In August 2014, the long-standing and tainted London Silver Fixing daily auction was replaced by a newly launched London Bullion Market Association (LBMA) Silver Price daily auction. Similarly, in March 2015, the infamous London Gold Fixing daily auctions were replaced by revised twice daily LBMA Gold Price auctions.
In both cases, the new auctions, which the LBMA were quick to maintain control over, were trumpeted by the bullion bank controlled LBMA as ushering in an era of improved transparency in gold and silver price discovery within the London Gold and Silver Markets, a marketplace which dominates in setting the international gold and silver prices.
The LBMA Gold Price and LBMA Silver Price auctions are both critical to the world of precious metals, because they derive benchmark reference prices for gold and silver which are used extensively in the valuation of everything from Exchange Traded Funds (ETFs) to OTC precious metals contracts.
The benchmarks are also used as reference prices in all sorts of transactions from sophisticated wholesale market transactions of central banks, refiners and miners, to small quantity gold and silver coin purchases in bullion dealer shops all over the world.
Both benchmarks are also ‘Regulated Benchmarks’ under UK financial market regulations as “policed” by the UK’s Financial Conduct Authority (FCA).
It was therefore surprising that last week on 1 March, ICE Benchmark Administration (IBA), the administrators of the LBMA Gold Price and LBMA Silver Price auctions, issued a ‘Notification’ announcing that from 1 April 2018:
“the LBMA Gold and Silver Prices will not be available on the LBMA website until midnight London time on the date that the prices are set.“
More extensive quotes from the IBA Notification are as follows:
“Please note that effective 1 April 2018, the arrangements for delayed redistribution of the LBMA Gold Price and the LBMA Silver Price will change so that the delay period increases from 30 and 15 minutes to midnight London time.”
“delayed prices are available with no monthly fee, currently with a delay of 30 minutes from publication for the LBMA Gold Price and 15 minutes from publication for the LBMA Silver Price.”
“Any public websites that display the LBMA Gold Price and the LBMA Silver Price (currently with a 30 minute and 15 minute delay respectively) will be required to delay prices to midnight London time.”
So instead of a 30 minute delay, starting on 1 April (April Fool’s Day) the price for the morning LBMA Gold Price auction will not be available until about 14 and a half hours after the auction completes.
For the afternoon LBMA Gold Price auction, the price will only be available to the public about 9 hours after the auction finishes. For the LBMA Silver Price auction, the lag time on the public being able to see the daily reference price will now be 12 hours instead of 15 minutes. That’s a whopping 40 times longer. If only this was an April Fools joke. Alas, it’s not.
Any rational person would therefore conclude that the changes to the auctions being forced in by ICE Benchmark Administration (IBA) can only be described as torpedoing the concepts of price transparency and price discovery.
It should also be remembered that although IBA is the auction administrator, IBA would never make these publication time changes without the blessing of the LBMA, since the LBMA is the intellectual property owner of the benchmarks and the ultimate authority on these benchmarks as well as the gatekeeper on who can take part in these auctions.
“The revised arrangements for delayed redistribution of the LBMA Gold Price and LBMA Silver Price… recently announced by ICE Benchmark Administration (IBA)… are consistent with the timing of the publication of the LBMA Platinum and Palladium prices.”
As a reminder, the LBMA also controls the worldwide pricing for platinum and palladium through the LBMA Platinum Price auction and the LBMA Palladium Price auctions, both of which were awarded to the London Metal Exchange by the LBMA in 2014 during a secretive and non-competitive tender process.
The publication time (to the public) of the platinum and palladium prices is indeed midnight on the day the auctions occur. As the LBMA website states:
“Since 13 July 2015, the prices on the LBMA’s website are displayed with a delay until midnight following the setting of the prices each day.”
Why the worldwide platinum and palladium user base is not up in arms about these platinum and palladium price delays, only they can answer. But it is certainly a spin too far to think that anyone will accept the warped alchemy of the LBMA that because the LBMA Platinum and Palladium prices are ‘freely’ published only at midnight, that somehow this validates the decision of the IBA / LBMA to also roll back transparency in the LBMA Gold and Silver auctions to midnight.
Overall, this price publication time rollback is farcical, but not surprising in the world of the LBMA where black is white and where a step backwards is spun as a step forwards. This development might also be humorous if it wasn’t so important. Especially as the changes are being implemented on 1 April, April Fool’s Day! But the auction prices are important and also very influential in the global gold and silver markets. Hence, it is no laughing matter.
