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LBMA Gold Vault Data – How low is the London Gold Float?

The London Bullion Market Association (LBMA) has just released a first update on the quantity of physical gold and silver holdings stored in the ‘LBMA’ London vaulting network. The LBMA press release explaining the move, dated 31 July, can be read here.

This vaulting network, administered by the LBMA, comprises a set of precious metals vaults situated in London that are operated by the Bank of England and 7 commercial vault operators. For simplicity, this set of vaults can be called the LBMA London vaults. The 7 commercial vault operators are HSBC, Brinks, ICBC Standard Bank, Malca Amit, JP Morgan, Loomis and G4S. ICBC Standard outsources its vault management to Brinks. It’s possible that to some extent HSBC also outsources some of its vault management to Brinks.

Strangely, the LBMA’s initial reporting strangely only runs up to 31 March 2017, which is 4-months prior to the first publication date of 31 July. This is despite the fact that new LBMA vault holdings data is supposed to be published on a 3-month lagged basis, which would imply a latest report coverage date of 30 April.

At the end of April 2017, the Bank of England separately began publication of gold vault holdings for the gold bars that the Bank stores in custody within its own vaults. The Bank of England reporting is also on a 3-month lagged basis (and the Bank actually adheres to this reporting lag). See BullionStar article “Bank of England releases new data on its gold vault holdings”, dated 28 April 2017, for details of the Bank of England vault reporting initiative.

Currently, the Bank of England is therefore 1 month ahead of the LBMA vault data, i.e. on 31 July 2017, the Bank of England’s gold page was updated with Bank of England gold custody vault holdings as of 30 April 2017.

Ignoring the LBMA 3-month lagged vs 4-month lagged anomaly, the LBMA’s first vault reporting update, for vault data as of 31 March 2017, states that the 8 sets of vaults in question (which includes the Bank of England gold vaults) held a combined 7449 tonnes of gold and a combined 32078 tonnes of silver.

Also included in the first batch of LBMA data are comparable London vault holdings figures for gold and silver for each month-end date from July 2016 to February 2016 inclusive. Therefore, as of the 31 July 2017, there is now an LBMA dataset of 9 months of data, which will be augmented by one month each month going forward. Whether the LBMA will play catch-up and publish April 2017 month-end and May 2017 month-end figures simultaneously at the next reporting date of 31 August 2017 remains to be seen.

One of the Bank of England gold vaults
One of the Bank of England gold vaults

The New Vault Data – Gold and Silver

For 31 March 2017, the LBMA is reporting 7449 tonnes of gold stored across the 8 sets of vault locations. For the same date, the Bank of England reported 5081 tonnes of gold held in the Bank of England vaults. Therefore, as of 31 March 2017, there were 2368 tonnes of gold ‘not in the Bank of England vaults’ (or at least 2368 tonnes of gold not counted by the Bank of England data).

Of the gold not in the Bank of England vaults, about 1510 tonnes of this gold in London was held by gold-backed Exchange Traded Funds (ETFs), mainly with the custodians HSBC and JP Morgan. These ETFs include the SPDR Gold Trust and various ETFs from ETF Securities, Source, iShares, and Deutsche Bank etc. This 1510 tonnes figure is taken from an estimate calculated at the end of April 2017 using data from the GoldChartsRUs website. See BullionStar article “Summer of 17: LBMA Confirms Upcoming Publication of London Gold Vault Holdings” dated 9 May 2017 for details of this ETF calculation.

Subtracting this 1510 tonnes of ETF gold from the 2368 tonnes of gold stored outside the Bank of England vaults means that as of 31 March 2017, there were only about 858 tonnes of gold stored in the LBMA vaults outside of the Bank of England vaults that was not held by gold-backed ETF holdings. See Table 1 below.

The lowest gold holdings number reported by the LBMA within its 9 months of vault data is actually the first month, i.e. July 2016. At month-end July 2016, the LBMA report shows total vaulted gold of 7283 tonnes. There was therefore a net addition of 166 tonnes of gold to the LBMA vaults between August 2016 and the end of March 2017, with net additions over the August to October 2016 period, followed by net declines over the November 2016 to February 2017 period.

LBMA
Table 1: LBMA London Vaults and Bank of England Vaults – Gold holdings, July 2016 – March 2017

Turning to silver, as of 31 March 2017, the LBMA is reporting total vaulted silver of 32,078 tonnes held in London vaults. The vaulted silver data also shows a notable increase over the period from the end of July 2016 to the end of March 2017, with a net 2485 tonnes of silver added to the vaults.

Since the Bank of England vaults only store gold in custody on behalf of customers and do not store silver, there are no silver holdings at the Bank of England and therefore there is no specific Bank of England silver reporting. The LBMA silver data therefore refers purely to silver vaulted with operators such as Brinks, JP Morgan, Malca Amit, HSBC, and Loomis.

There are currently at least 12,000 tonnes of silver stored in London on behalf of silver-backed ETFs such as the iShares Silver Trust (SLV), various ETF Securities products, a SOURCE ETF and some Deutsche Bank ETFs. Subtracting these ETF holdings from the full 32,078 tonne figure being reported by the LBMA would suggest that there are an additional ~ 20,000 tonnes of non-ETF silver held in the London vaults.

LBMA
Table 2: LBMA London Vaults – Silver holdings, July 2016 – March 2017
How small is the London gold float?
How small is the London gold float?

Previous Vault Estimates for Gold and Silver

Prior to the new LBMA and Bank of England vault holdings data reports, the only way to work out how much gold and silver were in the London vaulting network was through estimation. Between 2015 and 2017, a number of these estimates were calculated for gold and published on the BullionStar website and the GoldChartsRUs website.

See BullionStar page “How many Good Delivery gold bars are in all the London Vaults?….including the Bank of England vaults” and GoldChartsRUs page “LBMA/BOE VAULTED GOLD, 2016 Update – The London Float”, and BullionStar page “Tracking the gold held in London: An update on ETF and BoE holdings”.

The “Tracking the gold held in London” article, published on 5 October 2016, took a LBMA statement of 6500 tonnes of gold being in London, the earliest reference to which was from 8 February 2016 Internet Archive page cache, and also took a Bank of England statement that the Bank held 4725 tonnes as of the end of February 2016 period, and then it factored in that the UK net imported more than 800 tonnes of non-monetary gold up to August 2016, and also that ETFs had added about 399 tonnes over the same period. It also calculated, using GoldChartsRUS ETF data, that the London-based gold-backed ETFs held about 1679 tonnes of gold as of the end of September 2016.

