Tag Archives: gold bars

An update on SGE Vault Withdrawals and SGE Price Premiums

In 2016, withdrawals of gold from the Shanghai Gold Exchange totalled 1970 tonnes, the 4th highest annual total on record. This was 24% less than SGE gold withdrawals recorded in 2015, which reached a cumulative 2596 tonnes (See Koos Jansen’s  6 January 2017 blog at BullionStar “How The West Has Been Selling Gold Into A Black Hole” for more details of the 2016 withdrawals).

SGE gold withdrawals are an important metric in the physical gold market because SGE gold withdrawals are a suitable proxy for approximating Chinese wholesale gold demand. This proxy functions well because China’s domestic gold mining production, Chinese gold imports, and most Chinese gold scrap are all sold on the Shanghai Gold Exchange. As a reminder, gold withdrawals from the SGE means actual physical gold bars withdrawn from the SGE’s network of 62 approved precious metals vaults in 35 cities across China. (See “The Mechanics Of The Chinese Domestic Gold Market” for a discussion of why this proxy works).

2017 SGE Gold Withdrawals

Year-to-date, which now includes the first four months of 2017, SGE gold withdrawals have reached 727 tonnes, which annualized equals 2181 tonnes, and would make 2017 the 3rd highest SGE vault withdrawal year on record, and only slightly behind the 2197 tonnes of registered withdrawals from the Exchange’s vaults in 2013. And since SGE gold withdrawals are a suitable proxy for wholesale Chinese gold demand, it would point to 2017 shaping up to be one of the strongest years ever for physical gold demand in the Chinese gold market.

SGEDeliveries01y

SGE Gold Withdrawals 2008 – 2017. The 2017 figure reflects January – April inclusive. Source:www.GoldChartsRUS.com

With two-thirds of the year still to play out, annualised estimates of year-to-date gold withdrawal figures will always be approximations and will change when each successive month’s figure is added.

For example, January 2017 gold withdrawals of 184.4 tonnes suggested an annualised withdrawal figure of 2213 tonnes. February’s withdrawals as per published SGE data came in at 179.2 tonnes, implying an annualised figure of 2182 tonnes. As monthly withdrawals increased in March to 192.2 tonnes, this edged the annual estimate up to 2224 tonnes. But coincidentally, April’s SGE gold withdrawal figure brought the annual estimate back to ~2182 tonnes. This was so because combined gold withdrawals for January and February exactly equaled combined withdrawals for March and April, in both cases 363 tonnes over the two consecutive two month periods.

January + February = 184+179 = 363 tonnes

March + April = 192+171 = 363 tonnes

Discrepancy

There is also a data discrepancy worth pointing out with the Shanghai Gold Exchange’s gold withdrawal figures for 2017. This discrepancy relates to the fact that the monthly withdrawal numbers for the 4 month period from January to April do not add up to the cumulative gold withdrawal figure for 2017 as published elsewhere on the Exchange’s website.

SGE gold withdrawals for January to April inclusive summate to exactly 727.073 tonnes.

However, in the latest (April) edition of the SGE’s monthly “Data Highlights” report, which is published in English, it states that cumulative withdrawal volume inclusive of April totalled 771.973 tonnes, which is 44.9 tonnes higher than the figure implied by the summation of the 4 individual months’ figures.

April withdrawals
SGE Gold Withdrawals – April 2017: Source: SGE Data Highlights report

This data discrepancy has been present in the ‘Data Highlights’ report each month since February. For example, at the end of February 2017, the combined monthly withdrawals of January (184.412 tonnes) and February  (179.237 tonnes) were 363.649 tonnes, but the ‘Data Highlights’ report for February stated that the cumulative withdrawal total for those two months was 378.649 tonnes. This is exactly 15 tonnes more than the two months combined would suggest. So, it seems that there is a data issue somewhere in SGE record keeping, especially given the rounded figure nature of the discrepancy number.

February withdrawals
SGE Gold Withdrawals – February 2017: Source: SGE Data Highlights report

The SGE March report also had an error when the monthly totals for January – March pointed to gold withdrawals of 555.899 tonnes , while the March ‘Data Highlights’ listed cumulative gold withdrawals of 524.899 tonnes, in this case exactly 31 tonnes less than the summation of the 3 monthly figures would suggest. Again, the rounded figure nature of the discrepancy number suggests a data issue somewhere in the SGE reporting system.

March withdrawals
SGE Gold Withdrawals – March 2017: Source: SGE Data Highlights report

Until the SGE clarifies the discrepancy, its best to go with the summation of the individual month’s withdrawal figures while awaiting feedback from the Exchange.

SGEDeliveries4yearM
SGE Gold Withdrawals – Cumulative Withdrawals Months 1 – 4, 2008 – 2017. Source:www.GoldChartsRUs.com

The above chart plots cumulative gold withdrawals for the 4 months to end of April compared to similar periods in previous years, and again shows that 2017 looks set to be one of the strongest years for Chinese gold demand on record. The cumulative gold withdrawals of 727 tonnes for the January to April timeframe are the 2nd highest ‘Month 1-4′ cumulative figure on record, with only 2015 higher, when the similar figure came in at 821 tonnes.

SGE Premiums

Beginning last November and persisting into December 2016, the SGE gold price and the International gold price (as expressed in Yuan) began to diverge with the SGE gold price trading significantly higher. This created a noticeable and rapidly rising premium in the SGE gold price, and at one point in mid December this premium was $40 per ounce higher than, or over 3% above the international gold price.

This phenomenon was at the time attributed to the introduction by the Chinese authorities of more stringent restrictions on gold imports in an effort to reduce currency outflows. For example, Reuters, citing trader sources, wrote on 9 December 2016 that China was “curbing gold imports in [a] bid to limit yuan outflow”.

There were also rumours in the gold market at that time that a number of banks that had been authorised to import gold into China had lost their import licences (or that their licenses had not been renewed), and that the People’s Bank of China was also becoming stricter on the quotas of gold that it would allow banks to import in a given consignment. However, when BullionStar asked the SGE about this in December, the SGE did not reply.

Only 13 banks are authorised to import gold into China, 10 of which are local Chinese banks, and the other 3 of which are the foreign banks HSBC, ANZ and Standard Chartered.

In theory, an expansion in the SGE price premium could have been caused by a combination of limited supply or higher demand, or both. The below chart for 2016 (lower panel) illustrates the emergence of this premium in early November, with the premium rising rapidly from less than 0.5% at that time to nearly 3.5% at one point in December, but still ending the year in the 2% range. The upper panel of the chart show that same phenomenon only in terms of the relative prices of the SGE and International gold prices.

In contrast, for the 10 months of 2016 that preceded November, the premium of the SGE price to the International price was persistently very low and static from January to October 2016.

SGEPremiumsAUp2016
Percentage Premiums: SGE Gold Price vs International Gold Price, 2016: Source:www.GoldChartsRUs.com

Fast forwarding to 2017, the most interestingly observation of the SGE premium since the November-December timeframe is that although the premium dropped sharply in January from the 2% range down to the 0.4% range by January month-end, it resumed a uptrend in February before spiking up noticeably again during March to levels approaching those seen in November and December.

In the case of March, it appears that premiums rose again for the very same reason that was attributed to the sharp rise in late 2016, i.e. the re-emergence of supply constraints brought on by more stringent gold import restrictions. According to Reuters in an article on the subject dated 17 March in which it quoted a Hong Kong based trader saying that:

“imports are happening, but with some restrictions. The government has been doing this since November to control the capital outflows. Now, it is becoming a bit aggressive with stringent reviews”

“The quotas are reviewed regularly and extended on a case by case basis.”

SGEPremiumsAUp2017
Percentage Premiums: SGE Gold Price vs International Gold Price, 2017 Year-to-Date: Source:www.GoldChartsRUs.com

Although premiums shrank after mid-March and returned to the 1% level, they oscillated in the 1% to 0.5% range until mid-April and since then have resumed a steady rise to the 1% level, which is a very different chart to the one that persisted for most of 2016.

It therefore seems that the impact of tighter import restrictions that appeared in November and December of last year and which the rising premiums reflected was not a transitory phenomenon but instead has become a persistent feature of the Chinese gold market.

And what does this say about the Chinese authorities’ plans to liberalise the Chinese gold market since more restrictive import quotas and rules appear to be doing the opposite by undermining some of the liberalisation steps that had already been underway?

Bank of England releases new data on its gold vault holdings

An article in February on BullionStar’s website titled “A Chink of Light into London’s Gold Vaults?” discussed an upcoming development in the London Gold Market, namely that both the Bank of England (BoE) and the commercial gold vault providers in London planned to begin publishing regular data on the quantity of physical gold actually stored in their gold vaults.

Critically, this physical gold stored at both the Bank of England vaults and the commercial London vaults underpins the gargantuan trading volumes of the London Gold Market and the same market’s ‘liquidity’. Therefore, a new vault holdings dataset would be a very useful reference point for relating to London’s ‘gold’ trading volumes as well as relating to data such as the level and direction of the gold price, the volume of gold held in gold-backed Exchange Traded Funds (ETFs), UK gold import and export statistics, and Swiss and Hong Kong gold imports and exports.

The impending publication of this new gold vault data was initially signalled by two sources. Firstly, in early February, the Financial Times (FT) wrote a story claiming that the London Bullion Market Association (LBMA) planned to begin publishing 3 month lagged physical gold storage data for the entire London gold vaulting network, that would, according to the FT:

“show gold bars held by the BoE, the gold clearing banks, and those [vaults] operated by the security companies such as Brink’s, which are also members of the LBMA.”

The “gold clearing banks” are the bullion bank members of London Precious Metals Clearing Limited (LPMCL), namely, HSBC, JP Morgan, ICBC Standard Bank, Bank of Nova Scotia – Scotia Mocatta, and UBS. HSBC and JP Morgan operate precious metals vaults in London. See profile of JP Morgan’s London vault and a discussion of the HSBC vault . ICBC Standard Bank also maintains a vault in London which is operated on its behalf by Brinks.

There are 4 security companies with their own vaults in London, namely, Malca Amit, Loomis, Brinks and G4S. Therefore, including the Bank of England, there are 8 custodians with gold vaults in London that comprise the LBMA gold vaulting network.

The second publication to address the new gold vault data was the World Gold Council. On 16 February, addressing just the Bank of England vaults, the World Gold Council wrote in its Gold Investor publication that:

“The Bank of England is, for the first time, publishing monthly data revealing the amount of gold it holds on behalf of other central banks.”

“The data reveals the total weight of gold held within the Bank of England’s vaults and includes five years of historical data.”

While I had been told by a media source that the London vault data would be released in the first quarter of 2017, at the time of writing, there is still no sign of any LBMA vault holdings data covering the commercial vault operators in London. However, the Bank of England has now gone ahead and independently released its own numbers covering gold held in the Bank of England gold vaults. These gold vaults, of which there are between 8 – 10 (the number fluctuates), are located on the 2 basement levels of the Bank of England headquarters in the City of London.

In an updated web page on the Bank of England’s website simply titled ‘Gold’, the Bank of England has now added a section titled ‘Bank of England Gold Holdings’ and has uploaded an Excel spreadsheet which contains end-of-month gold holdings data covering every month for a 6-year period up to the end of December 2016, i.e. every month from January 2011 to December 2016 i.e. 72 months.

BoE vault
Bank of England ‘show’ gold vault

According to the Bank of England, the data in the spreadsheet shows:

“the weight of gold held in custody on the last business day of each month. We publish the data with a minimum three-month lag.

Values are given in thousands of fine troy ounces. Fine troy ounces denote only the pure gold content of a bar.

We only accept bars which comply with London Bullion Market Association (LBMA) London Good Delivery (LGD) standards. LGD bars must meet a certain minimum fineness and weight. A typical gold bar weighs around 400 oz.

Historic data on our gold custody holdings can be found in our Annual Report.”

Prior to this spreadsheet becoming available, the Bank of England only ever divulged gold vault quantity data once a year within its Annual Report, for year-end reporting date end of February.

You will appreciate that the new spreadsheet, having data for every month of the year, and for 72 months of data retrospectively, conveys a lot more information than having just one snapshot number per year in an annual report. Therefore, the Bank of England has gone some way towards improving transparency in this area.

Before looking at the new data and what it reveals, it’s important to know what this data relates to. The Bank of England provides gold custody (storage) services to both central banks and a number of large commercial banks. Large commercial banks which trade gold are commonly known as bullion banks, and are mostly the high-profile and well-known investment banks.

On its gold web page, the Bank highlights this fact – that it provides gold custody service to both central banks and commercial banks:

“We provide safe custody for the United Kingdom’s gold reserves, and for other central banks. This supports financial stability by providing central banks with access to the liquidity of the London gold market.

We also provide gold accounts to certain commercial firms that facilitate access for central banks to the London gold market.”

In the London Gold Market, the word “liquidity” is a euphemism for gold loans, gold swaps, and gold trading including gold sales. This reference to central banks accessing the London Gold Market as being in some way supportive of ‘financial stability’ is also an eye-opener, since reading between the lines, the Bank of England is conceding that by accessing the London Gold Market’s “liquidity” via bullion banks, these central bank clients are either contributing to direct stabilisation of the gold price in some shape or form, or else are using their gold operations to raise foreign currencies for exchange rate intervention and/or system liquidity. But both routes are aiming at the same outcome. i.e. stability of the financial system.

At the end of the day, the gold price has always been a barometer that central banks strive to keep a lid on and which they aim to stabilise or smoothen the gyrations of, given that the alternative – a freely formed and unmanipulated gold price – would thwart their coordination of fiat currency exchange rates, interest rates and inflation targets.

Interestingly, in addition to the new spreadsheet of gold holdings data, the Bank of England gold web page now includes a link to a new 1 page ‘Gold Policy’ pdf document, which, looking at the pdf document’s properties, was only created on 30 January 2017. This document therefore also looks like it was written in conjunction with the new gold vault data rollout.

The notion of central banks accessing the liquidity of the London Gold Market via bullion banks is further developed in this Gold Policy document also. The document is quite short and merely states the following:

“GOLD ACCOUNTS AT THE BANK OF ENGLAND

1. The Bank primarily offers gold accounts to central bank customers. This is to support financial stability by providing central banks with secure custody for their gold reserves and access to the liquidity of the London gold market (particularly given the Bank’s location).

2. To facilitate, either directly or indirectly, access for central banks to the liquidity of the London gold market, the Bank will also consider providing gold accounts to certain commercial firms. In deciding whether to provide an account, the Bank will be guided by the following criteria.

a. The firm’s day to day activities must support the liquidity of the London gold market.
b. Specifically, the Bank may have regard to a number of factors including but not limited to: evidence of active or prospective trading with a central bank customer; or whether the firm has committed to honour buy and sell prices.

3. Access to a gold account remains at the sole discretion of the Bank.

4. The Bank will review this policy periodically.”

The Vault Data

Nick Laird has now produced a series of impressive charts of this new Bank of England data on his website GoldChartsRUS. Plotting the series of 72 months of gold holdings data over January 2011 to December 2016 yields the below chart.

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Bank of England custodial gold holdings: January 2011 – December 2016. Source www.GoldChartsRUS.com

On average, the Bank’s vaults held 5457 tonnes of gold over this 6 year period. The minimum amount of gold held was 4693 tonnes at the end of March 2016, while the maximum quantity of gold held was 6250 tonnes at the end of February 2013.

The overall trend in the chart is downward with a huge outflow of gold bars from the bank’s vaults from the end of February 2013 to the end of March 2016.

As of January 2011, the BoE held just over 5500 tonnes of gold bars in its vaults. Gold holdings rose until the end of August 2011 and peaked at nearly 5900 tonnes before falling to 5600 tonnes at year-end 2011. Overall in 2011, the holdings fluctuated in a 400 tonne range, trending up during the first 8 months, and down during the latter 4 months.

This downtrend only lasted until January 2012, at which point BoE gold holdings totalled about 5450 tonnes. For the remainder of 2012, BoE gold under custody rose sharply, reaching 6200 tonnes by the end of 2012, a level near the ultimate peak in this 6 year chart. The year 2012 was therefore a year of accumulation of gold bars at the Bank during which 750 tonnes were added.

The overall maximum peak was actually 6250 tonnes at the end of February 2013, after which a sustained downtrend evolved through the remainder of 2013. By December 2013, gold under custody at the Bank of England had fallen to 5670 tonnes, creating an overall outflow of 580 tonnes of gold bars during 2013.

The outflow of gold continued during 2014 with another 470 tonnes flowing out of the Bank, leading to end of year 2014 gold holdings of just 5200 tonnes. The outflow also continued all through 2015 with only 4780 tonnes of gold in custody at the end of December 2015. The Bank therefore lost another 440 tonnes  of gold bars in 2015.

Overall, that makes an outflow of 1490 tonnes of gold from the Bank’s vaults over the 3 years from 2013 to 2015 inclusive. This downtrend lingered for 3 more months, with another 80 tonnes lost, which brought the end of March 2016 and end of April 2016 figures to a level of about 4700 tonnes, which is the overall trough on the chart. It also means that there was a net outflow of 1570 tonnes of gold bars from the Bank’s vaults from the end of February 2013 to the end of March / April 2016.

A new uptrend / inflow trend began at the end of April 2016 and continued to the end of November 2016, where gold custody holdings peaked again at about 5123 tonnes before levelling off at the end of December 2016 at 5102 tonnes. Therefore, from the end of April 2016 to the end of December 2016, the Bank of England vaults added 400 tonnes of gold bars.

The gold holdings of the vast majority of central banks have remained stagnant over the 2011 – 2016 period, the exceptions being the central banks of China and Russia. But Russia buys domestically mined gold and stores it in vaults in Moscow and St Petersburg, so this would not affect gold holdings at the Bank of England. China’s central bank, the People’s Bank of China (PBoC), is known to buy its gold on the international market, including the London Gold Market. It then monetizes this gold (classifies it as monetary gold), and airlifts it back to China. But these Chinese purchases don’t show up in UK gold exports because monetary gold is exempt from trade statistics reporting. However, if China was surreptitiously buying gold from other central banks with gold accounts at the Bank of England or buying gold from bullion banks with gold accounts at the BoE, then some of the gold outflows from the BoE could be PBoC gold purchases. But without central bank specific data, its difficult to know.

But what is probably true is that the fluctuations in the quantity of gold stored in the Bank of England vaults are more do to with the gold holdings of bullion banks and less to do with the gold holdings of central banks, for the simple reason that central bank gold holdings are relatively static, or the least the central banks claim that their gold holdings are static. This does not take into account the gold lending market which the central banks and bullion banks go to great lengths to keep secret.

Bank of England custodial gold holdings and US Dollar Gold Price: January 2011 - December 2016. Source www.GoldChartsRUS.com
Bank of England custodial gold holdings and US Dollar Gold Price: January 2011 – December 2016. Source www.GoldChartsRUS.com

There is also a noticeable positive correlation between the movement of the US Dollar gold price and the inflows/outflows of gold to and from the Bank of England vaults, as the above chart demonstrates.

Bullion Bank gold accounts at the BoE

One basic piece of information that the Bank of England’s new vault storage data lacks is an indication of how many central banks and how many commercial banks are represented in the data.

In its first quarterly report from Q1 2014, the Bank of England states that 72 central banks operate gold accounts at the bank of England, a figure which includes a few official sector organisations such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF), European Central Bank (ECB), and Bank for International Settlements (BIS). This number would not have changed much in the meantime, so we can assume that the gold holdings of about 72 central banks are represented in the new data. But the number of commercial banks holding gold accounts at the Bank of England is less clear-cut.

The 5 gold clearing banks of the LPMCL all hold gold accounts at the Bank of England. Why? Because it says so on the LPMCL website:

“Each member of LPMCL has vaulting facilities under its control for the storage of gold and/or silver, plus in the case of gold bullion, account facilities at the Bank of England, which have contributed to the development of bullion clearing in London.”

The LPMCL also states that its clearing statistics include:

“Transfers over LPMCL Clearing Members’ accounts at the Bank of England.”

Additionally, the LPMCL website states that their

“clearing and vaulting services help facilitate physical precious metal movement logistics, location swaps, quality swaps and liquidity management.”

See BullionStar article “Spotlight on LPMCL: London Precious Metals Clearing Limited” for a full profile of LPMCL.

The Bank of England’s reference in its new ‘Gold Policy’ document to commercial banks needing to be “committed to honour buy and sell prices” is a reference to market makers and would cover all 13 LBMA market makers in gold, which are the 5 LPMCL members and also BNP Paribas, Citibank, Goldman Sachs, Merrill Lynch, Morgan Stanley, Société Générale, Standard Chartered Bank, Toronto-Dominion Bank. But there are also gold trading banks that make a market in gold which are not officially LBMA market makers, such as Commerzbank in Luxembourg which claims to be one of the biggest bullion banks in the world.

So I would say that lots of other bullion banks (of which there about 40 in total) have gold accounts at the Bank of England in addition to the 13 official LBMA market makers.

More fundamentally, any bullion bank that is engaged in gold lending with central banks (the central banks being the lenders and the bullion banks being the borrowers) would need a gold account at the Bank of England. I counted 28 bullion banks that have been involved with borrowing the gold of just one central bank, the central bank of Bolivia (Banco Central de Bolivia – BCB) between 1998 and 2016. Some of these banks have since merged or exited precious metals trading, but still, it gives an estimate of the number of bullion banks that have been involved in the gold lending market. The Banco Central de Bolivia’s gold lending activities will be covered in some forthcoming blog posts.

Bullion banks that are Authorised Participants (APs) for gold-backed ETFs such as the SPDR Gold Trust (GLD) or iShares Gold Trust (IAU) may also have gold accounts at the Bank of England. I say may have, because in practice the APs leave it up to the custodians such as HSBC and JP Morgan to allocate or deallocate the actual physical gold flowing in and out of the ETFs, but HSBC on occasion uses the Bank of England as a sub-custodian for GLD gold (see “SPDR Gold Trust gold bars at the Bank of England vaults” for details), so if some of the APs want to keep their own stash of allocated physical gold in relation to ETF trading, it would make sense for them to have a gold account at the Bank of England.

As to how much gold the GLD stores at the Bank of England and how regularly this occurs is still opaque because the SEC does not require the GLD filings to be very granular, however there is a very close correlation between inflows and outflows from GLD and the inflows and outflows from the Bank of England vaults, as the following chart clearly illustrates.

Gold held in the SPDR Gold Trust (GLD) and custody gold held at the Bank of England: January 2011 - December 2016. Source:www.GoldChartsRUS.com
Gold held in the SPDR Gold Trust (GLD) and custody gold held at the Bank of England: January 2011 – December 2016. Source:www.GoldChartsRUS.com

As gold was extracted from the GLD beginning in late 2012, a few months later the Bank of England gold holdings began to shrink also. This trend continues all the way through 2013, 2014 and 2015. Then as the amount of gold began to increase in the GLD at the end of 2015, the gold holdings at the Bank of England began to increase also. Could this be bullion banks extracting gold from the GLD, then holding this gold at the Bank of England and then subsequently exporting it out of the UK?

Some of it could, but UK gold net exports figures suggest that gold was withdrawn from both the Bank of England vaults and from the ETF gold stored at commercial gold vaults (run by HSBC and JP Morgan), after which it was exported.

BOEGoldReserves07t
Custody gold held at the Bank of England and UK gold imports and exports: January 2011 – December 2016. Source:www.GoldChartsRUS.com

Looking at the above chart which plots Bank of England gold holdings and UK gold imports and exports (and net exports) is revealing. As Nick Laird points out in this chart, over the 2013 to 2015 period during which the Bank of England gold holdings fell by 1500 tonnes, there were UK net gold export flows of 2500 tonnes, i.e. 2500 tonnes of gold flowed out of London gold vaults, so an additional 1000 tonnes had to come from somewhere apart from the Bank of England vaults.

Spot Checks

The new monthly vault holdings data from the Bank of England can now also be compared to the amount of gold reported by the Bank of England in its annual reports. The figures the Bank reports in the annual report are as of the end of February. These figures are only reported in Pounds Sterling, not quantities, so they need to be either converted to USD and divided by the USD LBMA Gold Price on the last day of February, or else just divided by the GBP LBMA Gold Price on that day.

In September 2015, I wrote the article “How many Good Delivery gold bars are in all the London Vaults?….including the Bank of England vaults”. This was followed by an October 2016 update titled “Tracking the gold held in London: An update on ETF and BoE holdings”. Both of these articles aimed to calculate how much gold was actually stored in the entire London gold vaulting network by looking at how much gold was held in custody in the Bank of England vaults and how much gold was held by ETFs in London.

For end of February 2015, the calculated total for gold held at the Bank of England (based on the annual report) came out at 5,134 tonnes. Now the Bank of England data says 5126 tonnes which is very close to the calculation.  For February 2016, the calculation came out at 4725 tonnes.  The new Bank of England data now says  4730 tonnes, so that’s pretty close also.

Conclusion

This new Bank of England data is welcome and the Bank of England has taken a step towards greater transparency. However, it would be more useful if the Bank published a breakdown of how much of this gold is held by central banks and how much is held by bullion banks, along with the number of central banks and number of bullion banks that the data represents. Two distinct sets of data would be ideal, one for central bank custody holdings and the other for bullion bank custody holdings. The Bank most likely would never publish two sets of data as it would show bullion bank gold storage activity for the whole world to see.

While the Bank of England has now followed through with its promise to publish its gold vault holdings, the LBMA has still not published gold vault data for the commercial gold vault providers, i.e. its members HSBC, JP Morgan, ICBC Standard Bank, Brinks, Malca Amit, Loomis and G4S. Where is this data, why is there a delay, and why has it not yet been published?

As a reminder, the Financial Times article in early February said that the LBMA would publish gold vault holdings data that would:

“show gold bars held by the BoE, the gold clearing banks, and those [vaults] operated by the security companies such as Brink’s”

The Financial Times article also said that:

HSBC and JPMorgan, London’s biggest bullion banks, are backing the initiatives by the LBMA to improve transparency.”

With the gold holdings data on the other London vaults still not published, it begs the question, has there been a change of mind by HSBC and JP Morgan, two of the LBMA’s largest and most powerful members?

The vaulting page of the LBMA’s website could also do with an update since currently it erroneously says:

“Reputedly [the Bank of England vaults are] the second largest vault in the world with approximately 500,000 gold bars held in safe custody on behalf of its customers, including LBMA members, central banks, international financial institutions and Her Majesty’s Treasury.”

A holding of 500,000 Good Delivery gold bars is equal to 6250 tonnes. However, according to the Bank of England’s own figure for month end December 2016, the Bank of England only holds 5100 tonnes of gold in custody (408,000 Good delivery gold bars). Therefore, the LBMA is overstating the Bank of England’s holdings by 1150 tonnes, unless, and it’s unlikely, that the BoE vaults have seen huge gold bar inflows in the last 4 months.

Sweden’s Gold Reserves: 10,000 gold bars shrouded in Official Secrecy

In early February 2017 while preparing for a presentation in Gothenburg about central bank gold, I emailed Sweden’s central bank, the Riksbank,  enquiring whether the bank physically audits Sweden’s gold and whether it would provide me with a gold bar weight list of Sweden’s gold reserves (gold bar holdings). The Swedish official gold reserves are significant and amount to 125.7 tonnes, making the Swedish nation the world’s 28th largest official gold holder.

Before looking at the questions put to the Riksbank and the Riksbank’s responses, some background information is useful. Sweden’s central bank, Sveriges Riksbank aka Riksbanken or Riksbank, has the distinction of being the world’s oldest central bank (founded in 1668). The bank is responsible for the administration of Swedish monetary policy and the issuance of the Swedish currency, the Krona.

Since Sweden is a member of the EU, the Riksbank is a member of the European System of Central Banks (ESCB), but since Sweden does not use the Euro, the Riksbank is not a central bank member of the European Central Bank (ECB). Therefore the Riksbank has a degree of independence that ECB member central banks lack, but still finds itself under the umbrella of the ESCB. Since it issues its own currency, the Riksbank is responsible for the management of the Swedish Krona exchange rate against other currencies, a task which should be borne in mind while reading the below.

