On 29 August, the London Metal Exchange (LME) began publication of a set of daily reference prices for gold and silver. These reference prices aim to capture and reflect paper gold and silver market prices as at 10:30 am, 12:00 midday, and 3:00 pm London time.
Anyone familiar with the former London gold and silver fix auctions, or the successor LBMA Gold Price and LBMA Silver Price auctions, will know that the LBMA gold auction is conducted twice daily at 10:30 am and 3.00 pm London time, while the silver auction is held once daily at midday. These auctions are also for unallocated book entry gold and silver (paper gold and silver) in the London market. ICE Benchmark Administration (IBA) is the auction administrator for both of these LBMA auctions.
As these new reference prices published by the London Metal Exchange are timed to report ‘market’ prices for gold and silver at exactly the same times as the LBMA Gold and LBMA Silver auctions, they add an element of future competition between the LME and ICE in the benchmark price provision business. However, the LME’s prices for both gold and silver are calculated at each of the 3 times of the ICE / LBMA auctions, i.e. at 10:30am (LBMA morning gold auction), 12:00 (LBMA silver auction) and 3:00pm (LBMA afternoon gold auction), periods which the LME describes as having ‘peak liquidity’.
In July 2017, the LME launched a suite of gold and silver futures contracts (LME Gold and LME Silver) for the London market, 2 of which are Spot daily contracts in gold and silver, respectively. Under the hood, these new gold and silver daily reference prices published by the LME are just volume weighted average prices (VWAP) of these LME Gold and LME Silver spot contracts calculated over a 2 minute window at the relevant times each day (i.e. 10:30 am, midday, and 3:00 pm) based on trades on the LMEselect trading platform. These contracts also represent claims on unallocated book entry paper gold and silver in the London market.
Therefore, the LME reference prices are not based on any auction trades, and merely use prices ‘discovered’ (generated) on the LME’s own trading platform at the time of the LBMA / ICE auctions. Given that these new LME reference prices only began to be published on 29 August, there are only about 50 daily data points so far for each of gold and silver. All prices since 29 August can be seen on the LME website for gold and silver.
Different But Similar
But are these LME prices the same as those generated by the ICE / LBMA daily auctions? No, they are not the same, but they are similar. The reason both sets of prices are not the same is that they are derived differently. The LBMA price resulting from an auction is the price derived in the final round of an auction when the imbalance between the auction’s buy and sell volumes is in tolerance (less than 10,000 ounces). The LME reference prices are average prices calculated (and volume weighted) using trades executed on the LME’s trading platform over a 2 minute interval from the start of an auction until 2 minutes after the start of an auction.
The LBMA auction prices and the LME reference prices are similar in that they are both based on market activity over similar time periods within the wholesale gold and silver markets, and in practice (or at least in theory), arbitrage trading should act to keep prices in the OTC market, and in the LBMA auctions, and in COMEX precious metals futures trading, and in LME gold and silver futures trading in line with each other.
Like their predecessors the London Gold fix and London Silver fix, the LBMA Gold Price and LBMA Silver Price are used every day to value everything from ISDA contracts to gold-backed ETFs, and the daily auction prices are also referenced widely in the global precious metals industry to execute trades involving miners, refineries, bullion banks, central banks, jewellers and coin shops. In short, these LBMA gold and silver reference prices are the dominant incumbent reference prices, and they also qualify as Regulated Benchmarks regulated by the UK Financial Conduct Authority. But will anyone end up using these new LME precious metals reference prices? Possibly, but it could it a while.
In 2018, the LME intends to offer trading based on its new gold and reference price reference levels. According to a Reuters article from 10 October:
“As of mid-2018 participants will be able to trade at those prices, Chamberlain [LME CEO] said, with technology being developed to match buy and sell orders for execution at the settlement price.
‘Benchmarks take a long time to evolve,’ he said. ‘What we can do is put in place the infrastructure, show that we have day after day of robust prices, but ultimately it is for end-users to decide what they want to use.'”
Being able to trade at the LME reference prices will add more relevance to the published numbers and could add legitimacy in terms of market data and financial media interest.
Right now the LME gold and silver reference prices are published daily and are “available for market participants to use free of charge.” But real world usage in the sense of being used to value precious metals funds, contracts or transactions looks to be a case of “down the road” rather than today.
Ideally the London gold and silver markets do not need an additional benchmark reflecting fractionally-backed unallocated gold and silver trading, but a benchmark and reference price reflecting the trading of real physical gold and silver. However, as the LME has chosen not to upset the status quo of the London unallocated trading system, a system which remains one of the key determinants of the international gold price, then real physical gold and silver reference prices in the London market will unfortunately remain a pipe dream.
The COMEX gold futures market and the London OTC gold market have a joint monopoly on setting the international gold price. This is because these two markets generate the largest ‘gold’ trading volumes and have the highest ‘liquidity’. However, this price setting dominance is despite either of these two markets actually trading physical gold bars. Both markets merely trade different forms of derivatives of gold bars.
Overall, the COMEX (which is owned by the CME Group) is even more dominant that the London market in setting the international price of gold. This is a feat which financial academics ascribe to COMEX being a centralized electronic platform offering low transaction costs, ease of leverage, and “the ability to avoid dealing with the underlying asset” (i.e. COMEX allows its participants to avoid dealing with gold bars). Because of these traits, say the academics, COMEX has a ‘disproportionately large role in [gold] price discovery”.
Over 95% of COMEX gold futures trading is now conducted on CME’s electronic trading platform Globex, with most of the remainder done on CME’s electronic Clearport, where futures trades executed in the OTC market can be settled by CME. Next to nothing in gold futures is traded any more via pit-based open outcry.
The existence of gold price manipulation in the London and COMEX gold markets is well documented, it is hard to refute, and it has presented itself in many forms over the recent past. Examples include:
Bullion bank gold traders in the late 2000s colluding in chat rooms to manipulate the gold price as documented in current consolidated class action law suits going through New York courts
Barclays Bank manipulating the London Gold Fixing price in 2012 so as to prevent triggering option related pay-outs to Barclays clients
Recent CFTC (US Commodities regulator) prosecutions of futures traders on the CME for ‘spoofing’ gold futures orders
Flash crashes in gold futures prices which have no underlying explanation to, or connection to, events and developments in any physical gold markets
This last point, ‘flash crashes’ in gold futures prices, is particularly relevant for COMEX. Many readers will recall reading about one or more of these COMEX gold futures price ‘flash crashes‘ during which large quantities of gold futures are shorted in a concentrated interval of time (e.g. within 10 or 20 seconds) which causes the gold price to completely collapse in free fall fashion over that very short period of time.
For example, on 26 June this year, the COMEX gold price free fell by nearly 1.5% within a 15 second interval, amid a huge spike in trading volume to more than 18,000 August gold futures (56 tonnes of gold) during the 1-minute period around the crash event.
On January 6, 2014, the COMEX gold price fell by over $30 in a few seconds, from $1245 to $1215 on huge volume, forcing the CME to introduce a temporary trading halt.
On April 12, 2013, aggressive selling of gold futures contracts representing over 13.4 million ounces (more than 400 tonnes of gold) hit COMEX gold futures in two waves during the London morning trading session sending the gold futures price down by more than 5%. The following Monday, April 15, 2013 the COMEX gold price rapidly fell by another 10%.
Whether these flash crashes are the result of trading errors, futures market illiquidity, computerized trading patterns or deliberately engineered moves is open to debate. Engineered price takedowns, where an entity initiates an order with the intention of moving the futures gold price in a downward direction, are distinctly possible.
However, concentrated gold futures shorting over tiny time intervals doesn’t have to be in the form of one large trade or a series of relatively large trades. All a shorting tactic of this type has to do is to either trigger the price to move down through certain thresholds which then triggers stop-loss orders, or to trigger and induce trading reactions from trading algorithms that monitor gold futures prices. Once sentiment is damaged through rapid downward price movements, the result can affect gold futures trading sentiment for the rest of the day and indeed over subsequent days.
But beyond the possible or probable individual acts of price manipulation on the COMEX, it is important to realize that the very structure and mechanics of the COMEX create a system in which gold futures trades can be executed in large volumes in a virtual vacuum which has no connection to the physical gold bullion market, no connection to gold bar and gold coin wholesalers and retailers, and which doesn’t even have any connection to the vaulted gold residing within the COMEX approved vaulting facilities (aka COMEX warehouses aka COMEX vaults).
These underlying mechanics of COMEX, which are discussed below, allow the generation of massive gold futures trading volumes and open interest, huge leverage and large non-spot month position limits, a high concentration of speculative trading by a small number of banks, and a lack of transparency into the gold ‘delivery’ process. And at the foundation of the system, there are very small physical gold holdings in the COMEX approved vaults.
COMEX gold futures contracts are derivatives on gold. Importantly, a COMEX gold futures contract comes into existence any time two parties agree to create that contract. This means that COMEX gold futures contracts can continue to be created as long for as there are interested buyers (longs) and sellers (shorts) willing to bring these gold futures contracts into existence.
Therefore, there is no hard upper bound or supply limit on the amount of gold futures contracts that can be created on COMEX. This is very similar to the unit of trading of gold in the London market, i.e. unallocated gold, which is also a derivative that can be created in unlimited quantities. In both cases there is no direct connection to real physical allocated and segregated gold bars.
Technically, the value of any futures contract is derived from the value of its underlying asset, and in this case the underlying asset, nominally anyway, is physical gold. But perversely in the global gold market, the value of the gold futures is not being derived from the value of the underlying asset (physical gold). Instead, the value of the world’s physical gold is now being consistently and continually derived via this out-of-control and unhinged gold futures trading.
Contractually, COMEX 100 ounce gold futures contracts (COMEX code GC) are futures contracts that offer a physically deliverable option, i.e. to deliver/receive 100 ounces of minimum 995 fine gold (in either 100-ounce gold bars or 1 kilo gold bars format) on a specific future date.
However, the vast majority of COMEX 100 ounce gold futures are never delivered, they are offset (closed out) and cash-settled, or else they are rolled over. Only a tiny fraction of these gold futures contracts are ever ‘delivered’. Again, this is similar to unallocated gold in the London market, which is a cash-settled gold derivative.
COMEX is also a speculative market, where leverage (due to the use of trading margin) is used to create outsized trading volumes, and where initial position limits for individual traders are far larger than the quantity of underlying gold being stored in the COMEX approved vaults.
These factors combine to create what is in effect a Las Vegas type casino. This casino encourages vast speculative trading of futures which will never be delivered, and vast shorting (selling) claims on large quantities of gold which a) the shorter does not possess, b) are not even stored in the COMEX system, and c) are many multiples of annual gold supply). Conversely, the buyers are going long on claims on gold which will a) will never be delivered and b) which nearly none of the trading counterparties even wants to have delivered. The players in this casino have no interest in secure gold storage or allocated gold bars or bar brands or bar serial numbers. After all, as the academics put it, the COMEX provides “the ability to avoid dealing with the underlying asset”.
Even when COMEX gold futures for used for hedging purposes, much of this hedging is by bullion bank traders so as to hedge unallocated London gold using COMEX futures, i.e. hedging cash-settled paper bets with cash-settled paper bets. And both sets of instruments structurally have nothing to do with the real physical gold market.
Even back in December 1974, when COMEX gold futures were about to be launched (and which coincided with a lifting of the ban on US private ownership of gold), a group of major gold dealers in London including 3 of the 5 primary London gold dealers, i.e. Samuel Montagu & Co, Mocatta & Goldsmid, and Sharps Pixley & Co, told the US State department that they believed that this new gold COMEX futures market would dwarf the physical gold market i.e. “would be of significant proportion, and physical trading would be miniscule by comparison“.
These dealers expected that “large volume futures dealing would create …. a highly volatile market” whose “volatile price movements would diminish the initial demand for physical gold” that the US Government feared from the lifting of the gold ownership ban.
