Tag Archives: gold storage

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.

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

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

2,451.8 tonnes

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

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

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

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

Towards Transparency?

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

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

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

++ Bankitalia: Visco, statuto riafferma indipendenza ++

Palazzo Koch

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

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

The Vault is revealed

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

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

Translation of Video

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The BIS and SNB

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

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

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

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

Simple Questions met with Ultra-Secrecy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nazi Bars in Rome

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

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

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

The Foreign held Italian gold

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

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

Not a lot in London

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

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

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

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

Little in Berne

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

Mostly in Manhattan

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

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

A gold vault in Milan

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

Historical Italian Gold

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

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

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

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

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

The Gold Trains to Berne

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

l’Ufficio Italiano dei Cambi (UIC)

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

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

DB

Gold Collateral for the Bundesbank – 1970s

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

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

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

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

Gold capital gain Controversy – 1997/98

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

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

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

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

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

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

EMCF and EURO

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

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

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

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

Is any Italian Gold pledged or leased out?

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

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

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

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

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

 

Gold Audits

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

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

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

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

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

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

Banca d’Italia office in Manhattan

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

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

Political Awakening

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

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

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

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

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

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

Senators visit Palazzo Koch vault

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Italian Citizens

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

Mario Draghi – Last Word

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

 

Shanghai Gold Benchmark Price – New Kid on the Block

Exactly 19 months to the day after the International Board of the Shanghai Gold Exchange (SGE) held its first full trading session on 19 September 2014, the Shanghai Gold Exchange launched the Shanghai Gold Benchmark Price auction on 19 April 2016. In China, the number 19 is very auspicious since it consists of lucky number 1, which means origin or beginning, and lucky number 9 meaning everlasting, eternity, or longevity.

In another example of calculated Chinese planning, the SGE first announced plans to launch its own gold fixing auction on 11 March 2015. This was the week immediately prior to the launch of the LBMA Gold Price auction on 20 March 2015, an event which occurred without any Chinese banks being present in the initial participant list. This lack of Chinese banks as initial participants in the LBMA Gold Price auctions was despite the Chinese banks having made it clear in October 2014 that they wanted to be present in the London auction on launch day:

“It’s been very welcome to see that quite a few banks in China are very interested in taking part. They said they definitely wanted to be there on day one for gold” [Ruth Crowell, LBMA CEO, October 2014 interview with MetalBulletin quoted here]

Two Chinese banks eventually joined the LBMA Gold Price auction, Bank of China on 22 June 2015, and China Construction Bank on 30 October 2015, with Industrial and Commercial Bank of China(ICBC) tee’d up to join the LBMA Gold Price auction next month on 16 May 2016. However, sources in the gold market have indicated that the Chinese banks, and others, had difficulty establishing the necessary credit lines with the incumbent bullion banks that are a LBMA perquisite for being a direct participant in the LBMA auction. This need for bilateral credit lines between auction participants is not something that the Shanghai Gold Benchmark Price suffers from, since it is using a central clearing model, something that the LBMA have paid lip-service to but that has never materialised (nor will it if the LBMA has its way).

SGE bar

The Shanghai Gold Benchmark Price – Details

The Shanghai Gold Benchmark Price, which I’ll abbreviate to SGE Gold Fix, is a twice daily auction held on SGE business days at 10:15 am and 2:15 pm (Beijing Time). All time zones in China are officially the same time zone (and run on Beijing Time), with Shanghai Time equivalent to Beijing Time.

The SGE Gold Fix auctions use the exchange code SHAU, and run on the electronic SGE trading platform using a ‘centralised pricing trading’ auction model. The auction is for physically-delivered 1 kg lots of 99.99% purity gold or higher, quoted in RMB per gram, with a tick size of RMB 0.01. Delivery is in the form of 1kg standard gold ingots of fineness 999.9 or higher at SGE certified vaults. For the SGE Gold Fix, standard gold is either gold from an SGE approved refinery, or gold from a LBMA approved refinery. Settlement / Delivery is two days after trade date i.e. T + 2.

At this juncture it is important to emphasise that the Shanghai Gold Benchmark Price is a centrally cleared auction on the largest physical gold exchange in the world, that delivers real physical gold bars at any of the SGE’s 55 certified vaults. Shanghai Gold Exchange uses 55 certified vaults across 36 Chinese cities for gold storage. Unlike the LBMA Gold Price auction which just settles and clears its trades as unallocated gold that merely exists as a book-keeping entry in the database tables of the LPMCL’s AURUM system.

The objective of the SGE Gold Fix auction is to arrive at a ‘Benchmark Price’, which is a price at which supply and demand reach a balance, while allowing a certain imbalance (less than 400 kgs) to remain. The overall auction concept is therefore similar to the LBMA Gold Price auctions in London. However, there are many features unique to the Shanghai auction. The SGE Gold Fix involves a ‘Reference Price’ which is used as the auction’s initial opening price. This reference price is derived from prices entered into the trading system by two specific groups of auction members during a 5 minute pre-auction window period called the ‘Reference Price Submission Window’ which runs from 10:09 am – 10:14 am for the morning auction and from 2:09 pm – 2:14 pm for the afternoon auction.

These two sets of members are ‘Fixing Members’ and ‘Reference Price Members’. All of the Fixing members are financial institutions. The Reference Price members include gold mining companies and gold jewellery companies. The logic of obtaining opening reference prices from both fixing members and reference price members is that the SGE feels it will minimise price manipulation and price collusion since the reference prices submitted include a broader set of entities (i.e. include non-financial entities). This is a clever ‘checks and balances’ approach that is lacking in the LBMA Gold Price auction.

The Members

At launch, there are 12 Fixing Members and 6 Reference Price Members. The 12 Fixing Members are all banks, 10 of which are pure Chinese banks. These 10 Chinese banks are the Big 4 state-controlled banks in the Chinese Gold Market, namely Bank of China, China Construction Bank, Industrial and Commercial Bank of China (ICBC) and Agricultural Bank of China, followed by Bank of Communications, and also Industrial Bank, Ping An Bank, Bank of Shanghai, Shanghai Pudong Development Bank, and China Minsheng Bank.

The final Fixing members are local entities of 2 foreign banks, namely Standard Chartered Bank (China) and Australia and New Zealand Bank (China) (ANZ). Both Standard Chartered and ANZ hold gold import licenses into China, as does HSBC, however, there is no indication as of yet of HSBC becoming a Fixing Member. This is despite a report in January that China would penalise in some way a foreign bank with a gold import license if it did not join the SGE Gold Fix. Two of the 12 domestic bank holding gold import licenses, Everbright and China Merchants Bank, are also absent from the SGE Gold Fix member list. Perhaps in time, they, along with HSBC will sign up.

The 6 Reference Price members are Chow Tai Fook, one of Hong Kong’s largest jewellery companies and which also has a huge Chinese retail presence, China National Gold Group Corporation (China Gold), the largest of the Chinese gold mining companies, Shangdong Gold Group, another large Chinese gold miner, Shanghai Lao Feng Xiang, a large and well-known Chinese jewellery company, Bank of China (Hong Kong) Ltd, the RMB clearing bank in Hong Kong, and the SGE’s appointed settlement bank for the CGSE-SGE Gold Connect betwen the SGE and CGSE in the Hong Kong Gold Market, and MKS (Switzerland), the Swiss gold trading group that owns the PAMP gold refinery and also owns New York based MTB.

The above is just an initial list of participants that have joined so far. The SGE maintains that any qualified entity can join up in either the Fixing of Reference Price member categories. SGE stipulates that Fixing Member applicants are required to be financially-viable financial institutions that are either active on the SGE or active in the global gold market, while Reference Price applicants can meet one of a number of criteria such as “be a leading producer or consumer in the gold industry” or “be involved in the production, processing, trading, or investment of physical gold“.

SGE Benchmark

The Auction Mechanism

The Fixing members and Reference Price members submit initial reference prices. As to whether all members must submit a reference price is a moot point. Article 12.2 and 12.3 of the Rules for the Shanghai Gold Benchmark Price Trading state that the Fixing and Reference Price members “must provide market reference price at the designated time before the start of centralized pricing-trading“, however, the Shanghai Gold Benchmark Price White Paper (April 2016) describes a hierarchy of contingencies in deriving the reference price, two of which cover situations where less than 50% of members make a reference price submission.

The White Paper calculation methodology (algorithm) is as follows:

If > 50% of members submit a reference price, SGE calculates an arithmetic mean after disregarding the highest and lowest submitted price.

If < 50% of members submit a reference price, the SGE calculates an average (arithmetic mean) of all trades in the Au9999 spot gold contract that have been executed on the SGE during the timeframe for submitting reference prices.

If no trades were executed in the AU9999 during that time, the SGE takes the Shanghai Gold Reference Price from the previous trading session as the initial price. [this would be the previous afternoon benchmark price if applied to the morning pre-auction etc]

The Au9999 is the SGE busiest spot gold contractBased on this three-pronged approach, it would seem that the members are not all obliged to submit a reference price, otherwise the 50% threshold would never arise unless due to communication outages or similar. The only logical interpretation of the two documents is that if a member turns up to the auction (or logs in to the trading platform), then they are obliged to submit a reference price. If they don’t turn up, then there is no obligation. Notwithstanding this grey area, after the reference price is calculated the SGE then publishes the opening price.

Some readers will recall that ICE Benchmark Administration (IBA) uses a ‘human’ chairperson to come up with the opening price in the LBMA Gold Price auction using a number of price sources that ICE Benchmark Administration will not divulge. Nor will ICE Benchmark Administration divulge the identities of the panel of chairpersons that it employs to chair the daily LBMA Gold Price auctions. Frankly, this is a disgrace and a scandal, and shows that the Chinese auction methodology is far more transparent that its London counterpart. My hunch is that there are names involved as chairpersons in the current LBMA Gold Price auction that were also involved in the former London Gold Market Fixing Limited company which operated the London Gold Fixing auctions. Otherwise, why keep the identities a secret. No mainstream financial journalists in London will touch this particular story, although they are all aware of it. See BullionStar blog “Six months on ICE – The LBMA Gold Price” for further details about the lack of transparency in the administration of the LBMA Gold Price auction.

Once the opening price of the Shanghai Gold Benchmark Price is established using the calculated reference price, the auction begins, and participants and their clients submit their buy or sell orders and transaction volumes etc. The auction consists of a first round and possible subsequent rounds if supply and demand don’t reach a balance. There are two distinct time periods in each round, a ‘market tendering‘ session and a ‘supplementary tendering‘ session. The market tendering part is just the normal part of the round where all participants and their clients submit orders. The supplementary tendering session in each round only applies to the Fixing members, and allows them to submit supplementary orders against the remaining imbalanced quantity so as to try to reduce the imbalance to less than 400 kgs and so speed up the auction, because if the imbalance is shrunk to under 400 kgs, there is no need for an additional round(s).

The first round  consists of  a 1 minute market tendering session + a supplementary tendering session of 10 seconds. If the price is not balanced after the first round, the SGE trading system will adjust the price upwards or downwards depending on buy and sell orders, and then a new round begins. Any and all subsequent rounds consist of 30 seconds duration of a market tendering session + 10 seconds of a supplementary tendering session.

Once the imbalance is less than 400 kgs, it is shared out among the Fixing members. The price is then said to be balanced and the SGE then publishes the benchmark price. The ‘Shanghai Gold Benchmark Price’ now has its own web page on the SGE website here, with daily price lookup, daily, monthly and annual charting (which will make sense when the auction has been running for a while), and Trading Rules, Contract Spec and Q & A (to be uploaded, but some of which are already detailed in the Rules and White Paper linked above).

