On the afternoon of Monday, August 21, US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Governor Matt Bevin, and Kentucky Congressman Brett Guthrie took a visit to the vault of the US Mint’s gold depository in Fort Knox, Kentucky, a vault which, according to the US Treasury, holds gold bars containing 147,341,858 fine troy ounces of gold (4583 tonnes of gold).
The trip was notable in that it is one of the rare occasions in history that a US political/congressional delegation has ever visited the Fort Knox depository, and Mnuchin is now only the 3rd treasury secretary ever to make this visit.
The trip was also notable in that unlike previous political excursions to the vault, the Mnuchin-led visit was very low-key, it was announced to the media and public at extremely short notice, and there is no evidence that any media representatives participated, or at least if they did, they have kept very quiet about it.
In contrast, the previous congressional visit to the Fort Knox depository in September 1974 was heavily publicised in advance, was accompanied by 100 news reporters and photographers, and it even documented the visit via photographs and film which were released to the public.
Mnuchin’s visit to the vault merely appears to have taken the form of a quick peek into one of the cramped vault compartments within the Fort Knox vault, and therefore can only be seen as an odd PR stunt whose real intent remains unclear, which does nothing to improve the transparency of the notoriously secretive gold depository, and which on balance has now re-opened scrutiny on how much gold is, or is not, actually stored in the compartments of the Fort Knox vault.
The trip to the Fort Knox vault was only announced by Mnuchin on Monday morning, August 21 (the morning of the Fort Knox visit) during a speech to the Chamber of Commerce in Louisville, Kentucky, which Mnuchin and Mitch McConnell were attending.
As Grace Schneider, a business reporter for the Louisville, Kentucky based Courier-Journal tweeted that morning:
So Mnuchin announced the visit literally a few hours before it took place. Fort Knox is located about 40 miles south-west of Louisville. In his Monday morning speech at the Chamber of Commerce, the Washington Examiner reports that Mnuchin made the bizarre comment that “I assume the gold is still there”. McConnell, at the same time, quipped that “we’re going to find out”. Mnuchin’s comment is bizarre because as US Treasury Secretary, he is top official of the US Treasury.
The US Treasury owns the gold in Fort Knox. The US Mint is just the custodian. The Director of the US Mint and all other senior officials report to Mnuchin. At any time, Mnuchin can get a full and complete high-level briefing on the real status of the US gold reserves. He can also get a full de-briefing on the extent to which the US gold reserves have been audited over the years – or not audited as the case may be. To say that he assumes the gold is still there shows either a flippant view of the expected accountability of a US Treasury Secretary, or else a disregard for the responsibility to which the US public has entrusted him.
It’s not clear whether any journalists actually accompanied the politicians on last Monday’s visit to the Fort Knox depository. An article by an AP journalist from Kentucky named Adam Beam was published on August 22, the day after the visit to the Fort Knox depository.
Beam, based in Frankfort, Kentucky is listed as a Kentucky Statehouse reporter for AP, so would presumably, due to this role, be well-known in Kentucky political circles and would have privileged access to the Mnuchin & Co delegation. AP’s Beam wrote that:
“Inside the famed vaults at Fort Knox, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell held a 27-pound gold bar in his hands Monday as part of the first civilian delegation to see most of the country’s bullion reserves in more than 40 years.”
But AP’s Beam also wrote in the same article that:
“in an interview, McConnell said he could not say much about the visit for security reasons”
suggesting that Beam may not have been on the actual visit to the vault, because if he was, he would have no need to interview McConnell and could have recorded the vault details himself. if the AP Kentucky Statehouse reporter wasn’t even on the visit, what hope was there for other reporters?
As far as I can see from related coverage, there are no photos of any of the delegation either inside the depository. This would suggest that there were no media photographers nor camera people present inside the vault. For such a historic trip, this is itself quite bizarre. Until that is, you realize that in 1978, the US Mint made the internal plans and structures of Fort Knox classified, which effectively bans any photography or filming from inside the depository.
Only One Compartment Viewed
The same AP article quoted Kentucky Governor Matt Bevin as saying that [Fort Knox] “officials had to cut a seal to open the vault for them“. What Bevin means is that the seal on the door of one of the compartments in the vault was cut so that they could open the door to the compartment. According to the US Mint, Fort Knox stores US Treasury gold bars in 13 compartments within the Fort Knox vault. See BullionStar article “Second Thoughts On US Official Gold Reserves Audits” for details.
By opening just one of the 13 compartments for Mnuchin & Co to peer into, that leaves 12 of the supposed gold storage compartments that were not opened. Still, this didn’t stop Mnuchin stating on Twitter that “Glad gold is safe“. This is a ridiculous statement from a US Treasury Secretary when you consider what the actual visit consisted of, and it would be remiss of the US public to put any trust in it.
Kentucky Governor Matt Bevin also said something similar in a radio interview following the vault visit, i.e. that the delegation only saw a subset of the supposed gold. Interviewed by Newradio 840 WHAS, and quoted by televison channel WHAS 11, Governor Bevin said:
“I didn’t see every bit of it [the gold], but the amount that I saw was impressive”
The US Treasury Secretary takes a quick look into one of 13 compartments in the vault and says “Yep, the gold is safe, it’s there“. Imagine a commercial gold vault operating on the basis of how Fort Knox operates. It couldn’t. I have been in BullionStar’s precious metals vault in Singapore. I have looked around. There are a lot of gold bars, silver bars, gold coins and silver coins. But I couldn’t say based on a quick casual observation that ‘yep, all the gold and silver is there’.
