On 5 February, the Financial Times of London (FT) featured a story revealing that the London Bullion Market Association (LBMA) plans to begin publishing data on the amount of real physical gold actually stored in the London precious metals vaulting network. The article titled “London gold traders to open vaults in transparency push” can be read here (accessible via FT subscription or via free monthly FT read limit).
This new LBMA ‘monthly vault data’ will, according to the FT’s sources, be published on a three-month lagged basis, and will:
“show gold bars held by the BoE, the gold clearing banks, and those [vaults] operated by the security companies such as Brink’s, which are also members of the LBMA.”
The shadowy source quoted in the FT article is attributed to “a person involved in setting up the programme”, but at the same time, although “the move [to publish the data] is being led by the LBMA“, the same LBMA ”declined to comment” for the FT story. This then has all the hallmarks of a typical authorised leak to the media so as to prepare the wider market for the data release.
On 16 February, the World Gold Council in its “Gold Investor, February 2017″ publication featured a focus box on the same gold vault topic in its “In the News” section on page 4, where it states:
“Enhanced transparency from the Bank of England
The Bank of England is, for the first time, publishing monthly data revealing the amount of gold it holds on behalf of other central banks.
As a leading custodian of gold, with one of the largest vaults in the world, the Bank of England’s decision is highly significant. Not only will it enhance the transparency of the Bank’s own gold operations; it will also support the drive towards greater transparency across the gold market.
The data reveals the total weight of gold held within the Bank of England’s vaults and includes five years of historical data.”
The Proposed Data
Based on these two announcements, it therefore looks like the gold vault data release will be a combined effort between the LBMA and the Bank of England, the blood brothers of the London Gold Market, with the Bank of England data being a subset of the overall LBMA data. While neither of the above pieces mention a release date for the first set of data, I understand that it will be this quarter, i.e. sometime before the end of March. On a 3 month lagged basis, the first lot of data would therefore probably cover month-end December 2016, because that would be a logical place to start the current dataset, rather than, for example, November 2016.
While the Bank of England data looks set to cover a 5 year historical period, there is no indication (from the FT article) that the wider LBMA vault data will do likewise. From the sparse information in the FT article, the LBMA data will “show gold bars held“. Does it mean number of gold bars, or combined weight of gold bars? What exactly it means, we will have to wait and see.
The Bank of England data will capture “total weight of gold held“. Notice that in the above World Gold Council piece it also states that the data will cover the amount of gold that the Bank of England “holds on behalf of other central banks.” There is no mention of the amount of gold that the Bank of England holds on behalf of commercial bullion banks.
Overall, this doesn’t exactly sound like it is “enhancing the transparency of the Bank’s own gold operations” as the World Gold Council puts it. Far from it. Enhancing the transparency of the Bank of England’s gold operations would require something along the lines of the following:
Identities of all central banks and official sector institutions (ECB / IMF / BIS / World Bank) holding active gold accounts at the Bank of England. Active gold accounts meaning non-zero balances
Identities of all commercial / bullion banks holding active gold accounts at the Bank of England
A percentage breakdown between the central bank gold held in the Bank of England vaults and the bullion bank gold held in the Bank of England vaults
An indicator for each gold account as to whether it is a set-aside earmarked custody account or whether it is a fine troy ounce balance account
Information for each central bank and official sector institution as to whether any of “its” gold is lent, swapped or repo’d
Information for the bullion bank gold accounts as to whether the gold recorded in those accounts is borrowed, sourced from swaps, sourced from repos, or otherwise held as collateral for loans
Information on the gold accounts of the 5 LPMCL clearing banks showing how much gold each of these institutions holds each month and whether the Bank of England supplies physical gold clearing balances to these banks
Information on when and how often the London-based gold-backed ETFs store gold at the Bank of England, not just using the Bank of England as sub-custodian, but also storage in their own names, i.e. does HSBC store gold in its own name at the Bank of England which is used to supply gold to the SPDR Gold Trust
Information on whether and how often the Bank of England intervenes into the London Gold Market and the LBMA Gold Price auctions so as to supply gold in price smoothing and price stabilisation operations in the way that the Bank of England’s Terry Smeeton seems to have been intervening into the London Gold Market in the 1980s
Information on the BIS gold holding and gold transactions settlements accounts at the Bank of England and the client sub-account details and central bank identities for these accounts
Information on gold location swaps between gold account holders at the Bank of England and gold accounts at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, the Banque de France, and the Swiss National Bank, and BIS accounts in those locations
Gold for oil swaps and oil for gold swaps
Anything less is just not cricket and does not constitute transparency.
And its important to remember that any publication of gold vault data by the LBMA and Bank of England is not being done because the LBMA suddenly felt guilty, or suddenly had an epiphany on the road to Damascus, but, as the FT correctly points out:
“the LBMA, whose members include HSBC and JPMorgan, hopes to head off the challenge and persuade regulators that banks trading bullion should not have to face more onerous funding requirements.”
The Current Data
As a reminder, there is currently no official direct data published on the quantity of real physical gold bars held within the London gold vaulting system. This vaulting system comprises the vaults of eight vault operators (see below for list).
Once a year in its annual report, the Bank of England provides a Sterling (GBP) value of gold held by its gold custody customers, while the LBMA website states a relatively static total figure of “approximately 6,500 tonnes of gold held in London vaults” that it claims are in the vaults in its network. But beyond these figures, there is currently no official visibility into the quantity of London Good Delivery gold bars held in the London vaults. There are, various ways of estimating London gold vault data using the Bank of England annual figure and the LBMA figure together with Exchange Traded Fund gold holdings and central bank divulged gold holdings at the Bank of England.
The September 2015 estimates calculated that there were 6,256 tonnes of gold in total in the London vaults, with 5,134 tonnes at the Bank of England (as of end February 2015), and 1,122 tonnes in London “not at the Bank of England“, all of which was accounted for by gold-backed ETFs which store their gold in London. These calculations implied that there was nearly zero gold stored in London outside the Bank of England that was not accounted for by ETF holdings.
The “Tracking the gold held in London” estimates from September 2016 used a figure of 6,500 tonnes of gold in total in the London vaults, and showed that there were 4,725 tonnes inside the Bank of England vaults, of which about 3,800 tonnes was known to be held by central banks (and probably a lot of the remainder was held by central banks also) and that there were 1,775 tonnes of gold outside the Bank of England. The article also calculated that there were 1,679 tonnes of gold in the gold backed ETFs that store their gold in London, so again, there was very little gold in the London vault network that was not accounted for by ETFs and central bank gold.
The Vaults of London
Overall, there are 8 vault operators for gold within the LBMA vaulting network. These 8 vault operators are as follows:
The Bank of England
HSBC Bank plc
JP Morgan Chase
ICBC Standard Bank Plc
Malca-Amit Commodities Ltd
G4S Cash Solutions (UK) Limited
Loomis International (UK) Ltd
HSBC, JP Morgan and ICBC Standard are 3 of the London Gold Market’s clearing banks that form the private company London Precious Metals Clearing Limited (LPMCL). The other two member of LPMCL are Scotia Mocatta and UBS. Brink’s, Malca-Amit, G4S and Loomis are the aforementioned security companies. The LBMA website lists these operators, alongside their headquarters addresses.
Bizarrely, the FT article still parrots the LBMA’s spoon-fed line that the vaults are “in secret locations within the M25 orbital motorway”. But this is far from the truth. Many of the London vault locations are in the public domain as has been covered, for example, on this website, and the FT knows this:
It’s slightly disappointing that we spend time and effort informing the London financial media where some of the London gold vaults are, and then they continue to parrot the LBMA’s misleading “secret locations” line. I put this fake news down to a decision by the FT editors, who presumably have a stake in playing along with this charade so as not to rock the boat with the powerful investment banks that they are beholden to.
The FT also reminds us in its article that “last year a gold vault owned by Barclays, which can house $80bn of bullion, was bought by China’s ICBC Standard Bank.“
This Barclays vault in London was built by and is operated by Brink’s, and presumably after being taken over by ICBC Standard, it is still operated by Brink’s. Logistically then, this ICBC Standard vault is most likely within the Brink’s complex, a location which is also in the public domain, and which even hosts an assay office as was previously mentioned here over a year ago. The Barclays vault (operated by Brink’s) is even mentioned in a Brink’s letter to the SEC in February 2014, which can also be seen here -> Brinks letter to SEC February 2014.
Given the fact that there are eight sets of vaults in the London vault system (as overseen by various groups affiliated to the LBMA such as the LBMA Physical Committee, the LBMA Vault Managers Working Party, the gold clearers (London Precious Metals Clearing Limited), and even the LBMA Good Delivery List referees and staff, then one would expect that whatever monthly vault data that the LBMA or its affiliates publishes in the near future, will break out the gold bar holdings and have a distinct line item in the list for each vault operator such as:
HSBC – w tonnes
JP Morgan – x tonnes
ICBC Standard – y tonnes
Brink’s – z tonnes
At the LBMA conference in Singapore last October, there was talk that there were moves afoot for the Bank of England to begin publishing data on the custody gold it holds on a more regular basis. It was also mentioned that this data could be extended to include the commercial bank and security carrier vaults but that some of the interested parties were not in favour of the idea (perhaps the representative contingents of the powerful HSBC and JP Morgan). Whatever has happened in the meantime, it looks like some data will now be released in the near future covering all of the participating vaults. What this data will cover only time will tell, but more data than less is always welcome, and these data releases might also help show how near or how far we were with earlier estimates in trying to ascertain how much gold is in the London vaulting system that is not accounted for by ETF holding or central bank holdings.
Revealing the extent of the gold lending market in London is critical though, but this is sure to remain a well-kept secret, since the LBMA bullion banks and the Bank of England will surely not want the general market to have any clue as to which central banks don’t really have any gold while still claiming to have gold (the old gold and gold receivables trick), in other words, that there is serious double counting going on, and that some of the central bank gold has long gone out the door.
It’s a common misconception that the world’s major central banks and monetary authorities own large quantities of gold bars. Most of them do not. Instead, this gold is owned by the sovereign states that have entrusted it to the respective nation’s central bank, and the central banks are merely acting as guardians of the gold. Tracing the ownership question a step further, what are sovereign states? A sovereign state is an entity with legal personality that is represented by one government. And with each government representing the people of that sovereign state, in essence, the large gold hordes managed by the central banks are in fact pools of gold owned by the state for the benefit of its citizens.
Owned by the State
When ownership of gold reserves resides with the associated sovereign state, the central bank or monetary authority is officially appointed to act on behalf of the state in holding and managing that state’s gold reserves.
For example, the Deutsche Bundesbank has stated that:
“The Deutsche Bundesbank holds and manages the national foreign reserves of the Federal Republic of Germany”
“shall hold and manage theState’s gold and currency reserves and shall enter them on the asset side of its balance sheet pursuant to the terms and conditions of an agreement it enters into with the State.”
The United Kingdom’s gold reserves are held in the Exchange Equalisation Account (EEA). The EEA is a “government account administered by Her Majesty’s Treasury (HMT)” which holds UK Government’s official international reserves, including its gold.
HMT is the UK government’s economic and finance ministry. According to the Bank of England, the Bank “acts as HMT’s Agent in the day-to-day management of the EEA” under an annual Service Level Agreement between HMT and the Bank.
China’s official gold reserves are owned by the Chinese State and managed by the Chinese central bank, the People’s Bank of China (PBoC). One of the PBoC’s stated functions is:
“Holding and managing the state foreign exchange and gold reserves“
The Russian Federation’s central bank, the Bank of Russia, manages the official Russian gold reserves, however the Bank of Russia is under ownership of the Russian Federation:
“The authorised capital and other property of the Bank of Russia shall be in federal ownership. In pursuance of its purposes and in accordance with the procedure established by this Federal Law, the Bank of Russia shall exercise its powers to own, use and manage its property, including the gold and currency (international) reserves of the Bank of Russia”
The Russian State Fund of Precious Metals and Precious Stones, a.k.a The Gokhran, may also hold Russian gold reserves. However, it doesn’t report its investments to the public. The Gokhran too is under Russian state control, since the Gokhran reports to the Russian Ministry of Finance.