Therefore, as of the end of September 2016, there could have been at least 7300 tonnes of gold held across the LBMA and Bank of England vaults, i.e. 6500 tonnes + 800 tonnes = 7300 tonnes. As it turns out, this estimate was quite close to the actual quantity of gold held in the LBMA and Bank of England vaults at the end of September 2016, which the LBMA’s new reporting now confirms to have been 7590 tonnes. The estimate is a lower number because it was unclear as to which initial date the LBMA’s 6500 tonnes reference referred to (in early 2016 or before).

Previous Vault Estimates Silver

At the beginning of July 2017, an article on the BullionStar website titled “How many Silver Bars are in the LBMA Vaults in London?” estimated that there were about 12,000 tonnes of Good Delivery silver bars held across 4 LBMA vault operators in London on behalf of 11 silver-backed Exchange Traded Funds. These ETFs and the distribution of their silver bars across the 4 vault operators of Brinks, Malca Amit, JP Morgan and HSBC can be seen in the following table.

Silver
Table 3: ETF Silver held across LBMA commercial vaults in London, early July 2017 

The above article about the number of silver bars in the London vaults also drew on some data from precious metals consultancy Thomson Reuters GFMS, which each year publishes a table of identifiable above ground global silver supply in its World Silver Survey. One category of silver within the GFMS identifiable above ground silver inventories is called ‘Custodian Vaults’. This is distinct from silver holdings in ETFs and silver holdings in exchange inventories such as in COMEX approved vaults in New York. A simple way to view ‘Custodian Vaults’ silver holdings is as an opaque ‘unreported holdings’ category as opposed to the more the transparent ETF holdings and COMEX holdings categories.

For 2016, according to GFMS, this ‘Custodian Vaults’ silver amounted to 1571.2 million ounces (48,871 tonnes), of which 488.7 million ounces (15,200 tonnes), or 31% was represented by what GFMS calls the ‘Europe’ region. Unfortunately, GFMS do not break out the ‘Custodian Vaults’ numbers by individual country because they say that they receive the data on a confidential basis and cannot divulge the granularity. The early July article on BullionStar had speculated that:

“With 488.7 million ozs (15,201 tonnes) of silver held in Europe in ‘Custodian vaults’ that is not reported anywhere, at least some of this silver must be held in London, which is one of the world’s largest financial centers and the world’s highest trading volume silver market.”

“Apart from London, there would presumably also be significant physical silver holdings vaulted in Switzerland and to a lessor extent in countries such as Germany, the Netherlands and maybe Austria etc. So whats’s a suitable percentage for London? Given London’s extensive vaulting network and prominence as a hedge fund and institutional investment centre, a 40-50% share of the European ‘custodian vault’ silver holdings would not be unrealistic, with the other big percentage probably vaulted in Switzerland.

This would therefore put previously ‘Unreported’ silver holdings in the London vaults at between 6080 tonnes and 7600 tonnes (or an additional 182,000 to 230,000 Good Delivery Silver bars).

Adding this range of 6080 – 7600 tonnes to the 12,040 tonne figure that the 11 ETFs above hold, gives a total figure of 18,120 – 19,640 tonnes of silver stored in the LBMA vaults in London (545,000 – 585,000 Good Delivery silver bars).

But here’s the catch. With the LBMA now saying that as of the end of March 2017 there were 1.031 billion ounces of silver, or 32078 tonnes, stored in the LBMA vaulting network in London (and 31238 tonnes of silver in London as of end of December 2016), of which at least 12,000 tonnes is in silver-backed ETFs, then that still leaves about 20,000 tonnes of silver in the London vaults, which is higher than the silver total attributed to the entire ‘custodian vault’ category’ in Europe (as per the GFMS 2016 report).

Even the lowest quantity in the 9 months that the LBMA reports on, which is month-end July 2016, states that the LBMA vaults held 951,433,000 ounces (29,593 tonnes), which after excluding silver ETFs in London, is still higher than the total ‘Custodian Vault’ category that GFMS attributes to the European region in 2016.

These new LBMA vault figures are basically implying that all of the GFMS custodian vault figure for Europe (and some more) is all held in London and not anywhere else in Europe. But that could not be the case as there is also a lot of silver vaulted in Switzerland and other European countries such as Germany, to think of but a few.

This begs the question, does the GFMS Custodian vault number for Europe need to be updated to reflect the gap between the non-ETF holdings that LBMA claims are in the London vaults and what GFMS is reporting in a European ‘Custodian vaults’ category? If the LBMA reporting actually broke down the silver vaulting quantity number into Good Delivery silver bars and other categories, it might help solve this puzzle as it would give an indication of how much of this 32,000 tonnes of silver is in the form of bars that are accepted for settlement in the London Silver Market i.e. Good Delivery silver bars.

Could some of this 32,000 tonnes of silver be in the form of silver jewellery, and private holdings of silver antiques and even silver artifacts? On the surface the LBMA reporting appears to say not since it states that:

“jewellery and other private holdings held by retailers, individuals and smaller vaults not included in the London Clearing system are not included in the numbers”

But because this statement reads rather ambiguously, by implication another interpretation of the LBMA statement could be that:

“jewellery and other private holdings held by retailers and individuals in vaults that are part of the London Clearing system are included in the numbers”

The London Clearing system here refers to the vaults of the 7 commercial vault operators.

Until GFMS comes back with a possible clarification of its ‘Custodian Vault’ figure for Europe, then this contradiction between the LBMA data for silver and GFMS data for silver will persist.

The HSBC vault containing the GLD gold
The HSBC vault in London containing the GLD gold

Large Bars but also Small Bars and Gold Coins

According to the LBMA’s press release, while the LBMA vault holding data …represent the volume of Loco London gold and silver held in the London vaults offering custodian services“, surprisingly the new LBMA data includes “all physical forms of metal inclusive of large wholesale bars, coin, kilo bars and small bars.”

The inclusion of gold coins, smaller gold bars and gold kilobars in the LBMA vault data is bizarre because only large wholesale bars are accepted as Good Delivery in the London gold and silver markets, not gold coin, not smaller bars, and not gold kilobars. Even the LBMA website states that “the term Loco London refers to gold and silver bullion that is physically held in London. Only LBMA Good Delivery bars are acceptable for trading in the London market.

Furthermore, the entire physical London Gold Market and physical London Silver Market revolve around the LBMA Good Delivery lists. Spot, forward and options trades on the London OTC gold and silver market are only referenced to a unit of delivery of a Good Delivery bar, both for gold and for silver.

For example, in the LBMA’s “A Guide to the London Precious Metals Markets” it states that:

Unit for Delivery of Loco London Gold

This is the London Good Delivery gold bar. It must have a minimum fineness of 995.0 and a gold content of between 350 and 430 fine ounces…. . Bars are generally close to 400 ounces or 12.5 kilograms

For silver, the same guide states that:

“Unit for Delivery of Loco London Silver

This is the London Good Delivery silver bar. It must have a minimum fineness of 999 and a weight range between 750 and 1,100 ounces, although it is recommended that ideally bars should be produced within the range of 900 to 1,050 ounces. Bars generally weigh around 1,000 ounces.

