Tag Archives: central bank gold

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.

Mexico’s Earmarked Gold Bars at the Bank of England vaults

Guillermo Barba, the Mexican financial and economic journalist, has recently published an article on his website confirming that through an information request that he had made to Mexico’s central bank, Banco de México (Banxico), the central bank has now released what amounts to a relatively comprehensive list of Mexico’s gold bars held in storage at the Bank of England gold vaults in London.

Mexico’s list is an inventory of wholesale market gold bars that Banixco owns and stores in custody at the Bank of England vaults in London. In the contemporary parlance of the gold market, most people would call this type of holding an allocated gold holding, but more historically in the Bank of England world, it has been known as an “earmarked gold” holding or a “set-aside gold” holding because the specific bars are set-aside for a specific central bank, in other words the central bank has its name attached to those particular bars (earmarked).

Wholesale gold bars are also known as London Good Delivery gold bars or variable weight gold bars, and each weighs in the region of 400 troy ounces ( ~ 12.5 kilos). On the Banixco list, there are 7,265 wholesale gold bars listed. This new list is one of the very few detailed central bank gold bars lists (weight lists) which exists in the public domain, and it could be useful for a number of purposes (see below).

Barba has done persistent and diligent work over the last 6 years, by patiently obtaining more and more information from the Mexican central bank about its gold reserves via various Freedom of Information Requests (FOIA), and shedding some light on this usually opaque area of gold and central banking.

Bank of Mexico

2011: Gold Reserves Skyrocket, Central Bank Secrecy

Before we examine this newly published list from the Banco de México, a little background is useful. As of February 2017, Mexico held about 120.7 tonnes of gold in its official gold reserves, which puts the country at the tail-end of the world’s Top 30 official/country gold holders.

All through the 2000s, Banixco only held a few tonnes of gold in its official reserves, ranging from about 4 tonnes and 9 tonnes. This situation changed in early 2011 when the Mexican central bank purchased just over 93 tonnes of gold in March 2011 (first reported by the FT in early May 2011). This brought Mexico’s gold holdings up from 7.1 tonnes to about 100.2 tonnes by the end of Q1 2011. The country’s official gold holdings were boosted further to about 125.2 tonnes by Q2 2012 when Banixco bought more than 16 tonnes in March 2012. See World Gold Council quarterly changes of central bank gold holdings for the underlying data.

After Mexico made these sizeable gold purchases in early 2011, Guillermo Barba submitted various FOIAs to the Mexican central bank about the country’s newly acquired gold stash. Unfortunately, most of these information requests received weak responses from the Bank. For example, the question:

“How many bars of gold make up the recent acquisition of 93 tonnes of gold made by Banxico en the first quarter of 2011”

received a response from Banixco of:

“…we inform you that the information that you request is classified as reserved”

The Mexican central bank also added that:

“due to the variability of the content of gold in the bars, it is not possible to specify with certainty the exact number of bars purchased.”

We later learned that the Bank of England purchased this “gold” on behalf of Mexico. On the surface, Banixco saying that it could not “specify with certainty the exact number of bars purchased” seems to suggest that at least some of the Mexican gold at that time in 2011 was held on a unallocated basis and possibly out on loan to bullion banks in the London gold lending market.

If Mexico bought actual gold bars at the outset in Q1 2011, the gold bought for Mexico was probably already sitting in the Bank of England vaults. Some of it may then have been lent out to bullion banks immediately. Alternatively, at the outset in Q1 2011, the Bank of England could have ‘sold’ to Mexico a fine ounce claim on a number of gold ounces, that could then be allocated to actual gold bars on a future date. Without seeing the purchase invoices of the Mexican gold transactions, it’s hard to say what the initial purchase transactions referred to.

Another question Barba put to Banixco in 2011 was:

“In what country or countries is the gold that forms part of the International Reserves of Mexico physically located?”