London Gold and Silver Trade Reporting: Not in Your Lifetime
Apart from the regressive step on LBMA auction price timing which will make the London gold and silver markets more opaque, the lack of Trade Reporting for London gold and silver trades is another area that continues to shroud the London Gold and Silver Markets in a virtual blanket of secrecy. That’s right, there are no trades reported in the London gold and silver markets. Zero. And there never have been any trades reported in the London gold and silver markets.
With no trade data, there is no market efficiency. How could there be any market efficiency when the market cannot analyse the trades that have taken place? Insider bullion banks are therefore free to trade gold and silver in the knowledge that the global markets don’t know what the insiders are doing. This also applies to the central banks in the London Gold Market in their buying and selling and lending and swaps transactions. So the London Gold and Silver Markets are not ‘Fair’.
At the end of January, I wrote an article titled “What’s Happening (or Not) at the LBMA: Some Updates” which in part discussed the broken promises on trade reporting made by the LBMA over the last 2-3 years, and the complete lack of progress that the LBMA has made on actually publishing any trade data to the Market. As early as January 2015 (over 3 year ago), the LBMA stated to the UK Regulator’s “Fair and Effective Markets Review” (FEMR) at that time that it would:
“welcome further transparency through post trade reporting, providing the industry with data that at the moment does not exist for the bullion market.”
During the course the next 3 years, the LBMA made many promises about publishing this trade reporting data, none of which came to pass.
For example, in February 2016 for trade reporting, the LBMA claimed that there was a “target delivery date in the second half of 2016”. This never happened.
The next broken promise, made at the LBMA annual conference in October 2016 claimed that”Phase 1 will focus on reporting and will launch in Q1 2017. This reporting covers all Loco London Spot, forward & option trading.” This never materialised.
This was followed by a litany of further promises during 2017 from the LBMA CEO, the LBMA Chairman and the LBMA Legal Counsel that all promised a publication date for trade reporting of early 2018. In May 2017, the LBMA CEO said that “Reporting will begin later this year in a phased approach and, following a period of quality checking the data, it is expected that it will be published in early 2018.“
In August 2017, the LBMA Chainman said that “it is expected that the first data will be published in early 2018“. At the LBMA’s annual conference in October 2017 in Barcelona, the LBMA’s Legal Counsel said that “the data will then be aggregated and published but not until Q1 2018.“
Now that the first quarter 2018 has come and nearly gone, you can probably guess what has happened. The correct answer is …nothing has happened, with the LBMA again totally disregarding its own promises and now unbelievably shifting the trade reporting publication date out an entire year more to “early 2019“. You couldn’t make this up.
And as per usual, there was no LBMA press release about this further delay, only a small reference buried in the back of the latest issue of its in-house magazine, The Alchemist. As per the reference:
“Many members have already begun to report their trades to the LBMA-i platform and many members are being on-boarded. The reporting process will continue during 2018 with a view to establishing a robust data set which will be published in early 2019“.
Nothing more can be said about this trade reporting fiasco other than it must be obvious to everyone that the LBMA and its bullion bank members do not want the transparency that gold and silver trade reporting would provide. Otherwise they would not have spent 4 years on a project which any individual investment bank could start and complete within less than 3 months.
As I said in the conclusion of my January commentary on this topic:
“In this extremely long drawn out exercise by the LBMA, it must be clear by now that the LBMA and its trading members are engaging in this trade reporting project on their own terms, and with little regard for the spirit and recommendations of the Fair and Efficient Markets Review. There is also a trend of missed deadlines, broken promises, and a lack of explanation for the delays.“
To this you can now add another year (to early 2019). Will we be saying the same thing in early 2019, of more missed deadlines? Based on the LBMA’s track record, any bookie worth their salt would probably say ‘Yes’.
On 29 August, the London Metal Exchange (LME) began publication of a set of daily reference prices for gold and silver. These reference prices aim to capture and reflect paper gold and silver market prices as at 10:30 am, 12:00 midday, and 3:00 pm London time.
Anyone familiar with the former London gold and silver fix auctions, or the successor LBMA Gold Price and LBMA Silver Price auctions, will know that the LBMA gold auction is conducted twice daily at 10:30 am and 3.00 pm London time, while the silver auction is held once daily at midday. These auctions are also for unallocated book entry gold and silver (paper gold and silver) in the London market. ICE Benchmark Administration (IBA) is the auction administrator for both of these LBMA auctions.
