Tag Archives: Bank of Russia

Turkey and Russia Highlight Gold’s Role as a Strategically Important Asset

On 17 April, Turkish news publication Ahval published a report stating that during 2017, Turkey withdrew 26.8 tonnes of gold that it had stored in the vaults of the New York Federal Reserve, and moved this gold under the custodianship of the Bank of England and the Bank for International Settlements (BIS).

The source of the Ahval report was a Turkish language article from the popular Hürriyet newspaper in Turkey. According to the Hürriyet report, also dated 17 April, which reported on the latest annual report of the Turkish Central Bank (Türkiye Cumhuriyet Merkez Bankası), Turkey’s central bank increased its gold holdings by 83.3 tonnes during 2017, 37.7 tonnes of which it purchased in the gold trading market of Borsa Istanbul, Turkey’s securities and precious metals exchange.

But of most interest, according to Hürriyet, was that the Turkish central bank also withdrew 28.6 tonnes of gold from the New York Federal Reserve in what it called a ‘complete reset‘, implying that this 28.6 tonnes of gold was the total gold holding that the Turkish central bank stored with the New York Fed at that time. The gold withdrawn from the Fed was then placed with the Bank of England and the BIS. Hürriyet portrays this gold movement as a ‘diplomatic crisis‘ between Turkey and the US, connected to potential military operations by the US against Syria.

New York Federal Reserve gold holdings in tonnes, 2 years to February 2018  

Whether the withdrawal of the Turkish gold was in the form of gold location swaps between the NY Fed and the BIS and Bank of England, or whether the gold was actually withdrawn and shipped to Europe was not mentioned. NY Fed gold holdings did not materially change at all during 2018, so it appears that the withdrawal was in the form of gold swaps between the NY Fed, Bank of England and BIS.

Additionally, most gold held at the NY Fed is in the form of US Assay Office gold bars that are no longer accepted as ‘Good Delivery’ gold bars on the international market, so if the withdrawal was a physical one, the gold bars would need to be sent to a gold refinery while in transit to be converted into modern ‘Good Delivery’ bars before being deposited with the Bank of England and BIS. An inconvenience most nation-state gold holders would want to avoid.

The BIS does not have its own golds storage facilities, but instead uses the storage facilities of the Bank of England in London, the Swiss National Bank in Berne, and indeed the New York Fed, maintaining gold accounts at each of these three locations which it describes as “loco London, Berne and New York“.

Turkish gold reserves as reported by its central bank are unusual in that the reported figure of 591 tonnes includes gold which Turkish commercial banks hold with the central bank as part of their gold required reserves. Stripping these commercial bank gold holdings out, the Turkish Central Bank held 202 tonnes of gold of its own at the end of 2017, up from 116 tons held in May of 2017, an increase of 86 tonnes during 2017.

With Turkey’s complete withdrawal of its gold from the gold vaults of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York (FRBNY) under the FRBNY’s headquarters at 33 Liberty in Manhattan, the question must be asked how many other central banks that perceive the United States as a threat have done likewise or are considering doing likewise. The 2008 version of the NY Fed’s brochure ‘Key to the Gold Vault‘ stated that the Fed’s vaults under its headquarters in Manhattan stored gold on behalf of 36 central banks.

Since this Fed brochure was published than 10 years ago, the figure of 36 foreign central banks is surely out of date and needs updating and indeed downsizing. Perhaps a question to the Fed from an enterprising reporter from the Wall Street Journal or another US newspaper would set the record straight on this issue, although the Fed is famously secretive on this issue, and US mainstream financial media are almost always satisfied with a ‘no comment’ answer from the Fed.

All of the Russian Federation’s Gold Stored In Russia

Following a year in which the central bank for the Russian Federation added 214 tonnes of gold to its strategic gold reserves from January to December 2017, the Russian Federation through the Bank of Russia now continues to aggressively accumulate its gold reserves in 2018, keeping it in fifth place in world sovereign gold reserve rankings, ahead of China.

During March the Bank of Russia added another 9.3 tonnes, and now reports holding 1891 tonnes of gold, 49 tonnes more than the reported holdings of the Chinese central bank.

While Russian gold reserve accumulation is ongoing and to be expected, this week the chairman of the Russian State Duma Committee on Financial Markets, Anatoly Aksakov saw fit to react to the news that Turkey had withdrawn its gold from the New York Fed vaults, and confirmed that all of Russia’s gold reserves are stored on domestic soil within Russia.

The Bank of Russia added 9.3 tonnes of gold to its strategic gold reserves in March 2018

According to RT.com, Aksakav said this week that:

We do not have a gold reserve in the US, we have only Forex (foreign exchange) reserves abroad. No one can lay hands on our gold.