SGE Surveillance Committee

The SGE has also created an Oversight Committee to monitor and oversee the auction’s functioning. This Committee currently comprises 11 representatives from 9 organisations. Although the names of the representatives have not yet been published, the names of their organisations have. The SGE will have 3 representatives, and the 8 other entities will each have 1 representative. The list is as follows

  1. SGE  3
  2. ICBC  1
  3. Bank of China  1
  4. Standard Chartered Bank (China)  1
  5. ANZ Bank (China)  1
  6. China Gold Coin Corporation  1
  7. Baird Mint  1
  8. China Gold Association  1
  9. World Gold Council  1

Of the list of 11, seven reps come from pure Chinese entities, with the remaining four from two foreign banks, the World Gold Council and ‘Baird Mint’. All represented entities have connections with the SGE except it seems Baird.

The Oversight Committee’s remit is to monitor trading, clearing, delivery, in terms with SGE rules, analyse trading behaviour, examine conflicts of interest etc.

Central Clearing

The SGE uses central clearing of the trades executed in the SGE Gold Fix auctions and so there is no credit risk between participants. Under central clearing, the exchange becomes the counterparty to all buyers and sellers. This also avoids the need for participants to maintain bilateral credit arrangements with each other, and so easily allows the number of auction participants to grow, even exponentially. The lack of central clearing in the LBMA Gold Price auction is a huge barrier to entry for non-bullion bank participants and has been kept as such by the LBMA, even though ICE offers central clearing and has been well able to implement a centrally cleared model from Day 1 in March 2015. See ICE Executive Summary which summarises the winning ICE bid for the LBMA Gold Price wherein ICE discusses “moving to a centrally cleared model“.

The Purpose of the Shanghai Gold Benchmark Price

The Shanghai Gold Benchmark Price is but one more step in the growth and deregulation of the Chinese gold industry, and the internationalisation and extended use of the RMB. Much of this scene was set back in 2000 at the China Gold Economic Forum. It’s also a natural step for a country that is the largest gold producer, gold consumer and gold importer on earth. The SGE Gold Fix also provides China with a real role in global gold price discovery and creates the first proper transparent RMB denominated gold price benchmark, calculated within a centralised trading auction setting on an exchange.

An RMB gold price benchmark aids risk management and hedging in the domestic gold sector, and can also now be used within Chinese gold-backed derivative products, a function which the SGE has explicitly mentioned. So expect financial products to appear that use the Shanghai Gold Benchmark Price as a reference or valuation price. In China, where gold is correctly recognised as the ultimate money, there is also the prestige of having an internationally known global gold price benchmark, that will, in SGE’s words “enhance China’s voice in the global gold pricing market”.

In its White Paper, the SGE states that “the relationship between Shanghai Gold and Loco London Gold is non-competitive”, and it lists a number of reasons why this, on paper, is so, such as the London auction is for the OTC trading of 400 oz bars of 99.5 purity quoted in USD, while the Shanghai auction is Exchange-based trading for 1 kg bars of 99.99 purity quoted in RMB. While this is true, these are only ‘contract spec’ differences, and having a PBoC controlled gold benchmark that is not in London and not under the control of LPMCL clearing banks and the Bank of England is a much bigger change than purely differing contract specs.

The Chinese play a long patient game and more often than not just go ahead and do things / make things instead of just talking about doing things. The SGE and the PBoC have now set up another part of the infrastructure that can in time play a critical role in the global gold market as the Renminbi begins to internationalise. Whenever the Chinese Government and PBoC move to allow gold to be officially exported, this will really boost the new kid on the block benchmark.

I would not think that the Chinese will want to make waves with this Shanghai benchmark in the near future that would explicitly jeopardise their relationships with the London Gold Market. The fact that the luminaries of the global gold world were at the SGE Gold Fix launch ceremony and the China Gold Market Summit Forum on 19 April, much like they were at the launch of the SGE International Board in September 2014, attests to the fact that large players such as the World Gold Council, LBMA, MKS, ANZ and Standard Chartered are very much in a cooperative relationship with the SGE, the China Gold Association and the large Chinese banks. As the Chinese Gold Market continues to evolve, my view is that the Shanghai Gold Price Benchmark will naturally move into the ascendancy, and that its physical gold price discovery influence will subtly begin to show up the London Gold Market’s trading weaknesses (i.e. small % of physical traded), or alternatively, the Chinese will at some stage call time-out when ready, and allow the Shanghai Gold Price Benchmark to really shift up a gear to generate physical gold prices that will disconnect from the COMEX and LBMA pass the parcel shenanigans.

HSBC’s London Gold Vault: Is this Gold’s Secret Hiding Place?

HSBC’s main gold vault in London regularly comes under the media spotlight for a number of reasons. These reasons include:

a) the HSBC London vault stores a very large amount of gold on behalf of gold-backed Exchange Traded Funds, primarily the well-known SPDR Gold Trust (GLD)

b) along with the Bank of England vaults and JP Morgan vault, the HSBC vault is one of the 3 largest gold vaults in London

c) the location of the HSBC vault in London is not publicised and so the secrecy creates intrigue

d) HSBC every so often throws out some visual or audio-visual media bait about the vault, most famously in the case of CNBC’s Bob Pisani and his camerman and producer visiting and filming inside the actual vault

Despite all of the above, no one seems to have ever tried to figure out where this gold vault is actually located. Until now.

In some ways HSBC has done a very good job keeping the location of its London gold vault under wraps. The main challenge is where does one begin to look for a vault in London from scratch. At first it would appear that there is nothing in the public domain pointing to the HSBC vault location. This is not entirely true however. The gold bullion activities of HSBC in London stem from two companies that over time became part of the HSBC group. My approach was to start by thinking about which London locations HSBC used to be based at. I took this approach because it became obvious that the HSBC London gold vault being used was still a battered looking old vault space in 2004 and 2005, which was after the entire HSBC company had moved to its spanking new London headquarters in Canary Wharf by 2003.

In New York, the location of the HSBC Bank USA precious metals vault in Manhattan is well-known and is even listed in CFTC documents such as here. The vault is at 1 West 39th Street, SC 2 Level , New York, New York 10018 , which is the same building as 450 Fifth Avenue, which is the former Republic National Bank building that HSBC took over in 1999-2000. This Republic building at 450 Fifth Avenue, when it was being built, “had special vault requirements that reportedly added significantly to the project’s cost“. So its hard to see why HSBC makes such a big deal of not revealing its London vault location.

History of HSBC gold operations in London

In 1993, HSBC Holdings plc relocated its headquarters to London after having acquired Britain’s Midland Bank the previous year. Midland in turn had fully acquired Samuel Montagu in 1974 to form Midland Montagu. Samuel Montagu & Co was a City of London bullion broker, and one of the 5 original gold fixing members of the London Gold Fixing, and in turn, Midland Montagu was also a Gold Fixer. In 1999, HSBC began using the name ‘HSBC’ for the Gold Fixing seat of Midland Montagu.

Between 1999 and 2000, HSBC completed the acquisition of Republic National Bank of New York. Republic National Bank of New York had been a big player in the world gold markets, and in 1993, Republic National had bought one of the London Gold Fixing seats from Mase Westpac, meaning that from 1993 both Republic National and Midland Montagu held Gold Fixing seats, and that HSBC ended up with 2 of the 5 Gold Fixing seats. Therefore, in 2000, following the Republic National takeover, HSBC in London sold one of its newly acquired seats to Credit Suisse.

I also have always thought that the HSBC vault is in central London, and not in some far-flung outer London location. The LPMCL website (www.lpmcl.com) still displays text that says that the bullion clearer’s vaults are in ‘central London locations':

“The five London bullion clearing members each maintain confidential secure vaulting facilities within central London locations, using either their own premises, or those of a secure storage agent…”

Anyone who knows London will understand that ‘central London’ refers to a small number of central districts, and not some broader inside the M25 (ring road) definition. Before moving to Canary Wharf in circa 2003, HSBC occupied a number of buildings clustered around the north bank of the River Thames, including 10 Lower Thames Street (the Banks’ Headquarters), 3 Lower Thames Street (St Magnus House), 10 Queen Street Place at the corner of Upper Thames Street (Thames Exchange – containing a trading floor), and Vintners Place (adjoined to Vintners Hall on the other side of Queen Street Place and Upper Thames Street).

HSBC Bank USA NA (London branch)

Until late 2014, the HSBC entity that was the custodian of the SPDR Gold Trust was “HSBC Bank USA NA (London branch)”. NA means National Association. On 21 November 2014, effective 22 December 2014, the custodian for the SPDR Gold Trust switched from HSBC Bank USA, National Association to HSBC Bank plc.

HSBC Bank USA NA (London branch), until 2015, was also the HSBC entity that was listed as a member of London Precious Metals Clearing Limited (LPMCL) on the LPMCL website. See, for example, September 2009 imprint of LPMCL website. The next step is therefore to see where HSBC Bank USA NA (London branch) was formerly located.

The Financial Services Register (FSA Register) lists HSBC Bank USA, Reference number: 141298, effective from 24 January 2000, with a registered address of Thames Exchange, 10 Queen Street Place, London EC4R 1BE. Recalling the Republic National connection, the previous registered name for this entity was “Republic National Bank of New York”, with the same address, effective from 18 December 1995 to 24 January 2000. The FSA Register entry also lists various well-known names of the HSBC gold world alongside this HSBC Bank USA entity, including Jeremy Charles, Peter Fava and David Rose.

Recalling the Samual Montagu / Midland Montagu connection to HSBC, an entity called Montagu Precious Metals is also listed with an old address at “2nd Floor, Thames Exchange, 10 Queen Street Place, London EC4R 1BQ.

An old gold information website called GoldAvenue from the year 2000, written by Timothy Green, also lists HSBC Bank USA (London branch) address as:

HSBC Bank USA
London branch
Thames Exchange
10 Queen Street Place
London EC4R 1BQ

That same Gold Avenue web page also correctly listed the HSBC New York vault address as:

HSBC Bank USA
452 Fifth Avenue
New York, NY 10018

which is the same building as West 39th Street, New York, in Manhattan.

The precursor to the SPDR Gold Trust was called Gold Bullion Ltd, a vehicle set up by Graham Tuckwell, promoted by the World Gold Council, and listed on the Australian Stock Exchange. Gold Bullion Ltd’s first day of trading was 28th March 2003. Following Gold Bullion Ltd’s launch, the SPDR Gold Trust (GLD) was then launched in 2004, but originally it was called STREETracks Gold Shares, and it even had another former working title of ‘Equity Gold Trust’ in early 2004.

A May 2003 Marketwatch article about Gold Bullion Ltd and the early incarnation of the SPDR Gold Trust (Equity Gold Trust) can be seen here, and a speech by Graham Tuckwell about Gold Bullion Ltd to the LBMA annual conference in Lisbon in 2003 can be seen here.  Most importantly, an early draft Prospectus of Gold Bullion Ltd (in MS Word), dated 10 February 2003, lists the Custodian of Gold Bullion Ltd as:

CUSTODIAN BANK
HSBC Bank USA
Thames Exchange
10 Queen Street Place
London EC4R 1BQ

Therefore, Thames Exchange goes to the top of the list for further consideration, as does it’s neighbour Vintner’s Place. Thames Exchange and Vintners Place were both HSBC buildings and both buildings are situated right across the road from each other, with Queen Street Place literally bisecting the 2 buildings. Queen Street Place is also the road that acts as the approach road to Southwark Bridge, with the 10 Queen Street Place building and the Vintners Place building literally creating a canyon either side of the road.

