Eighteen months ago I wrote a short synopsis of a gold sales transaction by the central bank of El Salvador wherein it had sold 80% (about 5.5 tonnes) of its official gold reserves. The title of the post was “El Salvador’s gold reserves, the BIS, and the bullion banks“. If you thought, why the focus on the Banco Central de Reserva de El Salvador (BCR), it’s not a major player on the world gold market, you’d be correct, it’s not in its own right that important.
However, the point of the article was not to profile the gold transactions of a relatively obscure central bank in Central America, but to introduce the topic of central bank gold lending to LBMA bullion banks, and the use of short-term ‘gold deposits‘ offered by these bullion banks. The reason being is this is a very under-analysed topic and one which I will be devoting more time to in the future. Gold loans by central banks to bullion banks are one of the most opaque areas of the global gold market. The fact that I’m using the central bank of El Salvador as the example is immaterial, it’s just convenient since the BCR happens to report the details of its gold lending operations, unlike most central banks.
A Quick Recap
At the end of September 2014, the BCR claimed to hold 223,113 ozs of gold (6.94 tonnes), of which 189,646 ozs (5.9 tonnes) was held in the form of “deposits of physical gold” with the Bank for International Settlements (BIS), and 33,467 ozs (1.04 tonnes) which was held as “time deposits” of gold (up to 31 days) with 2 commercial bullion banks, namely Barclays Bank and the Bank of Nova Scotia.
The following table and all similar tables below are taken from the BCR’s ‘Statement of Assets backing the Liquidity Reserve’, or ‘Estado de Los Activos Que Respaldan la Reserva de Liquidez’, which it publishes every 3 months.
In November 2014, the BCR executed a small sale of 5007 ozs of its gold from its quantity held with the BIS, leaving a holding of 218,106 ozs (6.784 tonnes) as of 31 December 2014, comprising 184,639 ozs held in “deposits of physical gold” with the BIS, and 33,467 ozs of “time deposits” (of between 2 and 14 days duration) with 2 bullion banks, namely BNP Paribas and the Bank of Nova Scotia. Notice that as of the end of 2014, BNP Paribas was now holding one of the time deposits of gold, and that Barclays was not listed.
Notice also in the above table the tiny residual time deposit gold holding attributed to Standard Chartered Bank Plc. Rewind for a moment to 30 June 2014. At the end of June 2014, the BCR’s gold deposits were placed with 3 LBMA bullion banks, namely, Barclays, Bank of Nova Scotia, and Standard Chartered.
This is the way short-term gold deposit transactions work. A central bank places the short-term gold deposit with one of a small number of bullion banks, most likely at the Bank of England, and when the deposit expires after e.g. 1 month, the central bank places the deposit again, but not necessarily with the same bullion bank. The deposit rates on offer (by the bullion banks) and the placements by the central banks are communicated over a combination of Bloomberg terminals, or by phone and then the transactions are settled by Swift messages. More about the actual mechanics of this process in a future article.
BCR sold its gold at the BIS, put the rest on deposit
In March 2015, the BCR sold 174,000 ozs (5.412 tonnes ) of gold, which left El Salvador with 44,000 ozs. When I wrote about this transaction 18 months ago I had speculated that:
“Since the Salvadoreans had 189,646 ozs on deposit with the BIS and needed to sell 179,000 ozs, the gold sold was most definitely sold to the BIS or to another party with the BIS acting as agent.
It would not make sense to sell some or all of the time deposits that are out with the bullion banks such as Barclays and Scotia, since a large chunk of the BCR gold at the BIS would have to be sold also. It would be far easier to just deal with one set of transactions at the BIS.
The above would leave the time deposits of 33,467 ozs (and accrued interest) out with the bullion banks, rolling over each month as usual. The other roughly 11,000 ozs that the BCR held with the BIS could be left with the BIS, or else this too could be put out on deposit with the bullion banks.”
This speculation turns out to have been correct. By 31 March 2015, the BCR held 10,639 ozs of gold “deposits of physical gold” with the BIS, and the same 33,467 ozs of “time deposits“, but this time split evenly between BNP Paribas and Barclays. The entire 174,000 ozs of gold sold came from the “deposits of physical gold” that El Salvador held with the BIS.
By 30 June 2015, the central bank of El Salvador had moved its remaining 10,639 ozs of “deposits of physical gold” from the BIS, and placed it into “time deposits” with bullion banks, with the entire 44,106 ozs being evenly split across Bank of Nova Scotia, BNP Parias and Standard Chartered, each holding 14,702 ozs.
Over the 12 months from end of June 2014 to 30 June 2015, a combination of at least 4 LBMA bullion banks, namely, Barclays, Bank of Nova Scotia, Standard Chartered and BNP Paribas were holding short-term gold deposits on behalf of the central bank of El Salvador. I say at least 4 banks, because there could have been more. The snapshots every 3 months only reveal which banks held gold deposits on those dates, not the full list of deposits that could have been placed and matured over each 3 month period.
These time deposits are essentially obligations by the bullion bank in question to repay the central bank that amount of gold. The original gold which was first deposited into the LBMA system could have been sold, lent or otherwise encumbered. It has become a credit in the LBMA unallocated gold system. Ultimately it needs to be paid back to the central bank by whichever bullion bank holds the deposit when the central bank decides that it no longer wants to roll its short-term deposits. This is why the anology of pass the parcel is a suitable one.
Looking at the more recent 3 monthly snapshots from September 2015 to June 2016, the same 4 LBMA bullion bank names were still holding the BCR’s gold deposits, namely Bank of Nova Scotia, Barclays, Standard Chartered and BNP Paribas.
As of 30 September 2015 – Bank of Nova Scotia, Barclays and BNP Paribas, evenly split between the 3 of them.
On 31 December 2015 – Bank of Nova Scotia, BNP Paribas, and Standard Chartered, evenly split between the 3 of them.
On 30 March 2016 – Bank of Nova Scotia and BNP Paribas, evenly split between the 2 of them.
On 30 June 2016, the BCR gold deposits were held by Bank of Nova Scotia and BNP Paribas, evenly spilt between the 2. The 30 June 2016 file on the BCR website doesn’t open correctly so this data was taken from the Google cache of the file.
IMF Reporting standards
Finally, let’s take a quick look at what monetary gold and gold deposits actually are, as defined by the International Monetary Fund (IMF).
“Monetary gold is gold owned by the authorities and held as a reserve asset. Monetary Gold is a reserve asset for which there is no outstanding financial liability”, IMF Balance of Payments Manual (BPM)
In April 2006, Hidetoshi Takeda, of the IMF Statistics Department published a short opinion paper on the ‘Treatment of Gold Swaps and Gold Deposits (loans)‘ on behalf of the Reserve Assets Technical Expert Group (RESTEG) of the IMF Committee on Balance of Payments (BoP) Statistics. The paper was called “Issues Paper (RESTEG) #11“. In the Issues paper, Takeda states:
“monetary authority make gold deposits ‘to have their bullion physically deposited with a bullion bank, which may use the gold for trading purpose in world gold markets‘”
“‘The ownership of the gold effectively remains with the monetary authorities, which earn interest on the deposits, and the gold is returned to the monetary authorities on maturity of the deposits'”
” Balance of Payments Manual, fifth Edition (BPM5) is silent on the treatment of gold deposits/loans. However, the Guidelines states that, “To qualify as reserve assets, gold deposits must be available upon demand to the monetary authorities”
You can see from the above that once the gold balance that is represented by the gold deposit is under the control of a bullion bank as a unallocated balance, then it becomes an asset of the bullion bank and can be used in subsequent bullion bank transactions, such as being lent again, or used to support its trading book, etc.
The big question is whether the gold as represented by the gold deposit is available on demand by the central bank which lent it. For ‘available on demand’ think using an ATM or walking into your local bank and withdrawing some cash from your account. It’s as simple as that.
“Regarding the statistical treatment of gold deposits/loans, keeping the status quo is suggested. That is, if the deposited/loaned gold is available upon demand to the monetary authorities, it can be included in reserve assets as monetary gold. However, if the gold is not available upon demand, it should be removed from reserve assets“
Takeda’s paper also covers the topic of “Double counting of gold from outright sales of gold acquired through gold swaps or gold deposits/loans” where he says logically:
“double counting of gold can occur when a bullion bank sells outright gold acquired through gold deposits/loans from… monetary authorities”
If the gold sold is not removed from the central bank’s balance sheet, it could:
“pose a problem when international statistical standards allow swapped/deposited gold to remain in the reserve assets of the gold provider.”
Given that nothing has changed in the IMF’s reporting standards since 2006, i.e. the IMF did not take on board Takeda’s recommendations on gold loan accounting treatment, and given that all central banks still report gold as one line item of “gold and goldreceivables”, then you can see how these gold deposits that are being continually rolled over by central banks using a small number of LBMA bullion banks based in London a) are being double counted if the gold involved has been sold, b) only represent claims by a central bank on a bullion bank, and c) allow bullion banks to increase their unallocated balances which can then be used in myriad leveraged and hypothecated ‘gold’ trading transactions
If you think 4 LBMA bullion banks passing a parcel of central bank gold claims around between them is excessive, wait until you see 28 bullion banks doing the same thing! Coming soon in a future article.
Welcome to the twilight zone of IMF gold sales, where transparency really means secrecy, where on-market is off-market, and where IMF gold sales documents remain indefinitely “classified” and out of public view due to the “sensitivity of the subject matter”.
Off and On Market
Between October 2009 and December 2010, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) claims to have sold a total of 403.3 tonnes of gold at market prices using a combination of ‘off-market’ sales and ‘on-market’ sales. ‘Off-market’ gold sales are gold sales to either central banks or other official sector gold holders that are executed directly between the parties, facilitated by an intermediary. For now, we will park the definition of ‘on-market’ gold sales, since as you will see below, IMF ‘on-market’ gold sales in reality are nothing like the wording used to describe them. In total, this 403.3 tonnes of gold was purportedly sold so as to boost IMF financing arrangements as well as to facilitate IMF concessional lending to the world’s poorest countries. As per its Articles of Agreement, IMF gold sales have to be executed at market prices.
Critically, the IMF claimed on numerous occasions before, during and after this 15-month sales period that its gold sales process would be ‘Transparent’. In fact, the concept of transparency was wheeled out by the IMF so often in reference to these gold sales, that it became something of a mantra. As we will see below, there was and is nothing transparent about the IMF’s gold sales process, but most importantly, the IMF blocked and continues to block access to crucial IMF board documents and papers that would provide some level of transparency about these gold sales.
Strauss-Kahn – Yes, that guy
On 18 September 2009, the IMF announced that its Executive Board had approved the sale of 403.3 metric tonnes of gold. Prior to these sales, the IMF officially claimed to hold 3217.3 tonnes of gold. Commenting on the gold sales announcement, notable party attendee and then IMF Managing Director Dominique Strauss-Kahn stated:
“These sales will be conducted in a responsible and transparent manner that avoids disruption of the gold market.”
The same IMF announcement on 18 September 2009 also stated that:
“As one of the elements of transparency, the Fund will inform markets before any on-market sales commence. In addition, the Fund will report regularly to the public on the progress with the gold sales.”
On 2 November 2009, the IMF announced the first transaction in its gold sales process, claiming that it had sold 200 tonnes of gold to the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) in what it called an ‘off-market’ transaction. This transaction was said to have been executed over 10 trading days between Monday 19 November to Friday 30 November with sales transactions priced each day at market prices prevailing on that day. On average, the 200 tonne sales transaction would amount to 20 tonnes per day over a 10 day trading period.
Note that the Reserve Bank of India revealed in 2013 that this 200 tonne gold purchase had merely been a book entry transfer, and that the purchased gold was accessible for use in a US Dollar – Gold swap, thereby suggesting that the IMF-RBI transaction was executed for gold held at the Bank of England in London, which is the only major trading center for gold-USD swaps. As a Hindu Business Line article stated in August 2013:
“According to RBI sources, the gold that India bought never came into the country as the transaction was only a book entry. The gold was purchased for $6.7 billion, in cash.”
“The Reserve Bank of India bought 200 tonnes of gold for $1,045 an ounce from the IMF four years ago. The Government can swap it for US dollars,” said [LBMA Chairman David] Gornall.”
Two weeks after the Indian purchase announcement in November 2009, another but far smaller off-market sale was announced by the IMF on 16 November 2009, this time a sale of 2 tonnes of gold to the Bank of Mauritius (the Mauritian central bank), said to have been executed on 11 November 2009. Another two weeks after this, on 25 November 2009, the IMF announced a third official sector sales transaction, this time a sale of 10 tonnes of gold to the Central Bank of Sri Lanka.
Overall, these 3 sales transactions, to the Reserve Bank of India, Bank of Mauritius and the Central Bank of Sri Lanka, totalled 212 tonnes of gold, and brought the IMF’s remaining official gold holdings down to 3005.3 tonnes at the end of 2009, leaving 191.3 tonnes of the 403.3 tonnes remaining to sell. All 3 of the above announcements by the IMF were accompanied by the following statement:
“The Fund will inform markets before any on-market sales commence, and will report regularly to the public on progress with the gold sales.”
For nearly 3 months from late November 2009, there were no other developments with the IMF’s gold sales until 17 February 2010, at which point the IMF announced that it was to begin the ‘on-market’ portion of its gold sales program. At this stage you might be wondering what the IMF’s on-market gold sales consisted of, which ‘market’ it referred to, how were the sales marketed, who the buyers were, and who executed the sales transactions. You would not be alone in wondering about these and many other related questions.
The IMF’s press releases of 17 February 2010, titled ‘IMF to Begin On-Market Sales of Gold’ was bereft of information and merely stated that the IMF would “shortly initiate the on-market phase of its gold sales program” following “the approach adopted successfully by the central banks participating in the Central Bank Gold Agreement“, and that the sales would be “conducted in a phased manner over time”. The third Central Bank Gold Agreement (CBGA) ran from September 2009 to September 2014. These CBGA’s, which have been running since September 1999, ostensibly claim to support and not disrupt the gold market but in reality have, in their entirety, been highly secretive operations where vast amounts of central bank and official sector gold is channeled via the BIS to unspecified buyers in the bullion banks or central bank space, with the operations having all the hallmarks of gold price stabilization operations, and/or official sector gold redistribution between the world’s developed and emerging market central banks.
The February 2010 announcement also made the misleading claim that “the IMF will continue to provide regular updates on progress with the gold sales through its normal reporting channels”. These regular updates have never happened.
The IMF publicly announced each official sale shortly after the transaction was concluded. A high degree of transparency will continue during the sales of gold on the market, in order to assure markets that the sales are being conducted in a responsible manner.”
However, following this February 2010 lip service to transparency, there were no direct updates from the IMF exclusively about the on-market gold sales, even after the entire gold sales program had completed in December 2010.
One further IMF ‘off-market’ gold sale transaction was announced on 9 September 2010. This was a sale of 10 tonnes of gold to Bangladesh Bank (the Bangladeshi central bank) with the transaction said to have been executed on 7 September 2010. Adding this 10 tonnes to the previous 212 tonnes of off-market sales meant that 222 tonnes of the 403.3 tonne total was sold to central banks, with the remaining 181.3 tonnes sold via ‘on-market’ transactions. The Bangladesh announcement was notable in that it also revealed that “as of end July 2010, a further 88.3 metric tons had been sold under the on-market sales announced in February 2010″. The addition of Bangladesh to the off-market buyer list that already consisted of India, Sri Lanka and Mauritius also resulted in the quite bizarre situation where the only off-market buyers of IMF comprised 4 countries that have extremely close historical, political, cultural and economic connections with each other. Three of these countries, India, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, are represented at the IMF by the same Executive Director, who from November 2009 was Arvind Virmani, so their buying decisions were most likely coordinated through Virmani and probably through the Reserve Bank of India as well.
“The International Monetary Fund (IMF) announced today the conclusion of the limited sales program covering 403.3 metric tons of gold that was approved by the Executive Board in September 2009.”
“The gold sales were conducted under modalities to safeguard against disruption of the gold market. All gold sales were at market prices, including direct sales to official holders.”
‘Modalities’ in this context just means the attributes of the sales including the approach to the gold sales, i.e. the sales strategy. This brief announcement on 21 December 2010 was again bereft of any factual information such as which market was used for the ‘on-market’ gold sales, the identity of executing brokers, the identity of counterparties, transaction dates, settlement dates / deferred settlement dates, method of sale, information on whether bullion was actually transferred between parties, publication of weight lists, and other standard sales transaction details. Contrast this secrecy to the 1976 -1980 IMF gold sales which were conducted by a very public series auction, and which were covered in minute details by the financial publications of the time.
As usual with its treatment of official sector gold transactions, the World Gold Council’s Gold Demand Trends report, in this case its Q4 2010 report, was absolutely useless as a source of information about the IMF gold sales beyond regurgitating the press release details, and there was no discussion on how the gold was sold, who the agent was, who the buyers were etc etc.
Lip Service to Transparency
When the IMF’s ‘on-market’ sales of 191.3 tonnes of gold commenced in February – March 2010, there were attempts from various quarters to try to ascertain actual details of the sales process. Canadian investment head Eric Sprott even expressed interest in purchasing the entire 191.3 tonnes on behalf of the then newly IPO’d Sprott Physical Gold ETF. However, Sprott’s attempts to purchase the gold were refused by the IMF, and related media queries attempting to clarify the actual sales process following the IMF’s blockade of Sprott were rebuffed by the IMF.
A Business Insider article from 6 April 2010, written by Vince Veneziani and titled “Sorry Eric Sprott, There’s No Way You’re Buying Gold From The IMF”, lays out the background to this bizarre stone-walling and lack of cooperation by the IMF. Business Insider spoke to Alistair Thomson, the then external relations officer at the IMF (now Deputy Chief of Internal Communications, IMF), and asked Thomson why Sprott could not purchase the gold that was supposedly available in the ‘on-market’ sales. Thomson’s reply is summarised below:
“The IMF is only selling gold though a qualified agent. There is only one of these agents at the moment and due to the nature of the gold market, they won’t reveal who or what that agent is.”
“Sprott can’t buy the gold directly because they do not deal with institutional clients like hedge funds, pension funds, etc. The only buyers can be central bankers and sovereign nations, that sort of thing.”
The IMF board agreed months ago how they wanted to approach the sale of the gold. Sprott is welcome to buy from central banks who have bought from the IMF, but not from the IMF directly.”
While this initial response from the IMF’s Alistair Thomson contradicted the entire expectation of the global gold market which had been earlier led to believe that the ‘on-market’ gold sales were just that, sales of gold to the market, on the market, Thomson’s reply did reveal that the IMF’s ‘on-market’ gold sales appeared to be merely an exercise in using an agent, most likely the Bank for International Settlements (BIS) gold trading desk, to transfer IMF gold to a central bank or central banks that wished to remain anonymous, and not go through the publicity of the ‘off-market’ transfer process.
Although, as per usual, the servile and useless mainstream media failed to pick up on this story, the IMF’s unsatisfactory and contradictory response was deftly dissected by Chris Powell of GATA in a dispatch, also dated 6 April 2010. After discussing the IMF’s initial reply with Eric Sprott and GATA, Business Insider’s Vince Veneziani then went back to IMF spokesman Alistair Thomson with a series of reasonable and totally legitimate questions about the ‘on-market’ gold sales process.
What are the incentives for the IMF not to sell gold on the open market or to investors, be it institutional or retail?
Did gold physically change hands with the banks you have sold to so far or was the transaction basically bookkeeping stuff (the IMF still holds the physical gold in this case)?
Are there available records on the actual serial numbers of bullion? How is the gold at the IMF tracked and accounted for?
Does IMF support a need for total transparency in the sale of gold despite the effects it could have on various markets?
Shockingly, Alistair Thomson, supposedly the IMF press officer responsible for answering the public’s queries about IMF finances (including gold sales), arrogantly and ignorantly refused to answer any of the questions, replying:
“I looked through your message; we don’t have anything more for you on this.”
Another example of the world of IMF transparency, where black is white and white is black, and where press officers who have formerly worked in presstitute financial media organisations such as Thomson Reuters fit in nicely to the IMF’s culture of aloofness, status quo protection, and lack of accountability to the public.
