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As Emerging Market Currencies Collapse, Gold is being Mobilized

In recent weeks, global financial markets have been increasingly spooked by an intensifying crisis in emerging market currencies including those of Turkey and Argentina. Add to this the ongoing currency crisis in Venezuela and the currency problems of Iran. While all of these countries have economy specific reasons that explain at least some of their currency weakness, there are some common themes such as a stronger US dollar, high domestic inflation rates, economic mismanagement, reliance on foreign borrowing, and in some cases economic sanctions imposed by the US.

As one currency plummets, this intensifies emerging market risk across the entire asset class, and it’s not unreasonable at this time to at least speculate whether the contagion could spread. The Brazilian Real and South African Rand have come under pressure and in Asia, the Indonesian Rupiah and Indian Rupee are also now weakening against the US Dollar.

It is against this backdrop that physical gold is being increasingly mentioned within these emerging economies, with gold coming to the fore as it always does in times of crisis. It is for this reason that its interesting to take a look at a number of these currencies and examine how gold is playing the role of safe haven for these countries’ citizens as well as creating a challenge for these nations’ leaders and central banks.

Buying up Gold as the Turkish Lira Plunges

With ongoing currency and external debt problems, Turkey, with a population of 90 million, has played a central role in the current currency crisis and remains a catalyst for potential risk contagion across other troubled emerging market currencies.

Turkey’s currency woes come against a backdrop of a stronger US dollar, domestic inflation of 15%, increasing default risk, market skepticism about the independence of Turkey’s monetary policy, and a series of US sanctions against the Turkey economy.

Although the Turkish Lira was already weakening during the early part of the year (falling 6.4% against the US Dollar from January to April), things took a turn for the worse in May with the Lira falling by a further 9% against the dollar during that one month. Another 6% drop in the Lira followed during July. But it was in August that the Turkish currency crisis really accelerated, with the Lira depreciating 28% against the US dollar in an environment of US sanctions and rating agency downgrades of Turkey’s debt.

During the same time frame, the gold price in Turkish Lira rose by approximately 60%, from just under TRY 5000 per troy ounce at the beginning of January, to TRY 7860 per troy ounce at the end of August. This rising local gold price spurred an increase in physical gold demand in the Turkish Gold Market, as reported by Bloomberg at the end of May with “a jump in demand for gold coins” and Turks “buying up gold as the lira plunges in the latest currency crisis

“Gold priced in lira is more expensive than ever, that’s not deterring buyers, who are looking for a safe haven

“‘Turkish people have an interesting behavior – they buy gold when the prices are rising, they think it’s gonna rise more,’” said Gokhan Karakan who runs a gold exchange office in the heart of Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar. “People think there is a trend here and choose to buy gold until uncertainty is out of the way.”

Perversely, in August while the Turkey Lira was in free fall, Turkey’s president Erdogan (who is against raising Turkish interest rates) made a nationalistic call for the Turkey public to sell both gold and US dollars and buy Turkish Lira. In a speech to a crowd in the Turkish city of Bayburt on 10 August, Erdogan advised:

“If there is anyone who has dollars or gold under their pillows, they should go exchange it for lira at our banks. This is a national, domestic battle.”

Although not surprisingly the presidential bid to support the Turkish Lira by selling gold did not work (as the local gold price continued to rise), the lesson from Erdogan’s call is clear. Gold is a safe haven and retains its value in times of crisis. Unfortunately Erdogan’s motivations were political, with an irresponsible call to sell one of the only assets that can provide a shelter from the eroding value of the Lira.

Iran – Investing in Safety as the Crisis Intensifies

Iran’s currency, the Rial, has fallen heavily in value against the US dollar this year, losing approximately 60%, from an unofficial rate of about 43,000 Rial at the beginning of January to 110,000 to the US dollar at the end of August. The currency crisis even led to the head of the Iranian central bank, Valiollah Seif, being fired by the Iranian president during July.

This slow motion but steady collapse of the Rial had been ongoing for sometime due to a weak economy, inflation of more than 19%, and economic uncertainty brought on by the fear of US sanctions (such as in April), but accelerated in May when the US administration pulled out of a multilateral nuclear deal on Iran (JCPOA), and subsequently announced two new sets of sanctions against Iran.

The first set of these sanctions, which came into effect on 7 August, included restrictions on Iran’s trade in gold and other precious metals and on Iran’s trade in US dollars. The run up to the first set of sanctions also saw heightened gold accumulation in Iran. The second set of sanctions, which come into effect on 4 November, focus on the Iranian energy and financial sectors, including doing business with the Iranian central bank.

Iranians rush to exchange the Iranian Rial for Gold Coins

Over the year-to-date as the Rial slid amidst fear of sanctions and then the subsequent reality of those sanctions, the Iranian public (Iran population 82 million) rushed to the safe haven of physical gold, hoarding gold coins and gold bars and pushing demand for physical gold to a 4 year high. As the World Gold Council noted in August when discussing second quarter Iranian gold demand:

“Faced with renewed economic sanctions and a collapsing currency, which caused a huge rise in the local price [of gold], demand for gold jewellery slumped. Instead demand was channelled into gold investment products (which, unlike gold jewellery, are VAT-exempt), pushing demand for bars and coins to a four-year high.

This was reiterated on the ground in Iran’s Gold Market, as Bloomberg noted at the beginning of August:

“Demand for physical gold is very high and has been as the currency’s been weakening,” said Massoud Gholampour, an analyst at Novin Investment Bank in Tehran. “People want to invest in something that’s safe if they think that a crisis may be on the way.”

Some of this physical gold demand was met by the Iranian central bank. Triggered by the currency collapse and a rising local gold price, the central bank decided to introduced a gold coin presales scheme designed to dampen down the local gold price, offering 7.6 million gold coins to applicants, over time horizons from 1 month to 6 month maturities. For example the delivery phase of the 6 month maturity presales scheme is active until November.

The Rial’s collapse and eroding value also brought gold to the fore for larger payment transactions in Iran, such as real estate rentals, where for example, one landlord was “asking prospective tenants to pay two gold coins to rent a 95 square metre apartment for one month.

“I know that many may not be able to afford it….but when I see that the currency I may get from my tenants would have less value compared to the previous month, then that leaves me with no choice. If I continue to rent out my apartment in return for rials, then I would face financial loss.”

Maduro plays the Gold Card as Hyperinflation Reigns

In the hyperinflationary economy of Venezuela, where inflation is now running at nearly 65,000% and is predicted by the IMF to reach 1 million percent before the end of the year, the Venezuelan currency in its various forms continues to hit the headlines.

On 20 August, Venezuela began the replacement of its existing fiat currency, the Bolivar fuerte (strong bolivar), with a new Bolivar Soberano (sovereign Bolivar) at a rate of 1 Bolivar soberano for every 100,000 Bolivar fuerte, effectively knocked five zeros off the fiat currency. This exercise is ostensibly meant to tackle hyperinflation but will, like all previous Venezuelan currency experiments, most likely not be effective and will probably exacerbate hyperinflation.

At the same time, the new Bolivar soberano was decreed to be linked to a murky and opaque state issued cryptocurrency called the Petro, at a rate of 3600 Bolivar soberanos to 1 Petro. This Petro is claimed to be backed by Venezuelan oil but there is scepticism that the Petro doesn’t really exist or at least doesn’t exist as a functioning currency.

All of the above sets the new official rate at 1 USD = 60 Bolivar soberano (or 1 USD = 6 million Boliar fuerte), and effectively devalues the Venezuelan currency by 95.8% since the previous official rate was 1 USD > 248,000 Bolivar fuente. The Bolivar fuente in its short life (launched in January 2008) itself had experienced many official devaluations against the US dollar, all the while trading on the black market at far lower values than the official rate. Even the new Bolivar soberano less than a few weeks old is already trading at 87 to the USD, far weaker than the official rate (see https://dolartoday.com).

It was into this tumultuous economic environment that Venezuelan president Maduro last week announced a national gold savings plan for workers, retirees and savings banks (Venezuela population 32 million) that will be launched on 11 September. Although the gold savings plan looked half-baked and flawed (as do most of Venezuela’s recent forays in economic interventionism), the fact of the matter is that yet again, physical gold makes an appearance in the midst of a currency crisis.

Maduro explains his ‘Lingotico’ Gold Savings Plan at a party conference 26 August: Source: EL PAÍS

Maduro’s new plan, known as ‘lingotico’, aims to issue gold backed certificates, backed by small gold bars of 1.5 gram and 2.5 gram weights. The gold will be available for ‘purchase’ by Venezuelans at 3,780 bolivars for the 1.5 gram gold bars and the 2.5 gram gold bars will sell for 6,300 bolivars. However, according to Bloomberg, buyers will receive gold certificates, not the actual gold bars.

Maduro said that the gold for this saving program is sourced from the eastern Guayana region of Venezuela (not to be confused with the neighbouring country of Guyana), which he said the BCV, Venezuela’s central bank had sourced from local gold mines. Interestingly, the gold for this scheme is not being sourced from Venezuela’s central bank gold reserves, as they have either been most likely already sold off are under claim in various gold loans / gold swaps.

In the two short videos below (in Spanish), Maduro, with small gold bars in hand in sealed packaging with the BCV central bank logo, outlines how the scheme will allow Venezuelans to save in gold, and to protect their savings from inflation. The first video was filmed at a Maduro party conference on Sunday 26th August.


Maduro launches the Gold Savings Plan at Casa de la Moneda in Aragua, Venezuela: Source Venezolana de Televisión (VTV)

The second video, the official launch of the gold savings plan, was filmed at the Casa de la Moneda in Aragua, Venezuela (a BCV banknote and coin facility) and again shows Maduro with a gold bar in hand and ironically is set against a backdrop of huge quantities of Bolivar bank notes, and in the background somewhat bizarrely BCV employees paging through huge quantities of printed banknotes.

The Contagion Spreads

Staying in South America, the emerging market currency crisis has now rippled through to Argentina and to a lessor extent Brazil, with the Argentine Peso plummeting in double digits last week against the US dollar on news that the Argentine government had requested an early activation of an IMF loan, fanning market fears that the Argentine economy will have imminent problems repaying foreign denominated debt.

The Argentine peso has lost more than 50% against the US dollar during 2018 and is now 2018’s worst performing currency. The peso’s plummet during the week forced the Central Bank of Argentina (BCRA) to hike official interest rates to 60% to try to stop the peso selloff, and Argentina,where inflation is running at over 25% per annum, now has the embarrassing distinction of having the highest interest rates in the world.

Elsewhere in South America, the Brazilian Real and Chilean Peso have also begun declining notably in value against the US Dollar, with the Real down more than 20% against the US dollar year-to-date. Further afield, other emerging market currencies are now experiencing possible contagion effects, with the Indonesian Rupee now at its lowest level against the US dollar since the Asian crisis of 1998, and the Indian Rupee now below 71 to the US dollar for the first time ever. Expect to see gold linked to currency stories in these economies as the emerging market crisis continues to brew.

Physical gold takes centre-stage in times of crisis precisely because it has tangible value, is not issued by any central bank, monetary authority or government, cannot be debased and has no counterparty or default risk. The fact that sophisticated physical gold markets exist in most if not all of the economies currently stricken by currency weakness also allows gold, with its deep liquidity, to be quickly harnessed.

Annual Mine Supply of Gold: Does it Matter?

The topic of how much extractable gold is left in the world has become increasingly discussed within the last few years. This is because of increased focus on ‘peak gold’ and also a concern about remaining levels of unextracted gold reserves. Peak gold is a term referring to the phenomenon of annual gold mining supply peaking (i.e. the rate of gold extraction increases until it peaks at maximum gold output and subsequently diminishes).

The concern about remaining extractable gold is based on the fact that annual gold mining production is running at over 3200 tonnes per annum (e.g. 3247 tonnes in 2017 according to GFMS), while various metal and geological consultancy estimates put the amount of remaining extractable gold reserves worldwide in the region of 55,000 tonnes. In other words, at current rates of extraction, according to these estimates, known gold reserves worldwide would be depleted in about 17 years.

For example, the USGS estimates that there are approximately 54,000 tonnes of economically extractable gold reserves in the world, while consultancy Metals Focus in its annual ‘Gold Focus‘ report estimated recently that there are about 57,000 tonnes of in-ground gold mineral reserves remaining worldwide.

Given that about 192,000 tonnes of gold have been mined throughout history (according to the World Gold Council), with about half of that mined gold extracted in the last 50 years, the figures of remaining gold reserves could look quite low and potentially worrying. But should we be worried, and more fundamentally does annual gold supply really matter all that much?

Cumulative Global Gold Production: 1835 to present day. Source: www.goldchartsrus.com 

Estimated Reserves are Not the Full Picture

While published estimates of remaining gold reserves are in the ballpark of 55,000 tonnes, reserves are not the full picture, and other factors indicate that there is a lot more mineable gold left in the world than reserves estimates would suggest. Firstly, the definitions of reserves and resources have to be taken into account.

As the USGS explains in its Reserves and Resources definitions:

“Reserves data are dynamic. They may be reduced as ore is mined and/or the feasibility of extraction diminishes, or more commonly, they may continue to increase as additional deposits (known or recently discovered) are developed, or currently exploited deposits are more thoroughly explored, and (or) new technology or economic variables improve their economic feasibility.”

Reserves, according to USGS, are the “working inventory of mining companies’ supplies of an economically extractable mineral commodity“. This inventory is limited by many factors including extraction and operating costs, as well as “the price of the mineral commodity being mined, and the demand for it.

Future supplies, say USGS, “will come from reserves and other identified resources as well as from “currently undiscovered resources in deposits that will be discovered in the future“. This latter category, the undiscovered mineral deposits, “constitute an important consideration in assessing future supplies” says USGS. Therefore, the USGS reserves figure (economically extractable gold) can be augmented by identifiable resources (resources potentially feasible to extract) as well as undiscovered resources (postulated to be in mineral deposits).

The Metals Focus “Gold Focus 2017” report puts some numbers on these differences. While Metals Focus estimate that at the end of 2016 global gold mineral reserves totalled 57,300 tonnes, they think that there is “an additional 110,000 tonnes of gold in the resource category“.

And for example, while the largest 50 gold mines in the Metals Focus tracking database (responsible for over 25% of global mine supply) have on average just over 11 years of reserve mine life remaining, “these mines also have an additional 11 years of mineral resources (exclusive of reserves), which have the potential to be recategorised into reserves.

But even in the published reserves data from USGS, reserve estimates appear to be underestimated and USGS gold reserves data at times looks more static than ‘dynamic’. Drilling down into the USGS estimate of 54,000 tonnes of gold reserves globally, only 2000 tonnes of this total is attributed to the world’s top gold producer China. However, China stated at the end of 2016 that it had a much larger 12,100 tonnes of identified in-ground gold reserves.

Likewise, the USGS estimates only attribute 5,500 tonnes of unmined gold reserves to the third largest  gold producer Russia, whereas the Russian Federation says that it has 12,500 tonnes of identified gold reserves. So even within these two major gold producing countries, China and Russia, that’s another 17,000 tonnes of identified gold reserves that the USGS does not reflect in its gold reserves total.  Different data methodologies perhaps for defining gold reserves and gold resources, but these deltas highlight an important point that when it comes to mineable gold, there is no one consensus figure.

Technological advances in gold mining and processing can also over time change identifiable resources (resources potentially feasible to extract) into reserves, and turn undiscovered resources (theroized to be in mineral deposits) into identifiable resources. These advances and discoveries therefore increase the pool of gold reserves over time. Likewise, some gold deposits which are uneconomic to mine at gold price X will become economically viable to mine at a higher gold price of Y.

Stock vs Flow: The Key to Above-Ground Stocks

But on a more fundamental level, do the short-term gyrations in annual gold supply really matter that much? Specialist gold consultancies such as GFMS and Metals Focus which regularly crunch annual gold mining figures would argue yes, but their fixation on annual gold supply downplays the fact that there are huge above-ground stocks of gold which have an influence on everything from gold’s investment characteristics (e.g. store of value, portfolio diversifier and safe haven) to movements in the gold price, and to the shifting direction of gold flows between east and west.

Almost all of the gold ever mined throughout history still exists in these above-ground gold stocks, be it in the form of gold jewelry, central bank gold holdings, gold held in private gold hoards within investment gold bars and coins, and gold that has been used within industrial medical and technological applications. This amounts to about 192,000 tonnes according to the World Gold Council (WGC), or significantly more according to those who dispute the WGC’s figures as being underestimated.

Using WGC figures, this would mean that the annual flow of new gold from mining (about 3100 tonnes), represents only about 1.6% of the total above-ground stocks of gold. Or in other words, the above-ground stocks of gold are about 62 times larger than the annual flow of new gold from gold mining. i.e. the stock-to-flow ratio is very high.

The majority of this above ground gold is held for saving purposes and as a store of wealth (including in the form of gold jewelry), and while much of the gold in above-ground stocks is not traded, it has the potential to be traded, and it can move into the highly liquid worldwide gold market depending on the gold price. Therefore, this far larger pool of gold held in above-ground gold stocks widens the definition of gold supply considerably.

Above-Ground Stocks – A Store of Value

Holding physical gold as a store of value works precisely because there are very large above ground stocks of gold in existence. Unlike other metals which are produced to be consumed (even including silver to some extent), physical gold is a monetary metal because it is rare, tangible, cannot be debased and has no counterparty or default risk. See here for details. Physical gold is also generally produced to be accumulated and to be used as a store of wealth and as an inflation hedge.

This accumulation of gold from the dawn of civilisations to the present day gives us the current very large above ground stocks of gold, a stock which constantly increases but increases at a slow and stable rate relative to the size of the overall stock. Therefore the value of this total above ground stock of gold is relatively stable, and over long periods of time, the purchasing power of this total stock of gold (which cannot be debased) is stable relative to the prices of other goods.

Gold’s purchasing power has also been found to be nearly constant over long periods. See for example the well-known study by Roy Jastram known as ‘The Golden Constant‘, in which he constructed gold price indexes and general price indexes and found that the purchasing power of gold, although it fluctuated, was broadly constant over long periods of time. Jastram’s study was then updated in 2009 by Jill Leyland. As Leyland wrote in an explanation of gold’s constant purchasing power which makes it an ideal store of value:

“the broad supply and demand fundamentals of gold help this stability. Gold is a scarce metal and the annual increase in supply is a small fraction of above-ground stocks. Most gold is held in a form that makes it easy to return to the market if economic circumstances dictate, thus helping to stabilise price fluctuations.”

Therefore, gold’s ability to act as store of value and as a form of wealth preservation is directly related to gold’s very large and stable above ground stocks. The presence of very large above-ground gold stocks also partially explains gold’s safe haven appeal. One aspect of why gold acts is a safe haven is that it does not have any counterparty or default risk. But there is also an understanding that in times of crisis the physical gold market will remain highly liquid, a liquidity which again is due to the ability of the extensive above ground stock of gold to be mobilised.

Gold is Less Affected by Economic Activity

The existence of very large above-ground gold stocks also drives gold’s ability to provide diversification benefits, for example, holding gold in a wider investment portfolio of other assets such as stocks and bonds is a proven way to reduce portfolio risk. This is so because of the low correlation of the gold price with the prices of these other assets which in turn is because the gold price is far less influenced by business and macro economic cycles than other assets. But why is the gold price less influenced by business and macro economic cycles than other assets?