That’s why there is a rigorous inventory system at BullionStar, and that’s why BullionStar employs a transparent multi-layered auditing system comprising 5 different audit schemes that are all accessible to customers. To ensure that at any given time, both BullionStar staff and customers know exactly what is inside the BullionStar vault.
But the US Treasury seems to think its sufficient that a quick unrecorded trip by 4 US political insiders can somehow instill confidence that all the gold that is claimed to be in Fort Knox is actually there. In case readers may think BullionStar is being unfair to the US Treasury, its worth noting that there have been many articles published on the BullionStar website by Koos Jansen that highlight the myriad of inconsistencies about the supposed gold reserves stored at Fort Knox and US government auditing of said gold reserves. See for example:
As a freebie trip for 4 select political insiders, last Monday’s trip to Fort Knox was undoubtedly a memorable one for them. In the same radio interview Bevin said that:
“This is like the mother of all field trips. This is pretty cool”
But as a validation and verification of over 56% of the supposed US Official Gold Reserves, the visit was a complete farce. Announced the morning it took place. No evidence that any media were allowed to participate. Only peeked into one of the 13 storage compartments. And then to round it off, Mnuchin (an ex Goldmanite) tweets that ‘Glad gold is safe“. You couldn’t make this up. And finally, no mention of the fact that most of the gold bars even supposedly stored in Fort Knox are low purity ‘coin bars’ made from melted down gold coins. In fact, of all the gold bars reported to be held within the US Gold Reserves, only 16% of these bars are of LBMA Good Delivery size and purity range.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
UBS and LBMA
The last line of the LBMA press release about the new vault reporting states the following:
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.
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.
An article in February on BullionStar’s website titled “A Chink of Light into London’s Gold Vaults?” discussed an upcoming development in the London Gold Market, namely that both the Bank of England (BoE) and the commercial gold vault providers in London planned to begin publishing regular data on the quantity of physical gold actually stored in their gold vaults.
Critically, this physical gold stored at both the Bank of England vaults and the commercial London vaults underpins the gargantuan trading volumes of the London Gold Market and the same market’s ‘liquidity’. Therefore, a new vault holdings dataset would be a very useful reference point for relating to London’s ‘gold’ trading volumes as well as relating to data such as the level and direction of the gold price, the volume of gold held in gold-backed Exchange Traded Funds (ETFs), UK gold import and export statistics, and Swiss and Hong Kong gold imports and exports.
The impending publication of this new gold vault data was initially signalled by two sources. Firstly, in early February, the Financial Times (FT) wrote a story claiming that the London Bullion Market Association (LBMA) planned to begin publishing 3 month lagged physical gold storage data for the entire London gold vaulting network, that would, according to the FT:
“show gold bars held by the BoE, the gold clearing banks, and those [vaults] operated by the security companies such as Brink’s, which are also members of the LBMA.”
The “gold clearing banks” are the bullion bank members of London Precious Metals Clearing Limited (LPMCL), namely, HSBC, JP Morgan, ICBC Standard Bank, Bank of Nova Scotia – Scotia Mocatta, and UBS. HSBC and JP Morgan operate precious metals vaults in London. See profile of JP Morgan’s London vault and a discussion of the HSBC vault . ICBC Standard Bank also maintains a vault in London which is operated on its behalf by Brinks.
The second publication to address the new gold vault data was the World Gold Council. On 16 February, addressing just the Bank of England vaults, the World Gold Council wrote in its Gold Investor publication that:
“The Bank of England is, for the first time, publishing monthly data revealing the amount of gold it holds on behalf of other central banks.”
“The data reveals the total weight of gold held within the Bank of England’s vaults and includes five years of historical data.”
While I had been told by a media source that the London vault data would be released in the first quarter of 2017, at the time of writing, there is still no sign of any LBMA vault holdings data covering the commercial vault operators in London. However, the Bank of England has now gone ahead and independently released its own numbers covering gold held in the Bank of England gold vaults. These gold vaults, of which there are between 8 – 10 (the number fluctuates), are located on the 2 basement levels of the Bank of England headquarters in the City of London.
In an updated web page on the Bank of England’s website simply titled ‘Gold’, the Bank of England has now added a section titled ‘Bank of England Gold Holdings’ and has uploaded an Excel spreadsheet which contains end-of-month gold holdings data covering every month for a 6-year period up to the end of December 2016, i.e. every month from January 2011 to December 2016 i.e. 72 months.
According to the Bank of England, the data in the spreadsheet shows:
“the weight of gold held in custody on the last business day of each month. We publish the data with a minimum three-month lag.
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.
Historic data on our gold custody holdings can be found in our Annual Report.”
Prior to this spreadsheet becoming available, the Bank of England only ever divulged gold vault quantity data once a year within its Annual Report, for year-end reporting date end of February.
