The European Central Bank (ECB), creator of the Euro, currently claims to hold 504.8 tonnes of gold reserves. These gold holdings are reflected on the ECB balance sheet and arose from transfers made to the ECB by Euro member national central banks, mainly in January 1999 at the birth of the Euro. As of the end of December 2015, these ECB gold reserves were valued on the ECB balance sheet at market prices and amounted to €15.79 billion.
The ECB very recently confirmed to BullionStar that its gold reserves are stored across 5 international locations. However, the ECB also confirmed that it does not physically audit its gold, nor will it divulge a bar list / weight list of these gold bar holdings.
Questions and Answers
BullionStar recently put a number of questions to the European Central Bank about the ECB’s gold holdings. The ECB Communications Directorate replied to these questions with answers that appear to include a number of facts about the ECB gold reserves which have not previously been published. The questions put to the ECB and its responses are listed below (underlining added):
Question 1: “The 2015 ECB Annual Report states that as at 31 December 2015, the ECB held 16,229,522 ounces of fine gold equivalent to 504.8 tonnes of gold. Given that the ECB gold holdings arose from transfers by the respective member central banks, could you confirm the storage locations in which this ECB gold is currently held (for example at the Bank of England etc), and the percentage breakdown of amount stored per storage location.”
ECB Response: “The gold of the ECB is located in London, Paris, Lisbon, New York and Rome. The ECB does not disclose its distribution over these places. The gold of the ECB is stored there because it was already stored there before ownership was transferred to the ECB and moving it was seen and is seen as too costly.“
Question 2: “Could you clarify as to how, if at all, this gold is audited, and whether it physical audited by the ECB or by a 3rd party?”
ECB Response: “The ECB has no physical audit of its gold bars. The gold bars that the ECB owns are individually identified and each year the ECB receives a detailed statement of these gold deposits. The central banks where the gold is stored are totally reliable.“
Question 3: “Finally, can the ECB supply a full weight list of the gold bars that comprise the 504.8 tonnes of gold referred to above?”
ECB Response: “The ECB does not disclose this information.“
London, New York, Paris, Rome, Lisbon
Given that some of the information shared by the ECB has arguably not been in the public record before, each of the 3 ECB answers above is worth further exploration.
In January 1999, when the Euro currency was created (Stage 3 of Economic and Monetary Union), each founding member national central bank (NCB) of the Euro transferred a quantity of foreign reserve assets to the ECB. Of these transfers, 85% was paid to the ECB in the form of US dollars and Japanese Yen, and 15% was paid to the ECB in the form of physical gold.
Initially in January 1999, central banks of 11 countries that joined the Euro made these transfers to the ECB, and subsequently the central banks of a further 8 countries that later joined the Euro also executed similar transfers to the ECB.
All of the foreign exchange and gold reserves that were transferred to and are owned by the ECB are managed in a decentralised manner by the national central banks that initiated the transfers. Essentially, each national central bank acts as an agent for the ECB and each NCB still manages that portion of reserves that it transferred to the ECB. This also applies to the transferred gold and means that the gold transferred to the ECB never physically moved anywhere, it just stayed where it had been when the transfers of ownership were made.
That is why, as the ECB response to Question 1 states: “The gold of the ECB is stored there because it was already stored there before ownership was transferred to the ECB”.
What is probably most interesting about the latest ECB statement is that it names 5 city locations over which the ECB’s gold is stored. The 5 gold storage locations stated by the ECB are London, New York, Paris, Rome and Lisbon. Since the gold transferred to the ECB in 1999 by the national central banks would have already been stored in central banks gold vaults, these 5 city locations undoubtedly refer to the gold vaults of:
- the Bank of England
- the Federal Reserve Bank of New York
- the Banque de France
- the Banca d’Italia
- Banco de Portugal
The fact the ECB’s gold holdings are supposedly stored at these 5 locations can be explained as follows:
Between 4th and 7th January 1999, 11 central banks transferred a total of €39.469 billion in reserve assets to the ECB (in the form of gold, cash and securities). Of this total, 15% was in the form of gold, amounting to 24 million ounces of gold (747 tonnes of gold) which was valued at that time at €246.368 per fine ounce of gold, or €5.92 billion. The 85% transferred in the form of currencies comprised 90% US Dollars and 10% Japanese Yen. See pages 152 and 153 of ECB annual report 1999 for more details.
The 11 central banks that made the transfers to the ECB in January 1999 were the central banks of Belgium, Netherlands, Germany, France, Luxembourg, Italy, Ireland, Austria, Finland, Spain and Portugal. See Table 1 for details of these gold transfers, and the amount of gold transferred to ECB ownership by each central bank.
