Tag Archives: cash-settled

LBMA at the Movies: Golden Turkeys

In March of this year, the London Bullion Market Association (LBMA) released a series of short videos about various aspects of the London precious metals markets and the role the LBMA claims to plays in those markets. In the words of the LBMA:

“LBMA, the Global Authority for Precious Metals, has released five short films highlighting the pivotal role it plays in the global wholesale precious metals market by setting standards and developing market services thus ensuring the highest levels of integrity, transparency and quality.”

While calling these short clips ‘films’ is a bit ludicrous, the series of videos – which are indeed very short – are as follows, and they can be seen on the LBMA website as well as on the LBMA’s YouTube channel:

  • ‘Who We Are’ (2:33 minutes)   

… in which Paul Fisher (LBMA Chairman) and Ruth Crowell (Chief Executive) “discuss the central role that LBMA plays in the global OTC precious metal markets. From setting standards on the purity, form and provenance of the bars to the way in which they are traded.” 

Links: LBMA website. LBMA YouTube channel.

  • How the Market Works – OTC Overview (1:14 minutes)

… in which Jonathan Spall, LBMA Head of Communications “looks at how LBMA is at the heart of the 24-hour a day global OTC precious metals market with its bespoke transactions, which are tailored for clients’ needs.

Links: LBMA website. LBMA YouTube channel.

  • How the Market Works – Five Elements (2:01 minutes)

… in which Jonathan Spall, LBMA Head of Communications “highlights how LBMA  plays a crucial role in the five main elements that allow the smooth functioning of the global OTC market.”

Links: LBMA website. LBMA YouTube channel.

[Note: This video is called ‘Market Infrastructure Key Elements’ on the LBMA website.]

  • Good Delivery (1:08 minutes)

…in which Neil Harby (Chief Technical Officer) “takes you through the stringent Good Delivery criteria – the de facto standard trusted across the world – that enable the global trade in gold and silver bars.

LBMA website.  LBMA YouTube channel.

  • Responsible Sourcing (1:27 minutes)

… in which Sakhila Mirza (General Counsel) and Neil Harby (Chief Technical Officer) “discuss LBMA’s Precious Metals Integrity and Provenance initiatives, ensuring the responsible sourcing of precious metals and the protection and integrity of the global supply chain.

LBMA website.  LBMA YouTube channel.

The commentary of each of the videos is also in transcript form on the LBMA website, and given that the videos are so short, the transcripts are likewise bitesize. While the Good Delivery and Responsible Sourcing videos deal with technical aspects of the the LBMA’s interaction with precious metals refiners, it is the ‘Who we Are’ and ‘How the Market Works’ videos which are worth discussing in the context that neither answers the questions that their titles suggest.

Who we Are

With a title of ‘Who We Are’, a newbie viewer might think that the first LBMA video would provide some insight into who is behind the LBMA and what really goes on in the London Gold Market and London’s other precious metals markets. But not surprisingly, it does not.

Instead, the LBMA’s chief executive Ruth Crowell, and LBMA chairman Paul Fisher take turns in reciting sound bites that focus exclusively on aspects of the physical precious metals markets while ignoring the vast fractionally-backed paper (synthetic) gold market and the secretive London gold lending market.

LBMA video – Who We Are’ (2:33 minutes). Source: YouTube

The video begins with a claim that the LBMA is “the world’s authority for precious metals“. An authority appointed by whom? There is no mention in the video that the LBMA is a private organisation established in 1987 by the Bank of England, or that the original founding members were 6 bullion banks involved in the London Gold Market including Rothschild, J Aron (Goldman Sachs), and Morgan Guaranty (JP Morgan). For details of the LBMA – Bank of England symbiosis, see BullionStar article “Blood Brothers: The Bank of England and the London Bullion Market Association (LBMA)

Ruth Crowell states that “our Board has an independent Chairman, as well as Non-Executive Directors, which ensure the independence of the governance of the LBMA.” But the chairman she is referring to is of course Paul Fisher, 26 years at the Bank of England, head of the Bank of England’s FX and Gold Division in the 2000s, and an observer on the LBMA Management Committee from at least 2004.

You would be hard pressed to find less of an insider than Fisher for the role of ‘independent’ chairman of the LBMA. But not surprisingly, the LBMA video makes no mention of Fisher’s background. As James Rickards commented at the time of Fisher’s appointment to the LBMA:

For details of what Rickards was referring to, see BullionStar article “From Bank of England to LBMA: The ‘independent’ Chair of the LBMA Board“. In the video, Crowell’s use of the words ‘Non-Executive Directors’ is also misleading since, apart from Fisher, there is only one non-executive director on the Board, Andrew Quinn. Nor does she mention that the LBMA Board still contains a Bank of England observer, namely Andrew Grice.

Crowell states that ‘there are also elected Market Directors who sit on the Board and ensure the market is steering the development of the Association‘, but fails to say that half of these directors, the market makers, are from the powerful bullion banks which dominate the LBMA, such as JP Morgan and UBS.