In hindsight, it was perceptive and prophetic that these major participants of the then fully allocated gold market in London in 1974 saw that the introduction of gold futures would create what we are seeing now, i.e. huge trading volumes, high price volatility, and a market (COMEX) which has an adverse effect on pricing in the physical gold market.
Trading Volume Metrics
Two revealing trading metrics for COMEX gold futures are trading volumes and the “Open Interest” on gold futures contracts. “Open Interest” simply means the number of gold futures contracts that are outstanding at any given time that have not been closed or delivered.
For 2016, COMEX gold futures trading generated a trading volume of 57.5 million contracts, representing 178,850 tonnes of gold. This is nearly as much gold as has ever been mined in the history of the world, i.e. which is estimated to be 190,000 tonnes. This COMEX trading volume in 2016 was also a whopping 37% higher than in 2015. In 2016, while 57.5 million gold futures contracts traded, only 71,380 COMEX gold contracts were ‘delivered’. This means that only 0.12% of COMEX gold contracts that traded in 2016 were ‘delivered’.
Delivered in this context means that the delivery option on the contract was exercised and a warrant representing 100 oz of gold on that contract changed hands, i.e. title documents to gold were shunted around a COMEX/vault recording system, mostly between bank holders. Delivered does not mean gold was withdrawn from a COMEX approved vault and delivered to an external location. The concept of gold vault withdrawal numbers, which is a bread and butter metric for the physical Shanghai Gold Exchange (SGE), is totally alien to the COMEX and its trading participants.
For the first six months of 2017, trading volumes in the main COMEX gold futures contract (GC) reached 32.7 million contracts, representing 101,710 tonnes of gold. This was 12% up on the same period in 2016. When annualized, this suggests than in 2017, COMEX is on course to trade more than 200,000 tonnes of gold, which will be more than all the gold ever mined throughout history.
In the first half of 2017, only 12,320 gold futures contracts (representing 38 tonnes) were delivered on COMEX. This means that from January to June 2017, only 0.037% of the COMEX gold contracts traded in that six month period were ‘delivered’, or just 1 in every 2650 contracts traded.
Beyond the trends and snapshots that trading volumes provide, COMEX Open Interest shows how much real physical gold would be needed if all longs who hold gold futures contracts decided to exercise every contract into the 100 ounces of physical gold that each contract supposedly allows for.
For example, currently there are 480,000 GC gold futures contracts outstanding on the COMEX, each of which represents 100 ounces of gold. This means that buyers of the contracts are long 480,000 contracts, and sellers of those same contracts are short 480,000 contracts. With each contract worth 100 ounces of gold, this is an open interest of 48 million ounces (1500 tonnes) of gold, which is about half a year’s global gold mining output.
Currently 46% of this open interest is in the front-month August 2017 contract (nearly 750 tonnes), with another 40% in the December 2017 contract. Together the August and December contracts represent over 85% of the current open interest. During 2017, open interest has fluctuated roughly between 400,000 and 500,000 contracts at any given time.
Registered Gold Inventory and Eligible
However, there are only currently 22 tonnes of ‘Registered gold’ in the COMEX approved vaults in New York, which is equivalent to about 700,000 ounces. What this means is that there are only 22 tonnes of gold currently in the vaults that the vault operators previously attached warrants to as part of the COMEX futures delivery process. This 22 tonnes of gold, if it was held in Good Delivery gold bar format, would only occupy one small corner of one of the COMEX’s 8 approved gold vaults when stacked 6 pallets high across 3 stacks, and another 4 pallets in an additional stack. That’s how small the COMEX registered gold inventories are.
The amount of Registered gold backing COMEX futures gold trading is also at a 1-year low. For example, in August 2016 there were 75 tonnes of Registered gold in the COMEX vaults. Now there’s only 30% of that amount.
There is also no independent auditing of the gold that the COMEX reports on its registered and eligible gold inventory reports. So there is no way of knowing if the COMEX report is accurate. For example, HSBC claims to have 165 tonnes of eligible gold and a measly 1.5 tonnes of registered gold stored at its COMEX approved vault. This vault is located in the lower levels of 1 West 39th Street in Manhattan (the old Republic National Bank of New York vault). However, I heard from a former New York Fed senior executive that HSBC don’t keep a lot of gold in this Manhattan vault since they moved a lot of it to Delaware after 9/11 for security reasons. If this is true, then the question becomes, on the COMEX report, does the total for HSBC represent the amount they have in the midtown Manhattan location, or the total in midtown and Delaware (assuming they have gold stored in Delaware).
COMEX approved vaults also report another category of gold known as ‘Eligible’ gold. This ‘Eligible’ gold is unrelated to COMEX gold futures trading and could be owned by anyone, for example owned by mints, refineries, jewellery companies, investment funds, banks or individuals, who would just happen to be storing this gold in the New York vaults that the COMEX also uses, such as the Brinks vaults.
In other words, this ‘eligible’ gold is merely innocent bystander gold that just happens to be stored in the COMEX approved vaults in the form of 100-ounce gold bars or 1 kilo gold bars. At the moment, there are 243 tonnes of this eligible gold in the vaults. But this gold is not involved in COMEX gold futures trading. Some of this gold is probably owned by banks that engage in COMEX gold futures trading because there are sometimes movements of gold from the eligible category to the registered category, but still, as long as it’s in the eligible category, this gold does not have any COMEX related warrants attached to it.
With an Open Interest of 1500 tonnes of gold on COMEX, and with registered gold in the New York vaults totalling only 22 tonnes, this means that there are currently 68 “Owners per Ounce” of registered gold. The holders of allocated gold bars stored in a secure vault, such as BullionStar’s secure vault in Singapore no not face this 68 owners per ounce problem, as each gold bar is owned by one person and one person only.
Since the beginning of 2017, this COMEX “owners per ounce of registered gold” metric has risen sharply, more than doubling from under 30 owners per ounce to the current ratio of 68 owners per ounce. This is because registered gold inventories have fallen sharply over this time.
Even adding into the equation all the eligible gold in the New York vaults, which is a calculation that doesn’t really mean much given the independent nature of eligible gold, there are still 5.7 “owners per ounce” of the combined COMEX “eligible and registered gold” total.
The physical gold foundations to the entire COMEX gold futures trading process are therefore very tiny in comparison to COMEX trading volumes and open interest. And all the while, gold futures trading volumes continue to rise, owners per registered ounce of gold continues to rise, and the amount of physical gold backing these contracts on COMEX continues to shrink.
The Dominant Players
The latest Commitment of Traders (COT) report produced by the US Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC), for 11 July, includes market concentration data for the percentage of contracts held by the largest holders. This COT report currently shows that “4 or Less Traders” are short 35% of the COMEX GC gold futures open interest, while “8 or Less Traders” are short a combined 51% of the open interest. Note that the “4 or Less Traders” are a subset of the “8 or Less Traders”.
The CFTC also publishes a Bank Participation Report (BPR) showing metrics for banks involved in gold futures trading. The latest BPR for 11 July shows that 5 US banks are short 78063 contracts (16.4% of the total open interest), and 29 non-US banks are short another 67,373 contracts (14.2% of open interest). In total, these 34 banks were short 145,000 contracts or 30% of the open interest. The same banks were long 40,688 contracts, so were net short 105,000 contracts.
Neither the COT report nor the BPR report reveal the identity of the ‘traders’ or the ‘banks’ that hold these concentrated large positions because the bank friendly CFTC choses not to do so, but even without their identities being revealed, it’s clear that a small number of entities are dominating trading of the COMEX gold futures contracts.
When is a Delivery not a Delivery?
The COMEX delivery report is known as the “Issues and Stops Report”. This report ostensibly shows the number of contracts that were ‘delivered’ on the COMEX each month, but in reality just shows a series of numbers representing the quantity of title warrants (to gold bars) that were shunted around each month between a small handful of players.
The COMEX does not publish any gold bar weight lists of registered or eligible gold inventories held in the COMEX approved vaults. It is therefore impossible to check to what extent the same gold bars or some of the same gold bars are moving back and forth between a few parties over time. On an annual basis, each COMEX approved vault must conduct a precious metal inventory audit on behalf of the COMEX and file this audit with the COMEX within 30 days of completing it. However again, the CME Group does not publish these inventory audits, which only adds to the existing opacity of the system. Is the registered gold in the COMEX vaults even specifically insured? Who knows, because the COMEX does not divulge such details.
Some of the bank institutions which are prominent on the COMEX gold delivery reports are also some of the same institutions which operate the COMEX approved vaults, e.g. HSBC, JP Morgan and Scotia, and these same names are undoubtedly some of the names underlying the CFTC’s Bank Participation Report given that they are always prominent on the COMEX delivery reports. By the way, these same banks essentially run the LBMA in London and run the unallocated gold clearing system, LPMCL, in the London Gold Market.
As regards, the COMEX’s assignment of delivery for gold futures contracts, this is also out of the hands of a contract holder looking for delivery. When a contract is presented for delivery, it is the Exchange (COMEX) which assigns the delivery to a specific warehouse. Not the contract holder. The contract holder (long) has no say in choosing which New York warehouse that contract will be assigned to, no choice of which bar brand he/she will receive, and no choice even of whether the assigned gold will be in the form of a 100 ounce bar of three 1 kilogram gold bars. But even to the long holder seeking delivery, delivery just means gaining an electronic warehouse warrant issued in the long holder’s name or broker’s name (title to the warrant).
To take real delivery of gold bars (withdrawing gold from one of the New York vaults) that would arise from a COMEX ‘delivery’ is a laborious and discouraging extra step. Armed with a copy of an electronic receipt, the procedure involves the receipt holder directly contacting the warehouse in question and telling them you want physical delivery. How they would react to such as phone call is not clear. My guess is that it would be like visiting the mailroom in a large company, the reaction being ‘Who are you? No one ever comes down here‘.
After navigating the withdrawal negotiations with the vault in question, the pickup and transport of the gold bars is then organized using one of the list of secure transport alternatives that approved warehouse will allow.
COMEX – Not Designed for Physical Bullion
The COMmodity EXchange (COMEX) is a derivatives exchange that is not designed for buying physical gold, storing or delivering that gold, or even selling physical gold. The COMEX primarily facilitates speculation and hedging, with the delivery option just existing as a little -used side option.
Flash crashes continue to occur but neither the CME nor the CFTC ever publishes explanations for the causes of these flash crashes.
It looks certain that in 2017, COMEX will again smash its gold futures trade gold futures representing more gold than has ever been mined in human history, i.e. more than 200,000 tonnes equivalent.
So far in 2017, only 1 in every 2650 gold futures contracts traded on the COMEX has resulted in delivery i.e. less than 0.038% of the contracts go to delivery. The rest, 99.962% of contracts are cash-settled and closed-out / rolled.
The open interest in COMEX gold futures is currently 1500 tonnes, yet there are only 22 tonnes of Registered gold in the COMEX vault inventories. This means that there are 68 owners per ounce of registered gold.
There is continually a high concentration of short futures positions held by a small number of banks on COMEX. The CFTC doesn’t name these banks. When contract deliveries occur on COMEX, it is not a delivery in the sense of a gold bar movement but is merely a transfer in title of a warrant attached to a bar.
Withdrawal of a gold bar or bars out of the COMEX vaulting network to be really delivered to another location is not straightforward.
With the London Gold Market trading unlimited quantities of unallocated gold which the bullion banks create out of thin air, and with COMEX trading gold futures which are also created out of thin air, the disconnect between the world of unlimited paper gold and the world of limited physical gold is becoming ever more stark.
On one side lies paper claims on gold which come into and out of existence through cash-settled market mechanisms. On the other is real physical gold that is segregated, allocated and unencumbered, with full title held by the gold holder. Paper gold ownership is fleeting, speculative and prone to counterparty and conversion risks. Real gold is tangible, has inherent value, has no counterparty risk, and can be securely stored.