Monthly Report on Sales of Gold on the Market
Fast forward to July 2015. While searching for documents in the IMF online archives related to these gold sales, I found 3 documents dated 2010, titled “Monthly Report on Sales of Gold on the Market“. Specifically, the 3 documents are as follows (click on links to open):
Each of these 3 documents is defined by the IMF as a Staff Memorandum (SM), which are classified as ‘Executive Board Documents’ under its disclosure policy. The IMF Executive Board consists of 24 directors in addition to the IMF Managing Director, who was in 2009 the aforementioned Dominique Strauss-Kahn. According to the IMF’s Executive Board synopsis web page, the board “carries out its work largely on the basis of papers prepared by IMF management and staff.”
The most interesting observation about these 3 documents, apart from their contents which we’ll see below, is the fact that only 3 of these documents are accessible in the IMF archives, i.e. the documents only run up to May 2010, and do not include similar documents covering the remainder of the ‘on-market’ sales period (i.e. May – December 2010). Therefore there are 7 additional monthly reports missing from the archives. That there are additional documents that have not been published was confirmed to me by IMF Archives staff – see below.
Each of the 3 reports is only 3 pages long, and each report follows a similar format. The first report spans February – March 2010, specifically from 18 February 2010 to 17 March 2010, and covers the following:
“summarizes developments in the first month of the on-market sales, covering market developments, quantities sold and average prices realized, and a comparison with widely used benchmarks, i.e., the average of London gold market fixings“
‘Market developments’ refers to a brief summary in graphical chart of the London fixing prices in US Dollars over the period in question. Quantities sold and the currency composition of sales are notable:
Sales Volume and Proceeds: A total of 515,976.638 troy ounces (16.05 metric tons) of gold was sold during the period February 18 to March 17. These sales generated proceeds of SDR 376.13 million (US$576.04 million), based on the Fund’s representative exchange rates prevailing on the day of each sale transaction.
Currency Composition of Proceeds: Sales were conducted in the four currencies included in the SDR valuation basket …., with the intention of broadly reflecting the relative quota shares of these currencies over the course of the sales program.
The 4 currencies in which the sales were conducted during the first month were USD, EUR, GBP and JPY. See table 1 in the document for more information. Perhaps the most revealing point in each document is the confirmation of the use of an agent and specifically an arrangement that the sales prices included a premium paid by the agent:
Sales Prices compared with Benchmarks: The sales were implemented as specified in the agreement with the agent. Sales were conducted at prices incorporating a premium paid by the agent over the London gold fixing, and for sales settled in currencies other than the U.S. dollar, the sales price also reflects market exchange rates at the time of the London gold fixings (10:30 am and 3:00 pm GMT), net of a cost margin.
The use of a premium over the London fixing price is very revealing because this selling strategy, where the agent paid a premium over the average London gold fixing price, is identical to the sales arrangement which the Swiss National Bank (SNB) agreed with the Bank for International Settlements (BIS) when the BIS acted as sales agent for SNB gold sales over the period May 2000 to March 2001.
As Philipp Hildebrand, ex-governor of the SNB, revealed in 2005 when discussing the SNB gold sales strategy that had been used in 2000-2001:
“At the outset, the SNB decided to use the BIS as its selling agent. Between May 2000 and March 2001, the BIS sold 220 tonnes on behalf of the SNB. For the first 120 tonnes, the SNB paid the BIS a fixed commission while the performance risk resided with the SNB. For the next 100 tonnes, the BIS agreed to pay the average price of the AM and PM London gold fixing plus a small fixed premium.“
My conclusion is therefore that the IMF also used the Bank for International Settlements in Basel, Switzerland as selling agent for its ‘on-market’ gold sales over the period February to December 2010, with the sales benchmarked to average London fixing prices in the London Gold Market.
The pertinent details for the IMF’s March – April sales document are as follows:
“A total of 516,010.977 troy ounces (16.05 metric tons) of gold was sold during the period March 18 to April 16.”
“Sales were conducted in three of the four currencies included in the SDR valuation basket” i.e. USD, EUR and JPY”
The relevant details from the April – May sales document are as follows:
“A total of 490,194.747 troy ounces (15.25 metric tons) of gold was sold during the period April 19 to May 18, 2010; no sales were conducted during the last two business days in April, owing to end of financial year audit considerations.”
“Sales were conducted in three of the four currencies included in the SDR valuation basket” i.e. USD, GBP and JPY
Purely a Pricing Exercise?
The entire ‘on-market’ gold sales program of 181.3 tonnes may well have been just a pricing exercise by the Bank for International Settlements gold trading desk to determine the market prices at which to execute the transfers, with the gold transferring ownership after the event as book entry transfers at the Bank of England in the same manner as was applied to the Indian ‘off-market’ purchase of 200 tonnes.
Taking the sales quantities in the 3 published monthly reports, and incorporating quarterly IMF gold holdings time series data from the World Gold Council, it’s possible to calculate how much gold was ‘sold’ each single day over the entire ‘on-market’ gold sales program. As it turns out, for much of the program’s duration, identical quantities of gold were sold each and every day. The ‘on-market’ program commenced on 18 February 2010. Between 18 February and 17 March, which was a period of 20 trading days in the London gold market, the agent sold 515,976.638 troy ounces (16.05 metric tons) of gold. Between 18 March and 16 April, which was also a trading period of 20 trading days (even after factoring in 2 Easter bank holidays), the agent sold a practically identical quantity of 516,010.977 troy ounces (also 16.05 metric tons). This is a daily sales rate of 25,800 ozs or 0.8025 tonnes per trading day over these 40 trading days.
During the period from 19 April to 18 May 2010, which was 19 trading days excluding the 3rd May UK bank holiday and excluding the last 2 trading days of April on which the IMF program didn’t trade, the agent sold 490,194.747 troy ounces (15.25 metric tons) of gold, which again is…wait for it… 0.8025 tonnes and 25,800 ozs per day (0.8025 * 19 = 15.2475 tonnes & 25,800 * 19 = 490,200 ozs).
Following the combined Indian, Mauritian, and Sri Lankan ‘off-market’ purchases of 212 tonnes during Q4 2009, the IMF’s gold holdings stood at 3,005.32 tonnes at the end of 2009. Based on World Gold Council (WGC) quarterly data of world official gold reserves, the IMF’s gold holdings then decreased as follows during 2010:
…resulting in total remaining gold holdings of 2,814.04 tonnes at the end of 2010, an IMF gold holdings figure which remains unchanged to this day.
These WGC figures tally with the IMF monthly report figures. For example, the IMF says that 16.05 tonnes was sold up to and including 17 March, and with another 10 trading days in March 2010, a further 8.205 tonnes (0.8025 daily sales * 10) was sold by the end of March, giving total Q1 sales of 16.05 + 8.025 = 24.075 tonnes, which is identical to the WGC quarterly change figure. The IMF was active on 59 trading days in Q2 during which it sold 47.34 tonnes, which…wait for it…was an average of 0.8024 tonnes per day (47.34 / 59 = 0.8024).
Therefore, over Q1 and Q2 2010 (i.e. between February and the end of June 2010), the ‘on-market’ sales program sold 71.42 tonnes at a consistent ~ 0.8025 tonnes daily rate. This would suggest an algorithmic program trade which offered identical quantities each and every day, or more likely just priced these quantities so as to arrive at a sales consideration amount so that the IMF would receive ‘market prices’ for its gold. Recall that IMF gold has to be sold at market prices according to the Fund’s Articles of Agreement.
Given that 88.3 tonnes had been sold ‘on-market’ by the end of July 2010 as the IMF revealed in its Bangladesh announcement, we can infer that 16.88 tonnes was sold ‘on-market’ during July 2010. This 16.88 tonne sale in July was actually at a slightly lower pace than previous months since there were 22 trading days in July 2010, however the figure was chosen due to the following: With 191.3 tonnes on sale at the outset of the ‘on-market’ program, and 71.42 tonnes sold by the end of June, this left 119.88 tonnes to sell at the end of June. Whoever was choosing the monthly sales quantities wanted to finish July with a round figure of 103 tonnes, and so chose 16.88 tonnes to sell in July (i.e. 119.88 – 16.88 = 103 tonnes). Subtracting the 10 tonnes that Bangladesh bought in September 2010 (which would have been also factored in at that time) left a round 93 tonnes (2.999 million ozs) to sell as of the beginning of August.
The Q3 2010 sales of 67.66tonnes comprised the 10 tonne ‘off-market’ sale to Bangladesh on 7 September and 57.66 tonnes of on-market sales. Given 16.88 tonnes sold in on-market sales in July, there was therefore 40.78 tonnes sold over August – September, or an average of 20.39 tonnes in each of August and September (which represented a combined 43 trading days). Overall, there were 65 trading days in Q3 and 58 trading days in Q4 (assuming that the sales wrapped up on 21 December as per the IMF announcement). From the beginning of August to the 21 December, a period of 101 trading days, the IMF sold the remaining 93 tonnes, which would be a daily sales pace of 0.93 tonnes per day.
So overall, the IMF’s 403.3 tonnes of gold sales between November 2009 and December 2010 consisted of 222 tonnes sold ‘off-market’ to India, Bangladesh, Sri lanka, and Mauritius, 88.3 tonnes sold ‘on-market’ between February and July 2010, and 93 tonnes sold ‘on-market’ between August and December 2010′.
Given that the IMF’s 4 gold depositories are the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, the Bank of England in London, the Banque de France in Paris and the Reserve Bank of India in Nagpur India, and given that the IMF gold in New York is mostly in the form of US Assay Office melts, and the gold in Nagpur is a hodgepodge of mostly low quality old gold (read non-good delivery gold), then it would be logical for the IMF to sell some of its good delivery gold which is stored in London (which, until at least the late 1970s, was predominantly held in the form of Rand Refinery 400 oz gold bars), or even in Paris, since the Banque de France has been engaged in an ongoing program of upgrading the old US Assay office gold bars in its custody to good delivery bars.
“Our bars are not all LGD [London Good Delivery quality], but we have an ongoing improvement programme.”
This Banque de France gold bar upgrading program was also confirmed in February 2011 in a National Geographic Magazine article which stated:
“Buyers don’t want the beat-up American gold. In a nearby room pallets of it are being packed up and shipped to an undisclosed location, where the bars will be melted down and recast in prettier forms.”
Top Secret Foot Notes
There are 2 interesting footnotes on page 1 or each of the 3 above documents. The first footnote states that ‘The Executive Board was briefed on the plans for on-market sales prior to the announcement’, the announcement in question being the IMF’s 17 February 2010 announcement IMF to Begin On-Market Sales of Gold.
The second footnote, which is a footnote to a sales process and sales performance summary, refers to 2 further IMF papers as follows: “Modalities for Limited Sales of Gold by the Fund (SM/09/243, 9/4/09) and DEC/14425-(09/97), 9/18/09“.
As mentioned above, SM are Staff Memorandums which are classed under Executive Board Documents. DEC series document are ‘Text of Board Decisions’ (hence the DEC) and these documents are also deemed to be Executive Board Documents. After searching for both of these documents (SM/09/243 and DEC/14425-(09/97)) in the IMF archives, it became apparent that they were not there, i.e. they were not returned and not retrievable under IMF archive search results.
This was surprisingly since the IMF claims to have what it calls its “IMF Open Archives Policy”, part of which is Article IX, Section 5, which is the “Review of the Fund’s Transparency Policy—Archives Policy“. This policy, prepared by the IMF Legal Department includes the following:
Access will be given as follows:
2. (i) Executive Board documents that are over 3 years old
(ii) Minutes of Executive Board meetings that are over 5 years old;
(iv) Other documentary materials maintained in Fund archives over 20 years old.
3. Access to Fund documents specified in paragraph 2 above that are classified as “Secret” or “Strictly Confidential” as of the date of this Decision will be granted only upon the Managing Director’s consent to their declassification. It is understood that this consent will be granted in all instances but those for which, despite the passage of time, it is determined that the material remains highly confidential or sensitive.
Given that the 2 above gold sales documents, as well as 7 other monthly reports about ‘on-market’ gold sales were missing from the archives, but all the while the IMF claimed its on-market gold sales to be “Transparent”, the next logical step was to contact the IMF Archives people and seek explanations. What follows below is the correspondence I had with the IMF Archives staff. The IMF Archives staff were very helpful and their responses were merely communicating what they had found in their systems or had been told ‘from above’. My questions and emails are in blue text. The IMF replies are in red text. My first set of queries were about the SM/09/243 and DEC/14425 documents:
02 August 2015: My first question
I’m looking for IMF document SM/09/243 “Modalities for Limited Sales of Gold by the Fund” (Sept 4th 2009) in the IMF Archives catalog (http://archivescatalog.imf.org/search.aspx). However, SM/09/243 does not appear to be in the online Archives.
But, for example SM/09/242 and SM/09/244 are both retrievable in the searchable archives, but not SM/09/243.
Can you clarify where SM/09/243 is?
02 August 2015: My second question
Could you clarify how to search for and retrieve a document in the IMF online Archives that has reference “DEC/14425-(09/97)”
This document is dated 9/18/09. I cannot find it using any of the search parameters.
3 August: IMF Archives reply
Thank you for contacting the IMF Archives. Both documents you are referring to in your recent communication, SM/09/243 and DEC/14425, are not available to the public. Please visit our website to consult on IMF Policy on Access to the Archives.
3 August: me
Can you clarify why these documents are not available to the public? i.e. have they received a certain classification?
4 August: IMF Archives
You are absolutely right, despite the time rule, these two documents are still closed because of the information security classification. We hope it answers your question.
4 August: me
Thanks for answer. Would you happen to know when (and if) these files will be available…..assuming it’s not a 20 year rule or anything like that.
5 August: IMF Archives
Could you please provide some background information about your affiliation and the need to obtain these documents. Classified documents undergo declassification process when such a request is submitted. It can be a lengthy process up to one year.
5 August: me
I was interested in these specific documents because I am researching IMF gold sales for various articles and reports that I’m planning to write.
6 Aug: IMF
Thank you for providing additional information regarding your inquiry. Please send us a formal request for the declassification of these two documents specifying your need to have access to them. We will follow through on your behalf and get back to you with a response.
Before I had replied with a formal request, the IMF archives people contacted me again on 12 August 2015 as follows:
12 Aug: IMF
While waiting for your official request we made preliminary inquiries regarding the requested documents. The decision communicated back to us is not to declassify these documents because of the sensitivity of the subject matter.
Thank you for the clarification. That’s surprising about the classification given that the IMF on-market gold sales were supposed to be transparent.
Was there any information fed back to Archives on why the ‘subject matter’ is deemed sensitive?
14 Aug: IMF Archives
“Thank you for your follow-up email. Unfortunately, these particular documents are still deemed classified and no further explanation has been communicated to the Archives.”
My next set of questions to IMF Archives in August 2015 addressed the 7 missing monthly gold sales reports that should have covered May – December 2010. Since there is a 3 year rule or maybe at max a 5 year rule under the IMF’s Transparency Policy (Archive Policy), I thought that maybe the May/June, June/July, and July/August 2010 files might be due for automatic release under the 5 year rule by the end of August 2015.
22 August 2015: Me:
“I have a question about documents which appear in the online Archive after the 5 year schedule.
Is there a scheduled update or similar which puts newly available documents in the Archive when the 5 years has elapsed?
For example, I see some documents in the Archive from June 2010, but not July/August 2010. Is there an automated process that runs, but that hasn’t yet run for July/August 2010, that puts the latest documents into the publicly available Archive?”
24 August: IMF
“Thank you for your inquiry. The review and declassification of eligible documents that meet the time rule is done by batches. Therefore, publication does not happen in real time. It is a process that takes time and might cause a delay. We will let you know when July and August documents are posted.”
2 October 2015: me
“Do you know when documents from June 2010 onwards will be added to the IMF online archive? I still don’t see any yet.
Is there a batch of declassifications for June 2010 / July 2010 / August 2010 happening soon?”
2 October: IMF
“Thank you for contacting the IMF Archives. Unfortunately, we are unable to speculate about the documents website availability and provide a more specific timeframe than the one already communicated in the attached correspondence. As already promised, we will let you know when July and August documents are posted.”
Then about 30 minutes later (on 2 October 2015) the IMF sent me another email:
2 October: IMF
“Dear Mr. Manly,
I ran a sample search of Executive Board minutes available via IMF Archives catalog and was able to find minutes issued in June and July 2010. Is there a specific document you are looking for which you are unable to find?
2 October: Me
“I was searching for the next months’ reports in the below series, report name “Monthly Report on Sales of Gold on the Market” – see screenshot attached.
The current search retrieval brings back 3 reports spanning February- May 2010, but nothing after May 2010. Report names in the retrieved search results are:
SM/10/69 SM/10/102 SM/10/139”
I was wondering if a couple of months in this series after May 2010 are available now?”
5 October: IMF
“The reports after May 2010 haven’t been declassified for public access because of the sensitivity of the subject matter, and therefore they are not available for retrieval.
We apologize for any inconvenience this may cause.”
5 October: Me
“Thanks for the reply. Out of interest, why were the reports from February to May 2010 declassified, since surely the June-December 2010 monthly reports are identical to the first three months in that they are also just providing monthly updates on the same batch of gold ~180 tonnes of gold which was being sold over the 10 month period?”
7 October: IMF
“Dear Mr. Manly,
This series of reports is under review at the moment, and according to security classification they are currently closed.
And there you have it folks. This is IMF transparency. As per the IMF Archive disclosure policy, only Christine Lagarde, current IMF Managing Director, has the authority to consent to the declassification of classified Executive Board documents.
Sensitivity of Subject Matter – China and Bullion Banks
The above IMF responses speak for themselves, but in summary, here we have an organization which claims to be transparent and which claims to have run a transparent ‘on-market’ gold sales program in 2010, but still after more than 6 years it is keeping a large number of documents about the very same gold sales classified and inaccessible to the public due to the ‘sensitivity of the subject matter’. What could be so sensitive in the contents of these documents that the IMF has to keep them classified? Matters of national security? Matters of international security? And why such extremely high level security for an asset that was recently described by the august Wall Street Journal as a ‘Pet Rock’?
The secrecy of keeping these documents classified could hardly be because of sensitivity over the way in which the sales were executed by the agent, since this was already revealed in the February – May reports that are published, and which looks like a normal enough gold sales program by the Bank for International Settlements on behalf of the IMF? Could it be to do with the identities of the counterparties, i.e. the buyer(s) of the gold? I think that is the most likely reason.
Two counterparties that spring to mind that might request anonymity in the ridiculously named ‘on-market’ sales process would be a) the Chinese State / Peoples Bank of China, and b) a group of bullion banks that were involved in gold swaps with the BIS in 2009/2010.
Chinese discretion – Market Speculation and Volatility
Bearing in mind another one of the IMF’s mantras during the 2009-2010 gold sales processes that it wanted to “avoid disruption of the gold market”, and the Chinese State’s natural surreptitiousness, the following information reported by China Daily on 24 February 2010 (which was the first week of ‘on-market’ sales) is worth considering. The article, titled ‘China unlikely to buy gold from the IMF‘, stated the following:
“Contrary to much speculation China may not buy the International Monetary Fund’s (IMF) remaining 191.3 tons of gold which is up for sale as it does not want to upset the market, a top industry official told China Daily yesterday.
“It is not feasible for China to buy the IMF bullion, as any purchase or even intent to do so would trigger market speculation and volatility,” said the official from the China Gold Association, on condition of anonymity.”
To me, these comments from the ‘anonymous’ China Gold Association official are a clear indication that if China was the buyer of the remaining 181.3 tonnes (ie. 191.3 tonnes – 10 tonnes for Bangladesh), then China certainly would have conducted the purchase in secrecy, as ‘it does not want to upset the market’, and “any purchase or even intent to do so would trigger market speculation and volatility”
In the same China Daily article, there was also a comment reported from Asian Development Bank economist Zhuang Jian, who was in favor of China buying the IMF gold, as he thought that “buying IMF gold would not only help China diversify its foreign exchange reserves but also strengthen the yuan as an international currency”, and that China would “have a bigger say in the IMF through the gold purchasing deal”.