Additionally, all the new London-based gold futures contracts launched by the LME, ICE and CME also reference, if only virtually, the unit for Delivery of loco London gold, i.e. the London Good Delivery gold bar. They do not reference smaller gold bars or gold coins.

In contrast to the LBMA , the COMEX exchange where the famous COMEX 100 ounce gold futures contract is traded only reports vault inventories of gold and silver where the bars satisfy that contract for delivery, i.e. the contract for delivery is one hundred (100) troy ounces of minimum fineness 995 gold of an approved brand in the form of either “one 100 troy ounce bar, or three 1 kilo bars”. COMEX do not report 400 oz gold bars or gold coins specifically because the contract has nothing to do with these products. Then why is the LBMA reporting on forms of gold that have nothing to do with the settlement norms of its OTC products in London?

Additionally, the LBMA website also states that “only bars produced by refiners on the [Good Delivery] Lists can be traded in the London market.“ All of this begs the question, why does the LBMA bother including smaller bars, kilogram bars and gold coins? These bars cannot be used in settlement or delivery for any standard London Gold Market transactions.

Perhaps these smaller gold bars and gold coins have been included in the statistics so as to boost the total reported figures or to make reverse engineering of the numbers more difficult? While the combined volumes of smaller bars and kilobars probably don’t add up to much in terms of tonnage, the combined gold coin holdings of central banks stored at the Bank of England could be material.

For example, 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 latest EEA accounts for 2016/2017, published 18 July 2017 state that “The gold bars and gold coin in the reserves were stored physically at the Bank’s premises.” See Page 43, Exchange Equalisation Accounts for details. Many more central banks, for historical reasons, also hold gold coins in their reserves. See Bullionstar article “Central Banks and Governments and their gold coin holdings” for some examples.

As another example, the Banque de France in Paris holds 2435 tonnes of gold of which 100 tonnes is in the form of gold coins, and 2,335 tonnes of gold bars. Even though these gold coins are held in Paris, this shows that central bank gold coin holdings could materially affect LBMA gold reporting that includes ‘gold coins‘ within the rolled up number. But such gold coins cannot be traded within the LBMA / LPMCL gold trading / gold clearing system and if present would overstate the number of Good delivery gold bars within the system.

The Bank of England gold page on its website also only refers to Good Delivery ‘gold bars’ and says nothing about gold coins, which underlines the special status to which the Bank of England assigns Good Delivery gold bars in the London Gold Market.  Specifically, the BoE gold page states that:

“..we provide gold storage on an allocated basis, meaning that the customer retains the title to specific gold bars in our vaults”

 “Values are given in thousands of fine troy ounces. Fine troy ounces denote only the pure gold content of a bar.

“We only accept bars which comply with London Bullion Market Association (LBMA) London Good Delivery (LGD) standards. LGD bars must meet a certain minimum fineness and weight. A typical gold bar weighs around 400 oz“

The Bank of England has now confirmed to me, however, that the gold holdings number that it reports on its website “is the total of all gold held at the Bank” and that this “includes coins that belong to the Exchange Equalisation Account (EEA) which are held by the Bank on behalf of Her Majesty’s Treasury (HMT)

This means that the total gold number being reported by both the Bank of England and the LBMA needs to be adjusted downward by some percentage so as to reflect the amount of real Good Delivery gold bars in the London vaults. What this downward adjustment should be is unclear, as neither the Bank of England nor the LBMA break out their figures by category of gold bars versus gold coins.

LBMA numbers – Obscured Rolled-up numbers

Another shortcoming in the LBMA’s vault reporting is that it does not break down the gold and silver holdings per individual vault. The LBMA will be only releasing 2 highly rolled-up numbers per month, one for gold and one for silver, for example, 7449 tones for gold and 32078 tonnes for silver in the latest month.

Contrast this to New York based COMEX and ICE gold futures daily reporting, which both do break down the gold holdings per New York vault. Realistically, the LBMA was never going to report gold or silver holdings per vault, as this would be a bridge too far towards real transparency, and would show how much or how little gold and silver is stored by each London vault operator / at each London vault location.

This does not, however, stop the LBMA from claiming transparency and in its 31 July press release it states that:

“According to the Fair and Effective Markets Review (see here for further details) 
‘…in markets where OTC trading remains the preferred model, authorities and market participants should continue to explore the scope for improving transparency, in ways that also enhance effectiveness.’

Real transparency, as opposed to lip-service transparency, would be supported by providing an individual breakdown of the number of Good Delivery gold and silver bars stored in each of the 8 sets of vaults at each month end. If they want to include gold coins, smaller gold bars, and gold kilo bars as extra categories, then this could also be itemised on a proper report. It would also only take any decent software developer about 1 day to write and create such a report.

There is also the issue of independently auditing these LBMA numbers. The issue is essentially that there is no independent auditing of these LBMA numbers nor will there be. So there is no second opinion as to whether the data is accurate or not.

The Bank of England gold vault reporting is also short of transparency as it does not provide a breakdown of how much of the reported gold is held by central banks, how much gold is held by bullion banks, how much of the central bank gold is out on loan with the bullion banks, and how much gold, if any, is held on behalf of ETFs at the Bank of  England as sub-custodian. Real transparency in this area would provide all of this information including how much gold the LPMCL bullion clearing banks HSBC, JP Morgan, UBS, Scotia Mocatta and ICBC Standard hold at the Bank of England vaults.

On the issue of ETF gold held at the Bank of England, it has been proven that at times the Bank of England has acted as a gold custodian for an ETF, for example, during the first quarter 2016, the SPDR Gold Trust held up to 29 tonnes of gold at the Bank of England, with the Bank of England acting in the capacity of sub-custodian to the SPDR Gold Trust. See BullionStar article  “SPDR Gold Trust gold bars at the Bank of England vaults” for details.

The London Float

The most important question with this new LBMA vault reporting is how much of the 7449 tonnes of gold stored in London as of the end of March 2017 is owned or controlled by bullion banks.

Or more specifically, what is the total level of LBMA bullion bank unallocated gold liabilities in the London market compared to the amount of real physical gold bars that they own or control. 

This ‘gold owned or controlled by the bullion banks’ metric can be referred to as the ‘London Float’. LBMA bullion banks can maintain their own holdings of gold bars which they buy in the market or import directly, and they can also borrow other people’s gold thereby controlling this gold also. Some of this gold can be in the LBMA commercial vaults. Some can also be in the Bank of England vaults.

In its press release, the LBMA states that:

“The physical holdings of precious metals held in the London vaults underpin the gross daily trading and net clearing in London.”