As these new reference prices published by the London Metal Exchange are timed to report ‘market’ prices for gold and silver at exactly the same times as the LBMA Gold and LBMA Silver auctions, they add an element of future competition between the LME and ICE in the benchmark price provision business. However, the LME’s prices for both gold and silver are calculated at each of the 3 times of the ICE / LBMA auctions, i.e. at 10:30am (LBMA morning gold auction), 12:00 (LBMA silver auction) and 3:00pm (LBMA afternoon gold auction), periods which the LME describes as having ‘peak liquidity’.
In July 2017, the LME launched a suite of gold and silver futures contracts (LME Gold and LME Silver) for the London market, 2 of which are Spot daily contracts in gold and silver, respectively. Under the hood, these new gold and silver daily reference prices published by the LME are just volume weighted average prices (VWAP) of these LME Gold and LME Silver spot contracts calculated over a 2 minute window at the relevant times each day (i.e. 10:30 am, midday, and 3:00 pm) based on trades on the LMEselect trading platform. These contracts also represent claims on unallocated book entry paper gold and silver in the London market.
Therefore, the LME reference prices are not based on any auction trades, and merely use prices ‘discovered’ (generated) on the LME’s own trading platform at the time of the LBMA / ICE auctions. Given that these new LME reference prices only began to be published on 29 August, there are only about 50 daily data points so far for each of gold and silver. All prices since 29 August can be seen on the LME website for gold and silver.
Different But Similar
But are these LME prices the same as those generated by the ICE / LBMA daily auctions? No, they are not the same, but they are similar. The reason both sets of prices are not the same is that they are derived differently. The LBMA price resulting from an auction is the price derived in the final round of an auction when the imbalance between the auction’s buy and sell volumes is in tolerance (less than 10,000 ounces). The LME reference prices are average prices calculated (and volume weighted) using trades executed on the LME’s trading platform over a 2 minute interval from the start of an auction until 2 minutes after the start of an auction.
The LBMA auction prices and the LME reference prices are similar in that they are both based on market activity over similar time periods within the wholesale gold and silver markets, and in practice (or at least in theory), arbitrage trading should act to keep prices in the OTC market, and in the LBMA auctions, and in COMEX precious metals futures trading, and in LME gold and silver futures trading in line with each other.
Like their predecessors the London Gold fix and London Silver fix, the LBMA Gold Price and LBMA Silver Price are used every day to value everything from ISDA contracts to gold-backed ETFs, and the daily auction prices are also referenced widely in the global precious metals industry to execute trades involving miners, refineries, bullion banks, central banks, jewellers and coin shops. In short, these LBMA gold and silver reference prices are the dominant incumbent reference prices, and they also qualify as Regulated Benchmarks regulated by the UK Financial Conduct Authority. But will anyone end up using these new LME precious metals reference prices? Possibly, but it could it a while.
In 2018, the LME intends to offer trading based on its new gold and reference price reference levels. According to a Reuters article from 10 October:
“As of mid-2018 participants will be able to trade at those prices, Chamberlain [LME CEO] said, with technology being developed to match buy and sell orders for execution at the settlement price.
‘Benchmarks take a long time to evolve,’ he said. ‘What we can do is put in place the infrastructure, show that we have day after day of robust prices, but ultimately it is for end-users to decide what they want to use.'”
Being able to trade at the LME reference prices will add more relevance to the published numbers and could add legitimacy in terms of market data and financial media interest.
Right now the LME gold and silver reference prices are published daily and are “available for market participants to use free of charge.” But real world usage in the sense of being used to value precious metals funds, contracts or transactions looks to be a case of “down the road” rather than today.
Ideally the London gold and silver markets do not need an additional benchmark reflecting fractionally-backed unallocated gold and silver trading, but a benchmark and reference price reflecting the trading of real physical gold and silver. However, as the LME has chosen not to upset the status quo of the London unallocated trading system, a system which remains one of the key determinants of the international gold price, then real physical gold and silver reference prices in the London market will unfortunately remain a pipe dream.