Nowhere in the ‘Who we Are’ video does it mention that the LBMA system trades vast -quantities of unallocated fractionally-backed synthetic gold positions, that the LBMA publishes no trade reporting of any trades in the London market, that the LBMA Gold and Silver auctions are dominated by its powerful bullion bank members, that the LBMA oversees the secretive London Precious Metals Clearing Limited (LPMCL) clearing cartel for paper gold and silver, and that there is a hidden gold lending / gold swapping market in London between central banks and bullion banks, facilitated by the Bank of England.

Instead, there are multiple references to physical bars and real metal, something that is very thin on the ground in the world of the LBMA, but that gives the impression of a predominantly physical precious metals market, when in fact the opposite is the case. For example, the video refers to the following:

  • ‘the standard-setting organisation that defines how precious metals are refined’,
  • ‘the quality and the integrity of the metal’,
  • ‘mined from rock in the ground, being refined, being transported’,
  • ‘the appearance and the shape of the bars themselves’
  • ‘physically inspect each bar as it comes through the door’

As per usual with the LBMA, this ‘Who we Are’ video also makes claims that the activities of the LBMA promote a ‘transparent market‘, when the exact opposite is the case. This must be some kind of inside joke that they insert into all LBMA media publications, i.e. that the LBMA promotes transparency. For details on how opaque and non-transparent the London Gold and Silver Markets that the LBMA oversees really are, see ‘The Gold Market – Where Transparency means Secrecy’.

LBMA Video Shoot. Source: Google Photos

The Transcript of the LBMA’s ‘Who we Are’ video can be read below:

Ruth Crowell: The LBMA is the world’s authority for precious metals.

We’re the standard-setting organisation that defines how precious metals are refined, as well as traded around the world. It’s our job to ensure the quality and the integrity of the metal itself, as well as the market participants.

Paul Fisher: Our members are leading firms involved in the full lifecycle of precious metals. From being mined from rock in the ground, being refined, being transported, being stored and then finally being sold, whether as a bar or as a piece of jewellery. These miners, refiners, banks, trading houses, ETF providers, security companies, vaults, even central banks must follow LBMA standards for the benefit of customers around the world.

RC: Our Board has an independent Chairman, as well as Non-Executive Directors, which ensure the independence of the governance of the LBMA. But they’re also elected Market Directors who sit on the Board and ensure the market is steering the development of the Association. Beyond that we have many sub-committees and working groups, in which market participants can be engaged and steering everything that LBMA does.

PF: We provide quality control for the metal produced and we set high standards for business conduct. And we are also the voice of the market for governments, regulators and investors.

RC: We do that through the Good Delivery List and the Global Precious Metals Code. The Good Delivery List defines what’s acceptable when it comes to the appearance and the shape of the bars themselves. It’s also considered the de facto international standard for gold and silver.

The Global Precious Metals Code is a code of conduct which promotes a fair, effective and transparent market. It provides market participants with principles and guidance, to uphold high standards of business conduct. All of this creates confidence in the market for all participants.

We work closely with the commercial vaults, as well as the Bank of England. And the vaults only accept bars which meet the Good Delivery Standards. They also physically inspect each bar as it comes through the door, to make sure that it’s up to standard. As such, they act as the gatekeepers of the Market.

PF: We’re also leading the world in Responsible Sourcing, thanks to the strength of our Responsible Sourcing Programme.

RC: Our aim is to maintain integrity, as well as proactively develop the Precious Metals Market. That means we are always looking forward and anticipating any future needs and requirements.

 How the Market Works

For whatever reason, the LBMA decided to split the ‘How the Market Works’ (the London OTC precious metals Market) into 2 separate videos, each of which is very short, lacking in any substance, and whose content is practically pointless.

Viewer discretion is advised because it will surely lead to disappointment for anyone wanting to find out how, for example, the London OTC Gold Market works. Despite the titles, this duo of videos will not tell you, and they are so short that the transcripts of each video are not more than a few sentences long. The entire exercise is a missed opportunity to properly explain details of how the London market really works.

LBMA video – How the Market Works 1 (1:14 minutes). Source: YouTube.

The first video is titled “How the Market Works – OTC Overview” and is just 1 minute 14 seconds long. The second video is titled “How the Market Works – Five Elements” (with an alternative title of “Market Infrastructure Key Elements”, and this is just 2 minutes long. Both videos are narrated by Jonathan Spall, LBMA’s Head of Communications.

The first of these videos claims to “look at how the LBMA is at the heart of the 24-hour a day global OTC precious metals market with its bespoke transactions which are tailored for clients’ needs” but at a mere one and a quarter minutes long, how is this possible even if the will was there? The second of these videos aims to “highlight how the LBMA plays a crucial role in the five main elements that allow the smooth functioning of the global OTC market.

The (exceedingly short) transcript of the How the ‘Market Works – OTC Overview’ video is as follows:

Jon Spall: Internationally, precious metals are traded on a 24-hour basis. Either for immediate delivery, known as spot, or for a date in the future. LBMA accredited refiners annually refine approximately 5,000 tonnes of gold and more than 30,000 tonnes of silver.

Good Delivery Bars of gold and silver are traded globally in what is referred to as Over The Counter or OTC market. Approximately 25 billion dollars worth of gold is settled each day in the global OTC market, with London at its centre. This means all transactions are conducted between two parties without the need for an exchange.

