The European Central Bank (ECB), creator of the Euro, currently claims to hold 504.8 tonnes of gold reserves. These gold holdings are reflected on the ECB balance sheet and arose from transfers made to the ECB by Euro member national central banks, mainly in January 1999 at the birth of the Euro. As of the end of December 2015, these ECB gold reserves were valued on the ECB balance sheet at market prices and amounted to €15.79 billion.
The ECB very recently confirmed to BullionStar that its gold reserves are stored across 5 international locations. However, the ECB also confirmed that it does not physically audit its gold, nor will it divulge a bar list / weight list of these gold bar holdings.
Questions and Answers
BullionStar recently put a number of questions to the European Central Bank about the ECB’s gold holdings. The ECB Communications Directorate replied to these questions with answers that appear to include a number of facts about the ECB gold reserves which have not previously been published. The questions put to the ECB and its responses are listed below (underlining added):
Question 1: “The 2015 ECB Annual Report states that as at 31 December 2015, the ECB held 16,229,522 ounces of fine gold equivalent to 504.8 tonnes of gold. Given that the ECB gold holdings arose from transfers by the respective member central banks, could you confirm the storage locations in which this ECB gold is currently held (for example at the Bank of England etc), and the percentage breakdown of amount stored per storage location.”
ECB Response: “The gold of the ECB is located in London, Paris, Lisbon, New York and Rome. The ECB does not disclose its distribution over these places. The gold of the ECB is stored there because it was already stored there before ownership was transferred to the ECB and moving it was seen and is seen as too costly.“
Question 2: “Could you clarify as to how, if at all, this gold is audited, and whether it physical audited by the ECB or by a 3rd party?”
ECB Response: “The ECB has no physical audit of its gold bars. The gold bars that the ECB owns are individually identified and each year the ECB receives a detailed statement of these gold deposits. The central banks where the gold is stored are totally reliable.“
Question 3:“Finally, can the ECB supply a full weight list of the gold bars that comprise the 504.8 tonnes of gold referred to above?”
ECB Response: “The ECB does not disclose this information.“
London, New York, Paris, Rome, Lisbon
Given that some of the information shared by the ECB has arguably not been in the public record before, each of the 3 ECB answers above is worth further exploration.
In January 1999, when the Euro currency was created (Stage 3 of Economic and Monetary Union), each founding member national central bank (NCB) of the Euro transferred a quantity of foreign reserve assets to the ECB. Of these transfers, 85% was paid to the ECB in the form of US dollars and Japanese Yen, and 15% was paid to the ECB in the form of physical gold.
Initially in January 1999, central banks of 11 countries that joined the Euro made these transfers to the ECB, and subsequently the central banks of a further 8 countries that later joined the Euro also executed similar transfers to the ECB.
All of the foreign exchange and gold reserves that were transferred to and are owned by the ECB are managed in a decentralised manner by the national central banks that initiated the transfers. Essentially, each national central bank acts as an agent for the ECB and each NCB still manages that portion of reserves that it transferred to the ECB. This also applies to the transferred gold and means that the gold transferred to the ECB never physically moved anywhere, it just stayed where it had been when the transfers of ownership were made.
That is why, as the ECB response to Question 1 states: “The gold of the ECB is stored there because it was already stored there before ownership was transferred to the ECB”.
What is probably most interesting about the latest ECB statement is that it names 5 city locations over which the ECB’s gold is stored. The 5 gold storage locations stated by the ECB are London, New York, Paris, Rome and Lisbon. Since the gold transferred to the ECB in 1999 by the national central banks would have already been stored in central banks gold vaults, these 5 city locations undoubtedly refer to the gold vaults of:
the Bank of England
the Federal Reserve Bank of New York
the Banque de France
the Banca d’Italia
Banco de Portugal
The fact the ECB’s gold holdings are supposedly stored at these 5 locations can be explained as follows:
Between 4th and 7th January 1999, 11 central banks transferred a total of €39.469 billion in reserve assets to the ECB (in the form of gold, cash and securities). Of this total, 15% was in the form of gold, amounting to 24 million ounces of gold (747 tonnes of gold) which was valued at that time at €246.368 per fine ounce of gold, or €5.92 billion. The 85% transferred in the form of currencies comprised 90% US Dollars and 10% Japanese Yen. See pages 152 and 153 of ECB annual report 1999 for more details.
The 11 central banks that made the transfers to the ECB in January 1999 were the central banks of Belgium, Netherlands, Germany, France, Luxembourg, Italy, Ireland, Austria, Finland, Spain and Portugal. See Table 1 for details of these gold transfers, and the amount of gold transferred to ECB ownership by each central bank.
The value of reserves transferred to the ECB by each national central bank were based on a percentage formula called a ‘capital key’ which also determined how much each central bank subscribed to the founding capital of the ECB. This capital key was based on equally weighting the percentage of population and GDP each Euro founding member economy represented, therefore central banks such as Deutsche Bundesbank, Banque de France, and Banca d’Italia comprised the largest transfers, as can be see in Table 1. It also meant that these 3 central banks transferred the largest amounts of gold to the ECB, with the Bundesbank for example transferring 232 tonnes of gold to the ECB.
The Bundesbank gold transfer to the ECB in January 1999 took place at the Bank of England. The Bundesbank actually confirmed in its own published gold holdings spreadsheet that this transfer took place at the Bank of England. See spreadsheet Column 5 (BoE tonnes), Rows 1998 and 1999, where the Bundesbank gold holdings fell by 332 tonnes between 1998 and 1999 from 1,521 tonnes to 1,189 tonnes and also see Column 20 where gold lending rose from 149 tonnes to 249 tonnes. Therefore, between 1998 and 1999, 232 tonnes of gold was transferred from the Bundesbank gold account at the bank of England to the ECB account at the Bank of England, and 100 tonnes was added to the Bundesbank’s gold loans.
Paris and Rome
The Banque de France currently stores the majority (over 90%) of its gold reserves in its own vaults in Paris, so it it realistic to assume that when the Banque de France transferred 159 tonnes of gold to the ECB in January 1999, it did so using gold stored in the Banque de France vaults in Paris. Likewise, it is realistic to assume that the Banca d’Italia, which currently stores half of its gold reserves at its own vaults in Rome, transferred 141 gold stored in its Rome vaults to the ECB in 1999. This would explain the Paris and Rome gold holdings of the ECB. While a few ex French colony central banks are known to have historically stored gold with the Banque de France in Paris, none of the founding members of the Euro (apart from the Bundesbank) are on the record as having stored gold in Paris, at least not for a long time. The Banca d’Italia is not known for storing gold on behalf of other national central banks.
Lisbon and New York
The Banco de Portugal currently holds its gold reserves in Lisbon and also at the Bank of England, the Federal Reserve Bank of New York (FRBNY), and with the BIS. The ECB gold stored in Lisbon, Portugal most likely refers to the 18.2 tonnes of gold transferred by the Banco de Portugal to the ECB in January 1999, because a) that makes most sense, and b) the Banco de Portugal is not known as a contemporary gold custodian for other central banks.
Of the other 7 central banks that transferred gold to the ECB in January 1999, the central banks of Austria, Belgium and Ireland store most of their gold at the Bank of England so are the most likely candidates to have made gold transfers to the ECB at the Bank of England. See BullionStar blog “Central bank gold at the Bank of England” for more details of where central banks are known to store gold.
The Netherlands and Finland currently store some of their gold reserves at the Bank of England and at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York and probably also did so in 1998/99, so one or both of these banks could have made transfers to the ECB at the FRBNY. Another contender for transferring gold held at the FRBNY is the Spanish central bank since it historically was a holder of gold at the NYFED. It’s not clear where the central bank of Luxembourg held or holds gold but it’s not material since Luxembourg only transferred just over 1 tonne to the ECB in January 1999.
Greece and Later Euro members
Greece joined the Euro in January 2001 and upon joining it transferred 19.5 tonnes of gold to the ECB. Greece is known for storing some of its gold at the FRBNY and some at the Bank of England, so Greece too is a candidate for possibly transferring New York held gold to the ECB. In theory, the ECB’s New York held gold may not have even arisen from direct transfers from Euro member central banks but could be the result of a location swap. Without the national central banks or the ECB providing this information, we just don’t know for sure how the ECB’s New York gold holdings arose.
Another 7 countries joined the Euro after Greece. These countries were Slovenia on 1st January 2007, Malta and Cyprus 1st January 2008, Slovakia 1st January 2009, Estonia 1st January 2011, Latvia 1st January 2014, and Lithuania 1st January 2015. The majority of these central banks made gold transfers to the ECB at the Bank of England. In total these 7 central banks only transferred 9.4 tonnes of gold to the ECB, so their transfers are not really material to the ECB’s gold holdings.
These sales explain why the ECB currently only holds 504.8 tonnes of gold:
i.e. 766.9 t (including Greece) – 271.5 t sales + 9.4 t smaller member transfers = 504.8 t
The ECB does not provide, nor has ever provided, any information as to where the 271.5 tonnes of gold involved in these 2005-2009 sales was stored when it was sold. The fact that the ECB still claims to hold gold in Paris, Rome and Lisbon, as well as London and New York, suggests that at least some of the gold transferred by the Banque de France, Banca d’Italia and Banco de Portugal in 1999 is still held by the ECB.
If the ECB had sold all the gold originally transferred to it by all central banks other than France, Italy, Portugal and Germany, this would only amount to 197 tonnes, so another 74 tonnes would have been needed to make up the shortfall, which would probably have come from the ECB holdings at the Bank of England since that is where most potential central bank and bullion bank buyers hold gold accounts and where most gold is traded on the international market.
Even taking into account Greece’s 19.4 tonne gold transfer to the ECB in January 2001, and excluding the French, Italian, German and Portuguese transfers in 1999, the ECB’s 271.5 tonnes of gold sales would still have burned through all the smaller transfers and left a shortfall. So the ECB gold sales may have come from gold sourced from all of its 5 storage loacations.
It’s also possible that one or more of the original 11 central banks transferred gold to the ECB that was stored at a location entirely distinct from the 5 currently named locations, for example gold stored at the Swiss National Bank. If that particular gold was then sold over the 2005-2009 period, it would not get picked up in the current locations. It’s also possible that some or all of the 271.5 tonnes of gold sold by the ECB over 2005-2009 had been loaned out, and that the ‘sales’ were just a book squaring exercise in ‘selling’ gold which the lenders failed to return, with the loan transactions being cash-settled.
No Physical Audit of ECB Gold
Given that the Euro is the 2nd largest reserve currency in the world and the 2nd most traded currency in the world, the ECB’s gold and how that gold is accounted for is certainly a topic of interest. Although the ECB’s gold doesn’t directly back the Euro, it backs the balance sheet of the central bank that manages and administers the Euro, i.e. the ECB.
The valuation of gold on the ECB’s annual balance sheet also adds to unrecognised gains on gold in the ECB’s revaluation account. Given gold’s substantial price appreciation between 1999 and 2015, the ECB’s unrecognised gains on gold amount to €11.9 billion as of 31 December 2015.
It is therefore shocking, but not entirely surprising, that the ECB doesn’t perform a physical audit of its gold bars and has never done so since initiating ownership of this gold in 1999. Shocking because this lack of physical audit goes against even the most basic accounting conventions and fails to independently prove that the gold is where its claimed to be, but not surprising because the world of central banking and gold arrogantly ignores and bulldozes through all generally accepted accounting conventions. Geographically, 2 of the locations where the ECB claims to store a percentage of its gold are not even in the Eurozone (London and New York), and infamously, the Bundesbank is taking 7 years to repatriate a large portion of its gold from New York, so the New York storage location of ECB gold holdings should immediately raise a red flag. Furthermore, the UK is moving (slowly) towards Brexit and away from the EU.
Recall the response above from the ECB:
“The ECB has no physical audit of its gold bars. The gold bars that the ECB owns are individually identified and each year the ECB receives a detailed statement of these gold deposits. The central banks where the gold is stored are totally reliable.“
Imagine a physical-gold backed Exchange Traded Fund (ETF) such as the SPDR Gold Trust or iShares Gold Trust coming out with such a statement. They would be run out of town. References to ‘totally reliable’ are all very fine, but ‘totally reliable’ wouldn’t stand up in court during an ownership claim case, and assurances of ‘totally reliable’ are not enough, especially in the gold storage and auditing businesses.
The ECB is essentially saying that these ‘statements’ of its gold deposits that it receives from its storage custodians are all that is needed to for an “audit” since the custodians are ‘totally reliable‘.
This auditing of pieces of paper (statements) by the ECB also sounds very similar to how the Banca d’Italia and the Deutsche Bundesbank conduct their gold auditing on externally held gold i.e. they also merely read pieces of paper. Banca d’Italia audits “annual certificates issued by the central banks that act as the depositories” (the FRBNY, the Bank of England, and the SNB/BIS).
The Bundesbank does likewise for its externally held gold (it audits bits of paper), and solely relies on statements from custodians that hold its gold abroad. The Bundesbank actually got into a lot of heat over this procedure in 2012 from the German Federal Court of Auditors who criticised the Bundesbank’s blasé attitude and lack of physical auditing, criticism which the Bundesbank’s executive director Andreas Dombret hilariously and unsuccessfully tried to bury in a speech to the FRBNY in New York in November 2012 in which he called the controversy a “bizarre public discussion” and “a phantom debate on the safety of our gold reserves“, and ridiculously referred to the movies Die Hard with a Vengeance and Goldfinger, to wit:
“The days in which Hollywood Germans such as Gerd Fröbe, better known as Goldfinger, and East German terrorist Simon Gruber, masterminded gold heists in US vaults are long gone. Nobody can seriously imagine scenarios like these, which are reminiscent of a James Bond movie with Goldfinger playing the role of a US Fed accounting clerk.”
Where is the ECB Gold Bar Weight List?
Since, as the ECB states, it’s gold bars are “individually identified“, then gold bar weight lists of the ECB’s gold do indeed exist. This then begs the question, where are these weight lists, and why not release them if the ECB has nothing to hide?
Quickly, to define a weight list, a gold bar weight list is an itemised list of all the gold bars held within a holding which uniquely identifies each bar in the holding. In the wholesale gold market, such as the London Gold Market, the LBMA’s “Good Delivery Rules” address weight lists, and state that for each gold bar on a weight list, it must list the bar serial number, the refiner name, the gross weight of the bar, the gold purity of the bar and the fine weight of the bar. The LBMA also state that “year of manufacture is one of the required ‘marks’ on the bar”.
Recall from above that when the ECB was asked to provide a full weight list of its 504.8 tonnes of gold bars, it responded: “The ECB does not disclose this information.“
After receiving this response, BullionStar then asked in a followup question as to why the ECB doesn’t disclose a weight list of the gold bars. The ECB responded (underlining added):
“We would like to inform you that, while the total weight and value of the gold held by the European Central Bank (ECB) can be considered to be of interest to the public, the weight of each gold bar is a technicality that does not affect the economic characteristics of the ECB’s gold holdings. Therefore the latter does not warrant a publication.“
It is a very simple task to publish such a weight list in an automated fashion. The large gold backed ETFs publish such weight lists online each and every day, which run in to the hundreds of pages. Publication of a weight list by the ECB would be a very simple process and would prove that the claimed bars are actually allocated and audited.
The more evidence that is gathered about the refusal of central banks to issue industry standard gold bar weight lists, the more it becomes obvious that there is a coordinated understanding between central banks never to release this information into the public domain.
The most likely reason for this gold bar weight list secrecy is that knowledge of the contents of central bank gold bar weight lists could begin to provide some visibility into central bank gold operations such as gold lending, gold swaps, location swaps, undisclosed central bank gold sales, and importantly, foreign exchange and gold market interventions. This is because with weight list comparisons, gold bars from one central bank weight list could begin turning up in another central bank weight list or else turning up in the transparent gold holdings of vehicles such as gold-backed Exchange Traded Funds.
Instead of being fixated with the ECB’s continual disastrous and extended QE policy, perhaps some financial journalists could bring themselves to asking Mario Draghi some questions about the ECB gold reserves at the next ECB press briefing, questions such as the percentage split in storage distribution between the 5 ECB gold storage locations, why ECB gold is being held in New York, why is there no physical audit of the gold by the ECB, why does the ECB not publish a weight list of gold bar holdings, and do the ECB or its national central bank agents intervene into the gold market using ECB gold reserves.
The lackadaisical attitude of the ECB to its gold reserves by never physically auditing them is also a poor example to set for all 28 of the central bank members of the European System of Central Banks (ESCB), and doesn’t bode well for any ESCB member central bank in being any less secretive than the ECB headquarters mothership.
If gold does re-emerge at the core of a revitalised international monetary system and takes on a currency backing role in the future, the haphazard and non-disclosed distribution of the ECB’s current gold reserves over 5 locations, the lack of physical gold audits, and the lack of public details of any of the ECB gold holdings won’t really inspire market confidence, and is proving to be even less transparent than similar metrics from that other secretive large gold holding bloc, i.e the USA.
“given the deteriorating state of Venezuela’s international finances and international reserves at the present time, it may be sooner rather than later before Venezuelan gold could be on the move again out of the country.
One thing is for sure. Gold leaving Venezuela on a flight back to London, New York, or elsewhere, will not get the fanfare and celebration that was accompanied by the same gold’s arrival into Caracas a few short years ago.“
Those predictions now seem to have come to pass because there is now evidence that the Banco Central Venezuela (BCV) shipped gold out of Maiquetía Airport (Caracas international Airport) in early July 2015, and there is also separate evidence that Venezuela’s official gold reserve holdings, which are managed by the BCV, dropped by 60 tonnes between March and April 2015. These are two distinct events.
The 60 tonne drop in gold reserves in March-April
On 28 and 29 October respectively, Bloomberg and Reuters filed reports highlighting a decline in Venezuela’s gold reserves through the end of May 2015. The Bloomberg report is here, the Reuters report is here. Both reports merely focused on the currency value of Venezuela’s gold reserves, and neither report addressed the critical metric that is needed in any discussion of central bank physical gold dealings, i.e. quantity or weight of gold. Furthermore, neither Bloomberg nor Reuters seems to grasp how the BCV values its gold reserves.