On 21 September, ICE Benchmark Administration (IBA) announced that it will take over the administration of the daily LBMA Silver Price benchmark auction beginning Monday 2 October. This LBMA Silver Price auction is the successor to the former London Silver Fix auction. The auction takes the form of trading unallocated silver positions on an electronic platform. The resulting price from the daily auction provides a daily silver price reference rate or benchmark which is used widely throughout the global precious metals industry. It is also now a Regulated Benchmark, regulated by the UK Financial Conduct Authority.
Bizarrely, even though it has now been more than 3 years since this new LBMA Silver Price auction was launched, there are still only 7 direct participants in the auction, a fact which flies in the face of all the previous promises from the LBMA that the rejuvenated silver auction would allow dramatically wider auction participation. These 7 participants are HSBC, JPMorgan, Morgan Stanley, Bank of Nova Scotia – ScotiaMocatta, UBS Toronto Dominion Bank, and China Construction Bank.
Even more surprisingly, from 2 October, ICE states that only 5 of these 7 bullion banks, namely HSBC, JP Morgan, the Bank of Nova Scotia, Toronto Dominion Bank, and Morgan Stanley, will continue to participate, with UBS and China Construction Bank staying on these sidelines because they do not currently have the IT systems in place to process cleared auction trades, a clearing procedure which ICE will be introducing to the auction. Two other commodity trading companies INTL FCStone and Jane Street, will however, join the auction on 2 October. INTL FCStone and Jane Street also recently joined the LBMA Gold Price auction as direct participants.
Beyond the continued exclusion of the vast majority of global silver participants from the auction, the very fact that a new administrator has had to be drafted in to run this LBMA Silver Price auction is itself noteworthy, as is the ultra-secretive way in which ICE has been selected as the new auction administrator.
CME / Thomson Reuters – Exit Stage Left
In early March this year, the London Bullion Market Association (LBMA) announced that CME Benchmark Europe Ltd and Thomson Reuters Benchmark Services Ltd were pulling out of their roles as administrator and calculation agent of the daily auction.
This news was somewhat surprising given that the CME – Thomson Reuters duo had only taken up responsibility for the silver auction in August 2014 and were just 2.5 years, or halfway through their 5-year contract providing this service. See BullionStar article “More Bad News for the LBMA Silver Price, but an Opportunity for Overhaul” from 7 March for more details.
While there have been various theories put forward as to why CME and Thomson Reuters decided to pull out of the new London silver auction, there has never been any official explanation forthcoming from either the LBMA, the CME Group nor from Thomson Reuters. with all parties remaining tight-lipped about the motive for the departure.
Notably, over its short life span, the new silver auction has on occasion suffered from a number of embarrassing glitches that both delayed its run time and skewed its auction price calculation, for example in January 2016, and even in April 2017 after the CME – Thomson Partners had announced their decision to exit the process. See “Death Spiral for the LBMA Gold and Silver auctions?”, dated 14 April 2017, for more details.
There were also rumours that CME and Thomson Reuters were exiting oversight of the auction due to the advent of more onerous European benchmark regulations. Whatever the real reason, the lack of clarification from the LBMA – CME – Thomson Reuters is strange given that this new silver auction was supposed to usher in an era of transparency to this critical and globally used silver pricing benchmark.
Stranger still is that the process initiated by the LBMA to secure a replacement provider for the silver auction has been itself run with the utmost level of secrecy and a total lack of consultation with the global silver market.
When news of the CME – Thomson Reuters departure broke on 3 March, the LBMA was quick to confirm, via Reuters, that it would ‘shortly’ launch a new tender to find a replacement provider for the auction process, and that the alternative provider would be identified by ‘the summer’, before taking up the new position ‘in the autumn’.
Then following this 3 March statement from the LBMA, there was zero communication with the global silver market on this issue. No updates, no news of what the tender process consisted of, no updates on whether there was a short-list of applicants, no information on how many companies had applied to the tender nor their identities, and no publication of the proposed auction solutions of any of the tender applicants. In short, there appeared to be a news blackout by the LBMA, and also little interest in the issue from the London financial media.
It was only 3 months later on 8 June that Reuters revisited the issue, saying that ICE Benchmark Administration (which runs the LBMA Gold Price auction) and the LME (which runs the LBMA platinum and palladium auctions) were “vying for control of the London silver benchmark price”. Reuters also commented that “the LBMA …had no comment on the bidding process”.