Zhuang Jian also stated that “China can start with small purchases on the international market like the 191.3 tons of IMF gold. In the short-term, the market will see volatility, but in the long-term the prices will return to normal”.
BIS Swaps and Bullion Bank Bailouts
In late June 2010, the Bank for International Settlements (BIS) published its annual report to year-end March 2009. This report revealed that the BIS had, during its financial year, taken on gold swaps for 349 tonnes. The Wall Street Journal (WSJ) initially reported in early July 2010 that these swaps were with central banks, however the BIS clarified to the WSJ that the gold swaps were in fact with commercial banks. The Financial Times then reported in late July 2010 that “Three big banks – HSBC, Société Générale and BNP Paribas – were among more than 10 based in Europe that swapped gold with the Bank for International Settlements.” Notice that two of the named banks are French banks.
Since the BIS refuses to explain anything material about these swaps, which was most likely a gold market fire-fighting exercise, the details remain murky. But the theory that best explains what actually happened was advanced by the late Adrian Douglas of GATA in early July 2010. Douglas proposed that bullion bank gold bailout tripartite transactions actually created the BIS gold swaps. Since IMF gold is stored at both the Bank of England vaults in London and at the Banque de France vaults in Paris, IMF ‘on-market’ gold held in Paris or London would be very easy to transfer to a group of bullion banks who all hold gold accounts at the Bank of England and, it now appears, also hold gold accounts at the Banque de France.
In May 2012, George Milling-Stanley, formerly of the World Gold Council, provided some insight to the publication Central Banking about the role of the Banque de France in being able to mobilize gold. Milling-Stanley said:
“Gold stored at the Bank of England vaults … can easily be mobilised into the market via trading strategies, or posted as collateral for a currency loan”
‘Of the Banque de France, Milling-Stanley says it has ‘recently become more active in this space [mobilising gold into the market], acting primarily as an interface between the Bank for International Settlements in Basel [BIS] and commercial banks requiring dollar liquidity. These commercial banks are primarily located in Europe, especially in France’.”
It’s interesting that two of the three banks named by the Financial Times as being involved in the BIS gold swaps are French, and that Milling-Stanley mentioned that most of the commercial banks that interfaced with the BIS are French banks. Given that the then Managing Director of the IMF, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, is French, as is his successor Christine Lagarde, could some of the ‘on market’ IMF gold sales been a case of the French controlled IMF bailing out French bullion banks such as SocGen and BNP Paribas?
Applied to the IMF gold sales, and under a tripartite transaction, as I interpret it, the following transactions would occur:
IMF gold is transferred by book entry to a set of bullion banks who then transfer the title of this gold to the BIS. The BIS transfers US dollars to the bullion banks who then either transfer this currency to the IMF, or owe a cash obligation to the IMF. The sold gold is recorded in the name of the BIS but actually remains where it is custodied at the London or Paris IMF Gold Depositories, i.e. at the Bank of England or Banque de France vaults.
In this scenario, the IMF gold could have been transferred to bullion banks and further transferred to the BIS during 2009, with the ‘on-market’ pricing exercise carried out during 2010. With the BIS as gold sales agent, the entire set of transactions would be even more convenient since the BIS gold trading desk would be able to oversee the gold swaps and the gold sales.
So, in my opinion, the IMF ‘on-market’ gold on offer was either a) bought by the Chinese State, or b) was used in a gold market fire-fighting exercise to bail out a group of bullion banks, or c) a combination of the two.
Modalities of Gold Sales
As to why the IMF paper “Modalities for Limited Sales of Gold by the Fund” (Sept 4th 2009) SM/09/243″ is under lock and key and can only be declassified by the IMF Managing Director Christine Lagarde, the conclusion is that it too must contain references to something that the IMF are extremely worried about allowing into the public domain. For the simple reason is that a similarly named IMF paper from 25 June 1999, titled “Modalities for Gold Sales by the Fund” (EBS/99/110)” is accessible in the IMF Archives, and while revealing in a number of respects, it hardly contains ‘sensitive material’. This paper was prepared when the IMF had been thinking about conducting gold sales back in 1999 which never materialized, except in the form of an accounting trick to sell to and simultaneously buy back a quantity of gold to and from Mexico and Brazil. This 1999 paper “Modalities for Gold Sales by the Fund” is very interesting though for a lot of reasons as it sketches out the limitations on IMF gold sales, the approaches to the sales that were considered by the IMF at that time, and it’s also is full of pious claims that the gold sales process should be ‘transparent’, such as the following:
“it will be critical to ensure transparency and accountability of the Fund’s gold operations through clear procedures for selecting potential buyers and determining prices, and through public disclosure of the results of the sales after they have taken place. The need for transparency and evenhandedness, which is essential for an international financial institution, argues for providing as much information as possible to the public.”
On the actual approaches to gold sales, the 1999 Modalities paper introduces the topic as follows:
“This paper considers four main modalities for the sale of gold by the Fund: (i) direct sales to another official holder of gold; (ii) placements into the market through a private intermediary or a group of intermediaries, such as bullion banks; (iii) placements into the market through the intermediation of a central bank with experience in gold sales or the BIS; and (iv) direct sales to the market through public auctions, as was the case with the gold sales by the Fund between 1976 and 1980″
On the topic of publication of sales results, the 1999 paper states:
“Publication of results: In all cases, the Fund would make public at regular, say monthly, intervals the quantity sold and the prices obtained, as well as, depending on the modality decided by the Board, the names of the buyers. In the case of a forward sales strategy involving an intermediary, the Fund would make public the quantities and delivery dates of the forward sales. It would be for consideration whether the Fund would announce the names of the intermediaries selected by the Fund to sell the gold, if that modality would be chosen”
On the topic of limitations to IMF gold sales, the 1999 paper says:
“Under the Articles, the Fund is only authorized to sell gold; that is, to transfer ownership over gold on the basis of prices in the market, taking into account reasonable transactions costs. The Articles prescribe the objective of avoiding the management of the price, or the establishment of a fixed price, in the gold market (Article V, Section 12 (a)). This implies that the Fund “must seek to follow and not set a direction for prices in the gold market.“
Under the Articles, the Fund cannot engage in gold leasing or gold lending operations, enter into gold swaps, or participate in the market for gold options or other transactions that do not involve the transfer of ownership over gold.”
“Directors generally expressed the view that private placements of gold, either through a group of private institutions or through the intermediation of central banks or the BIS, had many advantages in terms of flexibility, both in terms of timing as well as in the discretion that the Fund’s agents could employ in the techniques that they could use tochannel gold into the market.“
And from the discussion, using the services of the BIS (or another central bank) appeared to be most favorable option:
“Directors further noted that there would be considerable practical difficulties in the choice of the institution or group of institutions through which the sales of gold could be conducted, even though these would be limited-but not entirely eliminated-by choosing a central bankor the BIS.“
“Greater openness and clarity by the IMF about its own policies and the advice it provides to its member countries contributes to a better understanding of the IMF’s own role and operations, building traction for the Fund’s policy advice and making it easier to hold the institution accountable. Outside scrutiny should also support the quality of surveillance and IMF-supported programs.”
“The IMF’s efforts to improve the understanding of its operations and engage more broadly with the public has been pursued along four broad lines: (i) transparency of surveillance and IMF-supported programs, (ii) transparency of its financial operations; (iii) external and internal review and evaluation; and (iv) external communications.”
“The IMF’s approach to transparency is based on the overarching principle that it will strive to disclose documents and information on a timely basis unless strong and specific reasons argue against such disclosure.”
Again, what could these “strong and specific reasons” arguing “against such disclosure” be for the 2010 IMF gold sales?
By now you will begin to see that the IMF’s interpretation of transparency on gold sales diverges massively from any generally accepted interpretation of transparency. The IMF appears to think that merely confirming that a gold sale took place or will take place is the epitome of transparency, when it would more accurately be described as obfuscation and a disdain for actual communication with the public. IMF transparency is anything but transparent.
Perhaps the usually useless mainstream financial media may finally sit up and next time they bump into the IMF’s Ms Lagarde at a press conference, ask her why the IMF continues to block access to its 2010 gold sales documents, which remain classified due to, in the IMF’s own words, “the sensitivity of the subject matter”. Here’s hoping.
It has now come to light that on Tuesday 8 March, the Banco Central de Venezuela (BCV) sent another 12.5 tonnes of gold by air freight to Switzerland (via Paris), and fascinatingly in this instance, the exact details of the transfer are already available, including the cargo manifest, courtesy of Venezuelan newspaper El Cooperante which broke the news on 11 March.
As per the January gold exports to Switzerland, which most likely were part of a gold swap to generate much-needed financing for the crisis-ridden Venezuelan economy, this latest shipment appears likewise.
Air France flight AF 385 and Brinks Switzerland
The BCV’s 12.5 tonne gold shipment was flown out of Caracas International Airport (Maiquetia Simon Bolivar) on Air France flight AF 385 to Paris, leaving at 5:49pm local time on Tuesday 8 March, and arriving into Paris Charles de Gaulle Airport at 7:54am on Wednesday 9 March.
The sender of the shipment was Banco Central de Venezuela, and the consignee (initial receiver) was Brinks Switzerland. Given that Brinks Switzerland was listed as the consignee for a flight arriving into Paris Charles de Gaulle at 8am, then there would have been a second flight from Paris to presumably Zurich in Switzerland which is the main destination airport for gold arriving into Switzerland. As giant Swiss refiner Valcambi says under Transportation Services, it provides “Import services and transportation from Zürich airport to Valcambi“.
The 3 immediate direct flights from Paris Charles de Gaulle to Zurich after 8:00am are Swiss Air flight LX 655 at 09:55, Air France flight AF 1614 at 12:55, and Swiss Air flight LX 639 at 15:05. Brinks has its operations centre headquarters in Zurich at Zurich Airport (and also a Geneva office at Geneva Airport).
The Cargo Manifest
The Cargo Manifest from Maiquetia Airport (Caracas International Airport) shows that the BCV’s gold shipment was described as ‘GOLDS BARS’, with tracking number 057-91145645, and comprised 12,561 kilos, packed in 318 packets, which are listed somewhat surprisingly as being ‘caja de carton’ (which translates as cardboard box). Super-strong cardboard presumably.
If each bar weighed approximately 400 ozs, there would have been about 1,009 or 1,010 bars in the shipment. With 318 packets, and with 12,561 kgs = 403,845.53 troy ounces = 12.56 tonnes, then on average there were 39.5 kgs per packet (12561 / 318 = 39.5), which is a little but more than 3 bars per packet. But since gold bars can’t obviously be divided, then these gold bars may have been slightly larger US Assay Office bars weighing more than 400 ozs. Remember that the London Bullion Market Association (LBMA) Good Delivery specification for gold bars ranges from 350 oz up to 430 oz. Alternatively, most of the packets could have contained 3 bars each and the remaining packets 4 bars each.
Air France has a web-based cargo tracking number website but unfortunately, it does not return any information on tracking number 057-91145645. See screenshot:
However, the Air France website doesn’t return any data on other known gold shipments of Venezuelan gold, for example Air France tracking number 057-53208470 from late 2011, which was actually displayed on Venezuelan TV (see below bar code). Therefore, tracking information on gold shipments may not be publicly available for security reasons.
It’s important to consider the extent to which this latest BCV gold shipment may be scraping the barrel in terms of the BCV’s remaining unencumbered gold reserves. My theory at this stage is that the gold bars being sent to Switzerland are being sent to Swiss refineries to be refined into modern Good Delivery bars, and not to be refined into 1 kilo gold bars for the Asian market. This would be the case if all of the 160 tonnes of gold (in modern good delivery form) that had been repatriated during late 2011 / early 2012, was already in play (i.e. encumbered, under lien or claim or pledge).
This is assuming that the gold in transit are the gold legs of USD – gold swaps, whereby the gold is then held (and used) by a commercial bank counterpart or via some gold swap arrangement between the BCV and a commercial bank facilitated by the Bank for Settlements (BIS) in Basel. Furthermore, the legal wording of gold swaps would normally stipulate that gold held as part of a gold swap would need to be deposited into the gold vault of an institution such as the Bank of England, FRBNY, or the BIS’ storage facility at the Swiss National Bank etc.
Consider some facts about the BCV’s gold reserves and the gold swap activity and rumoured gold swap activity by the BCV in the recent past, using a reverse timeline:
The BCV exported 12.56 tonnes of gold to Switzerland on 8 March 2016
Venezuela (assumed to be the BCV) exported 35.8 tonnes (specifically 35.835 tonnes) of gold to Switzerland in January 2016 (from Swiss Customs Data)
Venezuela exported 24 tonnes of gold to Switzerland in 2015, nearly 35 tonnes in 2014, and approximately 8 tonnes in 2013, after exporting far smaller amounts in any of the 7 prior years (about 0-4 tonnes per annum over 2006 -2012). See chart from Nick Laird’s www.sharelynx.com below.
The BCV had carried out gold swaps with the Bank for International Settlements‘in recent years’, with up to 7 swap transactions (Reuters February 2016). These swaps would have to have used gold held outside of Venezuela, i.e. either at the Bank of England or using gold that was exported from Venezuela to Switzerland in 2013-2015
The BCV shipped an unspecified quantity of gold out of Caracas airport to an international destination on 2nd, 3rd and 7th July 2015 (re-exported for pledging)
BCV’s gold reserves fell by 60 tonnes over the period March – April 2015
The BCV entered into a 4 year gold swap with Citibank (announced in April 2015). This Citibank swap most likely used the 50 tonnes of Venezuelan gold that had been left at the Bank of England in 2011.
Venezuelan opposition leader, Maria Corina Machado, had information in March 2015 that suggested the BCV was engaging in an even larger gold swap that the Citi bank swap: “¿Es cierto que estarían negociando una segunda operacion de empeño similar a la anterior por un monto aun mayor?“
12,819 good delivery bars (160 tonnes) were repatriated to Venezuela in late 2011 / early 2012
About 4,089 bars (about 51 tonnes) of Venezuela’s gold was left in London after the 2011/ 2012 repatriation
There were 12,357 bars (about 154.5 tonnes of gold) held in the BCV vaults in Caracas before the gold repatriation started in late 2011. These bars that were originally in Caracas are mainly if not exclusively US Assay office bars since they were repatriated from the FRB in New York in the late 1980s
There were 25,176 bars (about 315 tonnes) in the BCV vaults when the repatriation to Caracas completed (in early 2012)
Approximately 50 tonnes of BCV gold has been exported from Venezuela to Switzerland within the first 10 weeks of 2016. How much longer can this outflow continue? This gold is being exported by the BCV in order to participate in swaps (or maybe even outright sales) in order to provide external financing to the Venezuelan Government. The fact that the gold is being picked up by Brinks Switzerland suggests it is being brought to a Swiss gold refinery. The main reason gold is sent to Switzerland is so that it can be refined or recast.
At least 3 entities have been associated with this external financing so far, namely Citibank, Deutsche Bank and the Bank for International Settlements. Bullion banks and the BIS hold gold in long-term holdings in the form of Good Delivery Bars, and enter into gold transactions using Good Delivery bars, not kilobars. With 50 tonnes of Venezuela’s gold left behind at the Bank of England in 2011, there were only another 160 tonnes of gold bars at the BCV vaults that were not old US Assay Office bars. The gold now going from the BCV to Switzerland is, in my view, old US Assay Office bars. This would suggest that more than 200 tonnes of Venezuela’s gold is already in play, as well as the 50 tonnes from Q1 2016.
With the BCV being totally opaque about the real state of its gold holdings, and with the IMF / World Gold Council still reporting the fantasy that the BCV / Venezuela holds 361 tonnes of gold in its official reserves, some speculation is in my view acceptable, and the above information should go someway towards illuminating a truer state of Venezuela’s gold holdings, but what that true state of play is, only the BCV, Venezuelan Government and associated insider bullion banks and central banks know.
Note, that it’s also possible that Venezuela exported gold to Switzerland (or elsewhere) in February 2016. Swiss customs data, which shows (non-monetary) gold imports and exports, including de-monetised gold, is available each month but with a lag of 3 weeks. Therefore the February 2016 data is available on Tuesday 22 March, on the Swiss Customs website.
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 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
Spain: 281.6 tonnes of gold
South Africa: 125.2 tonnes of gold
Thailand: 152.4 tonnes of gold
Singapore: 127.4 tonnes of gold
Malaysia: 37.9 tonnes of gold
Paraguay: 8.2 tonnes of gold
…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)
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)
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.
That article highlighted that the amount of gold stored in custody at the Bank of England (BoE) fell by 350 tonnes during the year to 28 February 2015, after also falling by 755 tonnes during the year to end of February 2014. Therefore, by 28 February 2015, there was, according to the BoE’s own statement, £140 billion or 5134.37 tonnes of gold in custody of the BoE, or in other words ~ 410,720 Good Delivery gold bars.
The article also reviewed snapshots of the total amount of gold stored in the London vaults at various recent points in time.
Firstly, a reference on the London Bullion Market Association (LBMA) web site for a date sometime before 2013 stated that there had been 9,000 tonnes of gold (i.e. 720,000 Good Delivery bars) stored in London with two-thirds of this amount, or 6,000 tonnes, stored in the Bank of England (about 482,000 bars), and 3,000 tonnes stored in London ex Bank of England vaults (238,000 bars). (Nick Laird of Sharelynx subsequently pointed out to me that the earliest reference to this 9,000 tonne figure was from a LBMA presentation from November 2011.)
Secondly, by early 2014, the LBMA web site stated that there were only 7,500 tonnes of gold in all London vaults, i.e. ~600,000 bars, and of this total, three-quarters or 5,625 tonnes were at in Bank of England, ~ 450,000 bars, and only one-quarter or 1,875 tonnes was stored at LBMA London gold vaults excluding the Bank of England’s gold vaults.
So, the entire London market including the Bank of England had lost 1,500 tonnes (120,000 bars) between 2011 and early 2014, with 375 tonnes less in the BoE and 1,125 tonnes less in the London market outside the BoE.
Finally, on 15 June 2015, the LBMA stated that “There are ~500,000 bars in the London vaults, worth a total of ~US$237 billion”. This ~ 500,000 bars equates to 6,256 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).
Therefore, another ~1,250 tonnes of gold (approximately 100,000 Good Delivery bars) departed from the London gold vaults compared to the early 2014 quotation of 7,500 tonnes of gold in the London vaults.
So overall, between the 9,000 tonnes quotation in 2011, and the 6,256 tonnes 2015 quotation, some 2,750 tonnes (~ 220,000 Good Delivery bars) disappeared from the London gold vaults. With 6,256 tonnes of gold stored in the entire London vault network in 2015, and with 5,134 tonnes of this at the Bank of England, that would leave 1,122 tonnes of gold in London outside the Bank of England vaults.
To reiterate, “the London gold vaults“, in addition to the Bank of England gold vaults, refer to the storage vaults of JP Morgan and HSBC Bank in the City of London, the vaults of Brinks, Malca Amit and Via Mat (Loomis) located near London Heathrow Airport, the vault of G4S in Park Royal, and the Barclays vault managed by Brinks.
Because the Bank of England reveals in its annual report each year the value of gold it has stored in custody for its customers (central banks, international official sector institutions, and LBMA member banks), then it is possible to compare 3 years of gold tonnage figures, namely the years 2011, 2014 and 2015, and then show within each year how much of this gold is stored at the Bank of England, and how much is stored in London but outside the Bank of England vaults.
Nick Laird of www.sharelynx.com / www.goldchartsrus.com has done exactly this in the following sets of fantastic charts which he has created to graphically capture the above London gold trends, and a lot more besides. These charts are just a subset of a suite of inter-related gold charts that Nick has created to address this critical subject in the London Gold Market.
Although the Bank of England is not a LBMA member, the Bank of England gold vaults are a critical part of the LBMA gold vaulting and gold clearing system, and LBMA bullion banks maintain gold accounts with the Bank of England which facilitate, among other things, gold lending and gold swaps transactions with central banks. Hence the above and below charts are titled “LBMA Vaulted Gold in London”.
My “How many Good Delivery gold bars are in all the London Vaults” article had also quantified that nearly all of this ~1,122 tonnes consists of gold from physical gold-backed ETFs which store their gold in the London vaults. (previously rounded up to 1,125 tonnes for ease of calculation).