“Venezuelan central bank gold holdings declined in value by 19 percent between January and May, according to its financial statements, likely reflecting gold swap operations and lower bullion prices…
..Central bank financial statements posted this week on its website show monetary gold totaled 91.41 billion bolivars in January and 74.14 billion bolivars in May“
“The value of the central bank’s bullion holdings fell 28 percent at the end of May from a year earlier, while the spot price for the metal declined just 12 percent.”
The problem with the above is that comparing the change in value of Venezuelan gold reserves over two points in time relative to the spot price change of gold over those same two points in time is not the correct approach because the BCV does not use the latest market price to value its gold holdings. The BCV uses a nine month rolling average valuation price methodology.
Without knowing the correct valuation price used at each month-end valuation point, the quantity of gold being valued cannot be calculated accurately. Conversely, doing some simple research (looking up the footnotes to the BCV accounts) and a few quick spreadsheet calculations gives a very accurate estimate of quantity of gold held at each month-end valuation point. Perhaps next time the major financial news wires can go the extra mile.
[Note: The Spanish translations in this article use a combination of Google Translate and Yandex Translate, and some instinctive re-sequencing.]
“Oro monetario…se valora mensualmente utilizando el promedio móvil de los nueve (9) últimos meses del fixing a.m. fijado en el mercado de Londres,
“Monetary gold…is valued monthly using the moving(rolling) average of the last nine (9) months of a.m. fixings set in the London market“
Because the BCV holds a small percentage of its monetary gold in the form of gold coins, the valuation methodology also addresses how to value the coins, which, although not material to this discussion, is as follows:
“..más un porcentaje del valor promedio de la prima por el valor numismático que registren las monedas que conforman este activo.”
“..plus a percentage of the average value of the premium for the numismatic value of the coins which comprise this asset”
To check this moving average calculation and how it works, you can apply it to the 2014 year-end monetary gold valuation figure and make use of note 7 in the same set of accounts. Note 7 states:
“Nota 7 – Oro monetario
Al 31 de Diciembre de 2014, las existencias de oro monetario se encuentran contabilizadas a un precio promedio de USD 1.257,80 por onza troy y totalizan Bs. 91.879.349 miles, equivalentes a USD 14.620.691 miles y su composición y valoración se corresponde con los criterios descritos en la nota 3.3”
“At December 31, 2014, the stock of monetary gold is recorded at an average price of USD 1257.80 per troy ounce and total Bs. 91,879,349 thousands, equivalent to USD 14,620,691 thousands, and its composition and valuation corresponds to the criteria described in Note 3.3”
The Venezuelan accounting convention of USD 14.620.691 miles just means USD 14.6 billion.
361 tonnes of gold at year-end 2014
As at 31 December 2014, in its balance sheet, the BCV valued its monetary gold at Bs 91,879,349,000 (bolívares fuertes). Technically, since 2007, the Venezuelan currency is called the bolívar fuerte (strong bolivar) since at that time the Venezuelan government re-based the previous inflation ravaged bolivar and re-set 1000 old bolivars = 1 ‘strong’ bolivar. The updated name is in retrospect ironic given that the Venezuelan currency is now one of the weakest fiat currencies in the world as the Venezuelan economy begins to experience out-of-control price inflation.
This brings us to the next part of the BCV gold valuation equation. The BCV uses an ‘official’ Venezuelan exchange rate in its financial accounts. This official rate is a static 6.3 bolivars to the US dollar and is based on a February 2013 government edict called “Convenio Cambiario N° 14“.
Again, this exchange rate is another fantasy when compared to the unofficial market exchange rate for the Venezuelan bolivar in terms of the US dollar. This unofficial exchange rate, for example, is currently ~786 according to the Dolartoday website. The bolivar’s unofficial rate versus major currencies will no doubt go even higher in the near future as the currency continues to crumble and potentially goes into hyperinflationary territory.
The final part of the gold valuation equation is the London gold fixing (a.m.~morning) price (more recently LBMA Gold Price), whose daily price dataset can be downloaded here. Note that prior to 20th March 2015, the London gold auction ‘fixed’ price was known as the London gold fixing. Even though the London gold price is now still ‘fixed’ (in more ways than one) during the re-gigged auctions, the LBMA has opted for the less loaded name of the ‘LBMA Gold Price’ auction.
I calculate that the 9 month rolling average of the London morning gold price from 1 April 2014 to 31 December 2014 was USD 1257.49. This is pretty close to the BCV specified value of USD 1257.80 above. The BCV’s extra 31 basis points may reflect the numismatic premium on its gold coin holdings or some other calculation difference.
However, the important point to all of this is that the manual calculation method of arriving at the BCV’s gold valuation price (by calculating the 9 month moving average directly) looks accurate and is in line with the BCV’s number. Based on the BCV’s 31 December 2014 monetary gold value of Bs 91,879,349,000, and the BCV’s USD 1257.80 valuation price, Venezuela held 360.64 tonnes of gold at year-end 2014. This 360.64 tonnes figure is pretty close to the figure reported by the World Gold Council of 361.02 tonnes as at end of fourth quarter 2014 (which itself is not set in stone).
The Sale of 61 tonnes?
The BCV publishes monthly balance sheets (including the monetary gold valuation figure), but currently there is a 4 month lag on date publication, so the latest balance sheet is from May 2015 (the same month-end date that Bloomberg and Reuters referred to above). The monthly balance sheets for January to May 2015 can be downloaded here, here, here, here and here:
Using the valuation methodology described above, and some simple reverse engineering, shows that over the two month period between the end of February 2015 and the end of April 2015, the BCV’s gold holdings dropped by over 60 tonnes, with a 33 tonne drop in gold reserves during March, followed by a 27.7 tonne drop in April. The data below is taken from the 6 monthly balance sheets from Dec 2014 to May 2015, and the LBMA daily price dataset.
My calculations for month-end January 2015 show Venezuela’s gold holdings to be 360.39 tonnes, nearly identical to the BCV’s month-end version for December 2014. I haven’t included any numismatic premium for gold coin holdings since its immaterial. My calculations show a 2.4 tonne increase in gold holdings at February month-end. I’m not sure what this increase refers to but it could be the monetization of some domestic gold mining production by the BCV (purchasing some Venezuelan mining output and classifying it as monetary gold), or conversion of some small residual BCV non-monetary gold holdings into monetary gold.
Adding domestically produced gold to monetary gold holdings in Venezuela has a precedent. So does conversion of already held non-monetary gold. For example in 2011 the BCV purchased 1.6 tonnes of domestic gold. The same year the BCV also converted 3.6 tonnes of ‘non-currency gold’ that it was already holding into monetary gold. For details, see section “Changes to Venezuela’s gold reserves since early August 2011″ in my article “Venezuela’s Gold Reserves – Part 1: El Oro, El BCV, y Los Bancos de Lingotes“.
For March 2015, my calculations indicate that the BCV’s gold holdings witnessed a 33.17 tonne reduction, and ended the month at 329.64 tonnes. Similarly, in April 2015, my calculations find that the BCV gold reserves saw another outflow of 27.74 tonnes, bringing total holdings down to 301.90 tonnes. Between March and April, the combined gold reduction amounts to 60.91 tonnes. There was no material change in gold holdings between April and May, save a tiny 0.27 tonne increase, which could be calculation noise. The main damage to the gold holdings happened in the narrower time period of March and April, a fact that was not highlighted in the Reuters 4 month period reference, and the Bloomberg 1 year period reference.
Interestingly, this WGC spreadsheet states that as of the end of Q4 2014, Q1 2015, and Q2 2015, Venezuela’s gold reserves remained unchanged at 361.02 tonnes, and the WGC does not reflect any of the above monthly reductions in Venezuela’s gold holdings. The WGC spreadsheet also states in a disclaimer that “While the accuracy of any information communicated herewith has been checked, neither the World Gold Council nor any of its affiliates can guarantee such accuracy.”
This just goes to show the many problems that can arise by relying solely on IMF and WGC data sources for official sovereign gold holdings, in addition to the more problematic ‘gold receivables’ accounting fictions employed by central banks.
BCV operations: First and Second?
To see what was happening with Venezuela’s gold holdings in March and April 2015, it is worth reading the last few sections of my “Venezuela’s Gold Reserves – Part 2: From Repatriation to Reactivation” article, especially the last section about the 5 questions Maria Corina Machado, parliamentarian and opposition party leader in Venezuela, posed to Nelson Merentes, president of the BCV on 12 March 2015.
Also important to know from that article are:
a) the details of the Venezuelan gold swap with Citibank which emerged in late April and was for only 1.4 million ounces (43.5 tonnes post haircut), and the gold to be used in the swap was the 50 tonnes of gold that had been left by the BCV in the Bank of England vaults in January 2012
b) the BCV was in discussions with a number of investment banks about harnessing its gold reserves, and that the BCV revealed on 5 March that six investment banks were making a pitch to the BCV, namely Credit Suisse, Goldman, BTGP Brazilian, Deutsche, Bank of America and Citibank. The favourites were said to be from a short-list of Deutsche Bank, Bank of America and Citibank, but another Caracas media source thought that Credit Suisse and Bank of America were involved
c) Goldman Sachs had previously been discussing a gold swap with the BCV, this news becoming public in November 2013
The 61 tonne reduction in Venezuela’s gold reserves over March-April 2015 cannot be accounted by the Citi gold swap since a) the Citi gold swap was for less than 45 tonnes, b) gold swaps usually stay on central bank balance sheets as an asset of the central bank, and c) if there was a gold swap transaction that did get taken out of the balance sheet, it would not be a reduction over 2 months, it would be one transaction.
Therefore, I think that this 61 tonne reduction over March-April 2015 represents something else entirely. It could be another transaction with one or more of the other investment banks above, or it could be an entirely separate gold sale to another entity such as the Chinese government.
Since Banco Central Venezuela is entirely non-cooperative in answering questions about gold posed by the media, some speculation is, in my opinion, acceptable. For example, for the articles referenced above, Bloomberg states that “The central bank’s press department declined to comment on the decline in gold holdings.” Reuters states that “The central bank declined to comment“. Another example of arrogant central bankers who consider themselves above normal standards of accountability and transparency.
A few clues about the gold holdings reduction are in the letter Maria Corina Machado sent to Nelson Merentes on 12 March. In the letter Machado asked these 5 questions of Merentes:
Are all of Venezuela’s gold reserves in the vaults of the Central Bank of Venezuela as stated by the former president Hugo Chavéz on 17 agusto 2011, when he ordered “repatriation of our gold”?
Is the BCV in negotiations with foreign banks for the sale or pawning of monetary gold?
Is it true that in the operation to pawn gold currently under discussion, it is intended to dispose of gold with a market value of US$ 2.6 billion?Does this represent / involve almost 20% of the total gold reserves of the Republic, in this first operation?
Is it true that they would be negotiating a second operation similar to the previous one for an even greater amount?
Do these operations involveremoving the gold from the vaults of the BCV and returning it abroad?
Machado’s questions are very specific, i.e. US$2.6 billion, almost 20% of gold reserves, first operation, second operation, physical removal of gold, return of gold to abroad etc, and suggest that her questioning was based on sources that appear to have thought that this specific information was indeed factual.
In early March 2015, 20% of Venezuela’s gold reserves of 360 tonnes would be 72 tonnes, (while 61 tonnes would be 17% of gold reserves). Based on an average gold price of $1,200 in the first week of March, US$2.6 billion would be 67.4 tonnes. These figures are far closer to the actual reduction of gold holdings in March and April of 61 tonnes and suggest that there was a ‘first operation’ that was distinct from the gold swap with Citibank, and that necessitated the actual removal of 61 tonnes from the BCV balance sheet.
Then what about a ‘second operation‘ that could be ‘for an even greater amount‘ in the words of Machado?
Gold Flights from Caracas in July 2015
Caracas international Airport, where the flights laden with Venezuela’s repatriated gold arrived at during the period November 2011 to January 2012, is officially known as Simón Bolívar International Airport, but colloquially known as Maiquetía Airport since it’s in an area of Caracas called Maiquetía (the airport is beside the ocean).
On 01 July 2015, Venezuelan news site La Patilla published an article titled “El BCV reexporta para empeñarlo el oro que Chávez repatrió” (BCV re-exported for pledging, the gold that Chavez had repatriated), in which it featured two snippets from a letter written by the Banco Central Venezuela (BCV) to Maiquetia International Airport Air Customs (SENIAT) sometime just before July, probably written in June. SENIAT is the Venezuelan customs and tax authority, officially called Servicio Nacional Integrado de Administración Aduanera y Tributaria, or National Integrated Service for the Administration of Customs Duties and Taxes.
The first snippet of the BCV letter to SENIAT, and highlighted by La Patilla, stated:
“Tengo el agrado de dirigirme a usted en ocasión de manifestarle que el Banco Central de Venezuela realizará exportación de valores, cuyas especificaciones y demás características se detallarán en actas a suscribirse con con funcionarios del Ministerio del Poder Popular de Economía, Finanzas y Banca Pública -Seniat y este instituro, las cuales serán presentadas a las autoridades competentes el día de salida en la Aduana Principal Aérea de Maiquetía“
“I have the pleasure of addressing you on the occasion to inform you that the Central Bank of Venezuela will export values, whose specifications and other characteristics will be detailed in Minutes to be signed with officials from the Ministry of Popular Power for Economy, Finance and Public Bank -Seniat and this Institute, which will be presented to the competent authorities on the day of departure in Maiquetía’s Main Air Customs”
The La Patilla article commented that:
“Los “valores” a los que se refiere la comunicación sería oro monetario según nos respondieron dos economistas con experiencia en las operaciones del BCV.”
“According to two economists with experience of BCV operations who responded to us, the ‘values’ to which the communication refers to is monetary gold.“
The 2nd snippet of the letter, with the BCV stamp, is even more interesting, and I have included it below:
Although not fully legible on the very left hand side of the photo, the text, as far as I can make out, says:
“…el reconocimiento, pesaje y embalaja de la materia en referencia, en el Departamento de administracion del Efectivo, ubicado en el sótano 2 del elemento Sede de esta instituto. La…[ ]… actividad, se tiene previsto realizarla en los dias 02, 03 y 06/07/2015, a partir de las 8:00…[ ]. En caso de que la referida actividad se extienda más del tiempo prevista, le será notificado…[ ]
“acknowledgement, weighing and packing of the material in question, in the Cash Management Department, located in Basement 2 of the Headquarters of this Institute. The .. [ ].. activity is planned for the days 02, 03 and 07.06.2015, from 8:00…[ ]. In the event that the referred to activity extends beyond the planned time, you will be notified…[ ]”
It’s not unusual for letters about specific gold shipments from central banks to security carriers or other agencies to avoid to mention the actual cargo. I have seen the same approach used in historical Bank of England letters to companies like MAT Transport and the Metropolitan Police, phrases such as “we would like to go ahead with the matter we discussed’, and ‘we have now completed the aforementioned assignment bla bal bla, I trust everything was in order”. It’s merely phrased this way for security reasons.
Venezuela is short of hard currency bank notes such as USD and EUR. Venezuela would hardly be flying out hard currency cash. Nor would it be flying out worthless bolivar bank notes. The BCV letter refers to weighing and packing, which can only mean gold bullion.
The letter snippets in this ‘La Patilla’ news article look to be what they purport to be, and they do indeed appear genuine, so there is a high probability that the BCV was flying out cargos of monetary gold from Caracas International Airport on 2nd July (Thursday), 3rd July (Friday) and 7th July 2015 (Tuesday), and maybe after 7th July if the operation needed extended time as the contingency in the letter planned for.
When the last flight of repatriated gold flew into Caracas from Eorope on 30 January 2012, it was carrying 14 tonnes of gold in 28 crates. Based on this metric, 3 flights going out from Caracas in early July 2015 could carry 42 tonnes of gold, if not more. Therefore there is a realistic upper bound of at least 42 tonnes to the amount of gold that the BCV could have been flying out of Maiquetía airport on 2nd, 3rd and 7th July 2015.
This article has focused on two sets of events, 1) the drop in Venezuela’s monetary gold reserve holdings in March and April 2015 which looks to be distinct from the Bank of England vaulted gold used in the BCV-Citibank gold swap, and 2) a series of cargo flights of what looks like BCV monetary gold being flown out of Caracas International Airport in early July 2015.
Venezuela’s international reserves, managed by the BCV, are now down to USD 15.120 billion as at 29th October 2015, from USD 16.4 billion at the end of September 2015. Investment bank reports and the financial media are abuzz with speculation that (to paraphrase) “Venezuela will need to use its gold reserves to raise international funds for imports etc etc“. Which is no doubt true, but what the analyst reports and media reports are missing, in my opinion, is that a good chunk of Venezuela’s gold reserves are already in play and that any new repos, swaps or sales will have to line up and utilise whatever Venezuelan gold reserves are not already under lien, claim, encumbrance or collateralisation.
In the second half of October, Barclays’ two New York based Latin American economists, the two Alejandros (Arreaza and Grisanti) said that:
“Our quarterly cash flow model suggests that Venezuela will have a deficit of approximately USD10bn just during this quarter and will have to finance almost all of it with its own assets. Currently, liquid international reserves are likely less than USD0.5bn. The rest of the reserves are gold, SDRs and the position at the IMF. Therefore, assets besides reserves will need to be used.
We estimate that disposable assets (in and out of reserves) are about USD15.1bn. Assuming a gold repo of USD3.0bn before year-end, the disposable assets could end the year at about USD8.0bn. With these assets and a possible additional use of gold reserves, we expect Venezuela to meet its debt obligations at least until Q1 16″
Which is all very fine, except the fact that if the BCV gold reserves are 61 tonnes lighter due to outflows in March and April, and if there were additional gold outflows via international cargo flights in July, which looks likely, then a further USD 3 billion repo (circa 80 tonnes without deep haircut) will have to use additional BCV vaulted gold, a lot of which is in US Assay Office melt bars, which are not necessarily up to the expected quality of modern-day Good Delivery bars.