The official gold reserves of the Netherlands are owned by the Netherlands state, not by the De Nederlandsche Bank (DNB). The DNB merely manages these gold reserves:
“The Dutch central Bank manages more than 600 tonnes of gold. That gold is of the State and is in essence our national nest egg.”[De Nederlandsche Bank beheert ruim 600 ton goud. Dat goud is van de staat en is in wezen ons nationale appeltje voor de dorst.]
Austria’s central Bank, Oesterreichische Nationalbank (OeNB) states that it “invests and manage the national monetary and gold reserves” of Austria in accordance with the bank’s “stability mandate”. This mandate is derived from Austria’s NationalBank Act and various EU and ECB statutes. The (OeNB) is itself, fully owned by the central government of Austria.
Switzerland’s national gold reserve policy, through which the Swiss National Bank (SNB) holds Switzerland’s gold reserves, is derived from the Swiss Federal Constitution. The Constitution grants the SNB its independence and mandate, and Article 99 of the Constitution requires that the SNB hold sufficient currency reserves / foreign exchange reserves, part of which must be in the form of gold.
Banca d’Italia and ECB
One notable exception to the above ownership pattern is Italy. Ownership of Italy’s gold reserves resides directly with the country’s central bank, the Banca d’Italia (Bank of Italy). According to the Bank:
“La proprietà delle riserve ufficiali è assegnata per legge alla Banca d’Italia” – (Ownership of official reserves is assigned by law to the Bank of Italy)
Another exception is the European Central Bank (ECB). In January 1999, when the Euro was first introduced and the then newly established ECB became responsible for a common monetary policy in the Euro area, each national central bank (NCB) participating in the Euro was required to transfer foreign reserves to the ECB so as to populate the ECB’s balance sheet with foreign reserves. Each NCB transfer was required to be in the form of 15% gold, and 85% in a combination of US dollars and Japanese yen. The initial NCB transfers in 1999 provided the ECB with 750 tonnes of gold, but left the combined gold holdings of participating NCBs and the ECB unchanged. These ECB’s foreign reserves, including gold, which now total 5050 tonnes, are managed on a decentralised basis by the NCBs. See BullionStar blog “European Central Bank gold reserves held across 5 locations. ECB will not disclose Gold Bar List” for full details.
Since the ECB is owned by its member NCBs, the ECB gold is therefore not owned by any particular state. However, it could be argued that since most of the ECB member central banks are owned by European states, then the ECB gold is collectively owned mostly by European states.
With the majority of central banks also fully owned by the state, overall this means that even in cases where a central bank ‘owns‘ the gold that it holds, that central bank will likely be under state ownership, which essentially means that the gold it controls is ultimately owned by the state.
Friction between State and Central Bank
Although central banks are usually independent from their respective country’s governments, a relationship status which provides them with a degree of day-to-day control over the management of official gold reserves, the States’ finance ministries, government auditors and government legislation will, to various extents, require input into major decisions about a country’s gold reserves, such as gold sales, gold storage location plans, and the auditing of the nation’s gold reserves.
This can sometimes cause tension between the central bank and the government, as was the case between the Deutsche Bundesbank and the German Federal court of auditors, and also seen in the case of the Austrian central bank and the Austrian Court of Auditors.
In 2011, the German Federal Court of Auditors, the Bundesrechnungshof, wrote a highly critical report concerning the Bundesbank’s lack of oversight of German gold stored at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, the Bank of England and at Banque de France. The Federal Auditors specifically took exception to the lack of physical audits by the Bundesbank of its foreign held gold. This report, which was initially confidential but which became public in October 2012, led to the Bundesbank announcing a gold repatriation program that same month, a program which was subsequently expanded in scope in January 2013.
In February 2015, the Austrian Court of Auditors issued a report addressing the Austrian central bank’s (OeNB’s) gold reserves. That report was critical of the ‘high concentration risk’ of storing over 80% of Austria’s gold at the Bank of England vaults in London. The Court of Auditors also asserted that the gold storage contract with the Bank of England was deficient and that the OeNB’s internal auditing for the gold was also deficient. Three months later the OeNB announced a program to repatriate 140 tonnes of its gold from the Bank of England back to storage sites in Austria and Switzerland.
Conclusion: Central Bank Secrecy and Arrogance
It’s well documented on this website and others that central banks are non-cooperative in disclosing important details about gold reserves which they hold and manage, details such as weight lists and auditing details. It has now been demonstrated that the majority of these central banks only ‘manage’ this gold on behalf of their respective sovereign states. The most common excuse of the central banks in their non-cooperation is confidentially, with a close second being deflecting the question, and a common third being to ignore the question.
But given that the sovereign states own the gold and that the sovereign states are represented by governments which claim to represent the citizens of those states, this secrecy and arrogance from a bunch of aloof unelected central bank bureaucrats is misplaced, unacceptable and needs to be highlighted, called out and challenged. Likewise for the elected bureaucrat finance ministers who connive and endorse this central banker behaviour or are merely ignorant and uninterested in how the central bankers conduct themselves in the gold market and towards the public who have legitimate questions about this market.
For full details of gold related policies of most of the central banks mentioned in this article, please see the following BullionStar Gold University profiles of Central Bank Gold Policies:
The European Central Bank (ECB), creator of the Euro, currently claims to hold 504.8 tonnes of gold reserves. These gold holdings are reflected on the ECB balance sheet and arose from transfers made to the ECB by Euro member national central banks, mainly in January 1999 at the birth of the Euro. As of the end of December 2015, these ECB gold reserves were valued on the ECB balance sheet at market prices and amounted to €15.79 billion.
The ECB very recently confirmed to BullionStar that its gold reserves are stored across 5 international locations. However, the ECB also confirmed that it does not physically audit its gold, nor will it divulge a bar list / weight list of these gold bar holdings.
Questions and Answers
BullionStar recently put a number of questions to the European Central Bank about the ECB’s gold holdings. The ECB Communications Directorate replied to these questions with answers that appear to include a number of facts about the ECB gold reserves which have not previously been published. The questions put to the ECB and its responses are listed below (underlining added):
Question 1: “The 2015 ECB Annual Report states that as at 31 December 2015, the ECB held 16,229,522 ounces of fine gold equivalent to 504.8 tonnes of gold. Given that the ECB gold holdings arose from transfers by the respective member central banks, could you confirm the storage locations in which this ECB gold is currently held (for example at the Bank of England etc), and the percentage breakdown of amount stored per storage location.”
ECB Response: “The gold of the ECB is located in London, Paris, Lisbon, New York and Rome. The ECB does not disclose its distribution over these places. The gold of the ECB is stored there because it was already stored there before ownership was transferred to the ECB and moving it was seen and is seen as too costly.“
Question 2: “Could you clarify as to how, if at all, this gold is audited, and whether it physical audited by the ECB or by a 3rd party?”
ECB Response: “The ECB has no physical audit of its gold bars. The gold bars that the ECB owns are individually identified and each year the ECB receives a detailed statement of these gold deposits. The central banks where the gold is stored are totally reliable.“
Question 3:“Finally, can the ECB supply a full weight list of the gold bars that comprise the 504.8 tonnes of gold referred to above?”
ECB Response: “The ECB does not disclose this information.“
London, New York, Paris, Rome, Lisbon
Given that some of the information shared by the ECB has arguably not been in the public record before, each of the 3 ECB answers above is worth further exploration.
In January 1999, when the Euro currency was created (Stage 3 of Economic and Monetary Union), each founding member national central bank (NCB) of the Euro transferred a quantity of foreign reserve assets to the ECB. Of these transfers, 85% was paid to the ECB in the form of US dollars and Japanese Yen, and 15% was paid to the ECB in the form of physical gold.
Initially in January 1999, central banks of 11 countries that joined the Euro made these transfers to the ECB, and subsequently the central banks of a further 8 countries that later joined the Euro also executed similar transfers to the ECB.
All of the foreign exchange and gold reserves that were transferred to and are owned by the ECB are managed in a decentralised manner by the national central banks that initiated the transfers. Essentially, each national central bank acts as an agent for the ECB and each NCB still manages that portion of reserves that it transferred to the ECB. This also applies to the transferred gold and means that the gold transferred to the ECB never physically moved anywhere, it just stayed where it had been when the transfers of ownership were made.
That is why, as the ECB response to Question 1 states: “The gold of the ECB is stored there because it was already stored there before ownership was transferred to the ECB”.
What is probably most interesting about the latest ECB statement is that it names 5 city locations over which the ECB’s gold is stored. The 5 gold storage locations stated by the ECB are London, New York, Paris, Rome and Lisbon. Since the gold transferred to the ECB in 1999 by the national central banks would have already been stored in central banks gold vaults, these 5 city locations undoubtedly refer to the gold vaults of:
the Bank of England
the Federal Reserve Bank of New York
the Banque de France
the Banca d’Italia
Banco de Portugal
The fact the ECB’s gold holdings are supposedly stored at these 5 locations can be explained as follows:
Between 4th and 7th January 1999, 11 central banks transferred a total of €39.469 billion in reserve assets to the ECB (in the form of gold, cash and securities). Of this total, 15% was in the form of gold, amounting to 24 million ounces of gold (747 tonnes of gold) which was valued at that time at €246.368 per fine ounce of gold, or €5.92 billion. The 85% transferred in the form of currencies comprised 90% US Dollars and 10% Japanese Yen. See pages 152 and 153 of ECB annual report 1999 for more details.
The 11 central banks that made the transfers to the ECB in January 1999 were the central banks of Belgium, Netherlands, Germany, France, Luxembourg, Italy, Ireland, Austria, Finland, Spain and Portugal. See Table 1 for details of these gold transfers, and the amount of gold transferred to ECB ownership by each central bank.
The value of reserves transferred to the ECB by each national central bank were based on a percentage formula called a ‘capital key’ which also determined how much each central bank subscribed to the founding capital of the ECB. This capital key was based on equally weighting the percentage of population and GDP each Euro founding member economy represented, therefore central banks such as Deutsche Bundesbank, Banque de France, and Banca d’Italia comprised the largest transfers, as can be see in Table 1. It also meant that these 3 central banks transferred the largest amounts of gold to the ECB, with the Bundesbank for example transferring 232 tonnes of gold to the ECB.
The Bundesbank gold transfer to the ECB in January 1999 took place at the Bank of England. The Bundesbank actually confirmed in its own published gold holdings spreadsheet that this transfer took place at the Bank of England. See spreadsheet Column 5 (BoE tonnes), Rows 1998 and 1999, where the Bundesbank gold holdings fell by 332 tonnes between 1998 and 1999 from 1,521 tonnes to 1,189 tonnes and also see Column 20 where gold lending rose from 149 tonnes to 249 tonnes. Therefore, between 1998 and 1999, 232 tonnes of gold was transferred from the Bundesbank gold account at the bank of England to the ECB account at the Bank of England, and 100 tonnes was added to the Bundesbank’s gold loans.
Paris and Rome
The Banque de France currently stores the majority (over 90%) of its gold reserves in its own vaults in Paris, so it it realistic to assume that when the Banque de France transferred 159 tonnes of gold to the ECB in January 1999, it did so using gold stored in the Banque de France vaults in Paris. Likewise, it is realistic to assume that the Banca d’Italia, which currently stores half of its gold reserves at its own vaults in Rome, transferred 141 gold stored in its Rome vaults to the ECB in 1999. This would explain the Paris and Rome gold holdings of the ECB. While a few ex French colony central banks are known to have historically stored gold with the Banque de France in Paris, none of the founding members of the Euro (apart from the Bundesbank) are on the record as having stored gold in Paris, at least not for a long time. The Banca d’Italia is not known for storing gold on behalf of other national central banks.