You will see below why Queen Street Place is interesting. Queen Street Place is very near the Bank of England and is in the City of London, so it’s under City of London Police protection. It’s also very near the River Thames, as is the JP  Morgan London vault. To get to the Bank of England from Queen Street Place, you literally walk a mintute north up Queens Street, and then a few minutes north-east along Queen Victoria Street and you’re at the Bank of England.

An official HSBC letter-headed note documenting the Thames Exchange address and proving HSBC occupied this building can be seen here. Similarly, an official letter-headed note documenting the Vintner’s Place address, and proving that HSBC occupied that building can be seen here.

HSBC moves out of the City of London – 2002/2003

A Property Week article from 20 April 2000, titled “JLL to mastermind HSBC’s City exodus“, covered the huge HSBC move out of the City to Canary Wharf in the early 2000s:

Army of firms called in to help co-ordinate bank’s relocation to Docklands by 2002

“HSBC has stepped up its retreat from the City of London by instructing agents to open negotiations on the disposal of its outstanding City liabilities.

In one of the most hotly contested pitches of last year, Jones Lang Lasalle has beaten rivals to secure the lead role as strategic adviser for the bank’s relocation to Docklands [Canary Wharf] in 2002.

In addition to JLL, the bank has instructed another seven firms to mastermind the disposal of its 121,000 sq m (1,302,445 sq ft) City portfolio.”

“HSBC has ruled out acquiring freehold or long-leasehold interests and has instructed agents to negotiate the best surrender or assignment of the occupational leases on its 12 City buildings.”

Morgan Pepper is advising on HSBC’s 17-year lease at Thames Exchange, 10 Queen Street Place, EC4. The Scottish Amicable building is currently under offer to Blackstone Real Estate Advisors for £73m.

Insignia Richard Ellis, Chapman Swabey, Strutt & Parker and Wright Oliphant have positions on the bank’s remaining interests in Vintners Place EC3; Bishop’s Court at Artillery Street, and HSBC’s 37,160 sq m (400,000 sq ft) office complex at St Magnus House and Montagu House.

By the time STREETracks Gold Trust (the original name for the SPDR Gold Trust) was launched in 2004, HSBC Bank USA’s address had moved to HSBC’s new headquarters in Canary Wharf, in the Docklands, east of the City of London. By early 2003, Equity Gold Trust also listed the HSBC custodian with the Canary Wharf address.

An article by engineering company Arup  HSBC Headquarters – Canary Wharf – Arup), describing the new HSBC Canary Wharf building, dated 21 April 2004 stated:

“The phased occupation of the [Canary Wharf] building was completed in February 2003 when the last of over 8000 staff moved in, with HSBC Group Chairman Sir John Bond officially opening the building as the Group’s new head office on 2 April 2003.”

However, the old HSBC gold vault did not ‘move’ at the time the rest of HSBC moved lock, stock, and barrel to Canary Wharf between 2002-2003. In fact, the HSBC vault remained where it was in a slightly rundown shabby space with cream-colored walls. See multiple photos of the vault space below. The HSBC vault did however transform from an ‘old’ vault into a ‘new’ vault sometime between 2006 to early 2007. My belief, which I’ll explain below, is that this vault didn’t move, it just received an extensive renovation.

A diagram of the HSBC headquarters in Canary Wharf where the whole London HSBC workforce moved to by early 2003 can be seen below. Notice the car parks in basements B2, B3 and B4. You can also read about the basement construction in the Arup document above. This is not the location for a beat-up old vault that can be seen in the below old gold vault shots. Besides, the vertical pillars/piles in the old and new HSBC vault are nothing like the huge structural pillars/piles found in the HSBC headquarters in Canary Wharf.

The pillars in the old HSBC vault photos are pillars that would be found in an old arched vault, while the support pillars in the new HSBC vault photos are those that would be found in relatively shallow spaces under a road, such as pillars/supports used in the cut and cover New York subway system.

HSBC Headquarters - Canary Wharf
Arup diagram of HSBC Headquarters, Canary Wharf. lower section and basement

HSBC Gold Vault Photos

December 2004:

Here you can see an early gold vault photo of Graham Tuckwell, joint managing director of Gold Bullion Securities, and Stuart Thomas, managing director of World Gold Trust Services, in the ‘old’ HSBC vault in December 2004 checking a HSBC bar list:

DSC_0130_800.jpg

Source: https://web.archive.org/web/20051125081854/http://streettracksgoldshares.com/images/DSC_0130_800.jpg

And another photo, taken at the same time, of Stuart Thomas in the vault in December 2004:

dsc_0178_800.jpg

Notice the very old piping around the top of the walls.

Source:https://web.archive.org/web/20051125082702/http://streettracksgoldshares.com/images/dsc_0178_800.jpg

In fact, there are lots more photos of the inside of the ‘old’ vault on the StreetTRACKS website here https://web.archive.org/web/20060518124841/http://streettracksgoldshares.com/us/media/gb_media.php

June 2005:

See five photos below of vault in June 2005:

DSC_0008_800.jpg

‘Old’ vault looks quite beaten with concrete pillars, old floor, old air conditioning unit, and awful decor, and some type of desk an chair and wiring on the very right hand side of the photo.

http://web.archive.org/web/20070112174208/http://www.streettracksgoldshares.com/images/DSC_0008_800.jpg

http://web.archive.org/web/20070112174517/http://www.streettracksgoldshares.com/images/DSC_0010_800.jpg

http://web.archive.org/web/20070117114104/http://www.streettracksgoldshares.com/images/DSC_0023_800.jpg

http://web.archive.org/web/20070112174136/http://www.streettracksgoldshares.com/images/DSC_0034_800.jpg

http://web.archive.org/web/20070112174218/http://www.streettracksgoldshares.com/images/DSC_0056_800.jpg

October 2005:

Managing Director Stuart Thomas, Director of Corporate Communications, George Milling-Stanley of World Gold Trust Services, and CFO and Treasurer James Lowe (wearing a gold tie) of World Gold Trust Services

DSC_0137_800.jpg

http://web.archive.org/web/20070223040356/http://www.streettracksgoldshares.com/images/DSC_0137_800.jpg

6 more vault shots of gold bars stacked on pallets:

http://web.archive.org/web/20061110002622/http://www.streettracksgoldshares.com/images/DSC_0061_800.jpg

http://web.archive.org/web/20070109203025/http://streettracksgoldshares.com/images/DSC_0055_800.jpg

http://web.archive.org/web/20070110123058/http://streettracksgoldshares.com/images/DSC_0042_800.jpg

http://web.archive.org/web/20070110204026/http://streettracksgoldshares.com/images/DSC_0149_800.jpg

DSC_0149_800.jpg

When the gold is stacked 6 pallets high, as in the above photo, it nearly reaches up to where the pillars start to broaden out. Recall for a moment the definition of a vault. A vault is any space covered by arches, or an arched ceiling over a void. This is why the Bank of England ‘vaults’ are called vaults, because in the old vaults of the Bank of England (before the Bank of England was rebuilt in the 1920s/1930s), the gold was stored in the arched vaulted basements. The pillars in the shots of this ‘old’ HSBC vault look like pillars/piles that are the lower parts of arches, since they taper outwards as they go higher and they are positioned in a grid like formation.

http://web.archive.org/web/20061110002907/http://www.streettracksgoldshares.com/images/DSC_0037_800.jpg

http://web.archive.org/web/20070111113411/http://streettracksgoldshares.com/images/DSC_0065_800.jpg

DSC_0042_800.jpg

You can see how all the pallets of gold were located in a space with quite a lot of walls and chunky support pillars that broaden at the top (i.e. support pillars). Very similar pillars can be seen in old parts of the London Underground pedestrian tunnels, and also in the Vintner’s Hall wine vaults, which is next door to the vaults under Queen Street Place.

The NEW HSBC Vault 2007

During the second half of 2007, a series of 4 photos appeared on the STREETTracks website of a ‘New’ HSBC gold vault in London. The headline title of this series of images was

“The gold in trust at HSBC’s gold vault in London. The gold is being held in Trust for the shareholders of GLD. These images as at June 2007″

 This STREETTracks web page can be accessed via the following link, however, the photos don’t render properly.
June 2007 photos intro
However, I did source the photos in other dated instances from a similar link, and uploaded them. See below.

2007 George Milling-Stanley and possibly a bearded Stuart Thomas – June 2007

dsc_0127_800.jpg

George Millin-Stanley’s watch puts the time at 11:45am.

https://static.bullionstar.com/blogs/ronan-manly/wp-content/uploads/2016/04/dsc_0127_800.jpg

Milling-Stanley and 3 others – probably from State Street and BONY – June2007

dsc_0102_800.jpg

https://static.bullionstar.com/blogs/ronan-manly/wp-content/uploads/2016/04/dsc_0102_800.jpg

New vault – wide angle shot 2007

dsc_0018_800.jpg

https://static.bullionstar.com/blogs/ronan-manly/wp-content/uploads/2016/04/dsc_0018_800.jpg

2nd wide angle new vault shot 2007

dsc_0005_800.jpg

https://static.bullionstar.com/blogs/ronan-manly/wp-content/uploads/2016/04/dsc_0005_800.jpg

The MarketWatch website and a GLD SEC submission mentioned the ‘new’ vault move in an article on 11th January 2008:
“…StreetTracks Gold Shares, a wildly popular exchange-traded fund so awash in investor cash that its backers recently scrambled to find a bigger vault to accommodate their ever-growing horde of the precious metal, now valued at $18 billion.”
“Because the StreetTracks reserve expanded faster than expected, its managers had to move the stores to a bigger vault about six months ago to make more room, says George Milling-Stanley, a spokesman for the gold council.”
Graham Tuckwell, Chairman of ETF Securities, also referred to the ‘old’ and ‘new’ vaults at the LBMA Conference in Hong Kong in November 2012. On page 3, section C “Is the Gold Really There?”, Tuckwell shows 2 photos to the audience, one from “10 years ago” and one a recent photo. In the old photo, which is probably this photo
 he says “the fellow on the left is a 10-year younger version of me“. He also says: “That was the old vault when we started doing it, and you can see that we are doing a bit of a check“.
Then Tuckwell goes on to say: “This photograph was taken just over a year ago on a recent vault visit“… “Our gold, from the London product, the GBS, is on the left and the gold from the US product, the GLD, is on the right in this picture“. GBS was the Australian product and GLD being the State Street product, listed in November 2004.

As it turns out, there are vaults beneath the road under Queen Street Place, between 10 Queen Street Place (Thames Exchange) and Vintners Place, and these vaults were renovated during the period that would coincide with the HSBC London gold vault transforming from an ‘old’ vault to a ‘new vault’.

George Milling-Stanley in New Vault

Southwark Bridge and The Queen Street Place Vaults

Southwark Bridge is a bridge over the River Thames connecting the City of London (financial district) on the north bank of the river, to the area of Southwark on the south bank. The first Southwark Bridge (Queen Street Bridge) opened in 1819 and was an arched bridge with “vaults under the north abutment of the bridge“. There is also a reference to the vaults under Queen Street Place in a 1908 Corporation of London Record Office record.

A second bridge, the current Southwark Bridge, replaced the earlier bridge, and it opened in 1921.