From my Part 1 article, I had calculated that “there were 12,357 bars held in the BCV vaults in Caracas before the gold repatriation started, and 25,176 bars in the BCV vaults when the repatriation completed“, since “12,819 good delivery bars” (160 tonnes) were repatriated. About 4,089 bars were left in London in 2012. The bars that were originally in Caracas are mainly if not exclusively US Assay office bars.
If the Caracas vaulted gold is being sold by Venezuela in the international market, it most likely would be of current Good Delivery standard (not US Assay office bars). With 160 tonnes of repatriated Good Delivery bars in 2011-2012, then if 61 tonnes was sold in March-April, and various flights happened in July 2015, there may not be enough modern Good Delivery bars remaining in Caracas to satisfy an additional USD 3 billion transaction.
In my Part 2 article in May, I had said:
“Venezuela (via the BCV) will put up 1.4 million ozs of gold as collateral in exchange for a $1 billion loan of foreign currency from Citibank. Since 1.4 million ozs of gold, valued at the late April 2015 price of $1,200, is roughly $1.68 billion, then Venezuela is having to accept a near 40% discount on the specified gold collateral.“
Note that 1.4 million ounces is about 43.5 tonnes.
Interestingly, Barclays analysts Feifei Li and Dane Davis in their ‘Metals Markets Outlook’ piece from 26 October 2015 (last week) titled ‘Mixed Messages’ reiterated the above view and said:
“Earlier this year Venezuela executed a gold swap to raise $1bn. About 45 tonnes of gold was committed, indicating a haircut of around 40% for gold prices at the time. If we apply a similar haircut to the current gold price, it would imply that close to 140 tonnes of gold would be needed for $3bn. Thus if $3bn extra gold swaps were executed, half of Venezuela’s 361 tonne gold reserve would have been utilised.”
But 140 tonnes of gold will bring into play a lot of Venezuela’s US Assay Office bars, given that some other counterparties have already raided the Caracas vaults to get the best bars. While a lot of Venezuela’s US Assay office bars probably contain the fine gold count that they claim to hold, some probably don’t, as was illustrated in the sardonic yet jovial Zerohedge article “No Indication Should, Of Course, Be Given To The Bundesbank…” published back in September 2012.
So its buyer beware time for the counterparties that are now queued up to get their hands on Venezuela’s last remaining ingots of gold, before the entire Caracas stash may well get looted.
That article highlighted that the amount of gold stored in custody at the Bank of England (BoE) fell by 350 tonnes during the year to 28 February 2015, after also falling by 755 tonnes during the year to end of February 2014. Therefore, by 28 February 2015, there was, according to the BoE’s own statement, £140 billion or 5134.37 tonnes of gold in custody of the BoE, or in other words ~ 410,720 Good Delivery gold bars.
The article also reviewed snapshots of the total amount of gold stored in the London vaults at various recent points in time.
Firstly, a reference on the London Bullion Market Association (LBMA) web site for a date sometime before 2013 stated that there had been 9,000 tonnes of gold (i.e. 720,000 Good Delivery bars) stored in London with two-thirds of this amount, or 6,000 tonnes, stored in the Bank of England (about 482,000 bars), and 3,000 tonnes stored in London ex Bank of England vaults (238,000 bars). (Nick Laird of Sharelynx subsequently pointed out to me that the earliest reference to this 9,000 tonne figure was from a LBMA presentation from November 2011.)
Secondly, by early 2014, the LBMA web site stated that there were only 7,500 tonnes of gold in all London vaults, i.e. ~600,000 bars, and of this total, three-quarters or 5,625 tonnes were at in Bank of England, ~ 450,000 bars, and only one-quarter or 1,875 tonnes was stored at LBMA London gold vaults excluding the Bank of England’s gold vaults.
So, the entire London market including the Bank of England had lost 1,500 tonnes (120,000 bars) between 2011 and early 2014, with 375 tonnes less in the BoE and 1,125 tonnes less in the London market outside the BoE.
Finally, on 15 June 2015, the LBMA stated that “There are ~500,000 bars in the London vaults, worth a total of ~US$237 billion”. This ~ 500,000 bars equates to 6,256 tonnes. (On 15th June 2015, the morning LBMA Gold Price was set at $1178.25, which would make $237 billion worth of gold equal to 201.145 million ounces, which is 6,256 tonnes).
Therefore, another ~1,250 tonnes of gold (approximately 100,000 Good Delivery bars) departed from the London gold vaults compared to the early 2014 quotation of 7,500 tonnes of gold in the London vaults.
So overall, between the 9,000 tonnes quotation in 2011, and the 6,256 tonnes 2015 quotation, some 2,750 tonnes (~ 220,000 Good Delivery bars) disappeared from the London gold vaults. With 6,256 tonnes of gold stored in the entire London vault network in 2015, and with 5,134 tonnes of this at the Bank of England, that would leave 1,122 tonnes of gold in London outside the Bank of England vaults.
To reiterate, “the London gold vaults“, in addition to the Bank of England gold vaults, refer to the storage vaults of JP Morgan and HSBC Bank in the City of London, the vaults of Brinks, Malca Amit and Via Mat (Loomis) located near London Heathrow Airport, the vault of G4S in Park Royal, and the Barclays vault managed by Brinks.
Because the Bank of England reveals in its annual report each year the value of gold it has stored in custody for its customers (central banks, international official sector institutions, and LBMA member banks), then it is possible to compare 3 years of gold tonnage figures, namely the years 2011, 2014 and 2015, and then show within each year how much of this gold is stored at the Bank of England, and how much is stored in London but outside the Bank of England vaults.
Nick Laird of www.sharelynx.com / www.goldchartsrus.com has done exactly this in the following sets of fantastic charts which he has created to graphically capture the above London gold trends, and a lot more besides. These charts are just a subset of a suite of inter-related gold charts that Nick has created to address this critical subject in the London Gold Market.
Although the Bank of England is not a LBMA member, the Bank of England gold vaults are a critical part of the LBMA gold vaulting and gold clearing system, and LBMA bullion banks maintain gold accounts with the Bank of England which facilitate, among other things, gold lending and gold swaps transactions with central banks. Hence the above and below charts are titled “LBMA Vaulted Gold in London”.
My “How many Good Delivery gold bars are in all the London Vaults” article had also quantified that nearly all of this ~1,122 tonnes consists of gold from physical gold-backed ETFs which store their gold in the London vaults. (previously rounded up to 1,125 tonnes for ease of calculation).
I had included 5 gold ETFs in my previous analysis namely, SPDR Gold Trust (GLD), Shares Gold Trust (IAU), ETF Securities – ETFS Physical Gold ETF (PHAU & PHGP), ETF Securities – Gold Bullion Securities (GBS & GBSS), and Source Physical Gold ETC (P-ETC), and also some smaller holdings at BullionVault and GoldMoney. In total these ETFs and other holdings accounted for just over 1,000 tonnes of gold in the London market.
However, I had missed a few other gold ETFs which also store their gold in the London vaults. Nick Laird, whose Sharelynx website maintains up-to-date gold ETF data and gold holdings, took the initiative to fill in the missing ETF blanks and Nick re-calculated the more comprehensive ETF holdings figures for London, which worked out at an exact 1,116 tonnes of gold, astonishingly close to the implied figure represented by the 1,122 tonnes outside the Bank of England vaults.
The additional gold backed ETFs also included in Nick Laird’s wider catchment were Deutsche Bank db Physical Gold ETC and associated Deutsche ETFs, ABSA gold ETF (of South Africa), Merk Gold ETF, and some smaller holdings from Betashares and Standard Bank. The following chart from Sharelynx shows the full data for physically backed gold ETFs storing their gold in London:
We then discussed an approach, in conjunction with Koos Jansen and Bron Suchecki, to identify known central bank gold stored in the Bank of England vaults by tallying up this storage data on a country level basis. So, for example, assuming 5,134 tonnes of gold stored at the Bank of England in early 2015, the aim would be to try to account for as much of this gold as possible using central bank sources.
As mentioned in the ‘How many gold bars‘ article, the Bank of England stated in 2014 that 72 central banks (including a few official sector financial organisations) held gold accounts with the Bank. It is not known if any of these gold accounts are inactive or whether any of these accounts have zero gold holdings. The LBMA stated in 2011 that “The Bank of England acts as gold custodian for about 100 customers, including central banks and international financial institutions, LBMA members and the UK government”. Therefore there could also be more than 25 LBMA member commercial banks with gold accounts at the Bank of England.
Some of the Bank of England 5,134 tonne total would therefore be gold held in LBMA member bank gold accounts at the Bank of England, for which data is not public. Likewise, a lot of central banks do not reveal where their gold is stored, let alone how much is stored in specific vaults such as at the Bank of England and Federal Reserve Bank of New York.
However, many central banks have more recently begun to provide some information on where they say their official reserve gold is stored. Other central banks have always been to some extent transparent. Overall, a variety of sources, where possible, can be used to source locational data regarding central bank gold storage locations. There will continue to be gaps however, since some central banks remain non-cooperative, even when asked directly about where they stored their gold.
Tallying this type of central bank gold storage data will probably be a work in progress. However, there has to be a cut-off point for doing a first pass through the data, and this is a first pass. As a group, the European central banks have been especially forthcoming with gold storage data, compared to even 3-4 years ago (except for Spain). For other central banks, I looked in various places such as their financial accounts, and I contacted some of them by email with varying degrees of success. About half of the 72 central banks on the Bank of England’s list were identified, again, with varying degrees of accuracy.
The following fantastic chart by Nick Laird captures an overview of this Bank of England gold storage data. Essentially the chart shows that the banks listed hold, or have stated that they hold, the respective quantity listed, and in total the named banks could account for x tonnes gold stored at the bank of England. This is labelled ‘Known Gold‘. Given ‘Known Gold’, this leaves the residual as ‘Unknown Gold‘.
The remainder of this article explains the logic and the sources behind each country, and why that country appears on the list. When a central bank claims to have stored gold at the Bank of England, or the evidence suggests that, it does not necessarily mean that the gold in question is held in custody in a gold set aside account or that it is allocated in identifiable bars, or even that it is actually there. Many central banks engage in gold lending, or have done so in the last 15-20 years, and have at times, or permanently, transferred control of that gold to LBMA bullion banks.
Until all central banks come clean about what form their gold holdings are in, which will never happen, then the amount of central bank gold that’s encumbered by bullion banks or under claims, liens, loan agreements etc will not be apparent.
Germany holds 3,384 tonnes of gold, and 12.9%, or 438 tonnes are stored at the Bank of England. The Bundesbank’s ongoing repatriation of gold from New York and Paris does not alter the amount of Bundesbank gold held at the Bank of England.
“Most of Danmarks Nationalbank’s gold is stored at the Bank of England, where it has been since it was moved for safety reasons during the Cold War. In March 2014, Danmarks Nationalbank inspected its stock of gold in the Bank of England.”
Therefore, the assumption here is that 62.7 tonnes of Danish gold is stored at the Bank of England.
Note the Danmarks Nationalbank’s assertion that in order for gold to be lent it has to be moved to the London, since London is the centre of the gold lending market.
In 1999 “Almost 99 per cent, or 93 per cent of the Nationalbank’s total gold stock, had been lent.” The same 1999 Danish central bank article also said that:
I have underlined the above sentence since it’s of critical importance to understanding that in gold lending, central bank gold lent to LBMA bullion banks at the Bank of England does not necessarily move out of the Bank of England vaults. Lent gold may or may not move out the door, depending on what the borrower plans to do with the borrowed gold.
It also means that the total gold in custody figure that the Bank of England reveals each year (for example £140 billion in February 2015), consists of:
a) central bank gold stored at the Bank of England
b) bullion bank gold stored at the Bank of England
c) central bank gold that has been lent or swapped with bullion banks (gold deposits and gold swaps) and that has not been moved out of the Bank of England vaults. This category of gold is still in custody at the Bank of England. The central bank claims to still own it, the bullion bank has control over it, and the Bank of England still counts it as being in its custody.
The Netherlands holds 612.5 tonnes of gold, and 18%, or 110 tonnes are stored at the Bank of England.
Notice that the UK gold reserves includes holdings of gold coin, as well as gold bars.
Ireland hold 6 tonnes of gold in its official reserves, a small amount of which is in the form of gold coins, but nearly all of which is in the form of gold bars stored at the Bank of England.
Recently, I submitted a Freedom of information (FOI) request to the Central Bank of Ireland requesting information such as a weight list of Ireland’s gold stored at the Bank of England. After the FOI request was refused and the Central Bank of Ireland claimed there was no weight list, I appealed the refusal and was provided with a SWIFT ‘account statement’ from 2010 that the Bank of England had provided to the Central Bank of Ireland. See below:
This statement shows that as of 31 December 2010, the Central Bank of Ireland held 453 gold bars at the Bank of England with a total fine ounce content of 182,555.914 ounces, which equates to an average gold content of 402.993 fine ounces per bar. It also equates to 5.678 tonnes, which rounded up is 5.7 tonnes of gold stored at the Bank of England.
The fact that no weight list could be tracked down is highly suspicious, as is the fact that Ireland had in earlier years engaged in gold lending, so did not, at various times in the 2000s have all of its gold allocated in the Bank of England. How a central bank can claim to hold gold bars but at the same time cannot request a weight list of those same bars is illogical and suggests there is a lot more that the Central Bank of Ireland will not reveal.
Belgium holds 227 tonnes of gold, most of which is stored at the Bank of England with smaller amounts held with the Bank of Canada and with the Bank for International Settlements. Banque Nationale de Belgique (aka Nationale Bank van België (NBB)) does not publish an exact breakdown of the percentage stored at each location, however, in March 2013 in the Belgian Parliament, the deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Finance gave the following response in answer to a question about the Belgian gold reserves:
“Most of the gold reserves of the National Bank of Belgium (NBB) is indeed held with the Bank of England. A much smaller amount held with the Bank of Canada and the Bank for International Settlements. A very limited amount stored in the National Bank of Belgium.”
Furthermore, there were a series of reports in late 2014 and early 2015 that would suggest that Belgium stores 200 tonnes of its gold at the Bank of England. Firstly, in December 2014, VTM-nieuws in Belgium reported that the NBB governor Luc Coene had said that the NBB was investigating repatriating all of its gold. See Koos Jansen article here.
On 4 February 2015, Belgian newspaper Het Nieuwsblad said that Belgium would repatriate 200 tonnes of gold from the Bank of England, but the next day on 5 February 2015, another Belgian newspaper De Tijd reported that NBB Luc Coene denied the repatriation report, and quoted him as saying:
“There are other and more effective ways to verify if the gold in London is really ours. We have an audit committee that inspects the Belgian gold in the UK regularly”.
Therefore, the assumption here, backed up by evidence, is that Belgium stores 200 tonnes of gold at the Bank of England.
Australia holds approximately 80 tonnes of gold in its official reserves, with 1 tonne on loan, and 99.9% of gold holdings stored at the Bank of England. See 2014 annual report, page 33. According to a weight list of its gold held at the Bank of England, released via an FOIA request in 2014, Australia stores approximately 78.8 tonnes of gold at the Bank of England.
South Korea (Bank of Korea) holds 104.4 tonnes of gold, 100% of which, or 104.4 tonnes is stored at the Bank of England. The Bank confirmed this to me in an emailon 11 September 2015. See email here ->
International Monetary Fund
The IMF currently claims to hold 2,814 tonnes of gold after apparently selling 403.3 tonnes over 2009 and 2010 (222 tonnes in ‘off-market transactions and 181.3 tonnes in ‘on-market transactions’). Prior to 2009, IMF gold holdings had been 3,217 tonnes, and had been essentially static at this figure since 1980 [In 1999 IMF undertook some accounting related gold sale transactions which where merely sale and buyback bookkeeping transactions].
Although the IMF no longer provide a breakdown of how much of its gold is stored in each location where it stores gold, the amount of gold held by the IMF at the Bank of England can be calculated by retracing IMF transactions from a time when the IMF did provide such details. In January 1976, the IMF held 898 tonnes of gold at the Bank of England in London, 3,341 tonnes at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, 389 tonnes at the Banque de France in Paris, and 144 tonnes at the Reserve Bank of India in Nagpur, India. Therefore, of the IMF’s total 4,772 tonnes holdings at that time, 70% was stored in New York, 19% in London, 8% in Paris and 3% in India. See here and here.
In the late 1970s, the IMF sold 50 million ounces of gold via two methods, namely, 25 million ounces by ‘public’ auctions, and 25 million ounces by distributions to member countries.
In the four-year period between mid-1976 and mid-1980, the IMF sold 25 million ounces of gold to the commercial sector via 45 auctions. Thirty five of these auctions delivered gold at the FRBNY, 7 of these auctions delivered gold at the Bank of England, and 3 of the auctions delivered gold at the Banque de France.
Of the 7 auctions that delivered the IMF’s gold at the Bank of England, these auctions in total delivered 3.74 million ounces [Dec-76: 780,000 ozs, Aug-77: 525,000 ozs, Nov-77: 525,000 ozs, May-78: 525,000 ozs, Oct-78: 470,000 ozs, Mar-79: 470,000, and Dec 79:444,000 ozs], which is 116 tonnes. See IMF annual report 1980.
The IMF also sold 25 million ozs of gold to its member countries within four tranches over the 3 year period from January 1977 to early 1980. These sales, which were also called gold ‘distributions’ or ‘restitutions’ and covered between 112 and 127 member countries across the tranches, were initially quite complicated in the way they were structured since they involved IMF rules around quotas which necessitated the gold being transferred to creditor countries of the IMF and then transferred to the purchasing countries. In the later sales in 1979 and 1980 countries could purchase directly from the IMF.
