Tag Archives: central bank gold policies

Why the World’s Central Banks hold Gold – In their Own Words

Collectively, the central bank sector claims to hold the world’s largest above ground gold bar stockpile, some 33,800 tonnes of gold bars. Individually within this group, some central banks claim to be the top holders of gold bullion in the world, with individual holdings in the thousands of tonnes range.

This worldwide central bank group, also known as the official sector, spans central banks (such as the Deutsche Bundesbank), international monetary institutions (such as the Bank for international Settlements) and national monetary authorities (such as the Saudi Arabian Monetary Authority – SAMA).

These institutions hold gold as one of their reserve assets. Any gold held by a central bank as a reserve asset is classified as monetary gold. In addition to monetary gold, central bank reserve assets include such things as foreign exchange assets (such as US Dollars) and IMF Special Drawing Rights (SDRs). In general, reserve assets held by central banks are managed according to the criteria of safety, liquidity and return.

Note that most of these central banks don’t own the gold they hold, but merely hold it on behalf of their nation states. See “Who Owns the World’s Largest Gold Hoards? – Not the Central Banks!” on the BullionStar website for a discussion of official gold reserves ownership.

Given that central banks don’t generally divulge the gold that they lend, swap or otherwise use as collateral, the question as to whether the official sector actually holds 33,800 of gold, or far less than that amount, is debatable. But for the purposes of this discussion, the amount of gold that the central banking sector holds is not important.

This discussion focuses on why central banks hold gold. This discussion also uniquely draws on actual responses from many of the world’s largest central banks as to why, in their own words, they hold gold. While the common reasons for central banks holding gold range from store of value, to financial insurance, to asset diversification, we thought its best to let the actual gold holding central banks state their case.

Taking the list of official sector gold holders compiled by the World Gold Council (which uses IMF data sourced from the individual banks), the Top 40 gold holders on this list were identified. While most of the Top 40 gold holders are national central banks or equivalent, there are also a small number of international monetary institutions in the Top 40, namely, the Bank for International Settlements (BIS), the European Central Bank (ECB), and the International Monetary Fund (IMF). A similar question was sent out to each bank and institution. The question was:

“in the context that central banks hold gold as a reserve asset on their balance sheets, can Central Bank X clarify the main reasons why it continues to hold gold as a reserve asset?”

The central banks which responded to this question with constructive or definitive answers were as follows:

The world’s largest central bank gold holders – World Gold Council list

Germany

Germany’s Deutsche Bundesbank, which is most famous recently for repatriating gold from New York and Paris, but which still stores gold in London and New York, placed a particular emphasis on gold’s high liquidity, as well as gold’s powerful role in financial crises and emergencies:

The part of the Bundesbank’s gold reserves which is to remain abroad could, in particular, be activated in an emergency. Therefore one part will remain in New York following completion of the relocation – the United States has the most important reserve currency in the world – and one part in London, the world’s largest trading centre for gold.

In the event of a crisis, the gold could be pledged as collateral or sold at the storage site abroad, without having to be transported. In this way, the Bundesbank could raise liquidity in a foreign reserve currency. However, these are purely precautionary measures as we are not expecting this kind of contingency scenario at the current time. 

Gold is a type of emergency reserve which can also be used in crisis situations when currencies come under pressure.”

Austria

In neighbouring Austria, the Oesterreichische Nationalbank (OeNB), Austria’s central bank, also mentioned the liquidity characteristics of gold, its benefits in a crisis, and also gold’s diversification benefits. The OeNB also recently made headlines when it too repatriated some of its gold back from storage in London. The OeNB told BullionStar that:

Gold is an essential part within our strategy for crisis prevention and crisis handling and is held as liquidity reserve but is also a means to diversity our investments.

Switzerland

Staying in the region, Switzerland’s central bank, the Swiss National Bank (SNB) highlighted the diversification and risk optimisation benefits of gold, responding that the National Bank holds gold because:

“As part of a good diversification of currency reserves, a certain proportion of gold can help reduce the balance sheet risk. The Swiss Federal Constitution, art. 99 stipulates that the SNB has to hold a part of its currency reserves in gold.

See also the speech given by Fritz Zurbrügg, Vice Chairman of the Governing Board of the SNB; it contains comments on the role of gold in the SNB’s currency reserves: .”

Article 99 of the Swiss Constitution in part says that “the Swiss National Bank shall create sufficient monetary reserves from its profits; a part of these reserves shall be held in gold“.

Fritz Zurbrügg’s speech cited by the SNB, which was mostly a politically loaded SNB attack against the 2014 Swiss gold referendum more than anything else,  says in part that gold reserves can be used in crisis management and that the SNB’s  gold is “stored in multiple locations for reasons of risk diversification“.