Remembering that the LBMA Silver Price is a globally used and FCA regulated benchmark which determines silver prices for myriad silver industry participants and investors around the world, the secretive stance of the LBMA in 2017 is even harder to fathom. In contrast, back in 2014 when this LBMA silver auction was initially launched, there was at least an element of transparency about how the administrator selection process was conducted.
The 2014 Process – Transparent Lip-Service
In May 2014, when London Silver Market Fixing Limited, the operator of the former London Silver Fixing benchmark auction, announced that it would step down from running the silver auction, the LBMA moved quickly to launch a ‘consultation’ to ensure that it and its bullion bank members retained full control over the real estate of the London Silver Fix and the selection and introduction of a replacement silver benchmark auction.
The consultation, launched in mid May 2014 included an online survey which could be completed by any interested silver market participants, not just LBMA members. This survey allowed the global silver market to provide feedback on what an ideal replacement auction should look like, and at least on paper, appeared inclusive and collaborative with regards to worldwide silver stakeholders.
When the results of this survey were published on 5 June 2014, it revealed that 440 participants of the silver market globally had completed the survey, with 25% of the respondents (i.e. 110 participants) indicating that they would be interested in acting as a contributor, and another 33% (or 145 respondents) indicating that they were ‘maybe’ interested in acting as a contributor in the auction. The general consensus was also that the industry wanted “an increased number of direct participants” in the silver auction.
The LBMA then launched a semi-transparent “Request for Proposals” process for any solution provider companies that wished to apply to become the new administrator of the silver price auction.
Ten companies expressed interest in becoming the new auction administrator, and from this group the LBMA choose a short-list of 7 interested providers and organised a seminar in London on 20 June 2014 at which this short-list of providers presented their proposed solutions. This seminar was, however, only open to LBMA members, so even at this point, the reluctance of the LBMA to really consult with and include the broad global silver market was apparent.
There was then a second survey of seminar attendees and LBMA full members in which they voted on which of the proposals of the short-list candidates they would most like to see implemented. Following this on 11 July 2014, the LBMA announced that the joint bid by CME And Thomson Reuters had been selected to become and administrator and auction platform provider for new replacement silver auction.
There then followed a number of seminars from CME Group, Thomson Reuters and the LBMA in late July and early August 2014 in which they promised the world in terms of vastly increased direct participation and central clearing in the new silver auction, promises which unfortunately never came to pass. See BullionStar article “The LBMA Silver Price – Broken Promises on Wider Participation and Central Clearing”, dated February 2016, for full details of these broken promises.
The point of covering the above is not so much to rehash the auction selection process from 2014, but to illustrate that while it ended up being more of a lip-service to consultation with the broader worldwide silver market, at least there was an element of communication from the LBMA through each step of the process during which the LBMA successfully retained dominant over the control of this key Silver Pricing benchmark.
Communication and Transparency – Out the Window
Fast forward to 2017, and it becomes apparent that for whatever reason, the LBMA’s experiment with communication and semi-transparency (as of 2014) was thrown out the window, with the LBMA Board reverting to its characteristic secrecy and opacity.
With ICE Benchmark Administration about to embark on administering the LBMA Silver Price, it’s pertinent to ask what actually happened between early March 2017 and the present to lead to this outcome? Well, its hard to say actually, precisely because there is very little information available.
The news page of Issue 86 of the LBMA’s magazine The Alchemist, from mid-August 2017, provides a clue into how the selection process that chose ICE was probably run.
“The Board has also been closely involved in the recent decision to appoint ICE Benchmark Administration as the new administrator for the LBMA Silver Price.”
This Board refers to the LBMA Board, which is a new name for what was formerly known as the LBMA Management Committee. This LBMA Board is a 10 person committee and includes representatives from bullion banks and precious metals refineries. Interestingly, of the three bullion banks currently represented on the LBMA Board, two of them, namely HSBC, and JP Morgan are direct participants in the LBMA Silver Price auction.
So it appears that this secretive and opaque ‘tender’ process to appoint a successor administrator to the LBMA Silver Price auction was controlled and run by the LBMA Board, and not, as should have been the case, by a consensus approach involving all participants in the vast global silver industry.
Central Clearing – One Step Forward, Two Steps Back
When ICE secured the silver auction mandate on 14 July, it released a statement in which it referred to its administration of the LBMA Gold Price as a model that it seeks to follow when it takes over the administration of the LBMA Silver Price:
“Our centrally cleared model has already enabled broader participation and we continue to expand the gold auction. We anticipate this will support expanded participation in silver as well.”