Countries could choose where to receive their purchased gold, i.e. London, New York, Paris or Nagpur, however, the US, UK, France and India, which had the largest IMF quotas and hence the largest gold distributions, all had to receive their gold at the respective IMF depository in their own country. I don’t have the distribution figures to hand at the moment for the 25 million ozs sold to countries, but about 18 countries took delivery from the Banque de France in Paris, with the rest choosing delivery from New York and London.
Therefore an assumption is needed on the amount of gold the IMF ‘distributed’ to member countries from its Bank of England holdings between 1977 and 1980. Of the 25 million ounces distributed, the US received 5.734 million ozs, the UK received 2.396 million ozs (75 tonnes), France received 1.284 million ozs, and India received 805,000 ozs. Subtracting all of these from 25 million ozs leaves 14.78 million ozs which was distributed to the other ~120 countries. Since the IMF held 70% of its holdings at the FRBNY in 1976, 19% at the Bank of England and 8% at the Banque de France, apportioning these three weights to the remaining 14.78 million ozs would result in 10.76 million ozs (332 tonnes) being sold from the FRBNY, 2.867 million ozs (89 tonnes) from the Bank of England and 1.24 million ozs (38.5 tonnes) from the Banque de France.
Adding this 89 tonnes to the 75 tonnes received by the UK would be 164 tonnes distributed from the Bank of England IMF gold holdings. Add to this the 116 tonnes of London stored IMF gold sold in the auctions equals 280 tonnes. Subtracting this 280 tonnes from the IMF’s London holdings of 898 tonnes in January 1976 leaves 618 tonnes.
In 2009 the IMF said that it had sold 200 tonnes of gold to India, 2 tonnes to Mauritius, 10 tonnes to Sri Lanka,and then 10 tonnes to Bangladesh in 2010. The Bangladesh figures reflect its 10 tonne purchase. However, at the moment, there has been no exact confirmation that the 200 tonnes that India bought is in London. It probably is in London, but leaving this amount under the IMF holdings instead of in India’s holdings makes no difference. Subtracting the Bangladesh sale of 10 tonnes, and rounding down slightly, there are 600 tonnes of IMF gold (excluding the 2009 India 200 tonnes sale) storedat the Bank of England.
The IMF sales of gold to Sri Lanka and Mauritius in 2009 of a combined total of 12 tonnes probably came out of the IMF’s London holdings also. The IMF’s sale of 181.3 tonnes of gold in 2010 via ‘on-market transactions’ may also have come out of the IMF’s London stored gold. These ‘on-market transactions” look to have used the BIS as pricing agent, and the IMF have gone to great lengths to hide the full details of these sales from public view. More about that in a future article.
The Reserve Bank of India holds 557.75 tonnes of gold. Of this total, a combined 265.49 tonnes are stored (outside India) at the Bank of England and with the Bank for International Settlements. In 2009 India purchased 200 tonnes of gold from the IMF via an ‘off-market transaction‘. A slide from this presentation sums up this information.
The questions then are, is the 200 tonne purchase from the IMF stored at the Bank of England, and how much of the earlier 65.49 tonnes is stored at the Bank of England.
A 2013 article in the Indian Business Standard which was reprinted from “Reserve Bank of India history series. Volume 4, 1981-1997, Part A”, explains that in 1991, the Reserve Bank of India entered 2 separate gold loan deals, one deal with UBS in Switzerland (which required 18.36 tonnes of RBI gold to be sent to Switzerland) and the other deal with the Bank of England and Bank of Japan (where 46.91 tonnes was required to be sent to the Bank of England). Together those 2 transactions equals 65.27 tonnes which is 0.222 tonnes short of the 65.49 total.
After the gold loan deals expired, it looks like 18.36 tonnes of Indian gold were left in Switzerland and transferred to safekeeping or deposit with the BIS, and 46.91 tonnes of Indian gold was left at the Bank of England.
Regarding India’s purchase of 200 tonnes of gold in 2009, the IMF only has gold 4 depositories, namely, the Bank of England, Federal Reserve Bank of New York, Banque de France, and the Reserve Bank of India in Nagpur, India. Given that the Indian gold stored abroad is “with the Bank of England and the Bank for International Settlements“, then for the 200 tonnes of IMF gold to end up being classified as ‘with’ the BIS, it would have to have either been transferred internally at one of the IMF depositories to aBIS account, or transferred via a location swap or a physical shipment to a BIS gold account at the vaults of the Swiss National Bank in Berne.
For now, the 200 tonnes of gold sold by the IMF to India in 2009 is reflected in the IMF holdings and not the India holdings. It does not make a difference to the calculations, since the 200 tonnes is still at the Bank of England.
Bulgaria has 40.1 tonnes of official gold reserves. The latest BNB annual report states that 513,000 ozs are in standard gold form, and 775,000 ozs are in gold deposits.
The Bank for International Settlements (BIS), headquartered in Basle, Switzerland does not have run any gold vaults of its own. However, the BIS is a big player in the global central bank gold market, and it offers its central bank clientele gold safekeeping (and settlement) services using central bank vaults in London, New York and Berne. These services are possible because the BIS maintains gold accounts at the Bank of England, the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, and the Swiss National Bank in Berne. BIS gold accounts can act like omnibus accounts in that many central banks can hold gold in sub-accounts under a BIS gold account at each of these institutions in London, New York and Berne.
Gold can then be transferred around locations using gold swaps where one of the counterparties to the gold swap is the BIS.
The BIS is involved with gold in 3 main categories.
a) the BIS holds gold in custody for customers, off of the BIS balance sheet
b) the BIS has its own gold holdings which are classified as its gold investment portfolio, and which are on its balance sheet
c) the BIS accepts gold deposits from central banks. These gold deposits appear as a liability on the BIS balance sheet. Then the BIS turns around and places these gold liabilities in the market under its own name. These placing are also in the form of gold deposits and gold loans with other institutions including commercial banks. These ‘assets’ are then classified on the BIS balance sheet as BIS’ “gold banking” assets.
a) In its latest annual report, as of the end of March 2015, the BIS stated that it holds 443 tonnes of gold under earmark for its central bank customers on a custody basis. This gold is not on the BIS balance sheet. i.e. it is ‘off-balance sheet’ gold held by the BIS.
b) The BIS also holds 108 tonnes of its own gold (on balance sheet within an investment portfolio). This BIS gold is either kept in custody or transferred to bullion banks as gold deposits. The BIS does not provide granular data in its annual report as to how much of its own gold is ever put into gold deposits.
c) As of 31 March 2015, the BIS had 510 tonnes of gold assets on its balance sheet. Of this total, 108 tonnes was the BIS’ own gold, leaving 403 tonnes as banking assets (i.e. customer gold . Of this same 510 tonnes total, 55 tonnes were classified as gold loans, so 457 tonnes were not gold loans. If all 55 tonnes of gold loans were from customer gold, this would leave 348 tonnes of customer backed gold banking assets. On the same date (31 March 2015), the BIS held 356 tonnes of gold deposits from customers (sight deposits and short-term deposits) on the liability side of its balance sheet which originate entirely from central banks depositing gold with the BIS in sight and term deposits.
The question then is how to reflect BIS gold storage holdings at the Bank of England. While most if not all gold deposit transactions between central banks/BIS and bullion banks take place in London, the data is not readily published.
It was therefore decided, in the spirit of being conservative, to make an assumption on the BIS gold, and only use BIS customer custody gold and BIS own gold as inputs, and because BIS has gold accounts with 3 vaults (London, NY and Berne), to then just divide by 3 and say that one-third of BIS own gold and one-third of BIS ‘central bank custody gold’ is in London This would be 183.66 tonnes, i.e. (108+443)/3.
Therefore, this model states that 183.66 tonnes of BIS gold is stored in the Bank of England. This is probably being very conservative, especially given that no on-balance gold deposited by BIS customers is reflected in this figure.
In September 2010, the IMF sold 10 tonnes of gold to Bangladesh Bank, bringing total gold holdings up from 3.5 tonnes to 13.5 tonnes. The fact that this gold is stored at the Bank of England shows that the IMF sold this gold from its holdings that were stored at the Bank of England. (Note, Bangladesh has recently added some small amounts of domestic confiscated gold to its reserves).
Mexico’s central bank, Banco de Mexico (Banxico) currently hold 122.1 tonnes of gold. At the end of 2012, Mexican official gold reserves totalled 4,034,802 ounces (125 tonnes), of which only 194,539 ounces (6 tonnes) was in Mexico, and 119 tonnes abroad.
With Banxico now holding 122 tonnes according to the World Gold Council, and not 125 tonnes, the assumption is that the 3 tonne reduction came from domestic holdings.
Poland holds 102.9 tonnes of gold in its reserves. Poland’s central bank (Narodowi Bank Polski (NBP)) published a guide to Poland’s gold in 2014 in which it confirmed that nearly all of its gold is at the Bank of England. See pages 86-90 of the guide.
“How much gold did Poland possess before 1998? Approximately 746,463 ounces, of which almost 721 thousand was invested in deposits in commercial banks. In turn, the gold kept in the country was mainly coins, gold bars and various types of gold “scrap” bought by NBP.” (page 86)
Before 1998, only 25,463 ozs of NBP gold was kept in Poland, and 721,000 ozs (22.43 tonnes) was deposited with bullion banks. Poland then bought 80 tonnes of gold in 1998, bringing its gold reserves up to nearly 103 tonnes. The purchase was done as follows:
“…we used the services of a bank which constantly carries out similar transactions. Next, we made a location swap and the whole of NBP’s foreign gold reserves were deposited onto our account in the Bank of England.” (page 88)
It is likely that the NBP is referring to the BIS as the bank which purchased the gold on behalf of Poland, and then transferred it from one of the BIS gold accounts at the Bank of England to the NBP gold account at the Bank of England.
So that is 102.9 tonnes stored at the Bank of England.
Note also that, the Polish central bank explains that “It can be assumed that the gold that has been placed on the market at any time is precisely the gold that is held by the central banks in London“. In other words, central banks that have places gold on deposit (lent it) have done so with gold that they have stored in the Bank of England. See the following screenshot:
Note 6.1 on page 136 of the 2013 NBP annual report states:
“Gold and gold receivables The item comprises gold stored at NBP and deposited in a foreign bank account. As at 31 December 2013, NBP held 3,308.9 thousand ounces of gold (102.9 tonnes).”
This statement about the “gold stored at NBP and deposited in a foreign bank account” has been in a few of the recent NBP annual reports. In April 2013, before the NBP had published the guide to its gold, I asked the NBP by email, based on the statement, to clarify if the gold held abroad is held in custody, for example at the Bank of England or FRBNY or held in time deposits with commercial banks?”
The NBP responded: “Narodowy Bank Polski does not make gold time deposits with commercial banks”.
This may be true if the NBP is using sight deposits, but the 2013 answer, like so many other central banks currently, avoided providing any real information to the question.
Given that nearly all NBP’s 102.9 tonnes of gold was in the Bank of England when the 80 tonnes purchase was made in 1998, the assumption here is that still is the case, and that for simplicity, 100 tonnes of Poland’s gold is at the Bank of England.
Romania has 103.7 tonnes of gold in its official reserves.
In percentage terms, as at 31 December 2014, 27% of Romania’s gold was in ‘standard form’ which presumably means Good Delivery Bars (400 oz bars), 14% in gold coins, and 59% in ‘Deposits’ abroad. (59% of 103.7 tonnes is 61.2 tonnes)
Note the gold deposits with Bank of Nova Scotia and Fortis Bank Bruxelles in 2005 and additionally with the same two banks and with Barclays and Morgan Stanley NY in 2004.
Since the percentage breakdownbetween Romania’s bullionbankdeposits (59%), standardbars (27%) and coins (14%) hasn’t varied much since 2005, and was at a similar mix over various years that I checked such as 2011 and 2014, the conclusion is that Romania has had more than 50% of its gold on constant deposit since at least 2004 (i.e. the original allocated gold is long gone).
The 2005 annual report also states that there were 61 tonnes of Romanian gold stored at the Bank of England. Since Romania had just under 105 tonnes of gold in 2005, this 61 tonnes was referring to the gold deposits, which central banks, as illustrated in numerous other examples, continue to count as their gold even though it has been lent to bullion banks.
Romania therefore had or has 61 tonnes of gold stored at the bank of England.
Note also the reference to central vault, which probably refers to a vault in Bucharest.
The Philippines hold 225 tonnes of gold in its official reserves. In November 2000, when the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas (BSP) held 225 tonnes of gold, it explained in a press release titled ‘Shipment of Gold Reserves‘ that it ended up storing 95% of its gold at the Bank of England due to the use of location swaps with a counterparty (probably the BIS) that took delivery of BSP gold, and transferred gold to the BSP account at the Bank of England.
Since 2000, the BSP gold reserves have risen, fallen, and risen again and now total 195 tonnes. Assuming the ‘95% of its gold’ storage arrangement is still in place, then the Philippines has 95% of 195 tonnes, or 185 tonnes stored at the Bank of England.
Greece claims to hold 112.6 tonnes of gold. In 2013, the Greek finance ministry on behalf of the Greek central bank stated that half of Greece’s gold reserves were ‘under custody’ of the Bank of Greece, and the other half was ‘under custody’ of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York (FRBNY), the Bank of England and (very vaguely) Switzerland. Who actually controls Greece’s gold reserves at this point in time is anybody’s guess.
Given that the Federal Reserve Bank of New York was listed by the Greek MinFin as a foreign gold storage location ahead of the Bank of England, the assumption here is that of the 50% of Greece’s gold held abroad, the FRBNY holds more of this portion than the Bank of England. And so the assumption is that the Bank of England holds 40% of the foreign half, i.e. 20% of the total of Greece’s gold, with the FRBNY holding 50% of the foreign half. Taking 112 tonnes of gold as Greece’s total gold holding, 40% of this is 22.4 tonnes stored at the Bank of England. (Note, Greek gold reserves keep increasing incrementally each month by small amounts. As I am not sure what these increases relates to, a recent rounded figure of 112 tonnes has been chosen).
The Banca d’Italia holds 2.451.8 tonnes of gold. Although in 2014, the Banca d’Italia released a document in which it confirmed that some of this gold is held at the Bank of England, there is no evidence to suggest that Italy’s gold in London amounts to more than a few tonnes left over from 1960s transactions.
Bank of England gold set-aside ledgers show that in 1969 there were less than 1000 ‘Good Delivery’ gold bars in the Banca d’Italia gold account at the Bank of England, weighing less than 400,000 ozs in total. This is equal to about 12 tonnes. Most of the Italian gold at the Bank of England was flown back to Rome (and Milan) in the 1960s.
Since there is no public documentation that Banca d’Italia has ever engaged in gold lending (as far as I am aware), then there would be no need for Italy to keep a lot of gold at the Bank of England. Nearly all of Italy’s foreign held gold (over 1,200 tonnes) looks to be in New York (assuming it hasn’t been swapped or used as loan collateral). Italy could have engaged in non-public gold transactions from the Bank of England using gold location swaps from the FRBNY, or from Rome, but there is no evidence of this.
So, this model assumes 12 tonnes of Italian gold is stored at the Bank of England.
Brazil hold 67.2 tonnes of gold reserves. In 2012, Banco Central do Brasil told me by email that all of its gold reserves were in the form of ‘fixed term gold deposits at commercial banks only’. Since the gold would be required to be stored at the Bank of England for these gold deposit transactions to take place, Brazil therefore holds 67.2 tonnes of gold at the Bank of England. See email below:
Banco Central del Ecuador conducted a 3 year gold swap with Goldman Sachs in June 2014 where it swapped 466,000 ozs for US dollar cash This swapped amount of gold has been factored into the World Gold Council data for Ecuador, and the Ecuadorian reserves dropped by 14.5 tonnes in Q2 2014. from 23.28 tonnes to 11.78 tonnes. This swapped amount of 14.5 tonnes is most probably stored at the Bank of England, since Goldman Sachs proposed a similar deal with Venezuela in 2014 where the gold was required to be at the Bank of England for the swap to be initiated.
Bolivia Central de Bolivia holds 42.5 tonnes of gold, all of which is permanently on deposit with bullion banks. The Bolivian Central Bank is very transparent in explaining where its gold is ‘invested’. Hence, it has (until recently) even provided in its financial accounts, the names of the bullion banks which happened to hold its ‘gold deposits’ and the amounts held by each bank.
A recent Banco Central de Bolivia report for 2014 is less revealing and only shows the country distribution of the gold deposits, with 39% in the UK and the rest in France. While this probably refers to the headquarters of the actual bullion banks in question, i.e. Natixis is French etc, it could mean the gold is being attributed to the Bank of England and the Banque de France, so, a conservative approach here is to attribute 39% of 42.5 tonnes to the Bank of England, i.e. 16.6 tonnes stored at the Bank of England.
Peru holds 34.7 tonnes of gold in its official reserves.
At the end of December 2013, Banco Central de Reserva del Peru held 552,191 ounces (17 tonnes) of gold coins which were stored in the Bank’s own vault, and 562,651 troy ounces of “good delivery” gold bars (17.5 tonnes) which were stored in banks abroad, of which 249,702 ounces were in custody and 312,949 ounces in the form of short-term interest bearing deposits. See 2013 annual report.
Since the gold bars are all ‘good delivery’ bars (which is not the case at the FRBNY), and since Peru has still recently been engaging in gold lending, then the evidence suggests that 17.5 tonnes of Peru’s gold is stored at the Bank of England.
Latvia hold 6.62 tonnes of gold in its official reserves after joining the Euro on 1 January 2014 and after transferring just over 1 tonne of gold to the European Central Bank (ECB). All of Latvia’s gold is stored at the Bank of England, therefore Latvia stores 6.62 tonnes of gold at the Bank of England.
Before this transfer of gold to the ECB, Latvia had 248,706 ozs of gold, and it transferred 35,322 ozs to ECB, leaving 213,384 ozs.