The answer again lies in gold’s huge above ground stocks, and the highly liquid worldwide gold market that allows these gold stocks to move into the market should conditions merit it. Gold demand can therefore be met, not just from new mine supply which is correlated to business cycles, but from any of the gold that exists in gold’s extensive above-ground stocks.

As a World Gold Council paper from 2003 titled “Why is gold different from other assets?” states:

The lack of correlation between returns on gold and those on financial assets such as equities has become widely established….the fundamental reason for this lack of correlation is that returns on gold are not correlated to economic activity whereas returns on mainstream financial assets are.

It is thought that the reasons which set gold apart from other commodities stem from three crucial attributes of gold: it is fungible, indestructible and, most importantly, the inventory of above-ground stocks of gold is enormous relative to the supply flow….The potential for gold to be highly liquid and responsive to price changes is seen as its critical difference from other commodities.”

A Wider Definition of Gold Supply

In practice, what do these above ground gold stocks constitute and can they be mobilised? According to the WGC, about 90,000 tonnes of above ground gold is held in the form of gold jewellery, another 33,000 tonnes of gold are (reportedly) held by central banks, about 40,000 tonnes are attributed to private gold holders, and the remainder sits within end uses where it has been applied in industrial / technological and other fabrication uses.

In theory, all above-gound gold can be mobilised into the gold market as forms of potential supply if the price is right. In practice, all the major categories of gold holdings are served by functioning markets which allows their mobilisation. For example in India, where between 20,000 and 25,000 tonnes of gold are held by private citizens, the gold market provides a mechanism for the accumulation or sale of investment gold jewelry depending on fluctuating incomes and economic conditions. In China, where at least 17,000 tonnes of gold is held by private citizens, the gold market is served by a central physical gold exchange (the Shanghai Gold Exchange) and large networks of gold jewelery and investment gold retail outlets.

The ability to mobilise gold from the central bank and official sector is served by a functioning gold lending and gold swapping market centred in London. Admittedly, that gold lending market is so opaque due to secrecy and lack of reporting that its impossible to know how much or how little gold is actually in the possession of central banks and how much has been lent out and not returned. But overall, there is gold lent out from central bank holdings that flows into the market and is very distinct from any supply categories tracked by the major precious metals consultancies.

Many national gold markets exist around the world also exist which provide their citizens with the ability to buy and sell physical gold and which provide the necessary liquidity with which private gold holdings can be mobilised into the market. For example, see BullionStar’s Gold University for profiles of over 20 of these gold markets. Due to gold’s high value, a well-functioning scrap gold and gold recycling sector also exists around the world, with numerous refineries and processors adept at extracting valuable gold content from every end use product which contains gold bearing material.

Gold from countries that would normally be net buyers on the international market can also be turn into net gold suppliers when the need arises, in other words flows of gold from West to East can and do sometimes switch to flows going the other way from East to West. This, for example happened in 2016 when non-monetary gold flowed westwards to Switzerland from countries such as UAE, Hong Kong and Thailand (markets that are normally considered large destinations for Swiss gold) and this gold was then exported from Switzerland to mainly the UK but also the US.

There is a relative fixation in the gold industry on new gold mining supply and the impact that this has on the gold market. But beyond annual gold mining output, its important to remember that the world’s above-ground gold stocks, some 190,000 tonnes based on official figures, can and do come into play as supply sources if and when conditions merit this.

Most importantly, these vast above-ground stocks underpin some of physical gold’s most important investment characteristics, such as gold’s ability to act as a stable store of value  and gold’s ability to reduce risk in investment portfolios.

LBMA at the Movies: Golden Turkeys

In March of this year, the London Bullion Market Association (LBMA) released a series of short videos about various aspects of the London precious metals markets and the role the LBMA claims to plays in those markets. In the words of the LBMA:

“LBMA, the Global Authority for Precious Metals, has released five short films highlighting the pivotal role it plays in the global wholesale precious metals market by setting standards and developing market services thus ensuring the highest levels of integrity, transparency and quality.”

While calling these short clips ‘films’ is a bit ludicrous, the series of videos – which are indeed very short – are as follows, and they can be seen on the LBMA website as well as on the LBMA’s YouTube channel:

  • ‘Who We Are’ (2:33 minutes)   

… in which Paul Fisher (LBMA Chairman) and Ruth Crowell (Chief Executive) “discuss the central role that LBMA plays in the global OTC precious metal markets. From setting standards on the purity, form and provenance of the bars to the way in which they are traded.” 

Links: LBMA website. LBMA YouTube channel.

  • How the Market Works – OTC Overview (1:14 minutes)

… in which Jonathan Spall, LBMA Head of Communications “looks at how LBMA is at the heart of the 24-hour a day global OTC precious metals market with its bespoke transactions, which are tailored for clients’ needs.

Links: LBMA website. LBMA YouTube channel.

  • How the Market Works – Five Elements (2:01 minutes)

… in which Jonathan Spall, LBMA Head of Communications “highlights how LBMA  plays a crucial role in the five main elements that allow the smooth functioning of the global OTC market.”

Links: LBMA website. LBMA YouTube channel.

[Note: This video is called ‘Market Infrastructure Key Elements’ on the LBMA website.]

  • Good Delivery (1:08 minutes)

…in which Neil Harby (Chief Technical Officer) “takes you through the stringent Good Delivery criteria – the de facto standard trusted across the world – that enable the global trade in gold and silver bars.

LBMA website.  LBMA YouTube channel.

  • Responsible Sourcing (1:27 minutes)

… in which Sakhila Mirza (General Counsel) and Neil Harby (Chief Technical Officer) “discuss LBMA’s Precious Metals Integrity and Provenance initiatives, ensuring the responsible sourcing of precious metals and the protection and integrity of the global supply chain.

LBMA website.  LBMA YouTube channel.

The commentary of each of the videos is also in transcript form on the LBMA website, and given that the videos are so short, the transcripts are likewise bitesize. While the Good Delivery and Responsible Sourcing videos deal with technical aspects of the the LBMA’s interaction with precious metals refiners, it is the ‘Who we Are’ and ‘How the Market Works’ videos which are worth discussing in the context that neither answers the questions that their titles suggest.

Who we Are

With a title of ‘Who We Are’, a newbie viewer might think that the first LBMA video would provide some insight into who is behind the LBMA and what really goes on in the London Gold Market and London’s other precious metals markets. But not surprisingly, it does not.

Instead, the LBMA’s chief executive Ruth Crowell, and LBMA chairman Paul Fisher take turns in reciting sound bites that focus exclusively on aspects of the physical precious metals markets while ignoring the vast fractionally-backed paper (synthetic) gold market and the secretive London gold lending market.

LBMA video – Who We Are’ (2:33 minutes). Source: YouTube

The video begins with a claim that the LBMA is “the world’s authority for precious metals“. An authority appointed by whom? There is no mention in the video that the LBMA is a private organisation established in 1987 by the Bank of England, or that the original founding members were 6 bullion banks involved in the London Gold Market including Rothschild, J Aron (Goldman Sachs), and Morgan Guaranty (JP Morgan). For details of the LBMA – Bank of England symbiosis, see BullionStar article “Blood Brothers: The Bank of England and the London Bullion Market Association (LBMA)

Ruth Crowell states that “our Board has an independent Chairman, as well as Non-Executive Directors, which ensure the independence of the governance of the LBMA.” But the chairman she is referring to is of course Paul Fisher, 26 years at the Bank of England, head of the Bank of England’s FX and Gold Division in the 2000s, and an observer on the LBMA Management Committee from at least 2004.

You would be hard pressed to find less of an insider than Fisher for the role of ‘independent’ chairman of the LBMA. But not surprisingly, the LBMA video makes no mention of Fisher’s background. As James Rickards commented at the time of Fisher’s appointment to the LBMA:

For details of what Rickards was referring to, see BullionStar article “From Bank of England to LBMA: The ‘independent’ Chair of the LBMA Board“. In the video, Crowell’s use of the words ‘Non-Executive Directors’ is also misleading since, apart from Fisher, there is only one non-executive director on the Board, Andrew Quinn. Nor does she mention that the LBMA Board still contains a Bank of England observer, namely Andrew Grice.

Crowell states that ‘there are also elected Market Directors who sit on the Board and ensure the market is steering the development of the Association‘, but fails to say that half of these directors, the market makers, are from the powerful bullion banks which dominate the LBMA, such as JP Morgan and UBS.

Nowhere in the ‘Who we Are’ video does it mention that the LBMA system trades vast -quantities of unallocated fractionally-backed synthetic gold positions, that the LBMA publishes no trade reporting of any trades in the London market, that the LBMA Gold and Silver auctions are dominated by its powerful bullion bank members, that the LBMA oversees the secretive London Precious Metals Clearing Limited (LPMCL) clearing cartel for paper gold and silver, and that there is a hidden gold lending / gold swapping market in London between central banks and bullion banks, facilitated by the Bank of England.

Instead, there are multiple references to physical bars and real metal, something that is very thin on the ground in the world of the LBMA, but that gives the impression of a predominantly physical precious metals market, when in fact the opposite is the case. For example, the video refers to the following:

  • ‘the standard-setting organisation that defines how precious metals are refined’,
  • ‘the quality and the integrity of the metal’,
  • ‘mined from rock in the ground, being refined, being transported’,
  • ‘the appearance and the shape of the bars themselves’
  • ‘physically inspect each bar as it comes through the door’

As per usual with the LBMA, this ‘Who we Are’ video also makes claims that the activities of the LBMA promote a ‘transparent market‘, when the exact opposite is the case. This must be some kind of inside joke that they insert into all LBMA media publications, i.e. that the LBMA promotes transparency. For details on how opaque and non-transparent the London Gold and Silver Markets that the LBMA oversees really are, see ‘The Gold Market – Where Transparency means Secrecy’.

LBMA Video Shoot. Source: Google Photos

The Transcript of the LBMA’s ‘Who we Are’ video can be read below:

Ruth Crowell: The LBMA is the world’s authority for precious metals.

We’re the standard-setting organisation that defines how precious metals are refined, as well as traded around the world. It’s our job to ensure the quality and the integrity of the metal itself, as well as the market participants.

Paul Fisher: Our members are leading firms involved in the full lifecycle of precious metals. From being mined from rock in the ground, being refined, being transported, being stored and then finally being sold, whether as a bar or as a piece of jewellery. These miners, refiners, banks, trading houses, ETF providers, security companies, vaults, even central banks must follow LBMA standards for the benefit of customers around the world.

RC: Our Board has an independent Chairman, as well as Non-Executive Directors, which ensure the independence of the governance of the LBMA. But they’re also elected Market Directors who sit on the Board and ensure the market is steering the development of the Association. Beyond that we have many sub-committees and working groups, in which market participants can be engaged and steering everything that LBMA does.

PF: We provide quality control for the metal produced and we set high standards for business conduct. And we are also the voice of the market for governments, regulators and investors.

RC: We do that through the Good Delivery List and the Global Precious Metals Code. The Good Delivery List defines what’s acceptable when it comes to the appearance and the shape of the bars themselves. It’s also considered the de facto international standard for gold and silver.

The Global Precious Metals Code is a code of conduct which promotes a fair, effective and transparent market. It provides market participants with principles and guidance, to uphold high standards of business conduct. All of this creates confidence in the market for all participants.

We work closely with the commercial vaults, as well as the Bank of England. And the vaults only accept bars which meet the Good Delivery Standards. They also physically inspect each bar as it comes through the door, to make sure that it’s up to standard. As such, they act as the gatekeepers of the Market.

PF: We’re also leading the world in Responsible Sourcing, thanks to the strength of our Responsible Sourcing Programme.

RC: Our aim is to maintain integrity, as well as proactively develop the Precious Metals Market. That means we are always looking forward and anticipating any future needs and requirements.

 How the Market Works

For whatever reason, the LBMA decided to split the ‘How the Market Works’ (the London OTC precious metals Market) into 2 separate videos, each of which is very short, lacking in any substance, and whose content is practically pointless.

Viewer discretion is advised because it will surely lead to disappointment for anyone wanting to find out how, for example, the London OTC Gold Market works. Despite the titles, this duo of videos will not tell you, and they are so short that the transcripts of each video are not more than a few sentences long. The entire exercise is a missed opportunity to properly explain details of how the London market really works.

LBMA video – How the Market Works 1 (1:14 minutes). Source: YouTube.

The first video is titled “How the Market Works – OTC Overview” and is just 1 minute 14 seconds long. The second video is titled “How the Market Works – Five Elements” (with an alternative title of “Market Infrastructure Key Elements”, and this is just 2 minutes long. Both videos are narrated by Jonathan Spall, LBMA’s Head of Communications.

The first of these videos claims to “look at how the LBMA is at the heart of the 24-hour a day global OTC precious metals market with its bespoke transactions which are tailored for clients’ needs” but at a mere one and a quarter minutes long, how is this possible even if the will was there? The second of these videos aims to “highlight how the LBMA plays a crucial role in the five main elements that allow the smooth functioning of the global OTC market.

The (exceedingly short) transcript of the How the ‘Market Works – OTC Overview’ video is as follows:

Jon Spall: Internationally, precious metals are traded on a 24-hour basis. Either for immediate delivery, known as spot, or for a date in the future. LBMA accredited refiners annually refine approximately 5,000 tonnes of gold and more than 30,000 tonnes of silver.

Good Delivery Bars of gold and silver are traded globally in what is referred to as Over The Counter or OTC market. Approximately 25 billion dollars worth of gold is settled each day in the global OTC market, with London at its centre. This means all transactions are conducted between two parties without the need for an exchange.

An OTC market offers flexibility, in that two parties can negotiate bespoke transactions that precisely meet the needs of the customer. For example, in terms of price, amounts to be bought or sold, and time to maturity. It maintains confidentiality and means that all risks, including those of credit, exist only between the two counterparts. Typical market clients include miners, central banks, governments, fabricators, investors, hedge funds and refiners.

Despite its title, this video does not discuss how the OTC market works. The commentary, short that it is, opens with a reference to gold and silver refiners and good delivery bars, which are a very small percentage of trading in London. There is no reference to the fractionally-backed cash-settled synthetic gold claims which make up the vast bulk of trading.

LBMA Video Shoot. Source: Google Photos
The reference to approx 25 billion dollars worth of gold being settled each day is actually referring to the value of paper gold that is cleared each day by the secretive London Precious Metals Clearing Limited (LPMCL) run by five bullion banks (e.g. 18.7 million ounces of gold equivalent cleared each day in London during March 2018). There is no mention in the video of gold or silver trading statistics since this data is still off-limits to the public despite years of promises from the LBMA that it would publish such information.
This video has no reference to the secretive gold lending market between central banks and bullion banks, a market where outstanding ‘gold deposits’ owned by central banks are constantly passed around between the LBMA bullion banks and never closed.

How the Market Works – Part Deux

The second ‘How the Market Works‘ video, covering “five key market infrastructure elements” of the market is as lacking in detail and revelations as the first, and is again narrated by Jonathan Spall. These ‘key elements’ are LPMCL clearing, good delivery, vaulting, pricing, and unallocated accounts.

How the Market Works – Five Elements (2:01 minutes). Source: YouTube

The secretive LPMCL gets a one line mention with no explanation that its a private company run by JP Morgan, HSBC, UBS, ScotiaBank and ICBC Standard that keeps the either fractionally-backed London gold market afloat. Luckily, you can read about the LPMCL here in ‘Spotlight on London Precious Metals Clearing Limited‘.

Spall says that ‘there are a number of vaults in the London area operated by eight companies, including the Bank of England, which physically hold either gold or silver bars or both’, but this is as far as it goes and there is no discussion of the vault operators or the vault locations. For those interested, some of the vaults locations can be viewed here, here and here, and of course the Bank of England vaults here. While ‘London is home to one of the world’s largest physical holdings of gold’ as the video says, it does not mention the fact that most of this gold is held by central banks and ETFs, and that the bullion bank float of gold underpinning the entire market is quite low. See ‘LBMA Gold Vault Data – How low is the London Gold Float?‘ for discussion of this issue.

On the issue of pricing, the coverage is again lacking in any substance and fails to mention how the bullion banks control this aspect of the market too. There is no reference to price discovery of the international gold price, discovery which predominantly is based on the interactive trading of gold derivatives and cash-settled OTC gold positions between the London OTC Gold Market and COMEX. See ‘What sets the Gold Price – Is it the Paper Market or Physical Market?‘ for details.

And instead of explaining and coming clean about the fact that nearly all trading in the OTC market is in the form of unallocated precious metals positions that are merely claims against bullion banks and that the unallocoated system lies at the heart of the London market, the video merely says that ‘Most OTC transactions settle via unallocated accounts. The customer does not own specific bars, but has a contractual claim against the clearer.’

The video ends with the audacious claim that:

“The LBMA is at the very heart of this global market, providing standards, promoting transparency, instilling confidence, and thus maintaining integrity for all.”

That the LBMA did not make films (or videos) really explaining who runs the show in the London Gold Market, or how that market really works, is not surprising. Anyone acquainted with the writings of ANOTHER will understand this, when he wrote the following lines, which in these circumstances, appear particularly apt:

“Did you think that the high powered world of the LBMA would operate in a fishbowl for all to see? We cannot take what is on the outside as evidence for what is on the inside.”

Likewise, we cannot take what is in these LBMA videos as evidence of what goes on in the London Gold Market, at the Bank of England, in LBMA Board meetings, or in the dealings of the high powered bullion banks that control the London Gold Market.

Spotlight on the HUI and XAU Gold Stock Indexes

Probably the two best known gold mining stock indexes in the world’s financial markets are the HUI and the XAU. HUI is the ticker symbol for the NYSE Arca Gold BUGS Index. XAU is the ticker symbol for the Philadelphia Gold and Silver Index. Both of these monikers make an appearance on many gold related websites and many general financial market websites as well, so its worth knowing briefly what these indexes are and what they represent.

A quick note on terminology: The words indexes and indices are equally correct, it just depends on your preference. Likewise, when talking about gold stocks within indexes, we can interchangeably use the terms gold stocks, gold mining companies, gold miners, equities, securities, index components, index constituents etc.

NYSE Arca Gold BUGS Index (HUI)

The HUI was launched on 15 March 1996 by the American Stock Exchange (AMEX), and was originally known as the AMEX Gold BUGS Index. BUGS is an acronym for ‘Basket of Unhedged Gold Stocks’. Through a process of various stock exchange mergers and acquisitions over time, the HUI is now known as the NYSE Arca Gold BUGS Index.

Briefly, in 2008, the AMEX was acquired by NYSE Euronext. In 2006, NYSE had acquired the Archipelago (Arca) trading platform. Hence, as a result of these acquisitions and exchange mergers, the NYSE changed the name of the AMEX Gold BUGS Index to the NYSE Arca Gold BUGS Index. An archived imprint of the AMEX website from 1996 can be seen here.