However, there are still only 15 entities currently authorized to directly participate in the LBMA Gold Price. Nearly all of these entities are bullion banks, and four of these banks are still suspended from the daily gold auctions because they have not implemented internal system changes to allow the processing of cleared auction trades. The excluded banks for the gold auction are UBS, Standard Chartered, China Construction Bank, and Société Générale.
“trading volumes [in the gold auction] fell sharply after April 10, when four of the 14 participating banks and brokers stopped taking part after the auction’s administrator, Intercontinental Exchange (ICE), introduced a requirement to clear that meant participants had to modify their own IT systems and procedures.”
In essence, the introduction of central clearing into the gold auction by ICE was intended to facilitate broader auction participation. However in reality, the changes have done the opposite and actually shrunken the list of active participants.
The same pattern is now playing out in the silver auction, with 2 of the 7 existing direct participants in the LBMA Silver Price, namely UBS and China Construction Bank, now dropping out precisely for the same reason that they don’t have the internal IT changes in place to process cleared auction trades.
There has even been a delay in ICE taking over the silver auction, because in late August, ICE said that it was planning to commence administration of the LBMA Silver Price on 25 September. See Platts article here for details. Then on 21 September, 4 days before the 25 Sept earmarked launch date, ICE pushed back the launch another week until 2 October. What caused this delay is unclear, but it may have been related to other participants not being ready in time to process these new cleared auction trades.
ICE Silver Futures – to Facilitate Central Clearing
So how exactly does ICE implement central clearing in the daily London gold and silver auctions. In summary, it implements a model that involves trading ICE Gold Daily Futures contracts and Silver Daily Futures contracts. Previously in the auctions, all of the direct auction participants had to maintain large bilateral credit lines with each other. Under ICE’s central clearing model, ICE now offers Exchange for Physical (EFP) transactions, with the EFPs exchanging into these futures contracts positions which trade on the ICE Clear US platform.
In the world of LBMA unallocated positions, these futures can be ‘physically settled’ into either gold and silver respectively, however, it is not actually physical gold or physical silver that is being settled, but more correctly unallocated gold and unallocated silver (i.e. paper gold and paper silver). ICE even states this when it says the futures are:
ICE launched its daily gold futures on 30 January. More recently, ICE launched its daily silver futures on 5 September. Although these silver futures have been available for trading for 3 weeks now, they have not traded at all according the the trading volume reports on the ICE market data website. This was similar to the ICE daily gold futures, which only started to see actual trades when the LBMA Gold Price auction began to allow central clearing. So expect some small volume trading of these silver futures from 2 October onwards.
An added bonus for ICE is that the gold and silver auctions kickstart its futures contracts, however at the same time it has forced some of the direct participants in the gold and silver auctions to drop out, thus reducing the already meagre numbers of direct participants in these very influential benchmarks and also reducing liquidity in the auctions.
Currently, only market making members and full members of the LBMA can directly participate in the LBMA Silver Price auction. This is because full or market making membership of the LBMA is a stipulation of the LBMA’s “Benchmark Participant” criteria.
“focus on increasing the number of participants and bringing the benchmark under IBA’s IOSCO-compliant governance and oversight framework.“
IOSCO here refers to International Organisation of Securities Commissions. Following the regulatory investigations into the manipulation of LIBOR and other interest rate benchmarks, IOSCO established a task force to devise a best practice guidance framework for financial benchmark related activities. In July 2013, this task force published their guidance in a final report called ‘Principles for Financial Benchmarks’.
One of the IOSCO benchmark principles states that a financial benchmark should be a reliable representation of interest, in other words, that it should be representative of the market it is trying to measure using metrics such as market concentration.
Therefore, the current handful of LBMA bullion banks that will directly participate in the LBMA Silver Price auction from 2 October, i.e. HSBC, JP Morgan, the Bank of Nova Scotia, Toronto Dominion Bank, and Morgan Stanley, in addition to 2 commodity trading companies INTL FCStone and Jane Street, is in no way representative of these 500-1000 active trading entities in the global silver market.
Therefore, yet again, with the LBMA acting as gatekeeper on who is allowed to be a direct participant in the LBMA Silver Price auction, ICE has its hands tied on meeting IOSCO’s requirement that the should be a reliable representation of interest, and there is zero chance that this silver auction will ever see the many 100s of silver trading entities taking part and zero chance that the auction will ever reflect the silver price discovery that these 100s of silver trading entities would bring to the table.