Lisbon and New York
The Banco de Portugal currently holds its gold reserves in Lisbon and also at the Bank of England, the Federal Reserve Bank of New York (FRBNY), and with the BIS. The ECB gold stored in Lisbon, Portugal most likely refers to the 18.2 tonnes of gold transferred by the Banco de Portugal to the ECB in January 1999, because a) that makes most sense, and b) the Banco de Portugal is not known as a contemporary gold custodian for other central banks.
Of the other 7 central banks that transferred gold to the ECB in January 1999, the central banks of Austria, Belgium and Ireland store most of their gold at the Bank of England so are the most likely candidates to have made gold transfers to the ECB at the Bank of England. See BullionStar blog “Central bank gold at the Bank of England” for more details of where central banks are known to store gold.
The Netherlands and Finland currently store some of their gold reserves at the Bank of England and at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York and probably also did so in 1998/99, so one or both of these banks could have made transfers to the ECB at the FRBNY. Another contender for transferring gold held at the FRBNY is the Spanish central bank since it historically was a holder of gold at the NYFED. It’s not clear where the central bank of Luxembourg held or holds gold but it’s not material since Luxembourg only transferred just over 1 tonne to the ECB in January 1999.
Greece and Later Euro members
Greece joined the Euro in January 2001 and upon joining it transferred 19.5 tonnes of gold to the ECB. Greece is known for storing some of its gold at the FRBNY and some at the Bank of England, so Greece too is a candidate for possibly transferring New York held gold to the ECB. In theory, the ECB’s New York held gold may not have even arisen from direct transfers from Euro member central banks but could be the result of a location swap. Without the national central banks or the ECB providing this information, we just don’t know for sure how the ECB’s New York gold holdings arose.
Another 7 countries joined the Euro after Greece. These countries were Slovenia on 1st January 2007, Malta and Cyprus 1st January 2008, Slovakia 1st January 2009, Estonia 1st January 2011, Latvia 1st January 2014, and Lithuania 1st January 2015. The majority of these central banks made gold transfers to the ECB at the Bank of England. In total these 7 central banks only transferred 9.4 tonnes of gold to the ECB, so their transfers are not really material to the ECB’s gold holdings.
These sales explain why the ECB currently only holds 504.8 tonnes of gold:
i.e. 766.9 t (including Greece) – 271.5 t sales + 9.4 t smaller member transfers = 504.8 t
The ECB does not provide, nor has ever provided, any information as to where the 271.5 tonnes of gold involved in these 2005-2009 sales was stored when it was sold. The fact that the ECB still claims to hold gold in Paris, Rome and Lisbon, as well as London and New York, suggests that at least some of the gold transferred by the Banque de France, Banca d’Italia and Banco de Portugal in 1999 is still held by the ECB.
If the ECB had sold all the gold originally transferred to it by all central banks other than France, Italy, Portugal and Germany, this would only amount to 197 tonnes, so another 74 tonnes would have been needed to make up the shortfall, which would probably have come from the ECB holdings at the Bank of England since that is where most potential central bank and bullion bank buyers hold gold accounts and where most gold is traded on the international market.
Even taking into account Greece’s 19.4 tonne gold transfer to the ECB in January 2001, and excluding the French, Italian, German and Portuguese transfers in 1999, the ECB’s 271.5 tonnes of gold sales would still have burned through all the smaller transfers and left a shortfall. So the ECB gold sales may have come from gold sourced from all of its 5 storage loacations.
It’s also possible that one or more of the original 11 central banks transferred gold to the ECB that was stored at a location entirely distinct from the 5 currently named locations, for example gold stored at the Swiss National Bank. If that particular gold was then sold over the 2005-2009 period, it would not get picked up in the current locations. It’s also possible that some or all of the 271.5 tonnes of gold sold by the ECB over 2005-2009 had been loaned out, and that the ‘sales’ were just a book squaring exercise in ‘selling’ gold which the lenders failed to return, with the loan transactions being cash-settled.
No Physical Audit of ECB Gold
Given that the Euro is the 2nd largest reserve currency in the world and the 2nd most traded currency in the world, the ECB’s gold and how that gold is accounted for is certainly a topic of interest. Although the ECB’s gold doesn’t directly back the Euro, it backs the balance sheet of the central bank that manages and administers the Euro, i.e. the ECB.
The valuation of gold on the ECB’s annual balance sheet also adds to unrecognised gains on gold in the ECB’s revaluation account. Given gold’s substantial price appreciation between 1999 and 2015, the ECB’s unrecognised gains on gold amount to €11.9 billion as of 31 December 2015.
It is therefore shocking, but not entirely surprising, that the ECB doesn’t perform a physical audit of its gold bars and has never done so since initiating ownership of this gold in 1999. Shocking because this lack of physical audit goes against even the most basic accounting conventions and fails to independently prove that the gold is where its claimed to be, but not surprising because the world of central banking and gold arrogantly ignores and bulldozes through all generally accepted accounting conventions. Geographically, 2 of the locations where the ECB claims to store a percentage of its gold are not even in the Eurozone (London and New York), and infamously, the Bundesbank is taking 7 years to repatriate a large portion of its gold from New York, so the New York storage location of ECB gold holdings should immediately raise a red flag. Furthermore, the UK is moving (slowly) towards Brexit and away from the EU.
Recall the response above from the ECB:
“The ECB has no physical audit of its gold bars. The gold bars that the ECB owns are individually identified and each year the ECB receives a detailed statement of these gold deposits. The central banks where the gold is stored are totally reliable.“
Imagine a physical-gold backed Exchange Traded Fund (ETF) such as the SPDR Gold Trust or iShares Gold Trust coming out with such a statement. They would be run out of town. References to ‘totally reliable’ are all very fine, but ‘totally reliable’ wouldn’t stand up in court during an ownership claim case, and assurances of ‘totally reliable’ are not enough, especially in the gold storage and auditing businesses.
The ECB is essentially saying that these ‘statements’ of its gold deposits that it receives from its storage custodians are all that is needed to for an “audit” since the custodians are ‘totally reliable‘.
This auditing of pieces of paper (statements) by the ECB also sounds very similar to how the Banca d’Italia and the Deutsche Bundesbank conduct their gold auditing on externally held gold i.e. they also merely read pieces of paper. Banca d’Italia audits “annual certificates issued by the central banks that act as the depositories” (the FRBNY, the Bank of England, and the SNB/BIS).
The Bundesbank does likewise for its externally held gold (it audits bits of paper), and solely relies on statements from custodians that hold its gold abroad. The Bundesbank actually got into a lot of heat over this procedure in 2012 from the German Federal Court of Auditors who criticised the Bundesbank’s blasé attitude and lack of physical auditing, criticism which the Bundesbank’s executive director Andreas Dombret hilariously and unsuccessfully tried to bury in a speech to the FRBNY in New York in November 2012 in which he called the controversy a “bizarre public discussion” and “a phantom debate on the safety of our gold reserves“, and ridiculously referred to the movies Die Hard with a Vengeance and Goldfinger, to wit:
“The days in which Hollywood Germans such as Gerd Fröbe, better known as Goldfinger, and East German terrorist Simon Gruber, masterminded gold heists in US vaults are long gone. Nobody can seriously imagine scenarios like these, which are reminiscent of a James Bond movie with Goldfinger playing the role of a US Fed accounting clerk.”
Where is the ECB Gold Bar Weight List?
Since, as the ECB states, it’s gold bars are “individually identified“, then gold bar weight lists of the ECB’s gold do indeed exist. This then begs the question, where are these weight lists, and why not release them if the ECB has nothing to hide?
Quickly, to define a weight list, a gold bar weight list is an itemised list of all the gold bars held within a holding which uniquely identifies each bar in the holding. In the wholesale gold market, such as the London Gold Market, the LBMA’s “Good Delivery Rules” address weight lists, and state that for each gold bar on a weight list, it must list the bar serial number, the refiner name, the gross weight of the bar, the gold purity of the bar and the fine weight of the bar. The LBMA also state that “year of manufacture is one of the required ‘marks’ on the bar”.
Recall from above that when the ECB was asked to provide a full weight list of its 504.8 tonnes of gold bars, it responded: “The ECB does not disclose this information.“
After receiving this response, BullionStar then asked in a followup question as to why the ECB doesn’t disclose a weight list of the gold bars. The ECB responded (underlining added):
“We would like to inform you that, while the total weight and value of the gold held by the European Central Bank (ECB) can be considered to be of interest to the public, the weight of each gold bar is a technicality that does not affect the economic characteristics of the ECB’s gold holdings. Therefore the latter does not warrant a publication.“
It is a very simple task to publish such a weight list in an automated fashion. The large gold backed ETFs publish such weight lists online each and every day, which run in to the hundreds of pages. Publication of a weight list by the ECB would be a very simple process and would prove that the claimed bars are actually allocated and audited.
The more evidence that is gathered about the refusal of central banks to issue industry standard gold bar weight lists, the more it becomes obvious that there is a coordinated understanding between central banks never to release this information into the public domain.
The most likely reason for this gold bar weight list secrecy is that knowledge of the contents of central bank gold bar weight lists could begin to provide some visibility into central bank gold operations such as gold lending, gold swaps, location swaps, undisclosed central bank gold sales, and importantly, foreign exchange and gold market interventions. This is because with weight list comparisons, gold bars from one central bank weight list could begin turning up in another central bank weight list or else turning up in the transparent gold holdings of vehicles such as gold-backed Exchange Traded Funds.
Instead of being fixated with the ECB’s continual disastrous and extended QE policy, perhaps some financial journalists could bring themselves to asking Mario Draghi some questions about the ECB gold reserves at the next ECB press briefing, questions such as the percentage split in storage distribution between the 5 ECB gold storage locations, why ECB gold is being held in New York, why is there no physical audit of the gold by the ECB, why does the ECB not publish a weight list of gold bar holdings, and do the ECB or its national central bank agents intervene into the gold market using ECB gold reserves.
The lackadaisical attitude of the ECB to its gold reserves by never physically auditing them is also a poor example to set for all 28 of the central bank members of the European System of Central Banks (ESCB), and doesn’t bode well for any ESCB member central bank in being any less secretive than the ECB headquarters mothership.
If gold does re-emerge at the core of a revitalised international monetary system and takes on a currency backing role in the future, the haphazard and non-disclosed distribution of the ECB’s current gold reserves over 5 locations, the lack of physical gold audits, and the lack of public details of any of the ECB gold holdings won’t really inspire market confidence, and is proving to be even less transparent than similar metrics from that other secretive large gold holding bloc, i.e the USA.
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.
Within the world of central bank and government gold reserves, there is often an assumption that these gold holdings consist entirely of gold bullion bars. While this is true in some cases, it is not the fully story because many central banks and governments, such as the US, France, Italy, Switzerland, the UK and Venezuela, all hold an element of gold bullion coins as part of their official monetary gold reserves.
These gold coin holdings are a legitimate part of gold reserves since under International Monetary Fund (IMF) definitions, “monetary gold consists of gold coins, ingots, and bars”. In central banking parlance, monetary gold is simply gold that is held by a central bank or government as a reserve asset. Other central bank reserve assets include foreign exchange holdings and holdings of IMF Special Drawing rights.
Elsewhere in IMF definitions, it is stated that “monetary gold is generally construed to be at least 995/1000 pure.” Many government and central bank gold coin holdings consist of previously circulated gold coinage. Since gold coins often had – and still have – a purity of less than 99.5% gold due to the addition of other metals for added durability, this ‘generally construed’ leeway in the IMF definition is undoubtedly a practical consideration that allows gold coins to be classified as monetary gold.
Central banks and governments hold gold for the same reasons that private citizens hold gold. Gold is real money with no counterparty risk, gold is a store of value, and gold is a safe haven asset. In general, central banks and governments are as happy holding bullion in gold bar form as in gold coin form. This is because physical gold is physical gold, and a gold coin and a gold bar will both provide their holders with the same benefits and protections. Only the physical form differs. In practice, the types and quantities of gold coins held by central banks and governments are extensive and varied as a quick tour d’horizon reveals.