When real gold is ‘delivered’ to a gold buyer, it actually is delivered to the buyer to wherever they want it delivered, unlike COMEX deliveries where an electronic warrant is merely updated. When real gold is held in a secure vault, such as BullionStar’s vault in Singapore, the gold is fully-insured and the gold holder has full audit and control.
Unlike the COMEX and the London OTC gold market, the traditional gold buying markets of Asia and the Middle East are markets know the real value of physical gold as a form of money and a form of saving. In the physical gold market, especially in Asia, gold buyers demand high purity gold (9999s purity) in convenient bar sizes such as 1 kilogram and 100 grams, and not the 100 ounce bar size traditionally made for COMEX delivery.
Physical gold buyers want gold bars from trusted and well-known sources, and also want choice and variety for example a cast bar from the German Heraeus refinery, or a highly designed minted bar from the Swiss refinery PAMP. Kilobars and 100 gram gold bars also have the lowest premiums of any bars on the retail market since many refineries compete to supply this segment and the demand is widespread and international. Most kilobars and 100 gram bars have their own unique serial numbers which facilitates tracking and auditing.
As COMEX pursues its record-breaking attempt in 2017 to trade gold futures representing more than 200,000 tonnes of gold, the disconnect between COMEX and the real world is becoming all too clear. COMEX flash crashes will continue as long as the CME and CFTC let them continue. And many people will continue to believe that these flash crashes were deliberately orchestrated. But at the heart of the contradiction between paper gold and real gold is not whether such and such a flash crash was deliberate. The heart of the contradiction is that the very structure of the COMEX system is so detached from the reality of physical gold market that it ideally suits deliberate flash crash attempts to rig the gold price.
BullionStar will be exhibiting at the FreedomFest event in Las Vegas, which this year runs from July 19 to 22 at the Paris resort in Las Vegas. For those attending FreedomFest please drop by our stand and say hello (Booth number 321) and to chat about precious metals. BullionStar CEO Torgny Persson will also be speaking at FreedomFest at 2:30pm on Friday July 21, on why today’s gold price is not reflecting what’s happening in the world and not reflecting what’s happening in the physical gold market.
The London Metal Exchange (LME) and World Gold Council have just confirmed that their new suite of London-based exchange-traded gold and silver futures contracts will begin trading on Monday 10 July. These futures contracts are collectively known as LMEprecious.
This 10 July 2017 launch is itself over a month behind schedule given that LMEprecious was supposed to be launched on 5 June but was delayed by the LME.
As a reminder, these LMEprecious gold futures and silver futures contracts represent unallocated gold and silver and there is no direct connection in the contracts to physical gold or physical silver, since settlement is via unallocated gold and silver balance transfers across LME Clearing unallocated metal accounts at member banks of London Precious Metals Clearing Limited (LPMCL).
Still, this hasn’t stopped LME from using terminology in the contract specs that attempts to link them by association to real precious metal. For example, the gold contract spec says that the:
“underlying material” is “Loco London Fine Gold held in London and complying with standards relating to good delivery and fineness acceptable to the Precious Metal Clearer of the Clearing House”.
This is similar to how an estate agent (realtor) would describe a house that’s located in a bad area, i.e. that it’s not too far from a good area.
The LME also fails to mention the fact that the LBMA/LPMCL unallocated account system is a fractionally-based paper gold and paper silver trading system, with trading volumes of unallocated gold and unallocated silver that are 100s of times higher than the available physical metal sitting in the London precious metals vaults. Ironically, these gold and silver futures are starting to trade in a month in which the LBMA has still not begun publishing the actual quantities of gold and silver in the LBMA vaults in London, despite promising to.
For both gold and silver, the LME futures contract suite will consist of a daily trade date (T) + 1 contract (T+1), known as TOM, and daily futures from a T + 2 (equivalent to Spot settlement) out to and including all trade dates to T + 25. Beyond this, there are approximately 36 monthly futures contracts covering each month out to 2 calendar years, and then each March, June, September and December out to 60 calendar months (12 more quarters out to 5 years).
All LMEprecious contracts will centrally clear on LME’s clearing platform LME Clear. The contracts can be traded on LME’s electronic trading platform LMESelect between 1am and 8pm London time, and can also be traded 24 hours a day ‘inter-office’ over the blower (voice-based trading). Apart from trading hours differences, the only other difference between LMESelect and phone is that of the daily contracts, only T+1 to T+3 can be traded via LMESelect, while T+1 to T +25 can be traded over the phone.
The LME also plans to roll out options products and calendar spread products based on these futures, but as to when these will appear is not clear.
Banks, Banks and more Banks
The official line is that LMEprecious has been developed by a consortium of the LME, the World Gold Council and a group of investment consisting of Morgan Stanley, ICBC Standard, SocGen, Goldman Sachs and Natixis, as well as prop trading firm OSTC, but to what extent each of the 5 banks and OSTC has had input into the product development and trading rules of LMEprecious is unclear.
On 3 August 2016, the World Gold Council established a UK registered company called ‘EOS Precious Metals Limited’ to house the arrangement between the Council and the aforementioned banks and OTSC. The first director of EOS was Robin Martin, managing director of market infrastructure at the World Gold Council, while the first registered address of EOS was actually the World Gold Council’s London office at 10 Old Bailey in the City of London.
A slew of other directors were then appointed to EOS Precious Metals Ltd on 9 November 2016, namely:
Aram Shishmanian, CEO of World Gold Council
Raj Kumar – ICBC Standard Bank (formerly of Deutsche Bank and formerly a director of London Precious Metals Clearing Limited (LPMCL)
Bradley Duncan – ICBC Standard Bank (resigned as director March 2017 and replaced by Richard England)
Francois Combes – SocGen (formerly a director of London Gold Market Fixing Limited)
Vinvent Domien – SocGen (formerly a director of London Gold Market Fixing Limited)
Matthew Alfieri – Goldman Sachs (resigned May 2017 and replaced by Donald Casturo)
David Besancon – Natixis
Bogdan Gogu – Morgan Stanley
Hanita Amin – Morgan Stanley
Jonathan Aucamp – Exec chairman of OSTC
Some of these directors, as you can see above, are very much connected to the existing and previous mechanisms of the London Gold Market, eg, LPMCL and the old London Gold Fixing.
But apart from ICBC Standard Bank, suspiciously absent from the list of banks cooperating with the LME and World Gold Council are the big guns of the LBMA and LPMCl members, i.e. HSBC, JP Morgan, UBS, Scotia, all of which are big players in the London gold and silver markets and vaulting scenes in London, New York, and in UBS’s case Zurich. As they control LPMCL, perhaps there is no need for them to be involved in a gold and silvers futures sideshow.
Peter Drabwell of HSBC was re-elected to the Board
Sid Tipples, of JP Morgan was re-elected to the Board
Raj Kumar of ICBC Standard (formerly of Deutsche Bank) was elected to the Board
Kumar replaces Steven Lowe of Scotia who had been on LBMA board Vice-Chairman
When EOS Precious Metals Ltd was established, it only had 1 A share and 1 B share, both held by WGC (UK) Limited. In the incorporation documents, A shares were defined as having voting rights, an ability to appoint a director and a board observer but no rights to dividends. B shares were defined as having no voting rights but with an entitlement to dividends.
On 26 October, a further 999 A shares and 699 B shares were allotted and said to be paid-up. In the in the allotment filing, these B shares are listed in various tranches i.e. 400 B shares, 100 B Shares, 100 B shares, and 99 B shares, with different total amounts paid for each of these tranches.
In total, there are now 1000 A shares and 700 B shares issued in EOS (with a nominal value of US$ 0.10 each), but there is nothing in the filings listing how many shares of each class are owned by each of the companies and banks that have director representation. Given that there are 6 trading entities as well as the World Gold Council, it could be that each of the 7 entities holds 100 B shares.
There are currently also 10 directors on the EOS board, 2 each from the World Gold Council, SocGen, ICBC Standard, and Morgan Stanley, and 1 each from Goldman Sachs and Natixis. Therefore, its possible that the 1000 A shares could be divided out in the same ratio, 200 for each of the World Gold Council, SocGen, ICBC Standard, and Morgan Stanley, and 100 shares each for Goldman and Natixis.
In a related development, on 23 February 2017 Reuters reported that the LME had agreed a 50-50 revenue sharing agreement with EOS precious Metals under which Morgan Stanley, ICBC Standard, SocGen, Goldman, Natixis and OSTC will attempt to generate trading certain volumes (liquidity) in the LMEprecious gold and silver contracts in return for 50% of the LME’s revenue on the products. The terms of this agreement are not public and it’s unclear if the performance of the banks and OSTC will be measured on customer flow or liquidity guarantees, or perhaps some type of credibility measurement of the contracts in the marketplace.
In early March, Reuters also reported that 3 additional banks and a broker had agreed to come on board with LMEprecious as clearing members, specifically, Commerzbank,Bank of China International,Macquarie Bank, and broker Marex Financial
Most recently, on 6 July, Reuters reported that of these 4 additional participants from the Commerzbank / Bank of China / Macquarie / Marex group, the LME has said that only Marex is ready to participate as a “general clearing member”.
Clearing Unallocated into LPMCL
This brings us to the different types of LME clearing members. Of the 6 participants which came on board to LMEprecious in 2016, 4 of these (SocGen, Goldman, Morgan Stanley and ICBC Standard) are General Clearing Members (GCMs) for LMEprecious. However, Natixis is only an Individual Clearing Member (ICM). Furthermore, OSTC is a Non-Clearing Member (NCM). Marex, as mentioned above, is also a General Clearing Members (GCM). See list of GCMs, ICMs and NCMs for LMEprecious here.
According to LME Clear’s membership rules (Rule 3.1 Membership Categories and Application Process):
a “General Clearing Member” or “GCM”, which may clear Transactions or Contracts on its own behalf and in respect of Client Business
an “Individual Clearing Member” or “ICM”, which shall be permitted only to clear Transactions or Contracts on its own behalf
On 6 July, Reuters also reported that an algorithmic trading firm called XTX Markets which is based in Mayfair in London, will also start as a Non-Clearing Member (NCM) participant. Obviously, the Non-Clearing Member (NCM) don’t clear trades, instead they use ‘Administrative clearers’ to do their clearing. XTX will use Marex, and OSTC will use SocGen.
As to why Commerzbank, Bank of China International and Macquarie Bank are still not ready to participate is unclear, but this seems odd given that they announced their intent to participate over 4 months ago.
Meet the New Boss, Same as the Old Boss
– there are now 8 bullion banks, a prop trading firm, and a high speed algo firm lined up to help these LME gold and silver futures get out the gate
– these LMEprecious futures will be trading unallocated gold and unallocated silver.
– unallocated gold and unallocated silver is fractionally-backed paper gold and paper silver
– the 5 LMPCL banks offering these unallocated accounts are HSBC, JP Morgan, UBS, Scotia and ICBC Standard
– the trading of these LMEprecious futures therefore comes full circle and does nothing to change the structure of the London Gold Market or the London Silver Market
– the World (Paper) Gold Council, which claims to promote gold on the behalf of the gold mining industry, is instead front and center in the promotion of more paper gold trading
With similar recently launched London gold futures from CME Group and ICE not having taken off, all eyes will be on these LMEprecious products to see if they can go where no London gold futures have gone before. Therefore, the LME monthly trading volumes page will be one to watch in future.
In a bizarre series of events that have had limited coverage but which are sure to have far-reaching consequences for benchmark pricing in the precious metals markets, the LBMA Gold Price and LBMA Silver Price auctions both experienced embarrassing trading glitches over consecutive trading days on Monday 10 April and Tuesday 11 April. At the outset, its worth remembering that both of these London-based benchmarks are Regulated Benchmarks, regulated by the UK’s Financial Conduct Authority (FCA).