In a bizarre series of events that have had limited coverage but which are sure to have far-reaching consequences for benchmark pricing in the precious metals markets, the LBMA Gold Price and LBMA Silver Price auctions both experienced embarrassing trading glitches over consecutive trading days on Monday 10 April and Tuesday 11 April. At the outset, its worth remembering that both of these London-based benchmarks are Regulated Benchmarks, regulated by the UK’s Financial Conduct Authority (FCA).
In both cases, the trading glitches had real impact on the benchmark prices being derived in the respective auctions, with the auction prices deviating noticeably from the respective spot prices during the auctions. It’s also worth remembering that the LBMA Gold Price and LBMA Silver Price reference prices that are ‘discovered’ each day in the daily auctions are used to value everything from gold-backed and silver-backed Exchange Traded Funds (ETFs) to precious metals interest rate swaps, and are also used widely as reference prices by thousands of precious metals market participants, such as wholesalers, refineries, and bullion retailers, to value their own bi-lateral transactions.
Although the gold and silver auctions are separately administered, they both suffer from limited direct participation due to the LBMA only authorising a handful of banks to directly take part. Only 7 banks are allowed to participate directly in the Silver auction while the gold auction is only currently open to 14 entities, all of which are banks. Limited participation can in theory cause a lack of trading liquidity. Added to the mix, a central clearing option was introduced to the LBMA Gold Price auction on Monday 10 April, a day before Tuesday’s gold auction screw-up. The introduction of this central clearing process change saw four of the direct participants suspended from the auction since they had not made the necessary system changes in time to process central clearing. This in itself could have caused a drop in liquidity within Tuesday’s gold auction as it reduced the number of possible participants.
Other theories have been put forward to explain the price divergences, such as the banks being unwilling to hedge or arbitrage auction trades due to the advent of more stringent regulatory changes to prevent price manipulation. While this may sound logical in theory, no one, as far as I know, has presented empirical trade evidence to back up this theory. There is also the possibility of deliberate price manipulation of the auction prices by a participant(s) or their clients, a scenario that needs to be addressed and either ruled out or confirmed.
ICE Benchmark Administration (IBA), the administrator of the LBMA Gold Price, also introduced a price calculation Algorithm into the gold auction in mid-March 2017, a change which should also be considered by those seeking to find a valid explanation for the gold auction price divergence where the opening price kept falling through multiple auctions rounds whilst the spot price remained far higher. Could the algorithm have screwed up on 11 April?
Whatever the explanations for the price divergences, these incidents again raise the question as to whether these particular precious metals auctions are fit for purpose, and why they were designed (and allowed to be designed) at the outset to explicitly block direct participation by nearly every precious metals trading entity on the planet except for a limited number of London-based bullion bank members of the LBMA.
LBMA Silver Price fiasco
First up, on Monday 10 April, buried at the end of a Reuters News precious metals market daily news wrap was a very brief snippet of news referring to an incident which dogged the LBMA Silver Price during Monday’s daily auction (an auction which starts at midday London time). According to Reuters:
“silver prices slipped after the LBMA silver price benchmark auction was paused for 17 minutes after a circuit breaker was triggered when the auction price moved outside of the spot range, the CME said in a statement.”
What exactly the CME meant is unclear because whatever statement Reuters was referring to has not been released on the CME Group website or elsewhere, and Reuters did not write a separate news article about the incident.
To recap, the LBMA Silver Price is administered by Thomson Reuters on a calculation platform run by the CME Group, and operated on a contract basis on behalf of the London Bullion Market Association (LBMA). However, there is nothing anywhere on the CME’s LBMA Silver Price web page, or on the Thomson Reuters LBMA Silver Price web page, or on the LBMA website, in the form of a statement, comment or otherwise, referring to this ‘circuit breaker’ that persisted for ’17 minutes’ in the LBMA Silver Price auctionduring which time the ‘auction price moved outside of the spot range‘
On its calculation platform, CME makes use of a pricing algorithm to automatically calculate a price for each round of the LBMA Silver Price auction (excluding the first auction round). From page 8 of its LBMA Silver Price Methodology Guide:
“3.7 Starting Price
The initial auction price value is determined by the auction platform operator by comparing multiple Market Data sources prior to the auction opening to form a consensus price based on the individual sources of Market Data. The auction platform operator enters the initial auction price before the first round of the auction begins….”