Starting with the largest official sector gold holders, 3 of the top 5 gold holding countries have substantial gold coin holdings in their claimed reserves. The Banque de France, the guardian of France’s gold reserves, holds 2435.4 tonnes of gold consisting of a massive 100 tonnes of gold coins, and 2,335 tonnes of gold bars. Of these gold coins, 45% are French gold coins (probably Napoleans) and 55% are foreign gold coins, some of which are from the US. In the past, the Banque de France had melted part of its gold coin holdings into gold bars without considering their potential numismatic value. But after finding some US 20 dollar gold coins were worth USD 20,000 a piece, the Bank’s current policy is to scrutinise every coin.
Banca d’Italia stores approximately half of Italy’s 2451.8 tonnes of gold under its headquarters in Rome, with most of the other half stored at the Federal Reserve in New York. Of the 1199.4 tonnes of Italian gold in Rome, Banca d’Italia states that it holds 4.1 tonnes of gold coins, in the form of 871,713 coins. This would give each gold coin an average gold content of 0.151 troy ounces. This hoard most likely includes historic gold Italian 10 Lira and 20 Lira coins.
The US Treasury, the official holder of the US gold reserves, claims to hold gold coins containing 73,829.5 fine ounces of gold (2.3 tonnes) in the custody of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. While a small subset of these coins weighing 377.4 ounces is on display in New York, the remaining coins, containing 73,451 fine ounces of gold, are held in The New York Fed’s vault compartment K in 384 bags weighing a gross 80,855.70 ounces. These coins are all either 0.9 fine or 0.9167 fine gold. For details see page 132 here. These US Treasury held gold coins at the Fed are in addition to the 2,783,218.6 (86.5 tonnes) of gold coins that the US Treasury claims to hold within the US Mint’s working stock.
Venezuela’s gold holdings, which have practically all been sold off or swapped for foreign exchange recently, also contain gold coin holdings in the form of historic gold US Eagles, as well as gold US Liberty and ‘Indian Head’ coins (see page 17 here). Notably, the Venezuelan central bank says that these coins would have a numismatic premium valuation depending on their scarcity, design and condition. Given the ongoing and deteriorating economic situation in Venezeula, expect these gold coins to be either sold on the market or else melted down and shipped out of the country, probably to Switzerland.
Speaking of Switzerland, the Swiss National Bank (SNB) in its publications, says that its “gold holdings are mainly in the form of gold bars, with the remainder in gold coins“. The SNB doesn’t elaborate on what type of gold coins it holds, and when asked recently, in the spirit of central bank secrecy, it not surprisingly declined to elaborate. Most likely this Swiss hoard includes historic Swiss Franc gold coins, and even old Latin Monetary Union gold coins.
The United Kingdom, through HM Treasury’s Exchange Equalisation Account (EEA), claims to hold 310.3 tonnes of gold in its reserves, all of which is held in custody at the Bank of England. The EEA 2014/2015 accounts states that “The gold bars and gold coin in the reserves were stored physically at the Bank’s premises“. As to what type of gold coins the UK holds, HM Treasury didn’t repond to a recent query, but undoubtedly, the Treasury holds gold Sovereigns as HM Treasury archives reveal.
Among other central banks, Romania holds 14% of its monetary gold in the form of gold coins, amounting to approximately 14.43 tonnes. The Central Bank of Peru includes 552,191 troy ounces (17.7 tonnes) of gold coins in its monetary gold holdings. These coins are described as “commemorative coins” and are held domestically “in the vault of the Central Bank”. Interesting the Peruvians apply a small valuation provision for “for cost of converting gold coins to high purity or ‘good delivery’ gold bars” for potential use on the wholesale gold market. The Central Bank of Ireland is custodian for Ireland’s circa 6 tonnes of gold, 5.7 tonnes of which is supposedly stored in bar form at the Bank of England in London, while approximately 10,000 ozs are in gold coin form stored at the Central Bank’s currency centre facility in Dublin.
Even Canada made headlines with its gold coin holdings recently when the Bank of Canada sold off the last of that country’s eventually tiny gold holdings which had been exclusively in the form of gold coins since the early 2000s. These gold coins were King George $5 and $10 Canadian coins, the best examples of which were sold to collectors with the rest melted down into gold bars by the Royal Canadian Mint and sold on the wholesale gold market, yet again highlighting gold’s high liquidity.
Central banks will always downplay the existence of gold on their balance sheets since gold competes against national fiat paper currencies. However, the actual course of action of central banks and governments in holding vast amounts of gold bars, as well as substantial quantities of gold coins, demonstrates that central banks and sovereigns continue to view gold as a strategic reserve asset and as the ultimate money. Luckily, private individuals too can replicate the holdings of these giants by also acquiring and accumulating gold bars and gold coins for the same reasons as sovereign entities and monetary authorities do. Doing as central banks do, not as they say, is certainly a better strategy than blind faith in today’s distorting and reckless centrally planned monetary policies.
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.
During the calendar year to December 2015, the Bundesbank claims to have transported 210 tonnes of gold back to Frankfurt, moving circa 110 tonnes from Paris to Frankfurt, and just under 100 tonnes from New York to Frankfurt.
As a reminder, the Bundesbank is engaged in an unusual multi-year repatriation programme to transport 300 tonnes of gold back to Frankfurt from the vaults of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York (FRBNY), and simultaneously to bring 374 tonnes of gold back to Frankfurt from the vaults of the Banque de France in Paris. This programme began in 2013 and is scheduled to complete by 2020. I use the word ‘unusual’ because the Bundesbank could technically transport all 674 tonnes of this gold back to Frankfurt in a few weeks or less if it really wanted to, so there are undoubtedly some unpublished limitations as to why the German central bank has not yet done so.
Given the latest update from the German central bank today, the geographic distribution of the Bundesbank gold reserves is now as follows, with the largest share of the German gold now being stored domestically:
1,402.5 tonnes, or 41.5% now stored domestically by the Bundesbank at its storage vaults in Frankfurt, Germany
1,347.4 tonnes, or 39.9%, stored at the Federal Reserve Bank in New York
434.7 tonnes or 12.9% stored at the Bank of England vaults in London
196.4 tonnes, or 5.8%, stored at the Banque de France in Paris
In January 2013, prior to the commencement of the programme, the geographical distribution of the Bundesbank gold reserves was 1,536 tonnes or 45% at the FRBNY, 374 tonnes or 11%, at the Banque de France, 445 tonnes or 13% at the Bank of England, and 1036 tonnes or 31% in Frankfurt.
The latest moves now mean that over 3 years from January 2013 to December 2015, the Bundesbank has retrieved 366 tonnes of gold back to home soil (189 tonnes from New York (5 tonnes in 2013, 85 tonnes in 2014, and between 99-100 tonnes in 2015), as well as 177 tonnes from Paris (32 tonnes in 2013, 35 tonnes in 2014, and 110 tonnes in 2015)). The latest transfers still leave 110 tonnes of gold to shift out of New York in the future and 196.4 tonnes to move the short distance from Paris to Frankfurt.
In the first year of operation of the repatriation scheme during 2013, the Bundesbank transferred a meagre 37 tonnes of gold in total to Frankfurt, of which a tiny 5 tonnes came from the FRBNY, and only 32 tonnes from Paris. Whatever those excessive limitations were in 2013, they don’t appear to be so constraining now. In 2014, 85 tonnes were let out of the FRBNY and 35 tonnes made the trip from Paris. See Koos Jansen’s January 2015 blog titled “Germany Repatriated 120 Tonnes Of Gold In 2014” for more details on the 2014 repatriation.
Those who track the “Federal Reserve Board Foreign Official Assets Held at Federal Reserve Banks” foreign earmarked gold table may notice that between January 2015 and November 2015 , circa 4 million ounces, or 124 tonnes of gold, were withdrawn from FRB gold vaults. Given that the Bundesbank claims to have moved 110 tonnes from New York during 2015, this implies that there were also at least 14 tonnes of other non-Bundesbank withdrawals from the FRB during 2015. Unless of course the other gold was withdrawn from the FRB, shipped to Paris, and then became part of the Paris withdrawals for the account of the Bundesbank. The FRB will again update its foreign earmarked gold holdings table this week with December 2015 withdrawals (if any), which may show an even larger non-Bundesbank gold delta for year-end 2015.
Notably, the latest press release today does not mention whether any of the gold withdrawn from the FRBNY was melted down / recast into Good Delivery bars. Some readers will recall that the Bundesbank’s updates for 2013 and 2014 did refer to such bar remelting/recasting events.
Today’s press release does however include some ‘assurances’ from the Bundesbank about the authenticity and quality of the returned bars:
“The Bundesbank assures the identity and authenticity of German gold reserves throughout the transfer process – from when they are removed from the storage locations abroad until they are stored in Frankfurt am Main. Once they arrive in Frankfurt am Main, all the transferred gold bars are thoroughly and exhaustively inspected and verified by the Bundesbank. When all the inspections of transfers to date had been concluded, no irregularities came to light with regard to the authenticity, fineness and weight of the bars.”
This above paragraph in today’s press release was actually lifted wholesale from the Bundesbank’s gold repatriation press release dated 19 January 2015 , minus one key sentence:
“The Bundesbank assures the identity and authenticity of German gold reserves throughout the transfer process – from when they are removed from warehouses abroad until they are stored in Frankfurt am Main. As soon as the gold was removed from the warehouse locations abroad, Bundesbank employees cross-checked the lists of bars belonging to the Bundesbank against the information on the bars removed. Finally, once they arrived in Frankfurt am Main, all the transferred gold bars were thoroughly and exhaustively inspected and verified by the Bundesbank. When all the inspections had been concluded, no irregularities came to light with regard to the authenticity, fineness and weight of the bars.”
So, was there no list of bars this time around?
But why the need at all for such a general comment on the quality of the bars while not providing any real details of the bars transferred, their serial numbers, their refiner brands, or their years of manufacture? Perhaps remelting/recasting of bars was undertaken during 2015 and the Bundesbank is now opting for the cautious approach after getting some awkward questions last year about these topics – i.e. the Bundesbank’s approach may well be “don’t mention recasting / remelting and maybe no one will ask“.
This bring us to an important point. Beyond the Bundesbank’s hype, its important to note that the repatriation information in all of the press releases and updates from the Bundesbank since 2013 has excluded most of the critical information about the actual gold bars being moved. So, for example, in this latest update concerning the 2015 transport operations, there is no complete bar list (weight list) of the bars repatriated, no explanation of the quality of gold transferred and whether bars of various purities were involved, no comment on whether any bars had to be re-melted and recast, no indication of which refineries, if any, were used, and no explanation of why it takes a projected 7 years to bring back 300 tonnes of gold that could be flown from New York to Frankfurt in a week using a few C-130 US transporter carriers.
There is also no explanation from the Bundesbank as to why these 100 tonnes of gold were available from New York in 2015 but not available during 2014 or 2013, nor why 110 tonnes of gold somehow became available in Paris during 2015 when these bars were not available in 2014 or 2013, nor why all 374 tonnes to be brought back from Paris can’t make it back on the 1 hour 15 minute air-route between Paris and Frankfurt between which multiple aircraft fly each and every day.
The crucial questions to ask in my view are where was the repatriated gold sourced from that has so far been supplied to the Bundesbank from New York and Paris, what were the refiner brands and years of manufacture for the bars, what are the details of the quality (fineness) of the gold trasnferred, and are these bars the same bars that the Bundesbank purchased when it accumulated its large stock of gold bars during the 1950s and especially the 1960s.
In essence, all of these updates from Frankfurt could be termed ‘limited hangouts’, a term used in the intelligence community, whereby the real behind the scenes details are left unmentioned, only hanging out snippets of information, and questions about the real information are invariably left unasked by the subservient mainstream media. Overall, it’s important to realise that the Bundesbank’s repatriation updates, press releases, and interviews since 2013 are carefully stage-managed, and that the German central bank continually uses weasel words to dodge genuine but simple questions about its gold reserves and the physical gold that is being transported back to Frankfurt.