An OTC market offers flexibility, in that two parties can negotiate bespoke transactions that precisely meet the needs of the customer. For example, in terms of price, amounts to be bought or sold, and time to maturity. It maintains confidentiality and means that all risks, including those of credit, exist only between the two counterparts. Typical market clients include miners, central banks, governments, fabricators, investors, hedge funds and refiners.

Despite its title, this video does not discuss how the OTC market works. The commentary, short that it is, opens with a reference to gold and silver refiners and good delivery bars, which are a very small percentage of trading in London. There is no reference to the fractionally-backed cash-settled synthetic gold claims which make up the vast bulk of trading.

LBMA Video Shoot. Source: Google Photos
The reference to approx 25 billion dollars worth of gold being settled each day is actually referring to the value of paper gold that is cleared each day by the secretive London Precious Metals Clearing Limited (LPMCL) run by five bullion banks (e.g. 18.7 million ounces of gold equivalent cleared each day in London during March 2018). There is no mention in the video of gold or silver trading statistics since this data is still off-limits to the public despite years of promises from the LBMA that it would publish such information.
This video has no reference to the secretive gold lending market between central banks and bullion banks, a market where outstanding ‘gold deposits’ owned by central banks are constantly passed around between the LBMA bullion banks and never closed.

How the Market Works – Part Deux

The second ‘How the Market Works‘ video, covering “five key market infrastructure elements” of the market is as lacking in detail and revelations as the first, and is again narrated by Jonathan Spall. These ‘key elements’ are LPMCL clearing, good delivery, vaulting, pricing, and unallocated accounts.

How the Market Works – Five Elements (2:01 minutes). Source: YouTube

The secretive LPMCL gets a one line mention with no explanation that its a private company run by JP Morgan, HSBC, UBS, ScotiaBank and ICBC Standard that keeps the either fractionally-backed London gold market afloat. Luckily, you can read about the LPMCL here in ‘Spotlight on London Precious Metals Clearing Limited‘.

Spall says that ‘there are a number of vaults in the London area operated by eight companies, including the Bank of England, which physically hold either gold or silver bars or both’, but this is as far as it goes and there is no discussion of the vault operators or the vault locations. For those interested, some of the vaults locations can be viewed here, here and here, and of course the Bank of England vaults here. While ‘London is home to one of the world’s largest physical holdings of gold’ as the video says, it does not mention the fact that most of this gold is held by central banks and ETFs, and that the bullion bank float of gold underpinning the entire market is quite low. See ‘LBMA Gold Vault Data – How low is the London Gold Float?‘ for discussion of this issue.

On the issue of pricing, the coverage is again lacking in any substance and fails to mention how the bullion banks control this aspect of the market too. There is no reference to price discovery of the international gold price, discovery which predominantly is based on the interactive trading of gold derivatives and cash-settled OTC gold positions between the London OTC Gold Market and COMEX. See ‘What sets the Gold Price – Is it the Paper Market or Physical Market?‘ for details.

And instead of explaining and coming clean about the fact that nearly all trading in the OTC market is in the form of unallocated precious metals positions that are merely claims against bullion banks and that the unallocoated system lies at the heart of the London market, the video merely says that ‘Most OTC transactions settle via unallocated accounts. The customer does not own specific bars, but has a contractual claim against the clearer.’

The video ends with the audacious claim that:

“The LBMA is at the very heart of this global market, providing standards, promoting transparency, instilling confidence, and thus maintaining integrity for all.”

That the LBMA did not make films (or videos) really explaining who runs the show in the London Gold Market, or how that market really works, is not surprising. Anyone acquainted with the writings of ANOTHER will understand this, when he wrote the following lines, which in these circumstances, appear particularly apt:

“Did you think that the high powered world of the LBMA would operate in a fishbowl for all to see? We cannot take what is on the outside as evidence for what is on the inside.”

Likewise, we cannot take what is in these LBMA videos as evidence of what goes on in the London Gold Market, at the Bank of England, in LBMA Board meetings, or in the dealings of the high powered bullion banks that control the London Gold Market.

Is the COMEX Rigged?

The COMEX gold futures market and the London OTC gold market have a joint monopoly on setting the international gold price. This is because these two markets generate the largest ‘gold’ trading volumes and have the highest ‘liquidity’. However, this price setting dominance is despite either of these two markets actually trading physical gold bars. Both markets merely trade different forms of derivatives of gold bars.

Overall, the COMEX (which is owned by the CME Group) is even more dominant that the London market in setting the international price of gold. This is a feat which financial academics ascribe to COMEX being a centralized electronic platform offering low transaction costs, ease of leverage, and “the ability to avoid dealing with the underlying asset” (i.e. COMEX allows its participants to avoid dealing with gold bars). Because of these traits, say the academics, COMEX has a ‘disproportionately large role in [gold] price discovery”.

Over 95% of COMEX gold futures trading is now conducted on CME’s electronic trading platform Globex, with most of the remainder done on CME’s electronic Clearport, where futures trades executed in the OTC market can be settled by CME. Next to nothing in gold futures is traded any more via pit-based open outcry.