In both cases, the trading glitches had real impact on the benchmark prices being derived in the respective auctions, with the auction prices deviating noticeably from the respective spot prices during the auctions. It’s also worth remembering that the LBMA Gold Price and LBMA Silver Price reference prices that are ‘discovered’ each day in the daily auctions are used to value everything from gold-backed and silver-backed Exchange Traded Funds (ETFs) to precious metals interest rate swaps, and are also used widely as reference prices by thousands of precious metals market participants, such as wholesalers, refineries, and bullion retailers, to value their own bi-lateral transactions.
Although the gold and silver auctions are separately administered, they both suffer from limited direct participation due to the LBMA only authorising a handful of banks to directly take part. Only 7 banks are allowed to participate directly in the Silver auction while the gold auction is only currently open to 14 entities, all of which are banks. Limited participation can in theory cause a lack of trading liquidity. Added to the mix, a central clearing option was introduced to the LBMA Gold Price auction on Monday 10 April, a day before Tuesday’s gold auction screw-up. The introduction of this central clearing process change saw four of the direct participants suspended from the auction since they had not made the necessary system changes in time to process central clearing. This in itself could have caused a drop in liquidity within Tuesday’s gold auction as it reduced the number of possible participants.
Other theories have been put forward to explain the price divergences, such as the banks being unwilling to hedge or arbitrage auction trades due to the advent of more stringent regulatory changes to prevent price manipulation. While this may sound logical in theory, no one, as far as I know, has presented empirical trade evidence to back up this theory. There is also the possibility of deliberate price manipulation of the auction prices by a participant(s) or their clients, a scenario that needs to be addressed and either ruled out or confirmed.
ICE Benchmark Administration (IBA), the administrator of the LBMA Gold Price, also introduced a price calculation Algorithm into the gold auction in mid-March 2017, a change which should also be considered by those seeking to find a valid explanation for the gold auction price divergence where the opening price kept falling through multiple auctions rounds whilst the spot price remained far higher. Could the algorithm have screwed up on 11 April?
Whatever the explanations for the price divergences, these incidents again raise the question as to whether these particular precious metals auctions are fit for purpose, and why they were designed (and allowed to be designed) at the outset to explicitly block direct participation by nearly every precious metals trading entity on the planet except for a limited number of London-based bullion bank members of the LBMA.
LBMA Silver Price fiasco
First up, on Monday 10 April, buried at the end of a Reuters News precious metals market daily news wrap was a very brief snippet of news referring to an incident which dogged the LBMA Silver Price during Monday’s daily auction (an auction which starts at midday London time). According to Reuters:
“silver prices slipped after the LBMA silver price benchmark auction was paused for 17 minutes after a circuit breaker was triggered when the auction price moved outside of the spot range, the CME said in a statement.”
What exactly the CME meant is unclear because whatever statement Reuters was referring to has not been released on the CME Group website or elsewhere, and Reuters did not write a separate news article about the incident.
To recap, the LBMA Silver Price is administered by Thomson Reuters on a calculation platform run by the CME Group, and operated on a contract basis on behalf of the London Bullion Market Association (LBMA). However, there is nothing anywhere on the CME’s LBMA Silver Price web page, or on the Thomson Reuters LBMA Silver Price web page, or on the LBMA website, in the form of a statement, comment or otherwise, referring to this ‘circuit breaker’ that persisted for ’17 minutes’ in the LBMA Silver Price auctionduring which time the ‘auction price moved outside of the spot range‘
On its calculation platform, CME makes use of a pricing algorithm to automatically calculate a price for each round of the LBMA Silver Price auction (excluding the first auction round). From page 8 of its LBMA Silver Price Methodology Guide:
“3.7 Starting Price
The initial auction price value is determined by the auction platform operator by comparing multiple Market Data sources prior to the auction opening to form a consensus price based on the individual sources of Market Data. The auction platform operator enters the initial auction price before the first round of the auction begins….”
“3.4 End of Round Comparison
If the difference between the total buy and sell quantity is greater than the tolerance value, the auction platform determines that the auction is not balanced, automatically cancels orders entered in the auction round by all participants, calculates a new price, and starts a new round with the new price.”
There is also a manual price override facility which can be invoked if needed:
3.8 Manual Price Override
In exceptional circumstances, CME Benchmark Europe Ltd can overrule the automated new price of the next auction round in cases when more significant or finer changes are required. When doing so, the auction platform operator will refer to a composition of live Market Data sources while the auction is in progress.”
As to why the “auction platform operator” did not invoke these manual override powers and seek market data sources during the time in which the silver auction was ‘stuck’ for 17 minutes is unclear. A 17 minute pause would presumably be, in the CME’s words, ‘exceptional circumstances’.
Unfortunately, neither the CME website, the Thomson Reuters website, or the LBMA website provides intra-round pricing data for the LBMA Silver Price, so anyone who doesn’t have a subscription to the live data of the auction is well and truly left in the dark as to what actually happened on Monday 10 April. Unlike the LBMA Gold Price auction which at least provides an ‘Auction Transparency Report’ for each auction (see below), the LBMA Silver Price auction is sorely lacking in any public transparency whatsoever.
But what is clear from the Reuters information snippet is that the LBMA Silver Price auction on Monday 10 April suffered a serious trading glitch, that saw the prices that were being formed in the auction deviate from where the silver spot price was trading during that time. This price deviation suggests a lack of trading liquidity in the auction and/or an inability of the participants to hedge their trades in other trading venues. As to whether the final LBMA Silver Price that was derived and published as the daily benchmark price on 10 March was outside the spot range (and above or below spot) is not mentioned in the Reuters report.
The complete opacity about this incident is concerning but not really surprising since nearly everything in the London precious metals markets is shrouded in secrecy, and corporate communication in this area is truly abysmal.
Recalling that Thomson Reuters and CME announced in early March that they are abruptly pulling out of the contract for administrating and calculating the LBMA Silver Price, this latest fiasco is unwelcome news for the LBMA – CME – Thomson Reuters triumvirate, and raises further questions for the FCA as to whether this Silver auction and benchmark should even be allowed to continue in its present or similar form.
LBMA Gold Price fiasco
Turning to the London gold auction, on the afternoon of Tuesday 11 April, the LBMA Gold Price auction (which starts at 3:00pm London time) experienced what can only be described as a shocking and serious trading fiasco which has real world consequences for all trading entities that use the LBMA Gold Price Benchmark reference price (and there are many that do so). As a reminder, ICE benchmark Administration (IBA) administers the daily LBMA Gold Price auctions on behalf of the LBMA.
“London’s gold price benchmark fixed some $12 below the spot price on Tuesday afternoon as the auction appeared to become locked in a downward spiral. From an initial $1,265.75, close to the spot price at the time, the auction price ratcheted steadily lower before fixing at $1,252.90 in the ninth round. From the fifth round to the eighth the bid and offer volumes remained frozen, unable to match.“
“This came a day after ICE introduced clearing for the LBMA Gold Price auction”
Reuters concludes its article by noting that the ICE clearing was introduced:“before several participating banks had the necessary systems in place.”
“As a result, China Construction Bank, Societe Generale, Standard Chartered and UBS are yet to confirm a date for their participation in the cleared auction.. ICE declined to comment. The LBMA, which owns the intellectual property rights to the auction, was not immediately available to comment.”
This forced reduction in the number of participants in the auction seems to be relevant to the issue and therefore requires further scrutiny.
ICE Central Clearing – Foisted on the LBMA Gold Price auction?
In mid-October 2016 during the LBMA precious metals conference in Singapore, ICE Benchmark Administration announced that it would introduce central clearing into the London Gold Price by utilizing a series of daily futures contracts which it planned to launch in February 2017. The introduction of central clearing into the auction was initially planned for March 2017.
“IBA gave a central clearing update to the Committee, notifying them that the cleared instrument would be launched in January 2017 and the auction trades could be routed there from March 2017. The Committee were informed that IBA had spoken to every bank and every bank wanted to move. Discussion moved to the technical implications for this new model and IBA’s primary wish to keep running a healthy auction.”
“From March 2017, subject to regulatory review, centrally cleared settlement will be available for transactions which originate from IBA’s gold auction underlying the LBMA Gold Price.
This will give firms the choice of settling their trades bilaterally against each counterparty (as they currently do), or submitting their trades to clearing and settling versus the clearing house. This mechanism removes the requirement for firms to have bilateral credit lines in place with all of the other Direct Participants in the auction.
Central clearing opens the auction to a broader cross-section of the market. It also facilitates greater volume in the auction.“
By the end of March 2017, the above statement had been altered from March 2017 to “Q2 2017” with ICE pushing back the launch date for the introduction of central clearing:
“From Q2 2017, subject to regulatory review, centrally cleared settlement will be available for transactions which originate from IBAs gold auction underlying the LBMA Gold Price….”
Reuters again covered these ICE clearing delays in a series of articles during March, highlighting the fact that 4 of the 13 banks that are direct participants in the LBMA Gold Price auction were not ready for the introduction of central clearing due to delays in making unspecified changes to their internal IT systems that would allow such central clearing processing. So anybody who had been reading these Reuters articles would have been aware that there were risks on the horizon in terms of some of the LBMA Gold Price auction participants being slow in being ready for the changes.
“U.S.-based exchange operator ICE has already pushed back the launch of its service by several weeks to allow the banks and brokers who participate in the auction to adapt their IT systems, four sources with direct knowledge of the matter told Reuters.”
“Sources at many participant banks said that they were unhappy with the speed at which ICE was seeking to introduce clearing, which require investment in IT processes and back office systems and raise complex compliance issues.”
“However, at least four of the 14 banks and brokers who participate in the LBMA Gold Price auction will still not be ready to use the new system.
Banks that are not ready would be suspended from the auction until they have the necessary IT infrastructure in place or would have to participate through other players who could clear deals, according to the sources.
ICE’s readiness to provoke such disruption illustrates how much it wants to avoid further delays that could torpedo its ambitions to become the dominant exchange in London’s vast bullion market, market sources said”
“two sources told Reuters that ICE had again delayed and there was now no set start date.”
“Sources earlier told Reuters that Societe Generale, Standard Chartered, ICBC Standard Bank and China Construction Bank would not be ready to clear the LBMA auction in time for April 3.”
Again interestingly, ICE’s desire to promote its own gold futures contracts was seen as a primary driver for trying to rush through the introduction of central clearing for the gold auction, as doing so would add volume to ICE’s daily gold futures contracts:
“market sources say ICE plans to use clearing of the LBMA Gold Price auction, which it administers, to funnel business to its contracts and give it a head start over rivals.”
As a reminder, ICE and CME have both recently launched gold futures contracts connected to the London market, and the London Metal Exchange (LME) plans to launch its own suite of London gold futures contracts in early June.
Central clearing uses exchange for physical (EFP) transactions in the daily futures contracts which are then cleared at ICE Clear US. The futures have daily settlement each day between 3:00 pm and 3:05 pm London time. But how the whole process ties together is still quite puzzling. An email to the IBA CEO asking for details of how the futures are linked to the auction went unanswered.
So what was this downward spiral that the LBMA Gold Price auction experienced on the afternoon of Tuesday 11 April when it became, in the words of Reuters, locked in a downward spiral?
Let’s look at the ICE Auction Transparency Reports for the few days before and during the 11 April afternoon fiasco. These reports show the number of auction rounds, the number of participants,and the bid and offer volumes for each round as well as the price at the end of each round.
Fourteen entities are now authorized to be direct participants in the LBMA Gold Price auction, 13 of which are banks, the other being new participant INTL FCStone since early April. INTL FCStone is a financial services company that has a slant towards commodities. The 13 banks are:
Bank of China
Bank of Communications
China Construction Bank
Industrial and Commercial Bank of China (ICBC)
HSBC Bank USA
JPMorgan Chase Bank (London Branch)
The Bank of Nova Scotia – ScotiaMocatta
Unlike the old London Gold Fixing which had 5 member banks that were obliged to always turn up (and since 2004 dial in) for every auction, this LBMA Gold Price auction does not require all the authorized participants to dial-in. Most of the time, far fewer than the full contingent turn up. For example on Friday 7 April, 8 banks turned up at the morning auction while only 7 banks turned up at the afternoon auction (i.e only a 50% turnout). However, Friday 7 April is also relevant since that was the last day before ICE introduced central clearing to the gold auction.