For example, in October 2015, the Bundesbank released a partial inventory bar list/weight list of it gold holdings. At that time, on 8 October 2015, I asked the Bundesbank:
Hello Bundesbank Press Office,
Regarding the gold bar list published by the Bundesbank yesterday (07 October https://www.bundesbank.de/Redaktion/EN/Topics/2015/2015_10_07_gold.html), could the Bundesbank clarify why the published bar list does not include,for each bar, the refiner brand, the bar refinery serial number, and the year of manufacture, as per the normal convention for gold bar weight lists, and as per the requirements of London Good Delivery (LGD) gold bars?
Serial number (see additional comments in section 7 of the GDL Rules)
Assay stamp of refiner
Fineness (to four significant figures)
Year of manufacture (see additional comments in section 7 of the GDL Rules)”
“The marks should include the stamp of the refiner (which, if necessary for clear identification, should include its location), the assay mark (where used), the fineness, the serial number (which must not comprise of more than eleven digits or characters) and the year of manufacture as a four digit number unless incorporated as the first four digits in the bar number. If bar numbers are to be reused each year, then it is strongly recommended that the year of production is shown as the first four digits of the bar number although a separate four digit year stamp may be used in addition. If bar numbers are not to be recycled each year then the year of production must be shown as a separate four digit number.
Best Regards, Ronan Manly
The Bundesbank actually sent back two similar replies t the above email:
“Dear Mr Manly,
Thank you for your query. Information on the refiner and year of production are not relevant for storage or accounting purposes, which require the weight data, the fineness and a unique number identifying each bar or melt. The Bundesbank has all of this information for each of its gold bars. By contrast, particulars relating to the refiner and year of production merely provide supplementary information. They tell us part of the gold bar’s history but do not describe its entire ‘life cycle’.”
DEUTSCHE BUNDESBANK Communication
“Dear Mr Manly,
The crucial data for storage and accounting purposes are the weight, the fineness and a unique number identifying each bar or melt. The Bundesbank has all of this information for each of its gold bars, which it records electronically and also makes available to the public. In addition to the data on weight and fineness, the Bundesbank, the Bank of England and the Banque de France identify gold bars exclusively on the basis of internally assigned inventory numbers and not using the serial numbers provided by the refiners. These custodians do not classify the bar numbers stamped onto the gold bars by the refiner as individual inventory criteria. They do not use the refiner’s bar numbers as these are not based on a unique numbering system that can be used for identification purposes. Stating the refiner and the year of production is not required for storage or accounting purposes.”
DEUTSCHE BUNDESBANK Communication
Even the large gold ETFs produce detailed weight lists of their bar holdings, so you can see from the above answers that the Bundesbank is resorting to flimsy excuses in its inability to explain why it is not following standard practice across the gold industry.
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.
The International Monetary Fund (IMF) is authorized to use its gold holdings to engage in gold location swaps and has done so frequently in the past. This has involved gold location swaps with the entities who maintain the gold vaults where the IMF stores its gold, such as the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, the Bank of England and the Banque de France, and also other entities such as the Bank for International Settlements who also maintain gold accounts at the same vaults as the IMF does.
The quality of the gold that has been held by the IMF at each of its gold depositories varies. In New York and Paris, the IMF gold is/was stored in the form of complete melts of US Assay office gold bars, as well as some coin bars. At the Bank of England, a lot of the IMF gold is/was in the form of Rand Refinery bars. At the Reserve Bank of India in Nagpur, some of the gold was of variable quality, and included confiscated smuggled gold, newly mined gold from indigenous production, good delivery gold from London, and other gold from the Reserve bank of India Issue Department.
There have been multiple cases in the past of the IMF executing gold location swaps between its depositories using IMF Article XIII, Section 2(b) as a justification (i.e. the requirement that the Fund hold at least 50% of its gold in New York while holding at least 40% elsewhere).
IMF Staff Memo #17 written by John L Fisher of the Operations Department on 21st January 1947 estimated that of a total of $1.448 billion in gold subscriptions by member countries (41.3 million ounces), approximately $1.006 billion or 69% would be paid into the New York depository at the FRBNY, $332 million (23%) would be paid into London, $80 million (6%) into Paris and $30 million (2%) into Bombay. The memo concluded that “It looks as though we shall get 69% paid in New York.” Since this distribution would not leave 40% or more of the gold in the non-US depositories (since only about 31% of the gold was outside the US), this distribution of the Fund’s gold needed to be amended.
Therefore, the first IMF gold location swap ever was between the Fund’s New York and London holdings in 1947 and involved the Bank of England as counter-party, and was done “in order to bring the initial distribution of the gold holdings of the Fund into conformity with the provisions of the Fund Agreement“.
IMF Gold Swap – New York and London: Counter-party Bank of England
The details of the 1947 New York – London swap were as follows:
“Gold Swap with the Bank of England
Under the Fund Agreement initially not more than 60% of the Fund’s gold could rest in New York. Since far more than 60% was deposited in New York, the choice lay in shipping gold immediately to another of the Fund’s depositories, or achieving a swap in the hopes of a later distribution which would obviate the Fund bearing the expense of shipping.
There was no particular reason for the Bank of England to hold gold in New York, but in the circumstance they agreed to make a swap on the following conditions:
(a) The transaction to be free of expense to the Bank of England
(b) The Bank of England to have an option to reverse the swap or to have the gold shipped to London at the Fund’s expense
No time limit was expressed on either side, and since the swap was for the convenience of the Fund and not the Bank of England, the two conditions were eminently fair. Nevertheless, there is nothing to debar the Fund from asking at any time for the swap to be reversed, and subject to events, there seems no reason why in a few months’ time the Fund should not do so.”
The amount of gold swapped was not mentioned in this 1947 memo, however it was specified in the return leg of the swap – see below. It appears that the swap was undertaken with the intention of then reversing it the following year because the same memo stated that:
“the managing Director has given instructions that this swap shall be reversed after the close of the fiscal year, providing that analysis at that time indicates that such a reversal will improve the distribution of the gold holdings from the standpoint of the Fund.”
It turned out that the swap was not reversed until seven years later, and was reversed at the request of the Bank of England.
“The Fund affected a gold swap with the Bank of England on February 28, 1947, by transferring 4,428,582.578 fine ounces to the Bank of England’s gold account at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York against the receipt of an equivalent amount of gold in London.”
“On May 7, 1954, the Bank of England expressed its desire to exercise its option to reverse the above-mentioned gold swap, and on May 14, 1954, the original swap was reversed by the acceptance of gold in New York from the Bank of England against the release of gold from the Fund’s account with the Bank of England in London.”
At $35 per ounce, 4.428 million ounces of gold was worth just under $155 million and represented just over 10% of the total gold subscriptions that had been referenced in the 1947 estimates of $1.448 billion. So the swap moved about 10% of the Fund’s gold from New York to London, thus boosting the non-US holdings from about 31% to over 40% as was the intention.
IMF Gold Swap – New York and Paris: Counter-party FRBNY
The IMF also engaged in gold location swaps between its gold holdings in New York and its holdings Paris using the Federal Reserve Bank of New York (FRBNY) as counter-party. This is illustrated by some very interesting gold swaps in the summer of 1968 which suggest that the FRBNY and US Treasury were scrambling to source gold in New York. This would back up the view that the US Treasury had run out of good-delivery gold in March 1968, hence the need to let the London Gold Pool collapse. (See “The Keys to the Gold Vaults at the New York Fed – Part 3: ‘Coin Bars’, ‘Melts’ and the Bundesbank” for a background on this.)
A letter dated 19th June 1968 from the IMF Managing Director to the Executive Board titled “Gold Holdings” (EBS/68/179), illustrates the proposal for one of these gold swap transactions:
“The Fund’s gold holdings are now approximately $4 million in Paris. We now have the opportunity to carry through a swap of gold with the Federal Bank of New York. The Fund has had gold swaps in the past in order to arrange a more useful distribution of its holdings.
On this occasion the Federal Reserve Bank of New York is willing to swap approximately $110 million of gold as between Paris and New York, with the result that the Fund’s holdings would then be $114 million in Paris. The swap would meet the criteria of the Articles which are that all transfers of gold shall be met with due regard to the costs of transport and the anticipated requirements of the Fund. There will be no costs involved for the Fund in the proposed swap, and the small difference between the gold swapped will be settled in dollars.
The management feels that it would be advantageous for the Fund to accept the proposed offer. Subject to any views that may be expressed before noon, Monday, June 24, 1968, it is proposed to give instructions to the staff to confirm the transaction.“
“This is to notify the Executive Directors that, in accordance with the proposal EBS/68/179, approved by the Executive Directors on June 24, 1968, an amount of gold equivalent to $110,001,164.07 was withdrawn from the Fund’s gold account with the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, New York, against transfer of gold equivalent to $110,001,324.58 to its account with the Banque de France, Paris…..There were no coats involved in this swap.
The gold swap was effected value June 25, 1968”.
There is no indication as to why the IMF management thought “that it would be advantageous for the Fund to accept the proposed offer” from the FRBNY. The rationale for the swap seems to have been purely at the request of the Americans.
At $35 per ounce, the amount of $110 million is approximately 3.14 million ounces or about 98 metric tonnes.
Two additional similar swaps on IMF gold between New York and Paris were activated in July 1968 ($75 million) and September 1968 ($80 million), respectively, bringing the Fund’s gold holdings in Paris to approximately $269 million, with a corresponding reduction of the Funds gold in New York to approximately $2,117 million.
“The Fund now has another opportunity to engage in a similar transaction with the Federal Reserve Bank of New York for an amount of gold equivalent to $75 million. This exchange would increase the Fund’s gold holdings in Paris to about $189 million.”
“an amount of gold equivalent to $75,002,578.59 was withdrawn from the Fund’s gold account with the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, New York, against transfer of gold equivalent to $75,002,628.89 to its account with the Banque de France, Paris. ….The gold swap was effected value July 30, 1968.”
For the September 1968 swap, the Managing Director explained in EBS/68/242 that:
“On two recent occasions the Fund has swapped gold totaling the equivalent of $185 million in its account at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York against the receipt of a similar amount of gold in its account with the Banque de France, Paris (EBS/68/179 and Supplement 1 and EBS/68/208 and Supplement 1). These exchanges involved no costs to the Fund.
The Fund now has another opportunity to engage in a similar transaction with the Federal Reserve Bank of New York for an amount of gold equivalent to $80 million. This exchange would increase the Fund’s gold holdings in Paris to about $269 million and reduce its holdings in New York to about $2,117 million.“
“an amount of gold equivalent to $80,002,457.33 was withdrawn from the Fund’s gold account with the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, New York, against transfer of gold equivalent to $80,002,469.58 to its account with the Banque de France, Paris.
The gold swap was effected value September 20, 1968.”
Like the June swap, there was no indication given for the July and September 1968 swaps as to why the IMF management thought “that it would be advantageous for the Fund to accept the proposed offer” beyond the fact that the swaps were helpful to the FRBNY in that the FRBNY secured gold in New York. Unfortunately, the IMF documentation above only specifies the US dollar value of the swaps and not the quality of the gold swapped in each location, i.e. whether the gold in both legs of the swaps was good delivery gold (circa 0.995 fine) or whether the transactions involved coin bars (circa 0.90 fine).
In total, the three swaps totalled $265 million , or approximately 7.57 million ounces (235 metric tonnes), with the IMF giving up this amount of gold in New York and receiving gold with a similar amount of ‘fine ounces’ in Paris.
IMF Gold Swaps with the BIS
Additionally, the IMF has also engaged in gold location swaps with entities other than its gold depository counter-parties, using a very general interpretation of Article XIII, Section 2(b) that “all transfers of gold shall be met with due regard to the costs of transport and the anticipated requirements of the Fund”. For example, in 1970 the IMF entered a gold location swap with the Bank for International Settlements (BIS), which was logistically possible since both parties held gold accounts at the Bank of England and at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.