You will appreciate that the new spreadsheet, having data for every month of the year, and for 72 months of data retrospectively, conveys a lot more information than having just one snapshot number per year in an annual report. Therefore, the Bank of England has gone some way towards improving transparency in this area.
Before looking at the new data and what it reveals, it’s important to know what this data relates to. The Bank of England provides gold custody (storage) services to both central banks and a number of large commercial banks. Large commercial banks which trade gold are commonly known as bullion banks, and are mostly the high-profile and well-known investment banks.
On its gold web page, the Bank highlights this fact – that it provides gold custody service to both central banks and commercial banks:
“We provide safe custody for the United Kingdom’s gold reserves, and for other central banks. This supports financial stability by providing central banks with access to the liquidity of the London gold market.
We also provide gold accounts to certain commercial firms that facilitate access for central banks to the London gold market.”
In the London Gold Market, the word “liquidity” is a euphemism for gold loans, gold swaps, and gold trading including gold sales. This reference to central banks accessing the London Gold Market as being in some way supportive of ‘financial stability’ is also an eye-opener, since reading between the lines, the Bank of England is conceding that by accessing the London Gold Market’s “liquidity” via bullion banks, these central bank clients are either contributing to direct stabilisation of the gold price in some shape or form, or else are using their gold operations to raise foreign currencies for exchange rate intervention and/or system liquidity. But both routes are aiming at the same outcome. i.e. stability of the financial system.
At the end of the day, the gold price has always been a barometer that central banks strive to keep a lid on and which they aim to stabilise or smoothen the gyrations of, given that the alternative – a freely formed and unmanipulated gold price – would thwart their coordination of fiat currency exchange rates, interest rates and inflation targets.
Interestingly, in addition to the new spreadsheet of gold holdings data, the Bank of England gold web page now includes a link to a new 1 page ‘Gold Policy’ pdf document, which, looking at the pdf document’s properties, was only created on 30 January 2017. This document therefore also looks like it was written in conjunction with the new gold vault data rollout.
The notion of central banks accessing the liquidity of the London Gold Market via bullion banks is further developed in this Gold Policy document also. The document is quite short and merely states the following:
“GOLD ACCOUNTS AT THE BANK OF ENGLAND
1. The Bank primarily offers gold accounts to central bank customers. This is to support financial stability by providing central banks with secure custody for their gold reserves and access to the liquidity of the London gold market (particularly given the Bank’s location).
2. To facilitate, either directly or indirectly, access for central banks to the liquidity of the London gold market, the Bank will also consider providing gold accounts to certain commercial firms. In deciding whether to provide an account, the Bank will be guided by the following criteria.
a. The firm’s day to day activities must support the liquidity of the London gold market. b. Specifically, the Bank may have regard to a number of factors including but not limited to: evidence of active or prospective trading with a central bank customer; or whether the firm has committed to honour buy and sell prices.
3. Access to a gold account remains at the sole discretion of the Bank.
4. The Bank will review this policy periodically.”
The Vault Data
Nick Laird has now produced a series of impressive charts of this new Bank of England data on his website GoldChartsRUS. Plotting the series of 72 months of gold holdings data over January 2011 to December 2016 yields the below chart.
On average, the Bank’s vaults held 5457 tonnes of gold over this 6 year period. The minimum amount of gold held was 4693 tonnes at the end of March 2016, while the maximum quantity of gold held was 6250 tonnes at the end of February 2013.
The overall trend in the chart is downward with a huge outflow of gold bars from the bank’s vaults from the end of February 2013 to the end of March 2016.
As of January 2011, the BoE held just over 5500 tonnes of gold bars in its vaults. Gold holdings rose until the end of August 2011 and peaked at nearly 5900 tonnes before falling to 5600 tonnes at year-end 2011. Overall in 2011, the holdings fluctuated in a 400 tonne range, trending up during the first 8 months, and down during the latter 4 months.
This downtrend only lasted until January 2012, at which point BoE gold holdings totalled about 5450 tonnes. For the remainder of 2012, BoE gold under custody rose sharply, reaching 6200 tonnes by the end of 2012, a level near the ultimate peak in this 6 year chart. The year 2012 was therefore a year of accumulation of gold bars at the Bank during which 750 tonnes were added.
The overall maximum peak was actually 6250 tonnes at the end of February 2013, after which a sustained downtrend evolved through the remainder of 2013. By December 2013, gold under custody at the Bank of England had fallen to 5670 tonnes, creating an overall outflow of 580 tonnes of gold bars during 2013.
The outflow of gold continued during 2014 with another 470 tonnes flowing out of the Bank, leading to end of year 2014 gold holdings of just 5200 tonnes. The outflow also continued all through 2015 with only 4780 tonnes of gold in custody at the end of December 2015. The Bank therefore lost another 440 tonnes of gold bars in 2015.
Overall, that makes an outflow of 1490 tonnes of gold from the Bank’s vaults over the 3 years from 2013 to 2015 inclusive. This downtrend lingered for 3 more months, with another 80 tonnes lost, which brought the end of March 2016 and end of April 2016 figures to a level of about 4700 tonnes, which is the overall trough on the chart. It also means that there was a net outflow of 1570 tonnes of gold bars from the Bank’s vaults from the end of February 2013 to the end of March / April 2016.