The rise of the machine
Open Outcry: A distant memory for gold futures trading on COMEX

The existence of gold price manipulation in the London and COMEX gold markets is well documented, it is hard to refute, and it has presented itself in many forms over the recent past. Examples include:

  • Bullion bank gold traders in the late 2000s colluding in chat rooms to manipulate the gold price as documented in current consolidated class action law suits going through New York courts
  • Barclays Bank manipulating the London Gold Fixing price in 2012 so as to prevent triggering option related pay-outs to Barclays clients
  • Recent CFTC (US Commodities regulator) prosecutions of futures traders on the CME for ‘spoofing’ gold futures orders
  • Flash crashes in gold futures prices which have no underlying explanation to, or connection to, events and developments in any physical gold markets

This last point, ‘flash crashes’ in gold futures prices, is particularly relevant for COMEX. Many readers will recall reading about one or more of these COMEX gold futures price ‘flash crashes‘ during which large quantities of gold futures are shorted in a concentrated interval of time (e.g. within 10 or 20 seconds) which causes the gold price to completely collapse in free fall fashion over that very short period of time.

For example, on 26 June this year, the COMEX gold price free fell by nearly 1.5% within a 15 second interval, amid a huge spike in trading volume to more than 18,000 August gold futures (56 tonnes of gold) during the 1-minute period around the crash event.

On January 6, 2014, the COMEX gold price fell by over $30 in a few seconds, from $1245 to $1215 on huge volume, forcing the CME to introduce a temporary trading halt.

On April 12, 2013, aggressive selling of gold futures contracts representing over 13.4 million ounces (more than 400 tonnes of gold) hit COMEX gold futures in two waves during the London morning trading session sending the gold futures price down by more than 5%. The following Monday, April 15, 2013 the COMEX gold price rapidly fell by another 10%.

Whether these flash crashes are the result of trading errors, futures market illiquidity, computerized trading patterns or deliberately engineered moves is open to debate. Engineered price takedowns, where an entity initiates an order with the intention of moving the futures gold price in a downward direction, are distinctly possible.

However, concentrated gold futures shorting over tiny time intervals doesn’t have to be in the form of one large trade or a series of relatively large trades. All a shorting tactic of this type has to do is to either trigger the price to move down through certain thresholds which then triggers stop-loss orders, or to trigger and induce trading reactions from trading algorithms that monitor gold futures prices. Once sentiment is damaged through rapid downward price movements, the result can affect gold futures trading sentiment for the rest of the day and indeed over subsequent days.

But beyond the possible or probable individual acts of price manipulation on the COMEX, it is important to realize that the very structure and mechanics of the COMEX create a system in which gold futures trades can be executed in large volumes in a virtual vacuum which has no connection to the physical gold bullion market, no connection to gold bar and gold coin wholesalers and retailers, and which doesn’t even have any connection to the vaulted gold residing within the COMEX approved vaulting  facilities (aka COMEX warehouses aka COMEX vaults).

These underlying mechanics of COMEX, which are discussed below, allow the generation of massive gold futures trading volumes and open interest, huge leverage and large non-spot month position limits, a high concentration of speculative trading by a small number of banks, and a lack of transparency into the gold ‘delivery’ process. And at the foundation of the system, there are very small physical gold holdings in the COMEX approved vaults.

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COMEX 100 oz gold futures, USD Price, Volume, and Open Interest: 8 months-to-date. Source: www.GoldChartsRUs.com

The Mechanics

COMEX gold futures contracts are derivatives on gold. Importantly, a COMEX gold futures contract comes into existence any time two parties agree to create that contract. This means that COMEX gold futures contracts can continue to be created as long for as there are interested buyers (longs) and sellers (shorts) willing to bring these gold futures contracts into existence.

Therefore, there is no hard upper bound or supply limit on the amount of gold futures contracts that can be created on COMEX. This is very similar to the unit of trading of gold in the London market, i.e. unallocated gold, which is also a derivative that can be created in unlimited quantities. In both cases there is no direct connection to real physical allocated and segregated gold bars.

Technically, the value of any futures contract is derived from the value of its underlying asset, and in this case the underlying asset, nominally anyway, is physical gold. But perversely in the global gold market, the value of the gold futures is not being derived from the value of the underlying asset (physical gold). Instead, the value of the world’s physical gold is now being consistently and continually derived via this out-of-control and unhinged gold futures trading.

Contractually, COMEX 100 ounce gold futures contracts (COMEX code GC) are futures contracts that offer a physically deliverable option, i.e. to deliver/receive 100 ounces of minimum 995 fine gold (in either 100-ounce gold bars or 1 kilo gold bars format) on a specific future date.

However, the vast majority of COMEX 100 ounce gold futures are never delivered, they are offset (closed out) and cash-settled, or else they are rolled over. Only a tiny fraction of these gold futures contracts are ever ‘delivered’. Again, this is similar to unallocated gold in the London market, which is a cash-settled gold derivative.

COMEX is also a speculative market, where leverage (due to the use of trading margin) is used to create outsized trading volumes, and where initial position limits for individual traders are far larger than the quantity of underlying gold being stored in the COMEX approved vaults.