A book titled ‘Design Applications of Raft Foundations‘, when discussing the development that became Vintners Place, mentions the vaults under Queen Street Place and shows that the vault space begins maybe 2.0 metres under the roadway, and with the vault space height being about 5 metres high which looks a very similar height to both the ‘old’ and ‘new’ HSBC vault spaces.

Q St Vaults

vintners and vaults

 

In fact, there were up to 17 vaults under Queen Street Place judging by a planning application from 1992 which listed a Vault Q (assuming Vaults A – Q), and the application said that the vaults had been used for storage.

Vault Q 1992

 

Alterations to Vaults under Queen Street Place

Keeping in mind that the ‘old’ HSBC gold vault became a ‘new’ HSBC gold vault sometime in 2006, or early 2007, then the following, in my view, becomes highly relevant. In September 2004, a building control planning application was submitted to City of London planning department for Alterations to Vaults in the Thames Exchange building at 10 Queen Street Place. See link for the application. See screenshots also.

http://www.planning2.cityoflondon.gov.uk/online-applications/buildingControlDetails.do?activeTab=summary&keyVal=ZZZZWDFHXC664

10 Queen Street Place - Alteration to Vaults application - 15 September 2004

10 Queen Street Place - Alteration to Vaults application - Date 15 September 2004

Fit Out of Vaults under Queen Street Place

Following this in November 2005, another building control planning application was received by the City of London planning department for “Fit out of Vaults between 10 Queen Street Place and Vintners Place“. See link below and also screenshots.

http://www.planning2.cityoflondon.gov.uk/online-applications/buildingControlDetails.do?activeTab=summary&keyVal=ZZZZWDFHXC269

Fit out of vaults between 10 Queen Street Place and Vintners Place - Vaults application - 4 November 2005

Fit out of vaults between 10 Queen Street Place and Vintners Place - Vaults application - Date 4 November 2005

Thames Exchange – 10 Queen Street Place

Blackstone bought Thames Exchange from Scottish Amicable in 2000 while it was still being leased to HSBC. HSBC then surrendered the lease of the building when it moved to Canary Wharf in 2003. Blackstone then renamed Thames Exchange to 10 Queen Street Place and began renovating it while leasing it to City law firm SJ Berwin for its new London headquarters. However, SJ Berwin only moved its London headquarters from Gray’s Inn Road to 10 Queen Street Place sometime between February and April 2006, so the renovations appear to have gone on during 2003-2005. Norwich Property Trust purchased 10 Queen Street Place from Blackstone in 2006, after it had been renovated. Notably, Norwich retained TFT Consultants to inspect 10 Queen Street Place. TFT Consultants states in a case-study on its website that:

 “We inspected this prominent riverside mixed-use building including extensive vaults underneath Southwark Bridge approach road and prepared a TDD report for Norwich Property Trust.”

Property investor Jaguar bought the 10 Queen Street Place building from Norwich in 2008, and then the Malaysian haji pilgrims fund purchased 10 Queen Street Place from Jaguar in September 2012.
Coincidentally, Vintners Place, which adjoins Queen Street Place on the other side of the vaults was also sold in September 2012 when Downtown Properties and a South Korean consortium bought it from Atlas Capital. The tenants at the time included Jefferies International, and Sumitomo and Thomson Reuters. Vintners Place also adjoins Thames House, Five Kings House, and The Worshipful Company of Vintners also has its headquarters in a building called Vintner’s Hall on the corner of Queen Street Place and Upper Thames Street.

The Plans of the Vaults under Queen Street Place

Detailed plans of the vaults under Queen Street Place before and after the ‘Alterations’ and ‘Fit Out’ can be seen here ( Vault Plans – Before 10 Queen Street Place – Vaults – Lower Ground Floor Plan – Before alterations) and here (Vault Plans – Proposed 10 Queen Street Place – Vaults – Lower Ground Floor Plan – After alterations). Both sets of plans were drawn up by Hurley, Robertson Architects. Click on the links to bring up the actual pdf files of the full plans.

vaults before a
Vaults under Queen Street Place – old layout – dated 28 November 2002

 

And more zoomed in. Notice all of the individual vaults and doors, and all of the walls with rows of pillars marked between the walls.

 

vaults before b
Vaults under Queen Street Place – old layout zoomed in

 

Compare the above plans to the ‘proposed’ plans. In the proposed plans, which are revision C08 dated 06 April 2006, all of the individual vaults have been removed by removing all the doors and walls, leaving just rows of pillars, and beams (given that it’s a top-down view looking down).

vaults after a
Vaults under Queen Street Place – proposed vaults – 2006 updates

You can see the changes a bit more clearly in the following slightly zoomed in version. Notice the facilities added on the right, such as toilets, kitchen, changing rooms, office, telecoms room etc, and also the rows of supports/ pillars on the left hand side, which is about 7 rows of supports / pillars in the open space, 5 of which run at the same angle, then there is a V shape where the pillars then run at a different angle.

vaults after b
Vaults under Queen Street Place – proposed vaults – 2006 updates – zoomed in

Anyone who has the inclination, given these sets of plans of the vaults under Queen Street Place, please check back over the photos of the ‘old’ HSBC vault and ‘new’ HSBC vault and decide for yourself if the photos in the ‘old’ cramped vault with the pillars and cream wall is reminiscent of the pre-alteration plans above. Likewise, decide for yourself if the ‘new’ HSBC London gold vault with the open plan design and layout of vertical steel support columns looks like the plans above of the ‘proposed’ alterations and ‘Fit Out’ of the vaults under Queen Street Place.

When G4S built its subterranean gold vault in Park Royal, London in 2013 / 2014, it fitted it out the area beside the vault with toilets and a kitchen – See second last sentence in red box below from the G4S building contractor document. Because, if you are working down in a vault all day, there will need to be toilets and a kitchen area, as well as changing rooms, phones and desktop computers etc. For background to G4S vault, see “G4S London Gold Vault 2.0 – ICBC Standard Bank in, Deutsche Bank out“.

 

GT4

 

The Pisani Files – “This is it folks, this is the Motherlode!”

Now we come to the Bob Pisani videos that were filmed by CNBC in the HSBC London gold vault in 2011. I say videos in plural because there are 4 video segments, and actually 5 segments in total including a trailer. The videos are quite exciting and fast-paced but frustrating because the camera is quite shaky and moves around rapidly for a lot of the vault segments, possibly on purpose. The background music is quite catchy also (at first).

1. The Motherlode

The first video is on a CBNC web page and embedded in an article titled “Gold’s secret hiding place”, however the video is titled “Gold Rush – The Mother Lode”. Its dated Wednesday, 31 Aug 2011 with a byline of “CNBC’s Bob Pisani recently got an exclusive inside look at the HSBC gold vaults in London, where the gold for the SPDR Gold Trust (GLD) is stored.” The video is  4:55 mins long, and introduced by Pisani from the New York studio. The vault shots begin at 1:18, and interestnigly, at 0:40 mins, the camera is in a vehicle travelling down Lower Thames Street.

http://www.cnbc.com/id/44343442

2. Gold’s Secret Hiding Place

Let’s call this 2nd video “Gold’s Secret Hiding Place”. This version, which is different to the Motherlode, is on YouTube. I’m not sure of the official segment name. This version is 5:06 mins long, and Bob says the vault is “in a super-secret location only known to a few people”. This is also the version where Bob hands in his cellphone and travels in a blacked-out vehicle saying “we have no idea where we’re going. We only know our final destination. The vault!”

There is a neat online app called Pause House which allows you to look at any YourTube clip frame-by-frame, and can be used on the above clip for those who want to get a good look at the vault interior. (Pause House).

3. The Third version

Lets call this the Third version. Its 2:43 mins long. Pisani starts on Waterloo Bridge on the River Thames and he points towards Westminster Bridge (the exact opposite direction to Southwark Bridge). Then he is in the blacked-out vehicle, and then in the vault from 1:04 mins. At this stage the music might be annoying, so luckily, there is no background music when Bob talks in the vault.

 

4. Inside the Secret Vault

This clip is 2:42 mins long and is dated Thursday, 8 Mar 2012 with a byline of “CNBC’s Bob Pisani gets unprecedented access inside the largest private gold reserve in the world.” Its slightly similar to version 3 above

http://video.cnbc.com/gallery/?video=3000077579

5. Version 5 is just a 31 second trailer about the CNBC 2011 gold series, published in March 2012, with gold vault footage only appearing for a few seconds.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gUSqbqYOnRY&feature=youtu.be

2005 vs 2011

There is one sentence in both “Motherlode” and “Gold’s Secret Hiding Place” that I consider very interesting. And it relates to the ‘old’ and ‘new’ vaults. What Bob Pisani says has obviously been told to him by someone at HSBC, since he would not know anything about the vault in advance.

At 3:37 mins in Motherlode, Pisani says  “In 2005, there was less than 200 tonnes of gold here, now there’s 6 times as much“. 

At 4:05 mins in  Gold’s secret hiding place, Pisani says “In 2005, there was less than 200 tonnes of gold in this vault backing the GLD. Now there’s 6 times as much.”

Pisani is essentially saying, probably without realising, that it is the same vault. i.e. that the vault in 2005 is the same vault as in 2011. However, given that the vault in 2005 was the ‘old’ vault, and that the vault in 2011 was the ‘new vault’, this suggests that it is the same space, and that the vault space was just renovated. It therefore supports the view that the vaults under Queen Street Place are a very strong candidate to be the HSBC London Gold Vault that stores the GLD gold and the ETF Securities gold.

Fruiterers Passage

You might have spotted above that one of the existing vaults under Southwark Bridge was turned into a riverside walkway. This was probably vault Q, which looked to be the vault nearest the river. This walkway runs under the beginning of the abutment on the north of SouthWark Bridge and is called the slightly humorous name ‘Fruiterers Passage’. The Passage was opened circa the year 2000 (and named after the Worshipful Company of Fruiterers), and is ornately tiled with ceramics, even around its pillar enclosures. Take a look at a photo of Fruiterers Passage and compare it to a photo of the new ‘HSBC’ gold vault that features the yellow-painted steel support pillars. The dimensions and spacings of the pillars in both photos look very similar, even identical.

Fruity

dsc_0005_800.jpg

A video walk-through (2:45 mins) of Fruiterers Passage can be seen here. The first 20-30 seconds shows Southwark Bridge, and then the walk through the Passage begins:

Although there are lots of security cameras around the City of London, the cameras in Fruiterers Passage and security warnings near the entrance to the Passage seem particularly explicit.

CCT 1

Sign

Size Matters

A MarketWatch article from 11 January 2008 quoted  George Milling-Stanley as saying that the vault was sizable but “not quite as big as a cricket pitch.” On another occasion, Milling-Stanley used another sporting analogy and described the ‘new’ vault as “about the size of a football field“. Can a sporting analogy (or two) help determine the size of the HSBC London gold vault? Possibly, but it’s not as clear-cut as you might think.

Notwithstanding that a ‘cricket pitch’ is the (smallish) 22 yard strip between the wickets, the quotation was presumably referring to a ‘cricket field’.  However, there is no standard shape of a ‘cricket field’, let alone standardised dimensions, since the ICC rules only state that the field can be circular or oval with a variable diameter of between 450 and 500 feet on the ‘long’ side (sometimes giving 16,000 sq yards). Regarding Milling-Stanley’s ‘football field’, analogy, it’s not clear whether this analogy was intended for a US audience or non-US audience. So it could mean ‘American’ football, or soccer or rugby.