This is not exactly true. Only gold which is owned or controlled by the bullion banks can underpin gold trading in London. Allocated gold sitting in a vault that is owned by central banks, ETFs or investors and which does not have any other claim attached to it, does not underpin anything. It just sits there in a vault.

As regards gold bars stored in the LBMA vaults in London, these bars can either be owned by central banks at the Bank of England, owned by central banks at commercial vaults in London, owned by ETFs at the commercial vaults in London, owned or controlled by bullion banks, and owned by investors (either institutional investors, hedge funds, private individuals etc). On occasion, some ETF gold has at various times been at the Bank of England.

If central bank gold is held in allocated form and not lent out, then it is ‘off the market’ and can’t be ‘used’ by any other party such as a LBMA bullion bank. If central bank gold is lent out or swapped out to bullion banks, then it can be used or even sold by those  bullion banks. The LBMA uses the euphemism ‘liquidity’ to refer to this gold lending. For example, from the LBMA’s recent press release on the new vault reporting it says:

“In addition, the Bank of England also offers gold custodial services to central banks and certain commercial firms, that facilitate central bank access to the liquidity of the London gold market.”

ETF gold when it is held within an ETF cannot legally be used by other entities since it is owned by the ETF and allocated to the ETF. Institutionally owned gold or private owned gold when it is allocated is owned by the holder. It could in theory be lent to bullion banks also.

Some of the LBMA bullion banks have gold accounts at the Bank of England. How many of these banks maintain gold holdings within the Bank of England vaults nobody will say, not the Bank of England nor the LBMA nor the bullion banks, but it at least extends to the 5 members of London Precious Metals Clearing Limited (LPMCL) which are HSBC, JP Morgan, Scotia Mocatta, ICBC Standard and UBS. Gold accounts for bullion banks undoubtedly also extend to additional bullion banks beyond the LPMCL members because many bullion banks have been involved in gold lending at the Bank of England for a long time, for example Standard Chartered, Barclays, Natixis, BNP Paribas, Deutsche Bank, and Goldman Sachs, and these banks would at some point have to take delivery of borrowed gold at the Bank of England.

Note, the gold brokers of the London Gold Market have for a long time, as least since the 1970s, been able to store some of their gold bars at the Bank of England vaults. These brokers were historically Samuel Montagu, Mocatta, the old Sharps Pixley, NM Rothschild and Johnson Matthey.

Since LBMA bullion banks can maintain gold accounts at the LBMA commercial vaults in London, and because some of these banks have gold accounts at the Bank of England also, then this London “gold float” can comprise gold bars at the commercial vaults and gold bars at the Bank of England vaults. It is however, quite difficult to say exactly what size this London bullion bank gold float is at any given time.

Whatever the actual number, its not very big in size because if you subtract central bank gold and ETF gold from the overall LBMA gold figure (of 7449 tonnes as of the end of March 2017) then whatever is left is not a very big quantity of gold bars, and at least some of this residual gold stored in the LBMA commercial vaults is owned by institutions, hedge funds, private individuals and platforms such as BullionVault.

In September 2015, a study of central bank gold held at the Bank of England calculated that about 3779 tonnes of Bank of England custody gold can be accounted for by central bank and monetary authority gold holdings. See “Central bank gold at the Bank of England” for details and GoldChartsRUs page “LBMA/BOE VAULTED GOLD, 2016 Update – The London Float”. Compared to the 4725 tonnes of gold held at the Bank of England at the end of February 2016, this would then mean that there were about 946 tonnes of gold at the Bank of England that was “unaccounted for by central banks”. This was about 20% of the total amount of gold held at the Bank of England at that time.

However, some of this 946 tonnes was probably central bank gold where the central bank owner had not publicly divulged that it held gold at the Bank of England. Many central banks around the world that were contacted as part of the research into the “central bank gold at the Bank of England calculation” either didn’t reply or replied that they could not confirm where their gold was stored. See BullionStar article “Central Banks’ secrecy and silence on gold storage arrangements” for more details.
After factoring in these unknown central bank gold holders at the Bank of England, the remaining residual would be bullion bank gold. It could therefore be assumed that a percentage of gold stored at Bank of England, somewhere less than 20% and probably also less than 10%, is owned by bullion banks. Since central bank gold holdings, on paper at least are relatively static, the monthly changes in gold holdings at the Bank of England therefore probably mainly reflect bullion bank gold movements rather than central bank gold movements.

If we look back now at the LBMA vault data for gold as of 31 March 2017, how much of this gold could be bullion banks (London float) gold.

LBMA total gold vaulted: 7449 tonnes

Bank of England gold vaulted: 5081 tonnes

Gold in commercial LBMA vaults: 2368 tonnes

Gold in ETFs: 1510 tonnes

Gold in commercial vaults not in ETFs: 858 tonnes

Gold in commercial vaults not in ETFs that is allocated to institutions & hedge funds = x

i.e. 7449 – 5081 = 2368 – 1510 = 858

Assume 10% of the gold at the Bank of England is bullion bank gold. Also assume bullion banks gold hold some gold in LBMA commercial vaults.

Therefore total bullion bank gold could be (0.1 * 5081) + (858 – x) = 508 + 858 – x = 1366 – x.

Since x has to be > 0, then the bullion bank London float is definitely less than 1300 tonnes and probably less than 1000 tonnes. The bullion banks might argue that they can borrow more gold from central banks, take gold out of the ETFs, and even import gold from refineries. All of these options are possible, but still, the London bullion bank float is not that large. And it is this number in tonnes of gold which should be compared to the enormous volumes of ‘paper gold’ trading that occur in the London Gold Market each and every trading day.

For example in June 2017, the LBMA clearing statistics state that 21 million ounces of gold was cleared each trading day in the London Gold Market. That’s 653 tonnes of gold cleared each day in London. With a 10 to 1 ratio of gold trading to gold clearing, that’s the equivalent of 6530 tonnes of gold traded each day in the London gold market, or 143,660 tonnes over the 22 trading days of June. Annualised, this is 1.632 million tonnes of gold traded per year (using 250 trading days per year).
And sitting at the bottom of this trading pyramid is probably less than 1000 tonnes of bullion bank gold underpinning the gigantic trading volumes and huge unallocated gold liabilities of the bullion banks. So you can see that the London gold trading system is a fractional-reserve system with tiny physical gold underpinnings.

In May 2011, during a presentation at the LBMA Bullion Market Forum in Shanghai China, on the topic of London gold vaults, former LBMA CEO Stewart Murray included a slide which stated that:

Investment – more than ETFs

ETFs

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

Other holdings

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

The last bullet point of the above slide is particularly interesting as it references “very substantial amounts’ of unallocated gold and silver. Discounting the fact for a moment that unallocated gold and silver is not necessarily held in vaults or held anywhere else, given that it’s just a claim against a bullion bank, the statement really means that investors have ‘very substantial amounts‘ of claims against the bullion banks offering the unallocated gold and silver accounts i.e. very substantial liabilities in the form of unallocated gold and silver obligations to the gold and silver unallocated account holders.