On 28 October 2013, the Riksbank for the first time revealed the storage locations of its gold reserves via publication of the following list of five storage locations (four of these locations are outside Sweden) and the percentage and gold tonnage stored at each location:

  • Bank of England               61.4 tonnes (48.8%)
  • Bank of Canada               33.2 tonnes (26.4%)
  • Federal Reserve Bank   13.2 tonnes (10.5%)
  • Swiss National Bank        2.8 tonnes (2.2%)
  • Sveriges Riksbank         15.1 tonnes (12.0%)

The storage locations of Sweden’s official Gold Reserves: Total 125.7 tonnes

Nearly half of Sweden’s gold is stored at the Bank of England in London. Another quarter of the Swedish gold is supposedly stored with the Bank of Canada. The Bank of Canada’s gold vault was located under it’s headquarters building on Wellington Street in Ottawa. However, this Bank of Canada building has undergone a complete renovation and has been completely empty for a number of years, so wherever Sweden’s gold is in Ottawa, it has not been in the Bank of Canada’s gold vault for the last number of years.

The Swedish gold in Canada (along with gold holdings of the central banks of Switzerland, the Netherlands and Belgium) could, however, have been moved to the Royal Canadian Mint’s vault which is also in Ottawa. Bank of Canada staff are now moving back into the Wellington Street building this year. But is the Swedish gold moving back also or does it even exist? The location of the Swedish gold in Ottawa is a critical question which the Swedish population should be asking their elected representatives at this time, and also asking the Riksbank the same question.

Just over 10% of the Swedish gold is supposedly in the famous (infamous) Manhattan gold vault of the Federal Reserve under the 33 Liberty building. Given the complete lack of cooperation of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York (FRBNY) in answering any questions about foreign gold holdings in this vault, then good luck to Swedish citizens in trying to ascertain that gold’s whereabouts or convincing the Riksbank to possibly repatriate that gold.

A very tiny 2% of Swedish gold is also listed as being held with the Swiss National Bank (SNB). The SNB gold vault is in Berne under its headquarters building on Bundesplatz.

The Riksbank also claims to hold 15.1 tonnes of its gold (12%) in its own storage, i.e. stored domestically in Sweden. Interestingly, on 30 October 2013, just two days after the Riksbank released details of its gold storage locations, Finland’s central bank in neighbouring Helsinki, the Bank of Finland, also released the storage locations of its 49 tonnes gold reserves. The Bank of Finland claims its 49 tonnes of gold is spread out as follows: 51% at the Bank of England, 20% at the Riksbank in Sweden, 18% at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, 7% in Switzerland at the Swiss National Bank and 4% held in Finland by the Bank of Finland. This means that not only is the Riksbank storing 15.1 tonnes of Swedish gold, it also apparently is also storing 9.8 tonnes of Finland’s gold, making a grand total of 24.9 tonnes of gold stored with the Riksbank. The storage location of this 24.9 tonnes gold is unknown, but one possibility suggested by the Swedish blogger Cornucopia (Lars Wilderäng) is that this gold is being stored in the recently built Riksbank cash management building beside Stockholm’s Arlanda International Airport, a building which was completed in 2012.

On its website, the Riksbank states that its 125.7 tonnes of gold “is equivalent to around 10,000 gold bars”. A rough rule of thumb is that 1 tonne of gold consists of 80 Good Delivery Bars. These Good Delivery Gold gold bars are wholesale market gold bars which, although they are variable weight bars, usually each weigh in the region of 400 troy ounces or 12.5 kilograms. Hence 125.7 tonnes is roughly equal to 125.7 * 80 bars = 10,056 bars, which explains where the Riksbank gets its 10,000 gold bar total figure from.

Riksbank

Using Gold for Foreign Exchange Interventions

On another page on its web site titled ‘Gold and Foreign Currency Reserve’, the Riksbank is surprisingly open about the uses to which it puts its gold holdings, uses such as foreign exchange interventions and emergency liquidity:

“The gold and foreign currency reserve can primarily be used to provide emergency liquidity assistance to banks, to fulfil Sweden’s share of the international lending of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and to intervene on the foreign exchange market, if need be.”

This is not a misprint and is not a statement that somehow only applies to the ‘foreign currency reserve’ component of the reserves, since the same web page goes on to specifically say that:

The gold can be used to fund emergency liquidity assistance or foreign exchange interventions, among other things.”

Therefore, the Riksbank is conceding that at least some of its gold is actively used in central bank operations and that this gold does not merely sit in quiet unencumbered storage. On the contrary, this gold at times has additional claims and titles attached to it due to being loaned or swapped.

When the Riksbank revealed its gold storage locations back in October 2013, this news was covered by a number of Swedish media outlets, one of which was the Stockholm-based financial newspaper Dagens Industri, commonly known as DI. DI’s article on the topic, published in Swedish with a title translated as “Here is the Swedish Gold“,  also featured a series of questions and answers from personnel from the Riksbank asset management department. Some of these answers are worth highlighting here as they touch on the active management of the Swedish gold and also the shockingly poor auditing of the Swedish gold.

In the DI article, Göran Robertsson, Deputy Head of Riksbank’s asset management department, noted that historically the Swedish gold was stored at geographically diversified locations for security reasons, but that this same geographic distribution is now primarily aimed at facilitating the rapid exchange of Swedish gold for major foreign currencies, hence the reason that nearly half of the Swedish gold is held in the Bank of England gold vaults – since the Bank of England London vaults are where gold swaps and gold loans take place.

Robertsson noted that over the 2008-2009 period, 50 tonnes of gold Swedish gold located at the Bank of England was exchanged for US dollars: 

“London is the dominant international marketplace for gold. We used the gold 2008-2009 during the financial crisis when we switched it to the dollar we then lent to Swedish banks”

One of these Riskbank gold-US Dollar swap transaction was also referenced in a 2011 World Gold Council report on gold market liquidity. This report stated that in 2008 following the Lehman collapse:

“In order to be able to provide liquidity to the Scandinavian banking system, the Swedish Riksbank utilised its gold reserves by swapping some of its gold to obtain dollar liquidity before it was able to gain access to the US dollar swap facilities with the Federal Reserve.” 

In the October 2013 DI interview, Göran Robertsson also noted that at some point following this gold – dollar exchange, “the size of the reserve was restored“, which presumably means that the Riksbank received back 50 tonnes of gold. As to whether the restoration of the gold holdings was the exact same 50 tonnes of gold as had been previously held (the same  gold bars) is not clear.

Sophie Degenne, Head of the Riksbank’s asset management department, also noted that:

“The main purpose of the gold and foreign exchange reserves is to use it when needed, as in the financial crisis”

Auditing of the Swedish Gold

On the subject of so-called transparency and auditing of the gold, Sophie Degenne said the following in the same DI interview:

“Why do you reveal at which central banks the gold is located?
It is a part of the Riksbank endeavours to be as transparent as we can. We have engaged in dialogue with the relevant central banks”

How do you verify that the gold is really where it should be?
“We have our own listings of where it is. We reconcile these against extracts that we receive once a year. From now on, we will also start with our own inspections.”

Therefore, the Riksbank gold auditing procedure at that time was one of merely comparing one piece of paper to another piece of paper and in no way involved physically auditing the gold bars in any of the foreign locations. These weak audit methods of the Swedish gold were first highlighted by Liberty Silver CEO, Mikael From in Stockholm-based news daily Aftonbladet’s coverage of the Swedish gold storage locations in an article in early November 2013 titled “Questions about Sweden’s gold reserves persist“.

In Aftonbladet’s article, Mikael From stated that while it was welcome that the Riksbank was at that point signalling an ambition to inspect the Swedish gold reserves, it was not clear that the Riksbank would be conducting a proper audit of the gold reserves at the time of inspection, although such a proper audit would be highly desirable. Mikael stated that without such a proper audit, and without witnessing the gold with their own eyes, the Riksbank and the Swedish State could not be certain that the Swedish gold actually existed.

He also called for the Riksbank to provide information proving that the Swedish gold actually exists in its claimed storage locations. This was particulaly important due to a portion of the Swedish gold supposedly being stored at the gold vault of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York (NYFED), a storage location which had in the past been non-cooperative and problematic for the German Federal Court of Auditors when they tried to examine the NYFED’s storage arrangements in 2011/2012.

Questions to the Swedish Riksbank – February 2017

Turning now to the questions which I posed to the Swedish Riksbank in early February 2017 about its gold reserves. I asked the Riskbank two basic and simple questions as follows:

“I am undertaking research into central bank gold reserves, including the gold reserves held by the Riksbank at its 5 storage facilities. 

1. Are the gold bars held by the Riksbank in its foreign storage facilities physically audited by the Riksbank (i.e. stored at Bank of England, Bank of Canada, Federal Reserve New York and Swiss National Bank)? In other words, does the Riksbank have a physical audit program for this gold?

2. Secondly, would the Riksbank be able to send me a gold bar weight list which shows the gold bar holdings details for the 125.7 tonnes of gold held by the Riksbank. A weight list being the industry standard list showing bar brand (refiner), serial number, gross weight, fineness, fine weight etc.

A few days after I submitted my questions, the Presschef/Chief Press Officer of the Riksbank responded as follows. On the subject of auditing:

“Answer 1: Yes, the Riksbank performs regularly physical audits of its gold.

In response to the question about a gold bar weight list, the Chief Press Officer said:

Answer 2: The Riksbank publishes information about where the gold is stored and how much in tonnes is at each place. See table (same distribution table as above). However, the Riksbank does not publish weight lists or other details of the gold holdings.

So here we have the Riksbank claiming that it personally now performs physical audits of its gold on a regular basis. This is the first time in the public domain, as far as I know, that the Riksbank is claiming to have undertaken physical gold audits of its gold holdings, and it goes beyond the 2013 statement from the Riksbank’s Sophie Degenne when she said “we will also start with our own inspections“.

But critically ,there was zero proof offered by the Riksbank to me, or on its website, that it has undertaken any physical gold audits. There is no documentation or evidence whatsoever that any physical audits have ever been conducted on any of the 10,000 gold bars in any of the 5 supposed storage locations that the Riksbank claims to store gold bars at. Contrast this to the bi-annual physical audits which are carried out on the gold bars in the SPDR Gold Trust (GLD) which are published on the GLD website.

In any other industry, there would be an outcry and court cases and litigation if an entity claimed it had conducted audits while offering no proof of said audits. However, in the world of central banking, perversely, this secrecy is allowed to persist. This is outrageous to say the least and Swedish citizens should be very concerned about this lack of transparency of the Swedish gold reserves. 

Official Secrecy about Swedish Gold Reserves

Given the brief and not very useful Riksbank responses to my 2 questions above, I sent a follow on email to the Riksbank asking why the Swedish central bank did not publish a gold bar weight list. My question was as follows:

Is there any specific reason why the Riksbank does not publish a gold bar weight list in the way, for example, that a gold-backed ETF does publish such a weight list every trading day?

i.e. Why is the Riksbank not transparent about its gold bar holdings?”

This second email was answered by the Riksbank Head of Communications, as follows:

“This kind of information is covered by secrecy relating to foreign affairs, as well as security secrecy and surveillance secrecy in accordance with the relevant provisions in the Swedish Public Access to Information and Secrecy Act.

As far as we are aware of, the Riksbank is among the most transparent central banks, being public with information about the storage locations and volumes, but do let us know if any other central banks are offering the level of transparency you are asking for (except for Germany of course, which we are aware about).”

So here you can see here that gold, which in the words of the Wall Street Journal is just a ‘Pet Rock’, is covered by some very strong secrecy laws in Sweden. Why would a pet rock need ultra strong secrecy laws?

An explanatory document on Sweden’s “Public Access to Information and Secrecy Act” can be accessed here. In Sweden, the rules governing public access to official documents are covered by the Freedom of the Press Act. While its beyond topic to go into the details of Swedish secrecy laws right now, there is a short section in the document titled “What official documents may be kept secret?” (Section 2.2) which includes the following:

“The Freedom of the Press Act lists the interests that may be protected by keeping official documents secret:

  • National security or Sweden’s relations with a foreign state or an international organisation;
  • The central financial policy, the monetary policy, or the national foreign exchange policy;
  • Inspection, control or other supervisory activities of a public authority;
  • The interest of preventing or prosecuting crime;
  • The public economic interest;
  • The protection of the personal or economic circumstances of private subjects; or
  • The preservation of animal or plant species.

Given that the Riksbank stated that the information in its gold bar weight lists was “covered by secrecy relating to foreign affairs, as well as security secrecy and surveillance secrecy”, I would hazard a guess that the Riksbank would try to reject Freedom of Information requests in this area by pointing to central bank gold storage and gold operations as falling under points 1 or 2, i.e. falling under national security or relations with a foreign state or international organisation, or else monetary policy / foreign exchange policy (especially given that the Riksbank uses gold reserves in its foreign currency interventions). Perhaps the Riksbank would also try to twist point 5 as an excuse, i.e. that it wouldn’t be in the public economic interest to release the Swedish gold bar details.

As to why the Riksbank and nearly all other central banks are ultra secretive about gold bar weight lists and even physical auditing of gold bar holdings usually boils down to the fact that, like the Riksbank, these gold bar holdings are actively managed and are often used in gold loans, gold swaps and even gold location swaps. If identifiable details of the gold bars of such central banks were in the public domain, given that these bars are involved in loans, currency swaps and location swaps, these gold bar details could begin to show up in the gold bar lists of other central banks or of the gold bar lists of publicly listed gold-backed Exchange Traded Funds. This would then blow the cover of the central banks which continue to maintain the fiction that their loaned and swapped gold is still held in unencumbered custody on their balance sheets, and would blow a hole in their contrived and corrupt accounting policies.

A Proposal to the Oldest Central Bank in the World

Since the Riksbank happened to ask me were there any central banks “offering the level of transparency [I was] asking for” i.e. providing gold bar weight lists, I decided to send a final response back to the Riksbank in early March highlighting the central banks that I am aware of that have published such gold bar weight lists, and I also took the opportunity of proposing that the Riksbank should follow suit in publishing its gold bar weight list. My letter to the Riksbank was as follows:

“You had asked which central banks offered a level of transparency on their gold holdings that include publication of a gold bar weight list. Apart from the Deutsche Bundesbank, which you know about, I can think of 3 central banks which have released weight lists of their gold bar holdings.

The 3 examples below (together with the Bundesbank) show that some of the most important central banks and monetary authorities in the world have now deemed it acceptable to include the release of gold bar weight lists as part of their gold communication transparency strategies. 

The 4 sets of weight lists below include gold bar holdings at the Bank of England (stored by Mexico, Australia, Germany), and at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York (stored by the US Treasury and Bundesbank). Together these two storage locations account for 60% of the Riksbank’s gold holdings (74.6 tonnes).

The Riksbank is the world’s oldest central bank and has a long track record of being progressive and transparent. By releasing the Riksbank’s gold bar weight lists for the gold bars stored over the 5 storage locations (London, New York, Ottawa, Berne and in Sweden), the Swedish central bank would be joining an elite group of central banks and monetary institutions that could be considered the early stage adopters of much needed transparency in this area.”

1. Bank of Mexico

Most recently in 2017, Bank of Mexico has released a weight list of its earmarked gold bars stored at the Bank of England. This list in pdf format can be downloaded here – > http://www.guillermobarba.com/assets/uploads/2017/03/LT-BM-18703-ok.pdf

The Mexican list details 7265 gold bars held (about 90 tonnes), and includes bank of England internal sequence number, refiner brand, gross weight, assay (fineness), and fine weight.

See also https://www.bullionstar.com/blogs/ronan-manly/mexicos-earmarked-gold-bars-bank-englands-vaults/

 2. Reserve Bank of Australia

In July 2014, the Reserve Bank of Australia (RBA) released a weight list of 6313 gold bars (about 79 tonnes) that it has stored at the bank of England in London. See  http://www.rba.gov.au/information/foi/disclosure-log/rbafoi-131418.html

The weight list in Excel format can be downloaded here http://www.rba.gov.au/information/foi/disclosure-log/xls/131418.xls

The RBA list includes refiner brand, gross weight, assay (fineness), and fine weight, as well as bank of England account number.

3. US Treasury

In 2011, the US Treasury’s full detailed schedules of gold bars was published by the US House Committee on Financial Services as part of submissions for its hearing titled “Investigating the Gold: H.R. 1495, the Gold Reserve Transparency Act of 2011 and the Oversight of United States Gold Holdings”.

These US Treasury weight lists are as follows, and are downloadable from the financial services section of the “house.gov” web site.

  • Weight list of all Treasury gold held at Fort Knox, Denver and West Point – 699,515 bars  – pdf format

http://financialservices.house.gov/uploadedfiles/attachment_4_mints_schedule_of_inventory_of_deep_storage_gold_reserves.pdf

  • Weight list of all Treasury gold held at Fort Knox, Denver and West Point – 699,515 bars – xlsformat

http://financialservices.house.gov/uploadedfiles/mints_schedule_of_inventory_of_deep_storage_gold_reserves.xls

Deutsche Bundesbank

The Bundesbank weight list which you know about. The most recent version of this list was published on 23rd February 2017 and can be downloaded here http://www.bundesbank.de/Redaktion/EN/Downloads/Bundesbank/Organisation/bar_list.pdf?__blob=publicationFile

The Bundesbank list show all the German gold bars held at the Bank of England, NY fed and Banque de France as well as in Frankfurt.”

Conclusion

As of now, the Swedish Riksbank has a) not published a gold bar weight list of any of its gold bar holdings and b) not acknowledged my follow up email where I listed the central banks that have produced such lists and suggested that the Riksbank do likewise.

The Swedish Riksbank claims to hold 10,000 large Good Delivery gold bars in 5 locations across the world and now claims to have conducted physical gold audits of this gold. Yet it has never published any physical gold audit results of any of these gold bars nor published any of the serial numbers of any of the 10,000 gold bars it claims to have in storage. For a so-called progressive democracy this is shocking, although not surprising given the arrogant and unaccountable company that central bankers keep with each other.

If someone with time on their hands, ideally a Swedish citizen, has an interest in this area, it would be worthwhile for them to research the rules of the Swedish Freedom of Information Act, and then craft a few carefully worded Freedom of Information requests to the Riksbank requesting physical audit documents and gold bar weight lists of Sweden’s 125.7 tonnes of gold that is supposedly held in London, New York, Ottawa, Berne and in Sweden, possibly in or around Stockholm or beside Arlanda airport. 

While these Freedom of Information requests would probably get rejected due to some spurious secrecy excuse and thrown back at the applicant in short order, at least its worth trying, and might make a good story for one of the Swedish financial newspapers to cover.

German and Swiss Precious Metals Refiners join forces as Heraeus acquires Argor-Heraeus

German precious metals group Heraeus Precious Metals (HPM), part of the Heraeus industrial group, has just announced the full acquisition of Swiss precious metals refining group Argor-Heraeus. Heraeus is headquartered in Hanau, just outside Frankfurt. Argor-Heraeus is headquartered in Mendrisio in the Swiss Canton of Ticino, beside the Italian border.

The Heraeus takeover announcement, on 3 April 2017, continues a noticeable acquisition trend in the Swiss precious metals refining sector and follows the July 2016 acquisition of Neuchâtel based Metalor Technologies by Japanese Tanaka Precious Metals, and the takeover of Ticino-based Swiss gold and silver refiner Valcambi by Indian group Rajesh Exports in July 2015. The Heraeus press release from Monday 3 April can be read here in English.

singapore-germany-silver-bullionstar-bar-1kg-2015-refined

A Deal Telegraphed in November

In early November 2016, BullionStar was among the first to report that Swiss Argor-Heraeus was indeed an acquisition target. At the time, market sources had indicated that the most likely acquirer was a private equity company Capinvest, with other suitors said to be Japanese group Asahi and Swiss based MKS-PAMP.

In late 2016, S&P Global Platts reported that Swiss private equity company “Capvis” was in talks to acquire Argor-Heraeus, with one of Platts sources quoting a purchase price in the region of €200 million with completion in Q1 2017, while another source said €200 million was too high a figure. At the end of the day, a Capvis takeover did not materialise and earlier this year market sources said that Argor-Heraeus was no longer for sale (externally). In hindsight, it was probably at this stage that Heraeus decided to make its move. Alternatively, the discussions with external buyers may have just been conducted so as to gauge sentiment and establish a series of potential valuations for the Swiss refiner.

As a reminder, Argor-Hereaus had an unusual ownership structure in that it was jointly owned by 4 shareholders, namely German group Heraeus, German bank Commerzbank, the Austrian Mint, and Argor-Heraeus management. Prior to the takeover, Heraeus was the largest shareholder holding 33% of Argor-Heraeus shares, with Commerzbank holding a further 32.7% of the equity, the Austrian Mint holding another 30%, and Argor-Heraeus’s management holding the balance of shares.

As an existing shareholder and board member of Argor-Heraeus, the Heraeus group would have been privy to all of Argor-Heraeus’s financial and operational details, and so would have been in an advantageous position to negotiate purchase price details with Commerzbank and the Austrian Mint, which would have been a natural advantage relative to external potential acquirers.

Purchase Price

However, the exact purchase price Argor-Heraeus is not known, since, according to the Heraeus press release “the parties have agreed not to disclose financial details of the deal”. Notwithstanding this, German newspaper Handelsblatt is claiming that the Heraeus takeover values Argor-Heraeus at “half a billion Swiss Francs“, since according to Handelsblatt’s sources, Heraeus paid “few hundred million euros for the remaining Argor shares“. With CHF 500 million equal to approximately €468 million, the Handelsblatt claim would mean that Heraeus may have paid €313 million for the 67% of Argor-Heraeus that it did not own. This would be far higher than the €200 million figure that S&P Platts mentioned in December.

singapore-gold-bullionstar-bar-100g-back

Motivations for Acquisition

According to Heraeus, one of its motivations in acquiring Argor-Heraeus is to strengthen its capabilities in gold and silver refining by tapping “Argor’s expertise and processing capacity for gold and silver”, since Heraeus considers itself strongest in platinum group metals. Heraeus states that another driver of the acquisition is geographical diversification given that Argor-Heraeus has facilities on the ground in Chile, as well as in Italy, Germany and of course Switzerland, while Heraeus has a strong presence in Asia, North America and India in addition to Germany.

BullionStar Bars by Heraeus and Argor-Heraeus

BullionStar is very familiar with both Heraeus and Argor-Heraeus and has a good working relationship with both refinery groups. In fact, the popular BullionStar 1 kg silver bars are produced by Heraeus on behalf of BullionStar, while BullionStar’s own branded 100 gram gold bars are minted by Argor-Heraeus on behalf of  BullionStar. See bar images above. Argor-Heraeus is one of the five refineries appointed to the LBMA’s Good Delivery List referee panel for Gold and Silver. In addition, BullionStar carries a wide range of other Heraeus silver bars, Heraeus gold bars, and Argor-Heraeus gold bars.

Conclusion

With 3 of the 4 giant Swiss precious metals refineries having now been acquired by new owners within less than 2 years of each other, this leaves the PAMP refinery, owned by MKS PAMP, as the only one of the “Big 4″ Swiss refineries to have bypassed this recent flurry of corporate control activity. As to whether MKS PAMP will itself become a takeover target is debatable, but it would be surprising if MKS isn’t thinking about this very question right now.

Further information

For more information on the Heraeus group and its precious metals activities, see BullionStar Gold University profile of Heraeus https://www.bullionstar.com/gold-university/heraeus-refinery

For a full overview of Swiss refiner Argor-Heraeus, please see BullionStar Gold University profile of Argor-Heraeus https://www.bullionstar.com/gold-university/argor-heraeus-refinery

For more information on the Tanaka acquisition of Metalor Technologies, see specific section of Metalor profile on BullionStar Gold University https://www.bullionstar.com/gold-university/metalor-refinery#heading-4

For more information on the acquisition of Swiss Valcambi by Rajesh Exports, see BullionStar blog https://www.bullionstar.com/blogs/ronan-manly/swiss-gold-refineries-and-the-sale-of-valcambi

For analysis of initial news (last November) about Argor-Heraeus being acquired, see BullionStar blog https://www.bullionstar.com/blogs/ronan-manly/swiss-gold-refinery-argor-heraeus-to-be-acquired-by-private-equity-investors

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

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

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

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

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

Bank of Mexico

2011: Gold Reserves Skyrocket, Central Bank Secrecy

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

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

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

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

received a response from Banixco of:

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

The Mexican central bank also added that:

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

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

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

Another question Barba put to Banixco in 2011 was:

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

Banixco responded:

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

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

118 Tonnes at the Bank of England

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mexican Federal Auditors not happy with Banixco

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

The ASF reprimanded Banixco, saying that it:

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

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

ASF also recommended that the Mexican central bank:

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

February 2017: Partial Glimpse of Bar List

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

March 2017: Banixco Releases Detailed Bar List

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rand Refinery

The Refiner Bar Names on Mexico’s Gold Bar List

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Perth Mint

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

Germany’s Gold remains a Mystery as Mainstream Media cheer leads

On 9 February 2017, the Deutsche Bundesbank issued an update on its extremely long-drawn-out gold repatriation program, an update in which it claimed to have transferred 111 tonnes of gold from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York to Germany during 2016, while also transferring an additional 105 tonnes of gold from the Banque de France in Paris to Germany during the same time-period.

Following these assumed gold bar movements, the Bundesbank now claims to have achieved its early 2013 goal of repatriating 300 tonnes of gold from New York to Frankfurt, but after 4 years it is still 91 tonnes short of its planned transfer of 374 tonnes of gold from Paris to Frankfurt. In essence, over an entire 4-year period (i.e. 208 weeks), the Bundesbank has only been able to transfer 583 tonnes of gold back from New York and Paris to Germany. And the Bundesbank still claims to have 1236 tonnes of gold remaining in storage with the New York Fed.

Predictably, instead of prompting the mainstream financial media into asking why these supposed gold bar movements have taken so long, the Bundesbank press release threw the mainstream media into a frenzy of immediately back-slapping the Bundesbank while regurgitating its press release with articles such as “Germany brings its gold stash home sooner than planned” from Reuters , “Germany Gets Its Gold Back Faster With Job Seen Done in 2017” from Bloomberg, and “Germans Sent Gold Away to Keep It From the Soviets. Now Much of It Is Back” from the New York Times.

Furthermore, if the mainstream financial media had bothered looking at Federal Reserve “Table 3.13 – Selected Foreign Official Assets Held at Federal Reserve Banks” under ‘Earmarked Gold’ (line item 4), they would have seen that the foreign custody gold figure that the Fed reports has not changed since September 2016, and that the Fed’s foreign custody gold figure had dropped by 113 tonnes between March 2016 and September 2016, meaning that the Bundesbank’s 111 tonne gold transfer from the US to Germany had been completed by September 2016, i.e. at least 4 months before the Bundesbank reported it.

table frb
Selected Foreign Official Assets Held at Federal Reserve Banks – ‘Earmarked Gold’, 2016. CLICK TO ENLARGE

100 tonnes of gold per day Air-Lifted

All gold withdrawals from the Fed’s “earmarked gold” reporting category in 2016 occurred between March and September 2016, with activity each month throughout that period except in May. As to why there were gold withdrawals from the Fed of 113.45 tonnes when the Bundesbank only reported transferring back 111 tonnes is not clear. Was an additional amount withdrawn from the Fed vault by another foreign central bank or did the Bundesbank conduct further melting down of its US Assay office gold bars and lose 2+ tonnes (1.7%) of fine ounce content that was overstated in its Federal Reserve holdings? Or perhaps this amount was lost when weighing old US Assay Office ‘melts’ (batches of 18-22 bars) which had never been properly weighed before.

Whatever the case, we will never know because the Fed does not divulge the identities of its central bank gold custody customers, nor does the Bundesbank divulge simple details such as gold bar serial numbers on its so-called gold bar list (more of which below).

Simple common sense would have alerted the mainstream media robots to the fact that it is not normal for international gold movements to take 4 years to complete, and that there is something absolutely not right with Germany’s foreign held gold taking so long to transport from New York and Paris. Paris is just a 1 hour flight from Frankfurt and 6 hours by road, and New York is less than 9 hours flying time to Frankfurt.