In soccer, there is no standard size ‘field’. The sidelines (touch lines) have to be between 100 and 130 yards (110 to 120 yards for international matches), while the goal lines (end lines) must be between 50 and 100 yards (70 to 80 yards) in international matches. This could result in over 7000 sq meters or over 1.75 acres. The American football field is thankfully standardised, being 120 by 53.33 yards or 6400 sq yards.

Overall, Milling-Stanley’s descriptions give a flavour for permissible dimensions, but based on Bob Pisani’s video tour, I see the vault as a rectangular space but not quite as big as a soccer pitch. So lets look at the space in Google Earth. I’ve just added a yellow rectangle for illustrative purposes to show where the vaults under Queen Street Place are located.

QSP 3D
Bird’s Eye View – Queen Street Place looking north from Southwark Bridge – 10 Queen St Place on right, Vintners Place on left

See also some cross-sectional plans that were part of the 2004 Blackstone Thames Exchange planning applications (Cross Section width 10 Queen St Place – from river view and Cross Section length 10 Queen St Place).

QSP night shot
Night shot – Queen Street Place without traffic

The Marketwatch January 2008 article also said that the HSBC vault was “located on the outskirts of London” but how would the journalist know this since the same article also said that “a spokeswoman for HSBC declined to provide vault details, citing security policies”. As financial journalists mostly repeat what is told to them, I think this “located on the outskirts of London” bone was thrown out as a red-herring, and means the exact opposite.

Conclusion

At its peak holdings in December 2012, the SPDR Gold Trust stored 1353 tonnes of gold. Some observations from looking at the vault space in the Pisani videos and from talking to other people, are that:

a) the HSBC vault looks quite full in 2011, but it still looks like the space would be hard pushed to store the 1200 tonnes of gold that Pisani says were there

b) based on modelling the number of realistic-sized pallets that could conceivably fit into the Queen Street Place vault space (as per the vault plans), it also seems that it would be hard pressed to store 1,200 tonnes, unless they were crammed in. And the pallets in the CNBC segments are not fully crammed in to the space.

Remember also that the 1200 tonnes of gold reference only referred to the SPDR Gold Trust holdings in mid-2011 around the time the CNBC video segment was filmed. See blue line in chart below (chart from www.sharelynx.com) for GLD holdings over its lifetime. HSBC is also the gold custodian for ETF Securities’ gold-backed ETF which held about 170 tonnes at the time of Pisani’s visit. That would be nearly 1,400 tonnes of gold just between the GLD and ETFS holdings, which would be about 228 piles of pallets stacked 6 high crammed in. Furthermore, that’s not even taking into account any gold holdings of other HSBC customers, and Pisani also says in the videos that HSBC confirmed to him that its vault also stores gold for a range of clients.

SPDR 2

When GLD held 1353 tonnes in December 2012, this in itself would be 225 piles of pallets, each 6 high. ETFS held about 170 tonnes in December 2012 also, which would be another 28 piles of pallets stacked 6 high. If this location is the famous storage area for the SPDR Gold Trust then possibly during the boom times when GLD holdings peaked, the HSBC vault may not have been big enough to accommodate the GLD gold let any other gold. Which would mean that HSBC was storing GLD gold elsewhere such as at the Bank of England vault,  or the JP Morgan vault, both very close to Queen Street Place. It would also mean that GLD sources new gold inflows from gold that is at the Bank of England, i.e. leased central bank gold.

Another point to consider is that if the vaults under Queen Street Place are the correct location for the HSBC vault, then where did the gold that was being stored there in late 2005 / early 2006 go to during the vault alterations? This would have been at least 200 tonnes of gold as of late 2005, rising to over 350 tonnes of gold by late 2006. As the Bank of England is literally up the road from Queen Street Place,  moving it to the Bank of England vaults would be the most likely option during the renovation.

In summary, using publicly available information and evidence, I have described where I think the HSBC London gold vault may be located. Whether I am correct is another matter.

 

The Gold Vaults of London: Malca-Amit

Following on from the recent blog post “G4S London Gold Vault 2.0 – ICBC Standard Bank in, Deutsche Bank out“, which discusses the G4S precious metals vault located on Abbey Road in the Park Royal area of London, its instructive to also look at where the other London Gold Market vaults are located.

According to the vaulting pages on the London Bullion Market Association (LBMA) website:

“There are seven custodians offering vaulting services in the London bullion market, three of whom are also clearing members of the LBMA (Barclays, HSBC and JP Morgan). There are also four other security carriers, who are also LBMA members (Brinks, G4S Cash Solutions (UK), Malca Amit and Loomis International (UK) Ltd). The Bank of England also offers a custodian service (gold only).”

These 8 custodians are then listed in a pdf document on the LBMA website with their head office addresses, but not the vault addresses. So where are the actual vaults?

Having looked at G4S, let’s continue by examining the London vault of Malca-Amit. On its website page which featuring its London vault, Malca-Amit states that:

The London-based Malca-Amit vault is conveniently located close to Heathrow airport. The vault is graded at level XII CD EX, the highest European Vault classification and is complemented by the most up to date security systems including the Avigilon CCTV suite with cameras capturing 29 megapixels per frame.

The vault is authorised by the members of the London Clearing Company and has LBMA approval for the weighing and inspecting of precious metals.

Notice the reference to London Clearing Company. This is a reference to the London Precious Metals Clearing Limited (LPMCL), a private precious metals clearing consortium comprising HSBC, JP Morgan, Barclays, The Bank of Nova Scotia – ScotiaMocatta, and UBS.

Driving around in Circles?

The London Bullion Market Association (LBMA) actually featured Malca-Amit’s London vault in a slightly tongue in cheek article by Aelred Connelly titled “Visit to Malca-Amit’s New Vault” which appeared in Issue 68 of the LBMA’s Alchemist magazine in October 2012.

The article begins:

“It was a balmy day when we arrived at Feltham station where we were warmly greeted by our host for the day, Allan Finn, Global Commodities Director for Malca-Amit. Allan told us that the location of the vault was top secret so he deviously drove his car round in circles until we were so disorientated we had no idea where he had taken us.”

And ends with:

“Our tour came to an end. Allan drove his car round in circles again until we were so disorientated that we didn’t know where we had come from. But he made up for it by taking us for a nice lunch on the river at Richmond.

circles

 

Apart from driving around in circles between Feltham Station and the vault destination, the article also tells us that:

Malca-Amit became a member of the LBMA in March 2012 and shortly afterwards completed the building of a new vault facility close to Heathrow airport..

…the new secure storage facility was opened in April 2012 near Heathrow airport.

So it seems that Malca-Amit was granted Ordinary membership status of the LBMA just prior to its new vault becoming operational. The granting of Ordinary membership was probably a precursor to the Malca-Amit vault being, in the words of Malca-Amit, “authorised by the members of the London Clearing Company ..[with].. LBMA approval for the weighing and inspecting of precious metals.

The LBMA Alchemist profile goes on to say:

Built above ground, the Malca-Amit vault is one of a number of new facilities that either have been built or which will be opened shortly within the perimeter of the M25….. Proximity to an airport is an advantage.

On 20 September 2012, the LBMA issued an advisory document titled “Best Practice Guidelines; Used by “Loco London” Vaults Opening a new vault for the storage of precious metals“, in which it was advised that “If you wish to store the higher value precious metals then you may find that insurers insist that your vaults are subterranean“. This obviously wasn’t an issue for Malca-Amit’s insurers, since the Malca-Amit vault is in a building that’s above ground.

The Alchemist continues:

“When we eventually arrived at our destination only the sound of planes overhead gave any indication as to where we were.”

“Before we went in to the building Allan explained that the perimeter fencing can withstand a 7.5-ton vehicle at 50 mph and the internal shutter anti-ram barrier which is located behind the entrance gates can withstand a 7.5-ton vehicle at 30 mph.”

“But the thing that strikes you most is the vault. Allan explained that it is a Chubbsafe
grade XII which offers the highest possible level of security and provides capacity for more than 300 metric tonnes of gold and 1,000 tonnes of silver.

“Gold and silver are not the only precious items in storage: there are also diamonds and other precious stones and jewellery which are kept in storage on behalf of clients.”

Where then could Malca-Amit’s recently opened gold and silver vault be located?

 

Arena plane

Arena Building, Parkway

It turns out that in a similar manner to G4S when it made a planning application amendment for its new vault building at Abbey Road in Park Royal, Malca-Amit was also not shy of listing its building location on the internet, for it too listed the location of its new vault in a planning application amendment submission dated July 2013.

This planning document is posted on the www.gov.uk website, and on page 10, it states:

OK0230285 SN
MALCA-AMIT (UK) LTD
Director(s): STEPHAN KAZES, RAPHEL AMIT.
UNIT C3, TAMIAN WAY , HOUNSLOW TW4 6BL

New operating centre: ARENA BUILDING, PARKWAY TRADING ESTATE, AERODROME WAY, CRANFORD LANE, HOUNSLOW TW5 9QA

(0 vehicle(s), 0 trailer(s))
New authorisation at this operating centre will be: 4 vehicle(s), 2 trailer(s)

 

Which leads us to the questions: what is and where is this Arena Building?

Arena

In 2011, the already completed Arena Parkway building,  profiled in a glossy brochure, was marketed on a UK commercial real estate website called NovaLoca commercial property finder. This brochure pdf file was created on 14 July 2011. So although Malca-Amit may have “completed the building of a new vault facility” as the LBMA stated, it did not build the building in which the vault is located. The building had already been built prior to 2011.

The ‘Arena’ building is in the ‘Parkway Heathrow M4′ industrial estate off Cranford Lane, in Heston, in the Hounslow area to the north-east of Heathrow airport.  Anyone who knows that area around Hounslow will know that the one of the landing routes into Heathrow Airport is a very low approach along a route right above where this building is located.

According to the brochure:

“The Arena provides a modern detached warehouse unit of 23,660 sq ft with a self-contained secure yard and benefits from 24-hour security, an on-site management team and surveillance cameras.”

“The unit is available on a new Full Repairing and Insuring lease basis.”

Additional information in the 2011 brochure includes such facts as:

“NEW DISTRIBUTION/WAREHOUSE UNIT 23,660 sq ft (2,198 sq m)”

Description
The Arena is a new high quality warehouse suitable for production, storage, research and development, laboratories and general distribution. It has an impressive reception leading to first floor fully fitted offices. The property is constructed of brick and profile metal composite cladding with double glazed windows fitted with solar shading.

Accommodation
The property provides the following approximate gross external floor areas:
Warehouse 20,430 sq ft 1,898 sq m
FF Offices 3,230 sq ft 300 sq m
Total 23,660 sq ft 2,198 sq m

Amenities
Warehouse, 8m clear height, Two up and over electric loading
doors, 200 kVA 3 Phase power supply, Roof lights to 10% of warehouse
floor area, Floor loading of 50Kn/m2

Offices
Open plan layout, Full access raised floor, Suspended ceilings with recess
lighting, Gas central heating, Double glazed windows, Passenger lift
Reception area

 Exterior
Self-contained property, Large secure yard, Access for articulated lorries
Allocated parking

Given that this Arena building was being marketed from July 2011 onwards, and that Malca-Amit began operating the vault facility from April 2012, then it would suggest, as would be expected, that Malca-Amit took possession, and then fitted out the building to its own specific requirements, including the vault, before opening for business in April 2012.

The Arena building is in the London Borough of Hounslow, so it is instructive to examine planning applications made for this building in and around the dates that Malca-Amit took occupancy.