I had included 5 gold ETFs in my previous analysis namely, SPDR Gold Trust (GLD), Shares Gold Trust (IAU), ETF Securities – ETFS Physical Gold ETF (PHAU & PHGP), ETF Securities – Gold Bullion Securities (GBS & GBSS), and Source Physical Gold ETC (P-ETC), and also some smaller holdings at BullionVault and GoldMoney. In total these ETFs and other holdings accounted for just over 1,000 tonnes of gold in the London market.
However, I had missed a few other gold ETFs which also store their gold in the London vaults. Nick Laird, whose Sharelynx website maintains up-to-date gold ETF data and gold holdings, took the initiative to fill in the missing ETF blanks and Nick re-calculated the more comprehensive ETF holdings figures for London, which worked out at an exact 1,116 tonnes of gold, astonishingly close to the implied figure represented by the 1,122 tonnes outside the Bank of England vaults.
The additional gold backed ETFs also included in Nick Laird’s wider catchment were Deutsche Bank db Physical Gold ETC and associated Deutsche ETFs, ABSA gold ETF (of South Africa), Merk Gold ETF, and some smaller holdings from Betashares and Standard Bank. The following chart from Sharelynx shows the full data for physically backed gold ETFs storing their gold in London:
We then discussed an approach, in conjunction with Koos Jansen and Bron Suchecki, to identify known central bank gold stored in the Bank of England vaults by tallying up this storage data on a country level basis. So, for example, assuming 5,134 tonnes of gold stored at the Bank of England in early 2015, the aim would be to try to account for as much of this gold as possible using central bank sources.
As mentioned in the ‘How many gold bars‘ article, the Bank of England stated in 2014 that 72 central banks (including a few official sector financial organisations) held gold accounts with the Bank. It is not known if any of these gold accounts are inactive or whether any of these accounts have zero gold holdings. The LBMA stated in 2011 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”. Therefore there could also be more than 25 LBMA member commercial banks with gold accounts at the Bank of England.
Some of the Bank of England 5,134 tonne total would therefore be gold held in LBMA member bank gold accounts at the Bank of England, for which data is not public. Likewise, a lot of central banks do not reveal where their gold is stored, let alone how much is stored in specific vaults such as at the Bank of England and Federal Reserve Bank of New York.
However, many central banks have more recently begun to provide some information on where they say their official reserve gold is stored. Other central banks have always been to some extent transparent. Overall, a variety of sources, where possible, can be used to source locational data regarding central bank gold storage locations. There will continue to be gaps however, since some central banks remain non-cooperative, even when asked directly about where they stored their gold.
Tallying this type of central bank gold storage data will probably be a work in progress. However, there has to be a cut-off point for doing a first pass through the data, and this is a first pass. As a group, the European central banks have been especially forthcoming with gold storage data, compared to even 3-4 years ago (except for Spain). For other central banks, I looked in various places such as their financial accounts, and I contacted some of them by email with varying degrees of success. About half of the 72 central banks on the Bank of England’s list were identified, again, with varying degrees of accuracy.
The following fantastic chart by Nick Laird captures an overview of this Bank of England gold storage data. Essentially the chart shows that the banks listed hold, or have stated that they hold, the respective quantity listed, and in total the named banks could account for x tonnes gold stored at the bank of England. This is labelled ‘Known Gold‘. Given ‘Known Gold’, this leaves the residual as ‘Unknown Gold‘.
The remainder of this article explains the logic and the sources behind each country, and why that country appears on the list. When a central bank claims to have stored gold at the Bank of England, or the evidence suggests that, it does not necessarily mean that the gold in question is held in custody in a gold set aside account or that it is allocated in identifiable bars, or even that it is actually there. Many central banks engage in gold lending, or have done so in the last 15-20 years, and have at times, or permanently, transferred control of that gold to LBMA bullion banks.
Until all central banks come clean about what form their gold holdings are in, which will never happen, then the amount of central bank gold that’s encumbered by bullion banks or under claims, liens, loan agreements etc will not be apparent.
Germany holds 3,384 tonnes of gold, and 12.9%, or 438 tonnes are stored at the Bank of England. The Bundesbank’s ongoing repatriation of gold from New York and Paris does not alter the amount of Bundesbank gold held at the Bank of England.
“Most of Danmarks Nationalbank’s gold is stored at the Bank of England, where it has been since it was moved for safety reasons during the Cold War. In March 2014, Danmarks Nationalbank inspected its stock of gold in the Bank of England.”
Therefore, the assumption here is that 62.7 tonnes of Danish gold is stored at the Bank of England.
Note the Danmarks Nationalbank’s assertion that in order for gold to be lent it has to be moved to the London, since London is the centre of the gold lending market.
In 1999 “Almost 99 per cent, or 93 per cent of the Nationalbank’s total gold stock, had been lent.” The same 1999 Danish central bank article also said that:
I have underlined the above sentence since it’s of critical importance to understanding that in gold lending, central bank gold lent to LBMA bullion banks at the Bank of England does not necessarily move out of the Bank of England vaults. Lent gold may or may not move out the door, depending on what the borrower plans to do with the borrowed gold.
It also means that the total gold in custody figure that the Bank of England reveals each year (for example £140 billion in February 2015), consists of:
a) central bank gold stored at the Bank of England
b) bullion bank gold stored at the Bank of England
c) central bank gold that has been lent or swapped with bullion banks (gold deposits and gold swaps) and that has not been moved out of the Bank of England vaults. This category of gold is still in custody at the Bank of England. The central bank claims to still own it, the bullion bank has control over it, and the Bank of England still counts it as being in its custody.
The Netherlands holds 612.5 tonnes of gold, and 18%, or 110 tonnes are stored at the Bank of England.
Notice that the UK gold reserves includes holdings of gold coin, as well as gold bars.
Ireland hold 6 tonnes of gold in its official reserves, a small amount of which is in the form of gold coins, but nearly all of which is in the form of gold bars stored at the Bank of England.
Recently, I submitted a Freedom of information (FOI) request to the Central Bank of Ireland requesting information such as a weight list of Ireland’s gold stored at the Bank of England. After the FOI request was refused and the Central Bank of Ireland claimed there was no weight list, I appealed the refusal and was provided with a SWIFT ‘account statement’ from 2010 that the Bank of England had provided to the Central Bank of Ireland. See below:
This statement shows that as of 31 December 2010, the Central Bank of Ireland held 453 gold bars at the Bank of England with a total fine ounce content of 182,555.914 ounces, which equates to an average gold content of 402.993 fine ounces per bar. It also equates to 5.678 tonnes, which rounded up is 5.7 tonnes of gold stored at the Bank of England.
The fact that no weight list could be tracked down is highly suspicious, as is the fact that Ireland had in earlier years engaged in gold lending, so did not, at various times in the 2000s have all of its gold allocated in the Bank of England. How a central bank can claim to hold gold bars but at the same time cannot request a weight list of those same bars is illogical and suggests there is a lot more that the Central Bank of Ireland will not reveal.
Belgium holds 227 tonnes of gold, most of which is stored at the Bank of England with smaller amounts held with the Bank of Canada and with the Bank for International Settlements. Banque Nationale de Belgique (aka Nationale Bank van België (NBB)) does not publish an exact breakdown of the percentage stored at each location, however, in March 2013 in the Belgian Parliament, the deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Finance gave the following response in answer to a question about the Belgian gold reserves:
“Most of the gold reserves of the National Bank of Belgium (NBB) is indeed held with the Bank of England. A much smaller amount held with the Bank of Canada and the Bank for International Settlements. A very limited amount stored in the National Bank of Belgium.”
Furthermore, there were a series of reports in late 2014 and early 2015 that would suggest that Belgium stores 200 tonnes of its gold at the Bank of England. Firstly, in December 2014, VTM-nieuws in Belgium reported that the NBB governor Luc Coene had said that the NBB was investigating repatriating all of its gold. See Koos Jansen article here.
On 4 February 2015, Belgian newspaper Het Nieuwsblad said that Belgium would repatriate 200 tonnes of gold from the Bank of England, but the next day on 5 February 2015, another Belgian newspaper De Tijd reported that NBB Luc Coene denied the repatriation report, and quoted him as saying:
“There are other and more effective ways to verify if the gold in London is really ours. We have an audit committee that inspects the Belgian gold in the UK regularly”.
Therefore, the assumption here, backed up by evidence, is that Belgium stores 200 tonnes of gold at the Bank of England.
Australia holds approximately 80 tonnes of gold in its official reserves, with 1 tonne on loan, and 99.9% of gold holdings stored at the Bank of England. See 2014 annual report, page 33. According to a weight list of its gold held at the Bank of England, released via an FOIA request in 2014, Australia stores approximately 78.8 tonnes of gold at the Bank of England.
South Korea (Bank of Korea) holds 104.4 tonnes of gold, 100% of which, or 104.4 tonnes is stored at the Bank of England. The Bank confirmed this to me in an emailon 11 September 2015. See email here ->
International Monetary Fund
The IMF currently claims to hold 2,814 tonnes of gold after apparently selling 403.3 tonnes over 2009 and 2010 (222 tonnes in ‘off-market transactions and 181.3 tonnes in ‘on-market transactions’). Prior to 2009, IMF gold holdings had been 3,217 tonnes, and had been essentially static at this figure since 1980 [In 1999 IMF undertook some accounting related gold sale transactions which where merely sale and buyback bookkeeping transactions].
Although the IMF no longer provide a breakdown of how much of its gold is stored in each location where it stores gold, the amount of gold held by the IMF at the Bank of England can be calculated by retracing IMF transactions from a time when the IMF did provide such details. In January 1976, the IMF held 898 tonnes of gold at the Bank of England in London, 3,341 tonnes at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, 389 tonnes at the Banque de France in Paris, and 144 tonnes at the Reserve Bank of India in Nagpur, India. Therefore, of the IMF’s total 4,772 tonnes holdings at that time, 70% was stored in New York, 19% in London, 8% in Paris and 3% in India. See here and here.
In the late 1970s, the IMF sold 50 million ounces of gold via two methods, namely, 25 million ounces by ‘public’ auctions, and 25 million ounces by distributions to member countries.
In the four-year period between mid-1976 and mid-1980, the IMF sold 25 million ounces of gold to the commercial sector via 45 auctions. Thirty five of these auctions delivered gold at the FRBNY, 7 of these auctions delivered gold at the Bank of England, and 3 of the auctions delivered gold at the Banque de France.
Of the 7 auctions that delivered the IMF’s gold at the Bank of England, these auctions in total delivered 3.74 million ounces [Dec-76: 780,000 ozs, Aug-77: 525,000 ozs, Nov-77: 525,000 ozs, May-78: 525,000 ozs, Oct-78: 470,000 ozs, Mar-79: 470,000, and Dec 79:444,000 ozs], which is 116 tonnes. See IMF annual report 1980.
The IMF also sold 25 million ozs of gold to its member countries within four tranches over the 3 year period from January 1977 to early 1980. These sales, which were also called gold ‘distributions’ or ‘restitutions’ and covered between 112 and 127 member countries across the tranches, were initially quite complicated in the way they were structured since they involved IMF rules around quotas which necessitated the gold being transferred to creditor countries of the IMF and then transferred to the purchasing countries. In the later sales in 1979 and 1980 countries could purchase directly from the IMF.
Countries could choose where to receive their purchased gold, i.e. London, New York, Paris or Nagpur, however, the US, UK, France and India, which had the largest IMF quotas and hence the largest gold distributions, all had to receive their gold at the respective IMF depository in their own country. I don’t have the distribution figures to hand at the moment for the 25 million ozs sold to countries, but about 18 countries took delivery from the Banque de France in Paris, with the rest choosing delivery from New York and London.
Therefore an assumption is needed on the amount of gold the IMF ‘distributed’ to member countries from its Bank of England holdings between 1977 and 1980. Of the 25 million ounces distributed, the US received 5.734 million ozs, the UK received 2.396 million ozs (75 tonnes), France received 1.284 million ozs, and India received 805,000 ozs. Subtracting all of these from 25 million ozs leaves 14.78 million ozs which was distributed to the other ~120 countries. Since the IMF held 70% of its holdings at the FRBNY in 1976, 19% at the Bank of England and 8% at the Banque de France, apportioning these three weights to the remaining 14.78 million ozs would result in 10.76 million ozs (332 tonnes) being sold from the FRBNY, 2.867 million ozs (89 tonnes) from the Bank of England and 1.24 million ozs (38.5 tonnes) from the Banque de France.
Adding this 89 tonnes to the 75 tonnes received by the UK would be 164 tonnes distributed from the Bank of England IMF gold holdings. Add to this the 116 tonnes of London stored IMF gold sold in the auctions equals 280 tonnes. Subtracting this 280 tonnes from the IMF’s London holdings of 898 tonnes in January 1976 leaves 618 tonnes.
In 2009 the IMF said that it had sold 200 tonnes of gold to India, 2 tonnes to Mauritius, 10 tonnes to Sri Lanka,and then 10 tonnes to Bangladesh in 2010. The Bangladesh figures reflect its 10 tonne purchase. However, at the moment, there has been no exact confirmation that the 200 tonnes that India bought is in London. It probably is in London, but leaving this amount under the IMF holdings instead of in India’s holdings makes no difference. Subtracting the Bangladesh sale of 10 tonnes, and rounding down slightly, there are 600 tonnes of IMF gold (excluding the 2009 India 200 tonnes sale) storedat the Bank of England.
The IMF sales of gold to Sri Lanka and Mauritius in 2009 of a combined total of 12 tonnes probably came out of the IMF’s London holdings also. The IMF’s sale of 181.3 tonnes of gold in 2010 via ‘on-market transactions’ may also have come out of the IMF’s London stored gold. These ‘on-market transactions” look to have used the BIS as pricing agent, and the IMF have gone to great lengths to hide the full details of these sales from public view. More about that in a future article.
The Reserve Bank of India holds 557.75 tonnes of gold. Of this total, a combined 265.49 tonnes are stored (outside India) at the Bank of England and with the Bank for International Settlements. In 2009 India purchased 200 tonnes of gold from the IMF via an ‘off-market transaction‘. A slide from this presentation sums up this information.
The questions then are, is the 200 tonne purchase from the IMF stored at the Bank of England, and how much of the earlier 65.49 tonnes is stored at the Bank of England.
A 2013 article in the Indian Business Standard which was reprinted from “Reserve Bank of India history series. Volume 4, 1981-1997, Part A”, explains that in 1991, the Reserve Bank of India entered 2 separate gold loan deals, one deal with UBS in Switzerland (which required 18.36 tonnes of RBI gold to be sent to Switzerland) and the other deal with the Bank of England and Bank of Japan (where 46.91 tonnes was required to be sent to the Bank of England). Together those 2 transactions equals 65.27 tonnes which is 0.222 tonnes short of the 65.49 total.
After the gold loan deals expired, it looks like 18.36 tonnes of Indian gold were left in Switzerland and transferred to safekeeping or deposit with the BIS, and 46.91 tonnes of Indian gold was left at the Bank of England.
Regarding India’s purchase of 200 tonnes of gold in 2009, the IMF only has gold 4 depositories, namely, the Bank of England, Federal Reserve Bank of New York, Banque de France, and the Reserve Bank of India in Nagpur, India. Given that the Indian gold stored abroad is “with the Bank of England and the Bank for International Settlements“, then for the 200 tonnes of IMF gold to end up being classified as ‘with’ the BIS, it would have to have either been transferred internally at one of the IMF depositories to aBIS account, or transferred via a location swap or a physical shipment to a BIS gold account at the vaults of the Swiss National Bank in Berne.
For now, the 200 tonnes of gold sold by the IMF to India in 2009 is reflected in the IMF holdings and not the India holdings. It does not make a difference to the calculations, since the 200 tonnes is still at the Bank of England.
Bulgaria has 40.1 tonnes of official gold reserves. The latest BNB annual report states that 513,000 ozs are in standard gold form, and 775,000 ozs are in gold deposits.
The Bank for International Settlements (BIS), headquartered in Basle, Switzerland does not have run any gold vaults of its own. However, the BIS is a big player in the global central bank gold market, and it offers its central bank clientele gold safekeeping (and settlement) services using central bank vaults in London, New York and Berne. These services are possible because the BIS maintains gold accounts at the Bank of England, the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, and the Swiss National Bank in Berne. BIS gold accounts can act like omnibus accounts in that many central banks can hold gold in sub-accounts under a BIS gold account at each of these institutions in London, New York and Berne.
Gold can then be transferred around locations using gold swaps where one of the counterparties to the gold swap is the BIS.
The BIS is involved with gold in 3 main categories.
a) the BIS holds gold in custody for customers, off of the BIS balance sheet
b) the BIS has its own gold holdings which are classified as its gold investment portfolio, and which are on its balance sheet
c) the BIS accepts gold deposits from central banks. These gold deposits appear as a liability on the BIS balance sheet. Then the BIS turns around and places these gold liabilities in the market under its own name. These placing are also in the form of gold deposits and gold loans with other institutions including commercial banks. These ‘assets’ are then classified on the BIS balance sheet as BIS’ “gold banking” assets.
a) In its latest annual report, as of the end of March 2015, the BIS stated that it holds 443 tonnes of gold under earmark for its central bank customers on a custody basis. This gold is not on the BIS balance sheet. i.e. it is ‘off-balance sheet’ gold held by the BIS.
b) The BIS also holds 108 tonnes of its own gold (on balance sheet within an investment portfolio). This BIS gold is either kept in custody or transferred to bullion banks as gold deposits. The BIS does not provide granular data in its annual report as to how much of its own gold is ever put into gold deposits.
c) As of 31 March 2015, the BIS had 510 tonnes of gold assets on its balance sheet. Of this total, 108 tonnes was the BIS’ own gold, leaving 403 tonnes as banking assets (i.e. customer gold . Of this same 510 tonnes total, 55 tonnes were classified as gold loans, so 457 tonnes were not gold loans. If all 55 tonnes of gold loans were from customer gold, this would leave 348 tonnes of customer backed gold banking assets. On the same date (31 March 2015), the BIS held 356 tonnes of gold deposits from customers (sight deposits and short-term deposits) on the liability side of its balance sheet which originate entirely from central banks depositing gold with the BIS in sight and term deposits.
The question then is how to reflect BIS gold storage holdings at the Bank of England. While most if not all gold deposit transactions between central banks/BIS and bullion banks take place in London, the data is not readily published.
It was therefore decided, in the spirit of being conservative, to make an assumption on the BIS gold, and only use BIS customer custody gold and BIS own gold as inputs, and because BIS has gold accounts with 3 vaults (London, NY and Berne), to then just divide by 3 and say that one-third of BIS own gold and one-third of BIS ‘central bank custody gold’ is in London This would be 183.66 tonnes, i.e. (108+443)/3.
Therefore, this model states that 183.66 tonnes of BIS gold is stored in the Bank of England. This is probably being very conservative, especially given that no on-balance gold deposited by BIS customers is reflected in this figure.
In September 2010, the IMF sold 10 tonnes of gold to Bangladesh Bank, bringing total gold holdings up from 3.5 tonnes to 13.5 tonnes. The fact that this gold is stored at the Bank of England shows that the IMF sold this gold from its holdings that were stored at the Bank of England. (Note, Bangladesh has recently added some small amounts of domestic confiscated gold to its reserves).
Mexico’s central bank, Banco de Mexico (Banxico) currently hold 122.1 tonnes of gold. At the end of 2012, Mexican official gold reserves totalled 4,034,802 ounces (125 tonnes), of which only 194,539 ounces (6 tonnes) was in Mexico, and 119 tonnes abroad.
With Banxico now holding 122 tonnes according to the World Gold Council, and not 125 tonnes, the assumption is that the 3 tonne reduction came from domestic holdings.
Poland holds 102.9 tonnes of gold in its reserves. Poland’s central bank (Narodowi Bank Polski (NBP)) published a guide to Poland’s gold in 2014 in which it confirmed that nearly all of its gold is at the Bank of England. See pages 86-90 of the guide.