Also note that in 2012, Intercontinental Exchange (ICE) acquired NYSE Euronext, so the NYSE Arca is now owned by ICE and the Gold BUGS Index is now calculated by ICE. The letters in the ticker HUI do not mean anything, i.e. H, U, I is not an acronym or a shortened version of anything. If anyone thinks HUI might signify something of relevance, please add a comment below this article.

According to the official ICE methodology document, the HUI is “designed to measure the performance of companies involved in the mining of gold ore“. It specifically only includes stocks of companies that do not hedge their gold production beyond one and a half years. By including only non-hedging gold miners, the index therefore attempts to provide exposure to near term gold price movements.

Another distinguishing characteristics of the HUI Index is that its a modified equal weighted index of gold mining stocks. A modification means that companies in the index are weighted to an extent but not fully. The process works as follows. All eligible stocks are ranked based on their full market capitalization (and not their free float). The top two stocks are each attributed a 15% weight. The third ranked stock is attributed a 10% weight. All remaining stocks from fourth position down are equally weighted into the remaining 60% of the index weight. Generally speaking, the free float is that portion of the outstanding equity that is not held by insiders.

HUI – NYSE Arca Gold BUGS Index, 5 year chart. Source: www.GoldChartsRUs.com

Many websites all over the internet state that the HUI is equally weighted, but this is not correct as they fail to mention the above modification. For those interested in the HUI methodology, you can read the methodology document here.

Gold mining stocks eligible for inclusion in the HUI have to be either listed on the NYSE or the ‘NYSE American’ or else traded on NASDAQ. NYSE American is a small cap exchange operated by NYSE  and was formerly called NYSE MKT, and is inherited from the American Stock Exchange (AMEX). The number of gold mining stocks that can be included in the HUI is variable and the constituents can change quarterly during index rebalances. When launched in March 1996, the HUI had a base level of 200.00.

HUI Components

The HUI currently has 23 constituent securities predominantly companies headquartered in the US, Canada and South Africa, including the large Goldcorp, Newmont Mining and Barrick, and miners such as Eldorado Gold, Kinross Gold, and Tahoe Resources. It also includes the American Depository Receipts (ADRs) of the South African miners, AngloGold Ashanti, Randgold Resources and Sibanye. The HUI also includes the predominantly silver miners Coeur Mining and Hecla Mining. A full list of the 23 components of the HUI can be seen here.

Fourteen of the gold miners in the HUI are also members of the World Gold Council. With 24 gold mining companies currently members of the WGC, this means that 10 WGC members are not represented in the HUI, which can be put down to those companies not having a listing on a US securities exchange, and perhaps being excluded for other reasons such as hedging their production. Some gold miners in the HUI are not members of the WGC for various reasons, such as they left the WGC, e.g. Gold Fields, or they are more naturally members of the Silver Institute, such as Coeur and Hecla.

GDM and JHUI

The NYSE also operates two other gold mining indices of relevance. These indexes are less well-known than the HUI and are the NYSE Arca Gold Miners Index (GDM), and the NYSE Arca Junior Gold BUGS Index (JHUI).

Unlike the equally weighted HUI, the NYSE Arca Gold Miners Index (GDM) is a market capitalization weighted index that comprises ‘publicly traded companies primarily involved in the mining of gold and silver in locations around the world.‘  This broader representation of gold and silver mining companies from around the world (instead of just a US listing), and the fact that inclusion is not limited to miners who don’t engage in hedging, explains why there are currently 49 components in the GDM, a list of which can be seen here.

Nearly all the WGC members are present in the GDM. There are also a lot of Australian gold mining companies in the GDM, and a couple of Chinese gold mining companies in the index, namely Zhaojin Mining Industry and Zijin Mining Group, but no Russian gold miners (maybe due to political reasons). The number of stocks that can be included in the GDM is also variable and the constituents can also change quarterly during index rebalances. The GDM was launched in October 2004. Anyone interested in the GDM index methodology can read its methodology document here.

The NYSE Arca Junior Gold BUGS Index (JHUI) is a modified equal weighted index of small-cap companies involved in gold mining. With a similar index creation process to the HUI, the JHUI methodology document can be seen here.

Philadelphia Gold and Silver Index (XAU)

The Philadelphia Gold and Silver Index (XAU) is a modified market capitalization weighted index of the stocks of companies active in gold and silver mining industry. The XAU was launched in January 1979 with a base value of 100.00. Like the HUI, the XAU is now part of a bigger exchange group, in this case part of NASDAQ OMX. This follows the merger of NASDAQ and OMX in 2007 and their acquisition of the Philadelphia Stock Exchange, America’s oldest exchange, also in 2007. An archived version of the Philadelphia Stock Exchange website which mentions the XAU can be seen here.

To be eligible for inclusion in the XAU, a security of a gold or silver miner has to be listed on either the NYSE or NYSE American exchanges, or else traded on NASDAQ. The company also has to have a market cap of at least US $100 million and meet a certain liquidity threshold of at least 1.5 shares traded in the last 6 months. Importantly, the XAU does not make gold hedging an exclusion criterion, therefore the XAU can include miners that hedge their production.

XAU – Philadelphia Gold and Silver Index, 5 year chart. Source:  www.GoldChartsRUs.com 

A number of parameters are applied to the XAU to prevent various large cap gold miners dominating the index weights. These parameters include that no stock can have a weight greater than 30% of the index, and that the top 3 stocks by market cap together do not represent more than 60% of the index’s weight. The XAU is rebalanced quarterly at which points a company can be ejected or added based on various eligibility criteria. The methodology document of the XAU can be seen here.

There are 30 gold and silver mining stocks in the XAU. A list of component stocks can he seen on the NASDAQ site here and a list with live prices on the Investing.com website here. The XAU contains a lot of the same mining companies as the HUI such as Barrick, Goldcorp, Newmont and Kinross, but some other names besides, such as Pan American Silver, First Majestic Silver, McEwen Mining, and Sandstorm Gold. With 30 stocks in the XAU, it takes in most of the members of the 24 member World Gold Council.

VanEck Vectors Gold Miners ETF (GDX)

Another gold stock ‘metric’ which is often seen on precious metals websites is the GDX. This however is not an index but an Exchange Traded Fund (ETF), namely the VanEck Vectors Gold Miners ETF (GDX). The GDX tracks the above mentioned NYSE Arca Gold Miners Index (GDM).

There is also a VanEck Vectors Junior Gold Miners ETF (GDXJ) which tracks not the JHUI but the MVIS Global Junior Gold Miners Index. The below chart shows the performance of the GDX vs the GDXJ. Notably, from January 2010 to September 2017, a time period during which the US dollar gold price fell by 20%, the GDX returned a negative 45%, highlighting the under-performance of gold mining stocks to the gold price during this period.

GDX – VanEck Vectors Gold Miners ETF, 10 Years. Source: https://www.bullionstar.com/charts/

Beyond the HUI and XAU, there are many more gold mining indexes around the world, some of them global in nature, such as the S&P/TSX Global Gold Index and the NASDAQ OMX Global Gold & Precious Metals Index, and some that are exchange specific such as the Johannesburg Stock Exchange (JSE) Gold Mining Index. But the HUI and XAU are arguably the best known.

S&P/TSX Global Gold Index, 5 Year Chart, Source:  www.GoldChartsRUs.com

Gold Mining Equities – Not the Same as Physical Gold

Investing in gold mining stocks or funds that track equity-based gold mining indexes is very different to investing and holding physical gold bars or gold coins. The stock, or common equity, of a gold mining company, is a from of ownership of that company, and comes with a risk profile very different to that of physical gold ownership. This includes stock specific risk, sectoral risk of the gold mining sector, and general equity risk connected to the equity markets.

Because these companies are generally involved in exploration and production, gold mining stocks also introduce operational risk, management risk, risks associated with corporate governance, risks associated with hedging the gold price (or not hedging the gold price), and political risk associated with the countries in which a company’s gold mining assets are located. It is precisely because of gold mining company mismanagement that there is currently an initiative underway to launch a Shareholders Gold Council of institutional buy side money to address this corporate mismanagement.

Gold mining stocks do provide a form of exposure to the gold price, and usually a leveraged one, therefore the price movements of gold mining stocks are more volatile than the gold price, both on the upside and downside.

The same is true of funds or ETFs which aim to track gold mining indexes such as HUI or GDM, albeit that a diversified portfolio of gold mining stocks that a fund holds will diversify across company specific risk, but not gold mining sectoral risk or broader equity market risk and stockmarket / exchange risk.

Gold Price vs HUI 5 Year Chart. Source:  www.GoldChartsRUs.com

As it only includes mining companies that do not employ hedging, the HUI has a higher correlation with the spot gold price than the XAU. But neither the HUI nor the XAU track the gold price as can be seen from looking at the variability of the Gold / HUI ratio and the Gold / XAU ratio.

XAU vs Gold 5 Year Chart. Source:  www.GoldChartsRUs.com

Investors can hold both physical gold and gold mining stocks and funds, Its just important to remember that they are different things, and different asset classes. Gold mining stocks are risk securities issued by corporations that trade on stock exchanges. Physical gold is a tangible asset with no counterparty risk or default risk. Physical gold exists in limited supply and cannot be created, nor can it be issued by governments or monetary authorities.

Gold’s Price Performance: Beyond the US Dollar

With the first half of 2018 now drawn to a close, much of the financial medias’ headlines and commentary relating to the gold market has been focusing on the fact that the US dollar gold price has moved lower year-to-date. Specifically, from a US dollar price of $1302.50 at close on 31 December 2017, the price of gold in US dollar terms has slipped by approximately 3.8% over the last six months to around $1252.50, a drop of US $50.

Since the world’s major gold price discovery hubs of London and New York trade gold in US dollars (or more correctly predominantly trade synthetic gold and derivatives), and since much of the mainstream financial media tends to be very US-centric, the media’s fixation with the US dollar price of gold is probably not surprising. However, it’s not the full story, because in some major national currencies as well as in cryptocurrencies, the price of gold has actually moved higher year-to-date.

From the perspective of an investment bank forex trading desk, where gold is traded as a currency in ‘pairs trades’ against a set of major fiat currencies, the varied movements of gold prices across a range of currencies will not be surprising. Currency prices (including the price of gold) are constantly moving against one another, creating these exchange rates. What’s important to these forex traders is the ‘relative strength‘ of currencies and of gold (and increasingly of cryptocurrencies).

Since the US dollar has had a relatively strong performance year-to-date 2018 against many other fiat currencies, this means on the flip side that many national currencies have weakened vis-a-vis the US dollar. By definition, this also means that the gold price performance year-to-date, measured in any currency which has weakened more in percentage terms against the US dollar than the US dollar gold price has weakened, will actually now be higher in those currencies.

For those with a base currency other than US dollars, or whose wealth or earning power is denominated in currencies other than US dollars, it’s important to keep track of the relative strength / weakness of one’s base currency, and at the same time look beyond the financial media’s headlines, and keep an eye on the gold price in that base currency / home currency.

Brazilian Real

Let’s look at some examples. Some of the worst relative performances of fiat currencies over the first 6 months of this year have been the Brazilian Real, the Swedish Krona, the Russian Rouble, the South African Rand, and the Indian Rupee, i.e. a mix of developed and emerging market currencies, and a mix of commodity and non-commodity currencies.

Given the very strong performances of cryptocurrencies late last year (especially in December 2017), and their subsequent price reversals since January, the gold price when measured in cryptocurrencies, such as Bitcoin, is also higher over the first half of 2018.

Year-to-date, the Brazilian Real (BRL) has lost more than 17% of its value against the US dollar. However, over the same time, the price of gold in Brazilian Real has gone up by more than 12.5%, rising from BRL 4315 per troy ounce at the start of January to BRL 4858 per ounce at the end of June.

The explanation for this is as follows. At the start of 2018, the US dollar gold price was trading at US $1302.50 per troy ounce, which at the USD / BRL exchange rate of USD 1 = BRL 3.31 at that time translated into BRL 4315 per troy ounce of gold. Fast forward six months and the US dollar gold price ended June $50 lower at US$ 1252.50 per ounce.

Gold Price in Brazilian Real, January – June 2018, Source

Over the same 6 month time period, the Brazilian Real weakened against the US dollar, falling from 1 dollar = BRL 3.31 at the start of January to  1 dollar = BRL 3.88 at the end of June. In Brazilian Real terms, that end of June gold price of US$ 1252.50 per ounce price now  translates into BRL 4858 (1252.5 * 3.88). In this case, the rise in the local currency (BRL) price of gold is attributable to the fall in the value of the Brazilian Real. This is a classic example of the gold price adjusting to reflect the weakness in a local currency.

Brazilian Real per US  Dollar, January – June 2018. Source 

Swedish Krona

Taking another example, year-to-date, the Swedish Krona has also had a relatively poor performance, falling by more than 11.5% against the US dollar over the first 6 months of 2018. However, during the same time period, the gold price in Swedish Krona has rallied strongly from SEK 10685 per troy ounce to approximately SEK 11210 per troy ounce.

Gold Price in Swedish Krona, H1 2018. Source

Again, even though the US dollar gold price fell from US$ 1302.50 to US$ 1252.50 during the first half of 2018, the SEK gold price has risen. Why? Because the Swedish Krona has weakened from 1 USD = SEK 8.023 at the start of January to 1 USD = SEK 8.950 at the end of June, meaning that the US$ 1252.50 gold price now translates into SEK  11,210 (1252.50 * 8.95).

Swedish Krona per US  Dollar, January – June 2018

Russian Rouble

During the year-to-date to end of June 2018, the gold price in Russian Rouble (RUB) has risen from RUB 75110 per troy ounce to RUB 78690, an increase of approximately 4.75%. Over this time, the value of the Rouble has fallen from approximately 1 USD = 57.7 RUB at the start of January to 1 USD =  62.8. Again this means that even though the US dollar price of gold has ebbed from US$ 1302.5 to US$ 1252.2 over the first 6 months of 2018, the RUB value of an ounce of gold has increased on the back of the depreciating RUB exchange rate (1302.50 * 62.8).

Gold Price in Russian Rouble, H1 2018. Source

Indian Rupee

The story is similar in Indian Rupee. Over the year-to-date 2018, the gold price in Indian Rupee (INR) has risen 3.19% in local currency terms, from INR 83130 per troy ounce to approximately INR 85780 per troy ounce. In this case, over the first half of 2018, the US dollar strengthened from 1 USD = 63.85 INR to 1 USD = 68.45, with the higher Rupee gold price reflecting the US dollar gold price of 1252.50 translated into Rupee at a 68.45 to 1 exchange rate.

Gold Price in Swedish Krona, H1 2018. Source

Bitcoin

The upward price movements of the gold price denominated in Bitcoin are even more startling. From an opening price of approximately US$ 14,110 on 1st January 2018, the price of Bitcoin in US dollars fell dramatically over the first 6 months of the year, to around US$ 6400, i.e. a 55% drop in 6 months.

Gold Price in Bitcoin, January – June 2018. Source

However, the gold price denominated in Bitcoin more than doubled over the same time frame, rising from 0.09 to 0.20 for the year-to-date. This would mean, for example, that had you traded out of Bitcoin and into gold at the start of 2018, your Bitcoin at that time would have had more than twice as much purchasing power in terms of purchasing gold as it had at the end of June.

A Better Way of Thinking

Given the constant fluctuations in fiat currencies, fixating on the gold price in US dollars, or indeed in any fiat currency, may not be the best way to think about your gold holdings. After all, many savers and investors in physical gold move their wealth and investments into physical gold precisely because it is not linked to fiat currencies and is a gateway out of government induced financial repression.

Remember that physical gold has no counterparty risk, and is not issued by any central bank, government or monetary authority. Physical gold is a mined tangible asset with inherent value and a limited supply.

A better way to think about an investment or holding in gold is perhaps by how much of it you hold. For example, I if had US$ 13,000, which I used to buy ten 1 troy ounce gold Maple Leaf coins, whatever then happens with the gyrations of fiat currencies, I still have those 10 gold maple Leafs and I can think of my holdings of physical gold as 10 gold Maple Leafs, weighing a combined 10 troy ounces.

The US Dollar has lost more than 98% of its value since 1913, while gold has retained its value.

Savers and investors move into physical gold precisely because it’s a monetary store of value that maintains its purchasing power over time and as such offers an exit from the debasement of fiat currencies such as the US dollar. Buying physical gold and then constantly trying to value it in terms of a fiat base currency is in some ways illogical. Surely a more logical approach is to say, I had x amount of dollars, but now I own X ounces of gold.

The same applies to gold’s role as a safe haven and as a form of financial insurance, i.e. physical gold is a form of wealth preservation in times of monetary and economic crisis. People make an allocation and use the safe harbor of physical gold precisely because it is ring-fenced from the turmoil of fiat currencies and associated central bank and government meddling. Again, surely a better way of thinking would be to say, I had x amount of fiat currency, I used this to buy gold, and now I have X ounces or X kilograms of gold. At a minimum, thinking in this way is a liberation from the constant barrage of mainstream media commentary about the US dollar gold price.

US Gold & Silver Futures Markets: “Easy” Targets

This is a guest post  by Allan Flynn, specialist researcher in aspects of gold and silver.

BullionStar does not endorse or oppose the opinions presented but encourages a healthy debate.

Following news coverage of the charging of five precious metals traders and three banks in January, Commodities Futures Trading Commission and Department of Justice documents reveal a global criminal cabal of 16 traders operating in at least four major financial institutions between 2008 and 2015 to defraud COMEX gold and silver futures markets.

Of the many examples published, one reveals a UBS AG precious metals trader spoofing sell orders to push down the price of gold futures on September 6, 2011, the day the gold market attained, and commenced a lengthy retreat, from its historic peak of US $1,923.70.

Jury trials are sought for Cedric Chanu and James Vorley of Deutsche Bank, Edward Bases and John Pacilio of Merrill Lynch Pierce Fenner & Smith, and Andre Flotron of UBS AG. The traders are indicted with multiple offences including spoofing, manipulation and attempted manipulation of the precious metals futures market. FBI investigations found many of the traders had placed “thousands” of fake orders over “hundreds” of occasions during the relevant period. Some even more.

Enforcement orders totalling $46.6 million were issued to Deutsche Bank, UBS AG and HSBC. Bank of America Merrill Lynch, parent company of  Merrill Lynch Pierce Fenner & Smith, although implicated by the alleged actions of its subsidiaries traders, has not been sanctioned.

The agencies said traders placed genuine orders to buy or sell and concurrently huge opposite spoof orders to present a false picture of supply or demand. Other traders were thus tricked into accepting the genuine orders at prices favourable to the manipulators. The spoof orders being placed far enough away from the current price to safeguard against their actual execution were then swiftly cancelled. The traders had the ability using spoofing to move prices up or down.

By correlating details among multiple court documents and public sources it has been possible, with a high degree of certainty, to match the sample chats provided with the indicted traders, and banks they worked for.

“THE LEGEND”

Deutsche Bank trader and Informant David Liew thought so highly of UBS co-conspirator, Trader F, according to Bloomberg’s disclosure of a sealed indictment, that he called him “The Legend.”

In a teaching moment with a colleague about best practice for spoofing, on April 30, 2010, The Legend instructed:

“u gotta be quick with spoofs cause everyone else knows the trick too … except for smaller shops … and algos of course.”