If a small percentage of these claim holders / investors decided to convert their claims into allocated gold and silver, especially allocated gold, then where are the bullion banks going to get the physical gold to give to these converting claim holders? Neither do the claim holders of unallocated positions have any way of knowing how accurate the LBMA vault reporting is, because there is no independent auditing of the positions or of the report.

LBMA Vault data collaboration
Joni Teves, UBS, and Ruth Crowell, LBMA CEO

UBS and LBMA

The last line of the LBMA press release about the new vault reporting states the following:

“A detailed explanatory commentary follows, prepared by Joni Teves, Precious Metals Strategist, UBS”

This line includes an embedded link to the Teves report within the press release. This opens a 7 page report written by Teves about the new vault reporting. By definition, given that this report is linked to in the press release, it means that Joni Teves of UBS had the LBMA vault reporting data before it was publicly released, otherwise how could UBS have written its summary.

In her report, Teves states that a UBS database estimates that there are “1,485 tonnes of gold worth about $60bn and about 13,759 tonnes of silver worth about $7.85bn are likely to be held in London to back ETF shares“.

These UBS numbers are fairly similar to the ETF estimates for gold (1510 tonnes) and silver (12040 tonnes) that we came up with here at BullionStar, and so to some extent corroborate our previous ETF estimates. Teves also implies that some of the gold in the Bank of England figure is not central bank gold but is commercial bank gold as she says:

 “let’s say for illustration’s sake that about 80% to 90% of BoE gold holdings are accounted for by the official sector.

The statement on face value implies that 10% – 20% of Bank of England gold is not central bank gold. But why the grey area phrase of “let’s say for illustration’s sake”. Shouldn’t the legendary Swiss Bank UBS be more scientific than this?

Teves also says assume “negligible amount (in commercial vaults) comprises official sector holdings“, and she concludes that “this suggests that over the past year, an average of about 2,945 to 3,450 tonnes ($119-$139 bn) of investment-related gold was held in London.

What she is doing here is taking the average of 9 months of gold holdings held in the LBMA commercial vaults (which is 2439 tonnes) and then adding 10% and 20% respectively of the 9 month average of gold held at the Bank of England (which is 506 and 1011 tonnes) to get the resulting range of between 2945 and 3451 tonnes.

Then she takes the ETF tonnes estimate (1485) away from her range to get a range of between 1460 and 1965 tonnes, as she states:

 … “Taking these ETF-related holdings into account would then leave roughly around 1,460 to 1,965 tonnes or about $59bn to $79bn worth of gold in unallocated and allocated accounts as available pool of liquidity for OTC trading activities

But what this assumption fails to take into account is that some of this 1,460 to 1,965 tonnes that is in allocated accounts is not available as a pool of liquidity, because it is held in allocated form by investors precisely so that the bullion banks cannot get their hands on it and trade with it. In other words, it is ring fenced. Either way, a model will always output what has been input into it. Change the 10% and 20% range assumptions about the amount of commercial bank gold in the Bank of England vaults and this materially alters the numbers that can be attributed to be an ‘available pool of liquidity for OTC trading activities’.

Additionally, the portion of this residual gold that is in ‘unallocated accounts’ is not owned by any investors, it is owned by the banks. The ‘unallocated accounts’ holders merely have claims on the bullion banks for metal that is backed by a fractional-reserve trading system.

In her commentary about the silver held in the London vaults, Teves does not comment at all about the huge gap between her ETF silver in London (which UBS states as 13,759 tonnes), and the full 32000 tonnes reported by the LBMA,and does not mention how this huge gap is larger than all the ‘Custodian Vault’ silver which Thomson Reuters GFMS attributes to the entire ‘Europe’ region.

Conclusion

The amount of gold in the London LBMA gold vaults (incl. Bank of England) that is not central bank gold, that is not ETF gold, and that is not institutional allocated gold is quite a low number. What this actual number is difficult to say because a) the LBMA will not produce a proper vault report that shows ownership of gold by category of holder, and b) neither will the Bank of England in its gold vault reporting provide a breakdown between the gold owned by central banks and the gold owned by bullion banks. So there is still no real transparency in this area. Just a faint chink of light into a dark cavern.

On the topic of London vaulted silver, there appears to be a lot more silver in the LBMA vaults than even GFMS thought there was. It will be interesting to see how GFMS and the LBMA will resolve their apparent contradiction on the amount of silver stored in the London LBMA vaults.

Guest Post: How to Trigger a Silver Avalanche by a Pebble: “Smash(ed) it Good”

UBS and other precious metals traders on how to wreak havoc in silver markets

Written by Allan Flynn, specialist researcher in aspects of gold and silver.

avalanche

“An avalanche can be triggered by a pebble if you get the timing right” 

Earlier this year at April’s hearings for London Silver and Gold Fix lawsuits, the judge and defendant’s attorney quipped about trader chats named “the mafia” and “the bandits” published in prosecutors findings of Forex investigations but conspicuously absent from precious metals investigation findings, and the silver and gold antitrust lawsuits under consideration.

THE COURT: “Those were bad facts for the defendants.”

LACOVARA: “I think, your Honor, that if we had chat rooms that said “The Cartel”, we might be having a different focus to oral argument today.”

THE COURT: “I think that is correct.”

Given the judges skepticism of the allegations described in an earlier article, it came as a surprise early October when the banks listed were ordered by magistrate Valerie E. Caproni to face charges. More surprising perhaps was the exemption granted Swiss bank UBS, which despite having been found guilty and fined for “precious metals misconduct” by the Swiss Financial Market Supervisory Authority FINMA in November 2014, was granted motion to dismiss from both silver and gold lawsuits.

All that may be about to change according to documents filed in a New York district court December 7th, where plaintiffs claim that transcripts showing conspiracy to manipulate silver, provided by Deutsche Bank as part of an April settlement agreement, includes extensive smoking gun evidence involving UBS and other banks. Plaintiffs describe a “multi-year, well-coordinated and wide-ranging conspiracy to rig the prices of silver and silver financial instruments that far surpasses” that of the previous complaint, including potentially incriminating evidence of UBS precious metals traders allegedly conspiring with other banks.

Five additional banks to the remaining defendants HSBC and Bank of Nova Scotia are mentioned including Barclays Bank, BNP Paribas, Standard Chartered Bank, Bank of America and Merrill Lynch. The Memorandum of Law signed by Vincent Briganti on behalf of Lowey Dannenberg Cohen & Hart for plaintiffs on Wednesday 7th December seeks leave to amend the existing complaint filed with the United States District Court Southern District of New York.