Other simple questions which the mainstream financial media have failed to ask or have failed to think of include why does the Bundesbank need to keep any gold at all stored at the Federal Reserve in New York, let alone 1236 tonnes, when the New York Fed vault is not even an international gold trading center. And is this gold left in New York is under any liens, claims, encumbrances, loans or swaps?

In contrast to the Bundesbank’s laughable repatriation program duration, take for example, the Banco Central do Venezuela, which was able to transfer 160 tonnes of gold from Europe to Venezuela’s capital, Caracas, over a 2 month period from 25 November 2011 to 30 January 2012. See “Venezuela’s Gold Reserves – Part 2: From Repatriation to Reactivation” for details.

That’s 80 tonnes per month, which would equate to a 4 month transfer window for 300 tonnes of the Bundesbank’s gold stored in New York, not 4 years. Furthermore, why is the mainstream media not asking the Bundesbank why it takes more than 4 years to transfer 374 tonnes of gold from Paris to Frankfurt?

More damning to the contemporary Bundesbank, the same Americans (Federal Reserve) were able to fly over 800 tonnes of gold from the US to England exactly 50 year ago, in November and December 1967, to prop up their share of the London Gold Pool gold holdings at the Bank of England. This gold was flown into RAF Mildenhall in Suffolk over 9 days in batches of around 100 tonnes each day using US air force cargo carriers, and then this gold was ferried by police escorted convoys down to the City of London.

The first 4 of these US air force flights were on Tuesday 28 November 1967, Wednesday 29 November, Friday 1 December, and Sunday 3 December, with the Americans flying in 100 tonnes of gold each day to RAF Mildenhall over those 4 days. That’s 400 tonnes of gold flown from the US to Europe in just 6 days. See screenshot below.

100 tonnes per day
The Federal Reserve is able to organise massive and rapid gold movements by air when it wants to

These 4 flights in late November and early December 1967 were followed by 5 more flights on Tuesday 19 December, Thursday 21 December, Thursday 28 December , Friday 29 December, and Sunday 31 December 1967. These 5 flights transported another 445 tonnes of gold bars (14,317,458 fine ounces) from the US to the Bank of England vaults (see screenshot below). That’s another 445 tonnes of gold moved from the US to London in just 13 days.

5 flights
Federal Reserve had 445 tonnes of gold flown from the US to London in just 13 days in December 1967

Overall, the November and December 1967 gold airlifts transported nearly 850 tonnes of gold from the US to Europe in just 1 month.

There were also further massive gold airlifts from the US to the Bank of England in the summer of 1968 which ironically the Federal Reserve needed to do so as to pay back physical gold swaps which the Bundesbank had made available to the Americans at the Bank of England during the last days of the London Gold Pool in March 1968.

These rapid and massive physical gold movements over international borders in 1967 and 1968 show how laughable the Bundesbank’s current gold repatriation program actually is, and how servile the mainstream financial media are in not even questioning the timeframe of the Bundesbank’s repatriation operations.

RAF Mildenhall police escort
POLICE ESCORTS for Gold Run from RAF MILDENHALL to BANK OF ENGLAND, December 1967. Source here

Updated “So-Called” Bar List

Following its press release on 9 February, the Bundesbank then published an updated version of its so-called gold bar list on 23 February, specifying its gold holdings as of 31 December 2016. A so-called gold bar list, because the format of the Bundesbank’s gold bar list does not follow any accepted industry standard format and does not contain basic details such as bar serial number and bar refiner name that are crucial to any normal gold bar weight list. The updated Bundesbank bar list was also released in a very low-key way, and its publication does not seem to have been picked up by any of the mainstream financial media. The updated Bundesbank ‘list’ can be viewed here in a file that the Bundesbank had actually created on 14 February 2017.

DB 2016
Bundesbank gold bar holdings as per 31 December 2016

To reiterate, a proper gold bar weight list, as per the definition of the London Bullion Market Association (LBMA) in its Good Delivery Rules for Gold and Silver Bars, contains the following details:

  • Serial Number of bar
  • Bar Refiner Brand
  • Gross weight (troy ounces)
  • Assay (Fineness)
  • Fine Weight (troy ounces)

For example, here is a recent gold bar weight list from the iShares Gold Trust (IAU). For each bar held in the iShares Gold Trust, the weight list lists:

  • bar brand (refiner name)
  • bar serial number
  • shape (400 oz)
  • Assay (fineness)
  • Gross ounces
  • Fine ounces
  • Vault (example JP Morgan London)

The Bundesbank claims that all of its gold bars are good delivery bars, so it and its gold custodians (Bank of England, Banque de France and Federal Reserve Bank of New York) have all of this information stored on their respective gold bar accounting systems, including real bar serial numbers and refiner names. They have to store this information since any bars entering or leaving LBMA network gold vaults need to be accompanied by proper weight lists, including serial number and bar refiner brand.

Compare a proper weight list with the sparse and incomplete what the Bundesbank includes in its gold bar list:

  • Inventory Number (internal sequence numbers or incomplete bar numbers)
  • Gross Weight
  • Fineness
  • Fine Weight
Bundesbank 'list' format
Bundesbank gold bar ‘list’ format – No serial numbers, No bar refiner names

For Germany’s bars listed as held by the Bundesbank, Bank of England and Banque de France, these inventory numbers are merely “internally assigned inventory numbers”, and ludicrously in the case of the Bank of England and Banque de France gold vaults, they only allow other central banks to publish partial internal inventory numbers (the last three digits).

The secrecy with which the Bank of England, Banque de France and other central banks treat real gold bar serial numbers and other identifiers is most likely due to their paranoia that publication of such serial numbers would undermine their ability to operate with secrecy in the gold lending and gold swap market where bar identities might pop up in the gold holdings of commercial operators such as gold-backed Exchange Traded Funds (ETFs).

Numbers listed against Bundesbank bars held at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York do supposedly show a refiner number, or a melt number, but without the refiner name and year of manufacture of these bars being divulged by the Bundesbank, there is no way to verify and cross-check these bar numbers.

Note that this new Bundesbank gold bar list is the third such list that it has published, and it is in the same format as the previous two versions, both of which are also not real gold bar weight lists since they lack refiner serial numbers and refiner names.

For the purposes of this article, let’s refer to a “Bundesbank bar list” as an “incomplete partial weight list”. The Bundesbank had actually signalled the publication of its updated list at the bottom of its 9 February press release, where it stated:

“On 23 February, the Bundesbank will publish an updated list of its gold bars on its website. This list contains the bar, melt or inventory numbers, the gross and fine weight as well as the fineness of the gold.”

3 Bundesbank gold bar lists

To recap, the Bundesbank had already published 2 incomplete partial weight lists. The first of these was published on 7 October 2015 and showed holdings as of 31 December 2014. The file can be accessed here, or at the bottom of the page here. The Bundesbank actually created this file on 5 October 2015 and saved it with a file name of 2015_10_07_gold.pdf.

DB 2014
Cover page of Bundesbank’s 2014 incomplete partial gold bar list

The publication of this first bar list was elegantly and deftly dissected and critiqued by Peter Boehringer, of the German campaign “Repatriate our Gold”, in his October 2015 article “Guest Post: 47 years after 1968, Bundesbank STILL fails to deliver a gold bar number list”.

The Bundesbank’s second incomplete partial weight list was created on 4 February 2016 and listed holdings as of 31 December 2015, and was published sometime after 4 February 2016. Confusingly, the incomplete partial weight list as of 31 December 2015 file was uploaded to the same web page and with the same file name as the 31 December 2014 file (i.e. it was uploaded with the filename  2015_10_07_gold.pdf and it over-wrote the first list). This second incomplete partial weight list can be accessed here.

DB 2015
Cover page of Bundesbank’s 2015 incomplete partial gold bar list

Why no lists prior to December 2014?

Given that the Bundesbank has now demonstrated its ability to generate files itemising its gold holdings, even with limited bar details, the fact that the Bundesbank only began publishing its gold holdings’ lists in October 2015 should immediately raise suspicion as to why it did not publish such bars lists as of the end of 31 December 2012 (prior to the repatriation beginning), and as of 31 December 2013.

A casual observer would deduct that the Bundesbank does not want anyone to see an itemised list of its gold holdings on these dates in 2012 and 2013, and the casual observer would probably be correct in deducing such a conclusion. For its was during 2013 and 2014 that the Bundesbank melted down and recast 55 tonnes of the gold bars that it had held in New York. Five tonnes of its gold was melted down and recast in 2013 and a whopping 50 tonnes was melted down and recast in 2014. Recall that in January 2014, the Bundesbank stated that during 2013:

We had bars of gold which did not meet the ‘London Good Delivery’ general market standard melted down and recast. We are cooperating with gold smelters in Europe,” Thiele continued. The smelting process is being observed by independent experts. It is set up in such a manner that the Bundesbank’s gold cannot be commingled with foreign gold at any time.’

Some of the bars in our stocks in New York were produced before the Second World War.” “Our internal audit team was present last year during the on-site removal of gold bars and closely monitored everything. The smelting process is also being monitored by independent experts.”

“The very same gold arrived at the European gold smelters that we had commissioned.” “The gold was removed from the vault in the presence of the internal audit team and transported to Europe. Only once the gold had arrived in Europe was it melted down and brought to the current bar standard.”

And again in January 2015, the Bundesbank revealed that: during 2014 it:

“took advantage of the transfer from New York to have roughly 50 tonnes of gold melted down and recast according to the London Good Delivery standard, today’s internationally recognised standard.”

For more details of these statements, and follow-up questions to the Bundesbank, please see “The Keys to the Gold Vaults at the New York Fed – Part 3: ‘Coin Bars’, ‘Melts’ and the Bundesbank“.

If the Bundesbank had published weight lists as of the end of years 2012 and 2013, then details such as bar gross weight, fineness (gold purity), and bar fine weight would have to have been divulged. By not publishing earlier bars lists, no one outside the Bundesbank – Federal Reserve nexus will ever be aware of the weights and purities of these 55 tonnes of gold bars that were melted down and recast. The Bundesbank obviously has or had the details of these smelted bars, since it commissioned and monitored the smelting process. But as Peter Boeringher stated in his October 2015 article “it appears the bar lists for these transferred bars were lost or destroyed.”

What secrets did these bars hold? One distinct possibility was that they were low-grade coin bars, that had been produced from melted gold coin. In this case they would have been bars of 0.90 or .9167 gold purities or similar. Low grade coin bars began appearing at the NY Fed vault in Manhattan in 1968 and most likely came from the US Treasury’s gold holdings at  Fort Knox, Kentucky which consist of about 80% low-grade coin bars. It would not look good for the NY Fed if such low grade bars appeared on a foreign central bank’s gold bar list, and would invariably raise questions as to which US vaults this gold was sourced from.

Perhaps the bars that the Bundesbank melted were Prussian Mint bars from the Nazi era which the Bundesbank would be averse to holding in Germany for political reasons? Or maybe they were problematic US Assay office bars which had a lower fine ounce content than was stated on the actual bar, an issue that dogged another portion of the Bundesbank’s gold stocks in London in 1968. Or perhaps they were gold bars with some other embarrassing provenance which the Bundesbank and Federal Reserve needed to mask the true origin of. Without the Bundesbank ever clarifying this issue, we will never know.

Comparing the 3 Lists

What can we glean from comparing the 3 lists to each other? The only variable on which to compare the lists are gross weight, fineness, and fine weight, and the bar and melt counts per location.

In theory, the lists from December 2014, December 2015 and December 2016 should be identical assuming that the total amount of gold bars has not changed between versions.

If the lists are not identical, then it could suggest a number of things including:

  1. gold bars that were previously held in Melts have now been individually weighed and itemized on the more recent list. This would most likely be for bars that were transferred to Frankfurt, but could also apply to bars which remained in the other storage locations
  2. further instances of gold bars remelted / recast while being transferred from New York or Paris to Frankfurt that the Bundesbank has kept quiet about
  3. gold bars still held in Paris or New York (or London) that have been being recast and upgraded before being moved. This would apply more to Paris going forward
  4. sales of gold bars to ‘fund’ the German official gold coin program.
  5. gold lending / swap / repo transactions

Since the lists do state melt number, if there are less any melt numbers listed in more recent lists compared to older lists, then it means that the Bundesbank or its agents have weighed and itemised the individual bars in various melts (groups of 18-24 bars). For example, if the entries for 20 melts had disappeared from a more recent version of a list, then there should be about 400 extra individual bars of the newer list.

Using some quick eyeballing, the file dated 31 December 2014 has 2307 pages including introduction. The file dated 31 December 2015 has 2401 pages including introduction, i.e. the latter file has 94 extra pages. There are approximately 44 pages of melts in the 2014 file listed from page 2263 to the last page 2307. There are approximately 40 pages of melts in the 2015 file listed from page 2361 to the last page 2401. From a rough count, there are about 85 rows per page. This would mean about 340 melts were weighed and converted into itemised rows of single bars during 2015. Not all melts have full sets of bars, but assuming they did, that would be about 20 bars per melt, which would be about 20*340 = 6800 bars which would appear in individual rows in the 2015 list if the melts were “broken out”, which is about 80 pages, and is fairly near explaining the reason for the extra 94 pages in the 2025 file.

If you look at the number of gold bars listed in the press releases (current version and archived version), you will see that there were in total 270,326 bars at the end of 2014 and 270,058 bars at the end of 2015, so there were 258 less bars at the end of 2015.

As of the end of 2015, there were 34,808 bars in London vs 35,066 bars at the end of 2014. i.e. There were 258 bars less in London (about 3 tonnes). So the London drop explains the total drop. This could be gold used for a gold coin program.

This is just some quick eyeballing. The next step is to do an automated comparison of the 3 lists side by side by comparing the variables gross weight, fineness and fine weight so see which bar details may have changed over the 2 year period, and to look at what might have changed. This matching and calculation exercise will probably be undertaken by a gold bar database expert in the near future, so watch this space for further details.

 

A Chink of Light into London’s Gold Vaults?

On 5 February, the Financial Times of London (FT) featured a story revealing that the London Bullion Market Association (LBMA) plans to begin publishing data on the amount of real physical gold actually stored in the London precious metals vaulting network. The article titled “London gold traders to open vaults in transparency push” can be read here (accessible via FT subscription or via free monthly FT read limit).

This new LBMA ‘monthly vault data’ will, according to the FT’s sources, be published on a three-month lagged basis, and will:

show gold bars held by the BoE, the gold clearing banks, and those [vaults] operated by the security companies such as Brink’s, which are also members of the LBMA.”

The shadowy source quoted in the FT article is attributed to “a person involved in setting up the programme”, but at the same time, although “the move [to publish the data] is being led by the LBMA“, the same LBMA ”declined to comment” for the FT story. This then has all the hallmarks of a typical authorised leak to the media so as to prepare the wider market for the data release.

On 16 February, the World Gold Council in its “Gold Investor, February 2017″ publication featured a focus box on the same gold vault topic in its “In the News” section on page 4, where it states:

“Enhanced transparency from the Bank of England

The Bank of England is, for the first time, publishing monthly data revealing the amount of gold it holds on behalf of other central banks.

 As a leading custodian of gold, with one of the largest vaults in the world, the Bank of England’s decision is highly significant. Not only will it enhance the transparency of the Bank’s own gold operations; it will also support the drive towards greater transparency across the gold market.

The data reveals the total weight of gold held within the Bank of England’s vaults and includes five years of historical data.”

The Proposed Data

Based on these two announcements, it therefore looks like the gold vault data release will be a combined effort between the LBMA and the Bank of England, the blood brothers of the London Gold Market, with the Bank of England data being a subset of the overall LBMA data. While neither of the above pieces mention a release date for the first set of data, I understand that it will be this quarter, i.e. sometime before the end of March. On a 3 month lagged basis, the first lot of data would therefore probably cover month-end December 2016, because that would be a logical place to start the current dataset, rather than, for example, November 2016.

While the Bank of England data looks set to cover a 5 year historical period, there is no indication (from the FT article) that the wider LBMA vault data will do likewise. From the sparse information in the FT article, the LBMA data will “show gold bars held“. Does it mean number of gold bars, or combined weight of gold bars? What exactly it means, we will have to wait and see.

The Bank of England data will capture “total weight of gold held“. Notice that in the above World Gold Council piece it also states that the data will cover the amount of gold that the Bank of England “holds on behalf of other central banks.” There is no mention of the amount of gold that the Bank of England holds on behalf of commercial bullion banks.

Overall, this doesn’t exactly sound like it is “enhancing the transparency of the Bank’s own gold operations” as the World Gold Council puts it. Far from it. Enhancing the transparency of the Bank of England’s gold operations would require something along the lines of the following:

  • Identities of all central banks and official sector institutions (ECB / IMF / BIS / World Bank) holding active gold accounts at the Bank of England. Active gold accounts meaning non-zero balances
  • Identities of all commercial / bullion banks holding active gold accounts at the Bank of England
  • A percentage breakdown between the central bank gold held in the Bank of England vaults and the bullion bank gold held in the Bank of England vaults
  • An indicator for each gold account as to whether it is a set-aside earmarked custody account or whether it is a fine troy ounce balance account
  • Information for each central bank and official sector institution as to whether any of “its” gold is lent, swapped or repo’d
  • Information for the bullion bank gold accounts as to whether the gold recorded in those accounts is borrowed, sourced from swaps, sourced from repos, or otherwise held as collateral for loans
  • Information on the gold accounts of the 5 LPMCL clearing banks showing how much gold each of these institutions holds each month and whether the Bank of England supplies physical gold clearing balances to these banks
  • Information on when and how often the London-based gold-backed ETFs store gold at the Bank of England, not just using the Bank of England as sub-custodian, but also storage in their own names, i.e. does HSBC store gold in its own name at the Bank of England which is used to supply gold to the SPDR Gold Trust
  • Information on whether and how often the Bank of England intervenes into the London Gold Market and the LBMA Gold Price auctions so as to supply gold in price smoothing and price stabilisation operations in the way that the Bank of England’s Terry Smeeton seems to have been intervening into the London Gold Market in the 1980s
  • Information on the BIS gold holding and gold transactions settlements accounts at the Bank of England and the client sub-account  details and central bank identities for these accounts
  • Information on gold location swaps between gold account holders at the Bank of England and gold accounts at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, the Banque de France, and the Swiss National Bank, and BIS accounts in those locations
  • Gold for oil swaps and oil for gold swaps

Anything less is just not cricket and does not constitute transparency.

And its important to remember that any publication of gold vault data by the LBMA and Bank of England is not being done because the LBMA suddenly felt guilty, or suddenly had an epiphany on the road to Damascus, but, as the FT correctly points out:

“the LBMA, whose members include HSBC and JPMorgan, hopes to head off the challenge and persuade regulators that banks trading bullion should not have to face more onerous funding requirements.”

Bank of England

The Current Data

As a reminder, there is currently no official direct data published on the quantity of real physical gold bars held within the London gold vaulting system. This vaulting system comprises the vaults of eight vault operators (see below for list).

Once a year in its annual report, the Bank of England provides a Sterling (GBP) value of gold held by its gold custody customers, while the LBMA website states a relatively static total figure of “approximately 6,500 tonnes of gold held in London vaults” that it claims are in the vaults in its network. But beyond these figures, there is currently no official visibility into the quantity of London Good Delivery gold bars held in the London vaults. There are, various ways of estimating London gold vault data using the Bank of England annual figure and the LBMA figure together with Exchange Traded Fund gold holdings and central bank divulged gold holdings at the Bank of England.

These approaches have been documented in BullionStar articles “Central bank gold at the Bank of England” and “How many Good Delivery gold bars are in all the London Vaults?….including the Bank of England vaults“, both from September 2015, and more recently “Tracking the gold held in London: An update on ETF and BoE holdings” from September 2016.

The September 2015 estimates calculated that there were 6,256 tonnes of gold in total in the London vaults, with 5,134 tonnes at the Bank of England (as of end February 2015), and 1,122 tonnes in London “not at the Bank of England“, all of which was accounted for by gold-backed ETFs which store their gold in London. These calculations implied that there was nearly zero gold stored in London outside the Bank of England that was not accounted for by ETF holdings.

The “Tracking the gold held in London” estimates from September 2016 used a figure of 6,500 tonnes of gold in total in the London vaults, and showed that there were 4,725 tonnes inside the Bank of England vaults, of which about 3,800 tonnes was known to be held by central banks (and probably a lot of the remainder was held by central banks also) and that there were 1,775 tonnes of gold outside the Bank of England. The article also calculated that there were 1,679 tonnes of gold in the gold backed ETFs that store their gold in London, so again, there was very little gold in the London vault network that was not accounted for by ETFs and central bank gold.

BoE-Gold

The Vaults of London

Overall, there are 8 vault operators for gold within the LBMA vaulting network. These 8 vault operators are as follows:

  • The Bank of England
  • HSBC Bank plc
  • JP Morgan Chase
  • ICBC Standard Bank Plc
  • Brink’s Limited
  • Malca-Amit Commodities Ltd
  • G4S Cash Solutions (UK) Limited
  • Loomis International (UK) Ltd

HSBC, JP Morgan and ICBC Standard are 3 of the London Gold Market’s clearing banks that form the private company London Precious Metals Clearing Limited (LPMCL). The other two member of LPMCL are Scotia Mocatta and UBS. Brink’s, Malca-Amit, G4S and Loomis are the aforementioned security companies. The LBMA website lists these operators, alongside their headquarters addresses.

Bizarrely, the FT article still parrots the LBMA’s spoon-fed line that the vaults are “in secret locations within the M25 orbital motorway”. But this is far from the truth. Many of the London vault locations are in the public domain as has been covered, for example, on this website, and the FT knows this:

JP Morgan: https://www.bullionstar.com/gold-university/jp-morgan-gold-vault-london

Malca-Amit https://www.bullionstar.com/gold-university/malca-amit-london-gold-vault

G4S: https://www.bullionstar.com/gold-university/g4s-london-gold-vault

And perhaps HSBC: https://www.bullionstar.com/gold-university/hsbc-gold-vault-london

G4S location https://www.bullionstar.com/blogs/ronan-manly/g4s-london-gold-vault-2-0-icbc-standard-bank-in-deutsche-bank-out

Malca-Amit location https://www.bullionstar.com/blogs/ronan-manly/gold-vaults-london-malca-amit

HSBC possible location https://www.bullionstar.com/blogs/ronan-manly/hsbcs-london-gold-vault

And obviously, the Bank of England vaults are where they always have been, under the Bank’s headquarters in the City of London: https://www.bullionstar.com/gold-university/bank-england-gold-vaults

It’s slightly disappointing that we spend time and effort informing the London financial media where some of the London gold vaults are, and then they continue to parrot the LBMA’s misleading “secret locations” line. I put this fake news down to a decision by the FT editors, who presumably have a stake in playing along with this charade so as not to rock the boat with the powerful investment banks that they are beholden to.

The FT also reminds us in its article that “last year a gold vault owned by Barclays, which can house $80bn of bullion, was bought by China’s ICBC Standard Bank.

This Barclays vault in London was built by and is operated by Brink’s, and presumably after being taken over by ICBC Standard, it is still operated by Brink’s. Logistically then, this ICBC Standard vault is most likely within the Brink’s complex, a location which is also in the public domain, and which even hosts an assay office as was previously mentioned here over a year ago. The Barclays vault (operated by Brink’s) is even mentioned in a Brink’s letter to the SEC in February 2014, which can also be seen here -> Brinks letter to SEC February 2014.

brinks1

brinks2
Brink’s letter to SEC, February 2014

Given the fact that there are eight sets of vaults in the London vault system (as overseen by various groups affiliated to the LBMA such as the LBMA Physical Committee, the LBMA Vault Managers Working Party,  the gold clearers (London Precious Metals Clearing Limited), and even the LBMA Good Delivery List referees and staff, then one would expect that whatever monthly vault data that the LBMA or its affiliates publishes in the near future, will break out the gold bar holdings and have a distinct line item in the list for each vault operator such as:

  • HSBC – w tonnes
  • JP Morgan – x tonnes
  • ICBC Standard – y tonnes
  • Brink’s – z tonnes

dsc_0102_800.jpg

Conclusion

At the LBMA conference in Singapore last October, there was talk that there were moves afoot for the Bank of England to begin publishing data on the custody gold it holds on a more regular basis. It was also mentioned that this data could be extended to include the commercial bank and security carrier vaults but that some of the interested parties were not in favour of the idea (perhaps the representative contingents of the powerful HSBC and JP Morgan). Whatever has happened in the meantime, it looks like some data will now be released in the near future covering all of the participating vaults. What this data will cover only time will tell, but more data than less is always welcome, and these data releases might also help show how near or how far we were with earlier estimates in trying to ascertain how much gold is in the London vaulting system that is not accounted for by ETF holding or central bank holdings.

Revealing the extent of the gold lending market in London is critical though, but this is sure to remain a well-kept secret, since the LBMA bullion banks and the Bank of England will surely not want the general market to have any clue as to which central banks don’t really have any gold while still claiming to have gold (the old gold and gold receivables trick), in other words, that there is serious double counting going on, and that some of the central bank gold has long gone out the door.

 

Ireland’s Monetary Gold Reserves: High Level Secrecy vs. Freedom of Information – Part 2

This is Part 2 of a two-part series. Part 1 of this series, “Ireland’s Monetary Gold Reserves: High Level Secrecy vs. Freedom of Information – Part 1” published on 23 January, looked at initial attempts in 2011 and 2012 to extract basic information about Ireland’s monetary gold reserves from the Central Bank of Ireland and the Irish Department of Finance. These attempts proved unsuccessful due to non-cooperation from the central bank which at that time was not covered under the Irish Freedom of Information Act (FOI Act), and also a bizarre refusal of a FOI request from the Department of Finance and a subsequent claim by that Department that it had zero records of said gold reserves that it has entrusted to the Central Bank of Ireland (a central bank which it owns).

On 14 October 2014, a new and expanded Freedom of Information Act was enacted into law in the Republic of Ireland. This news FOI Act (2014) extended the scope of coverage of Freedom of Information requests to “All Public Bodies” in the Irish State, and for the first time included Ireland’s central bank, the Central Bank of Ireland. Information and records relating to the expanded list of public bodies are not fully retrospective, and FOI requests under the new FOI Act (2014) only cover the right of access to records created by these additional public bodies on or after 21 April 2008.

FOI to the Central Bank of Ireland – 2015

Given the introduction of the new FOI Act (2014) and the fact that it covered the Central Bank of Ireland, on 21 June 2015 I submitted a FOI Request to the Central Bank of Ireland with a series of questions about Ireland’s gold reserves. I was cognizant of the fact that the FOI Act only covered records after 20 April 2008 so I structured the questions to take account of this time limitation. The Central Bank of Ireland financial year follows the calendar year, with the annual financial accounts being made up to 31 December (i.e. calendar year-end). Therefore, the logical place to start was with the central bank’s 2009 Annual Report and 2010 Annual Report.

In the 2009 annual report, page 77, note 10 to the Balance Sheet for the line item “Gold and Gold Receivables” states that:

“With the exception of coin stocks held in the Bank, gold holdings consist of deposits with foreign banks. The change in the balance in 2009 is due to the change in the market value of gold during the year.”

In the 2010 annual report, page 98, note 10 to the Balance Sheet for line item “Gold and Gold Receivables” states that:

“Gold and gold receivables represent coin stocks held in the Bank, together with gold bars held at the Bank of England. The increase in the balance in 2010 is due to the change in the market value of gold during the year.”

Notice the difference in wording between the 2009 and 2010 annual reports. Exclusive of the gold coin holdings, the gold reserves in 2009 were stated as consisting of “deposits with foreign banks” while in 2010, the gold reserves were stated as consisting of “gold bars held at the Bank of England“, i.e. one is gold deposits with foreign banks (plural) and the other is allocated gold bars at a specific location (i.e. the Bank of England).

If you go back further and look at earlier annual reports of the Central Bank of Ireland from the years 2008 and 2007, the wording used is “ gold holdings consist of deposits with foreign banks. Going back another year to 2006, that year’s annual report contained a critical passage on the Irish gold holdings which stated that:

“The gold is held in physical form and ….may be placed on deposit in the London gold market depending on market conditions”.

See screenshot below.