These factors combine to create what is in effect a Las Vegas type casino. This casino encourages vast speculative trading of futures which will never be delivered, and vast shorting (selling) claims on large quantities of gold which a) the shorter does not possess, b) are not even stored in the COMEX system, and c) are many multiples of annual gold supply). Conversely, the buyers are going long on claims on gold which will a) will never be delivered and b) which nearly none of the trading counterparties even wants to have delivered. The players in this casino have no interest in secure gold storage or allocated gold bars or bar brands or bar serial numbers. After all, as the academics put it, the COMEX provides “the ability to avoid dealing with the underlying asset”.

Even when COMEX gold futures for used for hedging purposes, much of this hedging is by bullion bank traders so as to hedge unallocated London gold using COMEX futures, i.e. hedging cash-settled paper bets with cash-settled paper bets. And both sets of instruments structurally have nothing to do with the real physical gold market.

Even back in December 1974, when COMEX gold futures were about to be launched (and which coincided with a lifting of the ban on US private ownership of gold), a group of major gold dealers in London including 3 of the 5 primary London gold dealers, i.e. Samuel Montagu & Co, Mocatta & Goldsmid, and Sharps Pixley & Co, told the US State department that they believed that this new gold COMEX futures market would dwarf the physical gold market i.e. “would be of significant proportion, and physical trading would be miniscule by comparison“.

These dealers expected that “large volume futures dealing would create …. a highly volatile market” whose “volatile price movements would diminish the initial demand for physical gold” that the US Government feared from the lifting of the gold ownership ban.

In hindsight, it was perceptive and prophetic that these major participants of the then fully allocated gold market in London in 1974 saw that the introduction of gold futures would create what we are seeing now, i.e. huge trading volumes, high price volatility, and a market (COMEX) which has an adverse effect on pricing in the physical gold market.

Trading Volume Metrics

Two revealing trading metrics for COMEX gold futures are trading volumes and the “Open Interest” on gold futures contracts. “Open Interest” simply means the number of gold futures contracts that are outstanding at any given time that have not been closed or delivered.

For 2016, COMEX gold futures trading generated a trading volume of 57.5 million contracts, representing 178,850 tonnes of gold. This is nearly as much gold as has ever been mined in the history of the world, i.e. which is estimated to be 190,000 tonnes. This COMEX trading volume in 2016 was also a whopping 37% higher than in 2015. In 2016, while 57.5 million gold futures contracts traded, only 71,380 COMEX gold contracts were ‘delivered’. This means that only 0.12% of COMEX gold contracts that traded in 2016 were ‘delivered’.

Delivered in this context means that the delivery option on the contract was exercised and a warrant representing 100 oz of gold on that contract changed hands, i.e. title documents to gold were shunted around a COMEX/vault recording system, mostly between bank holders. Delivered does not mean gold was withdrawn from a COMEX approved vault and delivered to an external location. The concept of gold vault withdrawal numbers, which is a bread and butter metric for the physical Shanghai Gold Exchange (SGE), is totally alien to the COMEX and its trading participants.

COMEX
Number of gold ounces delivered on COMEX in 2017: 1.23 million ounces = 38 tonnes. Source: www.GoldChartsRUs.com

For the first six months of 2017, trading volumes in the main COMEX gold futures contract (GC) reached 32.7 million contracts, representing 101,710 tonnes of gold. This was 12% up on the same period in 2016. When annualized, this suggests than in 2017, COMEX is on course to trade more than 200,000 tonnes of gold, which will be more than all the gold ever mined throughout history.

In the first half of 2017, only 12,320 gold futures contracts (representing 38 tonnes) were delivered on COMEX. This means that from January to June 2017, only 0.037% of the COMEX gold contracts traded in that six month period were ‘delivered’, or just 1 in every 2650 contracts traded.

Open Interest

Beyond the trends and snapshots that trading volumes provide, COMEX Open Interest shows how much real physical gold would be needed if all longs who hold gold futures contracts decided to exercise every contract into the 100 ounces of physical gold that each contract supposedly allows for.

For example, currently there are 480,000 GC gold futures contracts outstanding on the COMEX, each of which represents 100 ounces of gold. This means that buyers of the contracts are long 480,000 contracts, and sellers of those same contracts are short 480,000 contracts. With each contract worth 100 ounces of gold, this is an open interest of 48 million ounces (1500 tonnes) of gold, which is about half a year’s global gold mining output.

Currently 46% of this open interest is in the front-month August 2017 contract (nearly 750 tonnes), with another 40% in the December 2017 contract. Together the August and December contracts represent over 85% of the current open interest. During 2017, open interest has fluctuated roughly between 400,000 and 500,000 contracts at any given time.

Registered Gold Inventory and Eligible

However, there are only currently 22 tonnes of ‘Registered gold’ in the COMEX approved vaults in New York, which is equivalent to about 700,000 ounces. What this means is that there are only 22 tonnes of gold currently in the vaults that the vault operators previously attached warrants to as part of the COMEX futures delivery process. This 22 tonnes of gold, if it was held in Good Delivery gold bar format, would only occupy one small corner of one of the COMEX’s 8 approved gold vaults when stacked 6 pallets high across 3 stacks, and another 4 pallets in an additional stack. That’s how small the COMEX registered gold inventories are.

The amount of Registered gold backing COMEX futures gold trading is also at a 1-year low. For example, in August 2016 there were 75 tonnes of Registered gold in the COMEX vaults. Now there’s only 30% of that amount.