Banixco responded:

access to the requested information will not be granted, since it is classified as reserved”

Barba’s article addressing his questions in 2011 and Banixco’s responses, which was published in September 2011, can be read here.

118 Tonnes at the Bank of England

In October 2012, Barba received responses to further information requests that he had made to Banixco, with Banixco confirming that:

“At month’s end, April 2012, Banco de Mexico maintained a position in fine gold of 4,034,802 ounces, of which only 194,539 ounces are located in the territory of the United Mexican States.

countries where these reserves are located are ‘United States of America, England and Mexico.

the acquisitions of gold during March and April 2012 are under custody in England’.”

[the gold is stored in] “the city of London, England, where more than 99% of the  gold which the Bank of Mexico maintains outside the country is presently under custody…”

With 4,034,802 ounces (125.5 tonnes) held in total, and 194,539 ounces (6.05 tonnes) held in Mexico, there were 3,840,263 ounces (119.44 tonnes) held outside Mexico, which was 95.2% of Mexico’s total gold holdings. With 99% of the foreign gold in London, this equated to about 3.8 million ounces (118 tonnes) held in London, and about 38,000 ounces (1.2 tonnes) held in the US with the Federal Reserve Bank (FRB).

Mexican Federal Auditors not happy with Banixco

In February 2013, Guillermo Barba also highlighted that the Mexican Federal Audit Office (Auditoría Superior de la Federación or ‘ASF’) Report for the Year 2011 was highly critical of Banixco’s relaxed approach to its gold purchases at the Bank of England.

The ASF reprimanded Banixco, saying that it:

has not conducted physical inspections to gold to verify compliance with the terms of acquisition and the conditions regarding its storage, in order to be certain of the physical custody of this asset”

According to the ASF, Banixco only held documents about the “Terms and Conditions” of the gold holdings contract with the Bank of England, with records of “the dates of the transactions” and also some “payment vouchers”.

ASF also recommended that the Mexican central bank:

make a physical inspection with the counterparty [Bank of England]  that has the gold under its custody, in order to be able to verify and validate its physical wholeness.”

February 2017: Partial Glimpse of Bar List

Fast forward to 17 February 2017, and Barba published another article confirming that following some further information requests to the Mexican central bank, Banixco had clarified the following facts about its gold holdings:

“Of the 3.881 million ounces of gold that the Bank of Mexico has at the close of October 2016, 98.95% are held in the United Kingdom, 0.0004% in the Federal Reserve Bank of the United States and the remaining 1.05 % In Mexico.”

“The Bank of Mexico has the serial number of each ingot protected in accounts assigned abroad. From these accounts, the number of ingots rises to 7,265. It should be noted that for unallocated accounts there is no specific serial number and therefore the number of ingots cannot be determined.”

“Assigned accounts are those that are owned on specific ingots with serial numbers, and segregated from the rest.“ 

Therefore, for each gold ingot held in a foreign domiciled allocated gold account, Bank of Mexico is in possession of the bar serial numbers. This was the first information from Banixco that specifically addressed the number of gold bars held by the Mexican central bank at the Bank of England.

As of October 2016, with 3,881,000 ounces of gold held by Mexico in total, 98.95% of which was held at the Bank of England in London, that would infer that 3,840,250 ounces of gold (119.4 tonnes) were held in London,  with only about 1,550 ounces (0.0004%) held at the FRB in New York.

Assuming each gold bar contains 400 oz troy ounces of gold, then 7,265 bars would contain 2.906 million troy ounces. It would also mean that about 934,000 troy ounces (29 tonnes) of Mexico’s gold are held unallocated accounts (where the gold is not unassigned as specific gold bars). The existence of unallocated gold accounts is revealing since it proves that the Bank of England doesn’t just offer its central bank customers the traditional custody facility of earmarked / set-aside / allocated gold bars. It also offers what either amounts to gold accounts that are denominated on a fine ounces basis but are fully backed by a pool of gold, or alternatively these unallocated accounts may not be fully backed (i.e. fractionally-backed).