Included in the memo are numerous astounding transcripts indicating coordination between UBS and other banks of “pushing,” ”smashing,” ”bending,” ”hammering,” ”blading,” ”muscling,” and “ramping” the prices of silver and silver financial instruments.

In support of claims of conspiracy to manipulate the price of silver downward the following gem is attributed to UBS Trader A: “so we both went short” “f*cking hell it just kept going higher” “63,65, then my guy falls asleep, it goes to 69 paid!” “then finally another reinforcement came in.

Discussions supposedly of coordination between UBS and their competitors about fixing the price of physical silver by offering only wide spreads between the bid and ask (where a “lac” is reference to an Indian measure equaling 100,000 units) go like this:

UBS Trader B: “what did u quote let me check”

Deutsche Bank Silver Fix Trader-Submitter A: “44/49”

UBS Trader A: “just quote wider if they call me in 1 lac I will quote 7-8 cents”

Deutsche Bank Trader B: “how wide u making 1 lac today 5 cents?”

UBS Trader A: “silver actually steadier than gold i would make 5-6 cents wide in silver”

UBS Trader A: how wide would you quote 5 lacs silver?”

Deutsche Bank Trader B: “10cu>?”

Deutsche Bank Trader B:”how wide u quote for 3 lacs?”

UBS Trader A: 10 cents”).

Manipulation of the Silver Fix price to benefit their silver trading positions in derivatives by UBS is claimed in the following exchanges:

Deutsche Bank Trader B: “u guys short some funky options” “well you told me to no one u just said you sold on fix”

UBS Trader A: “we smashed it good.”

Deutsche Bank Silver Fix Trader-Submitter A: “UBS boring the market again”…”just like them to bid it up before the fix then go in as a seller…they sell to try and push it back.”

It’s further alleged by plaintiffs that UBS implemented an “11 oclock rule” where both UBS and Deutsche Bank would short silver at 11A.M.

As examples of the comparative ease by which UBS moved the silver market the memo reveals Deutsche Bank Trader B added UBS Trader A to a chat with HSBC Trader B, which UBS Trader A deemed “the mother of all chats,” and leading to the trader’s own analysis:

UBS Trader A to Deutsche Bank Trader B: “if we are correct and do it together, we screw other people harder”

UBS Trader A: “an avalanche can be triggered by a pebble if you get the timing right” and “silver still here, u can easily manipulate silver”, and in reference to UBS supposed manipulative influence by an unnamed party: “u guys WERE THE SILVER MKT.”

hobo

UBS intended to reap financial rewards by manipulation of the price of physical silver and associated financial instruments, the memo says as UBS Trader A suggested: “go make your millions now jedi master…”pls write me a check when u aer a billionare,” and “i teach u a fun trick with silver” to which Deutsche Bank Trader B replied: “show me the money.

Confident of their ability to manipulate UBS made bold predictions according to the following alleged extracts:

UBS Trader A: “gonna bend this silver lower”; “i will bend it lower told u”; ”hah cool its gonna get ugly”; “use the blade on silver rg tnow it’ll hold it up,

Deutsche Bank Trader B: “yeah,

UBS Trader A: “gona blade silver now.

Of course all the secrecy in the world about the operations was required of the chat groups by UBS Trader A stating: “pls keep all these trick to yourself,” “btw keep it to yourself…,” and “ok rule of thumb EVERYTHING here stays here.

Examples of other banks alleged transcripts are included in the following:

Barclays

Deutsche Bank Trader B instructing Barclays trader A: “today u smash,

Barclays Trader A: “yeah” and “10k silver” “im short.

It’s alleged that Barclays and Deutsche Bank shared information so often that Barclays Trader A remarked “we are one team one dream.”

Materials in the memo even include the Deutsche Bank and Barclays precious metals traders agreeing at one stage to “stay away” from silver for a week.

The traders of course knew it was terribly wrong with Barclays Trader A responding to Deutsche Bank’s Trader B instruction to “push silver”: “HAHAHA lol i don’t think this is politically correct leh on chat.

Merrill Lynch

Allegedly fixing the bid-ask spread they offered clients on silver:

Merrill Lynch Trader A: “How wide r u on spot? Id assume 10 cents for a few lacs?

Deutsche Bank Silver Fix Trade-Submitter A: “im getting ntg but stops”

…Merrill Lynch Trader A: “we had similar” “I sweep them…Fuk these guys.

Showing disregard to global regulators even after noting their activities the two continued to “sweep” the silver market, allegedly observing at one stage: “Someone got stopped messily.

smash

BNP Paribas Fortis

Fortis Bank Trader B allegedly conspired with Deutsche Bank to manipulate silver prices, using what he termed a “bulldozer” on the silver market.

Standard Chartered

Conversations between Deutsche Bank Silver Fix Trade-Submitter A and Standard Chartered Trader A as follows:

 “Yeh” “small long out of the fix…” “ok where to sell sivler then?

23.40 thru that use it as a stop profit and let it runnnnnnnnnnnnn

were on the same wavelength

im long silver”…”ilke both [silver and gold] to get the absolute sht squeezed out of them” “im longer silver than i am gold

Conclusion

Assuming the transcripts submitted are accepted and plaintiffs are permitted to file their Third Amended Complaint, the possible pending “avalanche” of settlements in silver lawsuits will speak volumes for the investigative prowess of the CFTC and the DOJ, both of which were commissioned to investigate long running allegations of silver and precious metals market manipulation over recent years, and came up completely empty.

It appears Judge Caproni, former FBI General Counsel, was on the money when considering the potential of ineptitude in government investigations of precious metals markets at April’s gold hearing: “I don’t put a lot of stock in the fact that there are investigations because I was a government lawyer for a long time and I know what you need to open an investigation. By the same token, the fact that they closed it without charging anybody doesn’t mean that everybody is innocent. So I don’t put a lot of stock in it one way or the other.”

The CFTC proudly announced in September 2013 they had spent five years and seven thousand enforcement hours investigating complaints of manipulation in the silver market, including with assistance by the Commission’s Division of Market Oversight, the Commission’s Office of Chief Economist, and outside experts, but yet found nothing.

The Department of Justice Antitrust Division which were so confident of their investigation of collusion in precious metals they went to the extraordinary lengths in January of this year of providing a letter to silver and gold lawsuit defendants advising they had closed their investigation without findings of wrongdoing.

The Swiss Financial Services watchdog FINMA investigated, published and prosecuted UBS for forex and precious metals trading misconduct but yet said so little about precious metals findings in their November 2014 investigation report, it was impossible for the court to withstand UBS motion to dismiss in both metals.

And finally of the ability of authorities to reign in rogue banks in the precious metals or any other markets, the memorandum flags a fact that should draw the attention of those trying to figure out if they can indeed trust that their bullion bank has their best interests at heart simply by banning participation in trader chat rooms.