Fast forwarding to the morning gold auction on Monday 10 April when ICE first introduced central clearing, you can see from the below auction report that only 5 banks participated. This is the same small number that took part in the former London Gold Fixing which was run by the infamous and scandal ridden London Gold Market Fixing Limited and which consisted of Deutsche Bank, Barclays, HSBC, Scotiabank and Société Générale.
The reason the turnouts after the introduction of central clearing are so low is that 4 of the direct participant banks have been excluded from the auction due to not being ready to implement central clearing – a fact predicted by Reuters News in March. This means that the usual number of between 7-10 banks participating in the auction has now been reduced by 4, as four banks cannot take part. As Reuters said on 21 March “Banks that are not ready would be suspended from the auction until they have the necessary IT infrastructure in place”.
The irony of this debacle is that the participating banks all already have bilateral credit limits with each other and so don’t need to do central clearing in the auction. Only new /future direct participants which do not have bilateral credit lines technically need to utilize the clearing solution.
Central clearing is supposed to make it easier for a far wider range and number of participants to take part. But if this entails enhancements to IT systems that some of the most sophisticated investment banks on the planet are struggling with, what hope is there for other precious metals trading entities to participate.
But some reason – probably to try to kickstart the trading volume in its daily gold futures contracts – ICE has made it mandatory for all existing direct participants (the bullion banks) to open clearing accounts and get their IT systems in shape to use clearing.
“Central clearing for the auction is enabled by effecting Exchange for Physical (“EFP”) transactions into the new physically settled, loco London gold daily futures contract which is traded on ICE Futures U.S. The EFPs establish positions in the futures contract which are cleared and can be physically delivered at ICE Clear U.S“
and Direct participants (DPs) “must establish a clearing account with an ICE Clear U.S. Clearing member” so as to be able to use this account to clear auction trades.
However, “DPs may still maintain credit lines to settle bilaterally against other DPs” and “DPs can elect, for each counterparty, to clear or settle their auction transactions bilaterally.” If this is so, then why the need to force these banks to open a clearing account and push through complex IT changes?
The ICE LBMA Gold Price web page now includes a double asterisk next to the names of the culprit banks that are not ready for central clearing. These banks are China Construction Bank, Société Générale, Standard Chartered, and UBS. the double asterisk states that “** Date of participating in the cleared auction to be determined.”
So now, more than 2 years after the LBMA Gold Price has been introduced, we are back to a situation where only 5 large bullion banks are participating in a daily gold price auction, an auction which has huge ramifications for the reference pricing of gold across myriad gold markets around the world.
Both of the auctions on 10 April finished within the first round, with buy volume and sell volume in balance, so there was no need for subsequent auction rounds.
Turning to the morning auction of Tuesday 11 April, only a measly 4 banks took part in the first round of the auction, and 5 participants took part in rounds 2 and 3. The bid and ask volumes were not that much out of balance, and the auction finished after 3 rounds.
Turning to the afternoon auction of 11 April, the price action commentary provided by Reuters was as follows:
“from an initial $1,265.75, close to the spot price at the time, the auction price ratcheted steadily lower before fixing at $1,252.90 in the ninth round. From the fifth round to the eighth the bid and offer volumes remained frozen, unable to match.“
Below you can see visually see what happened round by round from the first round price of $1,265.75 where there was zero bid volume and 125,217 ozs (nearly 4 tonnes) of ask volume, through the fifth to (actually) the ninth rounds where bid volume was an unchanging 92,873 ozs and ask volume was an unchanging 107,090 ozs, but still the price fell from $1,260.50 to fix in round 9 at $1,252.90, i,e, the price fell $7.60 in 2 minutes while the volumes didn’t budge. And most critically, the fixing price was $1252.90 while the spot price was trading at $1267 at that time.
“the benchmark ended up being set almost $15 dollars below where spot prices were trading at the time. The PM Gold Price showed a benchmark at $1,252.90 an ounce; however at the time, spot gold prices were trading around $1,267 an ounce, with prices heading towards a new five-month high.”
How could this happen? How could the auction price diverge so much from the spot price at that time and how could the auction go through round after round lowering the price while the bid and ask volumes did not change and while the spot price was actually far higher than any of the prices in the auction?
Kitco’s explanation, which is mostly based on the view of one person, Jeff Christian of the CPM Group, put the problem down to “poorly conceived regulations and a faulty price discovery mechanism“, i.e. a lack of liquidity due to banks being scared off by tightening regulations, and that this “sharp reduction in liquidity during the auction process” is causing “a large discrepancy in prices“. Christian also said that “because of regulations, banks and other financial institutions are backing away from becoming market makers.”
But this reasoning of backing away due to regulations is not backed up by the facts for the simple reason that banks have continued to join the LBMA Gold Price auction at a rapid rate over the last 2 years, i.e. there is a trend of ever more banks applying to be authorized to participate in the auction. For example, since the auction was launched on 20 March 2015 with 6 banks, 9 more banks have signed up JP Morgan, Morgan Stanley, Standard Chartered, Bank of China, ICBC, China Construction Bank, Bank of Communications, Toronto Dominion Bank, and INTL FCStone. Note that Barclays was one of the original six banks in the auction but dropped out after it downscaled its the precious metals business in London. There are also the same number of LBMA Market Makers now as there were two years ago, in both cases 13 LBMA Market Makers.
Kitco’s article also fails to mention the central clearing implementation fiasco brought about by ICE’s rush to channel activity into its gold futures contracts and Kitco even fails to realize that 4 banks were suspended from the auction due to this central clearing issue.
Another factor relevant to the screwed up afternoon auction on 11 April that should be considered is the fact that in mid-March 2017, ICE Benchmark Administration introduced a price algorithm into the LBMA Gold Price auction. This fact has been totally ignored by the financial media.
From a human Chairperson to an automated Algorithm
Up until mid March 2017, the LBMA Gold Price auction used a human ‘independent chairperson’ to choose the opening price in the auction and also the auction price in each subsequent round. The identities of these independent chairpersons have never been divulged by ICE nor the LBMA.
Critically, sometime during the 3rd week of March 2017, ICE Benchmark Administration (IBA) introduced a pricing algorithm into the LBMA Gold Price auction. This change in procedure (moving from an auction chairperson to an auction pricing algorithm) was not actively highlighted by either ICE or the LBMA but is clear from looking at Internet Archive imprints of the ICE LBMA Gold Price webpage.
“The auction process has an independent chairperson, appointed by IBA to determine the price for each round and ensure that the price responds appropriately to market conditions.”
See screenshot below for the same statement – taken from the same webpage:
Bullet point 1 of the Auction Process for the 9 March version of the webpage also refers to the chairperson as being responsible for setting the starting price and the price of each subsequent round “in line with current market conditions and the activity in the auction.”
But by 16 March, when the next imprint of the LBMA Gold Price page was made by the Internet Archive, the reference in the methodology section to an independent chairperson had been fully deleted, and bullet point 1 had been changed from mentioning a chairperson to discussing an algorithm, specifically changed to “IBA sets the starting price and the price for each round using an algorithm that takes into account current market conditions and the activity in the auction.”
See screenshot below for the same statement – taken from the same webpage:
So if there is an algorithm that is taking into account current market conditions in addition to activity in the auction, why did this algorithm not take the current spot prices into account over rounds 4 – 9 of the LBMA Gold Price auction on the afternoon of Tuesday 11 April?
Furthermore, for such a major change to the methodology and auction process in an auction whose benchmark price is widely used in the gold world, it’s very surprising that neither ICE, nor the LBMA, nor the London financial media mentioned this substantial algorithmic change.
In early December 2016, ICE published an LBMA GOLD PRICE Methodology Consultation in which one of the consultation’s proposed changes was “the introduction of an algorithm to determine the price for each auction round“.
The December 2016 document noted that:
“IBA’s auction process is currently that the auction chair sets the price for each Round in line with current market conditions and the activity in the auction”
“IBA currently has a panel of auction chairs who are independent of any firm associated with the auction, including Direct Participants. The chairs are externally sourced but work with IBA to deliver a robust process for determination of the LBMA Gold Price.
The chairs use their extensive market experience to set the round prices based on a pricing framework agreed with IBA. IBA chose to operate the auction using human chairs to make sure that the price could respond appropriately to market conditions from the outset.
IBA’s feedback from the market was that, at least in the early stages, the professional judgement of a human chairman was needed.“
“After operating the auction for more than a year, IBA started to develop an algorithm to set the auction’s starting price and subsequent round prices. IBA has now been testing and refining the algorithm over a number of months“
As per the proposal, the algorithm would replace the human chair, after which:
“Each auction will continue to be supervised by IBA’s analysts, and, if for any reason an auction did not progress as expected, IBA’s existing safeguards would be deployed to protect the integrity of the auction and the LBMA Gold Price benchmark“
These safeguards were stated as being three, namely:
– Pause the auction and restart, to give Participants an opportunity to contact clients or re-evaluate their positions
– Increase the imbalance threshold, if it appears that the auction will otherwise not finish
– Cancel an order, if it is compromising the integrity of the process and the relevant participant cannot be reached.
The proposals were pencilled in for implementation in Quarter 1, 2017.
Following the consultation, a “Methodology Consultation Feedback” document was published on the ICE Benchmark Administration website. One feedback respondent was concerned about who would be overseeing the daily auctions in the absence of a human chairperson, to which ICE answered:
“IBA can confirm that the auction will always be supervised by at least two IBA analysts. This approach is consistent with how we operate our other benchmarks.
Our aim is to put the auction on auto-pilot, not to make it driverless.
Unfortunately, from the wider gold market’s perspective, the LBMA Gold Price auction on the afternoon of Tuesday 11 April does indeed appear to have been ‘driverless‘ as it “did not progress as expected“, so it is now up to the LBMA and ICE to establish what the ‘IBA analysts’ were up to behind the driving wheel that day.
On its website, ICE states that the LBMA Gold Price methodology is “reviewed by the LBMA Gold Price Oversight Committee as documented in its Terms of Reference.” This Oversight Committee should also explain to the gold world what actually happened on the afternoon of 11 April.
Additionally, I find no explanation on ICE’s LBMA Gold Price webpage as to how exactly the automated algorithm works, what its logic rules are, how it was programmed etc.
The trading glitch with the LBMA Silver Price on Monday 10 April seems to have been completely missed by London’s financial media except for the brief reference by Reuters. The fact that there is no information on the CME, Thomson Reuters and LBMA websites about the issue should raise concern for users of this benchmark and for the UK’s regulator, the FCA. In an ideal world, there should be a full ‘outage’ report published on each of the 3 websites explaining what happened, but this will not happen in the shadowy and secretive London Silver Market.
Perhaps the auction price divergence in the LBMA Silver Price stems from a lack of liquidity brought on by the limited presence of auction participants, or due to the inability or unwillingness of participants to hedge or arbitrage their auction trades against the London OTC spot or other trading venues? The simple thing to do would be for CME, Thomson Reuters and the LBMA to explain themselves since this would minimize guesswork and to provide global silver market entities with clarity. Anything short of a full explanation by the parties concerned is irresponsible.
For the LBMA Gold Price auction, ICE Benchmark Administration needs to release a full ‘outage’ report and explanation on what exactly happened in the afternoon auction on 11 April and explain to the global gold market whether the introduction of central clearing was in any way responsible for the price divergence, and whether there are any conflicts of interest in trying to get banks to use its daily gold futures contracts. While they are at it, ICE should fully explain how the recent introduction of a pricing algorithm impacts the gold auction and whether this too had an impact on the auction price entering a downward spiral.
As the LBMA Silver Price and LBMA Gold Price are both Regulated Benchmarks, the FCA regulator needs to step up to the plate and for once show that it is on the side of the users of these benchmarks and not the powerful London banks.