A new uptrend / inflow trend began at the end of April 2016 and continued to the end of November 2016, where gold custody holdings peaked again at about 5123 tonnes before levelling off at the end of December 2016 at 5102 tonnes. Therefore, from the end of April 2016 to the end of December 2016, the Bank of England vaults added 400 tonnes of gold bars.
The gold holdings of the vast majority of central banks have remained stagnant over the 2011 – 2016 period, the exceptions being the central banks of China and Russia. But Russia buys domestically mined gold and stores it in vaults in Moscow and St Petersburg, so this would not affect gold holdings at the Bank of England. China’s central bank, the People’s Bank of China (PBoC), is known to buy its gold on the international market, including the London Gold Market. It then monetizes this gold (classifies it as monetary gold), and airlifts it back to China. But these Chinese purchases don’t show up in UK gold exports because monetary gold is exempt from trade statistics reporting. However, if China was surreptitiously buying gold from other central banks with gold accounts at the Bank of England or buying gold from bullion banks with gold accounts at the BoE, then some of the gold outflows from the BoE could be PBoC gold purchases. But without central bank specific data, its difficult to know.
But what is probably true is that the fluctuations in the quantity of gold stored in the Bank of England vaults are more do to with the gold holdings of bullion banks and less to do with the gold holdings of central banks, for the simple reason that central bank gold holdings are relatively static, or the least the central banks claim that their gold holdings are static. This does not take into account the gold lending market which the central banks and bullion banks go to great lengths to keep secret.
There is also a noticeable positive correlation between the movement of the US Dollar gold price and the inflows/outflows of gold to and from the Bank of England vaults, as the above chart demonstrates.
Bullion Bank gold accounts at the BoE
One basic piece of information that the Bank of England’s new vault storage data lacks is an indication of how many central banks and how many commercial banks are represented in the data.
In its first quarterly report from Q1 2014,the Bank of England states that 72 central banks operate gold accounts at the bank of England, a figure which includes a few official sector organisations such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF), European Central Bank (ECB), and Bank for International Settlements (BIS). This number would not have changed much in the meantime, so we can assume that the gold holdings of about 72 central banks are represented in the new data. But the number of commercial banks holding gold accounts at the Bank of England is less clear-cut.
The 5 gold clearing banks of the LPMCL all hold gold accounts at the Bank of England. Why? Because it says so on the LPMCL website:
“Each member of LPMCL has vaulting facilities under its control for the storage of gold and/or silver, plus in the case of gold bullion, account facilities at the Bank of England, which have contributed to the development of bullion clearing in London.”
The LPMCL also states that its clearing statistics include:
“Transfers over LPMCL Clearing Members’ accounts at the Bank of England.”
Additionally, the LPMCL website states that their
“clearing and vaulting services help facilitate physical precious metal movement logistics, location swaps, quality swaps and liquidity management.”
The Bank of England’s reference in its new ‘Gold Policy’ document to commercial banks needing to be “committed to honour buy and sell prices” is a reference to market makersand would cover all 13 LBMA market makers in gold, which are the 5 LPMCL members and also BNP Paribas, Citibank, Goldman Sachs, Merrill Lynch, Morgan Stanley, Société Générale, Standard Chartered Bank, Toronto-Dominion Bank. But there are also gold trading banks that make a market in gold which are not officially LBMA market makers, such as Commerzbank in Luxembourg which claims to be one of the biggest bullion banks in the world.
So I would say that lots of other bullion banks (of which there about 40 in total) have gold accounts at the Bank of England in addition to the 13 official LBMA market makers.
More fundamentally, any bullion bank that is engaged in gold lending with central banks (the central banks being the lenders and the bullion banks being the borrowers) would need a gold account at the Bank of England. I counted 28 bullion banks that have been involved with borrowing the gold of just one central bank, the central bank of Bolivia (Banco Central de Bolivia – BCB) between 1998 and 2016. Some of these banks have since merged or exited precious metals trading, but still, it gives an estimate of the number of bullion banks that have been involved in the gold lending market. The Banco Central de Bolivia’s gold lending activities will be covered in some forthcoming blog posts.
Bullion banks that are Authorised Participants (APs) for gold-backed ETFs such as the SPDR Gold Trust (GLD) or iShares Gold Trust (IAU) may also have gold accounts at the Bank of England. I say may have, because in practice the APs leave it up to the custodians such as HSBC and JP Morgan to allocate or deallocate the actual physical gold flowing in and out of the ETFs, but HSBC on occasion uses the Bank of England as a sub-custodian for GLD gold (see “SPDR Gold Trust gold bars at the Bank of England vaults” for details), so if some of the APs want to keep their own stash of allocated physical gold in relation to ETF trading, it would make sense for them to have a gold account at the Bank of England.
As to how much gold the GLD stores at the Bank of England and how regularly this occurs is still opaque because the SEC does not require the GLD filings to be very granular, however there is a very close correlation between inflows and outflows from GLD and the inflows and outflows from the Bank of England vaults, as the following chart clearly illustrates.
As gold was extracted from the GLD beginning in late 2012, a few months later the Bank of England gold holdings began to shrink also. This trend continues all the way through 2013, 2014 and 2015. Then as the amount of gold began to increase in the GLD at the end of 2015, the gold holdings at the Bank of England began to increase also. Could this be bullion banks extracting gold from the GLD, then holding this gold at the Bank of England and then subsequently exporting it out of the UK?