Note 10 to the Balance Sheet for line item “Gold and Gold Receivables” in the 2006 annual report, page 89, stated in a similar way to the 2007 -2009 annual reports, that:

“With the exception of coin stocks held in the Bank, gold holdings consist of deposits with foreign banks. The change in value is due mainly to the change in the market value of gold during the year.”

The phrase “gold holdings consist of deposits with foreign banks” refers to gold placed on deposit in the London Gold Market, i.e. these gold deposits are central bank gold lending deposits placed with commercial bullion banks.

2006 annual report
Excerpt from Central Bank of Ireland Annual Report 2006 – Gold Holdings

In fact, the phrase “gold holdings consist of deposits with foreign banks” is stated in all the Central Bank of Ireland annual reports from 2009 all the way back to the 2000 Annual Report.

Given that the Central Bank of Ireland Annual Report 2010 stated that the gold holdings consisted of “gold bars held at the Bank of England, my FOI request asked for details of these gold bars in the form of a gold bar weight list. Because, if one claims to have physical gold bars stored at the Bank of England, one certainly has access to produce a weight list with the details of said gold bars.

Since the form of the Central Bank of Ireland’s gold holdings changed from “deposits with foreign banks” in 2009 to gold bars held at the Bank of England in 2010, my FOI Request also asked for records of any correspondence relating to this change. Gold deposits are on a fine ounce basis, gold bars held are on an allocated bar set-aside basis. They are two very different things. When you put gold on deposit with a bullion bank (i.e. lend it), you get back the same amount of gold that you placed on deposit (and maybe interest in the form of gold), but you don’t necessarily get back the same gold bars, since the bullion bank probably sold or lent on the gold that you deposited.

FOI Request Wording

The FOI Request I submitted to the Central Bank of Ireland on 21 June 2015 was as follows (in blue text) and contained 2 parts, the second part of which had 2 questions:

Dear FOI Unit,

This is a request being made under the Freedom of Information Act 2014.

I would like to request that a copy of documents (such as paper records, records held electronically, email correspondence) containing the following information be provided to me:

“1. Details of the gold holdings of the Central Bank of Ireland during 2009 which consisted of “deposits with foreign banks” as specified on page 77 of the 2009 Annual Report.

The details I am requesting are:

- the names of the foreign banks that the Central Bank of Ireland gold was deposited with during 2009, the duration of these gold deposits during 2009, details of the interest earned on these gold deposits, and information on the dates on which these gold deposits ended (since the gold holdings were not on deposit in 2010).

Source for reference: In the 2009 Annual Report, Note 10 to the Statement of Accounts, Page 77 states: “Gold and Gold Receivables With the exception of coin stocks held in the Bank, gold holdings consist of deposits with foreign banks”

2. Details of the gold holdings of the Central Bank of Ireland during 2010 which consisted of “gold bars held at the Bank of England” as specified on page 98 of the 2010 Annual Report.

I am requesting the following information on the “gold bars held at the Bank of England”:

- A document, such as a weight list, bar list, or bullion weight list, that uniquely identifies the bars of gold held on behalf of the Central Bank of Ireland by the Bank of England. This list would include (for each bar), details such as bar brand, bar serial number (serial number from refiner, not Bank of England number), year of manufacture of bar, gross weight, fineness, fine ounces.

- Information or correspondence that discusses the rationale for switching the Central Bank of Ireland’s gold holdings from “deposits with foreign banks” in 2009 (see above) into “gold bars held at the Bank of England” in 2010.

Source for reference: In the 2010 Annual Report, Note 10 to the Statement of Accounts, Page 98 states “Gold and Gold Receivables Gold and gold receivables represent coin stocks held in the Bank, together with gold bars held at the Bank of England.”

On 6 July 2015, the Central Bank of Ireland FOI Unit responded to me by email with an acknowledgement of my FOI Request, which can be viewed here -> Acknowledgement Letter CB of Ireland FOI gold 20150706. This letter also includes my full FOI request as per the blue text above.

FOI Request Refused in Entirety

On 20 July 2015, I received an email from a “FOI Decision Maker” at the Central Bank of Ireland with an attached letter detailing the fact that he had fully refused by FOI Request and his rationale for doing so. That letter can be viewed here -> FOI gold reserves Decision Letter refusing FOI Request – 20 July 2015. The introduction to the letter stated:

 “A final decision was made to refuse your request by myself, Xxxxxxx Xxxxx, FOI Decision
Maker, today, 20 July 2015. I may be contacted by telephone on (01) xxx xxxx in order to
answer any questions you may have, and to assist you generally in this matter.”
 

Recall that my first question was asking the central bank to provide records “containing the names of the foreign banks that the Central Bank of Ireland gold was deposited with during 2009, the duration of these gold deposits during 2009, details of the interest earned on these gold deposits, and information on the dates on which these gold deposits ended” i.e. information about gold deposits a.ka. gold lending.

In his response, the FOI Decision Maker referred to this question as ‘Category 1′. He completely ignored the fact that I was asking about gold lending and stated that “Please note that the Central Bank of Ireland’s gold bars were held with the Bank of England during the course of 2009.

This was a completely redundant and misleading statement because with gold lending, the lent gold does not necessarily leave the Bank of England. It stays in the Bank of England vault wherein title is transferred to bullion bank gold accounts during the deposit period and more than likely the deposits are then rolled over into other short-term gold deposits with additional bullion banks. It was also a deflection of my question since it ignored the fact that the 2009 Annual Report had stated that “gold holdings consist of deposits with foreign banks“, and failed to explain why the Annual report had referred to deposits with foreign banks (plural).

The FOI Decision Maker went on to say that he had “identified one record falling within the scope of your request, namely a statement from the Bank of England dated 31 December 2009 confirming the number of gold bars held with the Bank of England on that date”, but that he had “made a decision to refuse this part of your request for the following reasons“.

This is where the central bank FOI fiasco became even more bizarre and ludicrous, or in the words of an ex-Irish Taoiseach (Prime Minister), it became “grotesque, unbelievable, bizarre and unprecedented (GUBU)”, because the FOI Decision Maker claimed he was refusing the request to provide the Bank of England gold bar statement by invoking a clause in the FOI Act (2014) [Section 40 (1) of the Act] that allowed an exemption if:

access to the record could reasonably be expected to have a serious, adverse effect on the ability of the Government to manage the national economy or on the financial interests of the State…” 

The FOI Decision Maker also stated that in his view “the release of detailed information regarding the gold bars held at the Bank of England on behalf of the Central Bank of Ireland could have a serious, adverse effect on the financial interests of the State, as it would disclose important information about the Central Bank’s gold holdings.”

Releasing information about gold bars would disclose important information about those same gold bars? No kidding?

He went on to state: “Furthermore the release of this information, which is of substantial value, would identify the stock of gold coins held at the Central Bank from the stock of gold bars held at the Bank of England and from which a market valuation for the separate holdings could easily be calculated.” And? Why would this be a big deal? It would not be a big deal. The gold coin holdings of the Central Bank of Ireland are quite immaterial and completely incidental to the questions raised in my FOI request.

Not to labour the point, but this FOI Decision Maker continued to dig a hole with the embarrassing excuses as he considered “public interest factors for and against the release of this information” and stated that while there is public interest in ensuring transparency and accountability of public bodies, I believe that interest is outweighed by the public interest in protecting the confidentiality of asset valuation information, pertaining to the financial circumstances of the Central Bank” so that “accordingly, I believe the public interest is better served by refusing, rather than granting, access to this record.

Now you can see what we are up against when small-minded central bank bureaucrats are unleashed and given a small amount of power in their FOI Unit fiefdoms to pronounce and decide on what they think is and is not in the public interest.

Question: Who voted that these anonymous central bank staffers should have the power to say what is and what is not in the public interest? Answer: Nobody did.

Category 2(a)

The second part of my FOI Request asked the Central Bank of Ireland to provide “a weight list, bar list or bullion weight list that uniquely identifies the bars of gold held on behalf of the Central Bank of Ireland by the Bank of England“. After all, the 2010 Annual Report stated that the gold holdings of the Central Bank of Ireland were in the form of “gold bars held at the Bank of England.

A gold bar weight list is an itemised list of all the gold bars held within a holding that uniquely identifies each bar. In the London Gold Market, the LBMA’s “Good Delivery Rules” specifies the data that this list should contain for the large 400 oz bars as held by central banks. The data in a weight list includes such details as the bar serial number, the refiner name, the gross weight of the bar in troy ounces, the gold purity of the bar and the fine weight of the bar in troy ounces. All gold being shipped in and out of gold vaults in the London Gold Market, including in and out of the Bank of England vaults, has to be accompanied by a proper industry standard weight list. Gold Backed Exchange Traded Funds (ETFs) produce these weight lists for their gold holdings at the end of each and every trading day so it’s not a big task to produce such a list via a position / accounting system.

So, if you have gold bars held at the Bank of England, like the Central Bank of Ireland claims to have, then you certainly have access to a weight list provided by the Bank of England since the Bank of England has a gold bar accounting system which records all of this information. In fact, the Bank of England has provided such a gold bar list to the Reserve Bank of Australia (RBA) for the 80 tonnes of gold that the RBA stores at the Bank of England. This list came to light via an Australian FOI request, and the Aussie list can be seen here.

A full weight list would also be needed when undertaking a physical gold bar audit, which is something that the large gold-backed ETFs perform twice per year. Keep this in mind for anyone wanting to ask the Central Bank of Ireland how, if ever, they audit the Irish gold stored at the Bank of England.

Given all of this background, the following statement from the Central Bank of Ireland FOI Decision Maker as to why he was refusing my request for a gold bar weight list is nothing short of incredible, because he said:

 “Section 15(1)(a) of the Act states that a FOI request may be refused if:

the record concerned does not exist or cannot be found after all reasonable steps to
ascertain its whereabouts have been taken,’

Your request was referred to two divisions within the Central Bank of Ireland, the Payment and Securities Settlement Division and the Currency Issue Division. Both divisions have confirmed that they do not hold any such records which fall within the scope of this part of your request. Accordingly, this part of your request is refused.”

If the Central Bank of Ireland holds gold bars at the Bank of England, then it is a lie to state that a weight list does not exist, because a weight list has to exist even if it is in the gold bar accounting system of the Bank of England and has not been printed.

If the Central Bank of Ireland is claiming that it doesn’t have such a list, then this shows a shocking lack of oversight with regards to the Irish gold holdings at the Bank of England. It could arguably also show a convenient laziness to acquiring such a list which the central bank could then use as a plausible deniability scenario.

Category 2(b)

On my request for records which addressed “the rationale for switching the Central Bank of Ireland’s gold holdings from “deposits with foreign banks” in 2009…into “gold bars held at the Bank of England” in 2010, the FOI Decision Maker again avoided any discussion of gold lending and reverted to reiterating that:

“the Central Bank of Ireland’s gold bars were held with the Bank of England during both 2009 and 2010. Given that there was no switching from foreign banks to the Bank of England, no records exist which fall within the scope of this part of your request and this part of your request is, therefore, refused.”

There was no explanation offered by this Decision Maker as to why the wording between the 2009 and 2010 annual reports had changed.

The FOI Refusal letter wrapped up with a “Right of Review” paragraph which explained that it was possible to seek an internal review of the decision by a more senior staff member of the Central Bank by a written submission to the Central Bank of Ireland FOI Unit stating the reasons for seeking a review and accompanied by a €30 internal review fee.

The refusal letter ended by saying “should you have any questions or concerns regarding the above, please contact me by telephone on +353 1 xxxxxxx“. So I decided to take up the offer of the FOI Decision Maker, and gave him a call the next day.

Phone Call with the FOI Decision Maker

The following is a summary of the phone call I had with the Central Bank of Ireland FOI Decision Maker after he had refused my FOI Request.

Part of my FOI had asked the central bank to explain the change in wording between 2009 and 2010 where the annual report in 2009 had said the gold was on deposit with foreign banks, while the 2010 annual report said the gold was held in the form of gold bars at the Bank of England.

On the phone call, the FOI Decision Maker said that these two descriptions were referring to the same gold and that the Central Bank of Ireland just changed the wording in the 2010 annual report to be more specific. I don’t believe this, but anyway, he said the justification that it was the same thing being described was because the 2010 report lists both the 2010 data and the 2009 data in two columns side by side with the same footnote (gold held in the Bank of England).

He said the central bank senior accounting person had explained this to him and that she had said that ‘there was no change in investment policy‘. [This could mean anything, including that the gold might still be on loan]. Given that one of my previous questions to the central bank prior to 2014 asking it to explain its investment policy on gold had been met with non-cooperation and “talk to the hand” (see Part 1), then its impossible to know what the Central Bank of Ireland’s investment policy on gold is or was in the first place.

I then explained to the FOI Decision Maker about gold lending with commercial banks using Bank of England customer gold, and asked him to explain why the wording had said ‘gold deposits’ with ‘foreign banks’ (plural) all the way through from 2000 to 2009 and that its documented in the 2006 annual report that the bank engaged in gold lending in the London Gold Market. He could not explain this, but he seemed to be hesitant when I was talking about gold lending. He also said that since the Central Bank of Ireland is only subject to the Irish FOI Act for any data since mid 2008 (which is true), then he couldn’t comment on anything in the year 2008 or before that. A nice handy get out clause for him.

Next up, he said that they found one ‘custodian statement’ dated 2009 from the Bank of England which specified number of gold bars and fine ounces held, and they were considering providing this statement to me. This is where the FOI gets bizarre.

He said that they had 2 conference calls with the Bank of England trying to find out if there was a weight list and also about releasing this statement to me. The second conference call even included the “chief security officer” from the Bank of England FOI office, but that the Bank of England told the Central Bank of Ireland guy that ‘you absolutely cannot‘ send this statement out with bars total and fine ounces since its ‘highly classified‘  and  ‘highly‘ something else (I didn’t catch the 2nd ‘highly’ as I was stunned while trying to jot down the notes during the call).

Talk about national security. So here we have the Bank of England instructing another sovereign central bank (the Central Bank of Ireland) in what it’s allowed to and not allowed to release in its own FOIs. I think the Irish Office of the Information Commissioner and any decent Irish journalists might be interested in this, and how the Bank of England was meddling in an Irish FOI Request.

The FOI Decision Maker had said in his letter that the data I was looking for concerned ‘important information about the Central Bank gold reserves‘. When I pointed out that of course it does, that was the whole point of my FOI request, he said ‘well, the FOI Act was not designed with the Central Bank in mind. we have a lot of confidential data etc‘. Again you can see this typical aloof central banker interpretation of the FOI legislation.

I concluded by asking him if there was any point in sending in fresh FOI requests. He said if they are for records, yes, but he tried to steer me in the direction of asking questions to their press office.

Bank of England and Central Bank of Ireland

FOI Appeal to the Central Bank of Ireland

Next up, I decided to appeal the FOI response by annihilating the spurious excuses put forward by the Central Bank of Ireland FOI Decision Maker, and also by arguing that a UK central bank has no right to interfere in determining a FOI Request that falls under Irish law. I sent the following FOI Internal Review / Appeal request to the Central Bank of Ireland on 18 August 2015:

“Hello FOI Unit,

I would like to seek an internal review / appeal of the final decision of Freedom of Information request (ref: 2015-000132)  made by Xxxxxxx Xxxxx, FOI Decision Maker, sent by email to me on 20th July 2015. This decision refused my request of 21st June 2015.

Reasons for seeking the Review

I have documented below the reasons why I am seeking a review of the decision, and listed them by number.

Part of my request was to obtain details of the gold bars held on behalf of the Central bank of Ireland at the Bank of England. Such a record does exist.

The FOI Decision Maker says in his decision: “I have identified one record falling within the scope of your request, namely a statement from the Bank of England dated 31 December 2009 confirming the number of gold bars held with the Bank of England on that date.”

The FOI Decision Maker quotes from “Section 40 (1) of the Act”:

(a) access to the record could reasonably be expected to have a serious, adverse effect on the ability of the Government to manage the national economy or on the financial interests of the State…”

and he specifically says:

“In my view, the release of detailed information regarding the gold bars held at the Bank of England on behalf of the Central Bank of Ireland could have a serious, adverse effect on the financial interests of the State, as it would disclose important information about the Central Bank’s gold holdings.”

  1. There was no proof proved by the FOI Decision Maker as to how releasing a statistic stating the number of gold bars held by the Central Bank of Ireland could “have a serious, adverse effect on the financial interests of the State.”

Likewise, there was no proof provided as to how disclosing “important information about the Central Bank’s gold holdings” could have a “could have a serious, adverse effect on the financial interests of the State.”

I would like a review of the decision to withhold the Bank of England statement dated 31st December 2009 reviewed, with a view to releasing said statement to me.

A follow-up call with the FOI Decision Maker on 21st July about the decision revealed that the Central Bank of Ireland had conducted 2 conference calls with the Bank of England about my request, with the second conference call even including a ‘chief security officer’ or similar from the Bank of England FOI office, and that the Bank of England told the Central Bank of Ireland that ‘you absolutely cannot’ send this statement out with bars total and fine ounces since its ‘highly classified’.

  1. I find it unacceptable that a request made under the Freedom of Information Act of Ireland can allow interference from a foreign central bank in determining its outcome. This is the Bank of England interfering in the Freedom of Information Act of another sovereign nation. Any input from the Bank of England in this matter should be inadmissible and I would like these interactions with the Bank of England to be reviewed as part of the appeal, and how a statement of gold bars can be said to be ‘highly classified’.

The FOI Decision Maker says “the release of this information, which is of substantial value, would identify the stock of gold coins held at the Central Bank from the stock of gold bars held at the Bank of England and from which a market valuation for the separate holdings could easily be calculated.”

“While there is public interest in ensuring transparency and accountability of public bodies, I believe that interest is outweighed by the public interest in protecting the confidentiality of asset valuation information, pertaining to the financial circumstances of the Central Bank.”

3. The asset valuation information of gold holdings is not confidential. In line with international accounting standards Central Bank of Ireland gold is valued at market value in the Balance sheet. The FOI Decision Maker’s explanation does not make any sense, and only serves to deflect my request. My request is not about gold coins. Introducing that argument is spurious and irrelevant.

The FOI Decision Maker says: “Your request was referred to two divisions within the Central Bank of Ireland, the Payment and Securities Settlement Division and the Currency Issue Division. Both divisions have confirmed that they do not hold any such records which fall within the scope of this part of your request.”

All foreign gold held in custody at the Bank of England is weight listed. I am submitting to you evidence of this fact in the form of a response to a Reserve Bank of Australia (RBI) freedom of information request in 2014 where the RBI responded to the request with a full Excel spreadsheet “Listing of the Reserve Bank of Australia’s gold inventory as held at the Bank of England”. See details below.

A freedom of Information request to the Reserve Bank of Australia in 2014

http://www.rba.gov.au/foi/disclosure-log/rbafoi-131418.html

Reference No.: RBAFOI-131418

Summary of Request: Listing of the Reserve Bank of Australia’s gold inventory as held at the Bank of England.

Date Released: 17 July 2014

Contents: One XLS file.

http://www.rba.gov.au/foi/disclosure-log/xls/131418.xls

It is a minimal requirement in international auditing standards to have access to details of assets held in custody.

  1.  In refusing my request, there was no explanation as to why the Bank of England has not provided such as weight list of gold bars to the Central Bank of Ireland. I would therefore like to appeal this finding also that the Central Bank of Ireland cannot request and provide a weight when other central banks, such as the RBI, can.

The 2009 Central bank of Ireland annual report states that gold holdings consisted of “deposits with foreign banks” as specified on page 77 of the 2009 Annual Report.

The 2010 Central Bank of Ireland annual report states that gold holdings during 2010 consisted of “gold bars held at the Bank of England” as specified on page 98 of the 2010 Annual Report.

The 2009 reference refers to gold deposits as distinct to gold in custody. The 2009 reference also refers to foreign banks in the plural.

The FOI response did not provide any explanation as to why the 2009 annual report used the wording of gold ‘deposits with foreign banks’ (in the plural).

The response merely stated that “the Central Bank of Ireland’s gold bars were held with the Bank of England during the course of 2009.” Gold on loan does not move, it stays in the Bank of England, and so this statement that “the Central Bank of Ireland’s gold bars were held with the Bank of England during the course of 2009” does not address the issue of the “deposits with foreign banks”.

  1. The FOI refusal of ‘Category 2(b)” of my request uses the above justification (i.e. “the Central Bank of Ireland’s gold bars were held with the Bank of England during the course of 2009”). Since there was no adequate explanation of the references to “deposits with foreign banks”, then this is not adequate grounds for refusal and I would like this reviewed.

The FOI Decision Maker says: “there is sufficient information in the public domain regarding the gold holdings of the Central Bank of Ireland.”

This is a subjective assessment. If there was sufficient information in the public domain regarding the gold holdings of the Central Bank of Ireland I would not have felt the need to submit a Freedom of Information request.

The public interest calls for transparency and accountability by the Central Bank of Ireland. The Central Bank of Ireland reports to the Minister of Finance who, as part of the Irish Government, works on behalf of the citizens of Ireland. In my view, refusing my request undermines the public interest and erodes transparency and accountability, and is not in the spirit and keeping of the Freedom of Information Act.

The Response

On 4 September 2015, I received a response and decision from the Central Bank of Ireland in relation to the request for an internal review. This response letter is uploaded here -> 20150904_Letter_to_requester_internal_review_decision_redacted.

In summary, the response letter, which was written by a separate FOI Decision Maker stated that:

I am a more senior member of staff than the original decision maker in this case and I have decided on 2nd September 2015 to vary the original decision on your request.” 

“In making my decision, I have had regard to the original request, the records
which were located as part of that request, and the appeal letter which you submitted in 
this regard.”

I have identified two records which fall within the scope of the first part of your
request, namely the 2009 and 2010 statements received from Bank of England. I
have decided to vary the original decision in respect of releasing the main text of
these statements
 

In my opinion, disclosing the total gold holdings in the Bank of England from which an estimate of the gold holdings in the Currency centre could be deduced would not unduly increase the security threat to the Currency centre when compared to the value of banknotes issued into circulation by the Central Bank. Therefore, in my view, the disclosure of the number of gold bars and fine ounces held in the Bank of England in 2009 and 2010, as recorded in the two statements, is unlikely to have a ‘serious adverse effect’ on the financial interests of the State

“With regard to the second part of your request, I am satisfied that there is no record
detailing the weight list, bar list, or bullion weight list, that uniquely identifies the bars of gold held on behalf of the Central Bank of Ireland by the Bank of England for the period 2009/10. I am advised that the Bank of England is unable to provide holdings bar lists which are past dated.

Accordingly, I have decided to affirm the original decision in respect of the second part of your request and …on the grounds that “the record concerned does not exist or cannot be found after all reasonable steps to ascertain its whereabouts have been taken.

You were also advised verbally by the original Decision Maker that a redrafting of
note 10 to the Statement of Accounts took place in 2010 to provide a more accurate
reflection of the external gold holdings of the Central Bank of Ireland.

 From the above you can see that:

a) There was no explanation offered by this second FOI Decision Maker to explain why the first FOI Decision Maker had made a misleading and erroneous statement that the release of record would have a “serious adverse effect  on the financial interest of the State. Putting it into context, this statement by the first FOI Decision Maker was just bluff or in common parlance it was ‘horse manure’.

b) There was no comment or acknowledgement by the second FOI Decision Maker about a foreign central bank, i.e. the Bank of England, meddling in and sabotaging an initial FOI Request, or the presence of a Bank of England FOI security officer on a conference call saying “absolutely this guy cannot have this gold bar statement” since its “highly classified”.

c) This second FOI Decision Maker inadvertently stated that the gold coin holdings held by the Central Bank of Ireland are stored in its ‘Currency centre’ premises, which is located in Sandyford, County Dublin, in a low rise secure building in campus type grounds. No part of my FOI Request or Review asked about these gold coin holdings. But since the second FOI Decision Maker volunteered this information, we now know where the domestically stored gold coin holdings are located.

Central Bank of Ireland Currency Centre, Sandyford, Dublin - Home of the irish gold coin reserves holdings
Central Bank of Ireland Currency Centre, Sandyford, Dublin – Home of the Irish gold coin reserve holdings

d) The second FOI Decision Maker stated that there is no record “that uniquely identifies the bars of gold held on behalf of the Central Bank of Ireland by the Bank of England for the period 2009/10.

If the Irish gold couldn’t be uniquely identified over these years (2009 and 2010), then it would suggest that is was not held in custody on a set-aside / earmarked / allocated basis as specific gold bars, and therefore the claim of the Central Bank of Ireland in its 2010 annual report that it held “gold bars at the Bank of England” is misleading.

 e) “I am advised that the Bank of England is unable to provide holdings bar lists which are past dated.This sounds unbelievable. The Bank of England has a sophisticated gold bar accounting system, and has had one since at least the late 1970s. The Bank of England currently also uses a Book Entry Transfer system (BETs) to transfer gold bars between accounts, a system which would itself need archiving capabilities.

All financial market position and transaction systems have archive capabilities. Historic records in financial markets have to be held for multiple years on electronic storage backup and in offsite backup should clients/customers request such details. To use an excuse that the Bank of England cannot generate a gold bar list for any past date is insulting and infantile. It also shows that the Central Bank of Ireland has no independent oversight or control over the reporting of its gold holdings at the Bank of England.

f) “A redrafting of note 10 to the Statement of Accounts took place in 2010 to provide a more accurate reflection of the external gold holdings of the Central Bank of Ireland”. Taken on face value, this would imply that the 2009 Annual Report of the Central Bank of Ireland was misleading and not accurate. However, at no point in any annual report was there any note or explanation to acknowledge that any redrafting had taken place to provide a more accurate explanation.

There was also no explanation offered by the second FOI Decision Maker as to what “deposits with foreign banks” (in the plural) referred to in the 2009 annual report, as per point 5 in my FOI Review Request.

The Released Records

The 2 statements that the second FOI Decision Maker decided to allow to be released were 2 Swift statements of gold balances for year-end 2009 and 2010, sent from the Bank of England to the Central Bank of Ireland. The release schedule for the statements can be viewed here -> 2015-000132 Schedule. The actual statements, which the Central Bank of Ireland redacted in parts to remove swift codes, can be seen here -> 2015-000132 Records swift. Each of the statements is 6 pages long but contains mostly irrelevant swift formatting etc. The only relevant part of each statement is at the bottom of page 1 of each respective statement, where a varying gold balance is stated, against a total number of bars. That a weight list cannot be produced shows that this gold is not held on an earmarked set-aside basis but merely on a fine ounce basis  (like a cash account) and that the number of bars mentioned on the statement is just an input that was added at some historical point in time when the account became a gold balance account.

For 2009 the statement is as follows:

GOLD BAL 258

WE CAN CONFIRM THE FOLLOWING BALANCE HELD IN YOUR ACCOUNT

ACCOUNT TITLE: CENTRAL BANK OF IRELAND

COB: 31/12/2009

NO OF BARS: 453

FINE OUNCES GOLD: 182,556.209

 

For 2010, the statement is as follows:

GOLD BAL 258

WE CAN CONFIRM THE FOLLOWING BALANCE HELD IN YOUR ACCOUNT

ACCOUNT TITLE: CENTRAL BANK OF IRELAND

COB: 31/12/2010

NO OF BARS: 453

FINE OUNCES GOLD: 182,555.914

This is the data which the first FOI Decision Maker said that “access to the record could reasonably be expected to have a serious, adverse effect on the ability of the Government to manage the national economy or on the financial interests of the State…He has got to be joking, right?

Conclusion

The examples set out in Parts 1 and 2 of this series will hopefully demonstrate to readers the disdain with which the Central Bank of Ireland and the Irish Department of Finance treat Freedom of Information Requests. I have detailed numerous examples where simple questions about the Irish gold reserves have been ignored, blocked, and refused, even when under the remit of the FOI legislation.

However the Central Bank of Ireland has complete contempt for FOI Acts and everything the FOI Act stands for. This is a wide ranging and live issue as the following recent article in the Irish media highlights. An Irish Times article dated 10 June 2016 and titled  “Central Bank ordered to review refusal of access to records“, highlights that the independent Information Commissioner said that his office had had “great difficulty in dealing with the bank in respect of the extent of our jurisdiction”, and said that a recent FOI case that was raised showed “the Bank was ‘entirely at odds’ with the spirit and intent of the FOI legislation.”