To facilitate gold lending in the London Gold Market between central banks (the lenders) and commercial bullion banks (the borrowers), the Bank of England would have to operate account facilities for its customers that were in a sense dematerialised because when a central bank lends gold bars to a bullion bank, it does not necessarily (and probably doesn’t) receive back the same gold bars, because those bars have either been sold in the market or onward lent in the market. Therefore an account convention with specific bars earmarked to a customer would not facilitate this process. Only an account where the unit is a balance of fine troy ounces of gold would allow these transfers to occur. In this scenario, the central bank still insists it has a fine troy ounce gold holding, even though its gold has been lent out to a bullion bank.

The other alternative is that the Bank of England is selling its central bank customers a gold account service where, for example,  Central Bank A pays dollar cash upfront for 100 tonnes of gold, and the Bank of England signs a piece of paper saying “We the Bank of England have a liability to Central Bank A for 100 tonnes of gold“, but that gold is not necessarily in the Bank of England vaults or anywhere else. The Bank of England just has to be able to allocated the claim to real physical gold bars if Central Bank A ever decides that its 100 tonne gold asset be converted to allocated gold bars.

Without seeing the “Terms and Conditions” of these “unassigned gold” contracts with the Bank of England, its hard to say how exactly the “unassigned gold” is backed up, and to what extent it’s backed up.

Historically, the Bank of England only ever offered earmarked gold accounts to its central bank customers, and on a few occasions in the 1950s and 1970s it actually pushed back on plans to offer customers fine gold ounce balance accounts (and got legal advice on this), because the Bank did not want to go down the road of ending up with one pool of gold backing multiple central bank customer accounts, as this went against the concept of custody of assets and title to specific gold, and furthermore the Bank was afraid of the legal implications of central banks depositing specific bars but getting back different bars which might not be of the same quality etc.

March 2017: Banixco Releases Detailed Bar List

Initially, as per his 17 February article, Banixco only provided Barba with a list of the 7,265 gold bars showing two columns of data, the first column listing internal Bar-IDs from the Bank of England’s gold bar database, and the second column listing the refiner brand names of the bars. This first list can be seen here, but it’s not really that important, because a few weeks later, Banixco agreed to provide Barba with a second, much more comprehensive list. This second list is featured in Barba’s article dated 7 March 2017.

The latter Banixco gold bar list file can be downloaded here. For each of the 7,265 gold bars listed (in 7265 Rows), the list contains 7 columns or variables of data, namely:

  • Sequence Number from 1 to 7265
  • “Serial Number” (which is an internal Bank of England sequence number)
  • Brand Code (an 8-digit code)
  • Gross Weight (troy ounces to 2 decimal places)
  • Assay (gold Fineness)
  • Fine Weight (troy ounces to 3 decimal places)
  • Refiner Brand

Although the Banixco list does not include the real serial numbers that each gold refiner stamps on its own gold bars, the combination of columns “refiner brand – gross weight – assay – fine weight” in the list should be adequate to uniquely identify each bar, because don’t forget, these are variable weight bars and each bar for a given refiner will have a different fine weight when expressed to 3 decimal places. The start of the list looks as per the below screenshot:

Banixco gold bar list - List of wholesale gold bars held by the Bank of Mexico in the Bank of England gold vaults in London
Banixco gold bar list – List of wholesale gold bars held by the Bank of Mexico in the Bank of England gold vaults in London

Overall, the 7265 gold bars weigh 2,919,911.55 troy ounces and contain a total of 2,912,000 fine troy ounces of gold.The list provided by Banixco is sorted by ‘Brand Code’ which is an 8-digit Bank of England database table field that consists of refiner code (digits 1-4), refiner location (digits 5-6) and sequence number (digits 7-8). For example, Valcambi is VALCCH01 i.e. VALC, CH = Switzerland, and 01.