Both of these auctions require full transparency and ease of direct participation by the full spectrum of the world’s gold and silver trading entities. Currently, they fall far short of these goals.
Two months after the LME announcement, during the annual conference of the London Bullion Market Association (LBMA), Intercontinental Exchange (ICE) announced on 17 October that it too planned the launch of a gold futures contract in the London market. See Bullion Desk’s “ICE to launch gold futures in 2017, competition in gold market grows” as well as the ICE press release. The ICE contract is named “Gold Daily Futures” and resides on the ICE Futures US platform. It too is a daily futures contract.
Not to be outdone, the CME Group then followed suit on 1 November 2016 and it too announced plans for a “London Spot Gold Futures contract” as well as a “London Spot Silver futures contract”. See CME press release “CME Group Announces New Precious Metals Spot Spread” from 1 November 2016, and “CME to launch London spot gold, silver futures for spot spread” from the Bullion Desk, 1 November 2016. The CME contract was to trade on COMEX (Globex and Clearport) as a daily futures contract, and was devised so as to offer traders a spot spread between COMEX and London OTC Spot gold.
As of August 2016, the LME’s target launch date was said to be “the first half of 2017”. ICE was more specific with a target launch of February 2017 (subject to regulatory review). In it’s announcement, CME went for an even earlier planned launch date of 9 January 2017 (subject to regulatory approval).
Two Launches – No Volume
Why the update? Over the 2 weeks, there have been a number of developments surrounding these 3 contracts. The CME and ICE gold futures contracts have both been launched, and additionally, LME has provided more clarity around the launch date of its offering.
Surprisingly, while there was plenty of financial media coverage of these 3 gold futures contracts when their plans were initially publicised from August – November 2016, there has been little to no financial media coverage of the contracts now that 2 of the 3 have been launched.
On 25 January, I took a look at the CME website to see what the status of the CME gold futures contract might be. Strangely, the contract itself was defined on the CME website (with a code of GSP) but it had no trading volume. From the website, it was not clear when the contract actually launched, but it looked to be sometime during the last week of January.
On 25 January, I also sent a short email to CME asking:
“Has the London Spot Gold contract started trading yet?
Next up the ICE gold futures contract (AUD). Upon checking the ICE website under section “Products”, the new ICE Gold Daily Futures contract has been defined, and the description states “The Daily Gold Futures contract will begin trading on trade date Monday, January 30, 2017“.
Turning to the ICE reporting section of the website for futures products, and selecting the end of day ICE Futures US report page, and then selecting the reports for AUD, there are 6 daily reports available for download, namely, from 30 and 31 January, and 1, 2, 3 and 6 February. Again, looking at each of these reports, there are varying prices specified in the reports but there are no trading volumes. All of the volumes are zero.
Therefore, as far as the CME and ICE websites show, both of these new gold futures contracts have been launched and are available to trade, but there hasn’t been a single trade in either of the contracts. Not a very good start to what was trumpeted and cheer-led as a new dawn for the London Gold Market by outlets such as Bloomberg with the article “Finance Titans Face Off Over $5 Trillion London Gold Market“.
LMEprecious – To Launch Monday 5 June 2017
Finally, possibly so as not to be forgotten while its rivals were launching their London gold futures offerings, the LME on Friday 3 February announced in a general LME and LME Clear update memo that the planned launch date of its LMEprecious platform is now going to be Monday 5 June, i.e. 4 months from now.
As a reminder, the LMEprecious contracts will be supported by a group of market maker investment banks, namely Goldman Sachs,Morgan Stanley, Société Générale, Natixis and ICBC Standard Bank.
It’s also important to remember that all 3 of these gold futures contract product sets are for the trading of unallocated gold, (i.e. claims on a bullion bank for gold, aka synthetic / fictional gold). All 3 contracts claim to be physically-settled but this is essentially a play on words, because in the world of the London Gold Market, physically-settled does not mean physically-settled in the way any normal person would define it. LBMA physically-settled just means passing unallocated balances around, a.k.a. pass the parcel. To wit:
ICE London gold futures settle via unallocated accounts:
“The contract will be settled through unallocated loco London gold vault accounts using LBMA Good Delivery Rules.”
CME London gold futures settle via unallocated accounts:
“London Spot Gold futures contract will represent 100 troy ounces of unallocated gold“
And for LMEprecious, settlement will be:
“Physical settlement one day following termination of trading. Seller transfers unallocated gold to [LME Clearing] LMEC account at any LPMCL member bank, and buyers receive unallocated gold from LMEC account at any LPMCL member bank.”
With neither the CME nor the ICE gold futures contracts registering any trades as of yet (according to their websites), it will be interesting to see how this drama pans out. Will they be dud contracts, like so many gold futures contracts before them that have gone to the gold futures contracts graveyard, or will they see a pick up in activity? All eyes will also be on the LME contract from 5 June onwards.
The lack of coverage of the new CME and ICE London gold futures contracts is also quite unusual. Have the London financial media already forgotten about them? According to Reuters it would seem so. On 22 January, Reuters published an article titled “LME’s pitch for share of gold market faces bumpy ride” which exclusively questioned whether the LME gold contract would be a success, while not even mentioning the CME and ICE contracts. Given that 22 January was right before the CME and ICE contracts were about to be launched, this is quite bizarre. Presumably Bloomberg will come to the rescue of its ‘financial titans’ heros, and will write glowing tributes about the new contracts, but this will be tricky given the zero trade volumes. We await with bated breath.
In the world of gold market reportage, much is written about gold futures prices, with the vast majority of reporting concentrating on the CME’s COMEX contracts. Indeed, when it comes to COMEX gold, a veritable cottage industry of websites and commentators makes its bread and butter commentating on COMEX gold price gyrations and the scraps of news connected to the COMEX. The reason for the commentators’ COMEX fixation is admittedly because that’s where the trading volume is. But such fixation tends to obscure the fact that there is another set of gold futures contracts on ‘The Street’, namely the Intercontinental Exchange (ICE) gold futures contracts that trade on the ICE Futures US platform.
These ICE gold futures see little trading volume. Nonetheless, they have a setup and infrastructure rivaling that of COMEX gold futures, for example, in the reporting of the gold inventories from the vault providers that have been approved and licensed by ICE for delivery of gold against its gold futures contracts.
At the end of each trading day, both CME and ICE publish reports showing warehouse inventories of gold in Exchange licensed facilities/depositories which meet the requirements for delivery against the Exchanges’ gold futures contracts. These inventories are reported in two categories, Eligible gold and Registered gold. Many people will be familiar with the COMEX version of the report. A lot less people appear to know about the ICE version of the report. For all intents and purposes they are similar reports with identical formats.
Most importantly, however, both reports are technically incorrect for the approved vaults that they have in common because neither Exchange report takes into account the Registered gold reported by the other Exchange. Therefore, the non-registered gold in each of the vaults in common is being overstated, in a small way for COMEX, and in a big way for ICE. And since COMEX and ICE have many approved vaults in common, technically this is a problem.
Before looking at the issues surrounding the accuracy of the reports, here is some background about CME and ICE which explains how both Exchanges ended up offering gold futures contracts using vaults in New York. The Commodity Exchange (COMEX) launched gold futures on 31 December 1974, the date on which the prohibition on private ownership of gold in the US was lifted. In 1994, COMEX became a subsidiary of the New York Mercantile Exchange (NYMEX).
In 2001, Euronext acquired the London International Financial Futures and Options Exchange (LIFFE) to form the Euronext.LIFFE futures exchange. In April 2007, NYSE and Euronext merged to form NYSE Euronext. Following the merger with NYSE, this merged futures exchange was renamed NYSE Liffe US.
In July 2007, Chicago Mercantile Exchange (CME) merged with the Chicago Board of Trade (CBOT) and CME and CBOT both became subsidiaries of ‘CME Group Inc’. CBOT had traded a 100 oz gold futures contract from 2004 and a ‘CBOT mini-sized’ gold futures contract (33.2 ozs) from 2001. During 2007, NYSE Euronext had also been attempting to acquire CBOT at the same time as CME.
In August 2008, the CME Group acquired NYMEX (as well as COMEX), and NYMEX (including COMEX) became a fully-owned subsidiary of holding company CME Group Inc. Just prior to acquiring NYMEX/COMEX and its precious metals products, the CME sold the CBOT products to NYSE Euronext in March 2008. This included the CBOT 100 oz and mini gold futures contracts, and the CBOT options on gold futures. NYSE Euronext then added these gold contract products to its NYSE Liffe US platform.
Both COMEX and ICE Futures US are “Designated Contract Markets” (DCMs), and both are regulated by the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC). Any precious metals vault that wants to act as an approved vault for either COMEX or ICE, or both, has had to go through the COMEX / ICE approval process, and the CFTC has to be kept in the loop on these approvals also.
The Vault Providers
For its gold futures contracts, COMEX has approved the facilities of 8 vault providers in and around New York City and the surrounding area including Delaware. These vaults are run by Brink’s, Delaware Depository, HSBC, International Depository Service (IDS) Delaware, JP Morgan Chase, Malca-Amit, ‘Manfra, Tordella & Brookes’ (MTB), and The Bank of Nova Scotia (Scotia). Their vault addresses are:
Brinks Inc: 652 Kent Ave. Brooklyn, NY and 580 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY 10036
Delaware Depository: 3601 North Market St and 4200 Governor Printz Blvd, Wilmington, DE
HSBC Bank USA: 1 West 39th Street, SC 2 Level, New York, NY
International Depository Services (IDS) of Delaware: 406 West Basin Road, New Castle, DE
JP Morgan Chase NA: 1 Chase Manhattan Plaza, New York, NY
Malca-Amit USA LLC, New York, NY (same building as MTB)
Manfra, Tordella & Brookes (MTB): 50 West 47th Street, New York, NY
Scotia Mocatta: 23059 International Airport Center Blvd., Building C, Suite 120, Jamaica, NY
Malca-Amit and IDS of Delaware were the most recent vault providers to be approved as COMEX vault facilities in December 2015/January 2016.
ICE has approved the facilities of 9 vault providers in and around New York City and the surrounding area including Delaware and also Bridgewater in Massachusetts. A lot of the ICE vaults in New York and the surrounding region were approved when its gold futures were part of NYSE Liffe. The ICE approved vaults are run by Brink’s, Coins N’ Things (CNT), Delaware Depository, HSBC, IDS Delaware, JP Morgan Chase, MTB, Loomis, and Scotia. From these lists you can see that Malca-Amit is unique to COMEX, and that CNT and Loomis are unique to ICE. The addresses of CNT and Loomis are as follows:
CNT Depository in Massachusetts: 722 Bedford St, Bridgewater, MA 02324
Loomis International (US) Inc: 130 Sheridan Blvd, Inwood, NY 11096
There are therefore 10 vault providers overall: Brink’s, CNT, Delaware Depository, HSBC, IDS Delaware, JP Morgan, Loomis, Malca-Amit, MTB, and Scotia. Three of the vaults are run by security transport and storage operators (Brink’s, Malca, and Loomis), three are owned by banks (HSBC, JP Morgan and Scotia), three are parts of US precious metals wholesaler groups (MTB, CNT and Dillon Gage’s IDS of Delaware), and one Delaware Depository is a privately held precious metals custody company.
Importantly, there are 7 vault provider facilities common to both COMEX and ICE. These 7 common vault providers are Brink’s, Delaware Depository, HSBC, IDS Delaware, JP Morgan, MTB, and Scotia.
The Inventory Reports
Each afternoon New York time, CME publishes a COMEX ‘Metal Depository Statistics’ report for the previous trading day’s gold inventory activity, which details gold inventory positions (in troy ounces) as well as changes in those positions within its approved vault facilities at Brink’s, Delaware Depository, HSBC, IDS Delaware, JP Morgan, Malca-Amit, MTB and Scotia. The COMEX report is published as an Excel file called Gold_Stocks and its uploaded as the same filename to the same CME Group public directory each day. Therefore it gets overwritten each day: https://www.cmegroup.com/delivery_reports/Gold_Stocks.xls.