The same article quoted the Central Bank as saying that is was “fully committed to meeting the Freedom of Information principles of openness, transparency and accountability, and to the provision of access to records in accordance with its obligations under the Freedom of Information Act.

But this is a complete lie. As demonstrated by the arrogance and lack of cooperation of the Central Bank of Ireland on the topic of the Irish gold reserves, nothing could be further from the truth. Furthermore, there do not seem to be any political representatives willing to push the central bank on FOI issues, not any investigative journalists with the will to cover the topic of the Irish gold reserves at the Bank of England. Have these gold reserves ever even been physically audited? Given the lack of oversight with which the Central Bank of Ireland treats this gold holding, it would appear not. The crux of the issue in my view is the gold lending market, which the world’s central banks do not want the public to know any information about, hence the secrecy about gold bar weight lists.

Ireland’s Monetary Gold Reserves: High Level Secrecy vs. Freedom of Information – Part I

This article and a sequel article together chronicle a long-running investigation that has attempted, with limited success to date, to establish a number of basic details about Ireland’s official monetary gold reserves, basic details such as whether this gold is actually allocated, what type of storage contract the gold is stored under, and supporting documentation in the form of a gold bar weight list. Ireland’s gold reserves are held by the Central Bank of Ireland but are predominantly stored (supposedly) with the Bank of England in London.

At many points along the way, this investigation has been hindered and stymied by lack of cooperation from the Central Bank of Ireland and the Irish Government’s Department of Finance. Freedom of Information requests have been ignored, rejected and refused, and there has also been outright interference from the Bank of England. Many of these obstacles are featured below and in the sequel article.

6 Tonnes of Gold

Ireland ‘only’ owns 6 tonnes of gold in its monetary reserves, which is a fraction of the gold holdings that many of the large European central banks are said to hold. For such a small holding, it may be surprising that basic details of the Irish gold remain a closely guarded secret. However, it’s worth remembering that Ireland is a member of the Eurozone, that the Central Bank of Ireland is a member bank of the European Central Bank (ECB), and that the Irish gold is (supposedly) stored at the Bank of England vaults. Given the clubs that the Central Bank of Ireland is in or is a part of, it is arguably ECB policy and Bank of England policy on gold secrecy which primarily dictates what the Central Bank of Ireland is allowed to say or not to say about the Irish gold reserves.

But don’t forget though that central bankers in general, and Irish central bankers included, are an arrogant and narcissistic bunch who consider themselves immune from having to answer to anyone other than themselves and sometimes their governments. Furthermore, the out of control arrogant culture and ‘cult’ of independence of these organisations also explains their disdain for public discourse, especially on a topic as highly sensitive to them as monetary gold.

For many years Ireland held 14 tonnes in its monetary gold reserves. This remained the case until the end of 1998. In January 1999, as part of Eurozone foreign exchange transfers to the newly established ECB, the Central Bank of Ireland transferred 8 tonnes of gold to the ECB at the birth of the Euro, leaving it as the guardian of just 6 tonnes of gold. This 6 tonne holding has remained static ever since, at least at a reporting level. Most of this 6 tonnes of gold is supposedly stored at the Bank of England in London in the form of gold bars. A small residual of the 6 tonnes is held in the form of gold coins and stored at one of the Central Bank of Ireland sites in Dublin.

Central Bank Act (1942) and FOI Acts

The Central bank of Ireland was established via “The Central Bank Act, 1942″ which states that:

“The Bank is a state corporation established under Statute (the 1942 Act) wherein its capital is held by the Minister. The Minister for Finance is the sole shareholder of the Bank.

In Ireland, the Minister for Finance heads up the Department of Finance and this Minister is also a member of the Cabinet, i.e. the Government or Executive branch. The current Minister for Finance is Michael Noonan who has held this position since March 2011.

Freedom of Information requests in Ireland were introduced in Ireland by the relatively recent Freedom of Information (FOI) Act 1997 which was enacted by a coalition government and which advanced the concepts of transparency and openness in government records and cabinet meetings etc. However, the powers of this 1997 Act were diluted somewhat by a 2003 Amendment to the 1997 Act which aimed to row back on some of the advances of the 1997 Act and which introduced fees for submitting FOI requests.

I first examined the Irish gold reserves in August 2011. At that time the FOI Act covered government departments such as the Department of Finance, but not the Central Bank of Ireland. A subsequent FOI Act of 2014 replaced the 1997 FOI Act and the 2003 FOI Amendment, and also extended the coverage of FOI requests to all public bodies including the Central Bank of Ireland. The 2014 Act (in section 42 and Schedule 1 ) specifies a number of exemptions for certain types of information of certain types of public bodies including a few exemptions for certain types of central bank information. A government website http://foi.gov.ie summaries the basic framework for FOI’s in Ireland. An independent Office of the Information Commissioner (OIC) also exists to review decisions made by public bodies in relation to the FOI.

At the time in 2011, I began noticing the difficulties which gold researchers in other countries were having in obtaining basic information from their central banks about other countries’ gold reserves, and I thought that going through an investigative process with the Irish equivalent might prove easier to navigate given that the Irish gold holdings were far smaller, and given that the Central Bank of Ireland is not exactly as big as the behemoths of the Bundesbank or Banque de France, and so might be more approachable. However, what the process ended up proving was exactly what others had experienced, that the subject of monetary gold reserves is a subject which central banks do their utmost not to discuss any real details of.

This investigative summary into Ireland’s gold reserves is divided into 2 parts. Part 1 here details all of the investigations submitted to the Department of Finance and Central Bank of Ireland prior to my submission of a FOI request to the Central Bank of Ireland in 2015. The Central Bank of Ireland became subject to Freedom of Information requests in 2014 after the FOI Act of 2014 was enacted.

Part 2 looks at the FOI submitted to the Central Bank of Ireland in 2015, how this was rejected, and how it was then appealed and became ‘partially’ successful. I have redacted certain information in emails and FOI letters such as names of FOI officers and various addresses and phone numbers.

Dame Street

2011 – Central Bank First Refusal

The saga began on 26th August 2011 with an email to the Central Bank of Ireland posing a number of seemingly innocuous questions about Ireland’s gold reserves. My questions were as follows:

Could you clarify a number of points on the gold holdings of the Central Bank of Ireland.

Note 10 on page 98 of the Bank’s 2010 annual report states that ‘Gold and gold receivables represent coin stocks held in the Bank, together with gold bars held at the Bank of England’.

Of the Central Bank of Ireland’s bars held at the Bank of England, could you clarify if any of this holding is swapped or loaned out or has any other receivable status recorded against it, and if so, what percentage? Additionally, is this held in an allocated account and do you have a gold bar list for the custody that you can provide?

The Central Bank of Ireland responded a week later on 01 September 2011:

“Good morning,

We received your query in connection with gold custody, please find our response below.

The notes to our accounts confirm the locations at which the Central Bank of Ireland maintains its Gold Holdings.  The Bank is not, however, in a position to provide further information nor to outline its investment strategy in relation to the Gold Holdings.

Trusting this is our assistance to you.”

Knowing at that time that the FOI Act did not cover the Central Bank of Ireland but did cover the Irish Government’s Department of Finance, I emailed the (independent) Office of the Information Commissioner in September 2011 and asked if they thought that a FOI request to the Department of Finance about a topic connected to the central bank would be within the scope of FOI coverage given that the central bank itself was not covered by the Act at that time.

The Office of the Information Commissioner replied to me on 20 September 2011 and advised me as follows:

“you should contact the FOI Central Policy Unit of the Department of Finance for advice
in relation to whether or not certain information might be releasable or not under the FOI Acts. Their email address is: cpu@finance.gov.ie

The same day I sent the following email to the Department of Finance FOI CPU:

I have a hypothetical question regarding a FOI to the Department of Finance, on a matter that might refer to the Central Bank. The scenario would be as follows:
 
If I made a FOI request to the Department of Finance on a topic that included correspondence between the Department of Finance and the Central Bank, would the information released to me still include items on the Department of Finance side that might reference the Central Bank, or would references or communications with the Central Bank exclude that particular document or communication from the FOI response.”
The Department of Finance FOI CPU responded same day:

“Good afternoon

Under the Freedom of Information Act, the decision to grant or not grant records lies with the decision maker in the organization that holds the records. The Central Bank does not come under the remit of Freedom of Information.  More information can be found at www.foi.gov.ie;”

Slightly cryptic and not very helpful, so I decided to submit a FOI request to the Department of Finance.

Department of Finance – Irresponsible or Incompetent?

On 8 November 2011, I submitted the following FOI request to the Department of Finance:

“Please direct this email to FOI officer XXXX XXXXXXX, or the appropriate FOI officer at the Department of Finance.

I would like to make the following request under the FOI Act.

In accordance with the Freedom of Information Act, I request access from the Department of Finance of all records and correspondence between 1997 and 2011 relating to:

  • The Irish State’s gold reserves managed by the Central Bank of Ireland, which are custodied at the Bank of England
  • The investment strategy of the State’s gold reserves
  • The Irish State’s gold reserves transferred to the ECB between 1999 and 2011″

More than four weeks later I had still not received either an acknowledgement or a response from the Department of Finance about my FOI submission. Under the Irish FOI Acts, a lack of reply within 4 weeks of your initial application is deemed a refusal of your request and allows you to seek to have the refusal decision re-examined.

On 13 December 2011, I sent the following email to the Department of Finance FOI unit:

“Since you have not sent me a decision on my FOI request within the four-week deadline as stipulated by the Office of the Information Commissioner, and I note that I did not receive a reply or even an acknowledgement, this issue has now become a “refusal of my FOI request by non-reply” and I wish to escalate this as an ‘internal review’.

Can you confirm receipt of this internal review request immediately or I will be informing the Office of the Information Commissioner of this matter by end of day tomorrow.”

 Two days later the Department responded as follows with what can only be described as an incredible excuse:

“Thank you for your e-mail and apologies for the delay in processing your case.  Unfortunately the FOI Officer in the division has been out for sometime. If you could give me a call on 669xxxx we can go through it.  Requests are processed on receipt of a €15.00 fee. I am not quite sure what happened in your case but I am happy to discuss it further with you. I am in the Office in the mornings only.

Kind regards, Xxxxxxx Xxx, FOI Unit, Extn xxxx

 To which I replied:

“What happened is that no one responded to me within the four-week timeframe and I have informed the Office of the Information Commissioner of this lack of coverage at your department. If an FOI officer is unavailable, there has to be an alternative officer available. That is part of the OIC guidelines. That is why I also stated in my original email that the request was to “FOI officer Xxxx Xxxxxxx, or the appropriate FOI officer”.

 As per the FOI Acts,  “A person should be available to handle queries from members of the public in each organisation.”

Additionally, since your department hosts the FOI Central Policy Unit [for the entire Irish Government], I find it hard to believe that you don’t have multiple FOI officers. 

So I would like a full explanation of why my request was ignored and a fee waiver since I have been waiting for over 5 weeks now.”

Merrion Street

On 20 December 2011, just before Christmas, I received a phone call from a FOI officer at the Department of Finance. The FOI Officer told me, and I quote the conversation, since I jotted it down:

“there are no records or correspondence of gold reserves. I talked to various people in the Department and they told me to tell you there are no records. They said responsibility for gold reserves was transferred to the central bank prior to 1999.”

The FOI Officer said she would send a letter confirming this, and said that I could appeal, and that “a principal officer will check the type of searches undertaken”.

The next day, an email from the same FOI Officer arrived which stated:

“Further to our telephone conversation. A request for Internal Review has to be submitted to this Office within 15 days of receipt of our letter.  The cost of an Internal Review is €75. The letter will issue to-morrow.”

The official letter duly arrived in the post, and it’s uploaded and can be viewed here -> FOI Response Dept of Finance Dec 2011. In summary, the letter said:

“22nd December 2011

Your request was received by email in this Department on 9th November. I as the deciding officer have today made a final decision on your request. I may be contacted by telephone. The delay in responding to your request is regretted.

I regret to inform you that a search of the Department has not yielded any of the records sought by you. Consequently I must refuse your request in accordance with section 10(1)(a) of the FOI Act.  

…Right of Appeal (as above)”

Given that I had no confidence in a Department of Finance internal review finding anything after being told on the phone that “they told me to tell you there are no records“,  I did not see the point of wasting €75 in confirming this with an internal review. As an aside, unless an internal review is pursued, the independent Information Commissioner cannot normally review the FOI. As the Office of the Information Commissioner told me when I reported the Department of Finance shenanigans to them:

“Under  the  terms  of the FOI Acts, requesters must, apart from a number of exceptional  circumstances, avail of their right to seek internal review by the public body before the Commissioner can review the matter.

If after three weeks (15 working days) you have received no internal review decision,  or  if  you  are not satisfied with the internal review decision that  the Department issues, you can then apply to this Office for a review of your case by the Information Commissioner.”

However, for a number of reasons, it’s quite unbelievable that the Irish Department of Finance would have zero records or correspondence about the Irish gold reserves.

Firstly, it was only a few months earlier on 16 June 2011, in Dáil Éireann (the Irish Parliament), that the very  head of the Department of Finance, the Minister for Finance, Michael Noonan, in answer to a parliamentary question, stated that he had been “informed by the Central Bank that the value of gold and gold receivables held by the Bank at the end of 2010 was some €203.792 million (€147.975 million at end-2009)”. To wit:

Deputy Seamus Kirk asked the Minister for Finance  if the suggestion that gold profits in the EU central banks should be used to tackle the debt crisis in the peripheral countries in the eurozone such as Greece, Portugal and Ireland; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [15924/11]

Minister for Finance (Deputy Michael Noonan):  I am informed by the Central Bank that the value of gold and gold receivables held by the Bank at the end of 2010 was some €203.792 million (€147.975 million at end-2009). Gold is valued at the closing market price and securities at mid-market closing prices at year-end. The increase in the balance sheet entry for the value of the Bank’s gold holdings at end-2010 is due to the change in the market value of gold during the year.

Note that Noonan did not say that he or one of his juniors had looked in the central bank’s annual report. He said that he was informed by the central bank. If Noonan was informed by the central bank, this would have to have been documented in Department of Finance files as part of official departmental and parliamentary business. If these files don’t exist as the FOI response from the Department of Finance claimed, then it would indicate that the Department of Finance engages in sloppy record keeping and operates in an unprofessional and irresponsible manner. If files do exist about Noonan’s interactions with the central bank concerning the gold reserves, it shows that the Department of Finance had records about Irish gold reserves and lied when they said to me that they didn’t.

More fundamentally, the Irish Nation and people of Ireland essentially entrust to the care of the Irish State and it’s Department of Finance, the Nation’s gold reserves. In turn, the Department of Finance employs the Central Bank of Ireland as an agent or custodian, and so the Central Bank of Ireland is answerable to the Minister for Finance on these gold reserves. Also, the Bank of England is (on paper) acting as sub-custodian (or maybe deposit taker) to the Central Bank of Ireland.

The FOI response and phone call from the Department of Finance stating that it had no record whatsoever of the Irish gold reserves, no records of how these reserves are managed, and no records of the gold transferred to the ECB, if true, indicates complete lack of oversight by the Irish Government and Department of Finance into an important component of Ireland’s foreign exchange reserves, and indicates a complete dereliction of due diligence over a substantial monetary asset of the Irish State.

2012 – Central Bank Second Refusal

The Central Bank of Ireland annual report is usually published in late April of the year following financial year-end. After the 2011 Central Bank of Ireland Annual Report was published in late April 2012, I decided in May 2012 to submit some additional questions about the gold reserves to the central bank in the hope that whoever answered might be more cooperative than the previous non-cooperative individual in September 2011 (see above).

On 24 May 2012, after reading the relevant sections of the annual report and establishing how the auditors and bank staff prepared the annual accounts in relation to the balance sheet items, I posed the following seven specific and reasonable questions about the Irish gold reserves to the publications@centralbank.ie email address of the central bank:

“Hello, I have some questions on an item in the annual accounts 2011 Central Bank of Ireland annual report.

 Item 1 in the balance sheet on page 98 as of 31 December 2011 lists “Gold and gold receivables“ of € 234,967,000. Note 10 to the accounts on page 112 states that “Gold and gold receivables represent coin stocks held in the Bank, together with gold bars held at the Bank of England“.

Given that the valuation difference in this line item between 2010 and 2011 represents an increased gold price and no holding increase, the 2011 valuation represents approximately 193,000 fine troy ounces, which is equivalent to  6 fine troy tonnes, or about 485 london good delivery bars.

 My questions are as follows – 

Is the Central Bank of Ireland bar gold held at the Bank of England on a specific bar basis or a fine ounce basis?

Is the Central Bank of Ireland bar gold held at the Bank of England earmarked in a set-aside account or is it construed as a gold deposit? 

Is the Central Bank of Ireland bar gold held at the Bank of England held under a contract of bailment (with the Central Bank of Ireland as bailor and the Bank of England as bailee), or is the relationship a creditor/debtor relationship?

Is the Central Bank of Ireland bar gold held at the Bank of England beneficially and legally owned by the Central Bank of Ireland free and clear of liens, charges, encumbrances, claims or defects?

Is any of the Central Bank of Ireland bar gold held at the Bank of England currently loaned or swapped out to the Bank of England or other parties?

Given that the quantity of the Central Bank of Ireland bar gold held at the Bank of England did not vary between 2010 and 2011, what verifications and checks did the members of the Central Bank Commission use for gold and gold receivables when preparing the 2011 Statement of Accounts?

And finally, given that the quantity of the Central Bank of Ireland bar gold held at the Bank of England did not vary between 2010 and 2011, what sources of material did the Comptroller and Auditor General use for verification of gold and gold receivables in his audit of the 2011 accounts?”

 On 12 June 2012, the Central Bank of Ireland responded as follows:

“Thank you for your email request of 24th May 2012 to our Publications email address . As I do not have a postal address for you, I am responding by this email.

I can inform you that the gold bars held by the Central Bank of Ireland are held in safe custody at the Bank of England.

It is not Bank policy to enter into financial/commercial detail (beyond that contained in the Bank’s Annual Report & Accounts) relating to these or other financial assets that are held. You will note that the Bank’s external auditors have certified that its statement of Accounts gives a true and fair view of the Bank’s affairs.

Xxxxxxx Xxxxxxx, Strategy, Planning  & Publications, General Secretariat Division

 On the same day, 12 June 2012, I sent a follow-up email to the central bank employee from this Strategy, Planning  & Publications group.

“Dear Mr Xxxxxxx,

Thank you for your reply. Could you direct me to the published Bank Policy, statutory, compliance or otherwise, that covers Bank discussion of its financial assets and investments, so that I can relate this policy to my questions?

 On 20 June 2012, I received a reply from this individual:

“Dear Mr Manly, Thank you for your email of 12th June 2012.

The Bank’s management and staff comply with an employment provision that the Bank’s business must not be disclosed, or discussed with, outside parties.

The duties and obligations of management and staff in this regard are governed by Section 33AK of the Central Bank Act, 1942 (as inserted).  All staff are given copy of this Section on appointment and are required to familiarise themselves with its provisions and to comply with them at all times.

Xxxxxxx Xxxxxx, Strategy, Planning  & Publications, General Secretariat Division”

Section 33AK of the Central Bank Act of 1942 is a long and restrictive section that was only inserted into Act in 2003. It details specific circumstances of the central bank not disclosing confidential information, one part of which relates to:

“any matter arising in connection with the performance of the functions of the Bank or the exercise of its powers”

Importantly, Section 33AK of the Central Bank Act of 1942 has been routinely criticised in Ireland as a ridiculous secrecy cop-out by the Department of Finance and Central Bank to allow them not to answer all manner of questions in relation to the activities of the central bank, for example it has been used by the Minister of Finance to avoid discussing multiple issues related to Ireland’s economic collapse and subsequent bail-outs. The frequent abuses of Section 33AK were succinctly summed up in an Irish bailout blog in 2013 in an article titled “Is 33AK undermining the banking sector in Ireland?“:

“Section 33AK had never been mentioned by Minister Noonan before November 2012, but 33AK is now routinely used by Minister Noonan to tell pesky TDs (Members of Parliament) to “get lost” when they try to ask important questions about the banking sector…”

“No doubt the mandarin discoverer of Section 33AK in the Department of Finance is regularly patted on the back, but for the sake of our Republic, shouldn’t this legislation be repealed?”

According to Ireland’s independent Information Commissioner whose role it is to oversee compliance with the FOI Act, the Central Bank of Ireland had described Section 33AK as deriving:

“primarily from the obligations of ‘professional secrecy’ that arise as a result of certain EU law obligations contained within what were previously called the Supervisory Directives and are now called the supervisory EU legal acts”.

In my opinion, this invocation of Section 33AK by the above mentioned Central Bank of Ireland employee of the Strategy, Planning  & Publications group to decline answering simple questions about Ireland’s gold reserves and the central bank’s published financial statements is pure obstruction, it is an abuse of power, it is an abuse of the legislation, it is an outrage, it has nothing to do with the EU, and it goes far beyond the meaning of the legislation’s original intention.

OIC

Freedom of Information Act (2014) – A New Hope

In October 2014, the Irish President signed the Freedom of Information Act (2014) into law. This repealed and replaced the FOI Acts of 1997 and 2003. The FOI Act (2014) extended “FOI bodies” to “all Public Bodies” unless specifically exempted. Exemptions were either full or partial. Importantly, the Central Bank of Ireland was included under the FOI Act (2014) but with partial exemptions.  But for new public bodies (with exemptions), the Act only covers access to information and records created from 21 April 2008 onwards.

Part 2 of this article (forthcoming) details a FOI request about the Irish gold reserves that I made to the Central Bank of Ireland in the 2015 on the back the introduction of this updated FOI Act. As you will see, the central bank deciding officer initially refused all parts of my request and even liaised with the Bank of England on a number of occasions where they discussed by FOI request. That refusal contained such gems as:

“the release of detailed information regarding the gold bars held at the Bank of England on behalf of the Central Bank of Ireland could have a serious, adverse effect on the financial interests of the State”

“‘the record concerned [a gold bar weight list] does not exist or cannot be found after all reasonable steps to ascertain its whereabouts have been taken,’

I appealed this FOI refusal. The appeal was partially successful in producing some very limited details of the supposed Irish gold reserve holdings, including at the Bank of England and gold coins within storage in Dublin, Ireland. Full details in Part 2.

Swiss gold refinery Argor-Heraeus to be acquired by Private Equity investors

News has just emerged in the gold market that the giant Swiss precious metals refiner, Argor-Heraeus, has held discussions to be acquired, and that the likely outcome is an acquisition by a private equity group. This private equity group is believed to be London-based WRM CapInvest, part of Zurich headquartered WRM Capital. Other interested buyers are also believed to have examined a bid for Argor-Heraeus, including Japanese refining group Asahi and Swiss refining group MKS-PAMP, however, neither of these are thought to be in the running at this stage. Since this news is developing, details of the discussions and potential acquisition are still thin on the ground.

If Argor-Heraeus is acquired, it will mean that 3 of the 4 giant Swiss gold refineries will have been taken over within less than a year and a half of each other.

In July 2015, Indian headquartered Rajesh Exports, the world’s largest gold jewellery fabricator, announced the agreed acquisition of the giant Swiss gold refinery Valcambi. See BullionStar article “Swiss Gold Refineries and the sale of Valcambi” for full details. In July 2016, Japanese precious metals refiner Tanaka Kikinzoku Kogyo K.K , part of the Tanaka Precious Metals group, announced the agreed acquisition of Metalor Technologies, another of the large Swiss gold refineries. Retrospectively, the acquisition of Valcambi by Rajesh Exports now looks to have initiated a flurry of take-over activity in the normally low-key Swiss precious metals refining world.

While Metalor is based in Marin-Epagnier in the Canton of Neuchâtel in northwest Switzerland, the other 3 giant Swiss gold refineries, Argor-Heraeus, Valcambi and MKS-owned PAMP are all located literally within a few kilometres of each other in the Italian speaking Canton of Ticino, in southern Switzerland, near the Swiss-Italian border. Argor-Heraeus is in Mendrisio, Valcambi is in Balerna, and PAMP is in Castel San Pietro. Mendrisio is 4 kms from Balerna and 2kms from Castel San Pietro.

mendrisio-2-651x380

The Golden Triangle of Swiss gold refineries, Canton of Ticino

Argor-Heraeus is currently jointly-owned by German bank Commerzbank, German industrial and refining group Heraeus, the Austrian Mint, and Argor-Heraeus management. See BullionStar Gold University for a full profile of Argor-Heraeus.

Commerzbank owns 32.7% of Argor-Heraeus’ share capital. The Austrian Mint holds another 30% of Argor-Heraeus shares. In its annual report, Heraeus doesn’t reveal its holding in Argor-Heraeus, but with the Austrian Mint and Commerzbank owning a combined 62.7%, this means 40.2% of the shares are held by Heraeus and Argor-Heraeus management. On the Argor-Heraeus website, Heraeus is listed first on the shareholder list, which could signify that it’s the largest shareholder. This would put Heraeus’ shareholding above Commerzbank’s 32.7% stake, and mean that Argor-Heraeus management probably hold a shareholding somewhere below 7%.

A Precedent for Private Equity Ownership

Interestingly, there is a precedent of private equity ownership in the Swiss precious metals refining sector. Until Tanaka’s take-over of Metalor technologies last July, Metalor was majority owned by French private equity company Astorg Partners and Belgian private equity company Sofina, which between them held approximately 60% of Metalor’s shares. The remainer of Metalor’s shares were held by Metalor management, as well as by Martin Bisang and Daniel Schlatter. Bisang and Schlatter are connected with Swiss boutique investment bank Bellevue Group, which has in the past also acted as a strategic adviser to Metalor. Bisang had bought into Metalor in 1998 along with Swiss executives Ernst Thomke, Rolf Soiron and Giorgio Behr, and an additional group of Swiss executives bought into Metalor in 2004. These additional buyers were a secretive bunch, only known as the ‘Partners Only’, a group which was said by Swiss media at the time to have been connected to the Swiss Roche group.

Likewise, when Valcambi was sold to Rajesh Exports in July 2015, the then owners of Valcambi were a combination of US gold mining company Newmont (with an approximate 60% shareholding) and a group of shy Swiss private investors (who held the remaining shares) the largest of which were Emilio Camponovo and the Camponovo family. Technically, you could call these Swiss private investors direct private equity investors, or equivalent.

Even the PAMP refinery, which is owned by the Geneva based MKS-PAMP group, could be described as private equity, or at least concentrated privately-owned equity, since the group is controlled by the founding Shakarchi family. Note that MKS-PAMP has a parent company MKS PAMP Group BV based in Amsterdam, but this appears to be purely for corporate structure reasons.

ah-1

The Sellers – Heraeus, Commerzbank and Austrian Mint

Since Argor-Heraeus has multiple owners, any sale would in theory be more complex than if the refinery only had a single owner. Looking quickly at the current owners, Commerzbank in its bullion banking marketing literature usually draws attention to the fact that its partial owner of a gold refinery, and uses this as a selling point by trumpeting the fact that it has direct connections to the physical gold world. Selling Argor would probably be a negative for Commerzbank, however, it may need the cash given that german banking is in a crisis at the moment. The Austrian Mint is owned by the Austrian central bank (OeNB), which in turn is owned by the Austrian State. Any sale of the Austrian Mint’s shares in Argor would be a one-off profit boost to the OeNB. In 2015, the Austrian Mint sold a stake it held in Casinos Austria (yes, a casino company), so maybe the Mint has a new-found strategy to jettison its non-core investments. Although presumably the Mint gets preferential precious metal supply from Argor, or one would think that it does.

Heraeus also has close relationships with Argor-Heraeus, for example, in the production of various precious metals products, so a sale by Heraeus of its stake in Argor could in theory affect these synergistic relationships. All of these shareholders also receive a substantial annual cash dividend from Argor-Heraeus which is a nice to have to say the least. Selling their stakes would obviously be a loss of their cash dividends. I personally was surprised that Argor-Heraeus would be up for sale, since it definitely has what looks like a very stable, secure and content set of shareholders. As per BullionDesk coverage of this potential deal, Commerzbank and Heraeus have yet to respond or comment on the potential sale of Argor-Heraeus.