Some of it could, but UK gold net exports figures suggest that gold was withdrawn from both the Bank of England vaults and from the ETF gold stored at commercial gold vaults (run by HSBC and JP Morgan), after which it was exported.
Looking at the above chart which plots Bank of England gold holdings and UK gold imports and exports (and net exports) is revealing. As Nick Laird points out in this chart, over the 2013 to 2015 period during which the Bank of England gold holdings fell by 1500 tonnes, there were UK net gold export flows of 2500 tonnes, i.e. 2500 tonnes of gold flowed out of London gold vaults, so an additional 1000 tonnes had to come from somewhere apart from the Bank of England vaults.
The new monthly vault holdings data from the Bank of England can now also be compared to the amount of gold reported by the Bank of England in its annual reports. The figures the Bank reports in the annual report are as of the end of February. These figures are only reported in Pounds Sterling, not quantities, so they need to be either converted to USD and divided by the USD LBMA Gold Price on the last day of February, or else just divided by the GBP LBMA Gold Price on that day.
For end of February 2015, the calculated total for gold held at the Bank of England (based on the annual report) came out at 5,134 tonnes. Now the Bank of England data says 5126 tonnes which is very close to the calculation. For February 2016, the calculation came out at 4725 tonnes. The new Bank of England data now says 4730 tonnes, so that’s pretty close also.
This new Bank of England data is welcome and the Bank of England has taken a step towards greater transparency. However, it would be more useful if the Bank published a breakdown of how much of this gold is held by central banks and how much is held by bullion banks, along with the number of central banks and number of bullion banks that the data represents. Two distinct sets of data would be ideal, one for central bank custody holdings and the other for bullion bank custody holdings. The Bank most likely would never publish two sets of data as it would show bullion bank gold storage activity for the whole world to see.
While the Bank of England has now followed through with its promise to publish its gold vault holdings, the LBMA has still not published gold vault data for the commercial gold vault providers, i.e. its members HSBC, JP Morgan, ICBC Standard Bank, Brinks, Malca Amit, Loomis and G4S. Where is this data, why is there a delay, and why has it not yet been published?
As a reminder, the Financial Times article in early February said that the LBMA would publish gold vault holdings data that would:
“show gold bars held by the BoE, the gold clearing banks, and those [vaults] operated by the security companies such as Brink’s”
The Financial Times article also said that:
“HSBC and JPMorgan, London’s biggest bullion banks, are backing the initiatives by the LBMA to improve transparency.”
With the gold holdings data on the other London vaults still not published, it begs the question, has there been a change of mind by HSBC and JP Morgan, two of the LBMA’s largest and most powerful members?
“Reputedly [the Bank of England vaults are] the second largest vault in the world with approximately 500,000 gold bars held in safe custody on behalf of its customers, including LBMA members, central banks, international financial institutions and Her Majesty’s Treasury.”
A holding of 500,000 Good Delivery gold bars is equal to 6250 tonnes. However, according to the Bank of England’s own figure for month end December 2016, the Bank of England only holds 5100 tonnes of gold in custody (408,000 Good delivery gold bars). Therefore, the LBMA is overstating the Bank of England’s holdings by 1150 tonnes, unless, and it’s unlikely, that the BoE vaults have seen huge gold bar inflows in the last 4 months.
The European Central Bank (ECB), creator of the Euro, currently claims to hold 504.8 tonnes of gold reserves. These gold holdings are reflected on the ECB balance sheet and arose from transfers made to the ECB by Euro member national central banks, mainly in January 1999 at the birth of the Euro. As of the end of December 2015, these ECB gold reserves were valued on the ECB balance sheet at market prices and amounted to €15.79 billion.
The ECB very recently confirmed to BullionStar that its gold reserves are stored across 5 international locations. However, the ECB also confirmed that it does not physically audit its gold, nor will it divulge a bar list / weight list of these gold bar holdings.
Questions and Answers
BullionStar recently put a number of questions to the European Central Bank about the ECB’s gold holdings. The ECB Communications Directorate replied to these questions with answers that appear to include a number of facts about the ECB gold reserves which have not previously been published. The questions put to the ECB and its responses are listed below (underlining added):
Question 1: “The 2015 ECB Annual Report states that as at 31 December 2015, the ECB held 16,229,522 ounces of fine gold equivalent to 504.8 tonnes of gold. Given that the ECB gold holdings arose from transfers by the respective member central banks, could you confirm the storage locations in which this ECB gold is currently held (for example at the Bank of England etc), and the percentage breakdown of amount stored per storage location.”
ECB Response: “The gold of the ECB is located in London, Paris, Lisbon, New York and Rome. The ECB does not disclose its distribution over these places. The gold of the ECB is stored there because it was already stored there before ownership was transferred to the ECB and moving it was seen and is seen as too costly.“
Question 2: “Could you clarify as to how, if at all, this gold is audited, and whether it physical audited by the ECB or by a 3rd party?”