With US sanctions imposed on the Russian Federation, this domestic gold storage policy by the Bank of Russia is probably to be expected but still reiterates the importance that Russia attributes to ring-fencing its gold reserves away from possible political risks and possible confiscation. As senior Bank of Russia official Dmitry Tulin told Reuters  in May 2016:

“Russia is increasing its gold holdings because gold is a reserve asset that is free from legal and political risks”.

According to the Bank of Russia, two-thirds of its gold reserves are held in Moscow in a Bank building on Ulitsa Pravdy (Pravda Street), with the remaining one-third of the gold reserves stored in a building in St Petersburg.  Recently, Russian media were allowed access to the Moscow vault, and documented a huge quantity of large gold bars (Good Delivery bars) stored in rows of metal cages, as the photos at this link clearly display.

Bank of Russia gold stored securely in vault in Moscow

Back in Turkey, Erdogan also made some eye-opening remarks this April about the potential role of gold in international lending. According to Turkish daily Hürriyet, while making a speech in Istanbul on 16 April 2018, Erdogan revealed that he had made a suggestion on this subject at a recent Group of Twenty (G20) meeting, asking:

“Why do we make all loans in dollars? Let’s use another currency. I suggest that the loans should be made based on gold.”

Erdogan also added that:

“with the dollar the world is always under exchange rate pressure. We should save states and nations from this exchange rate pressure. Gold has never been a tool of oppression throughout history.”

These soundings by Erdogan about international loans denominated in gold, coupled with the context of a ‘diplomatic crisis‘ between Turkey and the USA which precipitated the gold repatriation by Turkey away from the NY Fed, both underscore the extreme importance with which nation states regard physical gold as a strategic metal, and the lengths to which nation states such as Russia and Turkey will go to protect their interests against what they perceive as political risks from storing the yellow metal in locations where it might be seized or commandeered.

It may also not have been a coincidence that it was in May 2017 that Erdogan and his entourage visited Washington DC, and it was at this point in May 2017 that the Central Bank of Turkey also began to ramp up its gold purchases after a period of no accumulation, adding on average 11 tonnes of gold to its reserves between May 2017 and December 2017.

While the NY Fed gold vault figures do not show any net gold withdrawals during 2018, it may have been in May 2017 that Erdogan made the call to move Turkey’s New York stored bullion back to less politically risky storage locations in Europe.

Central Banks Care about the Gold Price – Enough to Manipulate it!

In early March, RT.com, the Russian based media network, asked me for comments and opinion on the subject of central bank manipulation of gold prices.

The comments and opinion that I supplied to RT became the article that RT then exclusively published on its website on 18 March under the title “Central banks manipulating & suppressing gold prices – industry expert to RT“.

This article is now transcribed below, here on the BullionStar website.

Central bank gold price suppression is a well-documented fact. Central banks have a long and colorful history of manipulating the gold price. This manipulation has taken many shapes and forms over the years. It also shouldn’t be surprising that central banks intervene in the gold market given that they also intervene in all other financial markets. It would be naive to think that the gold market should be any different.

n fact, gold is a special case. Gold to central bankers is like the sun to vampires. They are terrified of it, yet in some ways they are in awe of it. Terrified since gold is an inflation barometer and an indicator of the relative strength of fiat currencies. The gold price influences interest rates and bond prices. But central bankers (who know their job) are also in awe of gold since they respect and understand gold’s value and power within the international monetary system and the importance of gold as a reserve asset.

So central banks are keenly aware of gold, they hold large quantities of it in their vaults as a store of value and as financial insurance, but they are also permanently on guard against allowing a fully free market for gold in which they would not have at least some form of influence over price direction and market sentiment.

The Central Bankers’ Central Bank

The Bank for International Settlements (BIS) crops up frequently in gold price manipulation as the central coordination venue and the guiding hand behind a lot of the gold price suppression plans. This is true in all decades from the 1960s right the way through to the 2000s. If you want to know about central bank gold price manipulation, the BIS is a good place to start. Unfortunately the BIS is a law onto itself and does not answer to anyone, except its central banks members.

In the 1960s, central bank manipulation of the gold price was conducted in the public domain, predominantly through the London Gold Pool. This was in the era of a fixed official gold price of $35 an ounce. Here the US Treasury and a consortium of central banks from Western Europe explicitly kept the gold price near $35 an ounce, coordinating their operation from the Bank for International Settlements (BIS) in Basel, Switzerland, while using the Bank of England in London as a transaction agent. This price manipulation broke down in March 1968 when the US Treasury ran out of good delivery gold, which triggered the move to a “free market” gold price.

Central banks continued to suppress gold prices in the 1970s both through efforts to demonetize gold and also dump physical gold into the market to dampen price action. These sales were unilateral e.g. US Treasury gold sales in 1975 and over 1978-1979, and also coordinated (and orchestrated by the US) e.g. IMF gold sales across 1976-1980.