The value of reserves transferred to the ECB by each national central bank were based on a percentage formula called a ‘capital key’ which also determined how much each central bank subscribed to the founding capital of the ECB. This capital key was based on equally weighting the percentage of population and GDP each Euro founding member economy represented, therefore central banks such as Deutsche Bundesbank, Banque de France, and Banca d’Italia comprised the largest transfers, as can be see in Table 1. It also meant that these 3 central banks transferred the largest amounts of gold to the ECB, with the Bundesbank for example transferring 232 tonnes of gold to the ECB.
The Bundesbank gold transfer to the ECB in January 1999 took place at the Bank of England. The Bundesbank actually confirmed in its own published gold holdings spreadsheet that this transfer took place at the Bank of England. See spreadsheet Column 5 (BoE tonnes), Rows 1998 and 1999, where the Bundesbank gold holdings fell by 332 tonnes between 1998 and 1999 from 1,521 tonnes to 1,189 tonnes and also see Column 20 where gold lending rose from 149 tonnes to 249 tonnes. Therefore, between 1998 and 1999, 232 tonnes of gold was transferred from the Bundesbank gold account at the bank of England to the ECB account at the Bank of England, and 100 tonnes was added to the Bundesbank’s gold loans.
Paris and Rome
The Banque de France currently stores the majority (over 90%) of its gold reserves in its own vaults in Paris, so it it realistic to assume that when the Banque de France transferred 159 tonnes of gold to the ECB in January 1999, it did so using gold stored in the Banque de France vaults in Paris. Likewise, it is realistic to assume that the Banca d’Italia, which currently stores half of its gold reserves at its own vaults in Rome, transferred 141 gold stored in its Rome vaults to the ECB in 1999. This would explain the Paris and Rome gold holdings of the ECB. While a few ex French colony central banks are known to have historically stored gold with the Banque de France in Paris, none of the founding members of the Euro (apart from the Bundesbank) are on the record as having stored gold in Paris, at least not for a long time. The Banca d’Italia is not known for storing gold on behalf of other national central banks.
Lisbon and New York
The Banco de Portugal currently holds its gold reserves in Lisbon and also at the Bank of England, the Federal Reserve Bank of New York (FRBNY), and with the BIS. The ECB gold stored in Lisbon, Portugal most likely refers to the 18.2 tonnes of gold transferred by the Banco de Portugal to the ECB in January 1999, because a) that makes most sense, and b) the Banco de Portugal is not known as a contemporary gold custodian for other central banks.
Of the other 7 central banks that transferred gold to the ECB in January 1999, the central banks of Austria, Belgium and Ireland store most of their gold at the Bank of England so are the most likely candidates to have made gold transfers to the ECB at the Bank of England. See BullionStar blog “Central bank gold at the Bank of England” for more details of where central banks are known to store gold.
The Netherlands and Finland currently store some of their gold reserves at the Bank of England and at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York and probably also did so in 1998/99, so one or both of these banks could have made transfers to the ECB at the FRBNY. Another contender for transferring gold held at the FRBNY is the Spanish central bank since it historically was a holder of gold at the NYFED. It’s not clear where the central bank of Luxembourg held or holds gold but it’s not material since Luxembourg only transferred just over 1 tonne to the ECB in January 1999.
Greece and Later Euro members
Greece joined the Euro in January 2001 and upon joining it transferred 19.5 tonnes of gold to the ECB. Greece is known for storing some of its gold at the FRBNY and some at the Bank of England, so Greece too is a candidate for possibly transferring New York held gold to the ECB. In theory, the ECB’s New York held gold may not have even arisen from direct transfers from Euro member central banks but could be the result of a location swap. Without the national central banks or the ECB providing this information, we just don’t know for sure how the ECB’s New York gold holdings arose.
Another 7 countries joined the Euro after Greece. These countries were Slovenia on 1st January 2007, Malta and Cyprus 1st January 2008, Slovakia 1st January 2009, Estonia 1st January 2011, Latvia 1st January 2014, and Lithuania 1st January 2015. The majority of these central banks made gold transfers to the ECB at the Bank of England. In total these 7 central banks only transferred 9.4 tonnes of gold to the ECB, so their transfers are not really material to the ECB’s gold holdings.
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.
No Physical Audit of ECB Gold
Given that the Euro is the 2nd largest reserve currency in the world and the 2nd most traded currency in the world, the ECB’s gold and how that gold is accounted for is certainly a topic of interest. Although the ECB’s gold doesn’t directly back the Euro, it backs the balance sheet of the central bank that manages and administers the Euro, i.e. the ECB.