A note from the Managing Director to the Executive Board, dated 2nd April 1970 (EBS/70/108), titled “Gold Holdings” states:
“Since January 1, 1970 the Fund’s gold holdings in London have increased by approximately $273.9 million to about $390.5 million. This increase is due primarily to South African sales of gold to the Fund. Further increases in that center might be expected.
At present the distribution of bar holdings is as follows: (in millions of dollars)
Federal Reserve Bank of New York, New York $1,736.6 Bank of England, London $390.5 Banque de France, Paris $271.7 Reserve Bank of India, Nagpur $114.9 ________ Total $2,513.7
The Fund now has an opportunity to engage in a gold swap with the Bank for International Settlements, whereby the Fund would deliver up to the equivalent of $17.5 million in gold to the Bank for International Settlements in London against the receipt of about the same amount in New York.
Any small difference in the gold swap will be settled in US dollars at US$35 per fine ounce. The exchange of gold would meet the criteria of the Articles of Agreement which are that all transfers of gold shall be met with due regard to the costs of transport and the anticipated requirements of the Fund. There will be no costs for the Fund in the proposed transaction. The Fund has in the past engaged in a similar exchange of gold with the Bank of International Settlements.
The management feels that it would be advantageous for the Fund to accept the proposed offer. Subject to any views that may be expressed before the close of business, Friday April 3, 1970, it is proposed to give instructions to the staff to confirm the transaction.”
The total dollar amount of the IMF’s gold holdings in April 1970 (specified above) of $2,513.7 million is equivalent to 2,234 tonnes. Interestingly, the dollar amounts listed in each location work out at 69% in New York, 16% in London, 11% in Paris and 5% in Nagpur, India. This would again mean that only 31% of the IMF’s gold was outside the US, which is not in accordance with IMF Article XIII, Section 2(b).
There is no evidence as to why the Fund thought the April 1970 gold swap with the BIS was advantageous. At $17.5 million, the value of the swap was very small, and the ratios of gold holdings between New York and London would not have altered substantially. Therefore there may have been other factors involved in doing this swap with the Bank for International Settlements. It’s also interesting that the above note states that the IMF had engaged in similar gold swaps with the BIS prior to April 1970.
Quality of Gold held by the IMF at the Depositories
It’s worth highlighting the types and quality of gold that have been held on behalf of the IMF in each location.
New York and Paris – Melts and Coin Bars
In preparation for the IMF gold auctions, a “Gold Sales by the Fund” (EBS/76/46) summary paper in February 1976 confirmed that:
“As regards the specification of the gold to be delivered, most of the IMF’s gold is 0.995/1.000 fine or better, though a small amount is in the form of coin bars which are 0.899-0.916 fine gold. It is proposed that the Fund specify delivery of gold of 0.995/1.000 fineness or better.”
“…most of the gold of the Fund is not in the form of individually stamped and weighed barsbut consists, with the exception of the gold held in depositories in the United Kingdom and India, of melts, comprising 18-22 individual bars, which will first need to be identified, weighed, and selected before they can be delivered.”
“A melt is an original cast of a number of bars, usually between 18 and 22. The bars of an unbroken melt are stamped with the melt number and fineness but weight-listed as one unit; when a melt is broken, individual bars must be weighed and stamped for identification. It is the practice in New York and Paris to keep melts intact.”
“Gold in New York is primarily held in the form of melts. It is expected that sufficient melts will be broken in time for the first auction. Should this not prove possible, delivery would be made in London.”
“As indicated in the staff paper on Gold Sales (EBS/76/46, 2/2/76), most of the Fund’s gold held with the Federal Reserve Bank of New York and the Banque de France is in the form of melts.Before the gold can he offered in gold auctions a part of these holdings has to be transformed into individually weighed and identified bars.
It is estimated that the cost of stamping and weighing will be approximately US$5 per standard bar of 400 ounces in New York, and approximately F 50 in Paris. This note is to inform Executive Directors that the Managing Director has authorized the Treasurer to instruct, as necessary, the Fund’s depositories in the United States and in France to proceed with weighing and stamping sufficient individual bars for the conduct of the sales program.”
Recall above that the Fund’s gold holdings in London had been augmented substantially via South Africa selling gold to the Fund i.e.:
“Since January 1, 1970 the Fund’s gold holdings in London have increased by approximately $273.9 million to about $390.5 million. This increase is due primarily to South African sales of gold to the Fund. Further increases in that center might be expected.”
The South African gold sales to the IMF actually began circa June 1968 but increased in frequency and magnitude after the US negotiated with South Africa to minimize South African gold sales on the open market. This strategy of keeping the South African gold off of the free market was brokered by the US in order to subdue the free market gold price.
A note dated 14th June 1968 titled “South Africa–Sale of Gold to the Fund”, prepared by the Treasurer’s Department highlights an instance where gold bars sold by the South Africans to the IMF in London were Rand Refinery bars. These are good delivery bars. The note states:
“The Executive Director elected by South Africa has informed the Fund that it should expect to receive a communication from the Republic of South Africa stating its desire to purchase 14.5 million U.K. pounds or other appropriate currencies through a sale of gold at par to the Fund, pursuant to Article V. This transaction is of an amount equivalent to US$34.8 million. The amount of gold to be sold is approximately 994,287.987 fine ounces or approximately 2,486 Rand Refinery bars of average weight of 400 troy ounces and fineness of .995 or higher, which are good delivery bars in London. The gold will be delivered to the Fund’s earmarked account at the Bank of England in London.“
In fact, nearly all of the 400oz gold bars produced by South Africa and sold by the South African Reserve Bank at that time were Rand Refinery bars. This is confirmed by an IMF document dated 11th July 1968 titled “South Africa – 1967 Article XIV Consultation” (large file):
“About 95 per cent of South Africa’s gold output is refined by the Rand Refinery Limited, a subsidiary company of the Chamber of Mines. The gold is refined to a purity of 996 parts of gold in 1,000 parts.”
“All bars purchased from the gold producers weigh between 400 and 410 fine ounces; the Rand Refinery Limited, and the South African Mint, both stamp bars and issue assay certificates.”
There are numerous transactions in the early 1970s of the IMF selling currencies to South Africa and receiving Rand Refinery gold in return, such as here. All of the transactions can be searched here. It is therefore likely that a significant amount of the IMF’s gold that is held in London (or was held in London) is/was in the form of Rand Refinery bars.
Nagpur – A golden anomaly
The only gold transferred to the IMF’s account at the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) depository in Bombay (and subsequently transferred to the RBI’s vault in Nagpur) appear to have been the gold payments representing India’s initial and subsequent Fund subscriptions. In 1947, as part payment of its initial subscription of $400 million, India paid $27.5 million in gold into the RBI in Bombay. This is the same IMF gold that was transferred to the RBI, Nagpur in 1956.
When IMF quotas were revised upward in 1958-59, India’s quota rose by 50% to $600 million. Of this $200 million increase, 25%, or an additional $50 million had to be paid in the form of gold. One-fifth of this gold payment came from newly-mined and confiscated gold; the rest was purchased via the Bank of England and was shipped and flown to Bombay, and then flown on to Nagpur.
In 1965 as part of another IMF quota review, India’s IMF quota was increased again by 25%, from $600 million to $750 million. Of this $150 million increase, 25% or $37.5 million had to be paid in gold. Instead of buying additional gold via the Bank of England, India did a deal whereby $37.5 million worth of gold from the Reserve Bank’s Issue Department held at Nagpur was transferred internally to the IMF’s account at Nagpur. This $37.5 million in gold appears to have been in the form of confiscated and indigenous gold production.
In 1970, there was another approximate 25% increase in India’s Fund quota to $940 million, which was an increase of $190 million. Again, a quarter of this increase, or $47.5 million was paid in gold into the IMF’s gold account in Nagpur.
Based on India’s subscriptions and gold subscriptions in 1947, 1959, 1965 and 1970, tallying up the gold proportions of these subscriptions that were transferred to the IMF’s Nagpur gold holdings gives a grand total of 144.4 metric tonnes
($27.5m + $50m + $37.5m + $47.5 m) / $35 per ounce = ~ 144.4 metric tonnes
This 144.4 tonne IMF gold holding at the RBI vault in Nagpur is verified by the January 1976 monthly IMF financial report which reports gold held at depositories as follows, including SDR 162,499,440 in gold in the Nagpur vault:
General Account – Gold Account – Gold with Depositories II. Gold Holdings by Depositories
Federal Reserve Bank of New York SDR 3,759,612,685
Bank of England SDR 1,010,129,296
Bank of France SDR 437,298,127 Reserve Bank of India SDR 162,499,440
Total (per Balance Sheet) SDR 5,369,539,548
The IMF balance sheet employs a seemingly convoluted valuation of 0.888671 grams of fine gold per Special Drawing Right (SDR). This is because the IMF values each ounce of gold at SDR 35, and with 1 ounce equal to 31.1034768 grams of fine gold, each SDR is worth 31.1034768/35 or 0.888671 grams of fine gold. (This is not a misprint; the IMF values each ounce of gold at a historic cost of SDR 35 and not USD 35.)
Therefore, the IMF’s gold held at the Reserve Bank of India in Nagpur in January 1976 valued at SDR 162,499,440 was equivalent to 144.4 million grams or 144.4 tonnes.
SDR 162,499,440 / SDR 35 = 4,643,841 ounces
4.643 million ounces / 31,250 ounces per ton = 144.4 metric tons approximately.
See here, here and here for a history of the Reserve Bank of India which, in various places, discusses the IMF gold.
During the late 1970s IMF Gold Restitutions, IMF members could ”select any of the Fund’s gold depositories for the delivery of gold, except that members in those territories the Fund’s gold depositories are located – France, India, the United Kingdom, and the United States – were expected to take delivery of their share of the gold at the depository in their territory.” IMF Annual Report 1976.
Therefore India received some back some gold from the IMF into its Nagpur holding during the IMF Gold Restitutions which would have reduced the 144.4 IMF tonne holding. Its unclear if other countries ever transferred gold to the IMF gold account at Nagpur. Probably not. It’s also unclear if the IMF’s Nagpur holding ever increased beyond 144.4 tonnes after the 1976. Again, probably not. In its annual reports, the IMF no longer shows a breakdown of its gold holdings by depository, so its difficult to see how much IMF gold is still in Nagpur.
The IMF sold 403 tonnes of gold over 2009-2010. Of this total, 222 tons of the sales were in the form of direct sales to India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Mauritius (i.e. 200 tonnes to India in October 2009, 10 tonnes to Sri Lanka, 2 tonnes to Mauritius, and 10 tonnes to Bangladesh) and the remainder of approximately 181 tonnes was sold on the open market supposedly.
During and after the IMF’s ‘403 tonnes’ gold sale, the IMF never commented on which depository (or depositories) this gold was sold from. The Reserve Bank of India said sometime after the 2009 purchase from the IMF that all of its gold was held either within India, at the Bank of England, or with the Bank of International Settlements. However, it’s possible that some of the IMF’s gold sales to India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Mauritius in 2009-2010 were undertaken by transferring gold from the IMF’s Nagpur holding to gold accounts of the Reserve Bank of India, the Central Bank of Sri Lanka, the Bank of Mauritius and the Bangladesh Bank held at Nagpur. It would make some sense to do this, since the three other countries are regionally proximate to India and enjoy good international relations with India, however some of the IMF gold in Nagpur was of variable quality (read non-good delivery), and furthermore the RBI In Nagpur is not a ‘major gold trading center’ so beloved of gold hoarding central bankers.
Selling from Nagpur would have zeroed out and allowed the closure of the IMF’s gold holdings at Nagpur, and left IMF gold in only three countries, namely the US, UK and France. Since the IMF has become far less inclined to share information on its gold holdings and its gold depositories since the heady days of the 1960s and 1970s, the exact structure, quality and distribution of the IMF’s gold holdings is information that only former and current IMF Managing Directors such as Michel Camdessus, Dominique Strauss-Kahn and Christine Lagarde may be privy to.