Gold Pool 2.0 – Force it Down Quick and Hard

Collusion to manipulate the price also went underground, for example in late 1979 and early 1980 when the gold price was rocketing higher, the same central banks from the London Gold Pool again met at the opaque BIS in Switzerland at the behest of the US Treasury and Federal Reserve in an attempt to launch a new and secretive Gold Pool to reign in the gold price. This was essentially a revival of the old gold pool, or Gold Pool 2.0.

These meetings, which are not very well known about, were of the G10 central bank governors, i.e. at the highest levels of world finance. All of the discussions are documented in black and white in the Bank of England archives and can be read on the BullionStar website.

Gold for Oil: A Novel Twist to the Gold Pool Operation

The wording in these discussions is very revealing and show the contempt which central bankers feel about a freely functioning gold market.

Phrases used in these meetings include:

there is a need to break the psychology of the market” and “no question of any permanent stabilisation of the gold price, merely at a critical time holding it within a target area” and  “to stabilise the price within a moving band” and “it would be easy and nice for central banks to force the price down hard and quickly“.

And these meetings of top central bankers were in early 1980, 11 years after the London Gold Pool and 8 years after the US Treasury reneged on its commitment in August 1971 to convert foreign holdings of US dollars into gold.

Whether this new BIS gold pool was rolled out in the 1980s is open to debate, but it was discussed across the board for months by the Governors at the BIS, and may have been introduced in a form which would provide physical gold to the oil producers (gold for oil trades) without putting a rocket under the gold price. Their main worry was to allow the Middle Eastern oil producers to acquire some gold for oil without pushing the gold price up.

The Bank of England was also involved in the 1980s in influencing prices in the London Gold Fix auctions, in what an ex Bank of England staffer described euphemistically as ‘helping the fixes’. And the Bank of England has even at times used terminology in the 1980s such as “smoothing operations” and “stabilisation operations” when referring to coordinated central bank efforts to control the gold price.

This article first appeared on RT.com on 18 March 2018

Paper Gold Ponzi

Probably two of the most influential changes on the gold market in the modern era are structural changes to the gold market which channel gold demand away from physical gold and into paper gold. These two changes were the introduction of unallocated accounts and fractionally backed gold holdings in the London Gold market from the 1980s onwards, and the introduction of gold futures trading in the US in January 1975.

In unallocated gold trading in the London OTC market, gold trades are cash-settled and there is rarely any physical delivery of gold. The trading positions are merely claims against bullion banks who don’t hold anywhere near the amount of gold to back up the claims. Unallocated bullion is therefore just a synthetic paper gold position that provides exposure to the gold price but doesn’t drive demand for physical gold.

When gold futures were launched in the US in January 1975, the primary reason for their introduction, according to a US State Department cable at the time, was to create an alternative to the physical market that would syphon off demand for gold, creating trading that would dwarf the physical market, and which would also ramp up volatility which in turn would deter investors from investing in physical gold. Gold futures are also fractionally backed and overwhelmingly cash-settled, and their trading volumes are astronomical multiples of actual delivery volumes.

Central banks as regulators of financial markets are therefore ultimately responsible for allowing the emergence of fractional reserve gold trading in London and New York. This trading undermines the demand for physical gold and allows the world gold price to be formed in these synthetic gold trading venues. Price discovery is not happening in physical gold markets. Its is happening in the London OTC (unallocated) and COMEX derivative markets. So this is also a form of gold price manipulation since the central banks know how these markets function, but they do nothing to crack down on what are essentially gold ponzi schemes.

Imagine, for example, that central banks were as tough on paper gold as they seem to be now on crypto currency markets. Now imagine if central banks outlawed fractional gold trading or scare-mongered about it in the same way that they do about crypto currencies? What would happen is that the gold market participants would panic and unwind their paper positions, precipitating a disconnect between paper gold and physical gold markets. So by being lenient on the fractional structure of trading in the gold markets, central banks and their regulators are implicitly encouraging activities that have a dampening effect on the gold price.

Gold Lending – A Riddle wrapped in a Mystery inside an Enigma

The gold lending market, mostly centred in London, is another area in which central banks have the ability to cap the gold price. Here central banks transfer their physical gold holdings to bullion banks and this physical gold then enters the market. These transactions can either be in the form of gold loans or gold swaps. This extra supply of gold through the loans and swaps disturbs the existing supply demand balance, and so has a depressing effect on the gold price.

The gold lending market is totally opaque and secretive with no obligatory or voluntary reporting by either central bank lenders or bullion bank borrowers. The Bank of England has a major role in the gold lending market as the gold used in lending is almost all sourced from the central bank custody holding in the Bank of England’s vaults.