The valuation of gold on the ECB’s annual balance sheet also adds to unrecognised gains on gold in the ECB’s revaluation account. Given gold’s substantial price appreciation between 1999 and 2015, the ECB’s unrecognised gains on gold amount to €11.9 billion as of 31 December 2015.
It is therefore shocking, but not entirely surprising, that the ECB doesn’t perform a physical audit of its gold bars and has never done so since initiating ownership of this gold in 1999. Shocking because this lack of physical audit goes against even the most basic accounting conventions and fails to independently prove that the gold is where its claimed to be, but not surprising because the world of central banking and gold arrogantly ignores and bulldozes through all generally accepted accounting conventions. Geographically, 2 of the locations where the ECB claims to store a percentage of its gold are not even in the Eurozone (London and New York), and infamously, the Bundesbank is taking 7 years to repatriate a large portion of its gold from New York, so the New York storage location of ECB gold holdings should immediately raise a red flag. Furthermore, the UK is moving (slowly) towards Brexit and away from the EU.
Recall the response above from the ECB:
“The ECB has no physical audit of its gold bars. The gold bars that the ECB owns are individually identified and each year the ECB receives a detailed statement of these gold deposits. The central banks where the gold is stored are totally reliable.“
Imagine a physical-gold backed Exchange Traded Fund (ETF) such as the SPDR Gold Trust or iShares Gold Trust coming out with such a statement. They would be run out of town. References to ‘totally reliable’ are all very fine, but ‘totally reliable’ wouldn’t stand up in court during an ownership claim case, and assurances of ‘totally reliable’ are not enough, especially in the gold storage and auditing businesses.
The ECB is essentially saying that these ‘statements’ of its gold deposits that it receives from its storage custodians are all that is needed to for an “audit” since the custodians are ‘totally reliable‘.
This auditing of pieces of paper (statements) by the ECB also sounds very similar to how the Banca d’Italia and the Deutsche Bundesbank conduct their gold auditing on externally held gold i.e. they also merely read pieces of paper. Banca d’Italia audits “annual certificates issued by the central banks that act as the depositories” (the FRBNY, the Bank of England, and the SNB/BIS).
The Bundesbank does likewise for its externally held gold (it audits bits of paper), and solely relies on statements from custodians that hold its gold abroad. The Bundesbank actually got into a lot of heat over this procedure in 2012 from the German Federal Court of Auditors who criticised the Bundesbank’s blasé attitude and lack of physical auditing, criticism which the Bundesbank’s executive director Andreas Dombret hilariously and unsuccessfully tried to bury in a speech to the FRBNY in New York in November 2012 in which he called the controversy a “bizarre public discussion” and “a phantom debate on the safety of our gold reserves“, and ridiculously referred to the movies Die Hard with a Vengeance and Goldfinger, to wit:
“The days in which Hollywood Germans such as Gerd Fröbe, better known as Goldfinger, and East German terrorist Simon Gruber, masterminded gold heists in US vaults are long gone. Nobody can seriously imagine scenarios like these, which are reminiscent of a James Bond movie with Goldfinger playing the role of a US Fed accounting clerk.”
Where is the ECB Gold Bar Weight List?
Since, as the ECB states, it’s gold bars are “individually identified“, then gold bar weight lists of the ECB’s gold do indeed exist. This then begs the question, where are these weight lists, and why not release them if the ECB has nothing to hide?
Quickly, to define a weight list, a gold bar weight list is an itemised list of all the gold bars held within a holding which uniquely identifies each bar in the holding. In the wholesale gold market, such as the London Gold Market, the LBMA’s “Good Delivery Rules” address weight lists, and state that for each gold bar on a weight list, it must list the bar serial number, the refiner name, the gross weight of the bar, the gold purity of the bar and the fine weight of the bar. The LBMA also state that “year of manufacture is one of the required ‘marks’ on the bar”.
Recall from above that when the ECB was asked to provide a full weight list of its 504.8 tonnes of gold bars, it responded: “The ECB does not disclose this information.“
After receiving this response, BullionStar then asked in a followup question as to why the ECB doesn’t disclose a weight list of the gold bars. The ECB responded (underlining added):
“We would like to inform you that, while the total weight and value of the gold held by the European Central Bank (ECB) can be considered to be of interest to the public, the weight of each gold bar is a technicality that does not affect the economic characteristics of the ECB’s gold holdings. Therefore the latter does not warrant a publication.“
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.
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.