A planning search for TW5 9QA on the Hounslow planning website reveals that plans for this Arena Parkway building were submitted from as early as December 2007, but there seems to have been a long drawn out series of planning applications and amendements made for the construction, the latest being submitted in December 2008 and approved by Hounslow Council in February 2009. Therefore, construction of the building would have commenced sometime after February 2009.

The planning applications for the Arena building, which were submitted by CGNU Life Assurance Ltd / Aviva Investors, summarise the project as follows:

System Reference: P/2008/3669

Planning Reference: 00315/F/P59(6)

Following approval for demolition of the existing office building and construction of new industrial and warehouse unit with ancillary office accommodation, new entrances off existing access road, car parking, landscaping and roof mounted photo-voltaic panels details submitted pursuant to Condition 6 (waste and recycled materials storage) of permission dated 18/03/08

APPLICANT DETAILS

Name Mr Mark Nevitt CGNU Life Assurance Ltd

 Address C/O Aviva Investors No.1 Poultry London EC2R 8EJ

Architect     LDA Ltd Chartered Architects, Surrey”

The Arena drawings document submitted with the most recent building application shows a layout in keeping with the size and shape of the structure that was actually built, so it looks like the development was completed in accordance with the last approved set of plans.

 

Malca Amit Arena Parkway TW5 9QA
Malca Amit Arena Parkway TW5 9QA

 

Fencing

Following occupancy by Malca-Amit, the only planning application submitted for the Arena Building since then is application “Planning Reference: 00315/F/P61″ which addressed improved fencing around the site.

System Reference: P/2013/1670

Planning Reference: 00315/F/P61

Site description THE ARENA PARKWAY TRADING ESTATE CRANFORD LANE HOUNSLOW LONDON TW5 9QA           

Date received 31/05/2013

Details: Erection of security fencing and bollards along perimeter of site with sliding gate at yard entrance and rising barrier at car park

Ward: Heston West   [note that a ward is a sub-unit of a borough]

APPLICANT DETAILS

Name     Malca Amit

Address   100 Hatton Garden EC1N 8NX

Architect          Pinnegar Hayward Design, Birmingham

Application Received 31/05/2013

Decision Approved 13/09/2013

The ‘delegated report’ submission states that:

“The application seeks to improve the existing security around the site. The existing bollards around the site would be made good to existing low-level shrub planting. The fencing around the part of the site would be a 2.4m high 358 mesh panel fence powder 600 mm high electric fence above. This fencing would be on the north, south and west parts of the site. There would be a 6m cantilevered sliding gate, which would be 2.4m high with serrated top – RAL 9005 (black) finish.

In order to secure parking on site a car park gate has been proposed which runs off the access road. This would be 3m wide rising barrier which would be 1m high, RAL 9003 (white) finish with contrasting red banding. There would be 1m wide exit gate which would be next to the unit.”

The Site Plan and Elevation for the above application put some visuals on the above delegated report text. This fencing is therefore the fencing that Allan Finn of Malca-Amit was referring to when he told the LBMA that the”perimeter fencing can withstand a 7.5-ton vehicle at 50 mph and the internal shutter anti-ram barrier which is located behind the entrance gates can withstand a 7.5-ton vehicle at 30 mph.”

 

The Edinburgh Assay Office and UKAS

Not only is Malca-Amit located in this Arena Parkway Building, but so is the Edinburgh Assay Office.  Although the Edinburgh Assay office has its headquarters in Goldsmiths Hall, Edinburgh, in Scotland, it also operates a laboratory at a Heathrow Sub Office where it is accredited for “Chemical Tests for the purpose of hallmarking”.

This fact is revealed in a series of United Kingdom Accreditation Service (UKAS) reports that were posted on the UKAS website in June 2015. On 8 June 2015, UKAS posted a report about the Edinburgh Assay Office on its website titled “The Edinburgh Assay Office Issue No: 010 Issue date: 08 June 2015″. This report lists a ‘Heathrow Sub Office’ for the Edinburgh Assay Office without specifying its address.

UKAS 1

UKAS 2

However, 4 days earlier on 4 June 2015, UKAS posted a report titled “The Edinburgh Assay Office Issue No: 009 Issue date: 04 June 2015” in which the Heathrow Sub Office was listed with an address of  “1st Floor,  Arena Parkway, Cranford Lane, Heston, TW5 9QA”.

Although the Issue 010 report from UKAS replaced its Issue 009 version a few days later, the Issue 009 version remained in the Google cache as a Google search result and also as a complete cached document:

Edinburgh Assay Office Heathrow sub office 1st floor Arena Parkway

Cached version of Issue 009

UKAS Issue 009 4 June 2015 Edinburgh Assay Arena Parkway

The commercial logic for the Edinburgh Assay Office having a presence in Malca-Amit’s Arena building seems to be that, in addition to Malca-Amit storing precious metals and precious stones and jewellery in the building, the location is also convenient for the rest of the Heathrow area where precious metals and jewellery are constantly arriving into and departing from. This is the ‘Hallmarking in Transit’ service offered by the Edinburgh Assay Office, offered in conjunction with Malca-Amit, and explained on the Assay Office website here, and also on Malca-Amit’s website here.

The Edinburgh Aassy Office’s Heathrow sub-office was profiled in January 2015 in an article on website Jewellery Focus, complete with photo of the office in the Arena building. Notice the Malca-Amit warehouse floor in the background of the photo with the office on the 1st floor. The one year anniversary of the Edinburgh Assay Office sub-office in the Malca-Amit premises was also recorded in an end of January 2016 article from Professional Jeweller titled “Edinburgh Assay Office celebrates one year of Hallmarking in Transit at Heathrow”.

This is not the only UK-based assay office to maintain a sub-office in the premises of a secure precious metals transport and secure storage operator near Heathrow Airport. The Goldsmiths Company – Assay Office, which is headquartered in the City of London, also operates a Heathrow Sub Office in “Unit 7, Radius Park, Faggs Road, Feltham, Middlesex, TW14 0NG”. This is listed in a UKAS report “The Goldsmiths’ Company – Assay Office Issue 016 Issue Date 05 August 2014″. This ‘Unit 7 Radius Park’ is a Brinks building and it too contains a vault, but that’s another vault profile for another day.

 

Venezuela says adiós to her gold reserves

Five months ago in my article “Venezuela’s Gold Reserves – Part 2: From Repatriation to Reactivation“, I concluded that:

“given the deteriorating state of Venezuela’s international finances and international reserves at the present time, it may be sooner rather than later before Venezuelan gold could be on the move again out of the country.

One thing is for sure. Gold leaving Venezuela on a flight back to London, New York, or elsewhere, will not get the fanfare and celebration that was accompanied by the same gold’s arrival into Caracas a few short years ago.

Those predictions now seem to have come to pass because there is now evidence that the Banco Central Venezuela (BCV) shipped gold out of Maiquetía Airport (Caracas international Airport) in early July 2015, and there is also separate evidence that Venezuela’s official gold reserve holdings, which are managed by the BCV, dropped by 60 tonnes between March and April 2015. These are two distinct events.

The 60 tonne drop in gold reserves in March-April

On 28 and 29 October respectively, Bloomberg and Reuters filed reports highlighting a decline in Venezuela’s gold reserves through the end of May 2015. The Bloomberg report is here, the Reuters report is here.  Both reports merely focused on the currency value of Venezuela’s gold reserves, and neither report addressed the critical metric that is needed in any discussion of central bank physical gold dealings, i.e. quantity or weight of gold. Furthermore, neither Bloomberg nor Reuters seems to grasp how the BCV values its gold reserves.

From Reuters:

Venezuelan central bank gold holdings declined in value by 19 percent between January and May, according to its financial statements, likely reflecting gold swap operations and lower bullion prices…

 ..Central bank financial statements posted this week on its website show monetary gold totaled 91.41 billion bolivars in January and 74.14 billion bolivars in May

 From Bloomberg:

“The value of the central bank’s bullion holdings fell 28 percent at the end of May from a year earlier, while the spot price for the metal declined just 12 percent.”

The problem with the above is that comparing the change in value of Venezuelan gold reserves over two points in time relative to the spot price change of gold over those same two points in time is not the correct approach because the BCV does not use the latest market price to value its gold holdings. The BCV uses a nine month rolling average valuation price methodology.

Without knowing the correct valuation price used at each month-end valuation point, the quantity of gold being valued cannot be calculated accurately. Conversely, doing some simple research (looking up the footnotes to the BCV accounts) and a few quick spreadsheet calculations gives a very accurate estimate of quantity of gold held at each month-end valuation point. Perhaps next time the major financial news wires can go the extra mile.

[Note: The Spanish translations in this article use a combination of Google Translate and Yandex Translate, and some instinctive re-sequencing.]

bcv Merentes

Valuation of monetary gold by the BCV

The BCV’s valuation methodology for monetary gold holdings, taken from 2014 year-end accounts, is as follows:

“Oro monetario…se valora mensualmente utilizando el promedio móvil de los nueve (9) últimos meses del fixing a.m. fijado en el mercado de Londres,

“Monetary gold…is valued monthly using the moving(rolling) average of the last nine (9) months of a.m. fixings set in the London market

Because the BCV holds a small percentage of its monetary gold in the form of gold coins, the valuation methodology also addresses how to value the coins, which, although not material to this discussion, is as follows:

“..más un porcentaje del valor promedio de la prima por el valor numismático que registren las monedas que conforman este activo.”

“..plus a percentage of the average value of the premium for the numismatic value of the coins which comprise this asset”

 (Note 3.3. to the 2014 BCV financial accounts)

To check this moving average calculation and how it works, you can apply it to the 2014 year-end monetary gold valuation figure and make use of note 7 in the same set of accounts. Note 7 states:

“Nota 7 – Oro monetario

Al 31 de Diciembre de 2014, las existencias de oro monetario se encuentran contabilizadas a un precio promedio de USD 1.257,80 por onza troy y totalizan Bs. 91.879.349 miles, equivalentes a USD 14.620.691 miles y su composición y valoración se corresponde con los criterios descritos en la nota 3.3”

“At December 31, 2014, the stock of monetary gold is recorded at an average price of USD 1257.80 per troy ounce and total Bs. 91,879,349 thousands, equivalent to USD 14,620,691 thousands, and its composition and valuation corresponds to the criteria described in Note 3.3

(Note 7 to the 2014 BCV financial accounts)

The Venezuelan accounting convention of USD 14.620.691 miles just means USD 14.6 billion.

check mate

361 tonnes of gold at year-end 2014

As at 31 December 2014, in its balance sheet, the BCV valued its monetary gold at Bs 91,879,349,000 (bolívares fuertes). Technically, since 2007, the Venezuelan currency is called the bolívar fuerte (strong bolivar) since at that time the Venezuelan government re-based the previous inflation ravaged bolivar and re-set 1000 old bolivars = 1 ‘strong’ bolivar. The updated name is in retrospect ironic given that the Venezuelan currency is now one of the weakest fiat currencies in the world as the Venezuelan economy begins to experience out-of-control price inflation.

This brings us to the next part of the BCV gold valuation equation. The BCV uses an ‘official’ Venezuelan exchange rate in its financial accounts. This official rate is a static 6.3 bolivars to the US dollar and is based on a February 2013 government edict called “Convenio Cambiario N° 14“.