The ECB holds 504.8 tonnes of gold. This gold was transferred by the Euro members to the ECB at the launch of the Euro by 1 January 1999. All the ECB gold is de-centrally managed, meaning that it stays where it was when transferred and is still locally ‘managed’ by the bank which transferred that gold to the ECB. Some banks may have transferred gold stored at FRBNY in fulfillment of their requirement, some banks may have transferred gold at the BoE, and countries such as France and Italy may have transferred amounts which are still stored at Banque de France and Banca d’Italia etc. Some of the ECB gold, such as the smaller amount transferred by Latvia, is in the Bank of England. Other amounts of the ECB’s gold are most certainly also at the Bank of England in London.
It would be a separate project to track these transfers. The 1 tonne of Latvian gold transferred to the ECB at the start o 2014 was included in the figures here just as a placeholder, so as to acknowledge that ECB gold is at the Bank of England. Given that the Euro is a competing currency to the US Dollar, the ECB may have more gold than not stored in Europe and not at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, since ECB gold would logically be safer not stored in the main Reserve Bank of a competing currency bloc.
In its 2014 annual report, the Bank of Iceland said that “The Bank resumed lending gold for investment purposes in June 2014“, and “The Bank loaned gold to foreign financial institutions during the year”.
The Bank of Iceland lent 99.7% of its gold during 2014 because this is the percentage of the gold reserves which are not payable on demand, but are payable in less than 3 months. See below screenshot.
For the purposes of this exercise, Iceland stores 2 tonnes of gold at the Bank of England.
Ghana’s central bank, the Bank of Ghana, holds 8.7 tonnes of gold in its official reserves (precisely 280,872.439 ozs). Of this total, 39.3%, or 3.42 tonnes is held at the Bank of England, with 27.5% at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, and 29.5% with investment bank UBS. See 2014 annual report.
Interestingly, Ghana refers to its gold account at the Bank of England as a ‘gold set aside’ account, which is the correct name for a Bank of England gold custody account of allocated gold. Probably more interestingly is that most central banks do not use this ‘set aside’ term.
A number of central banks refuse to confirm the location of their gold reserves. I will document this in a future posting. Some of the large holders undoubtedly hold quite a lot of gold at the Bank of England, as do a number of smaller holders. Countries that could fit into this category include Spain, France, Colombia, Lithuania, Sri Lanka, Mauritius, Pakistan, Egypt, Slovenia, Macedonia, Malaysia, Thailand and South Africa. In fact any central bank which has engaged in gold lending is a candidate for having some of its gold stored at the Bank of England.
Spanish people take note. Spain refused to say where its 281.6 tonnes of gold is stored, and Banco de España has the dubious record of being Europe’s least transparent bank as regards gold reserves storage locations. Maybe a project for Spanish journalists.
Banque de France keeps 9% of its 2,435 tonnes of gold reserves abroad, and has in the past engaged in gold lending. So this 9%, or 219 tonnes, is probably stored at the Bank of England.
The ECB and BIS no doubt have more gold stored at the Bank of England than the figures currently reflect. This would also increase the ‘known gold’ total. Egypt is another country which has had a gold set aside account at the Bank of England so is in my view an obvious candidate for the list.
Adding to the known total is therefore a work in progress.
Venezuela’s gold reserves have rarely stayed out of the financial news headlines over the last four years. From initial gold repatriation announcements in August 2011, through to gold shipments from Europe to Venezuela’s capital, Caracas, in late 2011 and early 2012, as well as the more recent negotiations on using gold in swaps and for loan collateral, the Venezuelan gold story has filled many column inches.
However, much of the coverage has been disjointed and purely focused on the story of the day. The analysis below aims to take a broader overview and to provide a big picture treatment. To understand where Venezuela’s gold got to where it is today, you have to understand where it’s been.
The analysis is divided into two parts. Part 1 starts with a short historical overview of Venezuela’s gold up to 1992, followed by an examination of where the gold, and the claims on gold, were located just prior to repatriation in 2011. It also drills down into the composition of the gold now held in the BCV vaults and shows that these bars would be expected to consist of roughly equal percentages of London Good Delivery bars and US Assay Office ‘melt’ bars.
Part 2 examines the actual repatriation exercises in late 2011 and early 2012, and takes a look at the renewed circling of the Venezuelan gold by the international investment banks, most recently illustrated by Venezuela’s gold swap negotiations with Goldman Sachs in late 2013, and the more recent gold swap agreement with Citibank in April 2015.
Since Venezuela was able to fly 160 tonnes of gold on cargo flights across the Atlantic Ocean from Europe to Caracas in 2 months, it begs the question, why has the German Bundesbank not been able to fly 300 tonnes of gold from New York to Frankfurt in 4 months?
El Oro y El BCV – Some History
According to the World Gold Council’s latest list of IMF collated and reported World Official Gold Holdings as of May 2015 (IFS), Venezuela’s central bank, Banco Central de Venezuela (BCV), officially holds 367.6 tonnes of gold within its international reserves, ranking Venezuela as the world’s 16th largest official gold holder. This gold comprises 68.9%, by value, of Venezuela’s total international reserves. Given that many of the countries on the IMF list employ very opaque reporting standards for their gold, Venezuela would probably rank a number of places higher in a more realistic world list, even since re-commencing active management of some of its gold reserves through swaps.
The BCV was established as Venezuela’s central bank in 1939 and has it’s headquarters in Caracas. As early as 1940, the BCV’s international reserves totalled $31 million, of which $29 million (~26 tonnes) was in the form of monetary gold. This gold had been mostly transferred to the BCV from Venezuela’s private banks, and was used as a backing for bank-note issuance which was a function that the BCV took over from the private banks.
33 Liberty: Federal Reserve Bank of New York, Manhattan
In 1942, the BCV’s gold reserves totalled $67 million dollars (59.78 tonnes), with 36.23 tonnes in the BCV vaults and 23.55 tonnes in the custody in the gold vault of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York (FRBNY) under 33 Liberty in Manhattan.
By the end of World War II, the BCV’s gold holdings had increased to approximately 180 tonnes, most of which was classified as monetary gold. This rapid accumulation of gold at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York (in the form of US Assay office melt bars) arose from US payments of gold to Venezuela in exchange for Venezuelan oil exports to the US, i.e. gold-for-oil transactions.
Following World War II, the BCV continued to convert any surplus income not required for import payments into gold, and in 1948 Venezuela had built up holdings of 287 tonnes of gold, making it the 8th largest gold holder in the world, and the largest gold holder in Latin America. During this period, the BCV says that it “streamlined the transfer of gold” from FRBNY custody to the BCV vaults in Caracas. In 1957, the BCV also bought two large ‘lots’ of fine gold bars from the IMF. As a result, in 1957-1958, Venezuelan gold holdings reached their highest level ever at nearly 640 tonnes.
The gold-for-oil transactions between Venezuela and the US are also referenced in the BCV’s 2011 Economic Report (large file – page 91) which states:
“A mediados de los años cincuenta, el acervo de oro alcanzó 639 toneladas, en la medida en que las exportaciones petroleras a Estados Unidos fueron pagadas a la nación con barras de oro del Banco de la Reserva Federal de Nueva York.”
“In the mid-fifties, the stock of gold reached 639 tonnes, to the extent that oil exports to the United States were paid to the nation with gold bars of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.”
In 1961, the BCV needed to acquire foreign exchange from the IMF, some or all of which was paid for with gold, and Venezuela’s gold reserves fell by nearly 300 tonnes, to approximately 340 tonnes, and then rose slightly in the 1960s to between 356 and 357 tonnes.
Fast forwarding to 1986, the BCV made a decision to engage in the “proactive management of monetary gold in the international market“, and in the late 1980’s moved “a significant portion” of gold from its vaults in Caracas to the Bank of England vaults in London as a prelude to “investing” this gold in the London Gold Market. The BCV adopted the good delivery standard for the gold sent to London and invested these holdings in interest-earning financial transactions such as swaps and gold deposits. These gold operations were established with “first-class financial institutions as enshrined in the Central Bank Law“, which “narrowed” the allowable counter-parties (i.e. narrowed the counter-parties to certain LBMA bullion banks).
To the Bank of England and beyond
Specifically, as at 31 December 1986, 14.7% of Venezuela’s 356 tonnes of gold was held at the FRB vaults in New York, and 85.3% was held at the BCV vaults in Caracas. Six years later, on 31 December 1992, 14.7% of this same 356 tonne quantity of gold was still at the FRB in New York, 43.3% was still at the BCV in Caracas, but now 28.5% had moved to the Bank of England and 13.4% was said to be with the BIS (note: this adds up to 99.9% due to rounding errors).
There are slight discrepancies in the data sources as to whether the BCV held 357 tonnes or 356 tonnes in the late 1980s / early 1990s, but the Venezuelan Government figures at the end of December 1992 were 154.5 tonnes in Caracas (43.3% of the gold reserves), 101.8 tonnes at the Bank of England (28.5%), 52.2 tonnes in the FRBNY (14.7%), and 47.79 tonnes with the BIS (13.4%). This gold distribution adds up to 356.29 tonnes.
Note that initially in the late 1980’s, 89.72 tonnes of gold was transferred from the BCV to the Bank of England, and this amount appears to have been augmented slightly to 101.8 tonnes by the end of 1992. This would also suggest that the gold deposited with the BIS was via the BIS’ gold account at the Bank of England in London.
Various Venezuelan news articles such as here claim that gold began to be moved to London, initially surreptitiously, from the BCV in Caracas beginning with 8 tonnes on 5 August 1988, and then another 8 tonnes on 21 February 1989 when the newly elected president, Carlos Andres Perez, came to power for a second time.
The above historical account should go someway towards explaining how Venezuelan gold ended up at the Bank of England in the late 1980s and early 1990s. However, it is not the full story. To get a fuller picture, you also have to work in reverse from 2011 back to 1992. Luckily, the BCV has provided a roadmap that helps in this regard.
Blueprint of Venezuelan gold holdings as at 8 August 2011
In early August 2011, Venezuela’s president, Hugo Chávez, pronounced a series of directives which would dramatically alter how the country’s international reserves were invested and managed. These directives, which were contained in a document titled “Proposed relocation of the International Reserves“, called for:
the transfer of operating reserves from banks in Europe and the US to banks in Russia, China and Brazil, within a two month period
the transfer of monetary gold held abroad back to the BCV vaults in Venezuela, within a two month period
Note that the BCV classifies international reserves into a) operating reserves (“liquid reserves”), comprising short-term cash and cash like instruments invested with institutions such as investment banks and the BIS, and b) non-operational reserves such as gold and SDRs.
Throughout the 1990s and 2000s, the BCV’s gold holdings had remained static at 357 tonnes until the 2008/2009 period. During 2008, the BCV’s board made a decision to send its non-monetary gold holdings abroad for “strategic use” (i.e. investment operations). Some of this non-monetary gold was purchased from Venezuelan gold mine production. In early 2009 and 2010, the BCV “monetized its non-monetary gold” by having it refined into good delivery bars and then moved this gold to London to participate in return generating transactions. This led to the 357 tonnes total rising to 361 tonnes in 2009 and then 364 tonnes in 2010. By 2011, Venezuela’s gold holdings had reached nearly 366 tonnes.
Type of bars held and monetary coins
In page 17 of its Powerpoint presentation (March 2010), the BCV lists an inventory of its monetary gold as consisting of:
Amonedado (coins) comprising “Eagles, Liberty and Indian Head”
Barras Bóvedas BCV (bars in the BCV vaults) comprising “Fed Melted Bars” *
Bóvedas BI y otros (bars in Bank of England and others) comprising “Good Delivery” bars
* The “Fed Melted Bars” that the BCV refer to are US Assay Office melts (batches of ~ 18 to 22 bars), and the BCV notes that these bars “exceed 995 fine, but lack a refiner seal certifying assay“. What the BCV means is that although these bars have the correct fineness to be good delivery bars, they are not good delivery until they have been individually weighted and individually stamped (i.e. until the Melts have been broken). See “The Keys to the Gold Vaults at the New York Fed – Part 3: ‘Coin Bars’, ‘Melts’ and the Bundesbank” for an explanation of US Assay Office ‘melts’.
Based on this BCV inventory, the entire repatriation by Venezuela would be expected to have consisted of London Good Delivery bars. It also would mean that following the repatriation, the BCV vaults held a roughly 50% – 50% combination of US Assay Office ‘melt’ bars and London Good Delivery bars. See section below on ‘How many Gold Bars did Venezuela have in August 2011′.
Venezuela’s Gold in August 2011
The August 2011 international reserves document from Chávez, which was actually issued by the then BCV president, Nelson Merentes, and the then Venezuelan finance minister, Jorge Giordani, included a detailed breakdown of the composition and location of Venezuela’s gold reserves as at 8 August 2011, in the form of the table below. This table illustrates that Venezuela’s gold that was held abroad had experienced some very interesting transformations between 1992 and 2011.
Gold on deposit vs Gold time deposits
According to the table, as at 8 August 2011, Venezuela held 365.82 tonnes of gold, with 154.47 tonnes in Venezuela custodied in the vaults of the BCV (42.22% of the gold), and 211.35 tonnes held abroad (57.78% of the gold). The gold held abroad was classified into two broad categories, namely, “Sólo Depositado” (gold deposited only or on deposit only) totalling 128.48 tonnes, and “A Plazo” (gold ‘time’ deposits or ‘term’ deposits) totalling 82.87 tonnes.
Since the English equivalent of these two phrases can be confusing, the “Sólo Depositado” can be considered to be physical gold that has been deposited with a bank, much like a sight deposit at a bank, while the “A Plazo” is gold lent by the central bank to commercial bullion banks whereby the banks pay interest to the central bank for borrowing the gold. The central bank has a claim to the gold that it lent, and the bullion banks have a gold liability to the central bank.
Bank of England, the BIS, and J.P. Morgan
Of the 128.48 tonnes of physical gold deposited abroad, this was deposited with three entities, namely, TheBank of England, TheBank for International Settlements, and J.P. Morgan. The lion’s share of this deposited gold, 99.21 tonnes, was with the Bank of England. A further 11.85 tonnes was deposited via the BIS and a further 17.42 tonnes was deposited with JP Morgan. Each of these three entities is listed next to the country of its “headquarters” i.e. England, Switzerland and the US, respectively.
It’s not clear if the Venezuelan gold held by the Bank of England was held ‘underearmark‘ (i.e. specific bars allocated in custody via a Bailor-Bailee relationship), or held ‘on a fine ounce basis‘ (i.e. within a larger pool of gold (pool allocated) where Venezuela would own a specific number of fine ounces but not specific bars). Given that there is no mention of ‘earmarked’ gold in the table, and given that the deposit was described as a sight deposit (see below), the gold attributed to the Bank of England was probably held as a deposit on a fine ounce basis.
The same logic would apply to the gold deposited into a BIS account (probably also at the Bank of England). Gold lending only works if the lent gold is fungible which enables the Bank of England or the BIS to transfer bars to the borrowers and get back other bars at a future date. Its unclear from the table as to where the gold deposited with JP Morgan was stored, and also unclear if this gold was unencumbered and free of other liens, claims and hypothecations.
Table 1: How Venezuela’s gold reserves were distributed as of 8 August 2011
Of the 82.87 tonnes of lent gold that comprised gold time deposits (22.65% of Venezuela’s gold), these time deposits were shared out between five bullion banks, namely, The Bank of Nova Scotia, Barclays, Standard Chartered, HSBC and BNP Paribas. The countries listed next to these five bank are, in all cases, the countries where their ‘headquarters’ are based, except for BNP Paribas, which strangely, is listed with a country of ‘United States’ despite its headquarters being located in Paris, France. So it appears that a BNP Paribas US entity was involved in borrowing Venezuelan gold. Note that BNP merged with Paribas in 2000 after a takeover battle involving Société Générale.
These gold time deposits represent the gold that was lent by the BCV to the bullion market in order to generate a return to the BCV. This gold, when lent, was either sold or lent on further by the original bullion bank borrowers or used by them in a proprietary manner, or some combination of the three.
Note that London entities of all six bullion banks in the above table are members of the London Bullion Market Association (LBMA). Five of them are now LBMA market makers (except BNP Paribas), and four of them are clearing members of London Precious Metals Clearing Ltd (LPMCL), namely HSBC, JP Morgan, Scotia and Barclays.
For all of the above deposits / investments, the BCV’s allocation table specified the year of commencement of operations (fecha de inicio de operaciones), and in the case of the time deposits, the expiration date of the placements (fecha de vencimiento de colocaciones). For the gold on deposit with the Bank of England, BIS and JP Morgan, these deposits were described as ‘sight’ deposits with no expiration date.
In this table from 2011, the gold on deposit at the Bank of England is stated as having commenced in 1980. However, this contradicts the BCV pie-chart (see graphic above) which stated that in 1986, the Venezuelan gold was only held at the BCV and the FRBNY, and also contradicts the BCV history which maintained that “initially in the late 1980’s, 89.72 tonnes was transferred from the BCV to the Bank of England”.
Given that all bar gold at the BCV and the FRBNY would have been in the form of US Assay Office melts, it implies that all of the Venezuelan bars that ended up at the Bank of England and in the London market needed to be, at a minimum, individually weighted and stamped when received. Given that there have been concerns about the quality of US Assay Office 995 fine bars (for example the gold given by the FRBNY to the Bundesbank in 1968), some US Assay Office bar holders may decide to refine them to bring them up to a correct and trustable good delivery standard.
According to the BCV table, Venezuela only deposited gold with the BIS beginning in April 2009, while the gold deposit with JP Morgan commenced in 1999 (so the JP Morgan deposit was in existence for more than 11 years). Note that JP Morgan merged with Chase Manhattan in 2000. Since Venezuela had previous deposited gold with the BIS from as early as December 1992, the record of an April 2009 deposit with the BIS looks like a fresh allocation to a BIS account at that time.