Poland

The Polish central bank, Narodowy Bank Polski  (NBP), provided a very detailed answer to BullionStar covering gold’s  lack of credit risk and counterparty risk and its finite supply, as well as gold’s safe haven and diversification benefits: The NBP said that:

Gold, due to its attributes is a quite specific asset, and traditionally has been an important component of central bank’s foreign reserves.

The main features which support the unprecedented role of gold at the same time constitute the rationale for holding gold within central bank’s reserves. These are: lack of credit risk, independence from any country’s economic policy, limited size of the resource, physical features such as durability and almost imperishability.

Additionally, gold has been constantly perceived as a safe haven asset, and is particularly desirable in crisis times, when gold prices increase while other core assets’ prices have a downward tendency.

Sweden

Moving north to Sweden, the Swedish Riksbank, the world’s oldest central bank, responded to BullionStar with an explanation that its holds gold for liquidity, foreign exchange intervention, and diversification reasons:

“In brief, gold is a financial asset that, like the currency reserve, aims to ensure that the Riksbank can carry out its tasks. The gold can, for example, be used to fund liquidity support or foreign exchange interventions.

The main reason why Sweden still has a gold reserve is because the value of gold does not normally follow the same pattern as the value of the currency reserve. Consequently, the combined value of the gold and currency reserve is more stable than the value of the gold reserve and the currency reserve separately.”

Greece

Elsewhere in Europe, the Bank of Greece, Greece’s central bank, told BullionStar that it holds gold because of its safe haven and high liquidity characteristics during crises, crises which notably the Bank of Greece has faced plenty of in the recent past:

“The two main reasons central banks, including the Bank of Greece (typically prudent-oriented organisations), choose to include gold as a reserve asset on their balance sheets, are: 1) its recognition as a safe haven asset during periods of markets’ unrest and 2) the ability of instant liquidation in case of emergency.”

Portugal

The Bank of Portugal, the Portuguese central bank, kept its answer generic, and seemed to speak on behalf of central banks in general, covering the main arguments why central banks as a group hold gold:

Gold reserves are kept by Central Banks mostly for safety, liquidity, return and as a diversification strategy. Gold compares extremely favorably to other traditional reserve assets with high-quality and liquidity helping Central Banks to preserve capital, diversify portfolios, mitigate risks and on the medium/long-term Gold has consistently outperformed the average returns of other alternative financial assets.

A Bank of England Gold Vault

UK Treasury

The United Kingdom’s official gold holdings are held in the name of HM Treasury, and not, as sometimes thought, in the name of the Bank of England. The Bank of England is custodian of the HM Treasury gold as well as custodian for the gold of many nations, including many of the central banks mentioned in this article. HM Treasury told BullionStar:

“The Government’s official holdings of international reserves comprise gold and foreign currency assets, and (IMF) Special Drawing Rights (SDRs).

HM Treasury appoints the Bank of England as its agent to carry out the day-to-day management of the international reserves. The Bank of England’s ‘Handbook on Foreign Exchange Reserves Management’ sets out the traditional reasons for countries holding gold in their foreign exchange reserves.”

Looking at this Bank of England Handbook, a section titled “The Role of Gold” sums up the UK’s traditional reasons for holding gold:

  • the “war chest” argument – gold is seen as the ultimate asset to hold in an emergency and in the past has often appreciated in value in times of financial instability or uncertainty;
  • the ultimate store of value, inflation hedge and medium of exchanges – gold has traditionally kept its value against inflation and has always been accepted as a medium of exchange between countries;
  • no default risk – gold is “nobody’s liability” and so cannot be frozen, repudiated or defaulted on;
  • gold’s historical role in the international monetary system as the ultimate backing for domestic paper money.

While the BoE author (John Nugée) questions if gold is suitable for the reserve management strategies of all central banks, he concludes that:

 “The traditional view of gold as the ultimate asset still carries weight, and gold also provides an excellent diversification for currency assets; over the very long run there is a significant negative correlation between gold and other assets and a portfolio containing gold will show lower volatility over several business cycles.

Moreover central banks can increasingly manage their gold holdings to enhance returns through gold lending, gold swaps, collateralised borrowing, and so on. “

Notably, apart from South Africa’s answer below, the Bank of England paper is the only reference to gold lending and gold swaps in all the correspondence and references generated by these central bank responses. But it is not surprising that the Bank of England mentions gold lending and gold swaps, since the Bank of England is the world’s centre for these particular central bank activities.