“The chats contained in the DB material are just the tip of the iceberg, as evidence suggests that Defendants intentionally communicated in undocumented ways to keep their manipulation hidden.”

For example the memo includes the salient reminder that banks will always find a way “to evade detection,” in this case where two traders are described as also communicating “via email and personal cell phone.”

The above article was first published at Allan Flynn’s website here.

Allan Flynn is a specialist researcher in aspects of gold and silver. He is currently investigating for future publication on the same topic and works in property and commercial architecture when he needs to eat. He holds shares in precious metals producers and banks.

 

Bullion Banks pass the parcel on El Salvador’s gold reserves

Eighteen months ago I wrote a short synopsis of a gold sales transaction by the central bank of El Salvador wherein it had sold 80% (about 5.5 tonnes) of its official gold reserves. The title of the post was “El Salvador’s gold reserves, the BIS, and the bullion banks“. If you thought, why the focus on the Banco Central de Reserva de El Salvador (BCR), it’s not a major player on the world gold market, you’d be correct, it’s not in its own right that important.

However, the point of the article was not to profile the gold transactions of a relatively obscure central bank in Central America, but to introduce the topic of central bank gold lending to LBMA bullion banks, and the use of short-term ‘gold deposits‘ offered by these bullion banks. The reason being is this is a very under-analysed topic and one which I will be devoting more time to in the future.  Gold loans by central banks to bullion banks are one of the most opaque areas of the global gold market. The fact that I’m using the central bank of El Salvador as the example is immaterial, it’s just convenient since the BCR happens to report the details of its gold lending operations, unlike most central banks.

A Quick Recap

At the end of September 2014, the BCR claimed to hold 223,113 ozs of gold (6.94 tonnes), of which 189,646 ozs (5.9 tonnes) was held in the form of “deposits of physical gold” with the Bank for International Settlements (BIS), and 33,467 ozs (1.04 tonnes) which was held as “time deposits” of gold (up to 31 days) with 2 commercial bullion banks, namely Barclays Bank and the Bank of Nova Scotia.

The following table and all similar tables below are taken from the BCR’s ‘Statement of Assets backing the Liquidity Reserve’, or ‘Estado de Los Activos Que Respaldan la Reserva de Liquidez’, which it publishes every 3 months.

bcr-sept-2014
BCR gold position as of 30 September 2014

In November 2014, the BCR executed a small sale of 5007 ozs of its gold from its quantity held with the BIS, leaving a holding of 218,106 ozs (6.784 tonnes) as of 31 December 2014, comprising 184,639 ozs held in “deposits of physical gold” with the BIS, and 33,467 ozs of “time deposits” (of between 2 and 14 days duration) with 2 bullion banks, namely BNP Paribas and the Bank of Nova Scotia. Notice that as of the end of 2014, BNP Paribas was now holding one of the time deposits of gold, and that Barclays was not listed.

bcr-dec-2014
BCR gold position as of 31 December 2014

Notice also in the above table the tiny residual time deposit gold holding attributed to Standard Chartered Bank Plc. Rewind for a moment to 30 June 2014. At the end of June 2014, the BCR’s gold deposits were placed with 3 LBMA bullion banks, namely, Barclays, Bank of Nova Scotia, and Standard Chartered.

This is the way short-term gold deposit transactions work. A central bank places the short-term gold deposit with one of a small number of bullion banks, most likely at the Bank of England, and when the deposit expires after e.g. 1 month, the central bank places the deposit again, but not necessarily with the same bullion bank. The deposit rates on offer (by the bullion banks) and the placements by the central banks are communicated over a combination of Bloomberg terminals, or by phone and then the transactions are settled by Swift messages. More about the actual mechanics of this process in a future article.

bcr-june-2014
BCR gold position as of 30 June 2014

bullion-banks

BCR sold its gold at the BIS, put the rest on deposit

In March 2015, the BCR sold 174,000 ozs (5.412 tonnes ) of gold, which left El Salvador with 44,000 ozs. When I wrote about this transaction 18 months ago I had speculated that:

“Since the Salvadoreans had 189,646 ozs on deposit with the BIS and needed to sell 179,000 ozs, the gold sold was most definitely sold to the BIS or to another party with the BIS acting as agent.

It would not make sense to sell some or all of the time deposits that are out with the bullion banks such as Barclays and Scotia, since a large chunk of the BCR gold at the BIS would have to be sold also. It would be far easier to just deal with one set of transactions at the BIS

The above would leave the time deposits of 33,467 ozs (and accrued interest) out with the bullion banks, rolling over each month as usual. The other roughly 11,000 ozs that the BCR held with the BIS could be left with the BIS, or else this too could be put out on deposit with the bullion banks.”

This speculation turns out to have been correct. By 31 March 2015, the BCR held 10,639 ozs of gold “deposits of physical gold” with the BIS, and the same 33,467 ozs of “time deposits“, but this time split evenly between BNP Paribas and Barclays. The entire 174,000 ozs of gold sold came from the “deposits of physical gold” that El Salvador held with the BIS.

bcr-mar-2015
BCR gold position as of 30 March 2015

By 30 June 2015, the central bank of El Salvador had moved its remaining 10,639 ozs of “deposits of physical gold” from the BIS, and placed it into “time deposits” with bullion banks, with the entire 44,106 ozs being evenly split across Bank of Nova Scotia, BNP Parias and Standard Chartered, each holding 14,702 ozs.

bcr-june-2015
BCR gold position as of 30 June 2015

Over the 12 months from end of June 2014 to 30 June 2015, a combination of at least 4 LBMA bullion banks, namely, Barclays, Bank of Nova Scotia, Standard Chartered and BNP Paribas were holding short-term gold deposits on behalf of the central bank of El Salvador. I say at least 4 banks, because there could have been more. The snapshots every 3 months only reveal which banks held gold deposits on those dates, not the full list of deposits that could have been placed and matured over each 3 month period.

These time deposits are essentially obligations by the bullion bank in question to repay the central bank that amount of gold. The original gold which was first deposited into the LBMA system could have been sold, lent or otherwise encumbered. It has become a credit in the LBMA unallocated gold system. Ultimately it needs to be paid back to the central bank by whichever bullion bank holds the deposit when the central bank decides that it no longer wants to roll its short-term deposits. This is why the anology of pass the parcel is a suitable one.

Looking at the more recent 3 monthly snapshots from September 2015 to June 2016, the same 4 LBMA bullion bank names were still holding the BCR’s gold deposits, namely Bank of Nova Scotia, Barclays, Standard Chartered and BNP Paribas.