Scotia, Barclays, StanChar, HSBC and BNP Paribas – Time Deposits
Of the five gold time deposits arrangements, the relationship with Bank of Nova Scotia was stated as commencing in 1992, while the operations with the other four bullion banks are listed as beginning in 2004. However, a note to the table states that “Since 2004, the Central Bank has kept automated records of the operations with these institutions. However, the first operations (manual) are dated from previous years” (i.e. prior to 2004).
Interestingly, three of these bullion banks, namely Barclays, Bank of Nova Scotia, and Standard Chartered, are the same three banks that the central bank of El Salvador had recently engaged in gold time deposits with. See “El Salvador’s gold reserves, the BIS, and the bullion banks” for details. In fact, these three names crop up hosting gold time deposits with other Latin American central banks. More on that in a future article.
The gold time deposits appear to have been generally for periods of approximately one month because, as of 8 August 2011, all of the deposits expired between 8 and 14 September 2011.
Note, the final ‘total’ row in the above table is named ‘Total Oro‘ but only totals to 237.34 tonnes. This looks like a typo whereby the 154.47 tonnes at the BCV was added to the 82.87 tonnes of time deposits, but the 128.48 tonnes of real gold deposits were omitted.
The transformation of Venezuela’s gold from 1992 to 2011
Given that we know the geographic allocation of Venezuela’s gold on 31 December 1992 (start of period) and also know how the geographic allocation stood in August 2011 (end of period), as well as when the end of period distributions started, it’s possible to draw some observations.
Recall that at the end of 1992, Venezuela held 154.5 tonnes of gold at the BCV vaults in Caracas (43.3%), 101.8 tonnes at the Bank of England (28.5%), 52.2 tonnes in the FRBNY (14.7%), and 47.79 tonnes with the BIS (13.4%). A total of 356.29 tonnes, and note that the FRBNY and BIS holdings add up to 99.99 tonnes (let’s call it 100 tonnes).
At the beginning of August 2011, Venezuela held 154.47 tonnes at the BCV, 99.21 tonnes at the Bank of England, 17.42 tonnes with JP Morgan, 11.82 tonnes with the BIS, and 82.87 tonnes as time deposits with fivebullion banks. A total of 365.82 tonnes, i.e. 9.53 tonnes more than in 1992.
Through the 1990s and 2000s
1. The 154.5 tonnes of physical gold that was at the BCV in Caracas in 1992 was still at the BCV in August 2011.
2. Gold, in a practically equivalent amount to that deposited at the Bank of England by December 1992 (i.e. 101.8 tonnes) was still deposited at the Bank of England in August 2011 (i.e. a 2.59 ton reduction to 99.21 tonnes). This was not necessarily the same gold though since it could have been involved in multiple transactions between 1992-2011.
3. The gold that was’ in custody’ at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York (FRBNY) in 1992 (i.e. 52.2 tonnes) was no longer accounted for as being at the FRBNY in 2011. This gold may have been physically moved to the Bank of England or else swapped to London, however, some or all of it may have stayed in the FRBNY vault or in the vicinity of New York. This is so because some bullion banks such as JP Morgan have in the past had gold accounts at the FRBNY when they held sovereign gold as collateral for loan advances (e.g. lending to Spain in the 1950s).
The FRBNY will insist that commercial banks cannot hold gold accounts at the FRBNY, however, commercial banks have been named gold account holders at the FRBNY (holding gold as collateral) in the past. Furthermore, JP Morgan’s gold vault is right next door to the FRBNY gold vault(s) and may be connected to the FRBNY vault area. See “The Keys to the Gold Vaults at the New York Fed – Part 2: The Auxiliary Vault” for details. So it’s possible that the 17.42 tonnes that was deposited with JP Morgan was held in New York in JP Morgan’s vault or in the name of JP Morgan at the FRBNY vault.
Interestingly, given that there were 52.2 tonnes of Venezuela’s gold at the FRBNY in 1992, its notable that the totals for the gold deposit with JP Morgan, and the time deposits with BNP Paribas (US), Bank of Nova Scotia and Standard Chartered in the above table add up to a combined 51.41 tonnes, which is quite close to the 52.2 ton FRBNY total (a difference of 0.79 tonnes). So the FRBNY gold could have been divided out to these four entities in the 1990s and 2000s.
4. The 47.79 tonnes at the BIS in 1992 had, by 2011, become only 11.82 tonnes at the BIS, i.e. a drop of 35.97 tonnes. Gold deposited to the Bank of England by a foreign central bank can be transferred in and out of the BIS gold accounts at the Bank of England and also in and out of the commercial LBMA bullion bank gold accounts at the Bank of England. Given these transfer possibilities, it’s not surprising that Venezuela’s gold positions with the BIS have fluctuated widely over time.
5. From being stored with four official sector entities in 1992 (according to the BCV data), the Venezuelan gold, in 2011, was being ‘minded’ by nine entities, six of which were commercial bullion banks / investment banks.
6. Roughly speaking, the combined 100 tonnes of gold custodied by the FRBNY and the BIS in 1992 had become 112.14 tonnes in 2011 spread over the BIS, JP Morgan, Barclays, HSBC, Scotia, StanChar and BNP Paribas. This transformation in the 1990s and 2000s of custodied gold into lent gold as well as physical gold deposited with a bullion bank (in the case of JP Morgan) is in line with the BCV’s stated intention in the late 1980s to proactively move some of its gold to London (in the form of good delivery gold), so as to actively participate in the financial market for gold and earn a return on the participating gold.
The 12.14 tonne increase from 1992 to 2011 among the above entities was due to a real increase in 9.53 tonnes of Venezuela’s gold over 1992 to 2011 (non-monetary gold converted to monetary gold and sent to London) as well as a net 2.59 ton reduction in the amount of gold deposited with the Bank of England (9.53 + 2.59 = 12.12).
This 12.14 ton net increase, when added to the reduction of 35.97 tonnes held with the BIS, equals 48.11 tonnes, which is very close to the combined gold lent (time deposits) to Barclays and HSBC of 48.89 tonnes ( i.e. 45.84 + 3.05 = 48.89 tonnes), and just leaves a 0.78 ton difference, which is the residual amount that was left over in the above FRBNY calculation. So in theory, the Barclays and HSBC time deposits could have been sourced from a transfer from Venezuela’s BIS gold account balance as well as the extra gold that the BCV sent to London in 2009 and 2010.
7. There may have been many other bullion banks that held gold time deposits for Venezuela over the period 1992 – 2011. The 2011 data is just an end-of-period snapshot. Likewise, some of Venezuela’s gold could have moved in and out of Bank of England and BIS gold accounts, and, less likely, moved in and out of a FRB gold account, over the intervening period. Without the inventory records, it’s not possible to know.
Changes to Venezuela’s gold reserves since early August 2011
Venezuela’s current gold holdings (in May 2015) of 367.6 tonnes versus early August 2011 total holdings of 366 tonnes mask some fluctuations over the period which were due to various small purchases and sale transactions.
“Purchases of gold made by the BCV in the country reached 1.6 tonnes of fine gold for Bs. 328.88 million. In 2012, 3.6 tonnes of non-currency gold in stock were refined to the condition of good delivery. Those bars bought directly from the domestic market comprised this stock. This amount was monetized and included as asset of the reserves in currency gold of the issuing body, thus maintaining the same heritage of the previous year.”
“According to the latest IMF data, Venezuela sold 3.7 tonnes in August alone, bringing total sales so far this year to about 10.9 tonnes. Venezuela now has 362 tonnes of gold reserves, compared to 372.9 tonnes at the beginning of this year .”
Other small purchases since the end of 2012 brought the total back up to the current 367 tonnes.
How many Gold Bars did Venezuela have in August 2011?
In the BCV’s 2011 Economic Report (see link above) on page 92, it states that:
“El instituto emisor logró la repatriación de 160 toneladas de oro monetario (12.819 barras good delivery)”
“The Central Bank managed the repatriation of 160 tonnes of monetary gold (12,819 good delivery bars)”
In a Venezuelan media article from November 2011, it states that:
“El pasado 23 de agosto, Merentes anunció la repatriación de 16.908 lingotes de oro de los 29.265 lingotes que Venezuela posee.”
“On August 23, Merentes announced the repatriation of 16,908 gold bullion ingots of the 29,265 ingots that Venezuela owns.”
These bar numbers roughly equate to tonnes as follows. Assuming a good delivery bar is a 400 oz bar, then 12,819 bars = 159.49 tonnes, and 16,908 bars = 210.36 tonnes, and the difference of 4,089 bars = 50.87 tonnes. The total of 29,265 bars = 364.10 tonnes. These figures are very close to the stated gold totals in the above BCV table from August 2011.
The reference to 16,908 bars was therefore assuming that all the gold held abroad was being repatriated, which turned out not to be the case and approximately 50 tonnes was left behind at the Bank of England in London. From the numbers above we therefore know that Venezuela owned 29,265 bars in total, with 16,908 bars held abroad (including claims on bars containing the equivalent number of fine ounces that were deposited or lent), of which 12,819 bars were repatriated, and 4,089 bars left in the Bank of England’s vaults. It also means that there were 12,357 bars held in the BCV vaults in Caracas before the gold repatriation started, and 25,176 bars in the BCV vaults when the repatriation completed.
Both the gold repatriated and the gold left in the Bank of England are assumed to be entirely made up of London Good Delivery bars, since all the bars that entered the London market would have to be Good Delivery bars. The gold that was in the BCV vaults in Caracas prior to the repatriation is assumed to entirely consist of US Assay Office or other US Mint ‘melts’. Therefore, following repatriation of the gold, 50.92% of the bars in the BCV vaults should have been London Good Delivery bars, and 49.08% should have been in the form of US ‘melts’.
Since there were 211.35 tonnes of Venezuela’s gold stored abroad, the average fineness of the good delivery bars was 401.875 fine ounces. Since there were 154.47 tonnes of Venezuela’s gold stored in Caracas before the repatriation, most if not all of which were in the form of US Assay Office melt bars, the average fineness of these bars was therefore 401.90 fine ounces. This is assuming the ingot numbers are correct and that they were not reverse calculated in any way by the BCV from older records of bar numbers and fine ounces.
The Chávez declaration from 8 August 2011 called for the transfer of gold back to Venezuela so that 90% of the country’s gold would end up stored in the BCV vaults, and interestingly, it envisaged that the gold transfers would be completed by October 2011.
This timeline of an August – October repatriation never materialised, and the gold shipments to Caracas only commenced in late November 2011 and ended on the last day of January 2012. It’s unclear as to what caused this delay or indeed if the October deadline was merely an unrealistic expectation by Chavez and the BCV, or a real delay caused by gold sourcing or other logistical issues from the Bank of England, BIS and bullion banks. Neither the BCV nor the media (Venezuelan or international) appears to have covered or explained this shifting completion deadline.
What is clear is that the move by Venezuela to repatriate very large quantities of gold, which was publicly announced in early August 2011, was one of the key drivers that caused a run-up in the gold price before, during, and after August 2011, and which culminated in a multi-year high price of over $1900 on 6 September 2011. See BullionStarChart for US Dollar gold price movements before, during, and after August 2011.
With five bullion banks needing to provide nearly 83 tonnes of gold to Venezuela in a short space of time so as to close out their gold deposit liabilities, it would be realistic to assume that this had a material impact on bullion demand in the London and possibly wider gold market. Based on normal protocols as well as market intelligence, the bullion banks in question, as well as the BIS and Bank of England would most likely have known about the approaching BCV/Chavez announcement for a significant period of time prior to August 2011.
As to whether demand tightness was heightened even more by Venezuela’s closing out of physical deposits with the Bank of England, BIS and JP Morgan is hard to quantify. It would depend on the extent to which these deposits were free of other claims, that might necessitate sourcing replacement gold elsewhere.
The manner in which all of the gold was sourced for fulfilling Venezuela’s repatriation request may never fully be known. What is known is that the repatriation operations to fly the gold to Caracas International Airport, and transport it to the BCV’s downtown vaults, included some of the largest and most public gold moving operations that most people are ever likely to witness.
These operations, over a two month period from the end of November 2011 to the end of January 2012 included gold flown in on Air France and World Airways aircraft.
Part 2 of this Venezuelan gold reserves analysis, titled “Venezuela’s Gold Reserves – Part 2: From Repatriation to Reactivation“, covers the gold repatriation operations and these very public airport operations, and features some interesting videos of the transport operations taken by camera crews who were effectively part of the operation. Part 2 also covers the extensive re-involvement with Venezuela’s gold reserves by some of the largest names in global investment banking.
According to a Reuters report from 24 April, the central bank of El Salvador, Banco Central de Reserva de El Salvador (BCR), sold approximately 80% of its gold reserves during March 2015. This sale comprised 5.412 tons of gold and raised $206 million for the Bank.
Reuters initiated its story based on updates to the International Monetary Fund’s gold reserve data, which this month was updated on 24 April. Each month, the IMF updates its International Financial Statistics dataset with economic data (on a one to two month lag) including country gold reserve data reported to it by member countries.
However, the Reuters story was very brief and failed to explain any of the details about El Salvador’s gold or the March gold sales. Therefore, to correct this situation, the full story is explained below.
IMF gold reserve data by country
The IMF elibrary web site is the entry point for retrieving monthly country gold reserve data (by volume in fine troy ounces) for any IMF member country. Note that on the IMF’s site, gold reserve data is part of the International Financial Statistics (IFS) dataset and not part of the International Reserves dataset. The IFS dataset was subscription-based until January 2015, after which the IMF made a number of datasets, including IFS, free to access.
IFS gold reserve data for El Salvador shows that starting with a total of 223,000 ounces of gold in November 2014, the central bank’s gold reserves fell by 5,000 ozs to 218,000 ozs in December 2014, before dropping by another 174,000 ozs to 44,000 ozs in March 2015, making an overall fall of 179,000 ozs between November and March. See table below:
Looking at El Salvador’s quarterly gold reserve data since Q2 2014, as well as its annual gold reserve data since 2011, shows that the only movements in the country’s gold holdings over the last 4 years were the December 2014 and March 2015 gold sales. See table below:
However, the best source of information on the Banco Central de Reserva de El Salvador’s (BCR) gold holdings, is of course, the bank’s own publications. The BCR, like a number of other central banks in the region, divulges relatively more information about its gold holdings than most other central banks in other parts of the world.
The Bank for International Settlements, Barclays and Scotia
Section 7 of this statement addresses the BCR’s gold deposits (Depósitos en Oro) and is quite detailed in the information that it provides. See screenshot below:
As of 30th September 2014, the BCR claimed a gold holding of 223,113.213 troy ounces. Exactly 85% of this gold holding (189,646 ozs) was said to be held as deposits of physical gold (Depósitos de oro físico) with the Bank for International Settlements (BIS). The BIS offers gold “safekeeping and settlements facilities” that are “available loco London, Berne or New York“, i.e. the BIS maintains gold accounts in three locations, so El Salvador’s gold could have been held with the BIS in any of these three locations.
The remainder of the gold holdings comprised 31 day time deposits in gold (Depósitos a plazo en oro) placed with two bullion banks, and derivative coverage (Derivado de Cobertura) with the BIS in the form of two put options entered into in March 2014.
The time deposits in gold were placed in equal sizes with Barclays Bank and the Bank of Nova Scotia. Each of these time deposits represented 7.5% of El Salvador’s gold holdings, specifically 16,733 ozs with Barclays and 16,734 ozs with Scotia, and 15% in total. The combined deposits also totalled 33,467 ozs, just over 1 ton. Interest on gold deposits is usually paid in gold that accrues and is added to the outstanding deposit total, so this amount in excess of 1 ton may represent interest payable to the BCR by the bullion banks.
Note that both Barclays and Scotia were two of the member banks of the recently defunct London Gold Market Fixing Company which managed the daily London gold fixings, and the two banks are also now two of the seven participants in the new LBMA Gold Price auction which recently replaced the gold fixings. Barclays and Scotia are also two of the six member bullion clearing banks which constitute London Precious Metals Clearing Ltd (LPMCL).
There was also a residual line item under the BCR’s time deposits in gold attributed to a third bullion bank, Standard Chartered. Finally, the BIS derivatives coverage line item accounted for 2,180 ozs.
At the stated valuation price of $1,216.50 per ounce, the above totals add up to 225,293 ozs of gold, but subtracting the derivatives line item of 2,180 ozs yields 223,113 ozs, which is the total gold holding that the BCR claims to hold. The gold representing the derivatives (put options explained below) line item seems to represent a loss on the puts expressed in gold that the BCR makes an adjustment for by subtracting it from its ‘total’ gold holding, hence it reported a gold holding of 223,113 ozs.
The last notes to the above section 7 state that:
“OnMarch 12, 2014, twoput options with a maturity of one year were entered into, with a notional value of11,200and211,913.213troyounces respectively, atan exercise priceof US $1,100.00per troyounce.
However, on 30 June the BCR had an active time deposit in gold placed with Standard Chartered as well as with Barclays and Scotia, and so was using three bullion banks for placing its gold deposits.
Using a valuation price of $1,315 per troy ounce, the June report shows that Barclays held a time deposit in gold for the BCR of 16,733 ozs, Scotia held a deposit of 8,467 ozs and Standard Chartered held a deposit of 8,267 ozs. These deposits also rolled over with a one month maturity.
The gold deposit with Barclays in June 2014 is identical to that of September 2014, so it was just being renewed by the BCR every month and rolling over with Barclays. Note that the Scotia and StanChar deposits of 8,267 ozs and 8,467 ozs respectively, add up to 16,734 ozs, so between June and September, these two deposits were combined at some point when they matured and were then placed together with Scotia.
In the June accounts, the amount of gold attributed to the ‘derivatives’ (put options) is only 711 ozs, or US$935,761 and so the total amount of gold listed below adds up to 223,825 ozs. Subtracting the 711 ozs (loss) again gives 223,113 ozs, the BCR’s published gold holding. Gold was trading at about $1,300 in June 2014 but there was still about 9 months left until the expiration date of the options.