ECB Response: “The ECB has no physical audit of its gold bars. The gold bars that the ECB owns are individually identified and each year the ECB receives a detailed statement of these gold deposits. The central banks where the gold is stored are totally reliable.“
Question 3:“Finally, can the ECB supply a full weight list of the gold bars that comprise the 504.8 tonnes of gold referred to above?”
ECB Response: “The ECB does not disclose this information.“
London, New York, Paris, Rome, Lisbon
Given that some of the information shared by the ECB has arguably not been in the public record before, each of the 3 ECB answers above is worth further exploration.
In January 1999, when the Euro currency was created (Stage 3 of Economic and Monetary Union), each founding member national central bank (NCB) of the Euro transferred a quantity of foreign reserve assets to the ECB. Of these transfers, 85% was paid to the ECB in the form of US dollars and Japanese Yen, and 15% was paid to the ECB in the form of physical gold.
Initially in January 1999, central banks of 11 countries that joined the Euro made these transfers to the ECB, and subsequently the central banks of a further 8 countries that later joined the Euro also executed similar transfers to the ECB.
All of the foreign exchange and gold reserves that were transferred to and are owned by the ECB are managed in a decentralised manner by the national central banks that initiated the transfers. Essentially, each national central bank acts as an agent for the ECB and each NCB still manages that portion of reserves that it transferred to the ECB. This also applies to the transferred gold and means that the gold transferred to the ECB never physically moved anywhere, it just stayed where it had been when the transfers of ownership were made.
That is why, as the ECB response to Question 1 states: “The gold of the ECB is stored there because it was already stored there before ownership was transferred to the ECB”.
What is probably most interesting about the latest ECB statement is that it names 5 city locations over which the ECB’s gold is stored. The 5 gold storage locations stated by the ECB are London, New York, Paris, Rome and Lisbon. Since the gold transferred to the ECB in 1999 by the national central banks would have already been stored in central banks gold vaults, these 5 city locations undoubtedly refer to the gold vaults of:
the Bank of England
the Federal Reserve Bank of New York
the Banque de France
the Banca d’Italia
Banco de Portugal
The fact the ECB’s gold holdings are supposedly stored at these 5 locations can be explained as follows:
Between 4th and 7th January 1999, 11 central banks transferred a total of €39.469 billion in reserve assets to the ECB (in the form of gold, cash and securities). Of this total, 15% was in the form of gold, amounting to 24 million ounces of gold (747 tonnes of gold) which was valued at that time at €246.368 per fine ounce of gold, or €5.92 billion. The 85% transferred in the form of currencies comprised 90% US Dollars and 10% Japanese Yen. See pages 152 and 153 of ECB annual report 1999 for more details.
The 11 central banks that made the transfers to the ECB in January 1999 were the central banks of Belgium, Netherlands, Germany, France, Luxembourg, Italy, Ireland, Austria, Finland, Spain and Portugal. See Table 1 for details of these gold transfers, and the amount of gold transferred to ECB ownership by each central bank.
The value of reserves transferred to the ECB by each national central bank were based on a percentage formula called a ‘capital key’ which also determined how much each central bank subscribed to the founding capital of the ECB. This capital key was based on equally weighting the percentage of population and GDP each Euro founding member economy represented, therefore central banks such as Deutsche Bundesbank, Banque de France, and Banca d’Italia comprised the largest transfers, as can be see in Table 1. It also meant that these 3 central banks transferred the largest amounts of gold to the ECB, with the Bundesbank for example transferring 232 tonnes of gold to the ECB.
The Bundesbank gold transfer to the ECB in January 1999 took place at the Bank of England. The Bundesbank actually confirmed in its own published gold holdings spreadsheet that this transfer took place at the Bank of England. See spreadsheet Column 5 (BoE tonnes), Rows 1998 and 1999, where the Bundesbank gold holdings fell by 332 tonnes between 1998 and 1999 from 1,521 tonnes to 1,189 tonnes and also see Column 20 where gold lending rose from 149 tonnes to 249 tonnes. Therefore, between 1998 and 1999, 232 tonnes of gold was transferred from the Bundesbank gold account at the bank of England to the ECB account at the Bank of England, and 100 tonnes was added to the Bundesbank’s gold loans.
Paris and Rome
The Banque de France currently stores the majority (over 90%) of its gold reserves in its own vaults in Paris, so it it realistic to assume that when the Banque de France transferred 159 tonnes of gold to the ECB in January 1999, it did so using gold stored in the Banque de France vaults in Paris. Likewise, it is realistic to assume that the Banca d’Italia, which currently stores half of its gold reserves at its own vaults in Rome, transferred 141 gold stored in its Rome vaults to the ECB in 1999. This would explain the Paris and Rome gold holdings of the ECB. While a few ex French colony central banks are known to have historically stored gold with the Banque de France in Paris, none of the founding members of the Euro (apart from the Bundesbank) are on the record as having stored gold in Paris, at least not for a long time. The Banca d’Italia is not known for storing gold on behalf of other national central banks.
Lisbon and New York
The Banco de Portugal currently holds its gold reserves in Lisbon and also at the Bank of England, the Federal Reserve Bank of New York (FRBNY), and with the BIS. The ECB gold stored in Lisbon, Portugal most likely refers to the 18.2 tonnes of gold transferred by the Banco de Portugal to the ECB in January 1999, because a) that makes most sense, and b) the Banco de Portugal is not known as a contemporary gold custodian for other central banks.