The 2nd column in the list is a Bank of England internal ID bar number which is either 6 or 7 digits. On Mexico’s list, the highest number is 1047712 and the lowest number is 704989, but the numbers present on the list run in short and broken sequential ranges of, for example, 1039142-1039221 or  880338-880446. If this is a sequential internal series of numbers that started at 000001, it would suggest that more than 1 million individual Good Delivery Bars have passed through the Bank of England’s 10 gold vaults since the numbering series was initiated. The series may not be fully sequential at all, and could possibly also include some part of the number signifying vault location, although this is doubtful.

Rand Refinery

The Refiner Bar Names on Mexico’s Gold Bar List

There are 24 ‘Brand Codes’ listed on the Mexico’s gold bar list, including such refiners as South Africa’s Rand Refinery, Australia’s Perth Mint, Switzerland’s Valcambi, Argor-Heraeus and Metalor, the Royal Canadian Mint, Germany’s Heraeus, Johnson Matthey, the US Assay Office, the State Refinery (Moscow), the Central Bank of the Philippines Gold Refinery, and N.M. Rothschild. Many of these brands held at the Bank of England are the same refiner brands which are trusted and popular in the retail investment gold bar market,  and carried by BullionStar, such as Perth MintArgor-Heraeus, Heraeus, Royal Canadian Mint, and Johnson Matthey.

Some refiners have, or have had over time, refinery operations in multiple geographic locations, so some refiners have multiple Brand Codes listed in the Bank of England gold bar database. One example is Johnson Matthey, which on the Banixco list is listed as 4 separate entities, namely Johnson Matthey Salt Lake City USA, Johnson Matthey and Co Ltd [GB], Johnson Matthey & Mallory Ltd. Toronto,  and Johnson Matthey Hong Kong Ltd. Another example is Metalor, which is present on the Banixco list in 3 guises, namely Metalor Hong Kong, Metalor USA, and Metalor Technologies SA (Switzerland).

Other long-standing refiners have gone through various mergers over time and their historic parts are now all part of a larger refining group. This applies to “Perth Mint” bars, which on the Banixco list are represented by Western Australia Mint (Trading as AGR) , AGR Joint Venture Melbourne and the Royal Mint (Perth).

On an individual Brand Code basis, the below table shows these refinery brand names, and the number of gold bars of each brand name that show up on Mexico’s gold bar weight list.

Central Bank of Mexico - Refinery brands of the 1765 gold bars held in custody at the Bank of England gold vaults in London
Central Bank of Mexico – Refinery brand names of the 7265 large gold bars held in custody for Mexico at the Bank of England gold vaults in London

First up is the Rand Refinery, with Banixco holding 1735 rand Refinery gold bars. Nearly a quarter of Banixco’s earmarked bars are Rand Refinery bars. It’s not surprising that on a refiner name basis, Banixco holds more Rand Refinery gold bars than any other bar brand. After all, Rand Refinery of South Africa is said to have refined over 50,000 tonnes of gold since it was established in 1921, which is about 30% of all the gold that has ever been mined. A lot of Rand Refinery bars were also historically sold in the London Gold Market and held within the bank of England vaults. This is probably still the case.

For example, according to the Bank of England archives, most of the gold held by the  International Monetary Fund (IMF) at the Bank of England was (as of the late 1970s) in the form of Rand Refinery gold bars. Whether this is still the case is unclear, as the IMF is ultra secretive about its remaining gold reserves and never reports facts such as gold bar weight lists.

Perth Mint

Second up is AGR Joint Venture, which is now technically part of the Perth Mint, with the Bank of Mexico holding 1519 of these bars. Together with the Rand refinery bars, these two brands makeup 45% of Banixco’s total holdings. Adding in the bars of Johnson Matthey Toronto and Valcambi Switzerland, nearly 70% of Mexico’s bars are from just 4 bar brands.