Interested Parties in an Argor Bid

Presuming that the private equity company WRM CapInvest, as well as Asahi Refining, and MKS-PAMP all looked at potentially acquiring Argor-Heraeus (and that’s the word in the gold market right now), let’s have a quick look at these players.

The current Asahi Refining group, headed by Asahi Holdings, owns precious metals refinery operations in 5 locations worldwide, namely Tokyo, Salt lake City, Utah (US), Brampton, Ontario (Canada), Mexico City, and Santiago (Chile). Some readers will be familiar with Asahi’s takeover of the US and Canadian gold and silver refining operations of Johnson Matthey, which was completed in March 2015.  If Asahi had emerged as the favourite suitor to acquire Argor-Heraeus, it would mean that 2 Japanese headquartered precious metals refiners, Tanaka and Asahi, would both own a Swiss precious metals refinery, namely Metalor and Argor-Heraeus. Market sources indicate that Asahi’s bid value for Argor-Heraeus wasn’t as high as the bid tabled by the favoured private equity group bidder. Argor-Heraeus also operates a precious metals processing plant in Santiago in Chile, which could feasibly provide synergies to Asahi, since Asahi runs a refining operation in Santiago.

Its interesting that MKS-PAMP has been mentioned as a possible acquirer of Argor-Heraeus. As mentioned, the PAMP precious metals refinery is literally ‘down the road’ from the Argor-Heraeus refinery, i.e. 2 kms down the road. PAMP is a prestigious global brand in precious metals refining and bar production, and so is Argor-Heraeus. But would the resulting consolidation in the Swiss precious metals refining industry make sense, and how would this affect the PAMP and Argor-Heraeus brands. That’s a difficult question to answer, and only PAMP could accurately answer that at this time. Market sources say that MKS PAMP was shy in revealing its full financials, data that would presumably be necessary if it put in a bid for Argor-Heraeus.

Argor-Heraeus opened a new refining headquarters in Mendrisio in 2013 which doubled its former refining capacity. According to its 2014 corporate responsibility report, the new Argor-Heraeus refinery has an annual refining capacity for gold of between 350 and 400 tonnes. The PAMP refinery has an annual refining capacity of 450 tonnes of gold, and an annual silver refining capacity of over 600 tonnes.  A merged PAMP and Argor-Heraeus would have an annual refining capacity for gold of about 900 tonnes. Their neighbour Valcambi has an annual refining capacity for gold of 1600 tonnes. A combined PAMP and Argor-Heraeus would therefore start to approach the production capacity of Valcambi. Each of Valcambi and a combined PAMP ~ Argor would also have a refining presence in India also, since PAMP has an Indian refining joint-venture with MMTC, and Valcambi, owned by Rajesh Exports, has refining operations in India. Argor-Heraeus is also one of only five refinery members of the London Bullion Market Associations (LBMA) good delivery referee panel. PAMP is also on this panel, as is Metalor and Tanaka. This panel assists the LBMA is maintaining quality standards of refinery members worldwide. Argor-Heraeus is also a full member of the LBMA, one of the few refineries to be a full LBMA member.

Finally, turning to the private equity company WRM CapInvest, which is said by sources in the gold market to be the preferred bidder for Argor-Heraeus, what is known about this company? According to its website,  WRM CapInvest is a division of the WRM Capital group of companies. The WRM Group was founded by Raffaele Mincione, who is Italian, but who resides in Switzerland. WRM Group seems to have started as a private wealth management / family office type company but has expanded into private equity.

WRM CapInvest is based in Berkeley Square in Mayfair in London, Mayfair being a very popular location for hedge funds and private equity funds to locate in. WRM CapInvest was incorporated in the UK in March 2012 as Capital Investment Advisors Ltd, but changed name to WRM CapInvest on 11 May 2016. The original single director of WRM CapInvest was Massimo Cattizone, also an Italian. Massimo Cattizone and Raffaele Minicone were listed as shareholders, with Minicone holdings 80% of the WRM CapInvest shares and Cattizone holding 20% of the shares. In July 2013, Leonidas Klemos (Italian), and Michele Cerqua (Italian) were appointed as directors of WRM CapInvest, and Massimo Cattizone ceased to be a director. Between May 2014 and March 2015, Roberto Agostini (Italian) was also a director. In July 2015, Raffaele Minicone was appointed as a director. In February 2016, Leonidas Klemos ceased to be a director. By April 2016, Raffaele Minicone was listed as owning the entire share capital of WRM CapInvest. The current directors are therefore Raffaele Minicone and Michele Cerqua. The reason for listing the above is to highlight that all the directors of WRM CapInvest since it was incorporated have been Italian, and there is a Swiss connection since Raffaele Minicone is based in Switzerland, and the WRM Group is headquartered in Zurich, Switzerland.

Therefore, the fact that Argor-Heraeus is based in the Italian speaking Swiss Canton of Ticino, right beside the Italian border, and that CapInvest is operated by an Italian team, owned by an Italian, and part of a Swiss based group is probably of relevance to a potential acquisition of Argor by CapInvest. Additionally, Knight Frank, a large commercial real estate agent, mentioned on its website in a 2013 article that “CapInvest, which is also backed by private Italian investors, purchased 60 Sloane Avenue for US$206m.”

So the question is, assuming CapInvest acquires Argor-Heraeus, is it acquiring the company on behalf of CapInvest, or on behalf of some other Italian or Swiss investors, or Italian Swiss, or Swiss Italians? And if an acquisition is on behalf of other investors, who are these investors? Could the private investors who were involved in Metalor (such as Martin Bisang and his circle of business acquaintances), or the private investors that were involved in Valcambi (such as Emilio Camponovo and friends) be re-entering the Swiss refining industry with an acquisition of Argor-Heraeus. They would definitely be some of the best placed people around that understand how the precious metals refining industry works, given their experience. Or possibly the Argor-Heraeus management and other local business people in Ticino are moving to take ownership of Argor through a private equity route?

Another potential connection is UBS. Swiss investment bank UBS previously owned the Argor-Heraeus refinery, and only exited its shareholding in 1999, so it’s also possible that a UBS connection could pop up in a Argor-Heraeus acquisition deal. This has a precedent since when Valcambi was acquired by Rajesh Exports in 2015, Credit Suisse, which itself used to own Valcambi (and which Valcambi executives had close ties to), provided strategic corporate finance advice on the Valcambi acquisition and also actually partially funded the Rajesh acquisition.

Whatever the outcome of these developments with Argor-Heraeus, further details should emerge sooner rather than later. So, as they say, watch this space.

From Gold Trains to Gold Loans – Banca d’Italia’s Mammoth Gold Reserves

Italy’s gold has had an eventful history. Robbed by the Nazis and taken to Berlin. Loaded on to gold trains and sent to Switzerland. Flown from London to Milan and Rome. Used as super-sized collateral for gold backed loans from West Germany while sitting quietly in a vault in New York. Leveraged as a springboard to prepare for Euro membership entry.  Inspired Italian senators to visit the Palazzo Koch in Rome. Half of it is now in permanent residency in downtown Manhattan, or is it? Even Mario Draghi, European Central Bank (ECB) president, has a view on Italy’s gold. The below commentary tries to make sense of it all by bringing together pieces of the Italian gold jigsaw that I have collected.

2,451.8 tonnes

According to officially reported gold holdings, and excluding the gold holdings of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), Italy’s central bank, the Banca d’Italia, which holds Italy’s gold reserves, is ranked as the world’s third largest official holder of gold after the US and Germany, with total gold holdings of 2,451.8 tonnes, worth more than US$ 105 billion at current market prices. Notable, Italy’s gold is owned by the Banca d’Italia, and not owned by the Italian State. This contrasts to most European nations where the gold reserves are owned by the state and are merely held and managed by that country’s respective central bank under an official mandate.

Italy’s gold reserves have remained constant at 2451.8 tonnes since 1999. Although the Banca d’Italia has been a signatory to all 4 Central Bank Gold Agreements and could have conducted gold sales within the limits of the agreements between 1999 and the present, it did not engage in any gold sales under either CBGA1 (1999-2004), CBGA2 (2004-2009), or CBGA3 (2009-2014), and as of now, has not conducted any sales under CBGA4 (2014-2019). With 2,451.8 tonnes of gold, the Banca d’Italia holds marginally more than the Banque de France, which claims official gold holdings of 2,435.8 tonnes.

Gold as a percentage of total reserves for both banks is very similar, with Italy’s gold comprising 69.7% of total reserve assets against 67.2% for France. Similarly, German’s gold reserves, at 3,378.2 tonnes, are 70.1% of its total reserves. See the World Gold Council’s Latest World Official Gold Reserves data for details.

So it appears that the big three European gold holders consider their gold to be a critical part of their foreign reserves and are keeping the ratio of their gold to total reserves within around the 70% mark.

Towards Transparency?

In April 2014, Banca d’Italia published a 3 page report about Italy’s gold reserves titled “Le Riserve Auree della Banca D’Italia” (published only in Italian). The report highlights that Italy’s gold is held in four storage locations, one of which is in Italy.

Specifically, in the report, Banca d’Italia confirmed that 1,199.4 tonnes of its gold, approximately half the total, is held in the Bank’s vaults which are located in the basement levels of its Palazzo Koch headquarters in Rome. The majority of remainder is stored in the Federal Reserve Bank’s gold vault in New York. The report also states that small amounts of Banca d’Italia gold are stored at the vaults of the Swiss National Bank in Berne, Switzerland, and at the vaults of the Bank of England in London.

As to why Italian gold is stored abroad in New York, London and Berne and not in other countries, is explained by historical data, and explained below.

++ Bankitalia: Visco, statuto riafferma indipendenza ++

Palazzo Koch

In its Palazza Koch vaults in Rome, the Banca d’Italia claims to store 1199.4 tonnes of gold. Of this total, 1195.3 tonnes are in the form of gold bars (represented by 95,493 bars), and 4.1 tonnes are in the form of gold coins (represented by 871,713 coins). While most of the bars in Rome are prism-shaped (trapezoidal), there are also brick-shaped bars with rounded corners (made by the US Mint’s New York Assay Office) and also ‘panetto’ (loaf-shaped) ‘English’ bars. The average weight of the bars in Palazzo Koch is 12.5 kg (400 oz), with bar weights ranging from relatively small 4.2 kgs up to some very large 19.7 kgs bars. The average fineness / gold purity of the Rome stored bars is 996.2 fine, with some of the holdings being 999.99 fine bars.

The Banca d’Italia also states that 141 tonnes of gold that it transferred to the ECB in 1999 as a requirement for membership of the Euro is also stored in Palazzo Koch. This would put the total gold holdings in the Palazzo Koch vaults at 1340 tonnes. Gold transferred to the ECB by its Euro member central banks is managed by the ECB on a decentralised basis, and is held by the ECB in whatever location it was stored in when the initial transfers occurred, subject to various location swaps which may have taken place since 1999.

The Vault is revealed

While the Banca d’Italia’s 3 page report appears to be the first official written and self-published confirmation from the Bank which lists the exact storage sites of its gold reserves, these four storage locations were also confirmed to Italian TV station RAI in 2010 when an RAI presenter and crew were allowed to film a report from inside the Bank’s gold vaults in Rome.

This RAI broadcast was for an episode of ‘Passaggio a Nord Ovest’, presented by Alberto Angela.

Translation of Video

For those who don’t speak Italian, such as myself, I asked an Italian friend to translate Alberto Angela’s video report and the other voice-overs in the report. The translation of the above video is as follows:

Banca D’Italia features a secret and extremely important place which represents Italy’s wealth: it’s our gold reserve.

We’ve had a special permission to visit this place, called “the sacristy of gold.” Here there’s a big protected door, and three high personnel from Banca d’Italia who are opening the door for me. Three keys are needed to open the door of the vault, one after the other and operated by three different people. Obviously we can’t show the security systems nor the faces of these men, but the door is huge, at least half a metre, and leads to another gate where again three keys must be used. Past this, that’s where our country’s gold is kept. 

Here we are. It’s exciting to get in here, the environment is simple, sober. [general commentary, then camera shows a large amount of gold]

This is not all the gold we own, as part of it is also stored in The Federal Reserve in the US, in the Bank of England in the UK and in Banca dei Regolamenti Nazionali in Switzerland. I’m speechless when exploring the sacristy, … you don’t see this every day. 

The value of all this gold is established by the  European Central Bank, that also establishes its price. The overall value appears in the end of year balance. In 2005 the gold was valued at 20 miliardi of Euros (billions)

There are three types of lingotti (square-shaped gold). {he says how much the bars weigh}

They feature some signs on them, to say that they have been checked. Some are almost 100% gold, pure gold. There’s also a serial number on the gold, and a swastika on some of them as the Nazi took away all our gold, transferring it first to the north of Italy and then to Germany and Switzerland. At the end of the war part of it came back featuring the Nazi sign.

This gold represents the symbol of our wealth, without this we wouldn’t be able to deal with the rest of the world, it’s a symbol for Italy, a guarantee, like a family’s jewelry. They can be used to get loans as happened when Italy asked for a loan from Germany and they demanded, as a guarantee, the value in gold. So the name Germany was put on this gold at the time.

{the reporter then talks about going from gold to notes and ‘convertibility’ – trust in the States is now the guarantee for exchanges, and not gold, says the voice. It’s a relation of trust … Banca d’Italia keeps an eye on this. After Maastricht, a lot of our gold has left Italy to join the other countries’ gold to create the communitarian reserve of the Euro}”

Note that the reporter, Angela, states that in addition to Rome, the Italian gold is stored at the Federal Reserve Bank in New York, the Bank of England in London, and at the Bank of International Settlements (BIS) in Switzerland. The reporter uses the exact words “Banca dei Regolamenti Nazionali”.

The BIS and SNB

This BIS as Italy’s gold custodian was also confirmed in 2009 by Italian newspaper “La Repubblica”, which published an article about Italy’s gold, stating that it was held in Rome, at the Federal Reserve in New York, in the ‘vaults’ of the BIS in Basel, and in the vaults of the Bank of England.

This apparent inconsistency between a) the Banca d’Italia’s report, which claims that its gold in Switzerland is at the Swiss National Bank (SNB) in Berne, and b) the RAI broadcast, which states that some Italian gold is stored with the BIS in Switzerland, is technically not a contradiction since the BIS does not maintain its own gold storage facilities in Switzerland. The BIS just makes use of the SNB’s gold vaults in Berne.

If you look on its website, under foreign exchange and gold services, the BIS specifically states that it uses ‘Berne’ as one of its safekeeping facilities for gold, i.e. it offers its clients “safekeeping and settlements facilities available loco London, Berne or New York”. Loco refers to settlement location of a precious metals transaction. By confirming that its Swiss storage is with the BIS, and that it also stores gold at the Swiss National Bank in Berne, the Banca d’Italia has, maybe inadvertently, confirmed that the BIS makes use of the Swiss National Bank’s gold vaults, and that the SNB vaults are in fact in Berne. while its knwn that the SNB gold vaults are in Berne, the SNB rarely, if ever, talks about this.

However, in 2008, Berne-based Swiss newspaper “Der Bund” published an article revealing that the SNB’s gold vaults are in Berne underneath the Bundesplatz Square. Bundesplatz Square is adjacent to the SNB’s headquarters at No. 1 Bundsplatz. BIS literature, such as the official BIS history publication “Central bank Cooperation at the Bank for International Settlements, 1930 – 1973” also confirms that the SNB gold vaults are in Berne and that the BIS and the Banca d’Italia have held gold accounts with the SNB in Berne since at least the 1930s. Note that the SNB actually has two headquarters, one in Berne, the other in Zurich at Börsenstrasse.Its quite possible that some of the SNB custodied gold is also stored in the vaults of its Zurich headquarters under Paradeplatz or Bürkliplatz.

Simple Questions met with Ultra-Secrecy

In April 2014, in two emails, I asked the Banca d’Italia’s press office specifically about this SNB / BIS situation, and also about the Banca d’Italia gold stored in New York, (and also about gold leasing – see separate section below). My questions were as follows:

“The Banca dItalia states in its April (2014) gold document that the Italian gold held in Switzerland is stored at the Swiss National Bank in Berne. Previous profiles of the Banca dItalia gold storage arrangements in an RAI TV broadcast in 2010 and in a La Republica newspaper article in 2009 state that the Italian gold in Switzerland is deposited with the Bank of International Settlements (BIS).

Given that the BIS use the SNB vaults in Berne to store gold deposited with them (since they don’t have their own gold storage facilities in Switzerland), then the reference to the SNB is not surprising.

However, my question is, does the Banca dItalia store its gold in Berne as gold sight deposits with the BIS or as earmarked custody gold with the SNB, or a combination of the two?”

“Is the gold of the Banca d’Italia that is held by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York held under earmark (custody), or held in a sight account?”

The Banca d’Italia responded (simultaneously on all questions):
“This is to inform you that unfortunately Banca d’Italia will not be giving information in addition to the website note.
Regards
Press and External Relations Division, Secretariat To The Governing Board And Communications Directorate, Bank of Italy”

By ‘website note’, the press and external relations division was referring to the 3 page report on gold reserves (see above) that the Bank published in April 2014.

Nazi Bars in Rome

The RAI television broadcast from 2010 was also notable in that it revealed that the Banca d’Italia holds bars of varied origins in its Rome vaults, including bars stamped with the official Bank of England stamp, and bars from the US Assay Office in New York including a featured bar from 1947. There are also Russian bars shown in the RAI video, one of which is shown in the video with the CCCP lettering, the hammer and sickle stamp, and the letters HKUM.

More surprisingly perhaps, is the fact that the Banca d’Italia also holds Nazi gold bars from the Prussian Mint in Berlin. The RAI broadcast video shows a 1940 Nazi bar from Berlin, stamped with the eagle and swastika insignia and with Prussian mint markings. The Nazi bar holdings can be explained by the fact that the Italian gold was confiscated by the Nazis during World War 2 and ended up being moved out of Rome up to the north of Italy and then most of it was transported onwards to Berlin in Germany or else to Switzerland. Following the war, some of the gold given back to the Italians as part of the Tripartite Commission payouts happened to be Prussian Mint bars stamped with the Nazi symbol (see below for historical account of Italian gold movements during World War 2).

riserve auree1
A view of the gold on shelves in the Palazzo Koch vaults, Rome

The Foreign held Italian gold

The Banca d’Italia gold document does not specify how much of the Italian gold is held in New York, London and Berne, apart from stating that most of the gold that is not stored in Rome is stored in New York. Note that this is even less transparent than the brief information that the Deutsche Bundesbank publishes about its gold reserves storage locations. However, the Banca d’Italia document does state that “the bulk” of foreign stored gold is in New York (“la parte più consistente è custodita a New York“), and that  “contingents of smaller size” are located in London and Berne (“Altri contingenti di dimensioni più contenute si trovano a Berna, presso la Banca Nazionale Svizzera, e a Londra presso la Banca d’Inghilterra“).

While one could argue about the meaning of ‘the bulk’ in terms of quantity, essentially the Banca d’Italia gold document implies that the London and Berne holdings are not very large. More specifically, it is possible using historical data and records of Italian gold movements to infer that there is little Italian gold in London and Berne.

Not a lot in London

It does not look like Banca d’Italia holds anything other than a very small amount of gold in London. During the late 1960s, mainly between 1966 and 1968, the Banca d’Italia transported most of the gold that it had stored at the Bank of England vaults back to Italy. Regular shipments were exported and delivered by MAT (the secure transport company) to the Banca d’Italia’s vaults in both Rome and Milan, sometimes about 4 tonnes at a time, sometimes 10 tonnes at a time. Historic Bank of England gold account “set-aside” ledger entries (C142/5 Bullion Office Set Aside Ledger, A-K, 1943-1971) show that by the end of 1969, the Banca d’Italia only held 988 gold bars in London, weighing 396,000 ozs,  or approximately 12.34 tonnes. In support of the veracity of this statement, see the specific ledger entry below.

banca-d-italia-boe-dec-1969-12-3-tonnes

During the Banca d’Italia’s gold transport period out of the Bank of England, various other transfers were also made from the Banca d’Italia gold account to the BIS gold account at the Bank of England. Since Italian gold reserves have not in total changed very much since December 1969, it is realistic to assume that the Banca d’Italia’s London gold holdings have not changed dramatically since December 1969, unless there have been location swaps executed since that time between London and New York or between London and Berne. This would generally only have been done for a specific reason such as to allow Italian gold lending through the London market. Significant gold lending only began in London in the mid-1980s, and the Banca d’Italia has never been on public record as having engaged in gold lending on the London Gold Lending Market.

Another possibility is that the Italians now use the BIS gold account(s) to hold gold in London in the same way that they do in Berne. This would allow the statement that some of the Italian gold is held in London to be true, even though the gold would, in this case, be held via the BIS gold account at the Bank of England, and not directly by a Banca d’Italia gold custody account in London.

Little in Berne

There does not appear to have been any Italian gold left in Berne after WWII (see historical details below), so whatever Italian balance is currently in Berne has been built up since 1946. Of relevance to the gold vaults in Berne, both the central banks of Finland (Bank of Finland) and Sweden (Riksbank) recently published the international locations of their gold reserves, and revealed that only very small percentages of their gold is kept in the Swiss National Bank vaults in Switzerland. Of the Riksbank’s 125.7 tonnes of gold reserves, only 2.8 tonnes (2.2%) is stored in the SNB vaults. For the Bank of Finland, only 7%, or 3.4 tonnes of its 49.1 tonnes of gold reserves are stored with the SNB in Switzerland.

Mostly in Manhattan

If this Swedish-Finnish 2-7% range of allocations held at the SNB was applied to the Italian gold that held outside Italy, it would result in between 25 tonnes and 87.6 tonnes of Italian gold being held at the SNB vaults in Berne. Factoring in 12 tonnes held at the Bank of England and a small amount held in Berne, this would imply nearly 1,200 tonnes of Italian gold at the Federal Reserve in New York.

There were at least 543 tonnes of Italian gold at the Federal Reserve in New York in the mid-1970s, since this was the quantity of Italian gold collateral that the Bundesbank held at the New York Fed during its first gold loan to Italy between 1974 and 1976 (see discussion below of the 1970s West Germany – Italy gold loan). If the quantities in London and Berne are as low as they appear to be, this 543 tonnes used as collateral might not have even been half the gold that Italy has custodied with the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.

A gold vault in Milan

It’s notable that the Banca d’Italia has used a vault in the city of Milan to store gold as recently as the late 1960s, although there is no mention of a Milan vault in the Banca d’Italia’s 2014 gold document. This would either imply that the gold stored in Milan in the 1960s was transported to Rome at a later date, or else that the Rome statistics may represent combined holdings stored in Rome and Milan, and are just rolled up to Rome for reporting purposes, since Rome is the head office of the Banca d’Italia. The Banca d’Italia’s Milan vault did feature as a key part of Italian gold movements during World War 2 (see below).

Historical Italian Gold

Like other central banks, the Banca d’Italia states that it uses 4 storage locations partly due to historical reasons and partly based on a deliberate strategy gold storage diversification strategy.

Although the Banca d’Italia held 498 tonnes of gold in 1925, Italian gold reserves fell to 420 tonnes in 1930, and continued to decline throughout the 1930s, falling to 240 tonnes in 1935, before another sharp fall to 122 tonnes in 1940 at the beginning of World War 2. With both Rome and Northern Italy under German occupation in 1943, the German occupiers pressurised the Banca d’Italia’s governor Azzolini to move the Italian gold north. Ultimately this led to 119 tonnes of Italian gold being transported by train from Rome to the Banca d’Italia’s vaults in Milan. But the transfer to Milan turned out to be just an interim stopover since the Germans continued to pile on pressure to move the Italian gold to Berlin.

The fascist government that controlled Northern Italy at that time initially resisted the German plan, but negotiated a compromise and agreed to move 92.3 tonnes of gold to a castle in Fortezza, in the far north of Italy near the Austrian border, close to the Brenner Pass and likewise very close (via Austria) to the German border.

Eventually the fascist government capitulated fully to the German demands and 49.6 tonnes of Italian was moved from Fortezza to the Reichsbank vaults in Berlin, followed by an additional transfer of 21.7 tonnes, so in total 71.3 tonnes of Italian gold ended up in the Reichsbank in Berlin. See here for graphic showing these wartime movements of Italian gold, and a comprehensive discussion (in Italian).

In the 1930s, the Bank for International Settlements Bank had invested substantially in Italian short-term treasury bills, which had a built-in gold conversion guarantee. Likewise, the Swiss National Bank held or was the representative for claims on some of the Italian gold. With the German pressure on the Italian gold in 1943, the BIS and SNB both became anxious about their investments and requested that their Italian gold-related be fully converted into gold with a view to moving the converted gold to the SNB vaults in Berne, Switzerland.

The Gold Trains to Berne

After intense negotiations, which the Banca d’Italia also supported (since it would allow some of the Italian gold to go to Switzerland and so avoid Berlin), the SNB and BIS succeeded in releasing the gold transfers, and over 72 years ago on 20th April 1944, 23.4 tonnes of Italian gold was sent by train from Como in Italy to Chiasso in Switzerland and then onwards by another train to Berne.

This required four railcars, two with 89 crates of gold weighing 12,605 kgs for the BIS (1,068 bars in total), and two other railcars of gold bars for the SNB which probably contained 9-10 tonnes – since this was the balance of Italian gold which did not go to Berlin or to the BIS but which had been moved to Fortezza from Milan.

A few days later on 25th April 1944, the Banca’Italia also executed an additional intra-account transfer in the Berne vault to the benefit of the BIS. This was part of a location swap with the BIS. To quote the official BIS historical narrative:

On 25th April 1944, the Bank of Italy transferred an additional 3,190 kgs of fine gold from its own gold account with the Swiss National Bank in Berne to the BIS gold account there.” (Central Bank Cooperation at the Bank for International Settlements, 1930-1973, Gianni Toniolo, BIS).

The actual transfer comprised 244 gold bars containing 2,966 kgs. An additional 233 kgs was debited from the Banca d’Italia sight account with the BIS, which suggests that the Italians only had 2,966 kgs in physical gold stored in Berne with the balance having to come from their sight deposit with the BIS (i.e. unallocated storage). (See “Note on gold shipments and gold exchanges organised by the Bank for International Settlements, 1st June 1938 – 31st May 1945.

The above suggests that the Banca d’Italia had no gold in Berne at the end of WWII. In fact, after WWII ended in 1945, the Italians essentially had very little gold anywhere except for small amounts that were left in Fortezza and found by the Allies, which was then returned to the Italians. Italy started buying gold again in 1946 with a 1.8 tonne purchase from the Banque de France. The Italians also began receiving gold back as reparations from the Tripartite Commission for the Restoration of Monetary Gold (TGC), getting 31.7 tonnes a few years after WWII ended, and another 12.7 tonnes in 1958. Since 71.4 tonnes had been taken by the Germans to Berlin, the Italians ended up with a net loss of about 27 tonnes due to theft and/or other war losses.

Some of these post-WWII gold reparations contained the Nazi Prussian Mint bars which are now stored in the Banca d’Italia’s Rome vaults. The initial gold bar reparations for Italy in the late 1940s came from the TGC account set up at the Bank of England. Records from the Clinton Library show that Italy received 575 Prussian bars set-aside from the TCG account in its early allocations. Prussian bars also made it to the Federal Reserve in New York. The same records show that were over 2,500 Prussian Mint bars held under earmark at the FRBNY for various customers as of January 1956 including the BIS, IMF, SNB, Bank of England, Netherlands and Canada among others. Some of these bars were later remelted into US Assay Office bars. (The Gold Report, Presidential Advisory Commission on Holocaust Assets in the United States, July 2000, Clinton Library).

In a similar way to other major European central banks, the Banca d’Italia’s gold reserves were mainly built up during the late 1950s and early 1960s. Although the Banca d’Italia was a relatively important official gold holder during the first half of the 20th century, it ‘only’ held 402 tonnes of gold as of 1957. But starting in 1958 and running through to the late 1960s, Italy’s gold reserves rose by nearly 600% to exceed 2,560 tonnes in 1970. See page 19 of “Central Bank Gold Reserves, An Historical perspective since 1845, by Timothy Green, Research Study No. 23, published by World Gold Council, for data on Italian gold reserve totals during the 1950s and 1960s.