Of the other 7 central banks that transferred gold to the ECB in January 1999, the central banks of Austria, Belgium and Ireland store most of their gold at the Bank of England so are the most likely candidates to have made gold transfers to the ECB at the Bank of England. See BullionStar blog “Central bank gold at the Bank of England” for more details of where central banks are known to store gold.
The Netherlands and Finland currently store some of their gold reserves at the Bank of England and at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York and probably also did so in 1998/99, so one or both of these banks could have made transfers to the ECB at the FRBNY. Another contender for transferring gold held at the FRBNY is the Spanish central bank since it historically was a holder of gold at the NYFED. It’s not clear where the central bank of Luxembourg held or holds gold but it’s not material since Luxembourg only transferred just over 1 tonne to the ECB in January 1999.
Greece and Later Euro members
Greece joined the Euro in January 2001 and upon joining it transferred 19.5 tonnes of gold to the ECB. Greece is known for storing some of its gold at the FRBNY and some at the Bank of England, so Greece too is a candidate for possibly transferring New York held gold to the ECB. In theory, the ECB’s New York held gold may not have even arisen from direct transfers from Euro member central banks but could be the result of a location swap. Without the national central banks or the ECB providing this information, we just don’t know for sure how the ECB’s New York gold holdings arose.
Another 7 countries joined the Euro after Greece. These countries were Slovenia on 1st January 2007, Malta and Cyprus 1st January 2008, Slovakia 1st January 2009, Estonia 1st January 2011, Latvia 1st January 2014, and Lithuania 1st January 2015. The majority of these central banks made gold transfers to the ECB at the Bank of England. In total these 7 central banks only transferred 9.4 tonnes of gold to the ECB, so their transfers are not really material to the ECB’s gold holdings.
These sales explain why the ECB currently only holds 504.8 tonnes of gold:
i.e. 766.9 t (including Greece) – 271.5 t sales + 9.4 t smaller member transfers = 504.8 t
The ECB does not provide, nor has ever provided, any information as to where the 271.5 tonnes of gold involved in these 2005-2009 sales was stored when it was sold. The fact that the ECB still claims to hold gold in Paris, Rome and Lisbon, as well as London and New York, suggests that at least some of the gold transferred by the Banque de France, Banca d’Italia and Banco de Portugal in 1999 is still held by the ECB.
If the ECB had sold all the gold originally transferred to it by all central banks other than France, Italy, Portugal and Germany, this would only amount to 197 tonnes, so another 74 tonnes would have been needed to make up the shortfall, which would probably have come from the ECB holdings at the Bank of England since that is where most potential central bank and bullion bank buyers hold gold accounts and where most gold is traded on the international market.
Even taking into account Greece’s 19.4 tonne gold transfer to the ECB in January 2001, and excluding the French, Italian, German and Portuguese transfers in 1999, the ECB’s 271.5 tonnes of gold sales would still have burned through all the smaller transfers and left a shortfall. So the ECB gold sales may have come from gold sourced from all of its 5 storage loacations.
It’s also possible that one or more of the original 11 central banks transferred gold to the ECB that was stored at a location entirely distinct from the 5 currently named locations, for example gold stored at the Swiss National Bank. If that particular gold was then sold over the 2005-2009 period, it would not get picked up in the current locations. It’s also possible that some or all of the 271.5 tonnes of gold sold by the ECB over 2005-2009 had been loaned out, and that the ‘sales’ were just a book squaring exercise in ‘selling’ gold which the lenders failed to return, with the loan transactions being cash-settled.
No Physical Audit of ECB Gold
Given that the Euro is the 2nd largest reserve currency in the world and the 2nd most traded currency in the world, the ECB’s gold and how that gold is accounted for is certainly a topic of interest. Although the ECB’s gold doesn’t directly back the Euro, it backs the balance sheet of the central bank that manages and administers the Euro, i.e. the ECB.
The valuation of gold on the ECB’s annual balance sheet also adds to unrecognised gains on gold in the ECB’s revaluation account. Given gold’s substantial price appreciation between 1999 and 2015, the ECB’s unrecognised gains on gold amount to €11.9 billion as of 31 December 2015.
It is therefore shocking, but not entirely surprising, that the ECB doesn’t perform a physical audit of its gold bars and has never done so since initiating ownership of this gold in 1999. Shocking because this lack of physical audit goes against even the most basic accounting conventions and fails to independently prove that the gold is where its claimed to be, but not surprising because the world of central banking and gold arrogantly ignores and bulldozes through all generally accepted accounting conventions. Geographically, 2 of the locations where the ECB claims to store a percentage of its gold are not even in the Eurozone (London and New York), and infamously, the Bundesbank is taking 7 years to repatriate a large portion of its gold from New York, so the New York storage location of ECB gold holdings should immediately raise a red flag. Furthermore, the UK is moving (slowly) towards Brexit and away from the EU.