“How much gold did Poland possess before 1998? Approximately 746,463 ounces, of which almost 721 thousand was invested in deposits in commercial banks. In turn, the gold kept in the country was mainly coins, gold bars and various types of gold “scrap” bought by NBP.” (page 86)
Before 1998, only 25,463 ozs of NBP gold was kept in Poland, and 721,000 ozs (22.43 tonnes) was deposited with bullion banks. Poland then bought 80 tonnes of gold in 1998, bringing its gold reserves up to nearly 103 tonnes. The purchase was done as follows:
“…we used the services of a bank which constantly carries out similar transactions. Next, we made a location swap and the whole of NBP’s foreign gold reserves were deposited onto our account in the Bank of England.” (page 88)
It is likely that the NBP is referring to the BIS as the bank which purchased the gold on behalf of Poland, and then transferred it from one of the BIS gold accounts at the Bank of England to the NBP gold account at the Bank of England.
So that is 102.9 tonnes stored at the Bank of England.
Note also that, the Polish central bank explains that “It can be assumed that the gold that has been placed on the market at any time is precisely the gold that is held by the central banks in London“. In other words, central banks that have places gold on deposit (lent it) have done so with gold that they have stored in the Bank of England. See the following screenshot:
Note 6.1 on page 136 of the 2013 NBP annual report states:
“Gold and gold receivables The item comprises gold stored at NBP and deposited in a foreign bank account. As at 31 December 2013, NBP held 3,308.9 thousand ounces of gold (102.9 tonnes).”
This statement about the “gold stored at NBP and deposited in a foreign bank account” has been in a few of the recent NBP annual reports. In April 2013, before the NBP had published the guide to its gold, I asked the NBP by email, based on the statement, to clarify if the gold held abroad is held in custody, for example at the Bank of England or FRBNY or held in time deposits with commercial banks?”
The NBP responded: “Narodowy Bank Polski does not make gold time deposits with commercial banks”.
This may be true if the NBP is using sight deposits, but the 2013 answer, like so many other central banks currently, avoided providing any real information to the question.
Given that nearly all NBP’s 102.9 tonnes of gold was in the Bank of England when the 80 tonnes purchase was made in 1998, the assumption here is that still is the case, and that for simplicity, 100 tonnes of Poland’s gold is at the Bank of England.
Romania has 103.7 tonnes of gold in its official reserves.
In percentage terms, as at 31 December 2014, 27% of Romania’s gold was in ‘standard form’ which presumably means Good Delivery Bars (400 oz bars), 14% in gold coins, and 59% in ‘Deposits’ abroad. (59% of 103.7 tonnes is 61.2 tonnes)
Note the gold deposits with Bank of Nova Scotia and Fortis Bank Bruxelles in 2005 and additionally with the same two banks and with Barclays and Morgan Stanley NY in 2004.
Since the percentage breakdownbetween Romania’s bullionbankdeposits (59%), standardbars (27%) and coins (14%) hasn’t varied much since 2005, and was at a similar mix over various years that I checked such as 2011 and 2014, the conclusion is that Romania has had more than 50% of its gold on constant deposit since at least 2004 (i.e. the original allocated gold is long gone).
The 2005 annual report also states that there were 61 tonnes of Romanian gold stored at the Bank of England. Since Romania had just under 105 tonnes of gold in 2005, this 61 tonnes was referring to the gold deposits, which central banks, as illustrated in numerous other examples, continue to count as their gold even though it has been lent to bullion banks.
Romania therefore had or has 61 tonnes of gold stored at the bank of England.
Note also the reference to central vault, which probably refers to a vault in Bucharest.
The Philippines hold 225 tonnes of gold in its official reserves. In November 2000, when the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas (BSP) held 225 tonnes of gold, it explained in a press release titled ‘Shipment of Gold Reserves‘ that it ended up storing 95% of its gold at the Bank of England due to the use of location swaps with a counterparty (probably the BIS) that took delivery of BSP gold, and transferred gold to the BSP account at the Bank of England.
Since 2000, the BSP gold reserves have risen, fallen, and risen again and now total 195 tonnes. Assuming the ‘95% of its gold’ storage arrangement is still in place, then the Philippines has 95% of 195 tonnes, or 185 tonnes stored at the Bank of England.
Greece claims to hold 112.6 tonnes of gold. In 2013, the Greek finance ministry on behalf of the Greek central bank stated that half of Greece’s gold reserves were ‘under custody’ of the Bank of Greece, and the other half was ‘under custody’ of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York (FRBNY), the Bank of England and (very vaguely) Switzerland. Who actually controls Greece’s gold reserves at this point in time is anybody’s guess.
Given that the Federal Reserve Bank of New York was listed by the Greek MinFin as a foreign gold storage location ahead of the Bank of England, the assumption here is that of the 50% of Greece’s gold held abroad, the FRBNY holds more of this portion than the Bank of England. And so the assumption is that the Bank of England holds 40% of the foreign half, i.e. 20% of the total of Greece’s gold, with the FRBNY holding 50% of the foreign half. Taking 112 tonnes of gold as Greece’s total gold holding, 40% of this is 22.4 tonnes stored at the Bank of England. (Note, Greek gold reserves keep increasing incrementally each month by small amounts. As I am not sure what these increases relates to, a recent rounded figure of 112 tonnes has been chosen).
The Banca d’Italia holds 2.451.8 tonnes of gold. Although in 2014, the Banca d’Italia released a document in which it confirmed that some of this gold is held at the Bank of England, there is no evidence to suggest that Italy’s gold in London amounts to more than a few tonnes left over from 1960s transactions.
Bank of England gold set-aside ledgers show that in 1969 there were less than 1000 ‘Good Delivery’ gold bars in the Banca d’Italia gold account at the Bank of England, weighing less than 400,000 ozs in total. This is equal to about 12 tonnes. Most of the Italian gold at the Bank of England was flown back to Rome (and Milan) in the 1960s.
Since there is no public documentation that Banca d’Italia has ever engaged in gold lending (as far as I am aware), then there would be no need for Italy to keep a lot of gold at the Bank of England. Nearly all of Italy’s foreign held gold (over 1,200 tonnes) looks to be in New York (assuming it hasn’t been swapped or used as loan collateral). Italy could have engaged in non-public gold transactions from the Bank of England using gold location swaps from the FRBNY, or from Rome, but there is no evidence of this.
So, this model assumes 12 tonnes of Italian gold is stored at the Bank of England.
Brazil hold 67.2 tonnes of gold reserves. In 2012, Banco Central do Brasil told me by email that all of its gold reserves were in the form of ‘fixed term gold deposits at commercial banks only’. Since the gold would be required to be stored at the Bank of England for these gold deposit transactions to take place, Brazil therefore holds 67.2 tonnes of gold at the Bank of England. See email below:
Banco Central del Ecuador conducted a 3 year gold swap with Goldman Sachs in June 2014 where it swapped 466,000 ozs for US dollar cash This swapped amount of gold has been factored into the World Gold Council data for Ecuador, and the Ecuadorian reserves dropped by 14.5 tonnes in Q2 2014. from 23.28 tonnes to 11.78 tonnes. This swapped amount of 14.5 tonnes is most probably stored at the Bank of England, since Goldman Sachs proposed a similar deal with Venezuela in 2014 where the gold was required to be at the Bank of England for the swap to be initiated.
Bolivia Central de Bolivia holds 42.5 tonnes of gold, all of which is permanently on deposit with bullion banks. The Bolivian Central Bank is very transparent in explaining where its gold is ‘invested’. Hence, it has (until recently) even provided in its financial accounts, the names of the bullion banks which happened to hold its ‘gold deposits’ and the amounts held by each bank.
A recent Banco Central de Bolivia report for 2014 is less revealing and only shows the country distribution of the gold deposits, with 39% in the UK and the rest in France. While this probably refers to the headquarters of the actual bullion banks in question, i.e. Natixis is French etc, it could mean the gold is being attributed to the Bank of England and the Banque de France, so, a conservative approach here is to attribute 39% of 42.5 tonnes to the Bank of England, i.e. 16.6 tonnes stored at the Bank of England.
Peru holds 34.7 tonnes of gold in its official reserves.
At the end of December 2013, Banco Central de Reserva del Peru held 552,191 ounces (17 tonnes) of gold coins which were stored in the Bank’s own vault, and 562,651 troy ounces of “good delivery” gold bars (17.5 tonnes) which were stored in banks abroad, of which 249,702 ounces were in custody and 312,949 ounces in the form of short-term interest bearing deposits. See 2013 annual report.
Since the gold bars are all ‘good delivery’ bars (which is not the case at the FRBNY), and since Peru has still recently been engaging in gold lending, then the evidence suggests that 17.5 tonnes of Peru’s gold is stored at the Bank of England.
Latvia hold 6.62 tonnes of gold in its official reserves after joining the Euro on 1 January 2014 and after transferring just over 1 tonne of gold to the European Central Bank (ECB). All of Latvia’s gold is stored at the Bank of England, therefore Latvia stores 6.62 tonnes of gold at the Bank of England.
Before this transfer of gold to the ECB, Latvia had 248,706 ozs of gold, and it transferred 35,322 ozs to ECB, leaving 213,384 ozs.
The ECB holds 504.8 tonnes of gold. This gold was transferred by the Euro members to the ECB at the launch of the Euro by 1 January 1999. All the ECB gold is de-centrally managed, meaning that it stays where it was when transferred and is still locally ‘managed’ by the bank which transferred that gold to the ECB. Some banks may have transferred gold stored at FRBNY in fulfillment of their requirement, some banks may have transferred gold at the BoE, and countries such as France and Italy may have transferred amounts which are still stored at Banque de France and Banca d’Italia etc. Some of the ECB gold, such as the smaller amount transferred by Latvia, is in the Bank of England. Other amounts of the ECB’s gold are most certainly also at the Bank of England in London.
It would be a separate project to track these transfers. The 1 tonne of Latvian gold transferred to the ECB at the start o 2014 was included in the figures here just as a placeholder, so as to acknowledge that ECB gold is at the Bank of England. Given that the Euro is a competing currency to the US Dollar, the ECB may have more gold than not stored in Europe and not at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, since ECB gold would logically be safer not stored in the main Reserve Bank of a competing currency bloc.
In its 2014 annual report, the Bank of Iceland said that “The Bank resumed lending gold for investment purposes in June 2014“, and “The Bank loaned gold to foreign financial institutions during the year”.
The Bank of Iceland lent 99.7% of its gold during 2014 because this is the percentage of the gold reserves which are not payable on demand, but are payable in less than 3 months. See below screenshot.
For the purposes of this exercise, Iceland stores 2 tonnes of gold at the Bank of England.
Ghana’s central bank, the Bank of Ghana, holds 8.7 tonnes of gold in its official reserves (precisely 280,872.439 ozs). Of this total, 39.3%, or 3.42 tonnes is held at the Bank of England, with 27.5% at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, and 29.5% with investment bank UBS. See 2014 annual report.
Interestingly, Ghana refers to its gold account at the Bank of England as a ‘gold set aside’ account, which is the correct name for a Bank of England gold custody account of allocated gold. Probably more interestingly is that most central banks do not use this ‘set aside’ term.
A number of central banks refuse to confirm the location of their gold reserves. I will document this in a future posting. Some of the large holders undoubtedly hold quite a lot of gold at the Bank of England, as do a number of smaller holders. Countries that could fit into this category include Spain, France, Colombia, Lithuania, Sri Lanka, Mauritius, Pakistan, Egypt, Slovenia, Macedonia, Malaysia, Thailand and South Africa. In fact any central bank which has engaged in gold lending is a candidate for having some of its gold stored at the Bank of England.
Spanish people take note. Spain refused to say where its 281.6 tonnes of gold is stored, and Banco de España has the dubious record of being Europe’s least transparent bank as regards gold reserves storage locations. Maybe a project for Spanish journalists.
Banque de France keeps 9% of its 2,435 tonnes of gold reserves abroad, and has in the past engaged in gold lending. So this 9%, or 219 tonnes, is probably stored at the Bank of England.
The ECB and BIS no doubt have more gold stored at the Bank of England than the figures currently reflect. This would also increase the ‘known gold’ total. Egypt is another country which has had a gold set aside account at the Bank of England so is in my view an obvious candidate for the list.
Adding to the known total is therefore a work in progress.
Part 1 was necessary so as to set the scene for the, in some ways, theatrical gold flights and convoys of Part 2, and to also illustrate that a percentage of Venezuela’s gold (50 tonnes) was retained in the vaults of the Bank of England so as to be available for activation into international gold transactions.
And so, the analysis below covers Venezuela’s actual gold repatriation operations in late 2011 and early 2012, especially the first and last flight. You will see that the first batch of gold bars came in on an Air France cargo flight, which opens up key questions about France and the Banque de France as a source for some of the repatriated gold. You will also see the arrival and unloading of the last flight, a World Airways cargo freighter.
The analysis wraps up with a look at the gold swap discussions between Venezuela and a set of investment banks which culminated in a gold swap being agreed with Citibank. The question then arises as to whether further similar gold swaps are in store for Venezuela’s domestically held monetary gold.
The Repatriation – Flights and Convoys
The Venezuelan gold repatriation transport operation took just over two months to complete, beginning on 25 November 2011, and winding up on 30 January 2012. During this time, 23 shipments (by air) are said to have arrived in Caracas, with 160 tonnes of gold flown in.
“In 2012, the central bank completed the repatriation of monetary gold , which began in late 2011. This unprecedented process, which reaffirms the sovereignty of the nation, constitutes the largest movement of physical gold in the world market in recent years . A total of 23 gold shipments were moved, totalling 160 tonnes of metal that had been custodied abroad.”
Notwithstanding the fact that the German Bundesbank claims to have quietly and secretively moved 940 tonnes of its gold from the Bank of England in London to its Bundesbank headquarters in Frankfurt between 2000 and 2001, the Venezuelan gold repatriation is still probably the “largest movement of physical gold in the world market” since that time.
The first and last shipments of Venezuela’s gold repatriation arrived into Maiquetía Airport (aka Simón Bolívar International Airport) in Venezuela’s capital, Caracas, so the presumption is that the other shipments did also. Both the first and last shipments received huge media coverage in Venezuela and extensive coverage internationally. Given that the Venezuelan State facilitated and encouraged this domestic media coverage, as well as street scenes thronged with Chavez supporters, this is not surprising. The majority of the other shipments after the first and before the last ones got little or no coverage, probably due to security procedures.
“We cannot give exact dates (for when the rest of the bars will arrive) due to questions of security. When we bring the last shipment, the people will learn about it.“
The Reuters report also quoted a Venezuelan government source as saying that there would be ‘several’ cargo flights.
“A senior government source involved in transporting the bars, which amount to 90 percent of Venezuela’s gold held abroad, has told Reuters they will be shipped in several cargo flights that will be completed before the end of the year.
The total cost of the operation will be no more than $9 million, the source said, without elaborating.”
The First Shipment (by air) came from France
The gold from the first shipment, which consisted of 5 tonnes of gold, was moved from Maiquetía airport to the central bank vaults in Caracas on Friday 25 November 2011 amid much fanfare and coverage. Although the airport to bank journey happened on 25 November, an article here claims that the “the repatriation of gold reserves began on 23 November”.
In various news footage videos below, which cover the transport of the gold from the airport on 25 November 2011, there are no shots of any aircraft being unloaded, which may suggest that the first shipment did indeed arrive prior to 25 November, possibly on 23 November. The first shipment was flown in using Air France (see below).
In contrast, during the last operation on 30 January 2012, the arrival of the aircraft into the airport played a starring role in proceedings, possibly because the shipments were then being wrapped up and there was little harm in broadcasting the identify of aircraft, which you will see below was a chartered World Airways MD-11 cargo freighter.
The first video below from 25 November 2011 shows black plastic crates (presumably with the gold in them) on pallets which in turn are on trailers, positioned beside a line of armoured cars ready for loading.
Very interestingly, central bank governor Merentes (at 0:22) states that this first shipment of gold came from European countries “via Francia” (by way of France).
This is very odd that the first shipment came from France. Given that the gold was stored at the Bank of England and with the BIS, none of the Venezuelan gold should ever have been in France. And with air charters from Europe, there would be no need to fly into and out of a French airport en route from London to Caracas.
“Los primeros lingotes vinieron de Francia en medio de un operativo denominado Oro Patrio y en el que participaron más de 500 funcionarios.”
“The first ingots came from France in the middle of an operation called Golden Homeland and in which over 500 staff participated.”
The most compelling piece of evidence, however, that the first shipment came from France is the fact that the gold was flown into Caracas on Air France, and there were labels on the side of the crates stating this. See screenshot below taken from one of the videos:
This label above shows the ‘Air Waybill No’ of ‘057-53208470′, the ‘Destination’ of CCS (Caracas), and the ‘Total No of Pieces’ – 10, i.e. 10 crates.
See also the below photo of one of the crates, with the same Air Waybill number 057-53208470, after it was loaded into the back of one of the armoured security cars:
Air France Cargo fleet consists of 2 long-range Boeing 777- 200LRF cargo freighters, registration numbers F-GUOB and F-GUOC. You can see a video of F-GUOC taking off (from another airport) here.
Since the gold in the first shipment was flown from France, this gold may have come from the Banque de France in Paris, which would suggest that the bullion banks and/or the BIS had to resort to sourcing gold from the Banque de France. BNP Paribas was one of the five bullion banks that had a borrowed gold liability to the BCV, so this fact may be relevant. (See a section below about the French connection).
The second Venezuelan video from 25 November 2011 states that gold which was located in US, Canadian, and English banks was being repatriated to Venezuela. This does not mean, however, that the gold flights originated in all or any of these locations. The US, Canada and England just refer to the headquarters of the bullion banks involved in the repatriation.
The third video from 25 November 2011 refers to “foreign banks,” “principally in Europe,” and mainly English banks.
Reuters quoted Merentes as having said that “The gold comes from several European countries.”
1. Length: 2:26 – Nelson Merentes interview, and gold ready for loading. 25 November 2011
2. Length: 2:06 – Armoured cars and convoy getting ready to leave the airport, and then departing the airport. 25 November 2011
3. Length 1:53 – Convoy leaves airport and drives to the central bank. 25 November 2011
4. Length 11:03 – Air France label is shown beginning at 9:42. This longer video has extended footage of the unloading and loading operation. 25 November 2011
At a price of $1,688 per ounce on 25 November 2011, that would be roughly 5.5 tonnes. Whether it was 5 tonnes of 5.5 tonnes is not that important. With each of the crates holding 500 kgs or 0.5 tonnes, that would be 10 – 11 crates in the first shipment. There appear to have been 10 crates given that’s what it said on the crate labels and that’s what the BCV maintain their were.
Once the gold was loaded up into the fleet of security vans, a huge convoy of military vehicles and personnel (said to be between 400 – 500 personnel) accompanied the vans out from the airport (by the ocean) and around the mountain to the central bank building in downtown Caracas, on a route, some of which was lined with Chavez’ supporters, especially where they had congregated near the bank’s entrance.
The Last Shipment – The Final Flight of MD-11, N275WA
The final shipment arrived into Maiquetía – Simón Bolívar airport on Monday 30 January 2012 consisting of 14 tonnes of gold in 28 boxes. The novel significance of the media coverage on this day was that news crews were allowed to film the airplane taxiing into the landing area and unloading its cargo.
Six of these MD-11 CFs were built and World Airways were flying two of them at this time. Ironically, the parent company of World Airways, called Global Aviation Holdings Inc, filed for chapter 11 bankruptcy protection on 5 February 2012, six days after N275WA had delivered the last shipment of Venezuela’s gold to Caracas. Interestingly, Global Aviation Holdings was also “the largest commercial provider of charter air transportation for the US military”.
See video below of aircraft N275WA arriving into Caracas on 30 November 2012
5. Length 1:53 – N275WA arriving and unloading its cargo on 30 November 2012
6. Length 3:27 – This is a well produced promotional video from “Servicio Pan Americano de Protección”, the company that transported the gold from the airport to the bank. The video shows the entire unloading and loading operation from 30 January 2012 and is well worth watching.