There is therefore zero informational efficiency in gold lending, and that’s the way the central banks like it. furthermore, freedom of information requests about gold lending are almost always shot down by central banks, even sometimes on ‘national security’ grounds.

Many central banks have lent out their gold long ago, and just hold a ‘gold receivable’ on their balance sheet, which is a claim against a bullion bank or bullion banks. These bullion banks roll over the liability to the central bank for years on end and the original gold is long gone. Since central bank gold is never independently audited, there is no independent confirmation of any of the gold that any central banks claim they have.

Gold receivables are another fiction that allows central banks to fly under the radar in the gold lending market, and central banks go to great lengths to make sure the market does not know the size and existence of outstanding gold lending and swapped gold positions.

In Febuary 1999, the BIS was again the nexus for secretive discussions about the gold market when a number of the large powerful central banks basically ordered the IMF to drop an accounting change that would have split out gold and gold receivables into two separate line items on central bank balance sheets and accounting statements. These discussions are documented in the IMF document which is available to see here.

This accounting change would have shone a light on to the scale of central bank gold lending around the world, information which would have moved gold prices far higher.

Gold Price Manipulation Hub at the BIS: the Central Banker’s Central Bank

Gold Loans and Gold Swaps – Highly Market Sensitive

However, a group of the large central banks in Europe comprising the Bank of England, the Bundesbank, the Bank de France and the European Central Bank (ECB) applied pressure to torpedo this plan as they said that “information on gold loans and swaps was highly market sensitive” and that the IMF 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.” 

Central banks also at times sell large quantities of gold, such as the Swiss gold sales in the early the 2000s, and the Bank of England gold sales in the late 1990s.While the details of such gold sales are always shrouded in secrecy, and the motivations may be varied, such as bullion bank bailouts or redistribution of holdings to other central banks, the impact of these gold sales announcements usually has a negative impact on the gold price. So gold sales announcements are another tactic that central banks use to at times keep the pressure on the price.

There are many examples of central bankers discussing interventions in the gold market. In July 1998, former Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan testified before the US Congress saying that “central banks stand ready to lease gold in increasing quantities should the price rise.

In June 2005, William R. White of the BIS in Switzerland, said that one of the aims of central bank cooperation was to “joint efforts to influence asset prices (especially gold and foreign exchange) in circumstances where this might be thought useful.

In 2008, the BIS at its headquarters in Switzerland even stated in a presentation to central bankers that one of the services it offers is interventions in the gold market.

In 2011, one of the gold traders from the BIS even stated on his LinkedIn profile that one of his responsibilities was managing the liquidity for interventions. After this was published, he quickly changed his LinkedIn profile.

Russia, China and BRICS: A New Gold Trading Network

One of the most notable events in Russia’s precious metals market calendar is the annual “Russian Bullion Market” conference. Formerly known as the Russian Bullion Awards, this conference, now in its 10th year, took place this year on Friday 24 November in Moscow. Among the speakers lined up, the most notable inclusion was probably Sergey Shvetsov, First Deputy Chairman of Russia’s central bank, the Bank of Russia.

In his speech, Shvetsov provided an update on an important development involving the Russian central bank in the worldwide gold market, and gave further insight into the continued importance of physical gold to the long term economic and strategic interests of the Russian Federation.

Firstly, in his speech Shvetsov confirmed that the BRICS group of countries are now in discussions to establish their own gold trading system. As a reminder, the 5 BRICS countries comprise the Russian Federation, China, India, South Africa and Brazil.

Four of these nations are among the world’s major gold producers, namely, China, Russia, South Africa and Brazil. Furthermore, two of these nations are the world’s two largest importers and consumers of physical gold, namely, China and Russia. So what these economies have in common is that they all major players in the global physical gold market.

Shvetsov envisages the new gold trading system evolving via bilateral connections between the BRICS member countries, and as a first step Shvetsov reaffirmed that the Bank of Russia has now signed a Memorandum of Understanding with China (see below) on developing a joint trading system for gold, and that the first implementation steps in this project will begin in 2018.

Interestingly, the Bank of Russia first deputy chairman also discounted the traditional dominance of London and Switzerland in the gold market, saying that London and the Swiss trading operations are becoming less relevant in today’s world. He also alluded to new gold pricing benchmarks arising out of this BRICS gold trading cooperation.

BRICS cooperation in the gold market, especially between Russia and China, is not exactly a surprise, because it was first announced in April 2016 by Shvetsov himself when he was on a visit to China.

At the time Shvetsov, as reported by TASS in Russian, and translated here, said:

“We (the Central Bank of the Russian Federation and the People’s Bank of China) discussed gold trading. The BRICS countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) are major economies with large reserves of gold and an impressive volume of production and consumption of the precious metal. In China, gold is traded in Shanghai, and in Russia in Moscow. Our idea is to create a link between these cities so as to intensify gold trading between our markets.”