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COMEX Registered gold inventories: 700,000 ounces = 22 tonnes. Source www.GoldChartsRUs.com

There is also no independent auditing of the gold that the COMEX reports on its registered and eligible gold inventory reports. So there is no way of knowing if the COMEX report is accurate. For example, HSBC claims to have 165 tonnes of eligible gold and a measly 1.5 tonnes of registered gold stored at its COMEX approved vault. This vault is located in the lower levels of 1 West 39th Street in Manhattan (the old Republic National Bank of New York vault). However, I heard from a former New York Fed senior executive that HSBC don’t keep a lot of gold in this Manhattan vault since they moved a lot of it to Delaware after 9/11 for security reasons. If this is true, then the question becomes, on the COMEX report, does the total for HSBC represent the amount they have in the midtown Manhattan location, or the total in midtown and Delaware (assuming they have gold stored in Delaware).

COMEX approved vaults also report another category of gold known as ‘Eligible’ gold. This ‘Eligible’ gold is unrelated to COMEX gold futures trading and could be owned by anyone, for example owned by mints, refineries, jewellery companies, investment funds, banks or individuals, who would just happen to be storing this gold in the New York vaults that the COMEX also uses, such as the Brinks vaults.

In other words, this ‘eligible’ gold is merely innocent bystander gold that just happens to be stored in the COMEX approved vaults in the form of 100-ounce gold bars or 1 kilo gold bars. At the moment, there are 243 tonnes of this eligible gold in the vaults. But this gold is not involved in COMEX gold futures trading. Some of this gold is probably owned by banks that engage in COMEX gold futures trading because there are sometimes movements of gold from the eligible category to the registered category, but still, as long as it’s in the eligible category, this gold does not have any COMEX related warrants attached to it.

With an Open Interest of 1500 tonnes of gold on COMEX, and with registered gold in the New York vaults totalling only 22 tonnes, this means that there are currently 68 “Owners per Ounce” of registered gold. The holders of allocated gold bars stored in a secure vault, such as BullionStar’s secure vault in Singapore no not face this 68 owners per ounce problem, as each gold bar is owned by one person and one person only.

Since the beginning of 2017, this COMEX “owners per ounce of registered gold” metric has risen sharply, more than doubling from under 30 owners per ounce to the current ratio of 68 owners per ounce. This is because registered gold inventories have fallen sharply over this time.

Even adding into the equation all the eligible gold in the New York vaults, which is a calculation that doesn’t really mean much given the independent nature of eligible gold, there are still 5.7 “owners per ounce” of the combined COMEX “eligible and registered gold” total.

The physical gold foundations to the entire COMEX gold futures trading process are therefore very tiny in comparison to COMEX trading volumes and open interest. And all the while, gold futures trading volumes continue to rise, owners per registered ounce of gold continues to rise, and the amount of physical gold backing these contracts on COMEX continues to shrink.

The Dominant Players

The latest Commitment of Traders (COT) report produced by the US Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC), for 11 July, includes market concentration data for the percentage of contracts held by the largest holders. This COT report currently shows that “4 or Less Traders” are short 35% of the COMEX GC gold futures open interest, while “8 or Less Traders” are short a combined 51% of the open interest. Note that the “4 or Less Traders” are a subset of the “8 or Less Traders”.

The CFTC also publishes a Bank Participation Report (BPR) showing metrics for banks involved in gold futures trading. The latest BPR for 11 July shows that 5 US banks are short 78063 contracts (16.4% of the total open interest), and 29 non-US banks are short another 67,373 contracts (14.2% of open interest). In total, these 34 banks were short 145,000 contracts or 30% of the open interest. The same banks were long 40,688 contracts, so were net short 105,000 contracts.

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CFTC Bank Participation Report (BPR) of COMEX (and ICE) gold futures positions. Source www.GoldChartsRUs.com

Neither the COT report nor the BPR report reveal the identity of the ‘traders’ or the ‘banks’ that hold these concentrated large positions because the bank friendly CFTC choses not to do so, but even without their identities being revealed, it’s clear that a small number of entities are dominating trading of the COMEX gold futures contracts.

When is a Delivery not a Delivery?

The COMEX delivery report is known as the “Issues and Stops Report”. This report ostensibly shows the number of contracts that were ‘delivered’ on the COMEX each month, but in reality just shows a series of numbers representing the quantity of title warrants (to gold bars) that were shunted around each month between a small handful of players.

The COMEX does not publish any gold bar weight lists of registered or eligible gold inventories held in the COMEX approved vaults. It is therefore impossible to check to what extent the same gold bars or some of the same gold bars are moving back and forth between a few parties over time. On an annual basis, each COMEX approved vault must conduct a precious metal inventory audit on behalf of the COMEX and file this audit with the COMEX within 30 days of completing it. However again, the CME Group does not publish these inventory audits, which only adds to the existing opacity of the system. Is the registered gold in the COMEX vaults even specifically insured? Who knows, because the COMEX does not divulge such details.

Some of the bank institutions which are prominent on the COMEX gold delivery reports are also some of the same institutions which operate the COMEX approved vaults, e.g. HSBC, JP Morgan and Scotia, and these same names are undoubtedly some of the names underlying the CFTC’s Bank Participation Report given that they are always prominent on the COMEX delivery reports. By the way, these same banks essentially run the LBMA in London and run the unallocated gold clearing system, LPMCL, in the London Gold Market.