Then contrasting the ease at which spoofing could be pulled off in years past:

“u know i use[d] to do that is Stamford so i can get filled … i’d be short 10k, show a bid for 35 lots … mkt chases it … i shift it lower … and lower.”

Trader F, as CFTC UBS Orders name, worked hard spoofing precious metals futures at UBS, appearing in nine of 12 manipulation samples listed in the CFTC UBS AG Orders, seven of which involve David Liew, Deutsche Bank informant.

Until further details emerge, the identity of The Legend among four UBS traders, two unnamed, remains unclear. While the regulators describe four UBS traders as involved in the scandal, they currently seek a jury trial for only one.

The Mentor

Andre Flotron – LinkedIn image

Veteran UBS precious metals specialist ‘Andy’ Flotron’s term at the trading desk predates the bank itself.

He began trading gold and silver in 1982 with the Swiss Banking Corporation, Zurich. While still at the SBC precious metals desk, the corporation amalgamated with the Union Bank of Switzerland becoming UBS AG in 1999.

In over 15 years at UBS, the 55 year old worked two stints each in Zurich and Stamford. In addition to trading, he held also managerial and training responsibilities until January, 2014, when placed on leave from Zurich following an internal investigation.

As the FBI investigators found, a hallmark of Flotron’s spoofing operation became placing of fake orders in quantities such as 22, 33, 44, 55, or 99 contracts by “automated trading software which had the ability to … place, modify, and cancel multiple orders nearly simultaneously.” He undertook this activity with up to 3 other UBS co-conspirators, directing one in particular.

An FBI affidavit describes how from July, 2008, Flotron mentored a new UBS employee in the art of spoofing. Trader#1 sat with Flotron for 2 months at his trading desk in Stamford, Connecticut “shadowing and observing” him with the aim of then transferring to the UBS precious metals desk in Singapore. Trader#1, now the former spoofing Legend, is assisting the FBI investigation in return for immunity from prosecution.

In one example of his larger spoofings, allegedly aiming to manipulate the market down to his own favourable purchase orders on October 17, 2013, Flotron placed and then withdrew three large fake sell orders for futures worth $30.5 million in gold over a 2.5 minute period.

The largest of his fake orders was placed, a parcel of 99 lots worth $13 million in gold, immediately doubled the volume of sell orders compared to buy orders, while “never intending” it to be executed, the indictment says. The multi-million dollar spoof order was sufficient to immediately bring sellers down from $1319.30 to $1,319.20 filling several of the trader’s partially concealed 1-contract bids totalling $1.5 million gold value.

Sometimes the traders could move COMEX much more.

On January 28, 2009, Deutsche Bank’s Edward Bases allegedly shifted the gold futures price two dollars in one attack alone by placing and quickly cancelling a number of large bids in order to “help” his then colleague Cedric Chanu’s resting orders fill.

As a post-spoof chat shows, the technique and camaraderie bore a strong semblance to computer gaming.

Bases:                   “so glad i could help…got that up 2 bucks…hahahahah.”
                              “that does show u how easy it is to manipulate so[me]times.”
Chanu:                  “yeah yeah of course.”
Bases:                   “that was alot of clicking”
Chanu:                  “basically you tricked alkll [sic] the algorythm”
Bases:                   “good man. Correct.i know how to “game” this stuff…”
Chanu:                  “THAT IS BRILLIANT.”
Bases:                   “I just dotn have the time to do it.. but i do it a lot in the aftermakete.
                               i f..k the m[ar]k[e]t around a lot…not alot of people…had it figgied
                               out…thats [sic] why i love electronic trading.”
Bases:                   “im just glad we got you out…”
 

Besides helping each other achieve better than market prices, the Deutsche Bank traders helped UBS traders and traders from another global financial institution, Bank of America Merrill Lynch. One of the traders, at different times, worked for two of the banks.

THE “TYRANT”

Edward Bases – Facebook image

Edward Bases was a metals tough guy. A 25-year career trading gold and silver in New York for the world’s largest banks, including a couple of years at Bear Sterns, gave him some trading bristle.

The era of floor trading in commodities and stocks was coming to an end when Bases departed Deutsche Bank for Bank of America Merrill Lynch in June, 2010. There, as he reminisced with a UBS trader in 2015, he was already a formidable spoofer in the pits long before he clicked his way to wealth at Deutsche Bank.

UBS Trader #2: “when you were a younger man where you also this angry?”
Bases:     “In a different way”

“I was a tyrant”
“Different world”
“U called out dealersla”
“Sppoofed the mkt”
“Lined people up”
“It was very physcial and emotional”
“I was very good”
“At it”
 

At the trading desk as on the floor, when extra muscle was required to move prices Bases strong-armed it.

Paraphrasing the indictment: on January 28, 2009, his then colleague Cedric Chanu placed an iceberg order to sell 170 contracts with only one visible lot at $892.50. Five minutes later to help him out, Bases placed a spoof order to buy 250 contracts at $890.80, worth $22 million in gold, which he cancelled two seconds later. Straight away Bases placed a 240 lot spoof order to buy at various prices between $890.80 and $892.40, and all 170 of Chanu’s primary orders became filled.

The spoofing methods and amounts could be tweaked depending which market participants were being targeted.

THE TACTICIAN

John Pacilio – Image removed on source website

Hailing from the neighbouring affluent townships of New Caanan and Southport, Connecticut, 50 miles from New York, Bases, 56, and John Pacilio, 54, share an indictment of five charges in connection with Title 7 and 18 spoofing, manipulation, conspiring and fraud involving a commodity for future delivery.

While trading precious metals at a Bank of America Merrill Lynch, subsidiary in New York, John Pacilio is alleged to have spoofed solo and in tandem with his colleagues including Bases, and other banks between January, 2010, and April, 2011. Pacilio’s published trades include the largest of spoofing examples by the six traders.

On February 4, 2011, Pacilio placed and cancelled within the space of less than a minute, spoof orders to sell the equivalent of $74.1 million worth of gold in futures contracts.

His spoofing victims weren’t always human and rational as the trader advised seven others at BOAML including Bases on November 16, 2010.

“guys the algos are really geared up in here. if you spoof this it really moves. thats where alot of this noise is coming from.”
 

According to court filings, 20 seconds later Pacilio placed an iceberg Primary Order to sell 10 silver futures contracts at $25.48. After 29 seconds he then placed a succession of Opposite Orders totalling 250 lots to buy silver futures at between $25.455 and 25.47, which were cancelled as soon as his Primary Orders were filled.

THE SPOKESMAN

Cedric Chanu – Twitter image

Three years after commencing with Deutsche Bank precious metals desk London, Cedric Chanu was promoted to Director, Precious Metals Trading Singapore, in 2011, where called on, in between weekend recreations, to promote and represent the German bank in its Asian precious metals  business.

When interviewed by the Wall St Journal in September, 2012, Chanu, perhaps alluding to a growing disdain for spoofable forms of gold, noted “a dramatic increase in customers wanting to move out of paper, that is over-the-counter gold, and into physical.”

The trader had a brief stint trading for the Swiss company Gunvor after leaving Deutsche Bank at the end of 2013. The conglomerate got out of precious metals trading however, according to Bloomberg in December 2014, when “executives decided to abandon the precious metals trading business partly because of difficulties in finding steady supplies of gold where the origin could be well documented.” Gunvor, it appears, couldn’t locate unspoofable gold bullion at the same price and volume at which gold futures and unallocated gold investments were trading.

Part owned by Russian billionaire Gennady Timchenko until March, 2014, Gunvor ceased precious metals operations only one month after Deutsche Bank announced it was pulling out of precious metals trading in November, 2014.

Cedric Chanu’s indictment details nine examples out of “hundreds” of precious metals manipulations while at Deutsche Bank between December, 2008, and June, 2013.

A shared indictment for Chanu, 37, and his Deutsche Bank colleague James Vorley, 38, residents of the UAE and the UK respectively, was filed in an Illinois Court on January, 19. A Status Conference for the related civil case titled: CFTC vs Vorley and Chanu is scheduled for May, 7.

“THE MASTER”

London precious metals desk Deutsche Bank trader James Vorley cast himself in the theatre of chat as the quintessential English gent with a strong sense of fair play.

He even told a trader at another firm in October, 2007, of his repulsion at a third firms manipulation of either futures or another precious metals instrument:

“this spofi.ng [sic] is annoying / its illegal for a start…”its just not cricket.”

It was all a bad joke as FBI Special Agent Nevens found, seven months later from at least May, 2008, Vorley was running a “self enrichment scheme” to defraud the COMEX precious metals futures market and spoof training a new employee. His collaborators: Chanu and other Deutsche Bank traders, and those at another bank.

According to the indictment, the FBI uncovered over “a thousand” instances of Vorley trading in a pattern consistent with spoofing, “placing over ten thousand Opposite Orders,” presumably withdrawn, and coordinating in spoofing with his Deutsche Bank colleague Cedric Chanu “over one hundred times” up to March, 2015.

Included, an episode on March 16, 2011, when Vorley is recorded chatting to his colleague about “spoofing it up / ahem ahem” in relation to simultaneous platinum and gold futures trades.

Deutsche Bank co-conspirator turned informant David Liew whom Vorley trained in spoofing, testifies that Vorley preferred the term “jam it” when referring to the illegal act.

After one operation assisting Liew getting an order filled on November 3, 2010, Vorley “submitted and cancelled 29 buy orders at 10 contracts each”, and celebrated after:

“was cladssic [sic] / jam it / woooooooooooo…bif [sic] it up.”

As a sign of gratitude, his understudy Liew responded glowingly:

“tricks from the…master.” (Emphasis supplied.)

Not one to readily admit to wrongdoing, when queried in March, 2015, by Deutsche Bank compliance and employee relations, Vorley told them the term spoofing had been used “to describe more innocent and everyday occurrences.” He went on to defend the reason for his “inopportune use of the word spoof ” as “a bad example of market banter masquerading as sarcasm.”

___________________________________________________________________________

A study by West Australian University Prof. Andrew Caminschi published September, 2013, observed gold and silver futures, and the GLD ETF, were “significantly impacted” by downward pricing anomalies from the London Gold and Silver PM Fixings leaking, prior to the publishing of the Fixing auction results.

A previously unreported crack through which the Fix prices may have bled from London to Chicago and elsewhere can be found in one of the six futures trader’s connection to the London Gold and Silver Fixings.

At the same time Deutsche Bank’s James Vorley is alleged by the CFTC and FBI to have manipulated COMEX precious metals futures, at least from May, 2008, to March, 2015, he was also a director of London Silver Market Fixing Limited and the London Gold Market Fixing Limited auctions.

The London Gold and Silver Fixings set the world benchmark prices for the precious metals twice daily. Vorley’s tenure on the Fix lasted between September 2009 and May, 2014, for the Gold Fixing, and October, 2015, for the Silver Fixing.

Three short weeks after Caminschci’s paper was published, UBS AG self-reported to global authorities that an internal investigation had uncovered “possible signs of manipulation, collusion and other market abusive conduct in foreign exchange trading” between the bank and other financial institutions. The Precious Metals Desk at UBS was a sub-unit of their Foreign Exchange Desk.

As precious metals class action lawsuits flooded US courts in the following three years, Vorley’s employer Deutsche Bank, failing to find a buyer for it’s seat, dropped out of the London Gold and Silver Fixings, disbanded their precious metals trading unit, payed $98 million to settle class action lawsuits alleging collusion in the London Gold and Silver Fixings, and supplied antitrust plaintiffs with significant evidence against co-defendants.

Short of an innocent sounding explanation as to how the precious metals pricing got so quickly from Fix-to-Futures, “ahem ahem,” it remains to be explored what Fixing information Vorley had prior to its publishing and what use, if any, he made of it in futures trading.

_____________________________________________________________________

THE INFORMANT

After joining Deutsche Bank as a fresh graduate in 2009, David Liew was assigned, at completion of a short orientation and training period, to the Singapore Deutsche Bank precious metals desk. He was supervised and trained in manual spoofing by Vorley and Chanu, among others in Singapore and the UK, with whom he shared a “common electronic trading platform screen.” Here his trading could be monitored and he in turn could observe his mentor’s spoofing activities on his monitor.

David Liew – Google Plus image

CFTC findings stressed that by allowing the traders to observe each other’s orders, Deutsche Bank facilitated their spoofing activities. The bank’s traders also communicated across the globe via electronic chat rooms and video teleconferencing.

The 31 year old who participated in, solo and coordinated spoofing with other traders “hundreds of times,” and stop loss manipulation coordinated with Trader F at UBS, pleaded guilty in a Chicago court on June 1, 2017. Stop loss manipulations were also undertaken with others at Deutsche Bank in relation to information about a large metals trade for a bank customer.

The penalty handed down by the CFTC for Liew included a lifetime ban from commodity trading, while a monetary fine was not imposed “based upon his cooperation in a Commission investigation and related proceedings.” The DOJ prosecutes his criminal trial where he is expected to receive reduced sentencing in return for cooperation as a witness.

According to the sealed FBI affidavit cited by Bloomberg, after Liew was taught to spoof by Vorley and Chanu at Deutsche Bank he went on to train others in the “tricks.”
Since leaving the bank, Liew has continued to use his business and training skills, as he told the Court in June last year.

“I’ve set up my own businesses. So, I — a co-owner of a restaurant. I own a online toy store for children. And most recently I’ve also started teaching programming to kids.”

Presently up to four Deutsche Bank, two Merrill Lynch and UBS AG traders associated with the alleged manipulations are absent from indictments. Similarly an HSBC trader who allegedly spoofed alone remains at large.

The only US financial organisation implicated, Bank of America Merrill Lynch and its indicted traders, Edward Bases and John Pacilio are absent from CFTC Orders and Complaints.

The first public proceedings for the six traders is to begin in couple of weeks with Flotron’s jury selection scheduled for April, 6. His trial under Judge Jeffrey A. Meyer in Newhaven, Connecticut, is set to commence on April, 16.

“BEYOND SPOOFING”

Even with the first trial about to start, four years since the last of the allegations, the precious metals probes continue.

The Department of Justice Fraud and Antitrust Divisions opened their precious metals investigations into financial institutions in 2015, but the criminal antitrust probe was closed in January, 2016. The US Government agencies were not the only parties investigating banks precious metals trading though.

The banks, defending also civil antitrust precious metals class action lawsuits, received an extraordinary boost in the form of letter/s from the DOJ announcing closure of the investigations. Predictably the letter was used by defendants straight away in an attempt to convince the Courts to dismiss the lawsuits.

The Court: “You all love this letter, don’t you?”
Defense Attorney: “They are not that easy to get, your Honor.”
The Court: “That’s true. You should have gold bars around it.”

Raising the spectre that the DOJ had botched the antitrust probe, in October the Court denied Motions to Dismiss against all the banks except UBS, the only non-Fixing bank defendant.

Challenging the Courts decision to dismiss civil complaints against UBS, only a short month later in November, the antitrust plaintiffs submitted damning new evidence.

Frank chat messages between traders in different banks, including UBS, about manipulating the Gold and Silver Fixes had been provided to plaintiffs by Deutsche Bank in their settlement cooperation materials. Surprisingly the DOJ had for 13 months sifted the same evidence without finding criminal evidence of antitrust conspiracy.

At the request of the DOJ the Court then placed the civil antitrust lawsuits on a partial stay of discovery for 12 months until December, 2017, doubtless to protect their ongoing precious metals fraud investigation.

To be fair to the DOJ, as Judge Valerie Caproni, former FBI General Counsel, had warned at the April, 2016, arguments, mistakes are not uncommon in government investigations. “Just because a government investigation is closed…doesn’t mean everybody is innocent.”

Another reason for delays in criminal prosecution of the cartel, concerns international treaties. Andre Flotron’s indictment and arrest on US soil in September last year was a stroke of luck for investigators and prosecutors who understand that extradition between countries with different laws can be problematic.

For example in May, 2015, the CFTC brought spoofing charges in gold and silver futures against UAE traders Heet Khara and Nasim Salim for manipulation between February and April, 2015. In 2016 a Federal New York court ordered the duo to pay $1.38 and $1.31 million in civil monetary penalties, but the pair are yet to be indicted in the US.

The FBI is yet to declare if the futures traders were also manipulating the underlying commodity such as the Gold and Silver Fix and spot markets, not to mention other products such as ETF’s.

At Andre Flotron’s pre-trial Status Conference December 4, 2017, DOJ Fraud Section Attorney Micheal Rinaldi hinted at a bigger picture:

“The larger conspiracy includes this much larger universe where Mr. Flotron is spoofing on a regular basis.”

The Swiss trader, was all but named by a Swiss regulator in 2014 who said they had, “seen clear attempts to manipulate fixes in the precious metals markets,” at the UBS precious metals desk in Zurich. FINMA went on to ban two UBS precious metals traders for one year, evidently Flotron, principal trader at the desk since 2010, and another uncharged.

Answering the judge’s question at the October 5, 2017, Status Conference about Flotron’s witness statement and the possibility of new evidence emerging, Assistant U.S. Attorney Jonathon Francis said:

“if we have communications, his chats, his e-mails, something like that, here’s no reason not to give them to them now. It’s when we get into the sort of the everything else. And I’ll tell you, the everything else goes beyond spoofing. Because this investigation dealt with trading more broadly and many banks.”

END

This article was first published at Allan Flynn’s website here.

Follow Allan Flynn on Twitter: @Allan_W_Flynn
You can donate to Allan’s GoFundMe campaign to attend and report on the first spoofing trial starting 4/9/18.

Central Banks Care about the Gold Price – Enough to Manipulate it!

In early March, RT.com, the Russian based media network, asked me for comments and opinion on the subject of central bank manipulation of gold prices.

The comments and opinion that I supplied to RT became the article that RT then exclusively published on its website on 18 March under the title “Central banks manipulating & suppressing gold prices – industry expert to RT“.

This article is now transcribed below, here on the BullionStar website.

Central bank gold price suppression is a well-documented fact. Central banks have a long and colorful history of manipulating the gold price. This manipulation has taken many shapes and forms over the years. It also shouldn’t be surprising that central banks intervene in the gold market given that they also intervene in all other financial markets. It would be naive to think that the gold market should be any different.

n fact, gold is a special case. Gold to central bankers is like the sun to vampires. They are terrified of it, yet in some ways they are in awe of it. Terrified since gold is an inflation barometer and an indicator of the relative strength of fiat currencies. The gold price influences interest rates and bond prices. But central bankers (who know their job) are also in awe of gold since they respect and understand gold’s value and power within the international monetary system and the importance of gold as a reserve asset.

So central banks are keenly aware of gold, they hold large quantities of it in their vaults as a store of value and as financial insurance, but they are also permanently on guard against allowing a fully free market for gold in which they would not have at least some form of influence over price direction and market sentiment.

The Central Bankers’ Central Bank

The Bank for International Settlements (BIS) crops up frequently in gold price manipulation as the central coordination venue and the guiding hand behind a lot of the gold price suppression plans. This is true in all decades from the 1960s right the way through to the 2000s. If you want to know about central bank gold price manipulation, the BIS is a good place to start. Unfortunately the BIS is a law onto itself and does not answer to anyone, except its central banks members.