Gold Deposits = Gold Lending
It’s important to grasp what these gold deposits with bullion banks are. This is merely gold lending by a central bank which has lent this gold out to LBMA bullion banks at very low deposit rates of maybe 0.5% – 1.00%. The LBMA bullion banks, at the time the lending first occurred, obtained the physical gold and immediately sold it.
These are short-term gold deposits, which keep maturing every month or so, therefore a central bank has to keep renewing them, either with the same LBMA bullion bank or another LBMA bullion bank which is in the market quoting to take these deposits. The central banks do this by sending MT60* series SWIFT messages to the bullion banks. These gold deposits that a central bank puts out can stay out for years and years after they were first entered into. For example, Bolivia has had gold deposits out with LBMA bullion banks since 1997, or over 17 years. I will write about Bolivia’s gold lending in detail at some point.
None of the LBMA bullion banks actually has this gold on deposit, since its been sold. The banks just take over the obligation to pay the gold back to the central bank. So the claims that the central bank has to the bullion banks just keep switching around. One month the claims could be on Barclays, Scotia and Standard Chartered. A few months later the claims could be to Natixis, BNP Paribas and HSBC etc etc.
Lots of central banks engage in this activity, they just don’t report it in as much detail as, for example, El Salvador or Bolivia. The Austrian federal auditors recently published a report which showed that Austria’s central bank, the OeNB, was actively engaging in gold lending with multiple bullion banks, with up to 10 counter-parties in 2009. See here.
Selling its Gold did not make sense for El Salvador
In its 24 April story, Reuters reported from San Salvador that a central bank of El Salvador official had said that the gold sales were to “diversify risk and take advantage of the metal’s appreciation”, as well as to protect the Bank’s reserve portfolio “against market volatility”. This explanation doesn’t make a lot of sense especially since the put options were out of the money in March 2015.
Firstly, the gold price has not appreciated very much recently, and in US dollar terms it has fallen notably since September 2011. El Salvador’s gold holdings did not change at all over 2011-2014 and their value went down, not up. So, at this time, the reference to the “metal’s appreciation” is bogus, since even if the cost price was substantially lower, a far better time to sell would have been in 2011-2012.
Secondly, gold as a reserve asset in a central bank reserve portfolio is held precisely because it provides diversification and can act as an inflation hedge, currency hedge and also represents a reserve asset or war chest of last resort. In the World Gold Council’s latest ‘World_Official_Gold_Holdings_as_of_April2015_IFS’ report from early April, when El Salvador was listed as holding 6.8 tons of gold, this represented 9.9% of the BCR’s total reserves.
Emerging market central banks have been actively increasing their gold reserves in recent years, so as to increase the gold percentage in their reserves to something approaching 10%. Since El Salvador had an enviable ratio of nearly 10% of gold to total reserves that many emerging central banks are striving to reach, it does not make any sense as to why the BCR suddenly turned around and ruined this ratio, by selling nearly four-fifths of its gold. The BCR’s gold to total reserves ratio is now a miniscule 2% of its total reserve portfolio. There may therefore have been other considerations at play between El Salvador and the BIS such as the BIS suggesting the sale.
So, which gold did El Salvador sell?
Recall that the BCR’s two put options with the BIS were entered into on 12 March 2014 and had a maturity of one year and a strike price of US$ 1,100 per troy ounce. One put was for a notional value of 11,200 troy ounces and the other was for a notional value of 211,913.213 troy ounces. But with the strike price at $1,100 there was no value in exercising them.
For the month of March, the US dollar gold price traded in a range from about $1,220 down to $1,150. From 2nd to 12th March, gold also traded roughly in a range from near $1,220 at the start of the month, down to near $1,150 on 12th March, but still above $1,100.
Recall that as of 30 September 2014, the central bank of El Salvador had 223,113 ozs of gold, of which 189,646 ozs was held in “deposits of physical gold” with the BIS, and 33,467 ozs was held as time deposits of gold with commercial bullion banks.
In November 2014, as stated, the Salvadoreans sold 5,000 oz, leaving 218,113 ozs, and then the major sale occurred in March 2015 of 174,000 oz (or 5.412 tons). In total that’s 179,000 ozs of sales, leaving El Salvador with 44,000 ozs.
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. On its website, under ‘foreign exchange and gold services”, the BIS states that it offers “purchases and sales of gold: spot, outright, swap or options“.
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. And additionally, the bullion banks do not have El Salvador’s gold, they would need to use their own stocks or go out into the market to buy gold in order to repay the BCR.
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.
The case of the El Salvador gold sales demonstrates that central banks can and do use the gold depositing facilities of the Bank for International Settlements, and also the gold lending services of LBMA commercial bullion banks such as Barclays, the Bank of Scotia and Standard Chartered amongst many others. The case of El Salvador also shows that central banks actively use derivatives such as put options within the management of the gold component of their reserve portfolios.
It would be naive to think that the bullion banks and the BIS are just providing these services to small emerging market central banks in Central America. It would be more realistic to suggest that the bullion banks and the BIS are providing these gold reserve portfolio services (with scale) to many central banks.
It’s also a shame that neither Reuters nor any other financial news organisation sees fit to write anything of substance about El Salvador or other central banks and the real workings of the interbank and BIS gold market given that it’s not that difficult to produce an article such as the above within a few hours of research and writing.
With the current structure of the London gold price fixings disappearing in the very near future, there is an unusual story that I’d like to share about the gold fixings. It concerns the Bank of England’s ‘gold activities’ in the daily London Gold Fixings during the 1980s, and my attempts to get the Bank to explain what these ‘gold activities’ consisted of.
These ‘gold activities’ of the Bank came to light within some comments that senior Bank of England employee Oliver Page wrote about fellow senior Bank of England colleague and contemporary Terry Smeeton:
Before looking at Mr. Smeeton’s ‘gold activities’, it’s worth getting a sense of the roles of Terry Smeeton and Oliver Page at the Bank of England by briefly looking at the career profiles of these two gents.
Terry Smeeton and Oliver Page
In the 1980s and 1990s, Terry Smeeton was one of the Bank of England’s experts on the gold market, and he rose to attain the position of Head of Foreign Exchange and Gold at the Bank. Smeeton joined the Bank of England in 1960 and remained at ‘The Old Lady’ until retiring in 1998. After leaving Threadneedle Street in March 1998, Smeeton went on to be a non-executive director of Standard Bank from July 1998 to September 2007, and in 2002 was appointed as advisory board member to the Dubai Metals and Commodities Centre (DMCC) and head of the centre’s Gold Management committee. Terry Smeeton passed away in September 2007.
In the 1990s while still at the Bank, Smeeton was also the Bank of England’s representative on the G-10 Gold and Foreign Exchange Committee at the Bank for International Settlements in Basel, as these Committee meeting minutes from 1997 highlight.
Frank Veneroso of Veneroso Associates, who is well-known for his in-depth analysis of the gold lending market, has stated that it was actually comments about the gold lending market made by Terry Smeeton in 1995 that triggered Veneroso to undertake his ground-breaking gold lending market analysis. Veneroso has also highlighted previously that Smeeton was critical of HM Treasury’s 1999 decision to auction off a substantial part of the UK’s gold reserves.
Oliver Pagejoined the Bank of England in 1968 and went on to be Chief Manager, Reserves Management in 1989, and Deputy Director, Supervision and Surveillance in 1996. In 1998, when the Financial Services Authority (FSA) was established, Page moved from the Bank of England to become the FSA’s Director of its Complex Groups Division (later called Major Financial Groups Division), and was also the FSA’s representative on the Basel Committee of Banking Supervisors. Page received an OBE in 2004, and retired from the FSA in April 2006, after which he became a non-executive director of Mitsubishi UFJ Securities International. Oliver Page passed away in 2012.
After Terry Smeeton died in September 2007, Oliver Page wrote Mr. Smeeton’s obituary which was published in the industry journal ‘Central Banking’, and on the journal’s website.
In the obituary, Oliver Page said of Smeeton:
“On his work, the foreign exchange and gold markets were his great enthusiasms. So his work in the Bank of England, mainly in the Foreign
Exchange Division, suited him perfectly. The gold markets were an aspect of the financial world where he became internationally renowned.
While I was in the foreign exchange division in the 1980s, I was responsible for the risk management and performance system used to monitor activity. Through this period, Terry’s gold activities, often partly aimed at helping the London Market’s daily gold fixes, produced an overall profit.
So he was not just a talker on gold, he was a successful operator. He was very disappointed when large-scale gold sales were made in the 1990s at what turned out to be the 30-year low of the market.”
Certain phrases in Page’s tribute to Smeeton, specifically in relation to the gold fixings, struck me as very odd and raised a number of questions in my mind:
Firstly, what were Smeeton’s ‘gold activities‘ in the daily gold fixes ‘through this period’ during the 1980s?
Secondly, what was the Bank of England foreign exchange and gold division doing entering the London gold fixings to ‘help’ the daily gold fixes? And why did this activity happen ‘often’?
These ‘gold activities’ do not sound like normal Bank of England customer deals being placed into the daily fixings. However it does sound like central bank intervention into the price setting process.
(Note that at this time in the 1980s, NM Rothschild was the permanent chair of the fixings and the Bank used Rothschild as its broker. The other four fixing members during the 1980s were Mocatta, Sharps Pixley, Samuel Montagu/Midland, and Johnson Matthey/Mase Westpac. Rothschild departed from the gold fixings in 2004.)
Thirdly, why exactly is it so noteworthy for Oliver Page to have mentioned that Smeeton “produced an overall profit” from his ‘gold activities‘. Could it be that Smeeton’s activities were not primarily motivated by profit maximisation? Regular Bank of England ‘buy and hold’ or sell orders on behalf of central bank customers would not fall under the ‘noteworthy at having made a profit’ category.
Interestingly, in the London Gold Pool in the 1960s (which comprised both a buying syndicate and a selling syndicate), making a profit on the Pool’s gold transactions was considered a bonus, since that was not the primary purpose of the Pool’s consortium.
The Fix is In
In February 2012, after reading Oliver Page’s observations on Smeeton, I emailed the Bank of England, and asked them to explain Mr. Page’s 1980s references to Mr. Smeeton. My question was:
“What were Terry Smeeton’s “gold activities” while he was in the foreign exchange department that “partly aimed at helping the London Market daily gold fixes” and that produced “an overall profit” over the period, while being monitored by Oliver Page using the risk and performance monitoring system?”
The Bank of England “Public Information & Enquiries Group” responded as follows:
“The Bank of England does not have a rolein the daily fixing of gold prices. There are five members (listed below) of the Gold Fixing, all of whom are Market Making members of the LBMA:
• Bank of Nova Scotia • Barclays Capital • Deutsche Bank AG London • HSBC USA NA London • Societe Generale”
Since the bank didn’t address my question, I responded back to the Bank with a second email, reiterating the question:
“But if the Bank of England has no role in the fixing then what role was Terry Smeeton in the foreign exchange department playing,with “gold activities” that “partly aimed at helping the London Market daily gold fixes” and that produced “an overall profit” over the period, while being monitored by Oliver Page using the risk and performance monitoring system?
A different person from the Bank’s Public Information & Enquiries Group then responded to my second email as follows:
“The Bank no longer plays a role in the daily gold fixing. But for many years the Bank had a supervisory role in the London gold market,and was involved in the fixing process, as described in the following excerpt from the Bank’s Quarterly Bulletin (1964, p16 ‘The London Gold Market‘):
'The Bank of England are not physically represented at the fixing. But they are able, like any other operator, effectively to participate in the fixing by passing orders by telephone through their bullion broker and at the fixing they use exclusively the services of the chairman of the market, namely, Rothschilds.
The Bank operate for a number of different parties; they are first the managers of the Exchange Equalisation Account, which may be a natural buyer or seller of gold :
secondly, they are the agent for the largest single regular seller of gold in the world, namely the South African Reserve Bank, which is responsible for the disposal of new production in South Africa :
thirdly, they execute orders for their many other central bank customers :
fourthly, the Bank aim, as in the case of the foreign exchange and gilt-edged markets, to exercise, so far as they are able, a moderating influence on the market, in order to avoid violent and unnecessary movements in the price and thus to assist the market in the carrying on of its business.'
From 1968, the Bank was a less regular participant in the daily gold fixings, although contact between the Bank and the members of the gold market remained close.
In particular, the Bank (including Mr Smeeton in his role in the Bank’s Foreign Exchange Division) continued to execute orders for central bank customers of the Bank, and to manage gold held in the Exchange Equalisation Account.
The Bank no longer has supervisory responsibility for the London bullion market. Responsibility for the regulation of the major participants in the market lies with the Financial Services Authority (FSA) under the Financial Services and Markets Act 2000.
Guidelines for the conduct of gold business not covered by the Act are set out in The London Code of Conduct for Non-Investment Products (the NIPs code).”
Avoiding the Question
Yet again, the second response from the Bank of England didn’t address my question directly, but while circumventing a direct answer, it did contain some very interesting information. Let’s examine the Bank’s second response in more detail.
1. There was no attempt in the Bank’s answer to address the crux of the issue, i.e. what Smeeton was doing in the 1980s ‘helping’ the fixing with ‘gold activities’ that produced an overall profit and that required risk management.
Executing physical gold orders for the Exchange Equalisation Fund (EEA) or for other bank customers via one of the five gold fixing members is not an activity that could reasonably be described as ‘helping’ the fixing and not the type of activity that would be noteworthy as ‘producing an overall profit’, or that would need risk management monitoring.
Nor is gold lending between central bank customers of the Bank of England and the London gold market bullion bank participants something that would have required the Bank’s foreign exchange and gold desk, and Terry Smeeton, to ‘help’ the twice daily London gold price auction fixings.
Gold lending only began in the London gold market in the early to mid 1980s and initially was only undertaken on a limited scale.
So, why the reluctance by the Bank to answer my question directly?
2. Interestingly, the Bank’s response contained an extract (see grayed area above) from a 1964 Bank of England publication about the London Gold Market which explained the four main reasons why the Bank was involved in the gold fixings, and referred to the Bank of England as being “a moderating influence” on the gold market so as “to avoid violent and unnecessary movements in the price.”
Was the inclusion of this 1964 extract about the Fixings by the Bank’s Enquiries and Information Office a tacit admission from the Bank that it continued to be a ‘moderating influence’ on the gold price into the 1980s and perhaps beyond? Why include this Fixing explanation from 1964 to explain a question about the 1980s?
3. The Bank’s email response to me also mentioned 1968 and stated that “From 1968, the Bank was a less regular participant in the daily gold fixings”. This reference to 1968 is a reference to the collapse of the London Gold Pool in March 1968 before which the Gold Pool (managed by the Bank of England) attempted to control the gold price and keep it near $35 per ounce. Since I had asked about the 1980s and not 1968, the inclusion of this reference is, in my view, highly unusual but telling.
The comment from the Bank that since 1968 “contact between the Bank and the members of the gold market remained close” is also noteworthy.
4. The Bank’s response said that Smeeton executed orders for central bank customers and also ‘managed gold’ held in the Exchange Equalisation Account. The Bank did not elaborate on what was meant by ‘managing’ EEA gold. (Note, the UK gold reserves are owned by HM Treasury and held within the Exchange Equalisation Account which is somewhat similar to the US Exchange Stabilization Fund. The Bank of England acts as custodian of the UK gold reserves on behalf of HM Treasury.)
If you look at the data on UK official gold reserves over the 1980s, such as in ‘Central Bank Gold Reserves: A historical perspective‘ by Timothy Green, you will see that the official UK gold reserves were totally static throughout the 1980s at between 591 tonnes and 592 tonnes. i.e. They did not change (see table below, last row). In fact, most of the large gold holding countries maintained static gold reserve holdings throughout the 1980s which would suggest very little customer order activity for the Bank of England gold order desk.
Therefore the unchanging nature of the EEA gold reserves during the 1980s again does not explain the Bank’s reference to Smeeton as ‘managing’ the EEA gold in the 1980s.
What were these ‘Gold activities’?
I had previously come across the Bank of England’s 1964 London gold market essay and it’s reference to the Bank acting as a ‘moderating influence’ on the gold price. The same passage that the Bank quoted to me is also in a 1976 book called “The Arena of International Finance” by Charles Coombs (page 46). Coombs was head of foreign open market operations at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York from the 1950s until the 1970s.
The Bank of England’s 1964 essay is from it’s Q1 quarterly bulletin and was published in March 1964. This was soon after the launch of the London gold pool but the reference to the role of the Bank as a ‘moderating influence’ against ‘violent and unnecessary movements in the price’ goes back to before the beginning of the London Gold Pool.
Prior to the Gold Pool commencing operations in 1962, the Bank of England was already single-handedly intervening into the London good market aiming to ‘smoothen’ the gold price so that it reverted to near $35 per ounce, by participating in the daily fixing (there was only one fixing at that time, the morning fixing). The Bank aimed to keep the London price near the U.S. Treasury gold window price so as to prevent speculative arbitrage between the two prices (excluding 1/4% US Treasury fee and transport costs).
It was based on these Bank of England operations that Charles Coombs at the Federal Reserve Bank suggested to the Bank of England in 1961 that they consider creating a gold pool amongst the U.S. and major European central banks.
Charles Coombs stated in his 1976 book, ‘The Arena of International Finance’ (page 50), that in 1960:
“The Bank of England, having assumed some responsibility for selling gold to maintain orderly market conditions, was in the awkward position of being squeezed out of the market by other central bank buyers whenever gold became available.”
A recent history of the Bank of England also refers to the Bank of England’s intervention prior to the commencement of the London Gold Pool in 1962:
“The selling consortium was in operation to prevent an unduly rise in the price when demand was strong. It had to be specifically activated by the members. It’s operations did not affect the extent of intervention in the market and the Bank continued to intervene in its own judgement.”
(Source: Page 190, ‘The Bank of England: 1950s to 1979′ by Forrest Capie, Cambridge University Press).