As of 30 September 2015 – Bank of Nova Scotia, Barclays and BNP Paribas, evenly split between the 3 of them.

bcr-sept-2015
BCR gold position as of 30 September 2015

On 31 December 2015 – Bank of Nova Scotia, BNP Paribas, and Standard Chartered, evenly split between the 3 of them.

bcr-dec-2015
BCR gold position as of 30 December 2015

On 30 March 2016 – Bank of Nova Scotia and BNP Paribas, evenly split between the 2 of them.

bcr-mar-2016
BCR gold position as of 30 March 2016

On 30 June 2016, the BCR gold deposits were held by Bank of Nova Scotia and BNP Paribas, evenly spilt between the 2. The 30 June 2016 file on the BCR website doesn’t open correctly so this data was taken from the Google cache of the file.

IMF Reporting standards

Finally, let’s take a quick look at what monetary gold and gold deposits actually are, as defined by the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

“Monetary gold is gold owned by the authorities and held as a reserve asset.  Monetary Gold is a reserve asset for which there is no outstanding financial liability”, IMF Balance of Payments Manual (BPM)

In April 2006, Hidetoshi Takeda, of the IMF Statistics Department published a short opinion paper on the ‘Treatment of Gold Swaps and Gold Deposits (loans)‘ on behalf of the Reserve Assets Technical Expert Group (RESTEG) of the IMF Committee on Balance of Payments (BoP) Statistics. The paper was called “Issues Paper (RESTEG) #11“. In the Issues paper, Takeda states:

“monetary authority make  gold deposits ‘to have their bullion physically deposited with a bullion bank, which may use the gold for trading purpose in world gold markets‘”

“‘The ownership of the gold effectively remains with the monetary authorities, which earn interest on the deposits, and the gold is returned to the monetary authorities on maturity of the deposits'”

 ” Balance of Payments Manual, fifth Edition (BPM5) is silent on the treatment of gold deposits/loans. However, the Guidelines states that, “To qualify as reserve assets, gold deposits must be available upon demand to the monetary authorities” 

You can see from the above that once the gold balance that is represented by the gold deposit is under the control of a bullion bank as a unallocated balance, then it becomes an asset of the bullion bank and can be used in subsequent bullion bank transactions, such as being lent again,  or used to support its trading book, etc.

The big question is whether the gold as represented by the gold deposit is available on demand by the central bank which lent it. For ‘available on demand’ think using an ATM or walking into your local bank and withdrawing some cash from your account. It’s as simple as that.

Takeda said:

“Regarding the statistical treatment of gold deposits/loans, keeping the status quo is suggested. That is, if the deposited/loaned gold is available upon demand to the monetary authorities, it can be included in reserve assets as monetary gold. However, if the gold is not available upon demand, it should be removed from reserve assets

Takeda’s paper also covers the topic of “Double counting of gold from outright sales of gold acquired through gold swaps or gold deposits/loans” where he says logically:

“double counting of gold can occur when a bullion bank sells outright gold acquired through gold deposits/loans from… monetary authorities”

If the gold sold is not removed from the central bank’s balance sheet, it could:

“pose a problem when international statistical standards allow swapped/deposited gold to remain in the reserve assets of the gold provider.”

Given that nothing has changed in the IMF’s reporting standards since 2006, i.e. the IMF did not take on board Takeda’s recommendations on gold loan accounting treatment, and given that all central banks still report gold as one line item of “gold and gold receivables”, then you can see how these gold deposits that are being continually rolled over by central banks using a small number of LBMA bullion banks based in London a) are being double counted if the gold involved has been sold, b) only represent claims by a central bank on a bullion bank, and c) allow bullion banks to increase their unallocated balances which can then be used in myriad leveraged and hypothecated ‘gold’ trading transactions

If you think 4 LBMA bullion banks passing a parcel of central bank gold claims around between them is excessive, wait until you see 28 bullion banks doing the same thing! Coming soon in a future article.

Venezuela’s Gold Reserves – Part 2: From Repatriation to Reactivation

This is Part 2 of a two-part series. Part 1, titled “Venezuela’s Gold Reserves – Part 1: El Oro, El BCV, y Los Bancos de Lingotes“, provided a historical overview of Venezuela’s gold and looked at where the gold, and the claims on gold, were located just prior to repatriation in 2011, especially the gold held abroad.

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.

convoy

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.

As Banco Central de Venezuela (BCV) governor Nelson Merentes stated in an end of year 2012 report (page 16):

“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.

merentes car

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.

Reuters quoted Nelson Merentes on the day of the first shipment arrived as saying that:

“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.

A November 2013 article from Venezuelan newspaper ‘El Nacional’ stated that the first batch of gold had come directly from France:

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:

Air France - air waybill

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 labelled crate on pallet

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.

These 777F aircraft have “a maximum payload of 102 tonnes, a total capacity of 37 pallets and a maindeck that can take 3-metre pallets“. The videos below of the first gold shipment, and the video of the last unloading on 30 January 2012, shows these huge 3-metre pallets on the ground and, in the case of the last shipment, being unloaded.

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

 

The BCV’s 2011 Economic Report (see link above, page 92) states that the first shipment on 25 November 2011 consisted of 5 tonnes of gold. In the media coverage of the first shipment, the exact tonnage of gold involved was not stated beyond the fact that  “Nelson Merentes said a little over 300 million dollars was brought in the first batch of gold that came to the country on Friday.”

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.

 As mentioned, there was little coverage after the first shipment, although a local media article referred to a second shipment arriving from Europe on Tuesday 6 December 2011. After this, the media didn’t really cover the repatriation until the last shipment arrived by air on Monday 30 January 2012.

repatriation gold caracas

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.

The arriving aircraft was a three-engine long-range McDonnell Douglas MD-11 CF (convertible freighter), registration number N275WA, serial number MSN 48631, registered to World Airways. You can see the fleet number (nose code) of ‘275’ above the front (nose) wheel in the photo below.

flight N275WA

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”.

Other photos of World Airways’ N275WA from around the world can be seen here and here. N275WA, which had been converted into a freighter in 2002, went out of service and into storage in July 2012. Global Aviation Holdings again entered bankruptcy in November 2013, after which time World Airways was shut down. This explains why one of the MD-11 captain for World Airways (possibly captaining some of the gold flights) left World Airways in March 2014.

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.

BCV address and lot 20

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,” says MillingStanley.’

‘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.

 

 

Maduro

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“.

Operating Reserves August 2011

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.

outriders

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.

BCV Goldman Adar gold swap

The above screenshot is from a document here.

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.

Citigroup Rescue

 

The Citibank Gold Swap

In the last week of April 2015, it emerged that Citibank had exclusively won the mandate for the gold swap with Venezuela. It was reported that Citi was chosen from a group of ‘five’ banks that had pitched.

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.

Why might Venezuela need a loan now?

Does Venezuela really need extra foreign currency now? In some ways, yes. Venezuela’s international reserves keep falling and as Nathan Crooks of Bloomberg said recently, reserves are now under $18.8 billion and at the lowest level since October 2003.

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:

  1. ¿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.