In the 1960s, central bank manipulation of the gold price was conducted in the public domain, predominantly through the London Gold Pool. This was in the era of a fixed official gold price of $35 an ounce. Here the US Treasury and a consortium of central banks from Western Europe explicitly kept the gold price near $35 an ounce, coordinating their operation from the Bank for International Settlements (BIS) in Basel, Switzerland, while using the Bank of England in London as a transaction agent. This price manipulation broke down in March 1968 when the US Treasury ran out of good delivery gold, which triggered the move to a “free market” gold price.

Central banks continued to suppress gold prices in the 1970s both through efforts to demonetize gold and also dump physical gold into the market to dampen price action. These sales were unilateral e.g. US Treasury gold sales in 1975 and over 1978-1979, and also coordinated (and orchestrated by the US) e.g. IMF gold sales across 1976-1980.

Gold Pool 2.0 – Force it Down Quick and Hard

Collusion to manipulate the price also went underground, for example in late 1979 and early 1980 when the gold price was rocketing higher, the same central banks from the London Gold Pool again met at the opaque BIS in Switzerland at the behest of the US Treasury and Federal Reserve in an attempt to launch a new and secretive Gold Pool to reign in the gold price. This was essentially a revival of the old gold pool, or Gold Pool 2.0.

These meetings, which are not very well known about, were of the G10 central bank governors, i.e. at the highest levels of world finance. All of the discussions are documented in black and white in the Bank of England archives and can be read on the BullionStar website.

Gold for Oil: A Novel Twist to the Gold Pool Operation

The wording in these discussions is very revealing and show the contempt which central bankers feel about a freely functioning gold market.

Phrases used in these meetings include:

there is a need to break the psychology of the market” and “no question of any permanent stabilisation of the gold price, merely at a critical time holding it within a target area” and  “to stabilise the price within a moving band” and “it would be easy and nice for central banks to force the price down hard and quickly“.

And these meetings of top central bankers were in early 1980, 11 years after the London Gold Pool and 8 years after the US Treasury reneged on its commitment in August 1971 to convert foreign holdings of US dollars into gold.

Whether this new BIS gold pool was rolled out in the 1980s is open to debate, but it was discussed across the board for months by the Governors at the BIS, and may have been introduced in a form which would provide physical gold to the oil producers (gold for oil trades) without putting a rocket under the gold price. Their main worry was to allow the Middle Eastern oil producers to acquire some gold for oil without pushing the gold price up.

The Bank of England was also involved in the 1980s in influencing prices in the London Gold Fix auctions, in what an ex Bank of England staffer described euphemistically as ‘helping the fixes’. And the Bank of England has even at times used terminology in the 1980s such as “smoothing operations” and “stabilisation operations” when referring to coordinated central bank efforts to control the gold price.

This article first appeared on RT.com on 18 March 2018

Paper Gold Ponzi

Probably two of the most influential changes on the gold market in the modern era are structural changes to the gold market which channel gold demand away from physical gold and into paper gold. These two changes were the introduction of unallocated accounts and fractionally backed gold holdings in the London Gold market from the 1980s onwards, and the introduction of gold futures trading in the US in January 1975.

In unallocated gold trading in the London OTC market, gold trades are cash-settled and there is rarely any physical delivery of gold. The trading positions are merely claims against bullion banks who don’t hold anywhere near the amount of gold to back up the claims. Unallocated bullion is therefore just a synthetic paper gold position that provides exposure to the gold price but doesn’t drive demand for physical gold.

When gold futures were launched in the US in January 1975, the primary reason for their introduction, according to a US State Department cable at the time, was to create an alternative to the physical market that would syphon off demand for gold, creating trading that would dwarf the physical market, and which would also ramp up volatility which in turn would deter investors from investing in physical gold. Gold futures are also fractionally backed and overwhelmingly cash-settled, and their trading volumes are astronomical multiples of actual delivery volumes.

Central banks as regulators of financial markets are therefore ultimately responsible for allowing the emergence of fractional reserve gold trading in London and New York. This trading undermines the demand for physical gold and allows the world gold price to be formed in these synthetic gold trading venues. Price discovery is not happening in physical gold markets. Its is happening in the London OTC (unallocated) and COMEX derivative markets. So this is also a form of gold price manipulation since the central banks know how these markets function, but they do nothing to crack down on what are essentially gold ponzi schemes.

Imagine, for example, that central banks were as tough on paper gold as they seem to be now on crypto currency markets. Now imagine if central banks outlawed fractional gold trading or scare-mongered about it in the same way that they do about crypto currencies? What would happen is that the gold market participants would panic and unwind their paper positions, precipitating a disconnect between paper gold and physical gold markets. So by being lenient on the fractional structure of trading in the gold markets, central banks and their regulators are implicitly encouraging activities that have a dampening effect on the gold price.

Gold Lending – A Riddle wrapped in a Mystery inside an Enigma

The gold lending market, mostly centred in London, is another area in which central banks have the ability to cap the gold price. Here central banks transfer their physical gold holdings to bullion banks and this physical gold then enters the market. These transactions can either be in the form of gold loans or gold swaps. This extra supply of gold through the loans and swaps disturbs the existing supply demand balance, and so has a depressing effect on the gold price.

The gold lending market is totally opaque and secretive with no obligatory or voluntary reporting by either central bank lenders or bullion bank borrowers. The Bank of England has a major role in the gold lending market as the gold used in lending is almost all sourced from the central bank custody holding in the Bank of England’s vaults.

There is therefore zero informational efficiency in gold lending, and that’s the way the central banks like it. furthermore, freedom of information requests about gold lending are almost always shot down by central banks, even sometimes on ‘national security’ grounds.

Many central banks have lent out their gold long ago, and just hold a ‘gold receivable’ on their balance sheet, which is a claim against a bullion bank or bullion banks. These bullion banks roll over the liability to the central bank for years on end and the original gold is long gone. Since central bank gold is never independently audited, there is no independent confirmation of any of the gold that any central banks claim they have.

Gold receivables are another fiction that allows central banks to fly under the radar in the gold lending market, and central banks go to great lengths to make sure the market does not know the size and existence of outstanding gold lending and swapped gold positions.

In Febuary 1999, the BIS was again the nexus for secretive discussions about the gold market when a number of the large powerful central banks basically ordered the IMF to drop an accounting change that would have split out gold and gold receivables into two separate line items on central bank balance sheets and accounting statements. These discussions are documented in the IMF document which is available to see here.

This accounting change would have shone a light on to the scale of central bank gold lending around the world, information which would have moved gold prices far higher.

Gold Price Manipulation Hub at the BIS: the Central Banker’s Central Bank

Gold Loans and Gold Swaps – Highly Market Sensitive

However, a group of the large central banks in Europe comprising the Bank of England, the Bundesbank, the Bank de France and the European Central Bank (ECB) applied pressure to torpedo this plan as they said that “information on gold loans and swaps was highly market sensitive” and that the IMF should “not require the separate disclosure of such information but should instead treat all monetary gold assets including gold on loan or subject to swap agreements, as a single data item.” 

Central banks also at times sell large quantities of gold, such as the Swiss gold sales in the early the 2000s, and the Bank of England gold sales in the late 1990s.While the details of such gold sales are always shrouded in secrecy, and the motivations may be varied, such as bullion bank bailouts or redistribution of holdings to other central banks, the impact of these gold sales announcements usually has a negative impact on the gold price. So gold sales announcements are another tactic that central banks use to at times keep the pressure on the price.

There are many examples of central bankers discussing interventions in the gold market. In July 1998, former Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan testified before the US Congress saying that “central banks stand ready to lease gold in increasing quantities should the price rise.

In June 2005, William R. White of the BIS in Switzerland, said that one of the aims of central bank cooperation was to “joint efforts to influence asset prices (especially gold and foreign exchange) in circumstances where this might be thought useful.

In 2008, the BIS at its headquarters in Switzerland even stated in a presentation to central bankers that one of the services it offers is interventions in the gold market.

In 2011, one of the gold traders from the BIS even stated on his LinkedIn profile that one of his responsibilities was managing the liquidity for interventions. After this was published, he quickly changed his LinkedIn profile.

Is the COMEX Rigged?

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 rise of the machine
Open Outcry: A distant memory for gold futures trading on COMEX

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.

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COMEX 100 oz gold futures, USD Price, Volume, and Open Interest: 8 months-to-date. Source: www.GoldChartsRUs.com

The Mechanics

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.

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Number of gold ounces delivered on COMEX in 2017: 1.23 million ounces = 38 tonnes. Source: www.GoldChartsRUs.com

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.

Open Interest

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.

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COMEX Registered gold inventories: 700,000 ounces = 22 tonnes. Source www.GoldChartsRUs.com

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.

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CFTC Bank Participation Report (BPR) of COMEX (and ICE) gold futures positions. Source www.GoldChartsRUs.com

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.

Physical Bullion

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.

CME Stays Silent on Cause of COMEX Silver Price Glitch

Silver futures prices on the COMEX futures trading platform briefly plummeted at approximately 7:06am Singapore time yesterday, with the price for the front month (most active) September silver contract falling from a US$16.06 quote down to a low of US$14.34 all within  a 1 minute interval. The futures price then recovered nearly all of its losses in the subsequent 2-3 minute period. High to low, this COMEX silver futures contract saw its price fall by just over 10.7%, before rebounding nearly 11%.

During this time when the COMEX price crashed, there was nothing fundamentally happening in the wider financial markets, or indeed in the physical silver market, to justify these price gyrations in COMEX silver futures prices. Which all goes to show that the COMEX ‘paper’ futures silver prices is completely detached from the physical silver market, and that COMEX silver futures prices have no anchoring in the real silver market.

This price movement in the September 2017 silver futures contract (contract code SIU7 aka SIU17) can be seen in the below 1-minute tick candlestick chart from CME. Times in the chart are New York Time (NYT), which is 12 hours behind Singapore.

During this one minute period between 19:06 NYT and 19:07 NYT, the SIU7 contract saw trading volume of 4954 contracts (the 4.954K in the chart below), with the price falling from a high of 16.065 to a low of 14.34, before ending that minute period at US$ 14.68.

The COMEX SI silver futures contract, which is a deliverable contract but which in practice is rarely delivered; is a futures contract for 5000 troy ounces of silver. The 4954 contracts traded during the 1 minute period in theory represent 24.77 million ounces (770 tonnes) of silver and would be valued at $397.8 million at the opening price of US$ 16.06 at 19:06 NYT.

Overall within these 4 minutes, more than 8,300 September silver contracts were traded.

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COMEX September Silver futures (SIU7): Flash crash at 19:06 NYT 6th July

Following this 1 minute flash crash, in the subsequent minute between 19:07 NYT and 19:08 NYT,  the SIU7 contract price rebounded sharply, rising from US$ 14.67 to US$ 15.62 on a trading volume of 1495 contracts. This rebound reflected in the below chart which also shows the opening and closing prices of each minute period. The price continue to rebound between 19:08 and 19:09 on volume of 936 contracts to close the minute at US$ 15.07, and then between 19:09 and 19:10, the price again closed higher at US$ 15.90 on volume of 932 contracts.

Overall, from the low quote of US$ 14.34, the price had rebound within the next 3 minutes to US$ 15.90, a rebound of 10.95%, and just 1% lower than the price had been (US$ 16.06) 4 minutes earlier.

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COMEX Sept Silver futures (SIU7): Rebound between 19:07 – 19:10 NYT 6th July

Note that the same price flash crash also affected the next most actively traded COMEX silver contract for December 2017 (code SIZ7). See COMEX silver futures summary table below, and notice the lows for the September 2017 and December 2017 contracts at US$ 14.34 and US$ 14.44, respectively.

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CME Summary table of COMEX Silver Futures contract prices showing Highs and Lows

What caused this momentary price plummet in the COMEX silver futures is not clear. This is because the CME Group, operator of the COMEX futures platform, has provided no explanation for these price gyrations. Possible causes could include market illiquidity, deliberate manipulation, a trading error or errors, or algorithmic trading programs triggering stop losses or inducing abnormal trading patterns.

Until the CME Group releases a statement on this (which it probably won’t), the exact cause of this futures price flash crash remains unclear. What the CME did do yesterday however was as follows:

At 19:06:38, the CME systems implemented a 10 second halt in the COMEX silver futures contracts. Within 20 minutes, CME made an announcement in a messaging broadcast that it was reviewing all SIU7 (September futures) trades that had taken place under US$ 15.84 and all SIZ7 (December futures) trades that had taken place under US$ 15.94. After another 20 minutes, CME announced in a messaging broadcast that for SIU7, any trades executed below US$ 15.54 would be adjusted up to US$ 15.54, while for SIZ7, all trades executed below 15.64 would be adjusted up to US$ 15.64.

These speedily introduced price adjustments would appear to suggest that the CME Group quickly determined that whatever caused the sharp price falls in the COMEX silver futures prices was not part of normal COMEX futures market trading, and that the CME made the call to back out and cancel at least some of the effects of this abnormal market trading. This would also seem to suggest the CME found evidence of something untoward, either price manipulation, or unfair algorithmic trading, or unjustified stop-loss triggering etc.

While these ‘paper’ trading markets in the form of the OTC London silver market and the COMEX futures market unfortunately do have a real impact on the international silver price that is inherited by these physical markets, this latest pricing fiasco on the COMEX again demonstrates that COMEX trading of precious metals futures and London trading of fractionally-backed unallocated precious metals spot and forwards contracts are becoming more and more detached from the underlying reality of the physical gold and silver markets.

This also has an adverse effect on investor sentiment in these paper markets and could in time be a trigger for shifting gold price discovery from paper to physical.

New Gold Pool at the BIS Basle: Part 2 – Pool vs Gold for Oil

This is Part 2 of a two-part series. The series focuses on collusive discussions and meetings that took place between the world’s most powerful central bankers in late 1979 and 1980 in an attempt to launch a central bank Gold Pool cartel to manipulate and control the free market price of gold. The meetings centered around the Bank for International Settlements (BIS) in Basle, Switzerland.

Part 2 takes up where Part 1 left off, and begins by looking at developments in the BIS Gold Pool discussions during January 1980, a month in which the US dollar gold price rocketed more than 60% during a three-week period to reach a then record of $850 per ounce. Part 2 then looks at how the discussions involving these central banks evolved over the remainder of 1980 and 1981 as key high level central bankers continued to call for intervention into the gold market.

Part 2 also looks at evidence that central bankers party to the discussions began advocating gold for oil exchanges between the West and the Saudis, exchanges which would provide real wealth (gold) to the Arabs in exchange for oil flowing to the West, while simultaneously keeping a lid on the gold price.

Summary of Part 1

The first article in the series, published on 16 May and titled “New Gold Pool at the BIS Basle, Switzerland: Part 1”, concentrated on events and developments in late 1979 and revealed, among other things, that:

  • A series of meetings of the world’s most powerful central bank governors were held in late 1979 at the Bank for International Settlements (BIS) office of BIS Chairman and President Jelle Zijlstra in Basle, Switzerland. The objective of the meetings was discussion of a central bank consortium that would operate a collusive Gold Pool to manipulate the price of gold. Note that this was more than 11 years after the London Gold Pool had collapsed in March 1968.
  • At the IMF annual conference in Belgrade in early October 1979, the US monetary authority delegation in the form of Paul Volcker, William Miller, Tony Solomon, and Henry Wallich approached Fritz Leutwiler, Chairman of the Swiss National Bank, and discussed a proposal to launch a joint central bank gold selling operation.
  • During the discussions at the BIS and between the central bankers at various locations, Zijlstra, who was BIS President until the end of 1981, and Leutwiler, who became BIS President in January 1982, were both strongly in favour of launching a new joint central bank gold pool to manipulate the gold price.
  • The oil-producing cartel OPEC was at that time, “increasingly concerned that gold was outpacing oil”, but Al Quraishi, Governor of the Saudi Arabian Monetary Authority (SAMA) had made an assurance that the Saudi’s “would not rock the boat” and buy gold on the market if a new gold pool was activated. However, Al Quraishi and SAMA were still eager to “diversify” the reinvestment of the Saudi oil revenues into gold.
  • The Bank of England recorded market intelligence in October 1979 that the “USA was planning to sell 10 million ounces of gold in four separate unannounced operations” before the end of 1979 so as to “placate the Saudi Arabians.
  • The Bank of England’s foreign exchange and gold specialist at that time, John Sangster, thought that there was “a need to break the psychology of ‘the market can only go one way and that is up’.” 
  • Sangster’s view was also that there was “no question of any permanent stabilisation of the gold price, merely at a critical time holding it within a target area”, an operation he called asmoothing operation”.
  • A meeting to discuss a new collusive gold pool took place in the BIS office of Zijlstra on Monday 12 November 1979, whose invitees (in addition to Jelle Zijlstra) were Gordon Richardson, Governor of the Bank of England, Cecil de Strycker, Governor of the National Bank of Belgium, Fritz Leutwiler, Chairman of the Swiss National Bank, Bernard Clappier, Governor of the Banque de France, and Otmar Emminger, President of the Bundesbank.
  •  A follow-on meeting about the collusive new gold pool took place in the BIS office of Zijlstra on Monday 10 December 1979, attended by Zjilstra, Kit McMahon of the Bank of England, Otmar Emminger, outgoing President of the Bundesbank, Karl Otto Pohl, incoming Bundesbank President, de la Geniere, the incoming Governor of the Banque de France, de Strycker, Governor of the Belgian central bank, Leutwiler, Chairman of the Swiss National Bank, and Rene Larre, BIS General Manager.
  • The December meeting, which was facilitated by BIS general manager Rene Larre, also revealed that “European central banks would intend to buy back in due course any gold they sold”, that the Gold Pool could be funded by buying gold first so as to create an inventory of physical gold to use for selling operations, and that in McMahon’s words “if the scheme were to be simply a BIS one, publicity would not necessarily, or perhaps desirably, arise”
  • Based on the detailed briefing of the content of that meeting at the BIS on 10 December, which was written by the Bank of England’s Kit McMahon for the benefit of the Bank of England Governor Gordon Richardson, the proposed new gold pool, among other things, would sell gold “only when gold was relatively strong and the dollar relatively weak and [buy] only in the reverse circumstances.”
  • In the 10 December 1979 meeting at the BIS, the Bundesbank was against the Gold Pool plan due to what Bundesbank President Otmar Emminger attributed to opposition from the Bundesbank Central Bank Council. However, the Bundesbank was thought, by the Bank of England’s Sangster, to be against the Gold Pool primarily as a tactical way to force the US Fed to address the underlying problems of a weak US dollar and high inflation.
  • The Banque de France, which had been in favour of the Gold Pool scheme prior to October 1979, also came out in the 10 December meeting as being against the scheme due to what Banque de France governor De la Geniere described as “great political dangers…of selling any French gold” indirectly through a Gold Pool. However, Sangster also thought the Banque de France was more likely to be tactically backing the Germans so as to put pressure on the Fed to first address inflationary problems. 

As per Part 1, a number of internal documents from the Bank of England are cited below. These documents provide a unique road map on the evolution of the collusive discussions at the BIS and the thinking of the Bank of England executives involved in and supporting the discussions. Documents are rendered in blue text and italics, with bold, underlining, and a few cases of red text added where appropriate.