Australia

Responding from Sydney, the Reserve Bank of Australia (RBA) told BullionStar that it views gold as financial insurance and to some extent as a form of asset diversification:

The principal reason the Bank continues to hold some gold is as a contingency against unforeseen events. You may be aware that in 1997 the Bank sold 167 tonnes of gold, reducing its holdings from 247 tonnes to 80 tonnes after it was concluded that the gold holdings provided fewer diversification benefits than some other reserve assets.

Romania

Romania’s central bank, the National Bank of Romania (BNR) advised consulting its 2016 annual report:

“We suggest you to consult our website at the address http://www.bnr.ro/Regular-publications-2504.aspx, Annual Report 2016, pages 152-153, where you may find useful information regarding your concern.”

From this annual report, there are a number of reasons stated as to what the National Bank of Romania holds gold as a reserve asset:

The gold reserve is meant, inter alia, to enhance confidence in the stability of the Romanian financial system and of the leu, being particularly useful in times of heightened economic turmoil (domestically or abroad) or geopolitical tensions.

Unlike other asset types, gold has no solvency risk attached, because it is not “issued” by an authority (such as a government or a central bank).

Philippines

Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas, the Central Bank of the Philippines, also highlighted the themes of gold as a safe haven asset and as a portfolio diversifier, as well as an inflation hedge:

“The BSP, like other central banks, holds gold as reserve asset for the following reasons: 

Diversification. By diversifying its reserve assets to include gold, the BSP is in a better position to manage risks and promote stability since gold is not directly influenced by economic shocks and policies. Moreover, its supply and demand are independent from the factors affecting the value of other reserve assets components. 

Security. Gold is a real asset and bears no counterparty or credit risk. In times of uncertainty, gold is considered a safe-haven asset.

Inflation hedge. When inflation and inflation expectations are high, gold is considered a hedge against accelerating asset prices.  Central banks buy gold to protect their currencies’ purchasing power in the event of an inflation.

Moreover, since the Philippines is a gold-producing nation, the BSP can purchase gold from small-scale miners, refine and cast these into gold bars (good delivery bars) that would qualify as reserve asset. Therefore, it can build up its gold reserves without relying too much on external purchases that would have to be paid for in foreign exchange.”

South Africa

The Reserve Bank of South Africa (SARB) provided what is probably the most comprehensive answer of all the central banks polled, possibly a model text book answer. SARB said that:

  • the SARB as a central bank can be viewed as a “traditional gold holder” which has inherited gold reserves as part of a legacy and has over time kept its level of gold reserves unchanged to support a broad country strategy. South Africa being one of the main gold producers in the world,  it is appropriate for the SARB to hold part of its official reserves in gold to confirm the country’s confidence in the metal. 

More in general and similar to many other central banks, the rationale for SARB [holding gold] remains:

  • Gold acts as a store of value in times of crisis and is therefore seen as a safe-haven for capital preservation
  • Gold acts as a hedge against inflation. In other words, the price of gold tends to increase as inflation rises
  • Gold provides some diversification to official reserves – it’s rather low correlation with government bonds and money-market instruments 
  • Gold has an intrinsic value and as a result it is nobody’s liability.  As a unique asset class, it is not influenced by a country’s economic policy and outlook
  • Although short-term gold lending rates are currently very low, this has not always been the case and these rates may increase again, suggesting that it may not forever remain a non-income earning asset.  In addition, when investing for longer time periods, gold loans earn positive, albeit low, returns when compared to other asset classes 
  • Gold reserves can be regarded as insurance against unlikely, but extremely damaging events, such as the collapse of financial systems or debt default by major sovereign nations

Brazil

Banco Central do Brasil, the Brazilian central bank, referenced reserve diversification and store of value in its response to BullionStar:

The asset allocation of the Brazilian foreign reserves, including Gold, is a strategic decision of the Board of Governors. But, according to some Central Banks best practices, Gold as a commodity may be used as storage of value and to diversify their foreign reserves portfolio.”

Libya

While there is some skepticism as to how much gold the central bank of Libya actually has in the aftermath of its recent invasion, the Banque du Liban provided an interesting response on why it still holds gold, i.e. that its prevented by law from selling its gold holdings:

When the LBP  [Libyan Pound up to 1971] was very strong versus the USD in the early seventies ,Banque du Liban bought a large portion of its gold reserves what was very wise as the ounce price was around 42 USD.

Then after the turmoil that plunged the country into war and chaos and in order to preserve the reserves, the parliament issued a law preventing Banque du Liban from trading on gold and consequently from selling the existing reserves. The law is still in force and Banque du Liban is holding now the 15th largest gold reserves worldwide.