Recall the response above from the ECB:
“The ECB has no physical audit of its gold bars. The gold bars that the ECB owns are individually identified and each year the ECB receives a detailed statement of these gold deposits. The central banks where the gold is stored are totally reliable.“
Imagine a physical-gold backed Exchange Traded Fund (ETF) such as the SPDR Gold Trust or iShares Gold Trust coming out with such a statement. They would be run out of town. References to ‘totally reliable’ are all very fine, but ‘totally reliable’ wouldn’t stand up in court during an ownership claim case, and assurances of ‘totally reliable’ are not enough, especially in the gold storage and auditing businesses.
The ECB is essentially saying that these ‘statements’ of its gold deposits that it receives from its storage custodians are all that is needed to for an “audit” since the custodians are ‘totally reliable‘.
This auditing of pieces of paper (statements) by the ECB also sounds very similar to how the Banca d’Italia and the Deutsche Bundesbank conduct their gold auditing on externally held gold i.e. they also merely read pieces of paper. Banca d’Italia audits “annual certificates issued by the central banks that act as the depositories” (the FRBNY, the Bank of England, and the SNB/BIS).
The Bundesbank does likewise for its externally held gold (it audits bits of paper), and solely relies on statements from custodians that hold its gold abroad. The Bundesbank actually got into a lot of heat over this procedure in 2012 from the German Federal Court of Auditors who criticised the Bundesbank’s blasé attitude and lack of physical auditing, criticism which the Bundesbank’s executive director Andreas Dombret hilariously and unsuccessfully tried to bury in a speech to the FRBNY in New York in November 2012 in which he called the controversy a “bizarre public discussion” and “a phantom debate on the safety of our gold reserves“, and ridiculously referred to the movies Die Hard with a Vengeance and Goldfinger, to wit:
“The days in which Hollywood Germans such as Gerd Fröbe, better known as Goldfinger, and East German terrorist Simon Gruber, masterminded gold heists in US vaults are long gone. Nobody can seriously imagine scenarios like these, which are reminiscent of a James Bond movie with Goldfinger playing the role of a US Fed accounting clerk.”
Where is the ECB Gold Bar Weight List?
Since, as the ECB states, it’s gold bars are “individually identified“, then gold bar weight lists of the ECB’s gold do indeed exist. This then begs the question, where are these weight lists, and why not release them if the ECB has nothing to hide?
Quickly, to define a weight list, a gold bar weight list is an itemised list of all the gold bars held within a holding which uniquely identifies each bar in the holding. In the wholesale gold market, such as the London Gold Market, the LBMA’s “Good Delivery Rules” address weight lists, and state that for each gold bar on a weight list, it must list the bar serial number, the refiner name, the gross weight of the bar, the gold purity of the bar and the fine weight of the bar. The LBMA also state that “year of manufacture is one of the required ‘marks’ on the bar”.
Recall from above that when the ECB was asked to provide a full weight list of its 504.8 tonnes of gold bars, it responded: “The ECB does not disclose this information.“
After receiving this response, BullionStar then asked in a followup question as to why the ECB doesn’t disclose a weight list of the gold bars. The ECB responded (underlining added):
“We would like to inform you that, while the total weight and value of the gold held by the European Central Bank (ECB) can be considered to be of interest to the public, the weight of each gold bar is a technicality that does not affect the economic characteristics of the ECB’s gold holdings. Therefore the latter does not warrant a publication.“
It is a very simple task to publish such a weight list in an automated fashion. The large gold backed ETFs publish such weight lists online each and every day, which run in to the hundreds of pages. Publication of a weight list by the ECB would be a very simple process and would prove that the claimed bars are actually allocated and audited.
The more evidence that is gathered about the refusal of central banks to issue industry standard gold bar weight lists, the more it becomes obvious that there is a coordinated understanding between central banks never to release this information into the public domain.
The most likely reason for this gold bar weight list secrecy is that knowledge of the contents of central bank gold bar weight lists could begin to provide some visibility into central bank gold operations such as gold lending, gold swaps, location swaps, undisclosed central bank gold sales, and importantly, foreign exchange and gold market interventions. This is because with weight list comparisons, gold bars from one central bank weight list could begin turning up in another central bank weight list or else turning up in the transparent gold holdings of vehicles such as gold-backed Exchange Traded Funds.
Instead of being fixated with the ECB’s continual disastrous and extended QE policy, perhaps some financial journalists could bring themselves to asking Mario Draghi some questions about the ECB gold reserves at the next ECB press briefing, questions such as the percentage split in storage distribution between the 5 ECB gold storage locations, why ECB gold is being held in New York, why is there no physical audit of the gold by the ECB, why does the ECB not publish a weight list of gold bar holdings, and do the ECB or its national central bank agents intervene into the gold market using ECB gold reserves.
The lackadaisical attitude of the ECB to its gold reserves by never physically auditing them is also a poor example to set for all 28 of the central bank members of the European System of Central Banks (ESCB), and doesn’t bode well for any ESCB member central bank in being any less secretive than the ECB headquarters mothership.
If gold does re-emerge at the core of a revitalised international monetary system and takes on a currency backing role in the future, the haphazard and non-disclosed distribution of the ECB’s current gold reserves over 5 locations, the lack of physical gold audits, and the lack of public details of any of the ECB gold holdings won’t really inspire market confidence, and is proving to be even less transparent than similar metrics from that other secretive large gold holding bloc, i.e the USA.
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