January 1980 BIS Gold Pool Meeting

Following the Gold Pool meeting at Zjilstra’s office in the BIS headquarters on 10 December 1979, the central bank governors next met at the BIS in Basle on 7 January 1980 during their monthly scheduled ‘Basle Weekend’. The afternoon London Gold Fix was set at $431 on 10 December 1979, but by 4 January 1980 it was already 36% higher at $588.

gold price to 30 April 1980
Gold Price in US Dollars, September 1979 to April 1980. Source: BullionStar Gold Charts

In preparation for the January meeting about the proposed Gold Pool, which took place on Monday 7 January 1980, John Sangster, the Bank of England’s foreign exchange and gold specialist, wrote the following briefing document titled “SECRET” to the attention of the Governor’s Private Secretary (G.P.S.) as well as to the attention of Bank of England Executive Director Kit McMahon. The Governor of the Bank of England at that time was Gordon Richardson.

To recap from Part 1, Christopher McMahon, known as ‘Kit’ McMahon, became Deputy Governor of the Bank of England on 1 March 1980, taking over that position from Jasper Hollom. Prior to becoming Deputy Governor, McMahon was an executive director at the Bank of England from 1970 to 1980. McMahon signed his internal Bank of England memos and correspondence with the initials ‘CWM’, short for Christopher William McMahon. McMahon left the Bank of England in 1986 to take up the role of Chief Executive and Deputy Chairman of Midland Bank. Midland Bank was taken over by HSBC in 1992. See profiles of McMahon here and here.

Gordon Richardson was Governor of the Bank of England for 10 years from 1973 to 1983. Before that, he was a non-executive director of the Bank of England between 1967 and 1973. Richard was chairman of J. Henry Schroder Wagg from 1962 to 1972, and chairman of Schroders from 1966 to 1973. After leaving the Bank of England, Richardson went on to be a director of Saudi International Bank in London. He also headed the influential Group of Thirty (G30) central bank lobbyist group, and was chairman of Morgan Stanley International.

John Sangster’s full name was John Laing Sangster, hence he signed his internal Bank of England memos and analysis with the initials ‘JLS’.

G10 plus Switzerland

Sangster’s secret memo to McMahon and Richardson was written on Friday 4 January 1980, a day on which the afternoon Gold Fix came in at $588 per ounce. The memo addressed developments in the gold price and discussed potential joint central bank intervention into the gold market. Hand written at the top are the words “The Governor has seen : copy in Basle Dossier JB 7/1“. JB is the Bank of England’s John Balfour who was also copied on the document, and who was a Bank of England alternate director at the BIS at that time.

The memo has 6 numbered paragraphs, paragraphs 5 and 6 of which are most interesting:

SECRET

4.1.80

G.P.S.

                                                                            Copies to : Mr McMahon, Mr Balfour, Mr Byatt

GOLD

5. Since the market has further extended itself, any central bank operation would now have greater chance of success. But it would have to be a co-operative effort preferable on a G.10 plus Switzerland basis. Obviously the contributors, with the possible exception of the USA, would go into the operation in the hope and intention of subsequently recapturing their gold. But I think the new “pool” must face the possibility that they might not recapture some or all of their gold – in which case they would have to envisage the operation as a general contribution to the struggle against inflation.

6. If a G.10 plus Switzerland operation were mounted on a pro rata basis, our share would be just under 3%. If the Italians (who sometimes talk as if the loss of one ounce of their gold would mean the end of the world) and the Swedes (very low gold holders) dropped out, our share would be about 3 1/4 %. If the Japanese declined on the excuse of a very low gold proportion, then I think we could do so too.

4th January 1980

JLS

 JLS 4 Jan 1980 topJLS 2 4_1_80 G

The G10 that Sangster mentions refers to the Group of 10 highly industrialised nations which consisted of the USA, UK, France, West Germany, Netherlands, Belgium, Italy, Canada, Sweden, and Japan. The G10 as a grouping was formed in 1962 when these 10 countries participated in the IMF’s General Arrangements to Borrow (GAB) plan. Switzerland became associated with the GAB in 1964 but the name remained the G10. The G10 also participated in the Smithsonian Agreement in December 1971, with all other members agreeing to peg their currencies against the US dollar.

As readers will recall from Part 1, this list of 11 countries, as represented by their central banks, comprised the group of central banks that either advocated the gold market intervention meetings in late 1979 (the US), were present in the BIS Gold Pool meetings in November and December 1979 (Switzerland, West Germany, France, Netherlands, Belgium), or that were to be consulted after the December meeting. As per the December 1979 meeting:

“The meeting ended with Leutwiler saying he would approach the Canadians and Japanese to see how they felt about the idea while Zijlstra would talk to the Italians. All would then think further about it and revert in January.

No mention of the Swedes, but, based on Sangster’s comment above, the Swedes were considered to be “very low gold holders“.

As per the 12 November 1979 Gold Pool meeting, there are no meeting minutes in the public domain for the 7 January 1980 Gold Pool meeting, with the BIS Archives office claiming it did not have such minutes. When asked about minutes from a 7 January 1980 meeting, the BIS Archives deflected the question and misdirected the answer, saying only that:

“The Gold Pool came to an end in 1968, so I take it that you are referring to meetings of the Gold and Foreign Exchange Committee. We do have some minutes for this meeting, but unfortunately not for the period which interests you.”

However, London Times correspondent Peter Norman, in Basle that day to cover the “Basle Weekend”, did write a report on the outcome of the BIS governors’ January meeting on gold. In his article titled “Bankers Rule Out Sale of Reserves to Hold Back Rush into Gold”, dated Monday 7 January 1980 (a day on which the gold price closed at $634), Norman wrote:

“Western central bank governors today ruled out any concerted sales of gold from reserves to quell the speculative rush of funds into the metal on the world’s bullion markets.

The idea, which has been suggested at various times in the past few months by Herr Fritz Leutwiler, the Swiss National Bank president, foundered when it became apparent that it would receive no support from the West German Federal Bank and the Bank of France. As these central banks have the second and third largest gold reserves in the Western world, their agreement was crucial to the launching of a concerted sale.”

“It appears that the gyrations of the gold markets were discussed at some length yesterday at the regular monthly meetings of central bankers here.”

“Behind the decision not to introduce a concerted programme of gold sales lies a hope that the speculative fever of the past few days will burn itself out and that the price will fall sharply of its own accord to administer a salutary shock to speculators.

There is also the sober consideration that nobody knows how much gold would need to be dumped on the market to achieve the desired result.

Norman only refers to ‘sales of gold’ and not a Gold ‘Pool’ since knowledge of the Gold Pool discussions was not in the public domain at that time. The reference in the London Times’ January 1980 report to the West German and French central bankers still being against the launch of a gold intervention operation gels with the view attributed to the Bundesbank and Banque de France  during the December 1979 BIS meeting.

The G5 Gold Meeting – Washington

However, this did not stop further discussions on gold market intervention, since exactly one week later on Monday 14 January in Washington DC, the deputy finance ministers of the G5 convened a secret meeting to also discuss a plan for joint central bank gold sales. In the 1970s, the G5 (Group of 5) referred to the world’s then five largest economies i.e. US, UK, Japan, West Germany and France.

This meeting was covered by a New York Times report, titled “Concerted Gold Sales Discussed” and filed in Washington DC on Wednesday 16 January 1980, a day on which the PM Gold Price closed at $760:

The possibility of concerted sales of gold by central banks from the leading industrial nations was discussed at a secret meeting in Washington last Monday by deputy finance ministers from the United States, West Germany, France, Britain and Japan.

The United States Treasury, confirming reports of the meeting that have just leaked out, said discussions were not confined to gold, and that discussions covers a ‘ wide range’ of international monetary issues.

European sources reported that there was as yet no consensus on the gold sales, with France and Germany opposed and the United States, Britain and Japan in favour, but with varying degrees of enthusiasm.”

As per the London Times report on 7 January,  the New York Times report of 16 January referred to sales of gold but not to the secretive Gold Pool discussions. The New York Times also recorded the West Germans and French as being non-cooperative about joint gold market intervention.

On Thursday 17 January 1980, the London Times, in an article titled “Gold at $755 after biggest jump ever” also commented on the secret Washington DC meeting, which it said was “chaired by Anthony Solomon, Under-Secretary of the United States Treasury for Monetary Affairs“, and that “apparently there was general agreement at the meeting that political factors were totally dominating the gold markets and that there was little point in any central bank selling gold.”

Sangster’s G5 Gold Briefs

The day after this Times report, on Friday 18 January, when the gold price closed in London at $835 per ounce, John Sangster at the Bank of England sent a confidential memorandum to Kit McMahon and to the attention of the Governor Gordon Richardson, commenting on the “G5 gold briefs“, i.e. the G5 gold discussions in Washington DC between the US, UK, France, West Germany and Japan. Sangster’s memo was as follows:

Confidential

18.1.80

MR. McMAHON,

Copies to Mr. Kirbyshire, Mr. Byatt, Governors’ Private Secretary

Just a few glosses on the G5 gold briefs.

1. Whereas the earlier rise in the gold price had definitely been a factor in the dollar’s weakness, since early in the New Year the dollar has detached itself from gold.

2. But gold has been a factor in the rise in the price of other commodities. part of that rise is obviously due to the increase in international tension, but the meteoric rise in gold has almost certainly exacerbated it.

3. Now that international tension is the main factor in the gold market, any central bank action would probably be ineffective.

4. If tension eased substantially, however, central bank action need not then be unnecessary. With greater chance of success, it could be helpful in further cooling the inflationary environment.

5. I am suspicious of the thesis that any future gold pool must start with purchases. When the price starts to rise there will be too strong an inducement, and probably many would present arguments not to sell.

6. All of which seems to suggest that the only gold policy central banks could be said to have is – afraid to sell but hoping to buy in the next bear phase. Realistic perhaps, but not very satisfying.

18th January 1980
(Dictated by JLS and circulated in his absence)

The ‘international tension’ referred to in Sangster’s note above most likely refers to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979 and the Iranian hostage crisis that began in November 1979.

While John Sangster’sglosses on the G5 gold briefsmemo from 18 January 1980 may have given the impression that gold market intervention was off the cards for the time being, no one told this to Fritz Leutwiler, chairman of the Swiss National Bank, because less than 2 weeks later, Leutwiler was again stirring for “central bank intervention in the gold market”.

SNB’s Leutwiler

According to Peter Norman in an article for the Times titled “Swiss call for banks to dampen gold price”, dated 31 January 1980 , a day on which the US dollar gold price closed at $653:

Dr Fritz Leutwiler, president of the Swiss National Bank, has once again advocated central bank intervention in the gold market to curb wild price movements.

In today’s issue of Handelsblatt, the West German business daily, Dr Leutwiler was quoted as saying that central banks should exercise control over the gold price to dampen down inflationary expectations and prevent speculation on the gold market from spreading on to foreign exchange markets.”

What has provoked Dr Leutwiler to raise the issue of central bank intervention in gold at this time remains a mystery. Neither he nor his spokesman were available for comment in Zurich today.

He has suggested central bank intervention in the gold market before, at the meeting of the International Monetary Fund in Belgrade last autumn and again to foreign journalists in Geneva last December. However, at the meeting of central bank governors in Basle last month [December 1979], the issue was quickly disposed of once it became apparent that neither the French nor West German central banks would support the idea.

Note that after working for the London Times, Peter Norman subsequently moved to the Financial Times in 1988 and was the FT’s economic editor from 1992 to 1995, as well as later becoming the FT’s chief EU correspondent. Norman’s profile can be read here.

After gold in US dollars hit a peak of $850 in January 1980, the price came off but still ended January 1980 at over $700 per ounce. By the end of February 1980, the US dollar gold price was trading in the $640 range, and by March and April 1980 it was trading in the $500 range, as the Paul Volcker led US Fed’s interest rate hikes began to take effect. But by the end of June 1980, the gold price was again above $600 per ounce, and in late September 1980 gold was trading above $700 per ounce.

gold price to 30 October 1980
Gold Price in US Dollars, November 1979 to October 1980. Source: BullionStar Gold Charts

Exchange of Gold for Oil while the World Adjusts

In September 1980, the Bank of England Governors (the Governor and Deputy Governor) and senior executives again went on record addressing the gold price and possible coordinated central bank interventions into the gold market. The following detailed commentary document was written by the Bank of England’s John Sangster (JLS) on Wednesday 17th September 1980, a day on which the US dollar gold price closed at $673.

Although JLS addressed the September 1980 memorandum to “The Deputy Governor” and to “Anthony Loehnis”, it was also sent to the Governor, Gordon Richardson, because Richardson, along with McMahon and Loehnis, all replied to the memorandum by writing signed notes in pen on the actual circulated document, as was the convention at the time.

In the document, “Mr Loehnis” refers to Anthony Loehnis. At that time in 1980, Loehnis was an Associate Director of the Bank of England. In 1981, he became an executive director of the Bank responsible for overseas affairs. Loehnis had previous worked for the Bank of England Governor Richardson from 1977 to 1979, and Richardson had actually brought Loehnis into the Bank of England from J henry Schroder Wagg & Co, where Richardson had been chairman. Loehnis moved to SG Warburg in 1989. Loehnis’ full name was Anthony David Loehnis and hence he signed his internal Bank of England memos and correspondence with the initials ‘ADL’. See profile of Loehnis here.

Gold for Oil

 

SECRET

17. 9. 80

MR LOEHNIS,
THE DEPUTY GOVERNOR

Central Banks and Gold

1. Last year when there was some discussion of a possible revival of the central bank gold pool, sceptics outnumbered advocates. Subsequent events justified the sceptics, although international political events played more of a part than any can have foreseen. Nevertheless a general but unspecified wariness of political disasters may be a part of the general background to scepticism in this area. The sceptic may also now point to the gold price occasionally threatening $700 again even though international tension is significantly reduced.

2. Nevertheless the price of gold is telling us something, and I do not think that we can dismiss it as merely a symptom to be ignored while continuing to concentrate on fundamentals.

3. The world is in competition for a relatively few “inflation-proof” assets, of which gold is reckoned to be chief. Its supply has been sharply reduced over the past year and the bulk of its stock is largely and firmly held by the G10 (and Switzerland).

4. In these circumstances the competition for the reduced supply – much sharpened by OPEC appetite which was not markedly present in 1973/74 – is having a disproportionate effect on the price. I well realise that if this continues for long, gold may not be such a good hedge in the short-run thereafter.

5. But the damage to inflationary psychology will by then have been done; not only in the developed countries but with OPEC, where the escalating price of this, one of the few inflation-proof assets could become an element in their price determination. Moreover, gold seems to exercise some influence on many “hard” commodities irrespective of fundamentals. The “symptoms” may therefore be having an independent effect on price levels.

Page 2

6. It is not of course for us with our relatively low gold holding, compared with many of the G10 countries, to preach a new gold pool. We can question however whether it is helpful in the longer run for the G10 countries to continue to sit pat on all their gold (in just another manifestation of the perversity of the adjustment process) and complacently accept the effects of the rising price of gold.

7. If any operations were ever contemplated, it would have to be geared at some concept of the developing real price of gold and not attempt to hold any particular nominal level. It would almost certainly not be a “pool” with any significant potential for recovery of gold sold. Rather it would enable OPEC to acquire some modicum of the chief inflation-proof asset without an excessive rise in the price. The aim would be to prevent gold making its own particular contribution to inflation while the developed world was attempting to bring inflation down and so reduce gold’s own peculiar attraction.

8. This is not to advocate gold for oil directly; the price haggling would be too acrimonious. Market intermediation should allow the G10 to move with the price while attempting to control its pace as well as break off the experiment when possible or necessary. A positive policy for gold could be a sign of confidence on the broader issue of inflation. But I fear the general opinion will be that the risk of comparative failure is too high to warrant such action on gold.

The actual memorandum from John Sangster (JLS) to McMahon and Loehnis (and Richardson) can be seen here: Page 1 and Page 2. The links may take a little while to load first time. Since this is an extremely important document, it can also be viewed below:

John Sangster memorandum to Anthony Loehnis, Kit McMahon and Godrdon Richardson, 17 September 1980 page 1
John Sangster memorandum to Anthony Loehnis, Kit McMahon and Gordon Richardson, 17 September 1980, page 1
JLS_17_9_80_2
John Sangster memorandum to Anthony Loehnis, Kit McMahon and Gordon Richardson, 17 September 1980, page 2

There are a number of intriguing aspects to Sangster’s Bank of England document, namely that:

  • Gold was reckoned to be the chief “inflation-proof” asset
  • The bulk of the available gold stock was firmly held by the G10 (and Switzerland)
  • Gold demand by OPEC countries was impacting the gold price due to limited supply
  • The escalating price of gold was feared by Sangster to have the potential to affect OPEC’s price determination of oil
  • Sangster’s posed the question whether “in the longer run” the G10 countries should “sit pat on all their gold
  • Sangster’s vision was for central bank operations to target the movements of the real price of gold in a moving fashion
  • Sangster’s did not necessarily envision a central bank Gold Pool in the traditional sense but a Pool that would “enable OPEC to acquire some modicum” of Gold “without an excessive rise in the price”. Modicum is a word which means a small quantity of something.
  • Sangster also wanted to “prevent gold making its own particular contribution to inflation” (i.e. to sabotage what gold does best – signal inflation) and hilariously, in typical central banker fashion, he referred to the interest in real money (gold) as a “peculiar attraction” that should be targeted.

There are 3 hand-written notes on the document. The first note at the top of page 1 in blue pen was written by Anthony Loehnis. The second note which starts at the top left of page 1 and continues at the bottom of page 1 in black pen was written by the Deputy Governor Kit McMahon. The 3rd note at the bottom of page 2 in black pen was written by the Governor Gordon Richardson.

Note from Anthony Loehnis:

“An interesting but difficult proposal. The case for rising gold prices as a locomotor rather than a manifestation of inflation would need to be made very persuasively. And I have difficulty with “the developing real price of gold”. It may nonetheless be an idea worth touring around in Basle and elsewhere, although I share the doubt in JLS’s final statement. AOL 19.9

Note from Kit Mc Mahon:

 “I have always been one of the sceptics in this area, & I am afraid I remain one. If the US would declare official convertibility buying and selling to CMIs without limit – at say $700, I believe it would be an enormously beneficial development for the international monetary system and especially for the US. But I see not the faintest chance that this will ever happen. In the absence of such a move I think it would be weak and dangerous for a group of central banks to try ad hoc to influence the priceCWM 24/9.

Note from Gordon Richardson:

It is surely impossible for any country to fix a gold price in present circumstance. What I am looking towards is some exchange of gold for oil while the world adjusts – although not very hopefully! G

Notes on JLS 17 9 80
Hand-written notes from Anthony Loehnis and Kit McMahon
Notes on JLS 17 9 80 2
Hand-written note from Kit McMahon
Notes on JLS 17 9 80 3
Hand-written note from Gordon Richardson

Again, there were some intriguing comments in the these hand-written notes.