European Central Bank (ECB)

The ECB responded to BullionStar’s question without actually addressing the question and by citing references which not not address the question either. This deflection strategy is not unknown in ECB press conferences. The ECB said that:

We would like to refer you to our related press release ECB and other central banks announce the fourth Central Bank Gold Agreement as well as to our web page Foreign reserves and own funds.”

The only reference the 4th central bank gold agreement (which was between the ECB and European central banks) makes to gold reserves is that “Gold remains an important element of global monetary reserves“, but does not say why. Interestingly, the ECB’s ‘Foreign Reserves and own Funds” page states that “The ECB’s foreign reserves [which include gold] ensure that the ECB has sufficient liquidity to conduct foreign exchange operations if needed.”

These “foreign exchange operations” are, according to the ECB, mainly foreign exchange interventions, which can be unilateral or concerted (ECB member banks together), and can be centralised (directed by the ECB) or decentralised (carried out by the member banks on behalf of the ECB). So is ECB gold being used as liquidity in foreign exchange operations? The Swedish Riksbank mentioned this use of gold, so it might be an operational tactic of the ECB also.

A number of banks, although they responded, said that they could not comment on the reasons they hold gold. This secretive approach isn’t very logical and is even more surprising given that some of the banks which took this approach are all from otherwise progressive and advanced OECD economies.

Spain

The Banco de España, which is a member of the ECB’s Eurosystem alongside such central banks as the Portuguese, German and Austrian central banks, seemed to be particularly secretive as to why it holds gold, and told BullionStar:

“We do not make public comments on the reserve assets policy of the Banco de Espana so unfortunately we cannot help you in your query.”

Singapore

Likewise, the Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS), which is located in walking distance of BullionStar’s office, responded that:

As a matter of policy, we do not comment on our reserve composition. Hope you can understand.

Japan

Similarly, the Bank of Japan (BoJ) took a secretive approach:

“Regarding your inquiry on our gold asset, we cannot disclose any information other than the information published on our website due to our confidentiality policy.”

However, looking at the Bank of Japan website, there is nothing material on the site addressing why the BoJ continues to hold a very large amount of gold.

Bank for International Settlements (BIS)

The BIS, headquartered in Basel, Switzerland, is commonly known as the central bankser’s central bank. The BIS is also infamously known for organising and plotting gold price suppression and gold market interventions through its various Gold Pool cartels. As well as holding gold in its own name, the BIS holds gold on behalf of other central banks. Perennially secretive, it was not surprising that the BIS refused to answer BullionStar’s question directly, but at least they replied. The BIS said:

We do not comment on specific accounts/holdings of central banks or of the BIS. Please see our latest Annual Report and the monthly financial statements on our website for details on gold. Further information can be gleaned from central banks directly and there is some discussion of gold reserves in BIS Paper 40 (Section 2) and BIS Paper 58.

While there is some discussion of gold in BIS Papers 40 and 58, there is no discussion for the reasons why central banks hold gold as a reserve asset.

Bank for International Settlements (BIS) – The central bankers’ central bank

Survey Methodology

The cutoff point for this survey was the Top 42 gold holding central banks in the world, as this allowed the inclusion of Australia and Brazil, both of which are large gold holders and both of which are also large domestic gold producers. Between them, these 42 central banks and monetary institutions claim to hold 32,075 tonnes of gold, which is 95% of the 33,790 tonnes of gold claimed to be held by the 100 central banks on the World Gold Council list.

Of the central banks and institutions contacted, 21 replied with definitive responses. Arguably, this is quite a high response rate given that it was surveying a diverse cross-section of central banks from around the world on a subject which central banks are traditionally quite secretive about. Of the central banks in the Top 42 list, emails were sent to all of those that were contactable by email. In a few cases a web contact form was used.

Five central banks were not contactable as they did not have any obvious email address or web contact form. These banks were from Lebanon, Venezuela, Mexico, Taiwan and China. The Chinese People’s Bank of China is notoriously difficult to contact, even for BullionStar which has been writing about the PBoC and the Chinese Gold Market for years.

Four central banks had a bounce back on the email addresses stated on their websites. These were the central banks of Algeria, Egypt, and Indonesia. None of the three banks contacted by web form responded. These were the central banks of India, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia.

Not surprisingly, banks from more developed and democratic countries have a more transparent means of being contacted and they maintain media and communications staff. Therefore it is logical that these banks are more likely to have responded.