Again, this exchange rate is another fantasy when compared to the unofficial market exchange rate for the Venezuelan bolivar in terms of the US dollar. This unofficial exchange rate, for example, is currently ~786 according to the Dolartoday website. The bolivar’s unofficial rate versus major currencies will no doubt go even higher in the near future as the currency continues to crumble and potentially goes into hyperinflationary territory.

The final part of the gold valuation equation is the London gold fixing (a.m.~morning) price (more recently LBMA Gold Price), whose daily price dataset can be downloaded here. Note that prior to 20th March 2015, the London gold auction ‘fixed’ price was known as the London gold fixing. Even though the London gold price is now still ‘fixed’ (in more ways than one) during the re-gigged auctions, the LBMA has opted for the less loaded name of the ‘LBMA Gold Price’ auction.

I calculate that the 9 month rolling average of the London morning gold price from 1 April 2014 to 31 December 2014 was USD 1257.49. This is pretty close to the BCV specified value of USD 1257.80 above. The BCV’s extra 31 basis points may reflect the numismatic premium on its gold coin holdings or some other calculation difference.

However, the important point to all of this is that the manual calculation method of arriving at the BCV’s gold valuation price (by calculating the 9 month moving average directly) looks accurate and is in line with the BCV’s number. Based on the BCV’s 31 December 2014 monetary gold value of Bs 91,879,349,000, and the BCV’s USD 1257.80 valuation price, Venezuela held 360.64 tonnes of gold at year-end 2014. This 360.64 tonnes figure is pretty close to the figure reported by the World Gold Council of 361.02 tonnes as at end of fourth quarter 2014 (which itself is not set in stone).

The Sale of 61 tonnes?

The BCV publishes monthly balance sheets (including the monetary gold valuation figure), but currently there is a 4 month lag on date publication, so the latest balance sheet is from May 2015 (the same month-end date that Bloomberg and Reuters referred to above). The monthly balance sheets for January to May 2015 can be downloaded here, here, here, here and here:

Using the valuation methodology described above, and some simple reverse engineering, shows that over the two month period between the end of February 2015 and the end of April 2015, the BCV’s gold holdings dropped by over 60 tonnes, with a 33 tonne drop in gold reserves during March, followed by a 27.7 tonne drop in April. The data below is taken from the 6 monthly balance sheets from Dec 2014 to May 2015, and the LBMA daily price dataset.

BCV gold jan - may 2015

My calculations for month-end January 2015 show Venezuela’s gold holdings to be 360.39 tonnes, nearly identical to the BCV’s month-end version for December 2014. I haven’t included any numismatic premium for gold coin holdings since its immaterial. My calculations show a 2.4 tonne increase in gold holdings at February month-end. I’m not sure what this increase refers to but it could be the monetization of some domestic gold mining production by the BCV (purchasing some Venezuelan mining output and classifying it as monetary gold), or conversion of some small residual BCV non-monetary gold holdings into monetary gold.

Adding domestically produced gold to monetary gold holdings in Venezuela has a precedent. So does conversion of already held non-monetary gold. For example in 2011 the BCV purchased 1.6 tonnes of domestic gold. The same year the BCV also converted 3.6 tonnes of ‘non-currency gold’ that it was already holding into monetary gold.  For details, see section “Changes to Venezuela’s gold reserves since early August 2011″ in my article “Venezuela’s Gold Reserves – Part 1: El Oro, El BCV, y Los Bancos de Lingotes“.

For March 2015, my calculations indicate that the BCV’s gold holdings witnessed a 33.17 tonne reduction, and ended the month at 329.64 tonnes. Similarly, in April 2015, my calculations find that the BCV gold reserves saw another outflow of 27.74 tonnes, bringing total holdings down to 301.90 tonnes. Between March and April, the combined gold reduction amounts to 60.91 tonnes. There was no material change in gold holdings between April and May, save a tiny 0.27 tonne increase, which could be calculation noise. The main damage to the gold holdings happened in the narrower time period of March and April, a fact that was not highlighted in the Reuters 4 month period reference, and the Bloomberg 1 year period reference.

On its website, the World Gold Council (WGC) publishes a “Quarterly times series on World Official Gold Reserves since 2000″ spreadsheet, which is based on data from the “International Monetary Fund’s International Financial Statistics (IFS) and other sources where applicable.

Interestingly, this WGC spreadsheet states that as of the end of Q4 2014, Q1 2015, and Q2 2015, Venezuela’s gold reserves remained unchanged at 361.02 tonnes, and the WGC does not reflect any of the above monthly reductions in Venezuela’s gold holdings. The WGC spreadsheet also states in a disclaimer that “While the accuracy of any information communicated herewith has been checked, neither the World Gold Council nor any of its affiliates can guarantee such accuracy.

This just goes to show the many problems that can arise by relying solely on IMF and WGC data sources for official sovereign gold holdings, in addition to the more problematic ‘gold receivables’ accounting fictions employed by central banks.

maria

BCV operations: First and Second?

To see what was happening with Venezuela’s gold holdings in March and April 2015, it is worth reading the last few sections of my “Venezuela’s Gold Reserves – Part 2: From Repatriation to Reactivation” article, especially the last section about the 5 questions Maria Corina Machado, parliamentarian and opposition party leader in Venezuela, posed to Nelson Merentes, president of the BCV on 12 March 2015.

Also important to know from that article are:

a) the details of the Venezuelan gold swap with Citibank which emerged in late April and was for only 1.4 million ounces (43.5 tonnes post haircut), and the gold to be used in the swap was the 50 tonnes of gold that had been left by the BCV in the Bank of England vaults in January 2012

b) the BCV was in discussions with a number of investment banks about harnessing its gold reserves, and that the BCV revealed on 5 March that six investment banks were making a pitch to the BCV, namely Credit Suisse, Goldman, BTGP Brazilian, Deutsche, Bank of America and Citibank. The favourites were said to be from a short-list of Deutsche Bank, Bank of America and Citibank, but another Caracas media source thought that Credit Suisse and Bank of America were involved

c) Goldman Sachs had previously been discussing a gold swap with the BCV, this news becoming public in November 2013

The 61 tonne reduction in Venezuela’s gold reserves over March-April 2015 cannot be accounted by the Citi gold swap since a) the Citi gold swap was for less than 45 tonnes, b) gold swaps usually stay on central bank balance sheets as an asset of the central bank, and c) if there was a gold swap transaction that did get taken out of the balance sheet, it would not be a reduction over 2 months, it would be one transaction.

Therefore, I think that this 61 tonne reduction over March-April 2015 represents something else entirely. It could be another transaction with one or more of the other investment banks above, or it could be an entirely separate gold sale to another entity such as the Chinese government.

Nicolas Maduro

Since Banco Central Venezuela is entirely non-cooperative in answering questions about gold posed by the media, some speculation is, in my opinion, acceptable. For example, for the articles referenced above, Bloomberg states that “The central bank’s press department declined to comment on the decline in gold holdings.” Reuters states that “The central bank declined to comment“. Another example of arrogant central bankers who consider themselves above normal standards of accountability and transparency.

A few clues about the gold holdings reduction are in the letter Maria Corina Machado sent to Nelson Merentes on 12 March. In the letter Machado asked these 5 questions of Merentes:

  • Are all of Venezuela’s gold reserves in the vaults of the Central Bank of Venezuela as stated by the former president Hugo Chavéz on 17 agusto 2011, when he ordered “repatriation of our gold”?
  • Is the BCV in negotiations with foreign banks for the sale or pawning of monetary gold?
  • Is it true that in the operation to pawn gold currently under discussion, it is intended to dispose of gold with a market value of US$ 2.6 billion? Does this represent / involve almost 20% of the total gold reserves of the Republic, in this first operation?
  • Is it true that they would be negotiating a second operation similar to the previous one for an even greater amount?
  • Do these operations involve removing the gold from the vaults of the BCV and returning it abroad?

Machado’s questions are very specific, i.e. US$2.6 billion, almost 20% of gold reserves, first operation, second operation, physical removal of gold, return of gold to abroad etc, and suggest that her questioning was based on sources that appear to have thought that this specific information was indeed factual.

In early March 2015, 20% of Venezuela’s gold reserves of 360 tonnes would be 72 tonnes, (while 61 tonnes would be 17% of gold reserves). Based on an average gold price of $1,200 in the first week of March, US$2.6 billion would be 67.4 tonnes. These figures are far closer to the actual reduction of gold holdings in March and April of 61 tonnes and suggest that there was a ‘first operation’ that was distinct from the gold swap with Citibank, and that necessitated the actual removal of 61 tonnes from the BCV balance sheet.

Then what about a ‘second operation‘ that could be ‘for an even greater amount‘ in the words of Machado?

aerporto maduro

Gold Flights from Caracas in July 2015

Caracas international Airport, where the flights laden with Venezuela’s repatriated gold arrived at during the period November 2011 to January 2012, is officially known as Simón Bolívar International Airport, but colloquially known as Maiquetía Airport since it’s in an area of Caracas called Maiquetía (the airport is beside the ocean).

On 01 July 2015, Venezuelan news site La Patilla published an article titled “El BCV reexporta para empeñarlo el oro que Chávez repatrió” (BCV re-exported for pledging, the gold that Chavez had repatriated), in which it featured two snippets from a letter written by the Banco Central Venezuela (BCV) to Maiquetia International Airport Air Customs (SENIAT) sometime just before July, probably written in June. SENIAT is the Venezuelan customs and tax authority, officially called Servicio Nacional Integrado de Administración Aduanera y Tributaria, or National Integrated Service for the Administration of Customs Duties and Taxes.

The first snippet of the BCV letter to SENIAT, and highlighted by La Patilla, stated:

Tengo el agrado de dirigirme a usted en ocasión de manifestarle que el Banco Central de Venezuela realizará exportación de valores, cuyas especificaciones y demás características se detallarán en actas a suscribirse con con funcionarios del Ministerio del Poder Popular de Economía, Finanzas y Banca Pública -Seniat y este instituro, las cuales serán presentadas a las autoridades competentes el día de salida en la Aduana Principal Aérea de Maiquetía

“I have the pleasure of addressing you on the occasion to inform you that the Central Bank of Venezuela will ​​export values, whose specifications and other characteristics will be detailed in Minutes to be signed with officials from the Ministry of Popular Power for Economy, Finance and Public Bank -Seniat and this Institute, which will be presented to the competent authorities on the day of departure in Maiquetía’s Main Air Customs”

The La Patilla article commented that:

Los “valores” a los que se refiere la comunicación sería oro monetario según nos respondieron dos economistas con experiencia en las operaciones del BCV.”

According to two economists with experience of BCV operations who responded to us, the ‘values’ to which the communication refers to is monetary gold.

The 2nd snippet of the letter, with the BCV stamp, is even more interesting, and I have included it below:

BCV SENIAT airport July letter

Although not fully legible on the very left hand side of the photo, the text, as far as I can make out, says:

“…el reconocimiento, pesaje y embalaja de la materia en referencia, en el Departamento de administracion del Efectivo, ubicado en el sótano 2 del elemento Sede de esta instituto. La…[  ]… actividad, se tiene previsto realizarla en los dias 02, 03 y 06/07/2015, a partir de las 8:00…[ ]. En caso de que la referida actividad se extienda más del tiempo prevista, le será notificado…[ ]

“acknowledgement, weighing and packing of the material in question, in the Cash Management Department, located in Basement 2 of the Headquarters of this Institute. The .. [  ].. activity is planned for the days 02, 03 and 07.06.2015, from 8:00…[  ]. In the event that the referred to activity extends beyond the planned time, you will be notified…[  ]”

It’s not unusual for letters about specific gold shipments from central banks to security carriers or other agencies to avoid to mention the actual cargo. I have seen the same approach used in historical Bank of England letters to companies like MAT Transport and the Metropolitan Police, phrases such as “we would like to go ahead with the matter we discussed’, and ‘we have now completed the aforementioned assignment bla bal bla, I trust everything was in order”. It’s merely phrased this way for security reasons.