  • Loehnis recommended sharing around Sangster’s proposals in Basel (BIS) and elsewhere.
  • McMahon advocated that the US Government declare official convertibility between the US dollar and gold at $700 per ounce. This was based on a calculation of US overseas dollar liabilities tallied in a separate document. A similar calculation today would put the US dollar gold price in the many thousands.
  • Richardson was ‘looking towards an exchange of gold for oil’ between the gold holders (Western central banks) and the gold producers (OPEC, the most important member of which was the Saudis).

In the Bank of England Archives, there do not seem to be any relevant files relating to Gold Pool discussions or gold market intervention after the year 1980. Likewise, BIS Archives claim not to have any material whatsoever about the 1979-1980 BIS Gold Pool discussions, despite the fact that there are numerous files in the Bank of England archives proving that these discussions took place. We therefore need to look at relevant material from other sources covering the period after 1980.

Zjilstra’s Per Jacobsson lecture – September 1981

Just over 1 year after John Sangster had written his document dated 17 September 1980 to Kit McMahon, Anthony Loehnis, and Gordon Richardson, in which he envisioned a scheme that would “enable OPEC to acquire some modicum” of gold “without an excessive rise in the price”, the BIS President Jelle Zijlstra was again proposing joint action to control the gold price.

On Sunday, 27 September 1981 in Washington DC, Zjilstra gave the main speech at the IMF’s annual “Per Jacobsson Lecture”. Zijlstra was chosen to give this speech to mark the fact that he was scheduled to retire at the end of 1981 from his role as President and Chairman of  the BIS and as President of the Dutch central bank, De Nederlandsche Bank (DNB). Note that Fritz Leutwiler of the Swiss National Bank (SNB) became BIS President and Chairman from January 1982 onwards, while Wim Duisenberg became President of the Dutch central bank in January 1982.

In his “Per Jacobsson Lecture” which was titled “Central Banking with the Benefit of Hindsight”, and which was given while the gold price had last traded that week at $450 per ounce, Zijlstra candidly told his Washington DC audience of fellow central bankers that:

I feel that it is necessary for us, within the Group of Ten and Switzerland, to consider ways to regulate the price of gold, admittedly within fairly broad limits, so as to create conditions permitting gold sales and purchases between central banks as an instrument for a more rational management and deployment of their reserves.

On the occasion of the annual meeting of the IMF in 1979 this was brought up, but regrettably, insufficient agreement could be reached to make even a modest start with regulating the gold price in the free market.

It is my firm conviction that relatively small-scale interventions, though not forestalling the subsequent explosion of the gold price, would at least have reduced it to more manageable proportions.

Now that the turbulent emotions seem to have quietened down, we would be wise to reflect anew and without prejudice on these subjects.

These quite extraordinary statements from Zjilstra while still BIS President illustrate that the desire of the BIS head to intervene in the gold market had not dwindled between early 1980 and the end of 1981. In fact, Zjilstra seemed to be indicating that the lower volatility in the gold price towards the end of 1981 provided a perfect opportunity to revisit the discussions with more chance of success in controlling the gold price.

  • Zjilstra “regretted” that “insufficient agreement could be reached” by the G10 and Switzerland on considering “ways to regulate the price of gold” in late 1979
  • Zjilstra was also convinced that “relatively small-scale interventions” would have reduced the gold price moves in January 1980 “to more manageable proportions
  • Zjilstra advocated revisiting the topic of gold market intervention (“reflecting anew and without prejudice on these subjects“) sensing that the turbulent emotions seem to have quietened down”.

This view of Zjilstra’s resonates with John Sangster’s comment in his 18 January 1980 report about the G5 Gold Briefs in which Sangster said:

If tension eased substantially, however, central bank action need not then be unnecessary. With greater chance of success, it could be helpful in further cooling the inflationary environment.”

Given that Fritz Leutwiler of the Swiss national Bank took over the reins as BIS President in January 1982, and given that Leutwiler was arguably the most prominent of all the BIS governors as an advocate of a new BIS Gold Pool (see above and Part 1), then it would not be surprising if, under Leutwiler’s stewardship, the BIS inner club of Governor’s recommenced discussions of a BIS Gold Pool during the 1982 – 1983 timeframe.

First, there is the Meeting on the Gold Pool – 1983

During that time, Gordon Richardson was still Bank of England Governor, Karl Otto Pohl was still Bundesbank President, Fritz Leutwiler was still Swiss National Bank Chairman, and Paul Volcker was still Chairman of the US Federal Reserve. So, is there any evidence of a Gold Pool mentioned during this timeframe?

Fascinatingly, there is:

“Over A bratwurst-and-beer lunch on the top floor of the Bundesbank, Karl Otto Pohl, its president and a ranking governor of the BIS, complained to me in 1983 about the repetitiousness of the meetings during the “Basel weekend.” First, there is the meeting on the Gold Pool, then, after lunch, the same faces show up at the G-10, and the next day there is the board which excludes the U.S., Japan, and Canada, and the European Community meeting which excludes Sweden and Switzerland.”

Edward Jay Epstein,  “The Money Club” – An Essay,  HARPER’S  November 1983

In 1983, investigative journalist Edward Jay Epstein was given privileged access to the Bank for International Settlements and some of its inner sanctum central bank governors while he was writing an article on the BIS (“The Money Club”) for US magazine Harper’s.

In his Money Club article, Epstein writes:

“Artfully concealed within the shell of an international bank, like a series of Chinese boxes one inside another, are the real groups and services the central bankers need-and pay to support.

The first box inside the bank is the board of directors, drawn from the eight European central banks (England, Switzerland, Germany, Italy, France, Belgium, Sweden, and the Netherlands), which meets on the Tuesday morning of each “Basel weekend.

To deal with the world at large, there is another Chinese box called the Group of Ten, or simply the “G-10.” It actually has eleven full-time members, representing the eight European central banks, the U.S. Fed, the Bank of Canada, and the Bank of Japan. It also has one unofficial member: the governor of the Saudi Arabian Monetary Authority.

“This powerful group, which controls most of the transferable money in the world, meets for long sessions on the Monday afternoon of the “Basel weekend.”

[Karl Otto Pohl] concluded: “They are long and strenuous-and they are not where the real business gets done.” This occurs, as Pohl explained over our leisurely lunch, at still another level of the BIS: “a sort of inner club.

“The inner club is made up of the half dozen or so powerful central bankers who find themselves more or less in the same monetary boat: along with Pohl are Volcker and Wallich from the Fed, Leutwiler from the Swiss National Bank, Lamberto Dini of the Bank of Italy, Haruo Mayekawa of the Bank of Japan, and the retired governor of the Bank of England, Lord Gordon Richardson (who had presided over the G-10 meetings for the past ten years)”

Bundesbank President Karl Otto Pohl is clearly on record in 1983 as stating that First, there is the meeting on the Gold Pool during the “Basle weekend“.  But the only publically known gold pool was the London Gold Pool which operated from November 1961 to March 1968.

Epstein interviewed the Bundesbank’s President Karl Otto Pohl in 1983, more than 15 years after the London Gold Pool had collapsed. Pohl only joined the Bundesbank in 1977, and he would not, in 1983, have used the term ‘Gold Pool’ for a meeting that had not discussed a gold pool since 1968, i.e. 15 years earlier. So what does this term ‘Gold Pool’ refer to?

Often Outnumbered, never Outgunned

In 2012, German investigative journalist Lars Schall asked this very question to the Bank for International Settlements. Schall asked:

“What is the ‘gold pool’ cited by BIS board member and Bundesbank President Karl Otto Pohl in his interview with the financial journalist Edward Jay Epstein published in the November 1983 edition of Harper’s magazine?”

The BIS initially responded to Schall with a classic ‘deflection and avoid answering the question’ response. The BIS wrote:

“Many thanks for your phone call and e-mail enquiry…

A detailed history of the Gold Pool, which operated between 1961 and 1968, can be found in Toniolo, Gianni (2005), ‚Central Bank Cooperation at the Bank for International Settlements,‘ Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 375-81 and 410-23. This book should be available from most academic libraries covering finance and economics.”

Schall responded:

“Thank you for your response. However, it seems that you have not answered my question as to the ‘gold pool‘ that Mr. Pohl cited in his interview with Edward Jay Epstein. That interview took place many years after the London Gold Pool disbanded and it must have been the BIS‘ own gold pool.

Therefore, once again: what is the ‘gold pool‘ that Mr. Pohl was talking about in 1983?”

The BIS then replied again as follows:

“After further in-house research the following can be said about references to the’‚Gold Pool’:

The ‘Gold Pool‘ Mr Pohl referred to in the 1983 interview is clearly a bit of a misnomer. The (London) ‘Gold Pool‘ as such – i.e. as a mechanism to intervene actively in the gold market by buying and selling gold on behalf of the central banks – operated only between 1961 and 1968.

Out of the regular meetings of central bank gold and foreign exchange experts organized at the BIS between 1961 and 1968 to discuss the operations of the London Gold Pool grew the so-called G10 Group of Gold and Foreign Exchange Experts, which continued their regular meetings at the BIS after the London Gold Pool had been abandoned. But for quite some time after 1968 this group was still being referred to by some as the ‘Gold Pool’, although it didn’t have the operational role the London Gold Pool had. This forum still exists today — it was re-named the Markets Committee in 1999.

Thus, it should be clear that after 1968 the mandate of this Gold and Foreign Exchange Committee was no longer to discuss and agree on direct interventions on the gold market, but simply to monitor and discuss developments on the financial markets generally. This is the ‘Gold Pool‘ Mr Pohl refers to in his 1983 interview.

Frankly, this BIS response is risible and fabricated since Karl Otto Pohl only joined the Bundesbank in 1977 and had no dealings whatsoever with the 1960s gold pool so would never have referred to a meeting which had nothing to do with a gold pool as “the meeting  on the Gold Pool“.

As former Luxembourg prime minister Jean-Claude Juncker famously said: “When it becomes serious, you have to lie“. The BIS response to Schall is also as hollow and misleading as a similar response the BIS sent to me when I asked for BIS documents on the Gold Pool discussions which took place in Jelle Zjilstra’s office in November and December 1979, meetings which are proven to have taken place. As a reminder, the BIS told me:

“The Gold Pool came to an end in 1968, so I take it that you are referring to meetings of the Gold and Foreign Exchange Committee. We do have some minutes for this meeting, but unfortunately not for the period which interests you.”

gold chart to end of 1985
Gold Price in US Dollars, July 1979 to December 1980. Source: BullionStar Gold Charts

Many Modicums of Gold for the Saudis

Therefore, what sort of Gold Pool would the early 1980s gold Pool have been? Bank of England Governor, Gordon Richardson, a member of the BIS inner club of governors, was calling for some exchange of gold for oil while the world adjusts”.

Bank of England gold and foreign exchange specialist John Sangster recommended a pool that would not have significant potential for recovery of gold sold, but that would enable OPEC to acquire some modicum” of gold “without an excessive rise in the price.” It would involve “market intermediation” which would “allow the G10 to move with the price while attempting to control its pace.”

OPEC was “increasingly concerned that gold is outpacing oil”, and while Al Quraishi, Governor of the Saudi Arabian Monetary Authority (SAMA) said that the Saudi’s “would not rock the boat” and buy gold on the open market if a new gold pool was selling, the Saudi’s still wanted to“diversify” into gold.

Incoming BIS President, Fritz Leutwiler “advocated central bank intervention in the gold market. Outgoing BIS President Jelle Zjilstra wanted the G10 and Switzerland to “consider ways to regulate the price of gold, so as to create conditions permitting gold sales and purchases between central banks.

Soviet – Kuwait Gold for Oil Deals

Gold for Oil sales were not just in the realm of theory even in 1979. They were fact. On 4 October 1979, the Governor’s office at the Bank of England wrote the following Secret briefing to the Bank of England Deputy Governor about Russian gold being exchange for Kuwaiti oil:

SECRET

4.10.79

THE DEPUTY GOVERNOR

Sir George Bolton phoned and asked me to mention to you that he had heard the following story from Washington.

It was attributed to the State Department and has two strands.

The Russians have sold one hundred tons of gold to Kuwait against payment in oil.

The Russians have suggested to the Government (?Central Bank) of Kuwait that they should act as agents for the Russians in buying oil against gold.

P.W.F. Ironmonger,

Governor’s Office

4th October 1979

 Bolton 4 October 1979

Handwritten 1 DAHB / JGH only. 2 back to JLS please. Handwritten “Mr McMahon,  Mr Sangster,  Mr Walker”    “for what it may be worth”.

The day before this Secret memo was written, the New York Times reported from the IMF conference in Belgrade on 3 October 1979 in an article titled “Saudis Hint Oil Output May Drop – Dollar’s Eroding Value Cited at IMF Meeting” that:

Saudi Arabia’s finance minister told a forum of international monetary officials and private bankers today that his country was considering new cutbacks in oil production because of the eroding value of the dollar.”

It would be naive to pretend that a continuous erosion of our financial resources, through inflation and exchange depreciation, could not evoke reactions,” Sheik Abalkhail said.

“We have done this to maintain more orderly conditions in the oil market and to promote a higher level of sustained growth of the world economy. We are finding it increasingly difficult to continue our policies under prevailing instabilities in exchange markets, coupled with high levels of inflation in industrial countries.”

On 4 October 1979, the New York Times again reported from the IMF conference in Belgrade in an article titled “Historical Linkage Cited For Gold and Oil Values” that:

“South Africa’s finance minister suggested today that there was a rough historical relationship between oil and gold prices.”

“Of the relationship between gold and oil, [Oren] Horwood declined to provide any explanation, saying ‘I simply note the fact’. The reaction of bankers here was that the relationship showed a constancy of real values against the background of gyrations in currencies.”

“Mr Horwood said that, as tracked over the last half-century, the price of gold per ounce was generally 15 times greater than the price of oil per barrel.”

Prior to the 1970s, the gold oil ratio was more static than the gold oil ratio since the 1970s for the simply fact that the gold price was fixed for a large period of time prior to the 1970s. However, the Gold to Oil ratio since 1970 has moved in a range of about 10 to 35, with a lengthy period during the 2000s when the ratio dipped below 10.

G to O ratio 1970 - 2017
Gold to Oil Ratio – 1970 to date. Source: http://www.macrotrends.net

Conclusion – The BIS, Where Noone Can See

To me, the evidence suggests that a Gold Pool did evolve at the BIS in the early 1980s but that it has been extremely well hidden. If it did evolve, was its intent to control the gold price so that Saudi & Co could acquire gold on the open market without driving up the gold price, or was it a dual purpose operation of Western central banks to quell inflationary signals, while in the background transferring a portion of their substantial gold holdings to Saudi & Co in secretive BIS administered transactions? And did it fix the gold / oil ratio or attempt to target a range, while allowing the dollar price of gold and oil to seemingly fluctuate randomly? And where was the gold that was being provided to Saudi & Co coming from, central bank sales from the large western central bank gold holders?

The Bank of England’s Sangster said he did not want toadvocate gold for oil directly” but was advocating that OPEC “acquire some modicum” of gold “without an excessive rise in the price.” And Bank of England Governor Gordon Richardson was “looking towards some exchange of gold for oil while the world adjusts“. Remembering that given that the Governor of the Saudi Arabian Monetary Authority (SAMA) was an unofficial member of the G10 at the BIS, then it is not implausible that the Saudis got what they wanted i.e. a chance to acquire real money in the form of gold in return for continuing to supply oil to the advanced Western economies.

Anyone familiar with the writings of “Another” on the USAGold website which appeared starting in October 1997 will recognise that this is exactly what “Another” said happened at the BIS, i.e. that the BIS fixed the gold/oil ratio so as to allow the Saudis to acquire gold even as they were receiving US dollars in payment for their oil exports.

In other words, that one leg of the BIS transactions took the form of behind the scenes gold transfers that flowed to Saudi & Co as subsidised payments for oil, thereby allowing the Saudis to receive payment in the ultimate money of gold in addition to fiat US dollars, while the other leg of the transactions allowed oil to continue to flow to the West. And lastly, that these arrangements, by also targeting the gold price, kept gold at an artificially low level which prevented gold fulfilling its traditional role of inflationary baramoter.

Anyone who reads ‘Another’ will see intriguing sentences such as follows, which just so happen to resonate with what BIS discussions and Bank of England documents were alluding to:

  • It was once said that “gold and oil can never flow in the same direction”
  • The BIS, instead of taking [gold] outright, places it where it’s needed!
  • In effect the governments are selling gold in any form to “KEEP IT” being used as ‘REAL MONEY” in oil deals!
  • Make no mistake, the BIS knows gold in the many thousands.
  • Not all oil producers can take advantage of this deal as it is done “where noone can see”.
  • Westerners should not be too upset with the CBs actions, they are buying you time!
  • Oil went from $30++ to $19 + X amount of gold! Today it costs $19 + XXX amount of gold (which according to some ‘Another’ experts, is a reference to the gold for oil agreement of the 1980s being renewed in the earlier 1990s at more favourable terms to the Saudis after the invasion of Kuwait)

All of this is presented in highly stylised but cryptic and ‘vague’ detail by Another & Friend of Another (FOA) on the USAGold website for those interested in reading it. I would tend to agree with what “Another” says, especially after having seen all of the discussions that took place at the BIS from the late 1970s onwards. The only question I would have is if the gold for oil deals are true, then “why the secrecy?”  Why not make it public, and let the world adjust?

An update on SGE Vault Withdrawals and SGE Price Premiums

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

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

2017 SGE Gold Withdrawals

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

SGEDeliveries01y

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

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

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

January + February = 184+179 = 363 tonnes

March + April = 192+171 = 363 tonnes

Discrepancy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SGE Premiums

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bank of England releases new data on its gold vault holdings

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

BoE vault
Bank of England ‘show’ gold vault

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“GOLD ACCOUNTS AT THE BANK OF ENGLAND

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

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

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

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

4. The Bank will review this policy periodically.”

The Vault Data

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

BOEGoldReserves01t
Bank of England custodial gold holdings: January 2011 – December 2016. Source www.GoldChartsRUS.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bullion Bank gold accounts at the BoE

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

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

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

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

The LPMCL also states that its clearing statistics include:

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

Additionally, the LPMCL website states that their

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Spot Checks

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

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

The Financial Times article also said that:

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

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

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

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

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

Death Spiral for the LBMA Gold and Silver auctions?

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 auction during 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

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.

Again it was Reuters that broke the gold auction news. In a short article titled ‘London gold benchmark fixes $12/oz off spot price‘, Reuters said the following:

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.

The LBMA Gold Price Oversight Committee meeting minutes for 4 November 2016 specify the March 2017 launch date and make clear that all banks ‘wanted to move‘ to use the clearing route, and that ICE Benchmark Administration ‘wish to keep running a healthy auction‘ (whatever that means). The minutes stated:

“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.”

Up until at least the end of February, ICE’s LBMA Gold Price page stated the following:

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.

In a 15 March article titled ‘London gold rush – ICE to launch clearing before banks are ready‘, Reuters said that ICE would introduce central clearing to the auction on 3 April and that:

“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”

Reuters picked up this theme again on 21 March with an article titled “ICE delays launch of clearing for London gold benchmark: sources“, in which it said that the 3 April start date had again been pushed back and that:

“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.

Both the ICE and CME contracts had a damp squib start, experiencing weeks of zero trading volumes. See BullionStar article from 8 February 2017 titled “Lukewarm start for new London Gold Futures Contracts”.