Of the 9 central banks and institutions which did not respond within a reasonable time-frame, they were then re-contacted, asking them had they had time to look at the query. Nearly all of these banks still did not reply. These institutions were the US Treasury, and central banks from the Russia Federation, South Korea, Kuwait, Kazakhstan, Belgium, Netherlands, Thailand, and Italy.

Its notable that the US Treasury, which claims to have the largest official gold reserves in the world, 8133 tonnes of gold, did not respond as to why it supposedly holds the largest gold reserves in the world. These supposed US gold reserves are as large as the gold reserves of the next three countries combined (Germany, Italy and France).

The IMF, headquartered in Washington DC, sent a generic reply to say that they had received the query, but they never responded. The Central Bank of Iraq received the query, forwarded it to their operations department, but there was no subsequent response.

Some of these non-responding banks have ‘reasons we hold gold’ sections on their websites or in their annual reports, so for anyone interested, those information sources could be consulted.

Conclusion

In their own words, the reasons central banks hold gold in large quantities are many fold, however there are consistent themes in the central banks’ explanations. Many of the respondents cited gold’s ability to be mobilized in a crisis, that ‘gold holdings can be activated in an emergency’, that gold is an ‘emergency reserve in a crisis’, ‘a contingency against unforeseen events’, a form of ‘insurance’, or as the Bank of England says ‘a war chest’ and the ‘ultimate asset to hold in an emergency’. As such, nearly all central banks referred to gold as a safe haven asset.

Many central banks mentioned gold’s high liquidity, and some referred to the ability to use their gold to raise liquidity in a foreign currency, even for foreign exchange intervention.

Gold’s role as a hedge against inflation was cited in a number of the central bank answers, which explains why central banks look to the gold price as a barometer of inflation expectations.

Many of the banks also pointed out that because of the unique attributes of physical gold, such as limited supply and mined into existence, gold does not have any counterparty risk or credit risk, and because it is not issued by governments, it has no default risk.

The return generating potential of gold was also cited by a few central banks via the use of gold lending, gold swaps and the use of gold as collateral.  Interestingly, very few of the banks that responded directly mentioned gold lending, although many of these central banks do engage in gold lending. This in itself highlights the absolute secrecy surrounding all data relating to the gold lending market which is centred in London at the Bank of England and also through the Swiss National Bank in Berne and the Banque de France in Paris.

Many of the respondents also highlighted gold’s portfolio diversification benefits. Because its price is not affected by economic events in the same way as the prices of financial securities, the gold price is not highly correlated with the prices of other assets. Gold therefore brings stability to a reserve asset portfolio.

With such widespread support among the world’s central banks for holding physical gold, as a safe haven, as an inflation hedge, and as a form of investment diversification, their enthusiasm for gold in 2018 looks as strong as it has ever been in any decade of the modern era.

European Central Bank gold reserves held across 5 locations. ECB will not disclose Gold Bar List.

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 goldGiven 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.

euro-sign-frankfurt

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:

ecb-transfers
Table 1: Central bank FX and Gold transfers to the ECB, January 1999

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.

ECB Gold Sales: 271.5 tonnes

More importantly, the ECB sold 271.5 tonnes of gold between Q1 2005 and Q1 2009. These sales comprised 47 tonnes announced on 31 March 2005, 57 tonnes announced 31 March 2006,  37 tonnes over April and May 2007 announced 1 June 2007, 23 tonnes of sales completed on 30 November 2006, 42 tonnes announced 30 November 2007, 30 tonnes of completed sales announced 30 June 2008, and 35.5 tonnes completed in Q1 2009.

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.

Draghi resumes ECB press conference after being attacked by protester

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 auditsannual 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.

This ECB excuse is frankly foolish and pathetic and is yet another poorly crafted excuse in the litany of poorly crafted excuses issued by large gold holding central banks in Europe to justify not publishing gold bar weight lists. The Dutch central bank recently refused to issue a gold bar weight list since it said it would be too costly and administratively burdensome. The Austrian central bank in refusing to publish a weight list claimed as an excuse that it “does not have the required list online“. Last year in 2015, the German Bundesbank issued a half-baked useless list of its gold bar holdings which was without the industry standard required refiner brand and bar serial number details.  (For more details, see Koos Jansen BullionStar blogs “Dutch Central Bank Refuses To Publish Gold Bar List For Dubious Reasons“, and “Central Bank Austria Claims To Have Audited Gold at BOE. Refuses To Release Audit Reports & Gold Bar List“, and a Peter Boehringer guest post “Guest Post: 47 years after 1968, Bundesbank STILL fails to deliver a gold bar number list“).

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.

Conclusion

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.

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

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

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

A Quick Recap

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

bullion-banks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

IMF Reporting standards

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Takeda said:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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