Below are screenshots of this COMEX report for activity date Friday 16 December 2016 (end of week), which were reported on Monday 19 December 2016. For each depository, the report lists prior total of gold reported by that depository, the activity for that day (gold received or withdrawn) and the resulting updated total for that day. The report also breaks down the total of each depository into ‘Registered’, and ‘Eligible’ gold categories.
Eligible goldis all the gold residing in a reporting facility / vault which is acceptable by the Exchange for delivery against its gold futures contracts and for which a warrant (see below) has not been issued, i.e. the bars are of acceptable size, gold purity and bar brand. In practice, this just applies to 100 oz and 1 kilo gold bars. This ‘eligible gold’ could be gold owned by anyone, and it does not necessarily have any connection to the gold futures traders on that Exchange.
For example, 400 oz gold bars in a COMEX or ICE approved vault would not be eligible gold. Neither would 100 oz bars or kilo bars arriving in a vault if the bars had been outside the chain of custody and had not yet been assayed.
Registered gold is eligible gold (acceptable gold) for which a vault has issued a warehouse receipt (warrant). These warrants are documents of title issued by the vault in satisfaction of delivery of a gold futures contract, i.e. the vault receipts are delivered in settlement of the futures contract. This is analogous to set-aside or earmarked gold.
For the COMEX 100 oz gold futures contract (GC), physical delivery can be either through 1 unit of a 100 troy ounce gold bar, or 3 units of 1 kilo bars, therefore eligible gold on the CME report would include 100 troy ounces bars of gold, minimum 995 fineness, CME approved brand, and 1 kilo gold bars, CME approved brand. The CME E-Mini gold futures contract (QO) is exclusively cash settled and has no bearing on the licensed vault report. CME E-micro gold futures (MGC) can indirectly settle against the CME 100 oz GC contract through ‘Accumulated Certificates of Exchange’ (ACEs) which represent a 10% claim on a GC (100 oz) warrant. Therefore, the only gold bars reported included on the CME Metal Depository Statistics reports are 100 oz and 1 kilo gold bars.
Each afternoon New York time, ICE publishes a “Metal Vault Statistics” report as an Excel file which is uploaded to an ICE public web directory. The report lists the previous trading day’s gold inventory activity, and like the CME report, shows gold inventory positions and changes in those positions (receipts and withdrawals) in troy ounces within its approved vault facilities. The ICE report also breaks down the total of each depository into ‘Registered’ and ‘Eligible’ gold.
Two gold futures contracts trade on ICE Futures US, a 100 oz gold futures contract (ZG), and a Mini gold futures contract (YG). YG which has a contract size of 32.15 troy ounces (1 kilo). Both of these ICE gold contracts can be physically settled. The gold reported on the ICE Metal Vault Statistics report therefore comprises 100 oz and 1 kilo gold bars that are ICE approved brands. In practice, CME and ICE approved brands are the same brands.
The data required to be conveyed to CME each day by the approved depositories is covered in NYMEX Rulebook Chapter 7, section 703.A.7 which states that:
“on a daily basis, the facility shall provide, in an Exchange-approved format, the following information regarding its stocks:
a. The total quantity of registered metal stored at the facility.
b. The total quantity of eligible metal stored at the facility.
c. The quantity of eligible metal and registered metal received and shipped from the facility.”
The ICE Futures US documentation on gold futures does not appear to specifically cover the data that its approved vaults are required to send to ICE each day. Neither does it appear to be covered in the old NYSE Liffe Rulebook from 2014. In practice, since ICE generate a report for each trading day which is very similar to the CME version of the report, then it’s realistic to assume that the vaults send the same type of data to ICE. But as you will see below, the vaults seem to just send each Exchange a ‘number’ specifying the registered amount of gold connected to warrants related to the Exchange, and then another ‘number’ for acceptable gold that is not registered to warrants connected to that Exchange.
What is immediately obvious when looking at the CME and ICE reports side by side is:
a) they are both reporting the same total amounts of gold at each of the approved facilities (vaults) that they have in common, and also reporting the same receipts and withdraws to and from each vault. This would be as expected.
b) CME and ICE are reporting different amounts of ‘Registered’ gold at each facility because they only report on the gold Registered connected to their respective Exchange contracts…
c)… which means that CME and ICE are also reporting different amounts of ‘eligible’ gold at each approved facility that they have in common.
In other words, because neither Exchange takes into account the ‘Registered’ gold at the other Exchange, each of CME and ICE is overstating the amount of Eligible gold at each of the vaults that they both report on.
Look at the below Brinks vault line items as an example. For activity date Friday 16 December 2016, CME states that at the end of the day there were 588,468.428 troy ounces of gold Registered, leaving 223,946.744 ounces in Eligible, and 812,415.172 ounces in Total. ICE also states the same Total amount of 812,415.195 ounces (probably differs by 0.023 ozs due to rounded balances carried forward), but from ICE’s perspective, its report lists that there were 321.51 ounces (10 kilo bars) registered in this Brink’s vault, so therefore ICE states that there are 812,093.685 ounces of eligible gold in the Brinks vaults. However, CME has 588,468.428 troy ounces of gold ‘earmarked’ or Registered against the total amount of reported 100 oz and 1 kilo gold bars in the Brink’s facility. In practice, if the situation ever arose, the Brink’s vault could issue warrants against ICE gold futures of more than 223,635.234 ozs, because this is the maximum amount of eligible gold in the vault which is neither registered with the COMEX exchange or registered with the ICE exchange.
CME Brinks gold – Report date: 19 December 2016, Activity date: 16 December 2016
ICE Brinks gold – Report date: 19 December 2016, Activity date: 16 December 2016
Therefore in this example, both the CME and ICE reports are not fully correct, but the ICE report is far ‘more’ incorrect than the CME report because the ICE report substantially understates the true amount of Eligible (non-registered) gold in the Brink’s vault. This trend is evident across most ‘Eligible’ numbers for the vaults in the ICE report. Since the trading volume in ICE gold futures is very low overall, the number of ICE gold futures contracts that have ultimately generated warrants is also very low.
Although the relatively tiny amounts of ‘Registered’ ounces listed on the ICE report won’t really affect the overall accuracy of the COMEX reporting, a more correct approach to reflect reality would be for the vault providers to combine the Registered numbers from the two Exchanges, and subtract this combined amount from the reported Total at each facility so as to derive an accurate and real Eligible amount for each vault facility.
But what about a scenario in which very little non-registered gold is actually left in a vault right now due to a high Registered amount having been generated from COMEX activity? In such a situation, the ICE report will overestimate the amount of Eligible gold in a big way and a reader of that report would be oblivious of this fact. This is the case for the Manfra, Tordella & Brookes (MTB) vault data on the ICE report.
According to the CME report, as of Friday 16 December, there were 104,507.221 ozs of gold in the MTB vault in the form of acceptable 100 oz or 1 kilo bars, with 99,698.357 ozs of this gold registered against warrants for COMEX, and only 4,808.864 ozs not Registered (i.e. Eligible to be Registered).
The ICE report for the same date and same vault states that there are the same amount of Total ounces in the vault i.e. 104,507.217 ounces (0.004 oz delta). However, the ICE report states that 104,153.567 ozs are Eligible to be registered, since from ICE’s perspective, only 353.65 ozs (11 kilo bars) are actually Registered. But this ICE Eligible figure is misleading since there are a combined 100,052.007 ozs (99,698.357 ozs + 353.65 ozs) Registered between the 2 Exchanges, and only another 4,455.214 ozs of Eligible gold in total in the vault.
IDS Delaware Example
The reporting for International Depository Services (IDS) of Delaware is probably the most eye-opening example within the entire set of vault providers, because when looking at the 2 reports side by side, it becomes clear that there is no ‘Eligible’ (non-Registered) gold in the entire vault. CME states that 675.15 ozs (21 kilo bars) are Registered and that 514.4 ozs (16 kilo bars) are Eligible, giving a total of 1,189.55 ozs (37 kilo bars), but ICE states that 514.4 ozs (16 kilo bars) are Registered and thinks that 675.15 ozs (21 kilo bars) are Eligible. But in reality, between the two Exchanges, the entire 1,189.55 ozs (37 kilo bars) is Registered and there are zero ozs Eligible to be Registered. CME thinks whatever is not Registered is Eligible, and ICE thinks likewise. But all 37 kilo bars are Registered by the combined CME and ICE. IDS therefore sums up very well the dilemma created by the Exchanges not taking into account the warrants held against each other’s futures contracts.
Delaware Depository Example
Based on a report comparison, Delaware Depository (DD) is unusual in that there are different ‘Total’ amounts reported by each of CME and ICE. CME states that there are 110,336.484 ozs of acceptable gold in the DD vault, whereas ICE states that there are 112,008.284 ozs. This difference is 1,671.80 ozs which is equivalent to 52 kilo bars. So, for some unexplained reason, the vault has provided different total figures to CME and ICE.
The above comparison exercise can be performed for the other 3 vaults that both CME and ICE have in common, namely the 3 bank vaults of HSBC, JP Morgan and Scotia. These 3 vaults hold the largest quantities of metal in the entire series of New York area licensed vaults. The ICE contracts have very tiny registered amounts in these vaults, but the Eligible amounts listed on the ICE report for these vaults should technically take account of the Registered amounts listed on the CME report for these same 3 vaults.
The licensed vault that is unique to CME, i.e. the vault of Malca-Amit, surprisingly only reports holding 1060.983 ozs of gold (33 kilo bars), with all 33 bars reported as Registered. This is surprising since given that Malca operates a vault in the recently built International Gem Tower on West 47th Street, one would expect that Malca would be holding far more than just 33 gold kilo bars which would only take up a tiny amount of shelf space.
The two vaults that are unique to ICE, namely CMT and Loomis, also report holding only small amounts of acceptable gold. CNT has 9966.154 ozs (310 kilo bars), 90% of which is Registered, while Loomis reports holding just 7064.07 ozs, all of which is non-registered.
In gold futures physical settlement process, it’s the responsibility of the exchanges (COMEX and ICE) to assign the delivery (of a warrant) to a specific vault (the vault which is ‘stopped’ and whose warehouse receipt represents the gold delivered). Presumably, the settlement staff at both CME and ICE both know about each other’s registered amounts at the approved vaults, and obviously the vaults do since they track the warrants. But then, if this is so, why not indicate this on the respective reports?
The CME and ICE reports both have disclaimers attached as footnotes:
“The information in this report is taken from sources believed to be reliable; however, the Commodity Exchange, Inc. disclaims all liability whatsoever with regard to its accuracy or completeness. This report is produced for information purposes only.”
“The Exchange has made every attempt to provide accurate and complete data. The information contained in this report is compiled for you convenience and is furnished for informational purpose only without responsibility for accuracy.”
The exact definition of ‘Eligible’, taken from the COMEX Rulebook, is as follows:
“Eligible metal shall mean all such metal that is acceptable for delivery against the applicable metal futures contract for which a warrant has not been issued“
However, in the case of ICE, its report is vastly overstating figures for Eligible gold at the vaults in which COMEX is reporting large registered amounts. In these cases, a warrant has been issued against the metal, it’s just not for ICE contracts, but for the contracts of its competitor, the COMEX. Surely, at a minimum, these footnote disclaimers of the ICE and CME vault inventory reports should begin to mention this oversight?
Today the London Metal Exchange (LME) and the World Gold Council (WGC) jointly announced (here and here) the launch next year of standardised gold and silver spot and futures contracts which will trade on the LME’s electronic platform LMESelect, will clear on the LME central clearing platform LME Clear, and that will be settled ‘loco London’. Together these new products will be known as ‘LMEprecious’ and will launch in the first half of 2017.