Part 1 of the IMF’s Gold Depositories series explained the legal background as to why the IMF originally made the decision to hold gold at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, the Bank of England, the Banque de France and the Reserve Bank of India.
See Part 1 for details, but as a quick recap, although the current IMF Rule F-1 on the location of its gold depositories states that “Gold depositories of the Fund shall be established in the United States, the United Kingdom, France, and India”, the original 1946 version of the rule, then called Rule E-1, said that “Gold depositories of the Fund shall be established in New York, London, Shanghai, Paris, and Bombay.”
It is generally known that the central banks in some of these cities are indeed locations are IMF gold depositories, and the IMF will actually, on occasion, bring itself to confirm these facts.
What is less well understood however are the references to the cities in two of the word’s great gold markets, specifically, the reference to the Reserve Bank’s Bombay office, the transfer of IMF gold to another Indian city, Nagpur, and the fact that Shanghai was only removed “temporarily” and could, in theory, be reinstated as an IMF gold depository.
The Road to Nagpur
The original version of Rule E-1 was adopted on 25th September 1946, and then amended in 1956. This amendment in 1956 was triggered by the Reserve Bank of India (RBI), but it created some far-reaching implications for where the IMF’s gold can be stored.
The trigger for the amendment of Rule E-1 in 1956 was an initiative by the RBI to move their own gold from their Bombay office to a new office in Nagpur which they had just opened. Nagpur is a city in the very heart of India in the state of Maharashtra.
In moving their own gold, the RBI asked the IMF if it objected to the re-location of the IMF gold at the same time. There was actually not much IMF gold held in Bombay, the only gold held there being India’s initial gold subscription to the IMF that had been transferred at the Fund’s inception, worth $27.5 million at $35 an ounce, or just over 24 tonnes. No other founding nation of the IMF had supplied gold to Bombay at that time.
In a 1956 staff document to the IMF Executive Directors, “Gold Depositories of the Fund”, the IMF staff explained the RBI’s move and recommended that the wording of Rule E-1 should be made more flexible so as to take account of future situations where other gold depositories of the Fund might want, or need, to hold gold at alternative locations in their respective countries, other than those locations already specified.
The IMF staff also proposed to the IMF Executive Directors that they should agree to the RBI’s request:
“At the moment, the Fund holds the equivalent of US$27.5 million in gold with the Reserve Bank of India in Bombay. The Fund has received a letter from the Reserve Bank stating that it has recently opened an office at Nagpur, which is situated about 520 miles from Bombay in the interior of the country.
The office is in the Bank’s own building, and it contains a special vault for storing the Bank’s stock of gold. The special vault was constructed partly to enable gold to be stored at a comparatively safer place and partly to relieve the pressure on vault accommodation at the Bombay office. The Reserve Bank is transferring its own gold to Nagpur and inquires whether the Fund would object to the movement of the Fund’s gold.”
The staff document went on to explain the logistics of the move:
“The arrangements for transport would be made under the supervision of the military, and safe custody arrangements at Nagpur would be subject to the same security conditions as are observed at present in Bombay. The Fund’s gold would continue to be held under earmark, and the normal procedures which gold depositories follow in relation to the Fund would continue to be observed.”
A critical point in this IMF document, beyond the Indian gold transfer, is that the IMF staff viewed it as an opportunity to propose more general wording for Rule E-1 so as to allow IMF gold to be stored in any location within the designated countries. The Staff proposed to the Executive Directors.:
“Although Rule E-1 is not free from ambiguity, the more obvious reading of it requires that gold held in India shall be held in Bombay.
The question of the physical transfer of gold may be raised by other gold depositories of the Fund. For example, in the United States, there have been occasions when official stocks of gold have been held simultaneously in New York, Denver, San Francisco and Fort Knox.
The staff believes that it would be advisable to amend Rule E-1 so as to give the Fund more flexibility in dealing with a proposal of the kind made by the Reserve Bank of India. Accordingly, it recommends that Rule E-l should be amended…”
(Source: EBS/56/39, “Gold Depositories of the Fund”)
An IMF Executive Board meeting in November 1956 about the move of the Fund’s gold to Nagpur, approved on January 9th, 1957 (Meeting 57/1), deemed that “it is agreed that the Fund’s gold held with the Reserve Bank of India shall be held at Nagpur.”
The Executive Directors also used the opportunity of the 1956 amendment to Rule E-1 to delete the reference to Shanghai as an IMF gold depository (‘without prejudice’). This is explained below.
And so, in 1956 the Rule E-1 sentence
“Gold depositories of the Fund shall be established in New York, London, Shanghai, Paris, and Bombay”
“Gold depositories of the Fund shall be established in the United States, United Kingdom, France, and India”
and the phrase “at places agreed with the Fund” was added as follows:
“The gold of the Fund shall be held with the depositories designated by the members in whose territories they are located at places agreed with the Fund”.
IMF gold, anywhere
Since the 1956 Rule E-1 persists into the current Rule F-1 (see Part 1), it opens up the possibility that IMF gold could be stored in any central bank gold vault (or other outsourced vaults) in any of the four jurisdictions of the US, UK, France and India, and even in China in the future if China looked to use its “without prejudice” option to be re-listed in the current day F-1 Rule list.
For example, the wording of Rule F-1 suggests that IMF gold held at the FRB New York vaults could be transferred to another Federal Reserve Bank vault as long as the other Bank had secure storage facilities.
Whether, in terms of Rule F-1, this transferability extends to US Treasury storage locations such as Fort Knox is unclear; the IMF staff document from 1956 seemed to think that US Treasury locations were feasible storage locations since it mentions them as indirect justification for changing the Rule E-1 wording.
There appears to be legal authority for the US Treasury and Federal Reserve Bank to use the Treasury’s Mint institutions for storing foreign central bank gold. Such arrangements were even being discussed as early as the 1940s as the following ‘Treasury Department, Inter Office Communication’ letter from a Mr. Luxford to a Mr. Dietrich makes clear:
“The quantity of gold available in New York for sale to foreign governments for earmarking by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York has declined to such an extent that it will soon be necessary to ship gold from Fort Knox to New York, or make other arrangements for earmarking.
It has been suggested that, to avoid the tying up of transportation facilities and the high cost of shipping, arrangements be made whereby the Federal Reserve Bank can, with the consent of the governments concerned, earmark gold while it is still in the Mint institutions.”
The letter goes on to describe a proposal whereby the FRB could earmark foreign central bank gold in the vault of the Denver branch of the FRB of Kansas City, or even lease private bank vaults in Denver, but if this didn’t solve the space issue, then compartments in Fort Knox and the Denver Mint were available:
“Mr. Howard has contacted the superintendents at the Fort Knox and Denver institutions and I am informed that the following spaces are available:
1. Fort Knox – two compartments which, when filled completely, could hold approximately $1,000,000,000 in gold.
2. Denver – three compartments which, when filled completely, could hold approximately $450,000,000 in gold.”
Luxford concluded that:
“I believe that there is legal authority for the use of the mint institutions for the purpose outlined above.”
(Source: ‘Treasury Department, Inter Office Communication’, Sept 1943, Clinton Library, gold files)
So, there appears to be a legal precedent for foreign central banks, governments and international institutions to hold earmarked gold at US Treasury storage locations. These arrangements would be very useful if the US Treasury needed gold at the FRBNY and, for example, the Treasury conducted a gold location swap with the Bundesbank or IMF, swapping Treasury Fort Knox gold for Bundesbank or IMF gold.
The IMF is legally allowed to engage in location swaps for its gold and has done so numerous times in the past with entities such as the FRB and the BIS. Some of these IMF gold location swaps are covered in Part 3.
According to the current Rule F-1, IMF gold could also be stored, for example, in Bank of England provincial branch office vaults (assuming there are any of these vaults still operational). The Bank of England has in the past stored HM Treasury and other customer gold in its branch offices, for example in Liverpool, Birmingham and Southampton. Some of these branch offices have now closed but the Bank of England still maintains various agency offices across the UK.
In theory it’s possible that IMF gold could be transferred from the Bank of England’s London vaults to secure storage at one of the Bank’s provincial locations or even to emergency storage locations in England or Wales that have, at various times in the past, been considered by HM Treasury and the Ministry of Defence.
The IMF’s Article XIII, Section 2(b) also seems to open up the possibility that the IMF’s gold could be stored in other locations entirely, even in other countries. Remember that Article XIII, Section 2(b) states:
“(b) The Fund may hold other assets, including gold, in the depositories designated by the five members having the largest quotas and in such other designated depositories as the Fund may select”.
The IMF’s Articles will always have precedence over its Rules and Regulations, due to Rule A-1 which states
“A-1: These Rules and Regulations supplement the Articles of Agreement and the By-Laws adopted by the Board of Governors. They are not intended to replace any provision of either the Articles or the By-Laws.”
There is another clause in Article XIII, section 2(b) referring to an emergency, which is pretty self-explanatory:
“In an emergency the Executive Board may transfer all or any part of the Fund’s gold holdings to any place where they can be adequately protected.”
There is therefore plenty of legal scope for the IMF’s gold to be stored in locations that at first glance might not appear obvious.
The IMF Executive Board confirmed the five gold depositories of the Fund in November 1946, including the Central Bank of China, Shanghai. However, no IMF gold was ever held in Shanghai because no IMF member country (including China) ever deposited gold to the IMF at Shanghai.
The removal of the reference to Shanghai as an IMF gold depository during the 1956 amendment had its origins in 1949. In 1949 the IMF Executive Board discussed a proposal that Shanghai should be temporarily removed from the gold depositories list due to political instability in the country at that time.
The following Executive Board minutes illustrate the discussion of the proposal that was recommended by the Board Chairman Camille Gutt. The discussion involved Frank Southard (F A Southard), the US Executive Director to the Fund, who had helped plan the Bretton Woods conference in 1944, and Y C Koo, who was subsequently Treasurer of the IMF, and who was part of the nationalist Chinese delegation that attended Bretton Woods:
The Executive Board considered a recommendation by the Chairman that, in view of recent developments in China, the Fund should remove Shanghai from the list of gold depositories for the time being.”
“Mr. Southard said he assumed the action would be of a temporary character. Mr. Koo said his Government had no objection on the understanding that the action was temporary. However, the Government would wish to reserve the right to raise the matter again with the Fund at an opportune time.
The decision was: In view of recent developments in China and under the emergency provisions of Article XIII, Section 2(b), Shanghai is for the time being removed from the list of depositories in which the Fund may hold assets, including gold. Members shall be so informed. It is understood that China may, at an opportune time, raise the matter again.”
(Source: Executive Board Meeting 465, 21st July 1949)
While the decision to temporarily remove Shanghai as a gold depository had been taken in 1949, it re-emerged as an issue in 1956 when the amendment to Rule E-1 was being discussed at a meeting. This was because the Executive Board wanted to ensure that the changed wording to Rule E-1 did not prejudice the previous decision to temporarily remove Shanghai as a gold depository.
The Acting Chairman in the 1956 meeting was H. Merle Cochran, deputy Managing Director of the Fund. The Executive Director for China (representing the Taiwan based government) was Mr Tann:
“The Acting Chairman stated that, in order to make it clear that the proposed action would not prejudice a previous decision temporarily removing Shanghai from the list of depositories, the staff wished to recommend the addition of the following paragraph to the decision proposed:
(c) The amendment of Rule E-1 as set forth in paragraph (a) above is without prejudice to the decision of the Executive Board at Meeting 465 (July 21, 1949)”
“Mr. Tann said he had no objection to the staff’s proposals and particularly welcomed the additional paragraph put forward by the management since it would leave no doubt that the 1949 decision was not being nullified.”