Also as a reminder, earlier this year in March, the Bank of Russia opened its first foreign representative office, choosing the location as Beijing in China. At the time, the Bank of Russia portrayed the move as a step towards greater cooperation between Russia and China on all manner of financial issues, as well as being a strategic partnership between the Bank of Russia and the People’s bank of China.

The Memorandum of Understanding on gold trading between the Bank of Russia and the People’s Bank of China that Shvetsov referred to was actually signed in September of this year when deputy governors of the two central banks jointly chaired an inter-country meeting on financial cooperation in the Russian city of Sochi, location of the 2014 Winter Olympics.

Deputy Governors of the People’s Bank of China and Bank of Russia sign Memorandum on Gold Trading, Sochi, September 2017. Photo: Bank of Russia

National Security and Financial Terrorism

At the Moscow bullion market conference last week, Shvetsov also explained that the Russian State’s continued accumulation of official gold reserves fulfills the goal of boosting the Russian Federation’s national security. Given this statement, there should really be no doubt that the Russian State views gold as both as an important monetary asset and as a strategic geopolitical asset which provides a source of wealth and monetary power to the Russian Federation independent of external financial markets and systems.

And in what could either be a complete coincidence, or a coordinated update from another branch of the Russian monetary authorities, Russian Finance Minister Anton Siluanov also appeared in public last weekend, this time on Sunday night on a discussion program on Russian TV channel “Russia 1”.

Siluanov’s discussion covered the Russian government budget and sanctions against the Russian Federation, but he also pronounced on what would happen in a situation where a foreign power attempted to seize Russian gold and foreign exchange reserves. According to Interfax, and translated here into English, Siluanov said that:

“If our gold and foreign currency reserves were ever seized, even if it was just an intention to do so, that would amount to financial terrorism. It would amount to a declaration of financial war between Russia and the party attempting to seize the assets.”

As to whether the Bank of Russia holds any of its gold abroad is debatable, because officially two-thirds of Russia’s gold is stored in a vault in Moscow, with the remaining one third stored in St Petersburg. But Silanov’s comment underlines the importance of the official gold reserves to the Russian State, and underscores why the Russian central bank is in the midst of one of the world’s largest gold accumulation exercises.

1800 Tonnes and Counting

From 2000 until the middle of 2007, the Bank of Russia held around 400 tonnes of gold in its official reserves and these holdings were relatively constant. But beginning in the third quarter 2007, the bank’s gold policy shifted to one of aggressive accumulation. By early 2011, Russian gold reserves had reached over 800 tonnes, by the end of 2014 the central bank held over 1200 tonnes, and by the end of 2016 the Russians claimed to have more than 1600 tonnes of gold.

Although the Russian Federation’s gold reserves are managed by the Bank of Russia, the central bank is under federal ownership, so the gold reserves can be viewed as belonging to the Russian Federation. It can therefore be viewed as strategic policy of the Russian Federation to have  embarked on this gold accumulation strategy from late 2007, a period that coincides with the advent of the global financial market crisis.

According to latest figures, during October 2017 the Bank of Russia added 21.8 tonnes to its official gold reserves, bringing its current total gold holdings to 1801 tonnes. For the year to date, the Russian Federation, through the Bank of Russia, has now announced additions of 186 tonnes of gold to its official reserves, which is close to its target of adding 200 tonnes of gold to the reserves this year.

With the Chinese central bank still officially claiming to hold 1842 tonnes of gold in its national gold reserves, its looks like the Bank of Russia, as soon as the first quarter 2018, will have the distinction of holding more gold than the Chinese. That is of course if the Chinese sit back and don’t announce any additions to their gold reserves themselves.

The Bank of Russia now has 1801 tonnes of gold in its official reserves

A threat to the London Gold Market

The new gold pricing benchmarks that the Bank of Russia’s Shvetsov signalled may evolve as part of a BRICS gold trading system are particularly interesting. Given that the BRICS members are all either large producers or consumers of gold, or both, it would seem likely that the gold trading system itself will be one of trading physical gold. Therefore the gold pricing benchmarks from such a system would be based on physical gold transactions, which is a departure from how the international gold price is currently discovered.

Currently the international gold price is established (discovered) by a combination of the London Over-the-Counter (OTC) gold market trading and US-centric COMEX gold futures exchange.

However, ‘gold’ trading in London and on COMEX is really trading of very large quantities of synthetic derivatives on gold, which are completely detached from the physical gold market. In London, the derivative is fractionally-backed unallocated gold positions which are predominantly cash-settled, in New York the derivative is exchange-traded gold future contracts which are predominantly cash-settled and again are backed by very little real gold.