Venezuela is short of hard currency bank notes such as USD and EUR. Venezuela would hardly be flying out hard currency cash. Nor would it be flying out worthless bolivar bank notes. The BCV letter refers to weighing and packing, which can only mean gold bullion.

The letter snippets in this ‘La Patilla’ news article look to be what they purport to be, and they do indeed appear genuine, so there is a high probability that the BCV was flying out cargos of monetary gold from Caracas International Airport on 2nd July (Thursday), 3rd July (Friday) and 7th July 2015 (Tuesday), and maybe after 7th July if the operation needed extended time as the contingency in the letter planned for.

When the last flight of repatriated gold flew into Caracas from Eorope on 30 January 2012, it was carrying 14 tonnes of gold in 28 crates. Based on this metric, 3 flights going out from Caracas in early July 2015 could carry 42 tonnes of gold, if not more. Therefore there is a realistic upper bound of at least 42 tonnes to the amount of gold that the BCV could have been flying out of Maiquetía airport on 2nd, 3rd and 7th July 2015.

This article has focused on two sets of events, 1) the drop in Venezuela’s monetary gold reserve holdings in March and April 2015 which looks to be distinct from the Bank of England vaulted gold used in the BCV-Citibank gold swap, and 2) a series of cargo flights of what looks like BCV monetary gold being flown out of Caracas International Airport in early July 2015.

Venezuela’s international reserves, managed by the BCV, are now down to USD 15.120 billion as at 29th October 2015, from USD 16.4 billion at the end of September 2015. Investment bank reports and the financial media are abuzz with speculation that (to paraphrase) “Venezuela will need to use its gold reserves to raise international funds for imports etc etc“. Which is no doubt true, but what the analyst reports and media reports are missing, in my opinion, is that a good chunk of Venezuela’s gold reserves are already in play and that any new repos, swaps or sales will have to line up and utilise whatever Venezuelan gold reserves are not already under lien, claim, encumbrance or collateralisation.

In the second half of October, Barclays’ two New York based Latin American economists, the two Alejandros (Arreaza and Grisanti) said that:

“Our quarterly cash flow model suggests that Venezuela will have a deficit of approximately USD10bn just during this quarter and will have to finance almost all of it with its own assets. Currently, liquid international reserves are likely less than USD0.5bn. The rest of the reserves are gold, SDRs and the position at the IMF. Therefore, assets besides reserves will need to be used.

We estimate that disposable assets (in and out of reserves) are about USD15.1bn. Assuming a gold repo of USD3.0bn before year-end, the disposable assets could end the year at about USD8.0bn. With these assets and a possible additional use of gold reserves, we expect Venezuela to meet its debt obligations at least until Q1 16″

Which is all very fine, except the fact that if the BCV gold reserves are 61 tonnes lighter due to outflows in March and April, and if there were additional gold outflows via international cargo flights in July, which looks likely, then a further USD 3 billion repo (circa 80 tonnes without deep haircut) will have to use additional BCV vaulted gold, a lot of which is in US Assay Office melt bars, which are not necessarily up to the expected quality of modern-day Good Delivery bars.

From my Part 1 article, I had calculated that “there were 12,357 bars held in the BCV vaults in Caracas before the gold repatriation started, and 25,176 bars in the BCV vaults when the repatriation completed“, since “12,819 good delivery bars” (160 tonnes) were repatriated. About 4,089 bars were left in London in 2012. The bars that were originally in Caracas are mainly if not exclusively US Assay office bars.

If the Caracas vaulted gold is being sold by Venezuela in the international market, it most likely would be of current Good Delivery standard (not US Assay office bars). With 160 tonnes of repatriated Good Delivery bars in 2011-2012, then if 61 tonnes was sold in March-April, and various flights happened in July 2015, there may not be enough modern Good Delivery bars remaining in Caracas to satisfy an additional USD 3 billion transaction.

In my Part 2 article in May, I had said:

“Venezuela (via the BCV) will put up 1.4 million ozs of gold as collateral in exchange for a $1 billion loan of foreign currency from Citibank. Since 1.4 million ozs of gold, valued at the late April 2015 price of $1,200, is roughly $1.68 billion, then Venezuela is having to accept a near 40% discount on the specified gold collateral.

Note that 1.4 million ounces is about 43.5 tonnes.

lpmcl

Interestingly, Barclays analysts Feifei Li and Dane Davis in their ‘Metals Markets Outlook’ piece from 26 October 2015 (last week) titled ‘Mixed Messages’ reiterated the above view and said:

“Earlier this year Venezuela executed a gold swap to raise $1bn. About 45 tonnes of gold was committed, indicating a haircut of around 40% for gold prices at the time. If we apply a similar haircut to the current gold price, it would imply that close to 140 tonnes of gold would be needed for $3bn. Thus if $3bn extra gold swaps were executed, half of Venezuela’s 361 tonne gold reserve would have been utilised.”

But 140 tonnes of gold will bring into play a lot of Venezuela’s US Assay Office bars, given that some other counterparties have already raided the Caracas vaults to get the best bars. While a lot of Venezuela’s US Assay office bars probably contain the fine gold count that they claim to hold, some probably don’t, as was illustrated in the sardonic yet jovial Zerohedge article “No Indication Should, Of Course, Be Given To The Bundesbank…” published back in September 2012.

So its buyer beware time for the counterparties that are now queued up to get their hands on Venezuela’s last remaining ingots of gold, before the entire Caracas stash may well get looted.

Central Banks’ secrecy and silence on gold storage arrangements

Whereas some central banks have become more forthcoming on where they claim their official gold reserves are stored (see my recent blog post ‘Central bank gold at the Bank of England‘), many of the world’s central banks remain secretive in this regard, with some central bank staff saying that they are not allowed to provide this information, and some central banks just ignoring the question when asked.

In the ‘Central bank gold at the Bank of England’ article, I said that “A number of central banks refuse to confirm the location of their gold reserves. I will document this in a future posting.” As promised, this blog post explains what I meant by the above statement.

Some of those central banks may have made it into the Bank of England storage list if they had been more transparent in providing gold storage information. However, since they weren’t transparent, these banks make it into the alternative ‘non-cooperative’ list. One subset of this list is central banks, which to be fair to them, did actually respond and said that they cannot divulge gold storage information. The other subset is central banks which didn’t reply at all when I asked them about their official gold storage location details.

The below list, although not complete, highlights 7 central banks and 1 official sector financial institution (the BIS), which, when asked where do they store their gold reserves, responded with various similar phrases saying that they could not provide this information. Between them, these 7 central banks claim to hold 1,500 tonnes of gold. Adding in the BIS which represents another 900 tonnes, in total that’s 2,400 tonnes of gold where the central banks in charge of that gold will not provide any information as to its whereabouts. Much of this 2,400 tonnes is no doubt stored (at least in name) at the FRBNY and the Bank of England, with some stored in the home countries of some of the central banks.

I have included the 8 responses below, but have deleted any references to individuals’ names or email addresses:

 

Bank of Japan: 765.2 tonnes of gold

Bank of Japan

 

 

Bank for International Settlements (BIS): > 900 tonnes of gold

  • BIS manages 443 tonnes of gold under custody for central banks
  • BIS owns 108 tonnes of gold itself
  • BIS manages 356 tonnes of gold deposits from central banks
  • BIS has 47 tonnes of gold swaps outstanding

BIS

 

 

Spain: 281.6 tonnes of gold

Banco de Espana

 

 

 

South Africa: 125.2 tonnes of gold

SARB

 

 

Thailand: 152.4 tonnes of gold

Bank of Thailand

 

 

Singapore: 127.4 tonnes of gold

Monetary Authority of Singapore

 

 

Malaysia: 37.9 tonnes of gold

Bank Negara Malaysia

 

 

Paraguay: 8.2 tonnes of gold

Banco Central Paraguay

…which translates into English as …..”That information is classified and cannot be disclosed. I hope you understand“.

 

‘No Answer’ central banks

I also emailed some central banks which didn’t respond to the question, ‘where are your gold reserves stored?’. They may not have responded for various reasons, including the emails may not have reached the relevant people who would normally be responsible for such matters. These banks account for another 500+ tonnes of gold reserves. Again, some of this gold is probably at the Bank of England, such as, some of Jordan’s and Kuwait’s gold, due to historical ties with the Bank of England.

  • Banque du Liban (Lebanon): 286.8 tonnes  (said to be in Lebanon and FRB New York)
  • National Bank of Kazakhstan: 208.1 tonnes
  • Central Bank of Kuwait: 79 tonnes
  • Central Bank of Jordan: 34.2 tonnes
  • Bank Al-Maghrib (Morocco): 22.1 tonnes
  • National Bank of Cambodia: 12.4 tonnes

 

 

BIS – Transparency in name only

The following slide, from a 2007 Bank for International Settlements presentation, shows how ridiculous the claims of central banks are when they use the meme that they are transparent and accountable, when in fact, they are nothing of the sort.

The BIS’ response above on the gold storage question, i.e. “the information that you have requested is not made publicly available” makes a mockery of its own claims in the below slide that central banks are required to be transparent and accountable.

The only ‘gold’ that the BIS is willing to discuss is its pie-in-the-sky corporate-speak ‘Golden Triangle’ of central bank Autonomy complimented by Transparency and Accountability when it states:

 – TRANSPARENCY – important for holding central bank to account

- ACCOUNTABILITY – crucial counterpart of autonomy in an open society, makes transparency more credible

 (I added the 2 red arrows to the slide to highlight these points)

BIS transparency

 

 

Conclusion: Finland’s change of heart

The fact that staff of some central banks won’t discuss that bank’s gold storage arrangements is no doubt an internal rule, or a storage depository rule, or some such nonsense. The nonsensical nature of their non-cooperation and evasion is highlighted by the below about-turn from the Bank of Finland, when in January 2013 it childishly told me that “We are not allowed to tell the exact depository, town or country“, and then 9 months later in October 2013, the powers-that-be at the gold depositories gave the go-ahead, for the Bank of Finland then spilled the beans, squealing that its gold was stored at a cornucopia of the usual suspects, namely, the Bank of England, the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, the Swiss National Bank, and smaller amounts at the Swedish Riksbank and the Bank of Finland.

Given that the Bank of England, the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, and the Swiss National Bank all agreed to the Bank of Finland’s request in 2013 to publish the individual storage locations of its gold, and given that the vaults of these 3 banks store the vast majority of internationally stored central bank gold, therefore it also makes a mockery of central banks which persists in claiming that they cannot divulge information on the storage of their own gold, which in most cases is supposedly spread between the very same 3 sets of vaults.

And after the Bank of Finland press release, which most Finns and most of the world probably didn’t even see, Helsinki and the world continued about its business as before. The point being that the storage locations of central banks’ gold reserves is not that big of a deal. Its only the central banks that make it into a big deal with their secrecy….unless of course, they are hiding something bigger, and the gold is not even where its supposed to be.

Bank of Finland – 31 January 2013

Bank of Finland January 2013

 

Bank of Finland – 25 October 2013

Bank of Finland