However, although these contracts are described by the LME as delivery type ‘Physical’, settlement of trades on these contracts merely consists of unallocated gold or silver being transferred between LME Clear (LMEC) clearing accounts held at London Precious Metals Clearing Limited (LPMCL) member banks (i.e. paper trading via LPMCL’s AURUM clearing system).
London Metal Exchange: LMEprecious Gold contracts – “unallocated gold” delivery through LPMCL members https://t.co/F9BOUCjh3K
For example, the contract specs for the LME’s planned spot gold trading state that the LME’s proposed settlement procedure is one of:
“Physical settlement two days following termination of trading. Seller transfers unallocated gold to LMEC account at any LPMCL member bank, and buyers receive unallocated gold from LMEC account at any LPMCL member bank”
The range of LME contracts for both gold and silver will consist of a trade date + 1 contract (T+1), aptly named TOM, as well as daily futures from T + 2 (equivalent to Spot settlement) out to and including all trade dates to T + 25. Beyond the daily futures, the suite of contracts also includes approximately 36 monthly futures contracts covering each month out to 2 calendar years, and then each March, June, September and December out to 60 calendar months. The LME / WGC press release also mentions plans for options and calendar spread products based on these futures.
As well as trading electronically on LMESelect, these precious metals futures will also be tradeable via telephone market (inter-office market). Trading hours for the daily contract (TOM) will be 1am – 4pm London hours, while trading hours for all other contracts will be 1am – 8pm London hours, thereby also covering both Asian and US trading hours. Detailed contract specs for these gold and silver contracts are viewable on the LME website. The trading lot size for the LME gold contracts will be 100 ozs, which is significantly smaller than the conventional lot size of 5000 -10,000 ozs for gold trading in the London OTC market (and conventional OTC minimum of 1000 ozs of gold). The planned lot size for the LME’s silver contracts is 5000 ozs, again below the conventional lot size of 100,000 – 200,000 ozs for silver trading in the London OTC market (and conventional OTC minimum of 50,000 ozs of silver).
These LME contracts are being pitched as a real alternative to the incumbent over the counter system of gold and silver trading in London which is overseen by the London Bullion Market Association, an association whose most powerful members are the clearing and vaulting banks in London, namely HSBC, JP Morgan, Scotia, and to a lessor extent UBS and Barclays, but increasing ICBC Standard bank as well. But given that the LME’s clearing will sit on top of the LPMCL clearing system and use unallocated transfers, the chance of any real change to the incumbent London gold and silver market is non-existent. Nor will the trading of these LME products give any visibility into the amount of physical gold and silver that is held within the London Market, nor the coverage ratio between ‘unallocated account’ positions and real underlying physical metals.
Five Supporting Banks
This new LME / WGC initiative is being supported by 5 other investment banks and a trading entity called OSTC. These bank backers comprise US banks Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley, French banks Natixis and Société Générale, and Chinese controlled bank ICBC Standard Bank. According to a Reuters report about the launch, the World Gold Council had approached 30 firms about backing the launch, so with only 5 banks on board that’s a 16.6% take-up ratio of parties that were approached, and 83.4% who were not interested.
Earlier this year in January, Bloomberg said in a report said that the five interested banks were “ICBC Standard Bank Plc, Citigroup Inc., Morgan Stanley, Goldman Sachs Group Inc. and Societe Generale SA“, so somewhere along the line Citigroup looks to have taken itself off the list of interested parties, while Natixis came on board. The World Gold Council’s discussions about a proposed gold exchange and its discussions with ‘5 banks’ appear to have begun as early as the 4th quarter of 2014 and were flagged up by the Financial Times on 02 April 2015, when the FT stated that:
“The WGC has hired a number of consultants and spent the past six months pitching a business case for banks to consider the alternative trading infrastructure”
“The World Gold Council…and at least five banks are participating in initial discussions”
Notably, this was around the time that LME found out it had not secured the contracts to run either the LBMA Gold Price or LBMA Silver Price auctions. Note, that all 5 of the LME supporting banks, i.e. Goldman, ICBC Standard, Morgan Stanley, SocGen and Natixis, are members of the London Bullion Market Association (LBMA), with Goldman, Morgan Stanley, ICBC Standard and SocGen being LBMA market members, and Natixis being a full member of the LBMA. Goldman, Morgan Stanley, ICBC Standard and SocGen are also direct participants in the LBMA Gold Price auction operated by ICE Benchmark Administration. None of these 5 banks are direct participants in the LBMA Silver Price auction. Notably, none of these banks except for ICBC Standard is a member of the precious metals clearing group LPMCL. ICBC Standard Bank also recently acquired a precious metals vault in London from Barclays and also joined the LBMA’s Physical Committee (see BullionStar recent blog ‘Spotlight on LPMCL: London precious MEtals Clearing Limited‘ for details). Therefore, ICBC Standard seems to have a foot in both camps.
Unallocated Balances, Unsecured Creditors
Given the long build-up to this LME / World Gold Council announcement, and the fact that these LME spot and futures products were supposed to be a genuine alternative to the LBMA bank controlled OTC trading system, the continued use of unallocated settlement and the use of LPMCL accounts by these planned LME contracts underscores that the LME contract do not represent any real change in the London Gold and Silver Markets.
As a reminder, the resulting positions following transfers of unallocated gold and silver through the LME Clear accounts of LPMCL members essentially means the following, in the words of none other than the LBMA:
“Unallocated account basis. This is an account where the customer does not own specific bars, but has a general entitlement to an amount of metal. This is similar to the way that a bank account operates”
“settled by credits or debits to the account while the balance represents the indebtedness between the two parties.”
“Credit balances on the account do not entitle the creditor to specific bars of gold or silver or plates or ingots of platinum or palladium but are backed by the general stock of the precious metal dealer with whom the account is held:the client in this scenario is an unsecured creditor.
Alternatively, a negative balance will represent the precious metal indebtedness of the client to the dealer in the case where the client has a precious metal overdraft facility.
Should the client wish to receive actual metal, this is done by “allocating” specific bars, plates or ingots or equivalent precious metal product, the metal content of which is then debited from the unallocated account”.
LME bows to LPMCL
However, it should come as no surprise that these LME spot and futures contracts haven’t taken a new departure away from the entrenched monopoly of the London gold and silver clearing and vaulting systems, for the LME specifically stated in quite a recent submission to the LBMA that it will never rock the boat on LPMCL’s AURUM platform. When the LME presented to the LBMA in October 2014 in a pitch to win the contract for the LBMA Gold Price auction (which it didn’t secure), the pitch said that a centrally cleared solution “would only be introduced with market support and respecting LPMCL settlement“. [See right-hand box in below slide]:
In the same pitch, the LME also stated that:
“LME Clear fully respects existing loco London delivery mechanism and participants“
[See bottom line in below slide]:
Interestingly, following the announcement from the LME and the World Gold Council, the LBMA provided a very short statement that was quoted in the Financial Times, that said:
“The LBMA saw the announcement with interest and reconfirms it has no direct or indirect involvement in this project”.
While that may be true, what the LBMA statement didn’t concede is that 5 of its member banks, 4 of which are LBMA market makers, do have a direct involvement in the LME / World Gold Council project. Nor did the LBMA statement acknowledge that settlement of the planned LME gold and silver contracts will use the LPMCL infrastructure, nor that the LPMCL is now in specific scope of the LBMA’s remit.
“the London Precious Metals Clearing company took part not only [in the LBMA] review, but we have now agreed to formalise our working relationship, with the LBMA providing Executive services going forward. I’m grateful to the LPMCL directors for their leadership and their support for removing fragmentation from the market.”
With the LME contracts planning to use LPMCL, this ‘new dawn’ view of the LME / World Gold Council initiative is in my view mis-guided.
Even COMEX has more Transparency
Anyone familiar with the rudimentary vaulting and delivery procedures for gold and silver deliverable under the COMEX 100 oz gold and 5000 oz silver futures contracts will know that at least that system generates vault facility reports that specify how much eligible gold or silver is being stored in each of the designated New York vaults, the locations of the vaults, and also how much of the eligible gold or silver in storage has warehouse warrants against it (registered positions). The COMEX ‘system’ also generates data on gold and silver deliveries against contracts traded.
However, nothing in the above planned LME contract specs published so far gives any confidence that anyone will be the wiser as to how much gold or silver is in the London vaults backing up the trading of these spot and future contracts, how much gold or silver has been converted post-settlement to allocated positions in the vaults, nor how much gold or silver has been delivered as a consequence of trading in these spot and futures contract, nor importantly, where the actual participating vaults are.
This is because the LMPCL system is totally opaque and there is absolutely zero trade reporting by the LBMA or its member banks as to the volumes of gold and silver trading in the London market, and the volumes of physical metals held versus the volumes of ‘metal’ represented by unallocated account positions. Furthermore, the LBMA’s stated goal of introducing trade reporting looks as dead as a dodo, or at least as frozen as as a dodo on ice.
LBMA stall on Trade Reporting, LPMCL clear as Mud
On 9 October 2015, the LBMA announced that it had launched a Request for Information (RFI) asking financial and technology providers to submit help with formulating solutions to deficiencies which regulators thought the London bullion market such as the need for transparency, and issues such as liquidity that had supposedly been recommended as strategic objectives by consultant EY in its report to the LBMA, a report that incidentally has never been made publicly available. On 25 November 2015, the LBMA then announced that it had received 17 submissions to its RFI from 20 entities spanning “exchange groups, technology firms, brokers and data vendors”.
On 4 February 2016, the LBMA then issued a statement saying that it was launching a Request for Proposals (rRfP) and inviting 5 of these service providers (a short-list) to submit technical solutions that would address requirements such as an LBMA data warehouse and that would support the introduction of services such as trade reporting in the London bullion market. The RfP statement said that the winning service provider would be chosen in Q2 2016, with a planned implementation in H2 2016.
However, no progress was announced by the LBMA about the above RfP during Q2 2016, nor since then. The only coverage of this lack of newsflow came from the Bullion Desk in a 27 May article titled “Frustration Grows over London Gold Market Reform” in which it stated that the 5 solution providers on the short-list were “the LME, CME Group, the Intercontinental Exchange (ICE), Autilla/Cinnobar and Markit/ABS“, and that:
“the pace at which the LMBA is moving forward are causes for consternation in some quarters of the sector”
A quote within the Bullion Desk article seems to sum up the sentiment about the LBMA’s lack of progress in its project:
“It’s not going to happen any time soon. Look at how long it’s been going on already,” another market participant said. “Don’t hold your breath. It seems like we still have a long way to go.”
What could the hold up be? Surely 17 submissions from 20 entities that were whittled down to a short-list of 5 very sophisticated groups should have given the LBMA plenty of choice for nominating a winning entry. Whatever else this lack of progress suggests, it demonstrates that increased transparency in London gold and silver market trading data is not going to happen anytime soon, if ever.
Furthermore, the opacity of the London clearing statistics that are generated out of the LPMCL clearing system need no introduction to most, but can be read about here.
According to the LBMA, ‘Loco London’ “refers to gold and silver bullion that is physically held in London“, however, given the secrecy which surrounding trading data in the London gold and silver markets, and the lack of publication by any bank about the proportion of unallocated client balances in gold or silver that it maintains versus the physical gold or silver holdings that it maintains, this ‘loco London‘ term appears to have been abused beyond any reasonable definition, and now predominantly refers to debit and credit entries in the virtual accounting systems of London based bullion banks. Nor, in my opinion, will the LME contracts change any of this. One would therefore be forgiven in thinking that the real underlying inventories of gold and silver in the London market and their associated inverted pyramid unallocated account positions are too ‘precious’ to divulge to the market. The Bank of England is undoubtedly licking its chops to the continued opacity of the market.
And its not just my opinion. This latest LME / World Gold Council / investment bank announcement has generated other skeptical reactions. The last word goes to Jim Rickards, who tweeted this in reaction to the latest LME / World Gold Council news: