or more correctly, the ETFs with gold stored in London, the gold outflows were as follows:

The SPDR Gold Trust had an outflow of 561 tonnes of gold in 2013. It started 2013 holding 1,349 tonnes of gold, and ended 2013 with 798 tonnes. At the end of March 2013, GLD held 1,221 tonnes, at the end of Q2 it held less than 1000 tonnes (passing through the 1000 tonne barrier on 18th June 2013. By the end of Q3 2013 (actually on 2nd October 2013) GLD held 900 tonnes. Then by the end of 2013 its gold holdings dipped below 800 tonnes. During 2014, GLD lost another 80 tonnes, taking it to 709 tonnes at December month-end 2014.

In Q2 2013, GLD was hammered. Its gold holdings went from 1,221 tonnes to 1078.5 tonnes in April, a loss of 143 tonnes, then down to 1,013.5 tonnes at the end of May, another 62 tonnes loss, and by the end of June it held 969.5 tonnes, a June loss of 43.5 tonnes. Overall in Q1 2013, GLD lost 128 tonnes, then 249 tonnes in Q2 (and 379 tonnes in H1), then 100 tonnes in Q3, and another 100 tonnes in Q4 2013 (200 tonnes in H2). The near rounded 100 tonne withdrawals from GLD in both Q3 and Q4 2013 are uncanny. As if someone said “let’s take another 100 tonnes out of GLD this quarter”.

The iShares Gold Trust (IAU) lost approximately 60 tonnes of gold in 2013. Assuming the mix of IAU gold holdings in 2013 across London, New York, and Toronto was the same as it is now (i.e with 56% of the gold in London, 41% in New York, and 3% in Toronto, then IAU would have lost about 34 tonnes from London. More of the IAU gold probably flowed out of the JP Morgan’s London vault in 2013 than the other IAU storage locations, because London is the world’s main gold market for Good Delivery bars, and furthermore, that is where the gold.

ETF Securities’ PHAU lost 52 tonnes in 2013. ETS Securities GBS ETF lost 42 tonnes. The ‘Source’ Gold ETF lost 31 tonnes.

The above shows that (561 + 34 + 52 + 42 + 31) = 720 tonnes of gold was withdrawn from London gold vaults in 2013 via ETF gold redemptions.  About 880 tonnes of gold in total was withdrawn from gold backed ETFs in 2013 but some of this was from ETF’s based in Switzerland and elsewhere.

Remember that the only entities which can usually redeem gold from gold backed ETFs are the Authorised Participants (APs), which in nearly all cases are the same banks as act as custodians or sub-custodians for those ETFs, and these are also the same banks that either have vaults in London or that have vaulting facilities in London, and these banks are also in a lot of cases members of the private gold clearing company London Precious Metals Clearing Limited (LPMCL) and lastly, these banks all hold gold accounts at the Bank of England.

Can ETF gold, such as GLD gold, be held in the Bank of England vaults?

Recalling that the amount of gold withdrawn from the Bank of England between 28th February 2013 and 28th February 2014 was 755 tonnes, can any of the gold that was withdrawn from the ETFs in 2013 have been the same gold that was in these the Bank of England withdrawals in 2013?

The answer is that technically, it can’t be the same gold because the ETFs are supposed to store their gold at the vault premises of the specified custodian. ETF gold can be stored at a vault of a sub-custodian, but has to be physically transferred to the vault of the custodian using “commercially reasonable efforts”.

According to the latest SPDR Gold Trust 10-K annual filing (and the 2013 version):

“Custody of the gold bullion deposited with and held by the Trust is provided by the Custodian at its London, England vaults. The Custodian will hold all of the Trust’s gold in its own vault premises except when the gold has been allocated in the vault of a subcustodian, and in such cases the Custodian has agreed that it will use commercially reasonable efforts promptly to transport the gold from the subcustodian’s vault to the Custodian’s vault, at the Custodian’s cost and risk.”

The subcustodians that the SPDR Gold Trust currently uses (and that it used during 2013) are “the Bank of England, The Bank of Nova Scotia-ScotiaMocatta, Barclays Bank PLC, Deutsche Bank AG, JPMorgan Chase Bank and UBS AG.”

These banks, along with HSBC,  but excluding Deutsche Bank, are the 5 members of London Precious Metals Clearing Limited (LPMCL). (Although the GLD Sponsor might want to think about deleting Deutsche Bank from the list).

Shockingly, the GLD Prospectus also says that:

“In accordance with LBMA practices and customs, the Custodian does not have written custody agreements with the subcustodians it selects.”

The GLD prospectus goes on to explain that LBMA custodians are obliged to provide gold holder entities with details (including locational details) of the gold that they or their subcustodians hold on behalf of a relevant entity gold holder that enquires,  but this is just based on “LBMA practices and customs”. It also states:

” Under English law, unless otherwise provided in any applicable custody agreement, a custodian generally is liable to its customer for failing to take reasonable care of the customer’s gold and for failing to release the customer’s gold upon demand.”

Coming from a background of equity and bond portfolio management, I find the fact that there are no custody agreements with the GLD gold subcustodians very odd. Custodians of financial assets such as Citibank, PNC, Northern Trust, and State Street, would all insist on having custody agreements with each other when appointing sub-custodians. To organise it in any other way is crazy.

This is something that GLD institutional and hedge fund investors should enquire about with World Gold Trust Services (the SPDR Gold Trust Sponsor) when performing their next set of due diligence exercises on the GLD, just to make sure they understand how the sub-custodian arrangements work. It does look like the gold in the LBMA system is acting like one big happy pool of gold..like the 1960s London Gold Pool.

All of the GLD annual and quarterly filings for 2013 and every year state, in the ‘Results of Operations” section, that “As of [Date], Subcustodians held nil ounces of gold in their vaults on behalf of the Trust.” For example:

“As at September 30, 2013, subcustodians held nil ounces of gold in their vaults on behalf of the Trust.”

The same is true for December 31, June 30, 2013, and March 31, 2013. The annual full gold bar audit undertaken on the SPDR Gold Trust would also suggest that no GLD gold is stored at sub-custodians, including the Bank of England. For example in the full 2013 GLD gold bar audit (click the exact link here -> //www.spdrgoldshares.com/media/GLD/file/Inspectorate_Certificate_Aug30_2013.pdf), it states that the location of the audit was the “London Vaults of HSBC Bank USA National Association“:

“We performed a full count of 77,709 bars of gold, based upon the gold inventory as at 28th June 2013, between 8th July and 29th August 2013 at the Custodian’s premises”

The bars were described as “77,709 London Good Delivery, large Gold Bars”.  There is also a separate partial audit on the GLD gold bars each year. The earlier partial audit of GLD in March 2013 stated that there was a random audit of the “105,840 London Good Delivery, large Gold Bars” held by the GLD “based upon the gold inventory as at 22nd February 2013, between the 4th March and 15th March“. This audit was also specified as occurring at the “London Vaults of HSBC Bank USA National Association”.

Although I don’t think the HSBC London vault was big enough to store all the GLD gold during 2013 when it held up to 1353 tonnes, as well as storing the ETFS Securities gold and other HSBC customer gold , the GLD audits and SEC filings seem to indicate that all the GLD gold was at the HSBC London vault.

Incidentally, the ETF Securities gold ETFs which also use HSBC as custodian, specify a list of subcustodians that includes the commercial security companies Brinks, Malca Amit and Via Mat (Loomis) in addition to the LPMCL members:

“The Bank of England, The Bank of Nova Scotia (ScotiaMocatta), Deutsche Bank AG, JPMorgan Chase Bank, N.A., UBS AG, Barclays Bank PLC, Brink’s Global Services Inc., ViaMat International and Malca-Amit Commodities Ltd.”