An MD-11 CF freighter can transport 26 large pallets and has a maximum payload of 89,000 kgs (or 89 metric tonnes). Technically, Venezuela could have had all of its repatriated gold flown in on a lot less than 23 flights. Insurance and other risk management considerations probably dictated the diversification requirement, as well as the gold possibly only becoming available in piecemeal fashion from November 2011 to January 2012.
If there were indeed 23 flights over 2 months totalling 160/161 tonnes, each flight could have flown in 7 tonnes of gold, since this adds up to 161 tonnes (23 * 7). Given that the last batch was said to be 14 tonnes and the first batch 5 tonnes, each of the other 21 flights could have carried a batch of about 6.70 tonnes.
However, a number of batches could have arrived on the same flight, such as the last flight which is said to have flown 14 tonnes. Video footage from the last shipment day, 30 January 2012, shows a crate with lot number ’20’ displayed on it – See above screen shot. So there were at least 20 ‘lots’. Overall, there would have been about 360 crates.
Given that Venezuela was able to repatriate 160 tonnes of gold in cargo flights over the Atlantic Ocean from Europe within 2 months, this proves that the German Bundesbank could have easily repatriated its intended target of 300 tonnes of gold from New York in 2013, by flying the entire 300 tonnes over to Frankfurt within 4 months. Venezuela’s successful operation proves that the Bundesbank’s seven-year repatriation plan is laughable, and that the excuses coming out of Frankfurt are hiding something far more critical to the Bundesbank and the Federal Reserve and US Treasury than logistical flight details.
The French Connection – Banque de France
It’s not clear where the last gold shipment on World Airways N275WA aircraft originated from, although Nelson Merentes made the general statement for the overall operation that “the gold comes from several European countries.”
However, in the case of the first shipment on Air France from France, there are not that many places where the flight could have come from, the main suspect being from Charles de Gaulle airport (CDG) in Paris, where Air France has one of its two main cargo hubs (the other hub being Amsterdam – i.e. these are Air France-KLM’s two cargo hubs). This then also makes a good case for the first shipment of gold having come from the Banque de France. If this was the case, then it meant that bullion banks and/or the BIS needed to source gold from the Banque de France. Would this have been feasible? Yes.
A May 2012 article from CentralBanking.com (subscription only) quoted George Milling-Stanley, independent gold consultant, and formerly of the World Gold Council, who had some interesting insights into the role of the Banque de France in being able to mobilise gold:
‘”Gold stored at the Bank of England vaults … can easily be mobilised into the market via trading strategies, or posted as collateral for a currency loan. The London vaults of JPMorgan, HSBC, and other bullion dealing investment banks have a similar status,” saysMilling-Stanley.’
‘Of the Banque de France, Milling-Stanley says it has “recently become more active in this space [mobilising gold into the market], acting primarily as an interface between the Bank for International Settlements in Basel [BIS] and commercial banks requiring dollar liquidity. These commercial banks are primarily located in Europe, especially in France”.’
Milling-Stanley’s reference to the Banque de France acting as an interface to the BIS and commercial banks in Europe may be implying that the Banque de France was a party to the 2010 BIS gold swaps which involved 10 commercial banks including BNP Paribas, Societe Generale and HSBC.
In July 2010 the FT said that “three big banks – HSBC, Société Générale and BNP Paribas – were among more than 10 based in Europe that swapped gold with the Bank for International Settlements in a series of unusual deals.” Note that BNP Paribas and HSBC are two of the five bullion banks with which the BCV had outstanding gold loans to in August 2011.
Despite the BIS’ cryptic, short, and obscure explanation that in these swaps, the commercial banks provided gold to the BIS in return for US dollar liquidity, it could be the case that commercial bullion banks borrowed central bank gold held at the Banque de France via financing from the BIS as part of a tripartite transaction.
Under this type of tripartite transaction, which was first proposed by Adrian Douglas, a Venezuelan – Banque de France version would have involved the Banque de France arranging gold lending to the bullion banks who then transfer the title of this gold to the BIS. The BIS transfers US dollars to the bullion banks who then either transfer this currency to the Banque de France, or owe a cash obligation to the Banque de France. The gold is recorded in the name of the BIS but is actually kept in the Banque de France until required by the bullion banks who borrowed it, then, when needed, gold is withdrawn by the bullion banks and used to pay back central bank gold lenders such as Venezuela’s BCV. Either French gold or Banque de France customer gold (such as IMF gold in Paris) could have been used in such a transaction. This would explain why Venezuela received crates of gold flown in to Caracas by Air France cargo.
The FT also noted in its 2010 BIS gold swap article that “In a short note in its annual report, published at the end of June, the BIS said it had taken 346 tonnes of gold in exchange for foreign currency in “swap operations” in the financial year to March 31.” (2010)
This 346 tonne BIS gold swap figure was said to have continued to grow after March 2010 and was estimated to be as high as 380 tonnes by July 2010.
Venezuela’s 50 tonnes of gold at the Bank of England
At the time of the arrival of the last gold shipment to Caracas in January 2012, Nelson Merentes was reported to have noted that “gold stored in BCV will reach 86% of the total while the rest, about 50 tonnes, will stay in the banks in which the Republic needs to maintain open accounts for international financial operations.” In August 2011, Chavez had referred to wanting to reach a target of 90% of the gold being stored in Caracas, but 86% is quite close.
The 50 ton amount remaining at the Bank of England was possibly chosen as a ’round number’ tonnage by the BCV and its international advisors. From the above bar/ingot total calculations, it seems that there were 4,089 good delivery bars left in London. This 50 tonnes, left in situ in London in January 2012, was to play a far greater role in Venezuela’s international financing arrangements than many envisaged at the time.
The Reactivation of Venezuela’s Gold Reserves
The death of Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez in March 2013, and the election of Nicolás Maduro as his successor marked a re-establishment of the relationship between the international investment banks and the Venezuelan central bank.
Recall that in August 2011 when Chavez called for the repatriation of Venezuela’s gold reserves, he also called for the transfer of the BCV’s operating reserves away from US and European banks. These operating reserves, such as cash deposits and short-term fixed interest investments, had been invested with the BIS (BPI in Spanish), Barclays, JP Morgan, BNP Paribas, Deutsche Bank, the FRB (repos), the World Bank and Bladex (the Panamanian based LatAm trade bank). Sight deposits were with JP Morgan, time deposits with the other commercial banks and the BIS, and it negotiable (fixed rate) instruments with the BIS (FIXBIS). See “Proposed Relocation of the International Reserves“.
Prior to the Chavez about-turn, Venezuela had cultivated close working relationships with some of the biggest global investment banks (or vice-versa), and seemed to be especially fond of Wall Street banks. This is illustrated, obviously, by the manner in which it used the investment banks to invest both the operating and gold components of its international reserves, where the names involved read like a who’s who of investment banking giants. But as important as the deposit taking banks appear to be to Venezuela, the advisory and corporate finance relationships look to be as equally important.
According to the Venezuelan media, in the early 2000s, JP Morgan was said to be very close to the Venezuelan finance ministry and finance minister Alejandro Dopazo, and Credit Suisse New York was also said to have had a close relationship with the government.
The use of Venezuelan gold as loan collateral was also not something new to the Maduro years. A Venezuelan media report from August 2011 claims that a few years prior to 2011, Venezuela was involved in financing discussions with New York based investment banks where the banks raised the issue of gold collateral as a means of lowering the required coupon in the financing strategies and products being discussed. These meetings were said to have taken place in the New York offices of Francisco Illaramendi, former manager of the PDVSA pension funds. According to the media report, Deutsche Bank, Credit Suisse and Barclays separately proposed that in order to “avoid the penalty of high coupons, Venezuela could place ‘equivalent in gold in the banks’ to support the issue”, with Credit Suisse proposing that Venezuelan gold be deposited with it in London and Barclays proposing likewise.
Since the Maduro presidency, the investment banks, and especially the Wall Street based banks, have been actively involved again in Venezuela’s financial affairs. Late last year, in December 2014, Venezuela sold Goldman Sachs a $4 billion credit owed to Venezuela by the Dominican Republic which was outstanding under the Petrocaribe arrangement. Petrocaribe is a regional oil programme by which Venezuela supplies oil to other countries in the region.
Lazard, the French investment bank, is a financial advisor to the state of Venezuela, and last year Lazard was chosen by Venezuela to handle the sale of Citgo Petroleum on behalf of the Venezuelan state owned oil company PDVSA (Petróleos de Venezuela S.A.). Citgo is a US subsidiary of PVDSA. This sale didn’t go ahead but then Deutsche Bank’s New York office was chosen in January 2014 to handle a bond and loan capital raising exercise for Citgo and advisory services for PDVSA. Deutsche had previously worked with PDVSA.
Bank of America-Merrill Lynch also now has a close relationship with the Venezuelan central bank and the Venezuelan government in the form of its chief economist for the Andean region, Francisco Rodríguez. Rodríguez, was chief economist to the National Assembly of Venezuela from 2000-2004, and joined Bank of America in 2011. More about Rodríguez below.
Goldman Gold Swap Plan
The first sign that Venezuela’s gold was back in the sights of the investment banks came in November 2013, when it was reported that the BCV (and the Venezuelan government) were in negotiations with Goldman Sachs about the arrangement of a gold exchange, in other words, a gold – US dollar swap with gold as collateral. A lot of the reporting at the time did not provide very much detail about this swap, so here are some summary details of the Goldman gold swap.
The gold swap was to be between the Central Bank of Venezuela (BCV) and Goldman Sachs International in London. Eudomar Tovar was BCV president at that time. The swap would involve Venezuela swapping gold from it’s reserves with Goldman Sachs international in exchange for a US dollar loan, with the gold serving as collateral for the loan.
The swap was to be for a four-year duration between 2016 and 2020 (although another media source said it was to be for a seven-year duration from late 2013 until late 2020). The swap was to be for 1.45 million ounces of gold (or nearly 1.45 million ounces according to one media source) which was expected to be deposited at the Bank of England and transferred to Goldman Sachs International at an agreed time. At the time, 1.45m ozs of gold was valued at over $1.85 billion at the then market price of $1,282 per ounce. Venezuela would also pay an annual interest rate of 8% on the loan.
If the price of gold fell over the life of the swap, the BCV would need to deposit more gold into a margin account. If the price of gold rose, Goldman Sachs International would be required to deposit more currency into a margin account. At the swap’s maturity, the contributions made by each party into the margin accounts would be returned to the respective parties.
The swap was said to contain a built-in hedge that would benefit Goldman, which reflected a 10% adjustment of the value of the swap if the gold price fell. The gold swap was said to be tradable on the market. The terms of the swap allowed the BCV to repay the loan and keep the gold, but if the BCV didnt repay the loan, the gold would go Goldman. One report said that the gold would continue to appear on the BCV’s balance sheet throughout the term of the swap.
The BCV had contracted Adar Capital Partners (of which Diego Marynberg is a director), as a consultant to design the swap with Goldman Sachs International. Adar Capital Partners would received 0.25% per annum of the value of the gold in the contract at beginning of each year over the life of the contract.
Any dispute between the parties would be resolved in English courts. Some media articles on the BCV-Goldman gold swap can be viewed in Spanish here and here and here.
Given that there were said to be 16,908 of Venezuela’s gold bars held abroad, of which 12,819 bars were repatriated, this left 4,089 of Venezuela’s bars in the vaults of the Bank of England from early 2012. These 4,089 bars are roughly equal to 51 tonnes, or 1.635 million ounces. It looks like the Goldman swap factored in a 10% adjustment on 50 tonnes of gold (roughly 1,607,500 ozs) at the Bank of England, to arrive at 1.45 million ounces (i.e. 1,607,500 * 0.9 = 1,446,750 ozs). This is the 10% adjustment referred to above. So Goldman would have had an extra buffer built-in as protection against a downward gold price movement.
The discussion of the swap at the time in November 2013 did not reveal what US dollar amount the BCV was to receive from Goldman in exchange for transferring 1.45 million ozs of gold to Goldman. i.e. it did not reveal the intended discount that the BCV was expected to take on gold with a US dollar value of $1.85 billion.
The BCV maintains that this gold swap with Goldman Sachs International did not go ahead, despite what look like detailed terms and negotiations. But the framework of the gold swap discussed with Goldman Sachs looks very similar to the swap structure that was ultimately chosen in April 2015, so it appears that the BCV re-used in some way the plan that they had drawn up with Adar Capital Partners and Goldman Sachs.
Goldman and Ecuador
Where Goldman did get a Latin American gold swap out the door was Ecuador, approximately six months after its negotiations with Venezuela hit a wall.
In early June 2014, it was announced that Ecuador had agreed to swap 1,165 bars of gold as collateral with Goldman, and in return Goldman agreed to provide Ecuador with “instruments of high security and liquidity” i.e. a loan. This gold swap was for 3 years, from 2014 to 2017 after which it will be reversed and Ecuador will get its gold back and pay the 2017 gold price to Goldman.
Rodríguez, Bank of America and the BCV vault visit
In September 2014, there was a rather unusual story from Bloomberg in which Francisco Rodríguez, the Bank of America economist (see above), related the fact that he had been allowed a rare visit into the Venezuelan central bank gold vault to view the gold bars. Rodríguez maintains that he was at a routine meeting in the BCV headquarters when his request to see the gold was granted, and that he and four other people who had attended the meeting were brought down to the underground vault in which all of the gold was stacked in “five small cells that were not even full to the top”, and that the bars were of “different types”.
While Rodríguez is said to be close to the BCV and the Venezuelan government, it still seems odd that at a routine meeting, a Bank of America representative (and some unnamed others) would pop down to see the gold in the vault, while external attendees at countless other meetings at the BCV’s headquarters would not do this tour. Could it he that the Bank of America was running the slide ruler over the Venezuelan gold in preparation for a loan of their own to the Venezuelan State?
Role Call Recall
At this point its worth recalling some of the banks that were interacting with the Venezuelan state and finance ministry, and/or interacting with the BCV (not including the gold deposits and gold lending).
In 2011, Venezuela’s operating reserves were invested with Barclays, JP Morgan, BNP Paribas and Deutsche Bank. Earlier in the 2000s, JP Morgan, Credit Suisse and Deutsche were said to be close to or working with Venezuela on various financing matters.
It was also said that a few years prior to 2011, Barclays, Credit Suisse and Deutsche, at meetings in New York held in the PDVSA offices, had proposed that Venezuela could put up gold as collateral so as to lower coupons on unspecified products.
Then there was Goldman Sachs purchasing outstanding debt that the Dominican Republic owed to Venezuela. Then there were Lazard and Deutsche advising the PDVSA and/or Citgo in the US. Finally there was Goldman Sachs negotiating a gold swap with Venezuela in 2013, and Bank of America taking a look at the gold in the BCV vaults in 2014.
Investment Bank beauty parade – March 2015
The topic of Venezuelan gold swaps was again raised on 10 March 2015 when Reuters reported that the BCV was said to be in advanced discussions with a group of Wall Street banks about conducting a 4 year gold swap for 1.4 milion ozs of gold, and that the swap operation would be agreed by the end of April. Reuters reported that the discussions involved at least two institutions, namely “Bank of America and Credit Suisse”.
At the time, the swap was said to involve an exchange of 1.4 million ozs (43.5 tonnes) of Venezuelan gold for cash, on which interest would be paid, and that Venezuela had the option of re-purchasing the gold after the expiry of the 4 year term. Interestingly, it was also said that Venezuela “would most likely be able to maintain the gold as part of its foreign currency reserves” during the swap, i.e. double-counting of gold reserves.
Amid the publicity about these March 2015 swap discussions, confusion arose as to whether the Goldman Sachs gold swap had happened or not, but the BCV stated generally that although it had “received proposals to carry out a similar operation” in late 2013, it “denied any agreements had been completed.“
Local media went further, and named additional investment bank names said to be involved in the pitch to secure the gold swap deal. On 5 March 2015, Nelson Bocaranda Sardi claimed in Venezuelan newspaper El Univeral that there was a pitch competition (implied to be for effect) by Credit Suisse, Goldman, BTGP Brazilian, Deutsche, Bank of America and Citibank, and that it was really a three horse race in which Deutsche Bank, Bank of America and Citibank would be chosen for the gold swap, but for $500 million each. Furthermore, Sardi said that Venezuela was paying $70 million to each bank as a risk premium. El Universal was previously said to be critical of Chavez, but may now not be so critical of Maduro.
On 12 March, on a web site of an organisation called Aporrea, Fresia Ipinza retorted (possibly with more up-to-date information) that rumours were saying that the gold swap would be over 4 years for 1.4 million ozs, and that allegedly Bank of America and Credit Suisse were involved. Aporrea were known to be Chavez supporters.
So, its very possible that the list of investment banks pitching to Venezuela for the gold swap were as follows: Bank of America, Credit Suisse, Citibank, Deutsche Bank, Goldman Sachs and BTGP. BTGP refers to BTG Pactual, a Brazilian investment bank.
A combination of sources (see links) yield the following details about the gold swap with Citi. The details are said to be derived from newspaper ‘El Nacional’ and also a former director of the BCV, and also from Reuters.
Venezuela (via the BCV) will put up 1.4 million ozs of gold as collateral in exchange for a $1 billion loan of foreign currency from Citibank. Since 1.4 million ozs of gold, valued at the late April 2015 price of $1,200, is roughly $1.68 billion, then Venezuela is having to accept a near 40% discount on the specified gold collateral. Venezuela also pays interest on the loan at between 6% and 7% per annum.
The swap is for a 4 year duration, and Venezuela will have the “right of first refusal” to re-purchase the gold after 4 years. The 1.4 million ozs of gold (43.5 tonnes and just less than 3,500 Good Delivery bars equivalent) will be held at the vaults of the Bank of England. If Venezuela does not pay the interest payments on time, Citibank can gain control of the gold. The loan was expected to be for $1.5 billion but its unclear why this changed, but probably would have something to do with a bigger haircut being imposed.
According to ‘Venezuela Analysis‘ the “current value [of the gold] will continue to appear on the Central Bank’s balance sheet – an advantage that Goldman Sachs denied the country in earlier talks.” ‘Venezuela Analysis’ also said that some sources think Citibank holds title to the gold, while other say Venezuela holds title. Another relevant newspaper link is here.
None of the media commentary mentioned Adar Capital Partners Ltd in conjunction with the Citibank swap but its possible that this company could have been involved in the more recent swap negotiations, given that it was involved in the late 2013 gold swap negotiations involving Goldman Sachs and a lot of the swap terms are similar. On the other hand, the BCV could have just taken its gold swap file on the Goldman proposal out of the top drawer and reused the Goldman – Adar plan.
Venezuela’s international reserves fell by about US$2 billion during April from a level of $20.8 billion at the beginning of April. Lower oil prices have impacted the country’s ability to comfortably meet principal and interest payments on foreign bond borrowings and for financing imports. Inflation in Venezuela is running high, and there are reports of a shortage of essential goods and an impact on some public services. In short, the economy is contracting.
Rodriguez, the Bank of America economist, said that the gold swap was the ‘logical’ course of action for Venezuela to take. As to why Venezuela can’t negotiate oil swap deals in the current environment or get more financing from the BRICS or China, that is probably more of an international political issue and a reputational issue with the international capital markets.
Maria Corina Machado
On 12 March 2015, Maria Corina Machado, a deputy in the Venezuelan National Assembly and political leader of the opposition party, sent an offical letter to Nelson Merentes, president of the BCV, asking the following 5 questions about the gold swap, which at the time, in early March, was being rumoured.
Questions 1 and 2 are quite standard and to be expected in light of the general rumours about the swap, but questions 3, 4, and 5 seem to suggest that Machado had heard something about the negotiations that made her think that the size of the swap was going to be far larger ($2.6 billion), and that there would be a ‘second operation’ with an even larger swap, and that this would require moving gold out of Venezuela again. See the 5 questions below:
¿Está todo el oro de las reservas venezolanas en las bóvedas del BCV de Venezuela tal como afirmó el ex presidente el Hugo Chavéz 17 de agusto 2011, cuando ordenó “repatriacion de nuestro oro”?
Are all of Venezuela’s gold reserves in the vaults of the Central Bank of Venezuela as stated by the former president Hugo Chavéz on 17 agusto 2011, when he ordered “repatriation of our gold”?