While the London and New York gold markets together trade virtually 24 hours, they interplay with the current status quo gold reference rate in the form of the LBMA Gold Price benchmark. This benchmark is derived twice daily during auctions held in London at 10:30 am and 3:00 pm between a handful of London-based bullion banks. These auctions are also for unallocated gold positions which are only fractionally-backed by real physical gold. Therefore, the de facto world-wide gold price benchmark generated by the LBMA Gold Price auctions has very little to do with physical gold trading.

Conclusion

It seems that slowly and surely, the major gold producing nations of Russia, China and other BRICS nations are becoming tired of the dominance of an international gold price which is determined in a synthetic trading environment which has very little to do with the physical gold market.

The Shanghai Gold Exchange’s Shanghai Gold Price Benchmark which was launched in April 2016 is already a move towards physical gold price discovery, and while it does not yet influence prices in the international market, it has the infrastructure in place to do so.

When the First Deputy Chairman of the Bank of Russia points to London and Switzerland as having less relevance, while spearheading a new BRICS cross-border gold trading system involving China and Russia and other “major economies with large reserves of gold and an impressive volume of production and consumption of the precious metal”, it becomes clear that moves are afoot by Russia, China and other nations to bring gold price discovery back to the realm of the physical gold markets. The icing on the cake in all this may be gold price benchmarks based on international physical gold trading.

Neck and Neck: Russian and Chinese Official Gold Reserves

Note: This article has now been updated to reflect the fact that during September 2017, the Bank of Russia added a further 1.1 million ounces of gold (34 tonnes) to its gold reserves. This information was released by the Bank of Russia on Friday 20 October.

Official gold reserve updates from the Russian and Chinese central banks are probably one of the more closely watched metrics in the gold world. After the US, Germany, Italy and France, the sovereign gold holdings of China and Russia are the world’s 5th and 6th largest. And with the gold reserves ‘official figures’ of the US, Germany, Italy and France being essentially static, the only numbers worth watching are those of China and Russia.

The Russian Federation’s central bank, the Bank of Russia, releases data on its official gold holdings in the Bank’s monthly “International Reserves and Foreign Currency Liquidity” report which is published towards the end of the third week of each month, and which confirms gold reserve changes as of the previous month-end.

The Chinese State releases data on its official gold holdings via a monthly “Official Reserve Assets” report published by the State Administration of Foreign Reserves (SAFE) that is uploaded within the Forex Reserves pages of the SAFE website. This gold is classified as held by the Chinese central bank, the People’s Bank of China (PBoC). The SAFE report is published during the 2nd week of each month, reporting on the previous month-end.

In both reports, official gold reserves (i.e. monetary gold) are specified in both US Dollars and fine troy ounces. Monetary gold is gold that is held by a central bank or other monetary authority as a reserve asset on a central bank’s balance sheet.

Delta: 63 Tonnes

For the Bank of Russia, its latest report, published on 19 September 2017 addressing August month-end, shows the Bank holding 57.2 million fine troy ounces of gold (1779 tonnes). For the Chinese State, the latest SAFE release is reporting Chinese official gold reserves of 59.24 million ounces (1842 tonnes).

Russian gold reserves, as officially reported, now total 1779 tonnes, and are now just 63 tonnes shy of the ‘official’ gold reserves of the Chinese central bank. Given that the Bank of Russia is expected to add about another 36 tonnes of gold to its official reserves during the remainder of 2017,  then if the Chinese State does not reveal any increase in its ‘official’ gold reserves between now and the first quarter of 2018, Russia will most likely surpass China in terms of official gold reserves by April 2018.

While its possible and probable that the Chinese State / PBoC really holds more gold than it claims to hold, any upcoming scenario in which the Bank of Russia surpasses the People’s Bank of China in terms of gold holdings would at least be symbolic in terms of international monetary developments, and would be sure to generate some chatter in the financial press.

Although the official gold reserves of these two key nations are now nearly neck and neck, there are still some interesting contrasts between them, not least the way in which the Bank of Russia’s reported gold holdings have been steadily increasing month on month, while the reported gold holdings of the People’s Bank of China have remained totally unchanged for nearly a year now, since the end of October 2016.

Therefore the situation which is now emerging, i.e. the distinct possibility that Russian official gold reserves will surpass those of China something in early 2018, is a situation which is emerging precisely because the Russian Federation keeps adding to its gold reserves, while the Chinese State seemingly does not.

Differing Styles of Communication

The routes via which these two strategically important nations have amassed their official gold reserves are also quite different, at least at a public reporting level.