Since 1970, Italy’s gold holdings have remained fairly constant, although at times some of the Italian gold has been used in various financial transactions such as:

  • gold collateral against a loan from Germany during the 1970s
  • contributions to the European Monetary Cooperation Fund (EMCF)
  • contributions to the European Central Bank (ECB)

The gold collateral transactions with Germany and the EMCF and ECB contributions explain why, in the absence of purchases or sales, Italy’s historic gold holdings statistics appear to fluctuate widely at various times since the mid-1970s.

l’Ufficio Italiano dei Cambi (UIC)

Until the 1960s, most, if not all of Italy’s official gold reserves were held not by the Banca d’Italia, but by an associated entity called l’Ufficio Italiano dei Cambi (UIC). In English, UIC translates as the “Italian Foreign Exchange Office”. The UIC was created in 1945. One of its tasks was the management of Italy’s foreign exchange reserves (also including gold).

Therefore the Italian gold purchases in the 1950s and 1960s were conducted for the account of the UIC, not the Banca d’Italia. However, during the 1960s there were two huge transfers of gold from the UIC to the Banca d’Italia, one transfer in 1960 and the second in 1965. In total, these two transactions represented a transfer of 1,889 tonnes from the UIC to the Banca d’Italia. The UIC’s main function then became the management of the national currency and not the nation’s gold. The UIC ceased to exist in January 2008 when all of its tasks and powers were transferred to the Banca d’Italia.

DB

Gold Collateral for the Bundesbank – 1970s

In 1974, Italy required international financial aid to overcome an economic and currency crisis and ended up negotiating financial help from the Deutsche Bundesbank. This took the form of a dollar-gold collateral transaction, with the Bundesbank providing a US$ 2 billion loan secured on Italian gold collateral of equivalent value. On 5th September 1974, Karl Klasen, President of the Bundesbank, sent the specifics of the collateral agreement to Guido Carli, Governor of the Banca ‘dItalia. The details of the transaction were as follows:

US$ 2 billion was transferred from the Bundesbank to the Banca d’Italia for value date 5th September. Simultaneously, for value date 5th September, the Banca d’Italia earmarked 16,778,523.49 ounces of gold (about 522 tonnes) from its gold holdings stored at the Federal Reserve Bank in New York into the name of the Bundesbank, and received a gold claim against the Bundesbank for the same amount.  (2A96 Deutsche Bundesbank Files, 1974, Bank of England Archives).

The gold collateral was valued at $149 per ounce based on a formula of 80% of the average London gold fixing price during July and August 1974. The loan was for a six month maturity but could be rolled over up to three times, i.e. up to two years in total. It turns out that the loan was rolled over up to the maximum two years allowed. Not only that, but the entire gold-backed dollar loan was renewed in September 1976 with larger gold collateral of 17.5 million ounces or about 543 tonnes. This gold loan renewal in 1976 was underwritten by the UIC, and the 543 tonnes of gold was transferred from the Banca’Italia to the UIC prior to the loan renewal. Note that Paolo Baffi had become Governor of the Banca d’Italia in 1975, taking over from Guido Carli.

In September 1978, at the 2 year maturity date of the renewal, the 543 tonnes of gold was returned to the ownership of the Italians but instead of being transferred to the Banca d’Italia, the 543 tonnes was transferred to the balance sheet of the UIC, since the UIC had been involved in underwriting the entire loan agreement. This 543 tonnes of gold stayed on the UIC books and was revalued over the years, thereby creating a large capital gain for the UIC.

Gold capital gain Controversy – 1997/98

When the gold held by the UIC was sold to the Banca d’Italia in 1997, the UIC realised a capital gain of 7.6 billion Lira which then became taxable. The UIC then owed the Italian Exchequer 4 billion Lira, 3.4 billion Lira of which was transferred to the Italian State in November 1997. At the time in 1997, Italy was preparing for entry to the Euro, and needed to keep its deficit under the 3% ceiling required by the Maastricht Treaty criteria. Eurostat ruled that this windfall transfer to the Italian Exchequer was not allowed to be offset against the government deficit. See here for January 1998 statement from Eurostat.

However, a European Parliament parliamentary set of question in March 1998 to the European Council seems to suggests that the UIC tax payment to the Italian Exchequer was offset against Italy’s public sector deficit, and that it helped to keep the Italian deficit under the critical 3% Masstrict ceiling, thereby helping Italy to qualify for Euro membership. The parliamentary questions were from Italian politician Umberto Bossi:

“Does the Council intend to finally ascertain the nature of this transaction?

Does the Council intend to establish whether it is permissible to encourage tax revenues of this kind to be offset against the public sector deficit?

If not, does the Council not consider that this incident shows yet again that Italy has not changed its ways and is prepared to stoop to dubious accounting practices in order to enter Europe?”

The answer to this parliamentary question in June 1998 seems vague, but did not deny that the tax windfall generated by the capital gain on the 543 tonnes of gold may have helped improve the Italian fiscal condition in the run-up to Euro qualification and entry.

EMCF and EURO

As referenced above, Italian gold has been contributed to various European monetary experiments since the 1970s. This explains why the yearly official total figures of Italian gold fluctuate widely over the 1970s-1990s period, and indeed have also fluctuated since 1999.

In 1979, Italy’s gold reserves dropped by 20% and stayed that way until 1998 when they increased again to the previous 1979 level. This was due to Italy contributing to the European Monetary Cooperation Fund (EMCF) which was a fund within the European Exchange Rate Mechanism (ERM) of the European Monetary System (EMS). In exchange for providing 20% of their gold and dollar reserves to the EMCF, member countries received claims denominated in European Currency Units (ECUs). [The ECU was an abstract precursor to the Euro]. The gold that was transferred to the EMCF was accounted for as gold swaps, but there was no physical movement of gold, it was just a book entry to represent a change in ownership to the EMCF.

In 1999, with the advent of the Euro (initially as a virtual currency), central bank members of the Eurozone had to again transfer gold, this time to the European Central Bank (ECB). The ECB stipulated that each member had to transfer foreign reserves assets, and 15% of these transfers had to be in the form of gold. In Italy’s case it transferred 141 tonnes of gold to the ECB, so Italy’s gold reserves fell by this amount.

The gold owned by the ECB is not centrally stored and managed by the ECB. It stays wherever it was when transferred by each member country, and the ECB delegates the management of its gold reserves to each member central bank, so essentially, it’s just another accounting transaction. It’s unclear whether the ECB gold managed by the Banca d’Italia on behalf of the ECB is “managed” any differently to the non-ECB gold (i.e. its unclear whether the same investment policy always applies to both gold holdings). One person who would certainly know the answer to that questions is Mario Draghi, current president of the ECB, former governor of the Banca d’Italia, and also born in Rome, home of the Palazzo Koch gold vault.

Is any Italian Gold pledged or leased out?

Banca d’Italia annual reports follow International Monetary Fund reporting conventions and classify the gold in its balance sheet as ‘gold and gold receivables‘. In September 2011, when I asked the Banca d’Italia to clarify what percentage of the asset category ‘gold and gold receivables’ in its 2010 balance sheet referred to gold held, and what percentage represented gold receivables, the Bank’s press office replied succinctly that “it’s only gold, no receivables.”

Following the publication of the Bank’s three page gold document in April 2014, I asked the Banca d’Italia press office a number of questions (see above), one of which was about gold leasing:

Are any of the Bank’s gold reserves subject to lease agreements, and if so, what percentage of the gold is leased out? Is any of the Bank’s gold swapped or pledged in any other way?

As mentioned above, the Banca d’Italia’s response was:

This is to inform you that unfortunately Banca d’Italia will not be giving information in addition to the website note.
Regards
Press and External Relations Division, Secretariat To The Governing Board And Communications Directorate, Bank of Italy”

 

Gold Audits

The Banca d’Italia states in its 3 page gold document that external auditors verify the gold held in Rome each year in conjunction with the Bank’s own internal auditors. For the gold held abroad, the external auditors are said to audit this using annual certificates issued by the central banks that act as the depositories (the  depositories being the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, the Bank of England, and either the BIS or perhaps the SNB depending on the type of certificate that is issued for BIS deposits).

This approach is analogous to the methodology used to audit the German gold reserves stored abroad, i.e. there is no independent physical audit of the gold stored abroad by the Bundesbank. The paper-pushing auditors merely audit pieces of paper.

As regards the Banca d’Italia’s gold holdings at the Bank for International Settlements (BIS), these holdings could either be in the form of a “Gold Sight Account” or a “Gold Ear-Marked Account”, as explained here by the Bank of Japan in 2000 when it switched its gold holdings at the BIS from a gold sight account to a gold earmarked account:

“The Bank of Japan has recently transferred its claims against the Bank for International Settlements (BIS) embodied in a “Gold Sight Account” to a “Gold Ear-marked Account” with the BIS.” (July 2000)

If the Banca d’Italia’s gold holdings at the BIS are just in a sight account, then this is just a claim on a balance of gold, not a holding of specific gold bars.

It’s also surprising to me that the mainstream media have taken a significant, albeit superficial, interest in the Bundesbank’s ongoing exercise to repatriate 300 tonnes of its gold reserves from New York to Frankfurt, but zero interest in the fact that the Banca d’Italia supposedly has a huge amount of gold stored in New York that has never physically audited it and does not even see a need to repatriate it.

Banca d’Italia office in Manhattan

Like the Bundesbank,  the Banca d’Italia also maintains a representative office in New York, at 800 Third Avenue – 26th Floor, New York – NY 10022 (see representative office contact details here). The head of this representative office is Giovanni D’Intignano (see LinkedIn). Therefore, it should be very easy for the Banca d’Italia to ask the Federal Reserve Bank of New York to conduct an on-site physical gold audit of the Italian gold at the vaults of the New York Fed, all 1000 plus tonnes of it.

In fact, the Banca d’Italia also maintains another of its only 3 representative offices abroad in London at 2 Royal Exchange, London EC3V 3DG, which is right across the road from the Bank of England’s headquarters and gold vaults. It should therefore also be a simple matter for the Banca d’Italia to also organise a physical on-site audit of its gold reserves stored at the Bank of England in London, something the Bank of England has been allowing its gold storage customers to do since 2013.

Political Awakening

There has been a developing political trend recently in Italy for more transparency on the Italian gold and also calls for its ownership and title to be protected against control by outside entities.

In January 2012, Italian politican Rampelli Fabio (co-signed by Marco Marsilio) submitted some written questions to the Italian Ministry of Economy and Finance, a department headed at the time by Mario Monti (Monti was also simultaneously Italian Prime Minister at that time), asking the following questions about the Italian gold (questions 4-14567 : Italian version and English version):

“When and under what agreement or statutory provision were the storage location decisions (regarding New York, London and BIS Switzerland) taken and whether that strategic decision is still considered to serve the interests of Italy?

Who owns the gold reserves held at Palazzo Koch (in Rome) and the gold reserves held at the foreign locations?

Does Italy have full availability to the gold reserves held at the Bank of Italy and at the foreign locations?”

Even though these questions were submitted nearly 5 years ago, the official status of the questions on the parliamentary website still says “In Progress”,  suggesting that they have not been answered by the Ministry of Finance. I can find no other evidence elsewhere either that these questions were ever answered.

Senators visit Palazzo Koch vault

Three Italian senators of the political party Movimento Cinque Stelle visited the Banca d’Italia gold vaults in Rome on 31 March 2014 and are calling for the ownership of the gold to be transferred from the Banca d’Italia to the Italian public so that its control cannot be compromised. See video below of their before and after visit which was broadcast from outside the Palazzo Koch vault in Rome.

These 3 representative (in the above video) are Senator Giuseppe Vacciano, Senator Andrea Cioffi and Senator Francesco Molinari.  I do not have a direct English translation of this video, however, anyone interested can translate this page from Italian,  which was published on 3 April 2014, and features Senator Vacciano explaining the senators’ vault visit.

In his report, Vacciano confirm some interesting facts, such as that the Italian gold belongs to the Banca d’Italia and not the Italian State.  The ownership issue is also confirmed by the Banca d’Italia’s 3 page gold report (see above) which states:

“La proprietà delle riserve ufficiali è assegnata per legge alla Banca d’Italia” – (Ownership of official reserves is assigned by law to the Bank of Italy)

Unusually for a central bank, Banca d’Italia’s share capital is held by a diverse range of Italian banks and other financial institutions as well as by the Italian state

Vaccciano also confirmed that in the vault they saw some South African gold bars, many American gold bars, and “several bearing the Nazi eagle”. And in a similar way to the RAI reporter Alberto Angela, who said in 2010 that he was speechless when viewing the gold in the sacristy, Vacciano says:

from a purely human perspective, we could see with our own eyes a quantity of precious metal that goes beyond an ordinary perception … I must say that arouses feelings that are difficult to explain“.

Italian Citizens

The Italian business community and public appear to be quite aware of the importance of the country’s gold reserves. In May 2013, the World Gold Council conducted a survey of Italian business leaders and citizens which included various questions about the Italian gold reserves. The findings showed that 92% of business leaders and 85% of citizens thought that the Italian gold reserves should play an important role in Italy’s economic recovery. There was very little appetite to sell any of the gold reserves, with only 4% of both citizens and business leaders being in favour of any gold sales. Finally, 61% of the business leaders and 52% of the citizens questioned were in favour of utilising the gold reserves in some way without selling any of them. The World Gold Council interpreted this sentiment as allowing the possibility for a future Italian gold-backed bond to be issued with Italian gold as collateral. The Italian gold could thus play a role similar to that used to collateralise the international loans from West Germany to Italy in the 1970s.

Mario Draghi – Last Word

For now, the last word on the Italian goes to Draghi. Even Mario Draghi, former governor of the Banca d’Italia, and current president of the European Central Bank, has a similar view to the Italian public about not selling the Italian gold. In the video below of a 2013 answer to a question from Sprott’s Tekoa Da Silva, Draghi says that he never thought it wise to sell Italy’s gold since it acts as a ‘reserve of safety’. However, as would be expected from a smoke-and-mirrors central banker, Draghi doesn’t reveal very much beyond generalities, and certainly no details of storage locations or whether the Italian gold comprises gold receivables as well as unencumbered gold.

 

Is there any gold bullion stored at the US Mint in Denver?

Anyone with even a passing interest in US official gold reserves will probably recall that the US Treasury claims to hold its gold (8,133.5 tonnes) over four locations in continental United States, namely at three US Mint facilities in Fort Knox (Kentucky), West Point (upstate New York), Denver (Colorado), and at the New York Fed (Manhattan, New York City).

The claimed gold holding locations and summary quantities held appear in a never-changing monthly Treasury report titled “Status Report of U.S. Government Gold Reserve”.

This report states that 4,583 tonnes of US Treasury gold are stored in the US Mint’s bullion depository in Fort Knox, 1,682 tonnes at the West Point bullion storage facility, and 1,364 tonnes in the US Mint facility in Denver, for a total of 7,628 tonnes of gold. The US Treasury further claims that 418 additional tonnes of its official gold reserves are held at the Federal Reserve Bank vault in New York. An additional 87 tonnes, a working stock figure (which never changes), comprises the balance.

While Fort Knox and the NY Fed vaults regularly take the limelight in terms of volume of media coverage, and to a lesser extent the West Point vaults do so also, there is very little if anything devoted to coverage of the US Treasury gold supposedly held in Denver. It is therefore of interest that none other than the US Mint on its own website recently ceased claiming that it stores gold bullion at its Denver facility.

On August 11, 2014, the US Mint’s Denver web page contained the following statement:

“Today, the United States Mint at Denver manufactures all denominations of circulating coins, coin dies, the Denver “D” portion of the annual uncirculated coin sets and commemorative coins authorized by the U. S. Congress. It also stores gold and silver bullion.

Denver Aug 2014
US Mint – Denver page on website August 2014

Less than a month later, on September 8, 2014, the above paragraph had been subtly changed to the following, and the words ‘gold and’ had been removed:

“Today, the United States Mint at Denver manufactures all denominations of circulating coins, coin dies, the Denver “D” portion of the annual uncirculated coin sets and commemorative coins authorized by the U. S. Congress. It also stores silver bullion.

Denver Sept 2014
US Mint – Denver page on website September 2014

The amended wording remains on the Mint’s present day Denver web page i.e. with just the “It also stores silver bullion” sentence.

Denver Aug 2016
US Mint – Denver page on website August 2016

At the very least this change in wording between August and September 2014 is very unusual. Why would the Mint have authorized and made such a wording change and deleted the reference to gold bullion? I asked the US Mint to clarify but the query went unanswered:

Given that the Denver Mint does not produce any gold or silver coins, the Mint does not have a need to store either gold or silver bullion working stock in Denver, so the above wording cannot be referring to metal being stored for fabrication supplies. The only commemorative coin produced in Denver is an uncirculated clad half dollar made of copper and nickel.  While the above change of wording on the US Mint’s website could have an entirely different explanation, it does raise the possibility that there isn’t any US Treasury gold bullion stored in Denver. This possibility would also subscribe to a view that has been expressed for quite some time now by well-known gold author and commentator James Rickards. Since at least 2010, and probably prior to that, Rickards seems to think that the US gold reserves are nearly exclusively stored at West Point and Fort Knox. Some tweets of his illustrate the point:   

This view, that the US gold is kept at West Point and Fort Knox, actually makes quite a lot of practical sense and is entirely logical. It also makes Denver look like the odd man out.

The US Mint facilities at Fort Knox and West Point are located adjacent to US military installations, namely the US Army base, Fort Knox, and the US Military Academy, West Point. The Fort Knox bullion depository, which opened in 1936, was actually built on land that was previously part of the Fort Knox military base, and that had been deeded to the Treasury Department. The West Point bullion facility, which opened two years later in 1938, was built on land formerly occupied by the West Point military facility, and that had also been deeded to the Treasury Department.

Having large quantities of gold stored in facilities next door to US military facilities is a natural security advantage for protection and also as a deterrent against any would be gold heists. In contrast, the US Mint facility in Denver is located on a city block at 320 West Colfax Avenue, between Delaware St and Cherokee St. It’s near a court-house and a police station but no sign of any US military facilities in the immediate vicinity.

Denver 3D
US Mint Denver facility
Denver 3D2
US Mint Denver rear view

The US Mint in Denver is also the odd one out (of the three) in that it offers public tours of the facility, something unheard of at Fort Knox and West Point. Arguably, the NYFed offers a gold vault tour, but out of US Mint facilities that the Treasury claims to store gold at, Denver is the only one with a public tour. The supposed location of the gold vaults in Denver is also a complete mystery with no photos or images of any vaults or contents of vaults (as far as I can see) ever on the web. A review of the Denver Mint tour (here) mentions supposed gold storage in the lower decks of the building but this seems to be merely supposition as it is inferring that 3 gold bars on display in Denver came from the building’s vaults. However, they did not. These three gold bars actually came from West Point, as CoinWeek stated in May 2012:

“Denver Mint plant manager David Croft pointed out that the three bars were shipped in from the U.S. Mint’s working gold supply at West Point and did not come from the gold that is in deep storage in Denver.

Which begs the question, why? The US Mint would probably answer, so as not to ‘break the seals’ on the Denver vault doors, but this shipping of 3 gold bars from upstate New York to Denver would seem completely unnecessary if Denver was storing  a couple of tonnes of gold, let alone 1,362 tonnes. The more accurate answer may be that the US gold, if it even exists to the extent to which the US Treasury claims, is held adjacent to US military bases at West Point and Fort Knox. 

GLD Sponsor dodges disclosure details of Bank of England sub-custodian in latest SEC filing

In a July 11 BullionStar article, “SPDR Gold Trust gold bars at the Bank of England vaults”, I highlighted that the SPDR Gold Trust (GLD), in it’s Q1 2016 filing to the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), disclosed that during the January – March 2016 quarter, the GLD custodian HSBC had employed the Bank of England as a sub-custodian to hold some of the Trust’s gold bars, and that the largest quantity of gold that the Bank of England had held on behalf of GLD during the January – March 2016 period was 29 tonnes.

Note that the financial year-end for the SPDR Gold Trust is 30 September each year, so that its Q1 is October – December, its Q2 is January to March, its Q3 is April – June, and its Q4 is July – September with a year-end at the end of September.

The GLD disclosure for the calendar first quarter of 2016, which revealed details of sub-custodians that the SPDR Gold Trust uses, had begun to appear in the 10-Q filing specifically at the behest of the SEC, which on 29 March 2016 had sent a letter to the GLD Sponsor, World Gold Trust Services, directing the Sponsor to:

In future Exchange Act periodic reports, to the extent material, please disclose the amount of the Trust’s assets that are held by subcustodians.

The letter was sent to World Gold Trust Services by the SEC’s Senior Attorney Office of Real Estate and Commodities, Kim McManus.

To Recap, for the quarter ended 31 March 2016, (which is the SPDR Gold Trust’s Q2), the 10-Q report stated:

“Subcustodians held no gold on behalf of the Trust as of March 31, 2016. During the quarter ended March 31, 2016, the greatest amount of gold held by subcustodians was approximately 29 tonnes or approximately 3.8% of the Trust’s gold at such date. The Bank of England held that gold as subcustodian.

I also pointed out in my previous article that:

Note that the wording of the 10-Q is such that it does not preclude the possibility that the Bank of England also held GLD gold at other times during Q1 2016, since it states “the greatest amount of gold” that the Bank of England held for the Trust was 29 tonnes. This implies that the Bank of England vaults could, at other times during Q1, have held less than 29 tonnes of gold on behalf of GLD.

My early July article also documented that:

“The second quarter saw a 15 tonne shrinkage of GLD’s gold holdings in April, but a very large 64.5 tonne increase in May, and a 81.4 tonne increase in June, making for a Q2 increase in GLD’s gold bar holdings of 130.77 tonnes. Very large 1-day gold bar additions occurred on 24 and 27 June (18.4 tonnes and 13 tonnes respectively). Overall, that’s 307 tonnes added to GLD in the first half of 2016.”

Finally, I also looked forward to the release of the 2nd calendar quarter 10-Q filing with the SEC, saying:

“The SPDR Gold Trust 10-Q for the 2nd quarter of 2016 will be filed with the SEC in about 3 weeks time, at the end of JulyWith the continuing large inflows into GLD in Q2 2016 it will be interesting to see whether the name of Bank of England as subcustodian of GLD reappears in the Q2 filing?”

As it turns out, the Sponsor of the SPDR Gold Trust, World Gold Trust Services, which is a fully owned subsidiary of the World Gold Council, and which is responsible for compiling and submitting GLD quarterly and annual financial reports, actually filed its latest GLD 10-Q report (for the 3 months to June 30, 2016) on 2 August 2016, a few days later than it usually would do for a quarterly report.

BoE-Gold

Smoke and Mirrors

Quite shockingly and in my opinion misleadingly, this latest GLD 10-Q filing only says the following about sub-custodians:

“Subcustodians held no gold on behalf of the Trust as of June 30, 2016. During the nine months ended June 30, 2016, the greatest amount of gold held by subcustodians was approximately 29 tonnes or approximately 3.8% of the Trust’s gold at such date. The Bank of England held that gold as subcustodian.

This 10-Q report is signed by the CEO and CFO of WORLD GOLD TRUST SERVICES, LLC, Sponsor of the SPDR® Gold Trust, namely:

  • Aram Shishmanian, Principal Executive Officer (CEO)
  •  Samantha McDonald, Principal Financial and Accounting Officer (CFO)

In my opinion the latest sub-custodian statement by World Gold Trust Services is misleading in its entirety, as well as being evasive and disingenuous. By failing to address the quarter ended June 30 2016, the World Gold Trust Service CEO and CFO are avoiding disclosure of the quantity of gold that was held by subcustodians of the GLD during April, May and June 2016. Recall the ordinance from the SEC on 29 March:

In future Exchange Act periodic reports, to the extent material, please disclose the amount of the Trust’s assets that are held by subcustodians.

This latest 10-Q statement is not in compliance with the SEC’s directive. It also goes against the spirit of the SEC’s request – since it doesn’t address the holdings of sub-custodian during the quarter that’s being reported on, i.e. the April to June 2016 period. The language used in the latest 10-Q seems to conveniently circumvent the SEC’s disclosure request by using evasive phraseology.

For example, what if the Bank of England as GLD subcustodian held 28 tonnes or 20 tonnes of gold bars on a particular day during the second quarter of 2016, would  Aram Shishmanian and Samantha McDonald not consider this material enough to tell the SEC about. That’s what their signed statement would suggest. More importantly, what would the SEC think about such a non-divulgence of a 28 tonne or 20 tonne sub-custodied position during any day of the April to June 2016 period, when it had specifically asked to be informed of such occurrences via the 10-Q filing? Recall that there were very large increases in GLD’s holdings during May and June, and some huge one-day increases in GLD gold bar holdings on 24 June (18.4 tonnes) and 27 June  (13 tonnes).

SEC

Side by Side Comparison

Let’s take the latest quarter and previous quarter sub-custodian statements and compare them side by side.  For the quarter ended March 31,  2016, the 10-Q report said:

“Subcustodians held no gold on behalf of the Trust as of March 31, 2016. During the quarter ended March 31, 2016, the greatest amount of gold held by subcustodians was approximately 29 tonnes or approximately 3.8% of the Trust’s gold at such date. The Bank of England held that gold as subcustodian.”

 For the quarter ended June 30, 2016, the 10-Q report said:

“Subcustodians held no gold on behalf of the Trust as of June 30, 2016. During the nine months ended June 30, 2016, the greatest amount of gold held by subcustodians was approximately 29 tonnes or approximately 3.8% of the Trust’s gold at such date. The Bank of England held that gold as subcustodian.”

The very fact that the WGTS CEO and CFO revert to repeating a statement that was issued in the previous quarterly report and that applied to the first quarter of 2016, i.e. the statement in red above, shows that they are implicitly evading disclosure of new information from the April to June period. The statement in red is also irrelevant since it had already been disclosed in the previous 10-Q. By bundling it up and referring to the nine months ended June 30 2016, this smoke and mirrors tactic becomes obvious.

Given that it was only on March 29, 2016 that the SEC requested that WGTS disclose sub-custodian information, and that it requested “In future Exchange Act periodic reports … please disclose“ also underscores that the first three months of the nine-month period (i.e. October 2015 – December 2015) are irrelevant, and again highlights the deceptive nature of using a nine month time-frame in the latest statement. The SEC never asked for a disclosure about Q1 (October – December), just for disclosures about the quarters going forward.

Furthermore, the previous quarter disclosure specifically referred to “the quarter ended March 31, 2016”, and not the ‘six months’ ended March 31 2016. So why change the duration reporting to a “nine months ended June 30 2016” phraseology when it was previously a “quarter ended” phraseology? By moving to this ‘nine months’ misleading reporting device, it conveniently masks the disclosure of any sub-custodian details that might be applicable to the April – June quarter, such as Bank of England sub-custodianship of gold bars held within the SPDR Gold Trust.

And furthermore still, if you look at the latest 10-Q you will see that all of the other reporting in the 10-Q, such as financial highlights, divulges full data for three and nine month periods ended June 30, 2016. For example:

“Financial Highlights:

The Trust is presenting the following financial highlights related to investment performance and operations of a Share outstanding for the three and nine month periods ended June 30, 2016 and 2015.”

Therefore, the  financials in the latest 10-Q follow a reporting format of both 3 months and 9 months, but the WGTS does not see fit to report a statement about sub-custodian holdings during the latest 3 month period. This is inconsistent reporting and again points to a desire not to address sub-custodian activity during April – June 2016, specifically at the Bank of England.

Given that the revelation in the previous 10-Q report about the Bank of England being a sub-custodian of the SPDR Gold Trust was quite substantial news, surely the GLD Sponsor would want to address this topic in its subsequent 10-Q, even if it was to say that no GLD gold whatsoever passed through the Bank of England during the April – June period? However, it appears that they chose to construct and craft a selection of words through which to avoid addressing the issue.