As regards, the COMEX’s assignment of delivery for gold futures contracts, this is also out of the hands of a contract holder looking for delivery. When a contract is presented for delivery, it is the Exchange (COMEX) which assigns the delivery to a specific warehouse. Not the contract holder. The contract holder (long) has no say in choosing which New York warehouse that contract will be assigned to, no choice of which bar brand he/she will receive, and no choice even of whether the assigned gold will be in the form of a 100 ounce bar of three 1 kilogram gold bars. But even to the long holder seeking delivery, delivery just means gaining an electronic warehouse warrant issued in the long holder’s name or broker’s name (title to the warrant).

To take real delivery of gold bars (withdrawing gold from one of the New York vaults) that would arise from a COMEX ‘delivery’ is a laborious and discouraging extra step. Armed with a copy of an electronic receipt, the procedure involves the receipt holder directly contacting the warehouse in question and telling them you want physical delivery. How they would react to such as phone call is not clear. My guess is that it would be like visiting the mailroom in a large company, the reaction being ‘Who are you? No one ever comes down here‘.

After navigating the withdrawal negotiations with the vault in question,  the pickup and transport of the gold bars is then organized using one of the list of secure transport alternatives that approved warehouse will allow.

COMEX – Not Designed for Physical Bullion

The COMmodity EXchange (COMEX) is a derivatives exchange that is not designed for buying physical gold, storing or delivering that gold, or even selling physical gold. The COMEX primarily facilitates speculation and hedging, with the delivery option just existing as a little -used side option.

Flash crashes continue to occur but neither the CME nor the CFTC ever publishes explanations for the causes of these flash crashes.

It looks certain that in 2017, COMEX will again smash its gold futures trade gold futures representing more gold than has ever been mined in human history, i.e. more than 200,000 tonnes equivalent.

So far in 2017, only 1 in every 2650 gold futures contracts traded on the COMEX has resulted in delivery i.e. less than 0.038% of the contracts go to delivery. The rest, 99.962% of contracts are cash-settled and closed-out / rolled.

The open interest in COMEX gold futures is currently 1500 tonnes, yet there are only 22 tonnes of Registered gold in the COMEX vault inventories. This means that there are 68 owners per ounce of registered gold.

There is continually a high concentration of short futures positions held by a small number of banks on COMEX. The CFTC doesn’t name these banks. When contract deliveries occur on COMEX, it is not a delivery in the sense of a gold bar movement but is merely a transfer in title of a warrant attached to a bar.

Withdrawal of a gold bar or bars out of the COMEX vaulting network to be really delivered to another location is not straightforward.

Physical Bullion

With the London Gold Market trading unlimited quantities of unallocated gold which the bullion banks create out of thin air, and with COMEX trading gold futures which are also created out of thin air, the disconnect between the world of unlimited paper gold and the world of limited physical gold is becoming ever more stark.

On one side lies paper claims on gold which come into and out of existence through cash-settled market mechanisms. On the other is real physical gold that is segregated, allocated and unencumbered, with full title held by the gold holder. Paper gold ownership is fleeting, speculative and prone to counterparty and conversion risks. Real gold is tangible, has inherent value, has no counterparty risk, and can be securely stored.

When real gold is ‘delivered’ to a gold buyer, it actually is delivered to the buyer to wherever they want it delivered, unlike COMEX deliveries where an electronic warrant is merely updated. When real gold is held in a secure vault, such as BullionStar’s vault in Singapore, the gold is fully-insured and the gold holder has full audit and control.

Unlike the COMEX and the London OTC gold market, the traditional gold buying markets of Asia and the Middle East are markets know the real value of physical gold as a form of money and a form of saving. In the physical gold market, especially in Asia, gold buyers demand high purity gold (9999s purity) in convenient bar sizes such as 1 kilogram and 100 grams, and not the 100 ounce bar size traditionally made for COMEX delivery.

Physical gold buyers want gold bars from trusted and well-known sources, and also want choice and variety for example a cast bar from the German Heraeus refinery, or a highly designed minted bar from the Swiss refinery PAMP. Kilobars and 100 gram gold bars also have the lowest premiums of any bars on the retail market since many refineries compete to supply this segment and the demand is widespread and international. Most kilobars and 100 gram bars have their own unique serial numbers which facilitates tracking and auditing.

As COMEX pursues its record-breaking attempt  in 2017 to trade gold futures representing more than 200,000 tonnes of gold, the disconnect between COMEX and the real world is becoming all too clear. COMEX flash crashes will continue as long as the CME and CFTC let them continue. And many people will continue to believe that these flash crashes were deliberately orchestrated. But at the heart of the contradiction between paper gold and real gold is not whether such and such a flash crash was deliberate. The heart of the contradiction is that the very structure of the COMEX system is so detached from the reality of physical gold market that it ideally suits deliberate flash crash attempts to rig the gold price.