The Bank of England have historically used the terms ‘smoothing operation’ and ‘stabilisation operation’ when referring to operations and interventions into the gold and foreign exchange markets. A price smoothing operation is a softer, less radical version of a price stabilisation operation.
Upon reading Oliver Page’s comments about Smeeten, my initial theory was that Terry Smeeton and the Bank’s Foreign Exchange Division had also been intervening into the daily gold fixings during the 1980s so as to smoothen the gold price, via offering and bidding from a special account that sold/lent at one price (high) and bought back again at a lower price (low).
Since I asked the Bank to explain Oliver Page’s comments and they declined to do so, this even crystallised my theory somewhat. I usually prefer not to speculate. My approach is to clarify information first and try to validate it. Only if it cannot be validated can some speculation come into play. But if the Bank of England can’t answer a simple question directly, then they are inviting speculation.
My speculation thesis is that in the 1980s, Smeeton and the Bank were using a pool of gold to create artificial supply into the gold fixings so as to influence the gold price, either selling gold directly during the fixings, or lending gold short-term to the chair or lending short-term to some of the four other fixing members.
Intervention of course is two-way, so could also consist of creating demand in the fixings so as to support the price. Keeping a price within a trading ‘band’ is often a goal of financial market intervention. The mechanics of a demand side intervention would merely be the opposite of the possible tactics illustrated below.
Supplying or selling metal into the fixings and buying it back later is a gold trading tactic that would (in the Bank’s eyes) “partially help the fixings” while “producing an overall profit” for the Bank’s Foreign Exchange Division, and also a set of transactions where the trading P & L would need monitoring and risk management (from Oliver Page). The profit creation would be generated by selling high and buying low, much like a trader’s short sell trade and similar to what the Bank of England and the London Gold Pool selling syndicate did in the 1960s.
Within this scenario, I think Smeeton could have been doing a number of things via these ‘gold activities’:
- influencing the opening price of the fixing in the hours before a fixing by trading in the market so that the fixing Chair would call a certain opening price targeted by the Bank
- putting in orders to the fixing from a special gold account so as to affect overall supply and demand and target a certain opening price
- using an open line to the Chair to put in offers based on the market’s natural business and the quotes from the order books on the call
- lending to some of the five gold broker participants on a short-term basis from the EEA account or another account so as to influence supply (the five brokers all had allocated gold accounts at the Bank of England from the late 1970s onwards)
- and finally, buying back or squaring off the above transactions at some point so as to try to “produce an overall profit”
By the 1980s the five London gold brokers and fixing members all maintained allocated gold accounts at the Bank of England and had storage space in the Bank’s vaults. This development occurred in the late 1970s, and was done initially for security reasons so as to minimise the transport of gold bullion around the City of London.
It would therefore be very straightforward in the 1980s for the Bank to manage transfers and allocations between a gold pool account and gold accounts of one or more of the five London gold market brokers held at the Bank.
[In fact, gold transfers between the Bank of England and the London gold market regularly happen to this day in a different guise via the Bank acting as clearer of last resort with the six bullion bank members of London Precious Metals Clearing Ltd (LPMCL).]
As to whether a 1980s Bank of England gold pool would be sourced from EEA gold, or include other customer gold, or would be a distinct separate account is not that important. Even if such an operation within the Bank’s Foreign Exchange Division was stand-alone and not coordinated with other central banks, the G10 central banks would obviously be briefed on it given their perennial close coordination on gold market issues via Basel.
The February 1998 edition of the LBMA’s Alchemist magazine features an interview with Terry Smeeton just before he retired from the Bank of England in March 1998. In the interview, on pages 2 and 3, when asked about his view on the relationship between the Bank and the London gold market, particularly in light of gold market supervision moving from the Bank to the FSA in 1998, Smeeton said:
“When I started in the Bank of England’s foreign exchange area, we really only had the operational role, which we still, of course, have today. There was no formal supervision of the gold market, but the Bank has always maintained a maternal eye on the market, and that remained the case until the Financial Services Act and the introduction of the Section 43 regime.”
Could this Bank of England ‘maternal eye’ that Terry Smeeton refers to have extended to intervention into the gold fixings in the 1980s so as to be a ‘moderating influence’, and to “avoid violent and unnecessary movements” in the gold price?
To answer that question, you’d have to ask the Bank of England. And they probably wouldn’t tell you one way or the other.
Over time, the Federal Reserve Bank of New York (FRBNY) has become increasingly less transparent in sharing information about its Manhattan gold vaults. I use gold vaults in the plural because there are two gold vaults at the New York Fed’s headquarters, namely, the main vault and the auxiliary vault.
During the 1970s, New York Fed financial writer Charles Parnow wrote some informative and revealing material profiling the Fed’s Manhattan gold storage arrangements, however, the original text from these publications has been gradually rewritten, distilled, and watered down over time, and today hardly anything of substance about the Fed’s gold vaults makes it on to the New York Fed’s web site.
Luckily, most of this older information is still available from various on-line sources including a number of versions of an FRBNY publication titled ‘Key to the Gold Vault’, and another publication called ‘A Day at the Fed’. Old newspaper articles provide additional coverage.
Although most of the information in the Fed’s brochures has been covered elsewhere and is fairly well-known, there are a number of important and mostly forgotten facts from the early editions of these brochures which I think make an analysis of this material worthwhile. These facts centre on the following:
a) The FRBNY’s Auxiliary vault and its probable location
b) The arrival of low-grade Coin Bars at the FRB in New York in 1968
c) The substantial withdrawals of gold from New York from 1991 to the present day
d) The noticeable decline since the late 1970s in the number of central banks with gold holdings at the FRBNY
Chink of Light?
In October 2010 the Financial Times touched upon a small part of the FRBNY’s gold operations in an article titled ‘Chink of light shed on New York Fed gold’. The article, written by the FT’s Jack Farchy, reported that the FRBNY had revised down from 60 to 36 the number of foreign central bank customers that it claimed to hold gold on behalf of.
According to the FT, this change shed “a rare chink of light on the opaque activities of central banks in the gold market.”
The New York Fed was prompted to explain its gold customer revision after the FT had asked the FRB why a 2004 version of its ‘Key to the Gold Vault’ brochure claimed to hold gold for 60 foreign central banks while the 2008 version of the same publication cited the figure of 36 central banks.
The Fed’s explanation to the FT was that “the revision was the result of a change in the way it counts the countries that use its services to store gold” and that “its previous claim of approximately 60 countries referred to the number of foreign central banks with accounts at the NY Fed, including those that did not hold any gold.”
From 60 to 36 gold customers?
However, as we shall see below, the 2004 publication (and a 1998 version) explicitly referred to “Bullion at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York belonging to some 60 foreign central banks and international monetary organizations”, so this Fed explanation to the FT contradicts what it actually stated in its own publications in 2004 and 1998.
Adding to the confusion, the Fed spokesperson also told the FT (in 2010) that “there has been no change in the number of accounts with active gold holdings in recent years.”
Since gold at the Fed is supposed to be held solely under earmark via distinct bar holdings and weight lists (i.e. not fungible), it’s unclear as to what the Fed meant by ‘active gold holdings’.
The Financial Times also pointed out that after they had contacted the NY Fed in October 2010, “the central bank removed the old (2004) brochure (pdf) from its website.”
The Fed seems to have a penchant for removing gold information from its web site, because in late 2012, the 2008 version of the ‘Key to the Gold Vault’, which used to be here, was also removed from the NY Fed web site, and replaced by the FRBNY’s current rather sketchy gold vault information offering which can be found on its web site here. Interestingly, late 2012 was when the Deutsche Bundesbank first announced that it planned to repatriate some of its gold holdings from the New York Fed.
The current gold information on the FRB´s website merely consists of a spartan one page summary of text from previous versions of the ‘Key to the Gold Vault’, but in my view, most of the important information has been omitted.
While the FT thought that the two ‘Key to the Gold Vault’ brochures, dated 2004 and 2008, were “the only known information about the vault”, this is not the case. In total I sourced four versions of this document on the web in addition to a lot of other relevant information.
Both the 2008 and 2004 versions of the ‘Key to the Gold Vault’, as well as a 1998 version, are available to download from old imprints of the Fed’s web site using the Internet Archive (or WayBack Machine). There is also a 1991 version of the document available elsewhere on the web.
The 1991 version contains far more details about the New York gold than the subsequent versions in 1998, 2004 and 2008, and reading through the versions, you can see that nearly everything in the later editions seems to have been replicated from the 1991 version.
A limited extract from the 1991 version of ‘Key to the Gold Vault’ is also featured on the Minneapolis Fed web site, here.
There is also another revealing FRBNY publication called ‘A Day at the Fed’ which is relevant to the Fed’s gold vaults. Unfortunately, the ‘A Day at the Fed’ document does not appear to be available on-line any longer and is not accessible via the Wayback Machine. There is a copy of the ‘A Day at the Fed’ uploaded here – A Day at the Fed – Charles Parnow.
The 1991 version of ‘Key to the Gold Vault’ was itself based on far earlier versions of the brochure going all the way back to 1973, so some of these forgotten details about the gold go back over 40 years, to an era in which the NY Fed seemed to be, for whatever reason, less secretive.
According to Worldcat, the global library cataloging web site, the ‘Key to the Gold Vault’ was originally authored by Charles J Parnow, with the first edition published by the FRBNY in 1973. Additionally, the ‘A Day at the Fed’ booklet was also authored by Charles Parnow in 1973. Many of the subsequent versions of these documents just appear to have been reprints and reissues, with small rewrites, and then gradually, large chunks of the material were edited out over time.
Both of these publications have also been widely drawn on by journalists over the years when writing newspaper and on-line articles about the Fed’s New York gold vault(s).
Here are the various WorldCat entries for ‘Key to the Gold Vault’ and the ‘A Day at the Fed’
“After graduating from NYU with a B.S. degree in journalism and finance, Mr. Parnow’s career in writing began as a financial writer for United Press International (UPI). He subsequently held positions at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York where he composed print and multimedia educational material for both adults and children, and was the editor of the company magazine. Before retiring Charles was a senior writer of public information for the New York Stock Exchange. Mr. Parnow was a member of the New York Financial Writer’s Association and the Overseas Press Club.”
Charles Parnow was therefore an insider at the New York Fed and everything that he wrote for publication would have been well researched and based on fact. Parnow also appears to have been a well-regarded author on financial matters, and is probably familiar to financially savvy New Yorkers of a certain age. His accomplished writing style comes across while reading the earlier versions of the Fed material.
It’s unclear as to what input if any Parnow would have had after writing the original versions of the publications in the early 1970s. Its also unclear how long Parnow stayed working at the FRB. It would appear that other Fed media staff just re-edited his publications over the years as they saw fit.
Central banks pull back their holdings back from the NY Fed
While the 1991 version to the key to gold vault does not state the number of central bank customers that the FRB holds gold on behalf of, the 1998, 2004 and 2008 versions do, as follows:
“Bullion at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York — the world’s largest repository of gold — belongs to some 60 foreign central banks and international monetary organizations.” (page 5, 1998)
“Bullion at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York belonging to some 60 foreign central banks and international monetary organizations is stored in 122 separate compartments in the main and auxiliary vaults.” (page 5, 2004)
“Bullion at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York belonging to some 36 foreign governments, central banks and official international organizations is stored in 122 separate compartments in the main and auxiliary vaults.” (page 5, 2008)
Notice the reference to the Auxiliary vault in the 2004 and 2008 statements but not the 1998 version.
International Monetary Organizations or Official International Organizations just refers to institutions such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the Bank for International Settlements (BIS).
As you can see from above, the phrase ‘bullion….belonging to some 60 foreign central banks” can’t really have more than one meaning, so the FRBNY’s explanation to the FT in 2010 about the sharp drop in the number of gold customers between 2004 and 2008 makes little sense, i.e. that the “previous claim of approximately 60 countries referred to the number of foreign central banks with accounts at the NY Fed, including those that did not hold any gold”,
The Fed’s explanation makes absolutely no sense at all in light of the fact that this 60 customer figure of gold holders was also quoted by the Fed in 1998, six years prior to 2004, and has been quoted extensively by newspapers and other media from 2004 onwards without the Fed attempting to correct or clarify the total.
For example, in January 2005, in an article about a rare 1933 double eagle $20 gold piece being stored at the FRB’s main gold vault, the New York Times wrote:
“Until last week, the world’s most expensive coin was hidden in the world’s most valuable gold vault. That is to say, in the brilliantly lighted blue-and-white stronghold of E Level, the deepest sanctuary of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, the city’s bank of banks. The coin was locked in a compartment at bedrock, 80 feet below Liberty Street in Lower Manhattan, surrounded by $90 billion worth of gold bars — some 550,000 of them — from 60 foreign institutions.”
“The Federal Reserve Bank of New York holds the world’s largest accumulation of monetary gold. Only a small portion belongs to the U.S. government. The bank serves as guardian for it, as well as the gold monetary reserves of approximately 60 foreign governments, central banks and international organizations.”
Perhaps the 2004 reference to 60 foreign central banks was copied from the 1998 version of Key to the Gold Vault. In that case, the 60 gold customer total would have been correct as of 1998 but not in 2004.
This would suggest that the large decline in central bank customer gold holders took place prior to 2004, some of it most likely due to gold being withdraw for central bank sales and leasing activities, and some possibly after the September 11, 2001 Trade Center destruction, which would certainly have made foreign central banks more reluctant to hold gold in down town Manhattan vaults.
So, we can conclude that at least 24 central banks ceased to have gold holdings at the NY Fed between the late 1990s and 2008.
If you go back even further and search on-line newspaper archives, there are also some references in the 1970s to the number of central banks that stored gold at the New York Fed.
For example, this October 1978 article states that “about 85 individual countries are represented” as gold customers of the FRBNY. You may notice that most of the text in this newspaper article was taken directly from one of the ‘Key to the Gold Vault’ brochures:
A March 1973 article stated that “the (gold) owners are spread among 70 foreign central banks, government agencies, and international monetary agencies”.
This December 1960 article states “the bank stores for free the gold of 72 foreign governments, central banks, and international agencies.” It also says there were 96 cages (not 122 cages), some of which were sub-divided into smaller units.
This July 1963 article also mentions 96 compartments (not 122) and holdings of a massive 13,000 tonnes:
“13,000 tonnes in the vault on level E, with 960,000 bars stored in 96 compartments and owned by 70 foreign governments.”
So, from about 70 countries in the 1960s and early 1970s, the number of countries holding gold at the Fed seems to have peaked at around 85 in the late 1970s before dropping to a range near 60 in the 1990s, and then 36 in 2008. Notice the huge decline of ~50 gold account holders between 1978 and 2008.
The rise customer numbers in 1978 was no doubt partially due to some central banks opening up gold accounts at the Fed in order to receive restituted gold from the IMF during the gold restitutions around that time.
Remembering that the US Treasury also holds about 5% of its supposed gold reserves at the FRBNY, then, as of 2008 there were 36 foreign central banks and the US Treasury (i.e. 37 institutions) holding gold reserves at the FRBNY.
Surprisingly, the US Treasury in its gold custodial inventory of gold held at the FRBNY lists claims that it holds 31,204 bars in 11 compartments, but the schedule lists these 11 compartments as letters from A to K, and not numbers as are written on the compartments/cages in the FRBNY main vault.
The US Treasury gold supposedly stored at the FRBNY is listed here, starting on page 132 of the pdf (or page 128 of file).
Millions of Ozs in the Vaults
Since the early 1970s there has been a consistent drop in the amount of gold held by foreign account holders at the NY fed. Some quotes follow:
“(The vault) contained approximately 315 million troy ounces of gold early in 1991, comprising approximately 28 percent of the world’s official monetary gold reserves.” (Introduction, Key to the Gold Vault (KTTGV) 1991)
“In 1997, the New York Fed held about 275 million troy ounces of gold, or 8,600 tons, worth approximately $12 billion at the official U.S. Government price ($42.22 per fine troy ounce)” (A Day at the Fed 1997)
“In the middle of 1997, the Fed’s vault contained roughly 269 million troy ounces of gold.” (page 6, KTTGV 1998).
“In mid – 2004, the Fed’s vault contained roughly 266 (226) million troy ounces of gold”. (page 6, 2004 KTTGV)
Note:The 266 million ounces was a typo in the 2004 brochure, and they meant to write 226 million ounces because they quoted a valuation of $90 billion based on a price of $400 per ounce. See explanation below.
“As of early 2008, the Fed’s vault contained roughly 216 million troy ounces of gold.” (page 6, KTGV 2008).
“As of 2012, the vault housed approximately 530,000 gold bars, with a combined weight of approximately 6,700 tons” Current NY Fed gold page on web site. This would be 212 million troy ounces if all the bars were 400oz good delivery bars (of 995 fineness or above).
Note: The NY Fed also used their 2010 update to the Financial Times to state that whereas their 2004 brochure claimed that they held 266 million ounces of gold on behalf of central bank customers, this should in fact have said 226 million ounces. This discrepancy is definitely just a typo since the same sentence in the brochure quoted a total gold holding value of $90 billion at $400 per ounce, which equates to 225 million ounces..
So, gold holdings at the FRBNY fell from 316 million ounces in 1991, to between 269 – 275 million in 1998, to 226 million in 2004, and 216 million in 2008, and 212 million in the last few years. That’s a 100 million ounce drop from 1991 to 2008 , or 3110 tonnes.
That this 100 million ounce outflow of gold from the Fed´s New York vaults took place in conjunction with a marked decline in the number of foreign central bank gold account holders at the Fed, suggests that some of the customers withdrew all of their New York gold holdings and ceased to be gold customers.
Part 2 of The Keys to the Gold Vaults at the New York Fed will focus on the FRB´s rarely talked about Auxiliary Vault, while Part 3 will shed some light on ‘coin bars’ and look at why coin bars arrived at the Fed’s Manhattan vaults, and where they might have gone since then.
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