 As the Perth Mint’s Bron Suchecki pointed out in his personal blog in June 2014, central banks were net buyers of gold during 2013, not net sellers, so it appears that it was LBMA member banks with gold accounts at the Bank of England that were withdrawing gold bars from the Bank of England during 2013. Even the gold repatriated by the Central Bank of Venezuela in late 2011 and early 2012 appears to have been flown to Caracas from France and not from the Bank of England.

swiss

From March 2006 until February 2011, the amount of gold stored in custody at the Bank of England’s gold vaults rose by 2,065 tonnes (See Bron Suchecki’s table at the previous link). It then dipped by 68 tonnes from March 2011 to February 2012 before rising by another 722 tonnes from March 2012 to February 2013. That was a net 2,719 tonnes increase from March 2006 to February 2013. What percentage of this increase in custody gold holdings at the Bank of England was delivered by central bank customers and what percentage was delivered by LBMA bullion bank customers is unclear.

Then, as mentioned above, 755 tonnes of gold was withdrawn from the Bank of England between March 2013 and February 2014, and 355 tonnes withdrawn from March 2014 to February 2015.

If the ~720 tonnes of gold withdrawn from the gold backed London-based ETFs is not the same gold as was withdrawn from the Bank of England, then this means that (720 tonnes  + 755 tonnes) = 1475 tonnes of London Good Delivery bars came out of the London market in 2013.

Which is very interesting, because the UK exported approximately 1,400 tonnes of gold to Switzerland during 2013 (Eurostat – HS Code 7108.1200 “Unwrought Gold” – Source www.sharelynx.com).

Reuters also highlighted these 2013 exports in February 2014 when it quoted research from investment bank Macquarie from Eurostat:

“Australian bank Macquarie, citing trade data from EU statistics agency Eurostat, said the UK exported 1,739 tonnes of gold in 2013, with the vast majority sent to Switzerland.”

There is a possibility, as Bron Suchecki mentioned, that some of the Authorised Participants (APs) of the gold ETFs, which have gold accounts at the Bank of England, redeemed ETF shares for gold held at the London vaults of JP Morgan and HSBC, and that HSBC or JP Morgan transferred gold from their own accounts at the Bank of England to the gold accounts of the APs at the Bank of England, who then withdrew it.

But with over 1,400 tonnes of gold withdrawn from the London gold market in 2013 (since 1400 tonnes of gold was transported from the UK to Switzerland), this suggests that the gold that went to Switzerland in 2013 was in the form of Good Delivery bars from both the London based gold ETFs vaults (HSBC and JP Morgan), and from the Bank of England vaults.

As I will highlight in a forthcoming article (which will follow on from the recent “Moving the goalposts….The LBMA’s shifting stance on gold refinery production statistics“, a lot of this London gold exported to Switzerland from the UK in 2013 was sent to the large Swiss gold refineries to be transformed into very pure (9999 fine) smaller bars for the Asian market.

If the calculations above are correct about the 500,000 Good Delivery bars in the London vaults whittling down to about 130 tonnes of gold that’s not accounted for by ETFs and other known gold holders, and that’s not accounted for by the Bank of England vault holdings, then there is surely very little available and unencumbered gold right now in the London Gold Market.

This would explain however the following very recent information from the Financial Times on 2nd September 2015 when it said:

“The cost of borrowing physical gold in London has risen sharply in recent weeks. That has been driven by dealers needing gold to deliver to refineries in Switzerland before it is melted down and sent to places such as India, according to market participants.”

“‘[The rise] does indicate that there is physical tightness in the market for gold for immediate delivery’, said John Butler, analyst at Mitsubishi.”

And it begs the question, why do the dealers need to borrow, and who are they borrowing from. And if the gold is being borrowed and sent to Swiss refineries, and then shipped onward to India (and China), then when will the gold lenders get their gold back?