Omission of Facts

Each 10-Q report submitted by World Gold Trust Services includes a number of appendices, one of which is an Exhibit 31.1, which is known as the “Certification of Chief Executive Officer, Pursuant to Rule 13a-14(a) AND 15d-14(a), Under the Securities Exchange Act of 1934, as Amended”. For the latest GLD 10-Q, this Exhibit 31.1 includes the statement that:

“I, Aram Shishmanian [WGTS CEO], certify that:

Based on my knowledge, this report does not contain any untrue statement of a material fact or omit to state a material fact necessary to make the statements made, in light of the circumstances under which such statements were made, not misleading with respect to the period covered by this report.

I would contend to the above certification, that the latest GLD 10-Q report does omit a statement of a material fact, i.e. disclosure of sub-custodians’ holdings as obligated by the SEC to disclose, or in the SEC’s words “the amount of the Trust’s assets that are held by subcustodians”; and that by omitting this information, the latest 10-Q report is “misleading with respect to the period covered”, which is the 3 months from 1 April 2016 to 30 June 2016.

The statement about sub-custodians in the latest 10-Q does not cover the period covered, i.e April – June 2016. It covers a nine month period. If none of the SPDR Gold Trust’s gold bars were held by sub-custodians during the April – June period, then why not say so?

Conclusion

It would be very interesting to see what the SEC thinks of this latest lack of disclosure from WGTS. It surely will raise some eyebrows at the SEC, since this is not what the SEC intended when it stated in its March 29 letter to WGTS that:

“Since the company and its management are in possession of all facts relating to a company’s disclosure, they are responsible for the accuracy and adequacy of the disclosures they have made.”

It also goes against the spirit of the request from the SEC’s Kim McManus, Senior Attorney Office of Real Estate and Commodities in her 29 March letter, and the promise by World Gold Trust Services’ CFO Samantha McDonald in her March 30, 2016 signed reply to the SEC that:

“We will, to the extent material, disclose in future periodic reports the amount of the Trust’s assets that are held by subcustodians”

I will contact WGTS directly and ask for their opinion on the above, and whatever response is received, if any, I will update readers via this forum.

Austrian Mint sells 41 tonnes of gold coins and gold bars in 2015

Earlier this year, the director of marketing and sales at the Austrian Mint confirmed to Bloomberg in an interview that the Mint’s combined gold bar and gold coin sales in 2015 had totalled 1.32 million troy ounces, a 45% increase on 2014, while the Mint’s silver sales in 2015 had reached 7.3 million ounces, a figure 58% higher than in 2014.

Since Münze Österreich, or the Austrian Mint in English, only publishes its annual report in July of each year, we had to wait a few months to see the granular details behind these sales numbers. Now that the Austrian Mint’s 2015 Annual Report has been published, the detailed sales figures are as follows.

Gold Philharmonics – 23.5 tonnes

In 2015, the Austrian Mint sold 756,200 troy ounces (23.52 tonnes) of Vienna Philharmonic gold coins, of which 647,100 troy ounces (20.18 tonnes) were in the form of its flagship 1 oz Vienna Philharmonics, with the remainder comprising ½ oz, ¼ oz, 1/10 oz and 1/25 oz gold Philharmonic coins, as well as a handful of the Mint’s very large 20 oz gold Philharmonics. Gold Philharmonic sales in 2015 were 56% higher than comparable sales of 483,700 ozs in 2014, and were also higher than 2013’s figure of 652,600 ozs.

Vienna coins
Sales of the Vienna Mint’s flagship 1 oz gold Philharmonic accounted for the lion’s share of gold coin sales

Philharmonic gold coin sales in 2015 were the third best year on record, just slightly lower than 2008’s total sales of 795,000 ozs, but still well short of 2009’s bumper sales total of 1,036,000 ozs, when that year’s finanical crisis was in full flight.

Aus AU Phil
Source: www.goldchartsrus.com

Gold Bars – 16.3 tonnes

Turning to gold bars, the Mint sold 524,722 troy ounces (16.32 tonnes) of its branded gold bars in 2015, over half of which comprised sales of 1 kg, 500 gram and 250 gram gold bars. The 2015 gold bar sales were nearly 28% higher than 2014 gold bar sales of 410,300 ozs, but slightly less than 2013’s comparable sales of  711,200 ozs.

Vienna bars
The Mint’s larger bars were the most popular in terms of total gold output

In addition to gold Philharmonic coins and gold bars, the Austrian Mint also produces a series of historic re-strikes of original Austrian circulation gold coins in the form of gold ducats, gold guilders and gold crowns. In 2015, sales of these gold re-strike coins, mostly ducats, accounted for 37,700 troy ounces of gold (1.17 tonnes), which was a 128% increase on the previous year’s sales of 16,500 ozs.

Overall, in 2015, the Austrian Mint sold gold coins (Philharmonics and historic coins) and gold bars containing 1,318,700 ozs (41 tonnes) of gold. In 2015, the gold Vienna Philharmonic’s largest markets were Europe followed by Japan and North America, and notably the gold Philharmonic was the best-selling major gold bullion coin in both the European and the Japanese markets.

Aus AU
Source: www.goldchartsrus.com

Looking at the long-term chart above, you can see that total gold sales (by volume) at the Austrian Mint during 2015 were noticeably higher than in 2014 and approached the gold sales figures of 2013, however they were still below the multi-year high sales figures from 2008, 2009 and 2011. Notice also that for the last 8 years there has been a trend of the Austrian Mint’s gold sales following a high one year, lower the next year pattern, possibly due to risk on / risk off sentiment among gold investors depending on how the general financial markets were performing.

Silver Philharmonics – Strong North American sales

As the Austrian Mint does not fabricate silver bars, the Mint’s silver bullion sales are exclusively from the silver coins it produces, specifically the 1 ounce silver Vienna Philharmonic coin. In 2015, the Mint sold 7.3 million silver bullion coins containing 227 tonnes of silver. The largest markets for the Mint’s silver coin sales in 2015 were North America, followed by Europe. Silver sales in 2015 were also notable in that it was the first time that the Mint’s silver coins sales in the North American market surpassed those in Europe. Looking at a long-term chart of Austrian Mint silver sales, you can see that 2015 was a year of recovery following relatively low sales in 2014, which was partially due to an increase in VAT on silver sales in Germany in 2014.

Aus AG
Source: www.goldshartsrus.com

The Mint’s silver coin range also includes historic re-strikes of a Maria Theresa Taler coin in uncirculated and proof editions. These coins contain 23.39 grams of pure silver (approximately 0.2 tonnes). These coin sales are classified separately from silver bullion coin sales and their sales are quite minimal. In 2015, sales of these Taler coins reached 9,777 pieces, slightly down on 2014’s sales of 11,470 pieces.

Gold Bullion Sales Drove Total Revenues

In terms of Austrian Mint revenues, gold bullion coins (gold Philharmonics) generated revenues of  €788.9 million in 2015, up 70% on 2014’s €464.2 million. Gold Philharmonics were also 48.5% of total Mint revenues in 2015. Gold bar revenues of €547.3 million were 40% higher than in 2014, and accounted for another 34% of all Mint revenues. Silver coin sales in 2015 reached €111.3 million, 58% higher than in 2014. Adding revenues from gold coin re-strikes of €40.4 million, the total revenues from gold and silver coin products reached €1.37 billion, which was 84.7% of total Mint revenues for 2015.

Aus rev
Gold coin and gold bar revenues account for over 80% of  the Mint’s total revenues

In terms of revenues, annual gold sales at the Austrian Mint are far higher than its silver sales. In volume terms, the Austrian Mint also produces more gold products than its counterparts but far less silver products than its counterparts. So the Austrian Mint could be said to be a gold specialist.

For example, in 2015, and just looking at bullion coin sales, the US Mint sold gold bullion coins (American Eagles and American Buffalos) containing 31.8 tonnes of gold, but silver bullion coins (predominantly American Eagles) containing 1,495 tonnes of silver. Likewise, in 2015, the Royal Canadian Mint sold gold bullion coins (gold Maple Leafs) containing 29.6 tonnes of gold, and silver bullion coins (silver Maple Leafs) containing 1067 tonnes of silver.

Based on 2015 volumes sold of 227 tonnes of silver coins and 24.69 tonnes of gold coins, the Austrian Mint had a silver coin sales to gold coin sales ratio of only 9.19, whereas comparable ratios for the US Mint and Royal Canadian Mint were 47 and 36, respectively.

Non-bullion revenue at the Austrian Mint is generated by activities such as producing Euro circulation coins, and producing semi-finished products and medals. Non-bullion revenues accounted for €248 million or approximately 15% of total Mint revenues during 2015. Interestingly though, although the Mint does not report the geographic origin of its revenues on a segmented basis, it does report the share of revenue derived in Austria vs derived outside Austria. For 2015, €1.258 billion in revenue was generated in Austria vs €360.6 million internationally, meaning that international markets contributed only 22.3% of Mint revenues.

Therefore, the domestic Austrian market is still the Mint’s primary market in terms of bullion sales. In one way this is not surprising because the Austrian population has a very strong appetite for gold coin and gold bar products, especially gold products from the Austrian Mint in Vienna. The Mint’s gold coins and bars are sold widely throughout Austria in banks such as Bank Austria, the Raiffeisen banks, the Steiermärkische Sparkasse savings banks and through the Erste Bank und Sparkassen group, as well as through the retail branches of gold bullion wholesalers such as Schoeller Muenzhande, which is a fully owned subsidiary of the Austrian Mint. See BullionStar Gold University’s profile of the Austrian Gold Market for more details on the vast network of Austrian bank and wholesalers that sell physical gold coins and bars.

For further information on the sales patterns of the world’s largest precious metals mints, please see BullionStar blog “Bullion coin sales boost revenues of world’s largest Mints“.

SPDR Gold Trust gold bars at the Bank of England vaults

One of the most notable developments accompanying the gold price rally of 2016 has been the very large additions to the gold bar holdings of the major physically backed gold Exchange Traded Funds (ETFs). This is especially true of the SPDR Gold Trust (ticker GLD).

The gold bar holdings of the SPDR Gold Trust peaked at 1353 tonnes on 7 December 2012 before experiencing a precipitous fall in 2013, and additional and continued shrinkage throughout 2014 and 2015. On 17 December 2015, the gold holdings of the SPDR Gold Trust hit a multi-year low of 630 tonnes, a holdings level that had not been seen since September 2008.

GLD 5 year
SPDR Gold Trust – 5 year chart of gold holdings and gold price. Black line – gold holdings in tonnes. Source: http://www.goldchartsrus.com

By 31 December 2015, GLD ‘only’ held 642 tonnes of gold bars. See above chart. Then as the New Year kicked off in January 2016, something dramatic happened. The SPDR Gold Trust began expanding its gold holdings again, and noticeably so. By 31 March 2016, the Trust held 819 tonnes of gold bars, and by 30 June 2016, it held 950 tonnes of gold bars. The latest figure at time of writing is 981 tonnes of gold bars as of 8 July 2016. (Source: GLD Gold holdings spreadsheet).

This is a year-to-date net change of 338.89 extra tonnes of gold bars being held within the SPDR Gold Trust. See chart below. That’s a 52.8% increase compared to the quantity of gold bars the Trust held at the end of 2015, and a phenomenal amount of gold by any means, since it’s over 10% of annual new mine supply, and also a larger quantity of gold than all but the world’s largest central banks hold in their official gold reserves. Where is all of this gold being sourced from? That is the billion dollar question. Some is obviously being imported from Swiss refineries, but perhaps not all of it.

GLD 6 months
SPDR Gold Trust – 6 month chart of gold holdings and gold price. Black line – gold holdings in tonnes. Source: http://www.goldchartsrus.com

In January 2016, 26.8 tonnes of gold bars were added to the SPDR Gold Trust, while a massive 108 tonnes of gold bars were added in February 2016. The first quarter was rounded off with an additional 42 tonnes of gold bars added in March, bringing the Q1 additions held by GLD’s gold custodian HSBC London to 176.91 tonnes of gold bars. Noticeably, some large 1-day increases in GLD’s gold bar holdings occurred on 1 February (over 12 tonnes), 11 February (over 14 tonnes), 19 and 22 February (over 19 tonnes each day), and 29th February (nearly 15 tonnes), and also on 17 and 18 March (11.9 tonnes of gold bars added each day).

The second quarter saw a 15 tonne shrinkage of GLD’s gold holdings in April, but a very large 64.5 tonne increase in May, and a 81.4 tonne increase in June, making for a Q2 increase in GLD’s gold bar holdings of 130.77 tonnes. Very large 1-day gold bar additions occurred on 24 and 27 June (18.4 tonnes and 13 tonnes respectively). Overall, that’s 307 tonnes added to GLD in the first half of 2016.

Adding the 31.2 tonne addition for July to date gives the 338.89 tonnes addition figure quoted above. Most of this was due to a large 1-day inflow of 28.81 tonnes of gold bars reported on 5 July.

SEC – Reveal the subcustodians

I have detailed the above GLD gold bar holding changes to provide some background and put more color on the important discussion which follows.

While looking through SEC filings of the SPDR Gold Trust last month, I came across some interesting correspondence between the SEC and the sponsor of the SPDR Gold Trust, World Gold Trust Services. World Gold Trust Services is a fully owned subsidiary of the World Gold Council (WGC).

On 29 March 2016, the US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) sent a letter to the SPDR Gold Trust (c/o World Gold Trust Services, LLC) essentially telling the SPDR Gold Trust to in future specify in its SEC filings the identities of the sub-custodians that are storing any of the Trust’s gold bar holdings during each reporting period. The SEC’s letter stated:

“We understand that the Custodian may appoint one or more subcustodians to hold the Trust’s gold and that the Custodian currently uses a number of subcustodians, identified on page 18. You also outline risks that may arise in connection with the use of subcustodians. In future Exchange Act periodic reports, to the extent material, please disclose the amount of the Trust’s assets that are held by subcustodians.

The page 18 referred to by the SEC is page 18 of the annual 10-K filing of the SPDR Gold Trust for the year ended 30 September 2015, which includes the following paragraph:

The Custodian is authorized to appoint from time to time one or more subcustodians to hold the Trust’s gold until it can be transported to the Custodian’s vault. The subcustodians that the Custodian currently uses are the Bank of England, The Bank of Nova Scotia-ScotiaMocatta, Barclays Bank PLC, JPMorgan Chase Bank and UBS AG.

In accordance with LBMA practices and customs, the Custodian does not have written custody agreements with the subcustodians it selects. The Custodian’s selected subcustodians may appoint further subcustodians. These further subcustodians are not expected to have written custody agreements with the Custodian’s subcustodians that selected them. The lack of such written contracts could affect the recourse of the Trust and the Custodian against any subcustodian in the event a subcustodian does not use due care in the safekeeping of the Trust’s gold. See “Risk Factors—The ability of the Trustee and the Custodian to take legal action against subcustodians may be limited.”

LBMA above refers to London Bullion Market Association. Note that the SPDR Gold Trust prospectus defines subcustodian as:

“SUB-CUSTODIAN means a sub-custodian, agent or depository (including an entity within our corporate group) selected by us to perform any of our duties under this agreement including the custody and safekeeping of Bullion.”

The SEC letter was addressed to William Rhind who was CEO of World Gold Trust Services, but who actually had resigned as CEO on 9 February 2016, something the SEC should have known since the resignation statement was also filed with the SEC. After receiving the SEC’s correspondence, Samantha McDonald, CFO of World Gold Trust Services, responded by letter to the SEC the next day, 30 March 2016, confirming that:

We will, to the extent material, disclose in future periodic reports the amount of the Trust’s assets that are held by subcustodians. Please be advised that during fiscal 2015, no gold was held by subcustodians on behalf of Trust.

Note that filings with the US SEC use the naming convention 10-K for an annual filing, and 10-Q for a quarterly filing.

Following the stipulation from the SEC to World Gold Trust Services telling it to reveal its subcustodian holdings, its intriguing to note that when SPDR Gold Trust filed its next 10-Q on 29 April 2016 for the quarter ended 31 March 2016, page 15 of this filing revealed that the Bank of England, as subcustodian, had, during Q1 2016, held up to 29 tonnes of gold on behalf of the SPDR Gold Trust. The relevant section of page 15 stated the following:

“As at March 31, 2016, the Custodian held 26,484,117 ounces of gold on behalf of the Trust in its vault, 100% of which is allocated gold in the form of London Good Delivery gold bars including gold payable, with a market value of $32,760,852,177 (cost — $32,291,685,964) based on the LBMA Gold Price PM on March 31, 2016. Subcustodians held no gold on behalf of the Trust as of March 31, 2016.

During the quarter ended March 31, 2016, the greatest amount of gold held by subcustodians was approximately 29 tonnes or approximately 3.8% of the Trust’s gold at such date. The Bank of England held that gold as subcustodian.

As at September 30, 2015, the Custodian held 21,995,797 ounces of gold in its vault 100% of which is allocated gold in the form of London Good Delivery gold bars including gold payable, with a market value of $24,503,317,923 (cost — $27,103,546,125). Subcustodians held nil ounces of gold in their vaults on behalf of the Trust.”

Some Facts

From the above revelations, some facts can be stated:

  • The Bank of England held a maximum of 29 tonnes of gold on behalf of the SPDR Gold Trust on some date during Q1 2016.

Note that the wording of the 10-Q is such that it does not preclude the possibility that the Bank of England also held GLD gold at other times during Q1 2016, since it states “the greatest amount of gold” that the Bank of England held for the Trust was 29 tonnes. This implies that the Bank of England vaults could, at other times during Q1, have held less than 29 tonnes of gold on behalf of GLD.

  • As per the initial WGTS response to the SEC dated 30 March 2016, no gold was held by HSBC’s subcustodians on behalf of GLD throughout fiscal 2015 (1st October 2014 – 30 September 2015). Furthermore, GLD’s 10-Q to 31 December 2015 states that

To this can be added that according to the SPDR Gold Trust’s 10-Q for Q4 2015, “as at December 31, 2015…Subcustodians held nil ounces of gold in their vaults on behalf of the Trust

The GLD 10K (annual) for the year to 30 September 2015, filed on 24 November 2015, also contains a few statements addressing whether gold was held by subcustodians on year-end dates in 2014 and 2013. However, it states that subcustodians did not hold gold on behalf of the SPDR Gold Trust on these two dates. Page 44 states:

As at September 30, 2014, the Custodian held 24,867,158 ounces of gold in its vault 100% of which is allocated gold in the form of London Good Delivery gold bars including gold payable, with a market value of $30,250,898,159 (cost — $30,728,152,437). Subcustodians did not hold any gold in their vaults on behalf of the Trust.”

As at September 30, 2013, the Custodian held 29,244,351 ounces in its vault 100% of which is allocated gold in the form of London Good Delivery gold bars including gold payable, with a market value of $38,792,631,793 (cost — $35,812,777,235). Subcustodians did not hold any gold in their vaults on behalf of the Trust.”

How did Bank of England suddenly become a GLD subcustodian in Q1 2016?

As a member of London Precious Metals Clearing Limited (LPMCL), HSBC maintains gold bullion account facilities at the Bank of England which can be used within its LPMCL gold clearing role. All 6 LPMCL bullion bank members hold gold accounts at the Bank of England. The 6 LPMCL members can also all call on each other for physical delivery of gold and allocation of gold. All of these bullion banks except ICBC Standard are also Authorized Participants (APs) of GLD, i.e. Barclays, HSBC, JP Morgan, Scotia, and UBS. Other AP’s of GLD include entities of Credit Suisse, Goldman Sachs, Merrill Lynch and Morgan Stanley. Many of these bullion banks are also LBMA market makers in gold.

My view is that quite a number of other bullion banks that are members of the LBMA also hold gold accounts at the Bank of England, such as BNP Paribas, Natixis, SocGen and Standard Chartered, otherwise they would not be able to engage in the gold borrowing activities that they are on record of engaging in. If this is the case, then gold bars can easily be moved from central bank accounts at the Bank of England to bullion bank gold accounts at the Bank of England and vice-versa. Only APs of GLD are allowed to create baskets of GLD securities. This creation process requires that when GLD baskets created, APs have to deliver physical gold bars to HSBC.

There are therefore a number of  possibilities to explain how the Bank of England ended up being a sub-custodian for GLD in Q1 2016.

  1. An AP(s) had gold bars stored at the Bank of England, and delivered these gold bars to HSBC at the Bank of England in fulfillment of the GLD share creation process
  1. An AP(s) had an unallocated credit balance of gold with a LPMCL clearer or other entity which had gold stored at Bank of England or access to gold at the Bank of England, and as part of the clearing process the AP converted unallocated credit balances into allocated gold bars held at the Bank of England and delivered these gold bars to HSBC.
  1. An AP(s) borrowed gold from a central bank which had gold bars stored at the Bank of England and delivered these gold bars to HSBC as part of the GLD basket creation process.

The quantity of 29 tonnes is a lot of gold for an Authorized Participant or group of APs to have un-utilised in a vault at the Bank of England. It’s about 2320 large Good Delivery gold bars. Likewise, 29 tonnes is a lot of gold bars for LPMCL members to have as a clearing float at the Bank of England.

Furthermore, if an AP had acquired newly refined gold from a refinery with the intention of delivering it to HSBC as part of the GLD security creation process, why would this gold be delivered to the Bank of England vaults, and not directly to the HSBC vault? It would be more practical to have delivered that gold straight to the HSBC vault.

Therefore, its plausible that at least some of the gold being held by the Bank of England as sub-custodian on behalf of the SPDR Gold Trust was sourced from gold borrowed from central bank gold holdings at the Bank of England.

Bullion Bars Database

There is further support for borrowed gold bars being held by the SPDR Gold Trust during Q1 2016.

Warren James maintains a database of the identities of the gold bars held in the GLD over time which allows comparisons between the gold bullion coming in and out of the GLD. Each bar has a unique signature based on its brand, serial number, and weight. Gold bars coming into the SPDR Gold Trust can be tracked based on whether these bars were previously held in the Trust or whether they are bars coming in that have never been held by the Trust before. When a bar returns to the list after it was previously held but disappeared from the holdings, it’s called dark bullion since its identity is familiar but it’s not known where the bar has been since it left the GLD and re-entered.

Up until 10 February 2016, the percentage of dark bullion bars re-entering GLD that had previously been held by the Trust was about 30% of the inflows. As the inflows into GLD rose sharply from the second half of February, dark bullion entering GLD essentially stopped and nearly all of the bars being added to GLD were bars that had never been held by GLD before. These inflows were a combination of newly refined gold and older bars which are no longer produced. For example, gold bars coming into GLD in February 2016 have included hundreds of bars from the US Assay Offices and Mints, AGR Matthey, Johnson Matthey Plc (Royston), the Australian Branch Royal Mint – Perth, Engelhard, Kazzinc etc, all of which are no longer produced.

The fact that a large amount of older gold bars arrived into GLD from the second half of February onwards would suggest that these bars came long-held holdings in the vaults of the Bank of England, and consisted of borrowed central bank gold.

Some Questions

All of the above poses a number of questions:

  • If this known 29 tonnes of gold was held by the Bank of England as subcustodian for GLD during Q1 2016 but not held by the Bank of England as subcustodian at the end of March 2016, did it physically leave the Bank of England vaults, or was it just transferred to HSBC’s account at the Bank of England?

Note that nothing in the SEC filing rules or directives compels WGTS to specify if the GLD custodian HSBC is holding gold outside its own vaults, so in my view its possible that gold is held by HSBC on behalf of the SPDR Gold Trust at the Bank of England. Indeed, its possible that HSBC even leases vault space in the Bank of England vaults, a sub-leased vault facility. If the HSBC London gold vault is indeed in the location that’s documented here (HSBC’s London Gold Vault: Is this Gold’s Secret Hiding Place?), then it would appear that it’s not big enough to accommodate the entire gold bar holdings of GLD and all other HSBC customers’ gold, especially when GLD holding are and were over 900 tonnes.

  • Since the Bank of England didn’t hold any gold as subcustodian for GLD in fiscal 2015, but did in Q1 2016, how much of these large inflows of gold into GLD in Q1 and Q2 and July this year (documented above) involved metal stored in vaults at the Bank of England? And what changed in the London Gold Market to require gold held at the Bank of England to suddenly be needed to fulfill GLD gold delivery obligations?
  • Why are LBMA practices and customs so lax that it allows HSBC the custodian, not to have written custody agreements with the subcustodians. Surely the US SEC should have picked up on this?
  • Why did the SEC not ask iShares (IAU (which has 3 custodians) and ETF Securities to also alter their SEC filings to reveal subcustodians’ holdings. And for that matter why did the SEC not ask iShares to amend its disclosures to specify subcustodians in the Silver ETF – SLV.
  •  Why do central banks never publish gold bar lists detailing the serial numbers of their bars, and why is the Bank of England so against allowing central banks to do so. There are a number of FOIA requests (including one I made) providing evidence of the Bank of England’s refusal to allow central banks to publish weight lists / bar lists. Could it be that they do not want data on gold bar serial numbers entering the public domain as it would then show that leased and swapped gold is being held by commercial gold ETFs?

Audits of the SPDR Gold Trust’s gold bars

The SPDR Gold Trust ‘s gold bar holdings are physically audited twice per year. A partial physical audit is conducted in February/March of each year, and a full physical audit of the bars is done in September of each year. The current auditor is Inspectorate International Limited. In September 2015, Inspectorate conducted the 2015 full count of the Trust’s gold bullion held by the custodian HSBC London. That audit counted  54,807 London Good Delivery gold bars at the “London Vaults of HSBC Bank USA National Association”.  Note that the official custodian of the SPDR Gold Trust changed from HSBC Bank USA to HSBC Bank Plc in late 2014, so this audit should really state HSBC Bank Plc.

Inspectorate then conducted a random sample count audit in early Mach 2016 at the “London Vaults of HSBC Bank Plc” based on a date of 19 February 2016. As of that date, the “account (GLD) held title to 56,913 London Good Delivery, large Gold Bars“. However, this audit was “a statistically random count of 16,493 bars of gold”, based upon the gold inventory as at 19 February 2016, and it was carried out between 29 February and 11 March “at the Custodian’s premises“.

Given that the Bank of England acted as a subcustodian to the SPDR Gold Trust during Q1 2016,  the question arises as to whether  all of the other 40,420 (56,913 – 16,493) bars were at the “Custodian’s premises” during the audit,  or were some of these other bars being held in the Bank of England vaults. It’s not clear why a random sample of 16,493 bars (about 206 tonnes, and 29% of the total holding) was chosen, but it’s about 2/7ths of the gold bars held by GLD.

There is no mention of the Bank of England in Inspectorate’s latest audit report. However, there is nothing to say that some of GLD’s bars were not in the Bank of England at the time of the audit. The audit doesn’t say so one way or the other, and the way its worded means that it doesn’t say all of the inventory is at HSBC’s vault, just that the audit was conducted at HSBC’s vault.

Conclusion

Central banks continue to report leased and swapped gold (gold receivables) as an asset on their balance sheets. This accounting fiction, which doesn’t follow any international accounting standards is a sleight of hand that allows the same gold to appear to be in two places at once. If gold bars that have been leased from central banks are being held in the SPDR Gold Trust, then these gold bars are being double-counted, and GLD shareholders should be made aware that the Trust is holding gold that has been ultimately borrowed from central banks. Using borrowed central bank in an ETF doesn’t put the ETF on the hook, since the ETF owns this gold. But it does mean that the bullion banks will need to return the equivalent amount of borrowed gold to the lending central bank from other sources. Importantly though, this type of activity will overstate the amount of gold held by the combined official sector and ETF sector.

The SPDR Gold Trust 10-Q for the 2nd quarter of 2016 will be filed with the SEC in about 3 weeks time, at the end of July. With the continuing large inflows into GLD in Q2 2016 it will be interesting to see whether the name of Bank of England as subcustodian of GLD reappears in the Q2 filing?

And if gold bars held by GLD are actually stored at the Bank of England vaults when the  full physical gold bar audit is conducted next September, surely the full audit report should require a passage stating that some of the gold bars audited were held at the Bank of England, and not just at the ‘London Vaults of HSBC Bank’? Since the SEC have opened this ‘can of worms’ issue, and created more questions than answers, perhaps it is now in the SEC’s interests to go even further and ask World Gold Trust Services to fully clarify the matters raised above. Otherwise, the GLD gold bar holdings will continue to be a source of intrigue and debate in the gold world.