Grouping refiner names where appropriate such as all Johnson Matthey names and all Perth Mint related names, results in a slightly different ranking, with Perth Mint taking pole position with 1892 bars held by Banixco, and with Rand Refinery and Johnson matthey in exact joint second place with 1736 bars a piece in the Mexican holdings.

Central Bank of Mexico – Refinery brand names of the 7265 large gold bars held in custody for Mexico at the Bank of England gold vaults in London

Under this grouping approach, 74% of Mexico’s gold bars have been manufactured by just 3 refinery groups, rising to nearly 85% if Valcambi bars are included.

One of the reasons for highlighting this, is that it could be useful for extrapolating the frequency of gold bar brands that might be held across gold accounts generally at the Bank of England. While this extrapolation might be flawed, it does suggest that there are certain refinery bars brands that are more common than others within the Bank of England vault network.

The Bank of England did not just go and transfer newly refined gold bars into the Banixco account. It populated the Banixco allocated gold holding (in 2011 or after) with a selection of bars from lots of different eras. Hence the presence of NM Rothschild bars, US Assay Office bars, old Royal Mint (Perth) bars, as well as AGR Joint venture bars. Its also possible that a bullion bank or bullion banks executed the order on behalf of Mexico with gold that these banks store at the Bank of England (bullion banks also store gold at the bank of England for those who were not aware of this fact).

AGR Joint Venture bars were only produced until 2003. See here for details of AGR’s history. NM Rothschild bars have not been produced since 1967. Royal Mint (Perth) bars are extremely old and have not been produced under this name for a very long time. LBMA Good Delivery records don’t even specify when Royal Mint (Perth) bars ceased to be produced. The last Johnson Matthey bars produced in England were in 2005. US Assay Office bars (from the New York Assay Office) haven’t been produced since 1997 at the latest, and mostly well before that. Therefore, even though the Banixco gold bar list doesn’t list year of manufacture for each bar, some inferences can be made to show that a lot of the bars allocated to the Mexican gold account at the Bank of England are old bars that are no longer in production. But that’s not surprising because gold is a store of wealth and has been for 1000s of years, so an old bar is as good as a newer bar.

The bar list is also interesting in that it shows that when the Bank of England (or a bullion bank with a gold holding at the Bank of England) either buys physical gold bars on behalf of a central bank customer, or allocates specific bars to a central bank gold account for a gold balance that was previously in a unallocated account, it is either transferring gold from a Bank of England inventory holding, or by buying gold from another central bank  that’s already in its vaults, or else buying gold from a bullion bank that probably also has gold stored at the Bank of England, part of which may be gold that has flowed out of gold-backed Exchange Traded Funds that store their gold in the London vaults.

Conclusion

Which brings us to some critical points. Using the “refiner brand – gross weight – assay – fine weight” combination for bars on the Banixco list, it should be possible to cross reference these bars against records of gold bars that have been held over time in gold-backed ETFs such as GLD and IAU. Various gold researchers such as Warren James maintain databases with records of all gold bars that are in and that have ever been in gold-backed ETFs. If a bar on the Banixco list has a match in those database tables, then it proves that the Bank of England sources gold for its central bank customers that was at one time held in one of the ETFs. And this probably happens, since the bullion banks such as HSBC and JP Morgan are active in allocating and deallocating gold in and out of  ETFs, and they hold gold accounts at the Bank of England and are active in the gold lending market.

More importantly, if in the future, a gold-backed ETF flags up one or more gold bars that were among the 7265 gold bars on the Banixco list, and Banixco hasn’t reported selling any gold, then it will prove that Banixco either lent or swapped some of ts gold while still accounting for it under ‘gold and gold receivables’ in its balance sheet, and it will prove that central bank gold is being double counted while on loan, i.e. claimed to be held by a central bank, while really being held in a gold-backed ETF.