2. ¿Está el BCV en negociación con la banca extranjera para la venta o empeño del oro monetario?
Is the BCV in negotiations with foreign banks for the sale or pawning of monetary gold?
3. ¿Es cierto que en la operacion de empeño del oro actualmente en discusión se pretende disponer de oro por un valor de mercado de 2,6 mil millones US$? ¿Esto representaría comprometer casi el 20% del total de reservas en oro de la Républica en esta primera operación?
Is it true that in the operation to pawn gold currently under discussion, it is intended to dispose of gold with a market value of US$ 2.6 billion? Does this represent / involve almost the 20% of the total gold reserves of the Republic, in this first operation?
4. ¿Es cierto que estarían negociando una segunda operacion de empeño similar a la anterior por un monto aun mayor?
Is it true that they would be negotiating a second operation similar to the previous one for an even greater amount?
5. ¿Estas operaciones implican sacar el oro de las bóvedas del BCV y regresarlas al exterior?
Do these operations involve removing the gold from the vaults of the BCV and returning it abroad?
In the letter, Machado claimed that “the [gold swap] exchange would jeopardize the achievement of economic stability” and “would compromise the future of the Republic and the welfare of millions of Venezuelans“.
She also called for the monetary gold bullion held by the BCV and the exact amount held abroad to be “certified by an independent and trusted international body”.
There does not seem to be any publicly available response from the central bank to Machado’s letter, so its unclear as to which answers, if any, Machado received from the BCV. However, given the deteriorating state of Venezuela’s international finances and international reserves at the present time, it may be sooner rather than later before Venezuelan gold could be on the move again out of the country.
One thing is for sure. Gold leaving Venezuela on a flight back to London, New York, or elsewhere, will not get the fanfare and celebration that was accompanied by the same gold’s arrival into Caracas a few short years ago.
Venezuela’s gold reserves have rarely stayed out of the financial news headlines over the last four years. From initial gold repatriation announcements in August 2011, through to gold shipments from Europe to Venezuela’s capital, Caracas, in late 2011 and early 2012, as well as the more recent negotiations on using gold in swaps and for loan collateral, the Venezuelan gold story has filled many column inches.
However, much of the coverage has been disjointed and purely focused on the story of the day. The analysis below aims to take a broader overview and to provide a big picture treatment. To understand where Venezuela’s gold got to where it is today, you have to understand where it’s been.
The analysis is divided into two parts. Part 1 starts with a short historical overview of Venezuela’s gold up to 1992, followed by an examination of where the gold, and the claims on gold, were located just prior to repatriation in 2011. It also drills down into the composition of the gold now held in the BCV vaults and shows that these bars would be expected to consist of roughly equal percentages of London Good Delivery bars and US Assay Office ‘melt’ bars.
Part 2 examines the actual repatriation exercises in late 2011 and early 2012, and takes a look at the renewed circling of the Venezuelan gold by the international investment banks, most recently illustrated by Venezuela’s gold swap negotiations with Goldman Sachs in late 2013, and the more recent gold swap agreement with Citibank in April 2015.
Since Venezuela was able to fly 160 tonnes of gold on cargo flights across the Atlantic Ocean from Europe to Caracas in 2 months, it begs the question, why has the German Bundesbank not been able to fly 300 tonnes of gold from New York to Frankfurt in 4 months?
El Oro y El BCV – Some History
According to the World Gold Council’s latest list of IMF collated and reported World Official Gold Holdings as of May 2015 (IFS), Venezuela’s central bank, Banco Central de Venezuela (BCV), officially holds 367.6 tonnes of gold within its international reserves, ranking Venezuela as the world’s 16th largest official gold holder. This gold comprises 68.9%, by value, of Venezuela’s total international reserves. Given that many of the countries on the IMF list employ very opaque reporting standards for their gold, Venezuela would probably rank a number of places higher in a more realistic world list, even since re-commencing active management of some of its gold reserves through swaps.
The BCV was established as Venezuela’s central bank in 1939 and has it’s headquarters in Caracas. As early as 1940, the BCV’s international reserves totalled $31 million, of which $29 million (~26 tonnes) was in the form of monetary gold. This gold had been mostly transferred to the BCV from Venezuela’s private banks, and was used as a backing for bank-note issuance which was a function that the BCV took over from the private banks.
33 Liberty: Federal Reserve Bank of New York, Manhattan
In 1942, the BCV’s gold reserves totalled $67 million dollars (59.78 tonnes), with 36.23 tonnes in the BCV vaults and 23.55 tonnes in the custody in the gold vault of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York (FRBNY) under 33 Liberty in Manhattan.
By the end of World War II, the BCV’s gold holdings had increased to approximately 180 tonnes, most of which was classified as monetary gold. This rapid accumulation of gold at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York (in the form of US Assay office melt bars) arose from US payments of gold to Venezuela in exchange for Venezuelan oil exports to the US, i.e. gold-for-oil transactions.
Following World War II, the BCV continued to convert any surplus income not required for import payments into gold, and in 1948 Venezuela had built up holdings of 287 tonnes of gold, making it the 8th largest gold holder in the world, and the largest gold holder in Latin America. During this period, the BCV says that it “streamlined the transfer of gold” from FRBNY custody to the BCV vaults in Caracas. In 1957, the BCV also bought two large ‘lots’ of fine gold bars from the IMF. As a result, in 1957-1958, Venezuelan gold holdings reached their highest level ever at nearly 640 tonnes.
The gold-for-oil transactions between Venezuela and the US are also referenced in the BCV’s 2011 Economic Report (large file – page 91) which states:
“A mediados de los años cincuenta, el acervo de oro alcanzó 639 toneladas, en la medida en que las exportaciones petroleras a Estados Unidos fueron pagadas a la nación con barras de oro del Banco de la Reserva Federal de Nueva York.”
“In the mid-fifties, the stock of gold reached 639 tonnes, to the extent that oil exports to the United States were paid to the nation with gold bars of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.”
In 1961, the BCV needed to acquire foreign exchange from the IMF, some or all of which was paid for with gold, and Venezuela’s gold reserves fell by nearly 300 tonnes, to approximately 340 tonnes, and then rose slightly in the 1960s to between 356 and 357 tonnes.
Fast forwarding to 1986, the BCV made a decision to engage in the “proactive management of monetary gold in the international market“, and in the late 1980’s moved “a significant portion” of gold from its vaults in Caracas to the Bank of England vaults in London as a prelude to “investing” this gold in the London Gold Market. The BCV adopted the good delivery standard for the gold sent to London and invested these holdings in interest-earning financial transactions such as swaps and gold deposits. These gold operations were established with “first-class financial institutions as enshrined in the Central Bank Law“, which “narrowed” the allowable counter-parties (i.e. narrowed the counter-parties to certain LBMA bullion banks).
To the Bank of England and beyond
Specifically, as at 31 December 1986, 14.7% of Venezuela’s 356 tonnes of gold was held at the FRB vaults in New York, and 85.3% was held at the BCV vaults in Caracas. Six years later, on 31 December 1992, 14.7% of this same 356 tonne quantity of gold was still at the FRB in New York, 43.3% was still at the BCV in Caracas, but now 28.5% had moved to the Bank of England and 13.4% was said to be with the BIS (note: this adds up to 99.9% due to rounding errors).
There are slight discrepancies in the data sources as to whether the BCV held 357 tonnes or 356 tonnes in the late 1980s / early 1990s, but the Venezuelan Government figures at the end of December 1992 were 154.5 tonnes in Caracas (43.3% of the gold reserves), 101.8 tonnes at the Bank of England (28.5%), 52.2 tonnes in the FRBNY (14.7%), and 47.79 tonnes with the BIS (13.4%). This gold distribution adds up to 356.29 tonnes.
Note that initially in the late 1980’s, 89.72 tonnes of gold was transferred from the BCV to the Bank of England, and this amount appears to have been augmented slightly to 101.8 tonnes by the end of 1992. This would also suggest that the gold deposited with the BIS was via the BIS’ gold account at the Bank of England in London.
Various Venezuelan news articles such as here claim that gold began to be moved to London, initially surreptitiously, from the BCV in Caracas beginning with 8 tonnes on 5 August 1988, and then another 8 tonnes on 21 February 1989 when the newly elected president, Carlos Andres Perez, came to power for a second time.
The above historical account should go someway towards explaining how Venezuelan gold ended up at the Bank of England in the late 1980s and early 1990s. However, it is not the full story. To get a fuller picture, you also have to work in reverse from 2011 back to 1992. Luckily, the BCV has provided a roadmap that helps in this regard.
Blueprint of Venezuelan gold holdings as at 8 August 2011
In early August 2011, Venezuela’s president, Hugo Chávez, pronounced a series of directives which would dramatically alter how the country’s international reserves were invested and managed. These directives, which were contained in a document titled “Proposed relocation of the International Reserves“, called for:
the transfer of operating reserves from banks in Europe and the US to banks in Russia, China and Brazil, within a two month period
the transfer of monetary gold held abroad back to the BCV vaults in Venezuela, within a two month period
Note that the BCV classifies international reserves into a) operating reserves (“liquid reserves”), comprising short-term cash and cash like instruments invested with institutions such as investment banks and the BIS, and b) non-operational reserves such as gold and SDRs.
Throughout the 1990s and 2000s, the BCV’s gold holdings had remained static at 357 tonnes until the 2008/2009 period. During 2008, the BCV’s board made a decision to send its non-monetary gold holdings abroad for “strategic use” (i.e. investment operations). Some of this non-monetary gold was purchased from Venezuelan gold mine production. In early 2009 and 2010, the BCV “monetized its non-monetary gold” by having it refined into good delivery bars and then moved this gold to London to participate in return generating transactions. This led to the 357 tonnes total rising to 361 tonnes in 2009 and then 364 tonnes in 2010. By 2011, Venezuela’s gold holdings had reached nearly 366 tonnes.
Type of bars held and monetary coins
In page 17 of its Powerpoint presentation (March 2010), the BCV lists an inventory of its monetary gold as consisting of:
Amonedado (coins) comprising “Eagles, Liberty and Indian Head”
Barras Bóvedas BCV (bars in the BCV vaults) comprising “Fed Melted Bars” *
Bóvedas BI y otros (bars in Bank of England and others) comprising “Good Delivery” bars
* The “Fed Melted Bars” that the BCV refer to are US Assay Office melts (batches of ~ 18 to 22 bars), and the BCV notes that these bars “exceed 995 fine, but lack a refiner seal certifying assay“. What the BCV means is that although these bars have the correct fineness to be good delivery bars, they are not good delivery until they have been individually weighted and individually stamped (i.e. until the Melts have been broken). See “The Keys to the Gold Vaults at the New York Fed – Part 3: ‘Coin Bars’, ‘Melts’ and the Bundesbank” for an explanation of US Assay Office ‘melts’.
Based on this BCV inventory, the entire repatriation by Venezuela would be expected to have consisted of London Good Delivery bars. It also would mean that following the repatriation, the BCV vaults held a roughly 50% – 50% combination of US Assay Office ‘melt’ bars and London Good Delivery bars. See section below on ‘How many Gold Bars did Venezuela have in August 2011′.
Venezuela’s Gold in August 2011
The August 2011 international reserves document from Chávez, which was actually issued by the then BCV president, Nelson Merentes, and the then Venezuelan finance minister, Jorge Giordani, included a detailed breakdown of the composition and location of Venezuela’s gold reserves as at 8 August 2011, in the form of the table below. This table illustrates that Venezuela’s gold that was held abroad had experienced some very interesting transformations between 1992 and 2011.
Gold on deposit vs Gold time deposits
According to the table, as at 8 August 2011, Venezuela held 365.82 tonnes of gold, with 154.47 tonnes in Venezuela custodied in the vaults of the BCV (42.22% of the gold), and 211.35 tonnes held abroad (57.78% of the gold). The gold held abroad was classified into two broad categories, namely, “Sólo Depositado” (gold deposited only or on deposit only) totalling 128.48 tonnes, and “A Plazo” (gold ‘time’ deposits or ‘term’ deposits) totalling 82.87 tonnes.
Since the English equivalent of these two phrases can be confusing, the “Sólo Depositado” can be considered to be physical gold that has been deposited with a bank, much like a sight deposit at a bank, while the “A Plazo” is gold lent by the central bank to commercial bullion banks whereby the banks pay interest to the central bank for borrowing the gold. The central bank has a claim to the gold that it lent, and the bullion banks have a gold liability to the central bank.
Bank of England, the BIS, and J.P. Morgan
Of the 128.48 tonnes of physical gold deposited abroad, this was deposited with three entities, namely, TheBank of England, TheBank for International Settlements, and J.P. Morgan. The lion’s share of this deposited gold, 99.21 tonnes, was with the Bank of England. A further 11.85 tonnes was deposited via the BIS and a further 17.42 tonnes was deposited with JP Morgan. Each of these three entities is listed next to the country of its “headquarters” i.e. England, Switzerland and the US, respectively.
It’s not clear if the Venezuelan gold held by the Bank of England was held ‘underearmark‘ (i.e. specific bars allocated in custody via a Bailor-Bailee relationship), or held ‘on a fine ounce basis‘ (i.e. within a larger pool of gold (pool allocated) where Venezuela would own a specific number of fine ounces but not specific bars). Given that there is no mention of ‘earmarked’ gold in the table, and given that the deposit was described as a sight deposit (see below), the gold attributed to the Bank of England was probably held as a deposit on a fine ounce basis.
The same logic would apply to the gold deposited into a BIS account (probably also at the Bank of England). Gold lending only works if the lent gold is fungible which enables the Bank of England or the BIS to transfer bars to the borrowers and get back other bars at a future date. Its unclear from the table as to where the gold deposited with JP Morgan was stored, and also unclear if this gold was unencumbered and free of other liens, claims and hypothecations.
Table 1: How Venezuela’s gold reserves were distributed as of 8 August 2011
Of the 82.87 tonnes of lent gold that comprised gold time deposits (22.65% of Venezuela’s gold), these time deposits were shared out between five bullion banks, namely, The Bank of Nova Scotia, Barclays, Standard Chartered, HSBC and BNP Paribas. The countries listed next to these five bank are, in all cases, the countries where their ‘headquarters’ are based, except for BNP Paribas, which strangely, is listed with a country of ‘United States’ despite its headquarters being located in Paris, France. So it appears that a BNP Paribas US entity was involved in borrowing Venezuelan gold. Note that BNP merged with Paribas in 2000 after a takeover battle involving Société Générale.
These gold time deposits represent the gold that was lent by the BCV to the bullion market in order to generate a return to the BCV. This gold, when lent, was either sold or lent on further by the original bullion bank borrowers or used by them in a proprietary manner, or some combination of the three.
Note that London entities of all six bullion banks in the above table are members of the London Bullion Market Association (LBMA). Five of them are now LBMA market makers (except BNP Paribas), and four of them are clearing members of London Precious Metals Clearing Ltd (LPMCL), namely HSBC, JP Morgan, Scotia and Barclays.
For all of the above deposits / investments, the BCV’s allocation table specified the year of commencement of operations (fecha de inicio de operaciones), and in the case of the time deposits, the expiration date of the placements (fecha de vencimiento de colocaciones). For the gold on deposit with the Bank of England, BIS and JP Morgan, these deposits were described as ‘sight’ deposits with no expiration date.
In this table from 2011, the gold on deposit at the Bank of England is stated as having commenced in 1980. However, this contradicts the BCV pie-chart (see graphic above) which stated that in 1986, the Venezuelan gold was only held at the BCV and the FRBNY, and also contradicts the BCV history which maintained that “initially in the late 1980’s, 89.72 tonnes was transferred from the BCV to the Bank of England”.
Given that all bar gold at the BCV and the FRBNY would have been in the form of US Assay Office melts, it implies that all of the Venezuelan bars that ended up at the Bank of England and in the London market needed to be, at a minimum, individually weighted and stamped when received. Given that there have been concerns about the quality of US Assay Office 995 fine bars (for example the gold given by the FRBNY to the Bundesbank in 1968), some US Assay Office bar holders may decide to refine them to bring them up to a correct and trustable good delivery standard.
According to the BCV table, Venezuela only deposited gold with the BIS beginning in April 2009, while the gold deposit with JP Morgan commenced in 1999 (so the JP Morgan deposit was in existence for more than 11 years). Note that JP Morgan merged with Chase Manhattan in 2000. Since Venezuela had previous deposited gold with the BIS from as early as December 1992, the record of an April 2009 deposit with the BIS looks like a fresh allocation to a BIS account at that time.
Scotia, Barclays, StanChar, HSBC and BNP Paribas – Time Deposits
Of the five gold time deposits arrangements, the relationship with Bank of Nova Scotia was stated as commencing in 1992, while the operations with the other four bullion banks are listed as beginning in 2004. However, a note to the table states that “Since 2004, the Central Bank has kept automated records of the operations with these institutions. However, the first operations (manual) are dated from previous years” (i.e. prior to 2004).
Interestingly, three of these bullion banks, namely Barclays, Bank of Nova Scotia, and Standard Chartered, are the same three banks that the central bank of El Salvador had recently engaged in gold time deposits with. See “El Salvador’s gold reserves, the BIS, and the bullion banks” for details. In fact, these three names crop up hosting gold time deposits with other Latin American central banks. More on that in a future article.
The gold time deposits appear to have been generally for periods of approximately one month because, as of 8 August 2011, all of the deposits expired between 8 and 14 September 2011.
Note, the final ‘total’ row in the above table is named ‘Total Oro‘ but only totals to 237.34 tonnes. This looks like a typo whereby the 154.47 tonnes at the BCV was added to the 82.87 tonnes of time deposits, but the 128.48 tonnes of real gold deposits were omitted.
The transformation of Venezuela’s gold from 1992 to 2011
Given that we know the geographic allocation of Venezuela’s gold on 31 December 1992 (start of period) and also know how the geographic allocation stood in August 2011 (end of period), as well as when the end of period distributions started, it’s possible to draw some observations.
Recall that at the end of 1992, Venezuela held 154.5 tonnes of gold at the BCV vaults in Caracas (43.3%), 101.8 tonnes at the Bank of England (28.5%), 52.2 tonnes in the FRBNY (14.7%), and 47.79 tonnes with the BIS (13.4%). A total of 356.29 tonnes, and note that the FRBNY and BIS holdings add up to 99.99 tonnes (let’s call it 100 tonnes).
At the beginning of August 2011, Venezuela held 154.47 tonnes at the BCV, 99.21 tonnes at the Bank of England, 17.42 tonnes with JP Morgan, 11.82 tonnes with the BIS, and 82.87 tonnes as time deposits with fivebullion banks. A total of 365.82 tonnes, i.e. 9.53 tonnes more than in 1992.
Through the 1990s and 2000s
1. The 154.5 tonnes of physical gold that was at the BCV in Caracas in 1992 was still at the BCV in August 2011.
2. Gold, in a practically equivalent amount to that deposited at the Bank of England by December 1992 (i.e. 101.8 tonnes) was still deposited at the Bank of England in August 2011 (i.e. a 2.59 ton reduction to 99.21 tonnes). This was not necessarily the same gold though since it could have been involved in multiple transactions between 1992-2011.
3. The gold that was’ in custody’ at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York (FRBNY) in 1992 (i.e. 52.2 tonnes) was no longer accounted for as being at the FRBNY in 2011. This gold may have been physically moved to the Bank of England or else swapped to London, however, some or all of it may have stayed in the FRBNY vault or in the vicinity of New York. This is so because some bullion banks such as JP Morgan have in the past had gold accounts at the FRBNY when they held sovereign gold as collateral for loan advances (e.g. lending to Spain in the 1950s).
The FRBNY will insist that commercial banks cannot hold gold accounts at the FRBNY, however, commercial banks have been named gold account holders at the FRBNY (holding gold as collateral) in the past. Furthermore, JP Morgan’s gold vault is right next door to the FRBNY gold vault(s) and may be connected to the FRBNY vault area. See “The Keys to the Gold Vaults at the New York Fed – Part 2: The Auxiliary Vault” for details. So it’s possible that the 17.42 tonnes that was deposited with JP Morgan was held in New York in JP Morgan’s vault or in the name of JP Morgan at the FRBNY vault.