Bank of Russia
Bank of Russia Gold Reserves: 2006 – September 2017

It wasn’t so long ago (2007) that the gold reserves of the Russian Federation were still in the region of 400 tonnes. However, beginning in about the third quarter of 2007, the Bank of Russia began a concerted campaign to rapidly expand its official gold holdings, a trend which never subsided and which has been ongoing now for exactly 10 years. By early 2011, official Russian gold reserves had exceeded 800 tonnes. By the end of 2014, the Bank of Russia was reporting holding more than 1200 tonnes of gold. And by the end of 2016, Russian official gold were more than 1600 tonnes. For full details on the Bank of Russia’s gold holdings, including gold storage, gold reserve management, gold purchases and Russian government views on gold, see “Bank of Russia, Central Bank Gold Policies” at BullionStar’s Gold University.

From the above chart, it can be seen that during 2014, 2015 and 2016, respectively, the Bank of Russia added 171 tonnes, 208 tonnes, and 199 tonnes to its gold reserves, or in total 578 tonnes over a 3 year period. In 2017, with the Bank of Russia having added another 164 tonnes of gold for the year to end of August, its official gold reserves now stand at 1779 tonnes.

The route to the Chinese State accumulating 1842 tonnes of gold is a different one to that of the Russians, again at least from a publicly reported angle. While the Bank of Russia has historically published changes to its gold reserves on a monthly basis, the Chinese central bank has chosen to remain very secretive, and between 2001 and mid 2015 had only issued four public updates addressing the size and growth of its gold reserves. These 4 updates were as follows:

  • 4th Quarter 2001: From 394 to 500 tonnes: A 106 tonne increase
  • 4th Quarter 2002: From 500 to 600 tonnes: A 100 tonne increase
  • April 2009: From 600 to 1,054 tonnes: A 454 tonne increase
  • July 2015: From 1,054 to 1,658 tonnes: A 604 tonne increase

Beginning in July 2015, however, the Chinese State started to report changes in its official gold reserves on a monthly basis, and by July 2016 was reporting 1823 tonnes of official gold holdings. The following graphic, taken from a BullionStar infographic on the Chinese gold market, illustrates the sporadic reporting of Chinese official gold reserves between the early 2000s and July 2015. Note that between July 2016 and October 2016, the Chinese State through SAFE reported that the PBoC had acquired another 19 tonnes of gold, taking its total reported gold reserves to 1942 tonnes as of the end of October 2016.

Chinese Official Gold
Chinese Official Gold Reserves, 2003 – 2016 Source: Chinese Gold Market Infographic, BullionStar

The sparse official reporting by the Chinese is also clear in the below chart from the GoldChartsRUS website, which shows cumulative holdings of monetary gold by the People’s Bank of China (PBoC) between 2000 and 2017. Looking at the top panel of the chart, it can be seen that between 2001 and 2015, there were only 4 distinct jumps in the quantity of gold held by the PBoC.

This was followed by a period of about 15 months from July 2015 during which SAFE reported small monthly accumulations in PBoC’s gold holdings, as can be seen from the gradual increases in the bars in the top panel from July 2015 to October 2016, and the corresponding presence of frequent activity in the monthly changes in the lower panel of the chart.

China
Official Gold Reserves of the Chinese central bank: Divulged Holdings 2000 – 2017. Source:www.GoldChartsRUs.com

By September 2016, Chinese State gold reserve holdings had reached 59.11 million ounces. In October 2016, the SAFE report announced that Chinese official gold holdings had reached 59.24 million ounces, a 0.13 million ounce increase from the previous month. However, then something unusual happened, at least in terms of monthly updates. Since October 2016, Chinese official gold reserves have not changed at all. The SAFE updates are still published each month, but the gold holdings figure has remained unchanged at 59.24 million ounces (1842 tonnes).

Therefore, for nearly a year now, the Chinese authorities are signalling that they have not acquired any new gold. At least that is what they want the public to believe. Hence the constantly recurring headlines from the financial media, such as this one from Reuters a week ago, “China gold reserves steady at 59.24 mln ounces at end-September – central bank”.

But is it true that China only holds 1842 tonnes of gold and that it has not been active during the last year in continuing to accumulate monetary gold as part of its reserve assets? And for that matter, is it the case that the Bank of Russia and Russian Federation only hold 1779 tonnes of monetary gold?

While its difficult to know for sure, it is possible that the People’s Republic of China and the Russian Federation both hold additional gold that is not reported by their monetary authorities. This is so for multiple reasons, including the opaque ways in which these monetary gold reserves are accumulated, the traditional secrecy of both governments, and the fact that both countries have access to other investment pools that might hold gold that can be transferred at short notice into the respective central banks’ official gold holdings.

How Much Gold could the Chinese State really have?