BullionStar will be exhibiting at the FreedomFest event in Las Vegas, which this year runs from July 19 to 22 at the Paris resort in Las Vegas. For those attending FreedomFest please drop by our stand and say hello (Booth number 321) and to chat about precious metals. BullionStar CEO Torgny Persson will also be speaking at FreedomFest at 2:30pm on Friday July 21, on why today’s gold price is not reflecting what’s happening in the world and not reflecting what’s happening in the physical gold market.

CME Stays Silent on Cause of COMEX Silver Price Glitch

Silver futures prices on the COMEX futures trading platform briefly plummeted at approximately 7:06am Singapore time yesterday, with the price for the front month (most active) September silver contract falling from a US$16.06 quote down to a low of US$14.34 all within  a 1 minute interval. The futures price then recovered nearly all of its losses in the subsequent 2-3 minute period. High to low, this COMEX silver futures contract saw its price fall by just over 10.7%, before rebounding nearly 11%.

During this time when the COMEX price crashed, there was nothing fundamentally happening in the wider financial markets, or indeed in the physical silver market, to justify these price gyrations in COMEX silver futures prices. Which all goes to show that the COMEX ‘paper’ futures silver prices is completely detached from the physical silver market, and that COMEX silver futures prices have no anchoring in the real silver market.

This price movement in the September 2017 silver futures contract (contract code SIU7 aka SIU17) can be seen in the below 1-minute tick candlestick chart from CME. Times in the chart are New York Time (NYT), which is 12 hours behind Singapore.

During this one minute period between 19:06 NYT and 19:07 NYT, the SIU7 contract saw trading volume of 4954 contracts (the 4.954K in the chart below), with the price falling from a high of 16.065 to a low of 14.34, before ending that minute period at US$ 14.68.

The COMEX SI silver futures contract, which is a deliverable contract but which in practice is rarely delivered; is a futures contract for 5000 troy ounces of silver. The 4954 contracts traded during the 1 minute period in theory represent 24.77 million ounces (770 tonnes) of silver and would be valued at $397.8 million at the opening price of US$ 16.06 at 19:06 NYT.

Overall within these 4 minutes, more than 8,300 September silver contracts were traded.

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COMEX September Silver futures (SIU7): Flash crash at 19:06 NYT 6th July

Following this 1 minute flash crash, in the subsequent minute between 19:07 NYT and 19:08 NYT,  the SIU7 contract price rebounded sharply, rising from US$ 14.67 to US$ 15.62 on a trading volume of 1495 contracts. This rebound reflected in the below chart which also shows the opening and closing prices of each minute period. The price continue to rebound between 19:08 and 19:09 on volume of 936 contracts to close the minute at US$ 15.07, and then between 19:09 and 19:10, the price again closed higher at US$ 15.90 on volume of 932 contracts.

Overall, from the low quote of US$ 14.34, the price had rebound within the next 3 minutes to US$ 15.90, a rebound of 10.95%, and just 1% lower than the price had been (US$ 16.06) 4 minutes earlier.

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COMEX Sept Silver futures (SIU7): Rebound between 19:07 – 19:10 NYT 6th July

Note that the same price flash crash also affected the next most actively traded COMEX silver contract for December 2017 (code SIZ7). See COMEX silver futures summary table below, and notice the lows for the September 2017 and December 2017 contracts at US$ 14.34 and US$ 14.44, respectively.

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CME Summary table of COMEX Silver Futures contract prices showing Highs and Lows

What caused this momentary price plummet in the COMEX silver futures is not clear. This is because the CME Group, operator of the COMEX futures platform, has provided no explanation for these price gyrations. Possible causes could include market illiquidity, deliberate manipulation, a trading error or errors, or algorithmic trading programs triggering stop losses or inducing abnormal trading patterns.

Until the CME Group releases a statement on this (which it probably won’t), the exact cause of this futures price flash crash remains unclear. What the CME did do yesterday however was as follows:

At 19:06:38, the CME systems implemented a 10 second halt in the COMEX silver futures contracts. Within 20 minutes, CME made an announcement in a messaging broadcast that it was reviewing all SIU7 (September futures) trades that had taken place under US$ 15.84 and all SIZ7 (December futures) trades that had taken place under US$ 15.94. After another 20 minutes, CME announced in a messaging broadcast that for SIU7, any trades executed below US$ 15.54 would be adjusted up to US$ 15.54, while for SIZ7, all trades executed below 15.64 would be adjusted up to US$ 15.64.

These speedily introduced price adjustments would appear to suggest that the CME Group quickly determined that whatever caused the sharp price falls in the COMEX silver futures prices was not part of normal COMEX futures market trading, and that the CME made the call to back out and cancel at least some of the effects of this abnormal market trading. This would also seem to suggest the CME found evidence of something untoward, either price manipulation, or unfair algorithmic trading, or unjustified stop-loss triggering etc.

While these ‘paper’ trading markets in the form of the OTC London silver market and the COMEX futures market unfortunately do have a real impact on the international silver price that is inherited by these physical markets, this latest pricing fiasco on the COMEX again demonstrates that COMEX trading of precious metals futures and London trading of fractionally-backed unallocated precious metals spot and forwards contracts are becoming more and more detached from the underlying reality of the physical gold and silver markets.

This also has an adverse effect on investor sentiment in these paper markets and could in time be a trigger for shifting gold price discovery from paper to physical.