(Source:Executive Board Meeting 56, 29th November 1956)
The 1956 amendment to Rule E-1 was adopted by the IMF Executive Board on 9th January 1957, and then reviewed and accepted by the Fund’s Board of Governors at the 12th IMF annual meeting 1957 where Per Jacobsson, Managing Director and Chairman of the Executive Board highlighted to the Governors that
“On November 29, 1956, Rule E-1 was amended to provide for greater flexibility in the location of the Fund’s gold held with designated depositories.”
(Source: Draft letter by Per Jacobsson to the Chairman of the Board of Governors, twelfth Annual Meeting of the IMF)
On paper, the reinstatement of China as a gold depository of the IMF looks possible, but in reality would be complicated by a number of issues, not least the unravelling of claims and representations that could arise from Taipei and Beijing over the 1949 agreement with the IMF.
With Shanghai now re-emerging as a dominant player in the global gold market, its fitting that the story of the IMF’s Shanghai depository should not be forgotten even though it never really existed.
The Nagpur gold vault, which does exist, is itself a relatively forgotten IMF outpost. But it still contains, or is said to contain, both IMF and Reserve Bank of India gold. For this reason, the Nagpur gold vault, and some of its details, will be the subject of a future post.
The International Monetary Fund (IMF) is the world’s third largest official sector holder of gold behind the United States and Germany. According to the Fund’s web site, as at October 2014 “the IMF holds around 90.5 million ounces (2,814.1 metric tons) of gold at designated depositories.”
The IMF’s gold holdings were accumulated between 1946 and the late 1970s via Members’ initial quota subscriptions to the Fund, various quota increases, and through a number of additional methods where a Member either sold gold to the Fund or transferred gold to the Fund as part of a repayment obligation. Likewise, gold sometimes flowed in the other direction back to Members, in payment for a Member’s currency, during the 1970s gold restitutions, and via other sales to Members.
With renewed interest in central bank and official gold holdings at international storage locations, it is worth examining what exactly the IMF means by designated depositories and which specific depositories its gold was deposited into.
At this stage its worth stating that the designated gold depositories of the IMF really just mean that a gold account was opened by various authorised signatories in the name of the IMF at certain central banks that offered gold vaulting or storage facilities. There are no stand-alone IMF gold depositories, just gold accounts at existing third-party depositories.
There are many ways to verify the identity of the IMF’s gold depositories. However, the legal approach is the most complete, and also highlights some little known facts.
“Depositories” is a specific legal term appearing in the Articles and Rules and Regulations of the Fund. All aspects of the governance and functioning of the IMF are based on the Fund’s Articles of Agreement, supplemented by its By-Laws, and its Rules and Regulations.
Rule F-1 of the Rules and Regulations relates to the establishment of gold depositories. Article XIII, Section 2(b) also addresses gold depositories and holdings.
The current Rule F-1 reads:
“Rule F-1. Gold depositories of the Fund shall be established in the United States, the United Kingdom, France, and India. The gold of the Fund shall be held with the depositories designated by the members in whose territories they are located at places agreed with the Fund.” (Adopted September 25, 1946, amended November 29, 1956, and April 1, 1978)
Note that Rule F-1 has been amended twice. These amendments are key to understanding the genesis of the designated depositories, their locations and their potential locations. The last amendment was applied on 1st April 1978, and before that on 29th November 1956.
In April 1978 the IMF implemented the Second Amendment to its Articles, By-Laws, and Rules and Regulations so as to reflect a number of changes in the international economy including the shift from a par value system to a system of flexible exchange rates, and a reduced role for gold in the international system. As part of the Second Amendment, the Rules and Regulations underwent an extensive overhaul with rules deleted, rewritten and even renamed.
The rule on gold depositories required amending because Members were no longer required to pay subscriptions in gold. During this amendment the gold depository rule was renamed as Rule F-1. It had previously been called Rule E-1.
Rule E-1 prior to the 1978 change read:
“Gold depositories of the Fund shall be established in the United States, the United Kingdom, France, and India. The gold of the Fund shall be held with the depositories designated by the members in whose territories they are located at places agreed with the Fund. A member may pay its gold subscription to the Fund at one or more of the specified gold depositories within the terms of Article XIII, Section 2.”
According to comments on the revision of the Rules in 1977, the IMF’s Legal Department staff wrote that “The first two sentences of the provision have been transferred to Rule F-1. The last sentence has been omitted because of the changes in the provisions governing the payment of subscriptions.” Likewise, a comment beside the newly named Rule F-1 stated that “This provision incorporates the first two sentences of the present Rule E-1”.
SM/77/134 “Implementation of the Second Amendment: Revised Rules and Regulations – A through N”
Since gold was no longer used to pay subscriptions following the Second Amendment in 1978, the reference to paying gold to gold depositories, based on Article XIII, Section 2, was no longer needed.
Article XIII, Section 2(b) specifies the framework on how gold depositories are designated, the target percentages between which the Fund’s gold was to be initially held between the designated depositories, and the way transfers could occur between locations, including emergency transfers.
Article XIII, Section 2(b) reads as follows:
“Section 2. Depositories (b) The Fund may hold other assets, including gold, in the depositories designated by the five members having the largest quotas and in such other designated depositories as the Fund may select.
Initially, at least one-half of the holdings of the Fund shall be held in the depository designated by the member in whose territories the Fund has its principal office and at least forty percent shall be held in the depositories designated by the remaining four members referred to above.
However, all transfers of gold by the Fund shall be made with due regard to the costs of transport and anticipated requirements of the Fund. In an emergency the Executive Board may transfer all or any part of the Fund’s gold holdings to any place where they can be adequately protected.”
Whereas the current Rule F-1 and the pre-1978 Rule E-1 list only four country locations as gold depositories, there is a reference in Article XIII, Section 2 to designated gold depositories of five members. This difference can be understood by looking at the version of Rule E-1 prior to the November 1956 amendment. This is the original version adopted on 25th September 1946 that persisted until 1956.
The originally adopted, pre-1956 version of E-1 read as follows:
“Gold depositories of the Fund shall be established in New York, London, Shanghai, Paris, and Bombay. The gold of the Fund shall be held with the depositories designated by the members in whose territories they are located. A member may pay its gold subscription to the Fund at one or more of the specified gold depositories, within the terms of Article XIII, Section 2.”
These five locations of New York, London, Shanghai, Paris and Bombay were chosen since the United States, the United Kingdom, China, France and India were given the five largest quotas (in that order) when the Fund went live, and these countries each designated a depository in these five locations.
India appeared onto the top five quota member list when the Soviet Union declined to join the IMF in late 1946, despite the Russian delegation having attended the Bretton Woods conference and being involved in detailed Fund negotiations after the conference.
In fact, early IMF drafts about the five depositories include Moscow on the list in addition to New York, London, Shanghai and Paris. Interestingly, South Africa also seemed eager to host an IMF gold depository despite not qualifying on quota size grounds.
On 4th September 1946 at Executive Board Meeting 49, just prior to the Fund’s Rules and Regulations being finalised for adoption, Gijsbert Bruins (G W J Bruins) the Executive Director representing the Netherlands and South Africa “raised the request of South Africa that one of the gold depositories should be located there. It was decided to consider this later”.
Although nothing came of this South African request, it’s notable that four of the five current day BRICS countries were in various ways, at the inception of the Fund, in contention for hosting an IMF gold depository. Perhaps the new BRICs Development Bank has taken note of this historical connection.
So, which gold depositories were nominated by the five largest members in respect of New York, London, Shanghai, Paris and Bombay?
Executive Board Document No. 46, Supplement 1 prepared by the Operations Department and dated 5th November 1946 confirms the five depositories, and the quality of gold that would be accepted:
“PAYMENT OF GOLD SUBSCRIPTIONS
1. The nominated gold depositories of the Fund are:-
(1) The Federal Reserve Bank of New York, New York City,
(2) The Bank of England, London.
(3) The Banque de France, Paris.
(4) The Reserve Bank of India, Bombay.
(5) The Central Bank of China, Shanghai.
2. The Fund requires that part of a Member’s quota payable in gold shall be delivered to one or more of the above-mentioned depositories.
3. The gold must be delivered to the Fund in the form of bars having a fineness of .995 or higher and weighing approximately 400 ozs, i.e., the normal size of bars used in international transactions. The Fund is not prepared to accept gold coin. Members may, however, deliver bars of lower fineness and weight by agreement with the Fund. In such an event, Members must be prepared in gold an amount, which would be estimated by the Fund, to cover the conversion of such gold into bars of the required weight and fineness.
4. Bars tendered by Members must be in a condition and have an assay which would be acceptable to the depository in question if such depository were called upon to buy such bars. The assay therefore, must be recognized by the depository in question, and bars must not be mutilated.
5. The weight of the bars tendered must be verified by the depository to which they are tendered
6. Members will bear all the charges made by the depositories for taking into custody for the Fund the Member’s gold subscriptions. Members will themselves make their own arrangements with the depositories concerned in this regard. “All gold must therefore be received by the Fund free of charges.”
A note from John L. Fisher, Head of the Operations Department, to Andre Van Campenhout, Head of the Legal Department dated 16th September 1946 indicates that there was a view that having gold in New York and London would be most useful from an operational point of view, and that there was also concern about possible security risks in China and India at that time.
“Initially, at least 50% of the Fund’s gold must be held in the U.S.A. and 40% in depositories designated by the four Members (other than the U.S.A.) having the largest quotas. But there is a proviso that the Fund shall hold gold where it anticipates that it will want it, subject to its being safe there. The anticipation of the Fund may change from time to time, but in present circumstances it might be thought that the two places where gold might be most useful to the Fund would be the U.S.A. and the UK.”
“….gold put up for subscriptions, repurchases and charges, should be put up in the centre where the Fund anticipates that it will need it. So far as subscriptions are concerned, the anticipations can only be guesses, since the Fund will have had no experience to guide it. But the factor of security should be considered and it is pertinent to observe that there is civil war in China and political unrest in India.”
Prior to the payment of member’s initial quota payments into the Fund in 1946-1947, the IMF sent requests to each prospective member informing them of the location of the gold depositories, and asking each country to specify a preferred depository to which it would send its gold payment.
This request appears was made so as to predict whether the Fund would need to actually instruct Member’s to use specific depositories, most likely to direct gold into the depositories so as to satisfy the 50% New York rule, but also so as to result in gold being in “the most useful” locations of New York and London.
The request was in the form of a letter to each country’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, signed by Camille Gutt, Managing Director of the IMF.
“My dear Mr. Minister:
I have the honor to inform you that the International Monetary Fund will have gold depositories at New York, London, Shanghai, Paris and Bombay. The gold subscription of your Government will be payable at one of these depositories.
It is desired that, so far as possible, each member deposit its gold subscription at any depository it selects. It is essential, however, that the Fund comply with the provisions of Article XIII, Section 2(b) concerning the initial distribution of gold holdings of the Fund.
In order that it may be determined whether any instructions will be necessary concerning the depository at which your Government’s gold subscriptions should be paid, it is requested that you furnish the Fund, as soon as possible, with the following information:
(1) The depository at which your Government would prefer to make its gold payment,
(2) The approximate amount of gold which your Government will pay to the Fund on account of its subscription.
Camille Gutt, Managing Director”
(Draft Letter to the Minister of Foreign Affairs of each member relative to Gold Depositories
Having an existing gold account in the name of a central bank or a sovereign at a depository such as the FRBNY, Bank of England or Banque de France also most likely affected the choice of depository each Member made. Whatever the reasons behind the initial gold transfers to the various depositories, by the end of June 1947, the IMF’s gold holdings were distributed as follows:
Gold with Depositories, as at 30 June 1947 (fine ounces and per cent distribution)
USA – Federal Reserve Bank of New York 21.782 million 56.72%
UK – Bank of England 13.558 million 35.30%
France – Banque de France 2.283 million 5.94%
India – Reserve Bank of India 0.785 million 2.04%
TOTAL 38.408 million 100%
(Appendix VIII, Schedule 1, Annual Report 1947)
Note that no country deposited gold to the credit of the IMF at the Bank of China in Shanghai, and only India’s initial gold subscription was transferred to the Reserve Bank of India, Bombay.
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