On 30 March, Bloomberg announced on Twitter that central clearing in the LBMA Gold Price auction would start on Monday 10 April.

death

Downward Spiral

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)
  • Goldman Sachs
  • HSBC Bank USA
  • JPMorgan Chase Bank (London Branch)
  • Morgan Stanley
  • Société Générale
  • Standard Chartered
  • The Bank of Nova Scotia – ScotiaMocatta
  • Toronto-Dominion Bank
  • UBS

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.

7 April AM
LBMA Gold Price auction – 7 April – morning – click to enlarge
7 april PM
LBMA Gold Price auction – 7 April – afternoon – click to enlarge

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.

The ICE website now states:

“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.

10 April AM
LBMA Gold Price auction – 10 April – morning – click to enlarge
10 April PM
LBMA Gold Price auction – 10 April – afternoon – click to enlarge

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.

11 April AM
LBMA Gold Price auction – 11 April – morning

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.

LBMA Gold Price auction - afternoon 11 April 2017
LBMA Gold Price auction – 11 March afternoon – Click to enlarge

As Kitco News said in its coverage of the LBMA Gold Price fiasco:

“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.

daily AUD gold futures ICE 11 April
ICE Daily Gold Futures report for 11 April – See Volume and Open Interest – Click to Enlarge

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.

In an imprint of the LBMA Gold Price webpage from 9 March 2017, the methodology section states that:

“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:

methodology 9 march 2017
LBMA Gold Price webpage – Methodology section 9 March 2017

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.

process 9 march 2017
LBMA Gold Price webpage – 9 March

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:

process 16 march 2017
LBMA Gold Price webpage – 16 March

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.

Conclusion

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.

A Chink of Light into London’s Gold Vaults?

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

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

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

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

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

“Enhanced transparency from the Bank of England

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

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

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

The Proposed Data

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bank of England

The Current Data

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

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

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

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

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

BoE-Gold

The Vaults of London

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

brinks1

brinks2
Brink’s letter to SEC, February 2014

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

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

dsc_0102_800.jpg

Conclusion

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

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

 

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

The European Central Bank (ECB), creator of the Euro, currently claims to hold 504.8 tonnes of gold reserves. These gold holdings are reflected on the ECB balance sheet and arose from transfers made to the ECB by Euro member national central banks, mainly in January 1999 at the birth of the Euro. As of the end of December 2015, these ECB gold reserves were valued on the ECB balance sheet at market prices and amounted to €15.79 billion. 

The ECB very recently confirmed to BullionStar that its gold reserves are stored across 5 international locations. However, the ECB also confirmed that it does not physically audit its gold, nor will it divulge a bar list / weight list of these gold bar holdings.

Questions and Answers

BullionStar recently put a number of questions to the European Central Bank about the ECB’s gold holdings. The ECB Communications Directorate replied to these questions with answers that appear to include a number of facts about the ECB gold reserves which have not previously been published. The questions put to the ECB and its responses are listed below (underlining added):

Question 1:The 2015 ECB Annual Report states that as at 31 December 2015, the ECB held 16,229,522 ounces of fine gold equivalent to 504.8 tonnes of goldGiven that the ECB gold holdings arose from transfers by the respective member central banks, could you confirm the storage locations in which this ECB gold is currently held (for example at the Bank of England etc), and the percentage breakdown of amount stored per storage location.”

ECB Response:The gold of the ECB is located in London, Paris, Lisbon, New York and Rome. The ECB does not disclose its distribution over these places. The gold of the ECB is stored there because it was already stored there before ownership was transferred to the ECB and moving it was seen and is seen as too costly.

Question 2: “Could you clarify as to how, if at all, this gold is audited, and whether it physical audited by the ECB or by a 3rd party?”

ECB Response:The ECB has no physical audit of its gold bars. The gold bars that the ECB owns are individually identified and each year the ECB receives a detailed statement of these gold deposits. The central banks where the gold is stored are totally reliable.

Question 3: “Finally, can the ECB supply a full weight list of the gold bars that comprise the 504.8 tonnes of gold referred to above?”

ECB Response:The ECB does not disclose this information.

euro-sign-frankfurt

London, New York, Paris, Rome, Lisbon

Given that some of the information shared by the ECB has arguably not been in the public record before, each of the 3 ECB answers above is worth further exploration.

In January 1999, when the Euro currency was created (Stage 3 of Economic and Monetary Union), each founding member national central bank (NCB) of the Euro transferred a quantity of foreign reserve assets to the ECB. Of these transfers, 85% was paid to the ECB in the form of US dollars and Japanese Yen, and 15% was paid to the ECB in the form of physical gold.

Initially in January 1999, central banks of 11 countries that joined the Euro made these transfers to the ECB, and subsequently the central banks of a further 8 countries that later joined the Euro also executed similar transfers to the ECB.

All of the foreign exchange and gold reserves that were transferred to and are owned by the ECB are managed in a decentralised manner by the national central banks that initiated the transfers. Essentially, each national central bank acts as an agent for the ECB and each NCB still manages that portion of reserves that it transferred to the ECB. This also applies to the transferred gold and means that the gold transferred to the ECB never physically moved anywhere, it just stayed where it had been when the transfers of ownership were made.

That is why, as the ECB response to Question 1 states: “The gold of the ECB is stored there because it was already stored there before ownership was transferred to the ECB”.

What is probably most interesting about the latest ECB statement is that it names 5 city locations over which the ECB’s gold is stored. The 5 gold storage locations stated by the ECB are London, New York, Paris, Rome and Lisbon. Since the gold transferred to the ECB in 1999 by the national central banks would have already been stored in central banks gold vaults, these 5 city locations undoubtedly refer to the gold vaults of:

  • the Bank of England
  • the Federal Reserve Bank of New York
  • the Banque de France
  • the Banca d’Italia
  • Banco de Portugal

The fact the ECB’s gold holdings are supposedly stored at these 5 locations can be explained as follows:

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

Between 4th and 7th January 1999, 11 central banks transferred a total of €39.469 billion in reserve assets to the ECB (in the form of gold, cash and securities). Of this total, 15% was in the form of gold, amounting to 24 million ounces of gold (747 tonnes of gold) which was valued at that time at €246.368 per fine ounce of gold, or €5.92 billion. The 85% transferred in the form of currencies comprised 90% US Dollars and 10% Japanese Yen. See pages 152 and 153 of ECB annual report 1999 for more details.

The 11 central banks that made the transfers to the ECB in January 1999 were the central banks of Belgium, Netherlands, Germany, France, Luxembourg, Italy, Ireland, Austria, Finland, Spain and Portugal. See Table 1 for details of these gold transfers, and the amount of gold transferred to ECB ownership by each central bank.

The value of reserves transferred to the ECB by each national central bank were based on a percentage formula called a ‘capital key’ which also determined how much each central bank subscribed to the founding capital of the ECB. This capital key was based on equally weighting the percentage of population and GDP each Euro founding member economy represented, therefore central banks such as Deutsche Bundesbank, Banque de France, and Banca d’Italia comprised the largest transfers, as can be see in Table 1. It also meant that these 3 central banks transferred the largest amounts of gold to the ECB, with the Bundesbank for example transferring 232 tonnes of gold to the ECB.

The Bundesbank gold transfer to the ECB in January 1999 took place at the Bank of England. The Bundesbank actually confirmed in its own published gold holdings spreadsheet that this transfer took place at the Bank of England. See spreadsheet Column 5 (BoE tonnes), Rows 1998 and 1999, where the Bundesbank gold holdings fell by 332 tonnes between 1998 and 1999 from 1,521 tonnes to 1,189 tonnes and also see Column 20 where gold lending rose from 149 tonnes to 249 tonnes. Therefore, between 1998 and 1999, 232 tonnes of gold was transferred from the Bundesbank gold account at the bank of England to the ECB account at the Bank of England, and 100 tonnes was added to the Bundesbank’s gold loans.

Paris and Rome

The Banque de France currently stores the majority (over 90%) of its gold reserves in its own vaults in Paris, so it it realistic to assume that when the Banque de France transferred 159 tonnes of gold to the ECB in January 1999, it did so using gold stored in the Banque de France vaults in Paris. Likewise, it is realistic to assume that the Banca d’Italia, which currently stores half of its gold reserves at its own vaults in Rome, transferred 141 gold stored in its Rome vaults to the ECB in 1999. This would explain the Paris and Rome gold holdings of the ECB. While a few ex French colony central banks are known to have historically stored gold with the Banque de France in Paris, none of the founding members of the Euro (apart from the Bundesbank) are on the record as having stored gold in Paris, at least not for a long time. The Banca d’Italia is not known for storing gold on behalf of other national central banks.

Lisbon and New York

The Banco de Portugal currently holds its gold reserves in Lisbon and also at the Bank of England, the Federal Reserve Bank of New York (FRBNY), and with the BIS. The ECB gold stored in Lisbon, Portugal most likely refers to the 18.2 tonnes of gold transferred by the Banco de Portugal to the ECB in January 1999, because a) that makes most sense, and b) the Banco de Portugal is not known as a contemporary gold custodian for other central banks.

Of the other 7 central banks that transferred gold to the ECB in January 1999, the central banks of Austria, Belgium and Ireland store most of their gold at the Bank of England so are the most likely candidates to have made gold transfers to the ECB at the Bank of England. See BullionStar blog “Central bank gold at the Bank of England” for more details of where central banks are known to store gold.

The Netherlands and Finland currently store some of their gold reserves at the Bank of England and at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York and probably also did so in 1998/99, so one or both of these banks could have made transfers to the ECB at the FRBNY. Another contender for transferring gold held at the FRBNY is the Spanish central bank since it historically was a holder of gold at the NYFED. It’s not clear where the central bank of Luxembourg held or holds gold but it’s not material since Luxembourg only transferred just over 1 tonne to the ECB in January 1999.

Greece and Later Euro members

Greece joined the Euro in January 2001 and upon joining it transferred 19.5 tonnes of gold to the ECB. Greece is known for storing some of its gold at the FRBNY and some at the Bank of England, so Greece too is a candidate for possibly transferring New York held gold to the ECB. In theory, the ECB’s New York held gold may not have even arisen from direct transfers from Euro member central banks but could be the result of a location swap. Without the national central banks or the ECB providing this information, we just don’t know for sure how the ECB’s New York gold holdings arose.

Another 7 countries joined the Euro after Greece. These countries were Slovenia on 1st January 2007, Malta and Cyprus 1st January 2008, Slovakia 1st January 2009, Estonia 1st January 2011, Latvia 1st January 2014, and Lithuania 1st January 2015. The majority of these central banks made gold transfers to the ECB at the Bank of England. In total these 7 central banks only transferred 9.4 tonnes of gold to the ECB, so their transfers are not really material to the ECB’s gold holdings.

ECB Gold Sales: 271.5 tonnes

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

These sales explain why the ECB currently only holds 504.8 tonnes of gold:

i.e. 766.9 t (including Greece) – 271.5 t sales + 9.4 t smaller member transfers = 504.8 t

The ECB does not provide, nor has ever provided, any information as to where the 271.5 tonnes of gold  involved in these 2005-2009 sales was stored when it was sold. The fact that the ECB still claims to hold gold in Paris, Rome and Lisbon, as well as London and New York, suggests that at least some of the gold transferred by the Banque de France, Banca d’Italia and Banco de Portugal in 1999 is still held by the ECB.

If the ECB had sold all the gold originally transferred to it by all central banks other than France, Italy, Portugal and Germany, this would only amount to 197 tonnes, so another 74 tonnes would have been needed to make up the shortfall, which would probably have come from the ECB holdings at the Bank of England since that is where most potential central bank and bullion bank buyers hold gold accounts and where most gold is traded on the international market.

Even taking into account Greece’s 19.4 tonne gold transfer to the ECB in January 2001, and excluding the French, Italian, German and Portuguese transfers in 1999, the ECB’s 271.5 tonnes of gold sales would still have burned through all the smaller transfers and left a shortfall. So the ECB gold sales may have come from gold sourced from all of its 5 storage loacations.

It’s also possible that one or more of the original 11 central banks transferred gold to the ECB that was stored at a location entirely distinct from the 5 currently named locations, for example gold stored at the Swiss National Bank. If that particular gold was then sold over the 2005-2009 period, it would not get picked up in the current locations. It’s also possible that some or all of the 271.5 tonnes of gold sold by the ECB over 2005-2009 had been loaned out, and that the ‘sales’ were just a book squaring exercise in ‘selling’ gold which the lenders failed to return, with the loan transactions being cash-settled.

Draghi resumes ECB press conference after being attacked by protester

No Physical Audit of ECB Gold

Given that the Euro is the 2nd largest reserve currency in the world and the 2nd most traded currency in the world, the ECB’s gold and how that gold is accounted for is certainly a topic of interest. Although the ECB’s gold doesn’t directly back the Euro, it backs the balance sheet of the central bank that manages and administers the Euro, i.e. the ECB.

The valuation of gold on the ECB’s annual balance sheet also adds to unrecognised gains on gold in the ECB’s revaluation account. Given gold’s substantial price appreciation between 1999 and 2015, the ECB’s unrecognised gains on gold amount to €11.9 billion as of 31 December 2015.

It is therefore shocking, but not entirely surprising, that the ECB doesn’t perform a physical audit of its gold bars and has never done so since initiating ownership of this gold in 1999. Shocking because this lack of physical audit goes against even the most basic accounting conventions and fails to independently prove that the gold is where its claimed to be, but not surprising because the world of central banking and gold arrogantly ignores and bulldozes through all generally accepted accounting conventions. Geographically, 2 of the locations where the ECB claims to store a percentage of its gold are not even in the Eurozone (London and New York), and infamously, the Bundesbank is taking 7 years to repatriate a large portion of its gold from New York, so the New York storage location of ECB gold holdings should immediately raise a red flag. Furthermore, the UK is moving (slowly) towards Brexit and away from the EU.

Recall the response above from the ECB:

The ECB has no physical audit of its gold bars. The gold bars that the ECB owns are individually identified and each year the ECB receives a detailed statement of these gold deposits. The central banks where the gold is stored are totally reliable.

Imagine a physical-gold backed Exchange Traded Fund (ETF) such as the SPDR Gold Trust or iShares Gold Trust coming out with such a statement. They would be run out of town. References to ‘totally reliable’ are all very fine, but ‘totally reliable’ wouldn’t stand up in court during an ownership claim case, and assurances of ‘totally reliable’ are not enough, especially in the gold storage and auditing businesses.

The ECB is essentially saying that these ‘statements’ of its gold deposits that it receives from its storage custodians are all that is needed to for an “audit” since the custodians are ‘totally reliable‘.

This auditing of pieces of paper (statements) by the ECB also sounds very similar to how the Banca d’Italia and the Deutsche Bundesbank conduct their gold auditing on externally held gold i.e. they also merely read pieces of paper. Banca d’Italia auditsannual certificates issued by the central banks that act as the depositories” (the FRBNY, the Bank of England, and the SNB/BIS).

The Bundesbank does likewise for its externally held gold (it audits bits of paper), and solely relies on statements from custodians that hold its gold abroad. The Bundesbank actually got into a lot of heat over this procedure in 2012 from the German Federal Court of Auditors who criticised the Bundesbank’s blasé attitude and lack of physical auditing, criticism which the Bundesbank’s executive director Andreas Dombret hilariously and unsuccessfully tried to bury in a speech to the FRBNY  in New York in November 2012 in which he called the controversy a “bizarre public discussion” and “a phantom debate on the safety of our gold reserves“, and ridiculously referred to the movies Die Hard with a Vengeance and Goldfinger, to wit:

“The days in which Hollywood Germans such as Gerd Fröbe, better known as Goldfinger, and East German terrorist Simon Gruber, masterminded gold heists in US vaults are long gone. Nobody can seriously imagine scenarios like these, which are reminiscent of a James Bond movie with Goldfinger playing the role of a US Fed accounting clerk.”

Where is the ECB Gold Bar Weight List?

Since, as the ECB states, it’s gold bars are “individually identified“, then gold bar weight lists of the ECB’s gold do indeed exist. This then begs the question, where are these weight lists, and why not release them if the ECB has nothing to hide?

Quickly, to define a weight list, a gold bar weight list is an itemised list of all the gold bars held within a holding which uniquely identifies each bar in the holding. In the wholesale gold market, such as the London Gold Market, the LBMA’s “Good Delivery Rules” address weight lists, and state that for each gold bar on a weight list, it must list the bar serial number, the refiner name, the gross weight of the bar, the gold purity of the bar and the fine weight of the bar. The LBMA also state that “year of manufacture is one of the required ‘marks’ on the bar”.

Recall from above that when the ECB was asked to provide a full weight list of its 504.8 tonnes of gold bars, it responded: The ECB does not disclose this information.

After receiving this response, BullionStar then asked in a followup question as to why the ECB doesn’t disclose a weight list of the gold bars. The ECB responded (underlining added):

“We would like to inform you that, while the total weight and value of the gold held by the European Central Bank (ECB) can be considered to be of interest to the public, the weight of each gold bar is a technicality that does not affect the economic characteristics of the ECB’s gold holdings. Therefore the latter does not warrant a publication.

It is a very simple task to publish such a weight list in an automated fashion. The large gold backed ETFs publish such weight lists online each and every day, which run in to the hundreds of pages. Publication of a weight list by the ECB would be a very simple process and would prove that the claimed bars are actually allocated and audited.

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

The more evidence that is gathered about the refusal of central banks to issue industry standard gold bar weight lists, the more it becomes obvious that there is a coordinated understanding between central banks never to release this information into the public domain.

The most likely reason for this gold bar weight list secrecy is that knowledge of the contents of central bank gold bar weight lists could begin to provide some visibility into central bank gold operations such as gold lending, gold swaps, location swaps, undisclosed central bank gold sales, and importantly, foreign exchange and gold market interventions. This is because with weight list comparisons, gold bars from one central bank weight list could begin turning up in another central bank weight list or else turning up in the transparent gold holdings of vehicles such as gold-backed Exchange Traded Funds.

Conclusion

Instead of being fixated with the ECB’s continual disastrous and extended QE policy, perhaps some financial journalists could bring themselves to asking Mario Draghi some questions about the ECB gold reserves at the next ECB press briefing, questions such as the percentage split in storage distribution between the 5 ECB gold storage locations, why ECB gold is being held in New York, why is there no physical audit of the gold by the ECB, why does the ECB not publish a weight list of gold bar holdings, and do the ECB or its national central bank agents intervene into the gold market using ECB gold reserves.

The lackadaisical attitude of the ECB to its gold reserves by never physically auditing them is also a poor example to set for all 28 of the central bank members of the European System of Central Banks (ESCB), and doesn’t bode well for any ESCB member central bank in being any less secretive than the ECB headquarters mothership.

If gold does re-emerge at the core of a revitalised international monetary system and takes on a currency backing role in the future, the haphazard and non-disclosed distribution of the ECB’s current gold reserves over 5 locations, the lack of physical gold audits, and the lack of public details of any of the ECB gold holdings won’t really inspire market confidence, and is proving to be even less transparent than similar metrics from that other secretive large gold holding bloc, i.e the USA.