Interestingly, given that there were 52.2 tonnes of Venezuela’s gold at the FRBNY in 1992, its notable that the totals for the gold deposit with JP Morgan, and the time deposits with BNP Paribas (US), Bank of Nova Scotia and Standard Chartered in the above table add up to a combined 51.41 tonnes, which is quite close to the 52.2 ton FRBNY total (a difference of 0.79 tonnes). So the FRBNY gold could have been divided out to these four entities in the 1990s and 2000s.
4. The 47.79 tonnes at the BIS in 1992 had, by 2011, become only 11.82 tonnes at the BIS, i.e. a drop of 35.97 tonnes. Gold deposited to the Bank of England by a foreign central bank can be transferred in and out of the BIS gold accounts at the Bank of England and also in and out of the commercial LBMA bullion bank gold accounts at the Bank of England. Given these transfer possibilities, it’s not surprising that Venezuela’s gold positions with the BIS have fluctuated widely over time.
5. From being stored with four official sector entities in 1992 (according to the BCV data), the Venezuelan gold, in 2011, was being ‘minded’ by nine entities, six of which were commercial bullion banks / investment banks.
6. Roughly speaking, the combined 100 tonnes of gold custodied by the FRBNY and the BIS in 1992 had become 112.14 tonnes in 2011 spread over the BIS, JP Morgan, Barclays, HSBC, Scotia, StanChar and BNP Paribas. This transformation in the 1990s and 2000s of custodied gold into lent gold as well as physical gold deposited with a bullion bank (in the case of JP Morgan) is in line with the BCV’s stated intention in the late 1980s to proactively move some of its gold to London (in the form of good delivery gold), so as to actively participate in the financial market for gold and earn a return on the participating gold.
The 12.14 tonne increase from 1992 to 2011 among the above entities was due to a real increase in 9.53 tonnes of Venezuela’s gold over 1992 to 2011 (non-monetary gold converted to monetary gold and sent to London) as well as a net 2.59 ton reduction in the amount of gold deposited with the Bank of England (9.53 + 2.59 = 12.12).
This 12.14 ton net increase, when added to the reduction of 35.97 tonnes held with the BIS, equals 48.11 tonnes, which is very close to the combined gold lent (time deposits) to Barclays and HSBC of 48.89 tonnes ( i.e. 45.84 + 3.05 = 48.89 tonnes), and just leaves a 0.78 ton difference, which is the residual amount that was left over in the above FRBNY calculation. So in theory, the Barclays and HSBC time deposits could have been sourced from a transfer from Venezuela’s BIS gold account balance as well as the extra gold that the BCV sent to London in 2009 and 2010.
7. There may have been many other bullion banks that held gold time deposits for Venezuela over the period 1992 – 2011. The 2011 data is just an end-of-period snapshot. Likewise, some of Venezuela’s gold could have moved in and out of Bank of England and BIS gold accounts, and, less likely, moved in and out of a FRB gold account, over the intervening period. Without the inventory records, it’s not possible to know.
Changes to Venezuela’s gold reserves since early August 2011
Venezuela’s current gold holdings (in May 2015) of 367.6 tonnes versus early August 2011 total holdings of 366 tonnes mask some fluctuations over the period which were due to various small purchases and sale transactions.
“Purchases of gold made by the BCV in the country reached 1.6 tonnes of fine gold for Bs. 328.88 million. In 2012, 3.6 tonnes of non-currency gold in stock were refined to the condition of good delivery. Those bars bought directly from the domestic market comprised this stock. This amount was monetized and included as asset of the reserves in currency gold of the issuing body, thus maintaining the same heritage of the previous year.”
“According to the latest IMF data, Venezuela sold 3.7 tonnes in August alone, bringing total sales so far this year to about 10.9 tonnes. Venezuela now has 362 tonnes of gold reserves, compared to 372.9 tonnes at the beginning of this year .”
Other small purchases since the end of 2012 brought the total back up to the current 367 tonnes.
How many Gold Bars did Venezuela have in August 2011?
In the BCV’s 2011 Economic Report (see link above) on page 92, it states that:
“El instituto emisor logró la repatriación de 160 toneladas de oro monetario (12.819 barras good delivery)”
“The Central Bank managed the repatriation of 160 tonnes of monetary gold (12,819 good delivery bars)”
In a Venezuelan media article from November 2011, it states that:
“El pasado 23 de agosto, Merentes anunció la repatriación de 16.908 lingotes de oro de los 29.265 lingotes que Venezuela posee.”
“On August 23, Merentes announced the repatriation of 16,908 gold bullion ingots of the 29,265 ingots that Venezuela owns.”
These bar numbers roughly equate to tonnes as follows. Assuming a good delivery bar is a 400 oz bar, then 12,819 bars = 159.49 tonnes, and 16,908 bars = 210.36 tonnes, and the difference of 4,089 bars = 50.87 tonnes. The total of 29,265 bars = 364.10 tonnes. These figures are very close to the stated gold totals in the above BCV table from August 2011.
The reference to 16,908 bars was therefore assuming that all the gold held abroad was being repatriated, which turned out not to be the case and approximately 50 tonnes was left behind at the Bank of England in London. From the numbers above we therefore know that Venezuela owned 29,265 bars in total, with 16,908 bars held abroad (including claims on bars containing the equivalent number of fine ounces that were deposited or lent), of which 12,819 bars were repatriated, and 4,089 bars left in the Bank of England’s vaults. It also means that there were 12,357 bars held in the BCV vaults in Caracas before the gold repatriation started, and 25,176 bars in the BCV vaults when the repatriation completed.
Both the gold repatriated and the gold left in the Bank of England are assumed to be entirely made up of London Good Delivery bars, since all the bars that entered the London market would have to be Good Delivery bars. The gold that was in the BCV vaults in Caracas prior to the repatriation is assumed to entirely consist of US Assay Office or other US Mint ‘melts’. Therefore, following repatriation of the gold, 50.92% of the bars in the BCV vaults should have been London Good Delivery bars, and 49.08% should have been in the form of US ‘melts’.
Since there were 211.35 tonnes of Venezuela’s gold stored abroad, the average fineness of the good delivery bars was 401.875 fine ounces. Since there were 154.47 tonnes of Venezuela’s gold stored in Caracas before the repatriation, most if not all of which were in the form of US Assay Office melt bars, the average fineness of these bars was therefore 401.90 fine ounces. This is assuming the ingot numbers are correct and that they were not reverse calculated in any way by the BCV from older records of bar numbers and fine ounces.
The Chávez declaration from 8 August 2011 called for the transfer of gold back to Venezuela so that 90% of the country’s gold would end up stored in the BCV vaults, and interestingly, it envisaged that the gold transfers would be completed by October 2011.
This timeline of an August – October repatriation never materialised, and the gold shipments to Caracas only commenced in late November 2011 and ended on the last day of January 2012. It’s unclear as to what caused this delay or indeed if the October deadline was merely an unrealistic expectation by Chavez and the BCV, or a real delay caused by gold sourcing or other logistical issues from the Bank of England, BIS and bullion banks. Neither the BCV nor the media (Venezuelan or international) appears to have covered or explained this shifting completion deadline.
What is clear is that the move by Venezuela to repatriate very large quantities of gold, which was publicly announced in early August 2011, was one of the key drivers that caused a run-up in the gold price before, during, and after August 2011, and which culminated in a multi-year high price of over $1900 on 6 September 2011. See BullionStarChart for US Dollar gold price movements before, during, and after August 2011.
With five bullion banks needing to provide nearly 83 tonnes of gold to Venezuela in a short space of time so as to close out their gold deposit liabilities, it would be realistic to assume that this had a material impact on bullion demand in the London and possibly wider gold market. Based on normal protocols as well as market intelligence, the bullion banks in question, as well as the BIS and Bank of England would most likely have known about the approaching BCV/Chavez announcement for a significant period of time prior to August 2011.
As to whether demand tightness was heightened even more by Venezuela’s closing out of physical deposits with the Bank of England, BIS and JP Morgan is hard to quantify. It would depend on the extent to which these deposits were free of other claims, that might necessitate sourcing replacement gold elsewhere.
The manner in which all of the gold was sourced for fulfilling Venezuela’s repatriation request may never fully be known. What is known is that the repatriation operations to fly the gold to Caracas International Airport, and transport it to the BCV’s downtown vaults, included some of the largest and most public gold moving operations that most people are ever likely to witness.
These operations, over a two month period from the end of November 2011 to the end of January 2012 included gold flown in on Air France and World Airways aircraft.
Part 2 of this Venezuelan gold reserves analysis, titled “Venezuela’s Gold Reserves – Part 2: From Repatriation to Reactivation“, covers the gold repatriation operations and these very public airport operations, and features some interesting videos of the transport operations taken by camera crews who were effectively part of the operation. Part 2 also covers the extensive re-involvement with Venezuela’s gold reserves by some of the largest names in global investment banking.
According to a Reuters report from 24 April, the central bank of El Salvador, Banco Central de Reserva de El Salvador (BCR), sold approximately 80% of its gold reserves during March 2015. This sale comprised 5.412 tons of gold and raised $206 million for the Bank.
Reuters initiated its story based on updates to the International Monetary Fund’s gold reserve data, which this month was updated on 24 April. Each month, the IMF updates its International Financial Statistics dataset with economic data (on a one to two month lag) including country gold reserve data reported to it by member countries.
However, the Reuters story was very brief and failed to explain any of the details about El Salvador’s gold or the March gold sales. Therefore, to correct this situation, the full story is explained below.
IMF gold reserve data by country
The IMF elibrary web site is the entry point for retrieving monthly country gold reserve data (by volume in fine troy ounces) for any IMF member country. Note that on the IMF’s site, gold reserve data is part of the International Financial Statistics (IFS) dataset and not part of the International Reserves dataset. The IFS dataset was subscription-based until January 2015, after which the IMF made a number of datasets, including IFS, free to access.
IFS gold reserve data for El Salvador shows that starting with a total of 223,000 ounces of gold in November 2014, the central bank’s gold reserves fell by 5,000 ozs to 218,000 ozs in December 2014, before dropping by another 174,000 ozs to 44,000 ozs in March 2015, making an overall fall of 179,000 ozs between November and March. See table below:
Looking at El Salvador’s quarterly gold reserve data since Q2 2014, as well as its annual gold reserve data since 2011, shows that the only movements in the country’s gold holdings over the last 4 years were the December 2014 and March 2015 gold sales. See table below:
However, the best source of information on the Banco Central de Reserva de El Salvador’s (BCR) gold holdings, is of course, the bank’s own publications. The BCR, like a number of other central banks in the region, divulges relatively more information about its gold holdings than most other central banks in other parts of the world.
The Bank for International Settlements, Barclays and Scotia
Section 7 of this statement addresses the BCR’s gold deposits (Depósitos en Oro) and is quite detailed in the information that it provides. See screenshot below:
As of 30th September 2014, the BCR claimed a gold holding of 223,113.213 troy ounces. Exactly 85% of this gold holding (189,646 ozs) was said to be held as deposits of physical gold (Depósitos de oro físico) with the Bank for International Settlements (BIS). The BIS offers gold “safekeeping and settlements facilities” that are “available loco London, Berne or New York“, i.e. the BIS maintains gold accounts in three locations, so El Salvador’s gold could have been held with the BIS in any of these three locations.
The remainder of the gold holdings comprised 31 day time deposits in gold (Depósitos a plazo en oro) placed with two bullion banks, and derivative coverage (Derivado de Cobertura) with the BIS in the form of two put options entered into in March 2014.
The time deposits in gold were placed in equal sizes with Barclays Bank and the Bank of Nova Scotia. Each of these time deposits represented 7.5% of El Salvador’s gold holdings, specifically 16,733 ozs with Barclays and 16,734 ozs with Scotia, and 15% in total. The combined deposits also totalled 33,467 ozs, just over 1 ton. Interest on gold deposits is usually paid in gold that accrues and is added to the outstanding deposit total, so this amount in excess of 1 ton may represent interest payable to the BCR by the bullion banks.
Note that both Barclays and Scotia were two of the member banks of the recently defunct London Gold Market Fixing Company which managed the daily London gold fixings, and the two banks are also now two of the seven participants in the new LBMA Gold Price auction which recently replaced the gold fixings. Barclays and Scotia are also two of the six member bullion clearing banks which constitute London Precious Metals Clearing Ltd (LPMCL).
There was also a residual line item under the BCR’s time deposits in gold attributed to a third bullion bank, Standard Chartered. Finally, the BIS derivatives coverage line item accounted for 2,180 ozs.
At the stated valuation price of $1,216.50 per ounce, the above totals add up to 225,293 ozs of gold, but subtracting the derivatives line item of 2,180 ozs yields 223,113 ozs, which is the total gold holding that the BCR claims to hold. The gold representing the derivatives (put options explained below) line item seems to represent a loss on the puts expressed in gold that the BCR makes an adjustment for by subtracting it from its ‘total’ gold holding, hence it reported a gold holding of 223,113 ozs.
The last notes to the above section 7 state that:
“OnMarch 12, 2014, twoput options with a maturity of one year were entered into, with a notional value of11,200and211,913.213troyounces respectively, atan exercise priceof US $1,100.00per troyounce.
However, on 30 June the BCR had an active time deposit in gold placed with Standard Chartered as well as with Barclays and Scotia, and so was using three bullion banks for placing its gold deposits.
Using a valuation price of $1,315 per troy ounce, the June report shows that Barclays held a time deposit in gold for the BCR of 16,733 ozs, Scotia held a deposit of 8,467 ozs and Standard Chartered held a deposit of 8,267 ozs. These deposits also rolled over with a one month maturity.
The gold deposit with Barclays in June 2014 is identical to that of September 2014, so it was just being renewed by the BCR every month and rolling over with Barclays. Note that the Scotia and StanChar deposits of 8,267 ozs and 8,467 ozs respectively, add up to 16,734 ozs, so between June and September, these two deposits were combined at some point when they matured and were then placed together with Scotia.
In the June accounts, the amount of gold attributed to the ‘derivatives’ (put options) is only 711 ozs, or US$935,761 and so the total amount of gold listed below adds up to 223,825 ozs. Subtracting the 711 ozs (loss) again gives 223,113 ozs, the BCR’s published gold holding. Gold was trading at about $1,300 in June 2014 but there was still about 9 months left until the expiration date of the options.
Gold Deposits = Gold Lending
It’s important to grasp what these gold deposits with bullion banks are. This is merely gold lending by a central bank which has lent this gold out to LBMA bullion banks at very low deposit rates of maybe 0.5% – 1.00%. The LBMA bullion banks, at the time the lending first occurred, obtained the physical gold and immediately sold it.
These are short-term gold deposits, which keep maturing every month or so, therefore a central bank has to keep renewing them, either with the same LBMA bullion bank or another LBMA bullion bank which is in the market quoting to take these deposits. The central banks do this by sending MT60* series SWIFT messages to the bullion banks. These gold deposits that a central bank puts out can stay out for years and years after they were first entered into. For example, Bolivia has had gold deposits out with LBMA bullion banks since 1997, or over 17 years. I will write about Bolivia’s gold lending in detail at some point.
None of the LBMA bullion banks actually has this gold on deposit, since its been sold. The banks just take over the obligation to pay the gold back to the central bank. So the claims that the central bank has to the bullion banks just keep switching around. One month the claims could be on Barclays, Scotia and Standard Chartered. A few months later the claims could be to Natixis, BNP Paribas and HSBC etc etc.
Lots of central banks engage in this activity, they just don’t report it in as much detail as, for example, El Salvador or Bolivia. The Austrian federal auditors recently published a report which showed that Austria’s central bank, the OeNB, was actively engaging in gold lending with multiple bullion banks, with up to 10 counter-parties in 2009. See here.
Selling its Gold did not make sense for El Salvador
In its 24 April story, Reuters reported from San Salvador that a central bank of El Salvador official had said that the gold sales were to “diversify risk and take advantage of the metal’s appreciation”, as well as to protect the Bank’s reserve portfolio “against market volatility”. This explanation doesn’t make a lot of sense especially since the put options were out of the money in March 2015.
Firstly, the gold price has not appreciated very much recently, and in US dollar terms it has fallen notably since September 2011. El Salvador’s gold holdings did not change at all over 2011-2014 and their value went down, not up. So, at this time, the reference to the “metal’s appreciation” is bogus, since even if the cost price was substantially lower, a far better time to sell would have been in 2011-2012.
Secondly, gold as a reserve asset in a central bank reserve portfolio is held precisely because it provides diversification and can act as an inflation hedge, currency hedge and also represents a reserve asset or war chest of last resort. In the World Gold Council’s latest ‘World_Official_Gold_Holdings_as_of_April2015_IFS’ report from early April, when El Salvador was listed as holding 6.8 tons of gold, this represented 9.9% of the BCR’s total reserves.
Emerging market central banks have been actively increasing their gold reserves in recent years, so as to increase the gold percentage in their reserves to something approaching 10%. Since El Salvador had an enviable ratio of nearly 10% of gold to total reserves that many emerging central banks are striving to reach, it does not make any sense as to why the BCR suddenly turned around and ruined this ratio, by selling nearly four-fifths of its gold. The BCR’s gold to total reserves ratio is now a miniscule 2% of its total reserve portfolio. There may therefore have been other considerations at play between El Salvador and the BIS such as the BIS suggesting the sale.
So, which gold did El Salvador sell?
Recall that the BCR’s two put options with the BIS were entered into on 12 March 2014 and had a maturity of one year and a strike price of US$ 1,100 per troy ounce. One put was for a notional value of 11,200 troy ounces and the other was for a notional value of 211,913.213 troy ounces. But with the strike price at $1,100 there was no value in exercising them.
For the month of March, the US dollar gold price traded in a range from about $1,220 down to $1,150. From 2nd to 12th March, gold also traded roughly in a range from near $1,220 at the start of the month, down to near $1,150 on 12th March, but still above $1,100.
Recall that as of 30 September 2014, the central bank of El Salvador had 223,113 ozs of gold, of which 189,646 ozs was held in “deposits of physical gold” with the BIS, and 33,467 ozs was held as time deposits of gold with commercial bullion banks.
In November 2014, as stated, the Salvadoreans sold 5,000 oz, leaving 218,113 ozs, and then the major sale occurred in March 2015 of 174,000 oz (or 5.412 tons). In total that’s 179,000 ozs of sales, leaving El Salvador with 44,000 ozs.
Since the Salvadoreans had 189,646 ozs on deposit with the BIS and needed to sell 179,000 ozs, the gold sold was most definitely sold to the BIS or to another party with the BIS acting as agent. On its website, under ‘foreign exchange and gold services”, the BIS states that it offers “purchases and sales of gold: spot, outright, swap or options“.
It would not make sense to sell some or all of the time deposits that are out with the bullion banks such as Barclays and Scotia, since a large chunk of the BCR gold at the BIS would have to be sold also. It would be far easier to just deal with one set of transactions at the BIS. And additionally, the bullion banks do not have El Salvador’s gold, they would need to use their own stocks or go out into the market to buy gold in order to repay the BCR.
The above would leave the time deposits of 33,467 ozs (and accrued interest) out with the bullion banks, rolling over each month as usual. The other roughly 11,000 ozs that the BCR held with the BIS could be left with the BIS, or else this too could be put out on deposit with the bullion banks.
The case of the El Salvador gold sales demonstrates that central banks can and do use the gold depositing facilities of the Bank for International Settlements, and also the gold lending services of LBMA commercial bullion banks such as Barclays, the Bank of Scotia and Standard Chartered amongst many others. The case of El Salvador also shows that central banks actively use derivatives such as put options within the management of the gold component of their reserve portfolios.
It would be naive to think that the bullion banks and the BIS are just providing these services to small emerging market central banks in Central America. It would be more realistic to suggest that the bullion banks and the BIS are providing these gold reserve portfolio services (with scale) to many central banks.
It’s also a shame that neither Reuters nor any other financial news organisation sees fit to write anything of substance about El Salvador or other central banks and the real workings of the interbank and BIS gold market given that it’s not that difficult to produce an article such as the above within a few hours of research and writing.
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.
“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)”
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 partof 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.”
“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.“
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:
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 necessaryunder 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.”
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