The historical track record of the Chinese State in sporadically communicating the size of its monetary gold holdings shows that there has often been a large gulf between the true size of its gold reserves and what the Chinese claimed to have via its piecemeal and rare updates. For example, even based on its official numbers, the PBoC accumulated over 600 tonnes of gold between April 2009 and July 2015 but did not reveal this until July 2015.

The nearly year-long hiatus between October 2016 and the present, during which the Chinese authorities, via SAFE, claim that the PBoC’s gold holdings have remained at 1842 tonnes, could be true, but only in so far as the Chinese State does not wish to inform the world about its sovereign gold reserves. Beyond this, the true gold holdings of the Chinese central bank may be significantly higher than even official published figures suggest.

There is very little transparency into how the Chinese authorities accumulate monetary gold. In July 2015, when SAFE announced the first update to its gold holdings since 2009, it stated that the “major channels of accumulation” of gold were from purchases in foreign markets, domestic gold production, domestic scrap sources, and other transacting in the domestic market. But beyond this, the Chinese authorities never comment on where they source gold from.

There is lots of evidence that the Chinese State purchases significant quantities of gold in the international market, including in the London Gold Market, and then monetises this gold (i.e. classifies it as monetary gold) , before transporting it back to Beijing. See “PBoC Gold Purchases: Secretive Accumulation on the International Market”, at BullionStar Gold University for further details.

The Chinese State is also a possible candidate for having purchased a tranche of the IMF’s gold during IMF gold sales in 2010. See BullionStar blog  “IMF Gold Sales – Where ‘Transparency’ means ‘Secrecy’” for further details.

There are also plenty of other State entities and state controlled entities in addition to the Chinese central bank that could conceivably be holding gold reserves that could in time be reclassified as PBoC gold, and brought into the sphere of reporting. See section “Gold Transfers from other Chinese State entities” in BullionStar Gold University article “Gold Policies of the People’s Bank of China” for further details.

There is also evidence to suggest the Chinese State is really buying about 500 tonnes of gold per year, and that it has a first step target of holding at least 4000 tonnes of gold. This evidence, which is from 3-5 years ago, comes from senior people in the China Gold Association (CGA). See section “How much gold might the PBoC be buying each year?” in article PBoC Gold Purchases.

A gold reserves-to-FX reserves ratio of 5% would currently put Chinese state gold holdings at nearly 4000 tonnes. A gold-to-GDP ratio of about 1.77%, which is the equivalent of the gold-to-GDP ratio of the US, would currently put Chinese state gold holdings at nearly 5000 tonnes of gold.

Russia: Golden Pipelines and Stockpiles

In its “Methodological Notes to International Reserves of the Russian Federation“, the  Bank of Russia defines “monetary gold”  as:

“standard gold bars and coins with a purity of at least 995/1,000 held by the Bank of Russia and the Government of the Russian Federation. It comprises gold in vault, en route and in allocated accounts, including that which is held abroad. The item monetary gold includes unallocated gold accounts with non-residents.”

The primary source of gold flowing to the Bank of Russia comes from Russian gold mining production, with the Russian Federation acquiring a large percentage of domestic gold mining production each year. In practice, a small group of state influenced Russian banks are authorised to intermediate between the gold mining companies and the State, acting as a gold pipeline between the mines and the Bank of Russia / Government. These banks finance the mining companies, purchase their gold output , have it refined into gold bars by Russian gold refineries, and then offer this gold to the Russian State.

Some of these banks include Sberbank, VTB, Gazprombank and Otkritie. For details see section “Russian Banks as bulk buyers of Russian Gold” in the Russian gold market article in BullionStar’s Gold University.

But its possible that some of this gold ends up not with the Bank of Russia, but with other Russian State entities, one of which is the “Gosfund” or “Precious Metals and Gems fund” operated by “The Gokhran”.

This Gosfund could be buying a portion of Russian gold mining output, stockpiling it, and intermittently releasing some of its stockpile to the Bank of Russia. When I asked the Gokhran last year could it reveal its gold holdings, the Gokhran replied to me that “it does not publish information about the amount of gold reserves in the Russian Gosfund nor any data about its precious metal operations.” See letter reply from Gokhran below (for those who can read Russian).

Gok
Gokhran reply January 2016 to query on whether it could publish its Gold Holdings.

Conclusion

Given the high degree of opacity with which both the Russian State and Chinese State accumulate monetary gold, and the fact that they both can probably tap additional gold stockpiles for boosting their official gold reserves, it will be interesting to see whether China, through SAFE, announces any increase in the PBoC’s gold holdings between now and the end of Q1 2018.

Because if China does not do so, the Russian Federation will soon have the distinction of being the world’s 5th largest gold holder, pushing China into 6th place. Will China update its gold holdings before the end of 2017, or at least by early 2018? Nothing is certain, but with an ‘official’ difference of only 63 tonnes of gold between them, the race is on.