“3.4 End of Round Comparison
If the difference between the total buy and sell quantity is greater than the tolerance value, the auction platform determines that the auction is not balanced, automatically cancels orders entered in the auction round by all participants, calculates a new price, and starts a new round with the new price.”
There is also a manual price override facility which can be invoked if needed:
3.8 Manual Price Override
In exceptional circumstances, CME Benchmark Europe Ltd can overrule the automated new price of the next auction round in cases when more significant or finer changes are required. When doing so, the auction platform operator will refer to a composition of live Market Data sources while the auction is in progress.”
As to why the “auction platform operator” did not invoke these manual override powers and seek market data sources during the time in which the silver auction was ‘stuck’ for 17 minutes is unclear. A 17 minute pause would presumably be, in the CME’s words, ‘exceptional circumstances’.
Unfortunately, neither the CME website, the Thomson Reuters website, or the LBMA website provides intra-round pricing data for the LBMA Silver Price, so anyone who doesn’t have a subscription to the live data of the auction is well and truly left in the dark as to what actually happened on Monday 10 April. Unlike the LBMA Gold Price auction which at least provides an ‘Auction Transparency Report’ for each auction (see below), the LBMA Silver Price auction is sorely lacking in any public transparency whatsoever.
But what is clear from the Reuters information snippet is that the LBMA Silver Price auction on Monday 10 April suffered a serious trading glitch, that saw the prices that were being formed in the auction deviate from where the silver spot price was trading during that time. This price deviation suggests a lack of trading liquidity in the auction and/or an inability of the participants to hedge their trades in other trading venues. As to whether the final LBMA Silver Price that was derived and published as the daily benchmark price on 10 March was outside the spot range (and above or below spot) is not mentioned in the Reuters report.
The complete opacity about this incident is concerning but not really surprising since nearly everything in the London precious metals markets is shrouded in secrecy, and corporate communication in this area is truly abysmal.
Recalling that Thomson Reuters and CME announced in early March that they are abruptly pulling out of the contract for administrating and calculating the LBMA Silver Price, this latest fiasco is unwelcome news for the LBMA – CME – Thomson Reuters triumvirate, and raises further questions for the FCA as to whether this Silver auction and benchmark should even be allowed to continue in its present or similar form.
LBMA Gold Price fiasco
Turning to the London gold auction, on the afternoon of Tuesday 11 April, the LBMA Gold Price auction (which starts at 3:00pm London time) experienced what can only be described as a shocking and serious trading fiasco which has real world consequences for all trading entities that use the LBMA Gold Price Benchmark reference price (and there are many that do so). As a reminder, ICE benchmark Administration (IBA) administers the daily LBMA Gold Price auctions on behalf of the LBMA.
“London’s gold price benchmark fixed some $12 below the spot price on Tuesday afternoon as the auction appeared to become locked in a downward spiral. From an initial $1,265.75, close to the spot price at the time, the auction price ratcheted steadily lower before fixing at $1,252.90 in the ninth round. From the fifth round to the eighth the bid and offer volumes remained frozen, unable to match.“
“This came a day after ICE introduced clearing for the LBMA Gold Price auction”
Reuters concludes its article by noting that the ICE clearing was introduced:“before several participating banks had the necessary systems in place.”
“As a result, China Construction Bank, Societe Generale, Standard Chartered and UBS are yet to confirm a date for their participation in the cleared auction.. ICE declined to comment. The LBMA, which owns the intellectual property rights to the auction, was not immediately available to comment.”
This forced reduction in the number of participants in the auction seems to be relevant to the issue and therefore requires further scrutiny.
ICE Central Clearing – Foisted on the LBMA Gold Price auction?
In mid-October 2016 during the LBMA precious metals conference in Singapore, ICE Benchmark Administration announced that it would introduce central clearing into the London Gold Price by utilizing a series of daily futures contracts which it planned to launch in February 2017. The introduction of central clearing into the auction was initially planned for March 2017.
“IBA gave a central clearing update to the Committee, notifying them that the cleared instrument would be launched in January 2017 and the auction trades could be routed there from March 2017. The Committee were informed that IBA had spoken to every bank and every bank wanted to move. Discussion moved to the technical implications for this new model and IBA’s primary wish to keep running a healthy auction.”
“From March 2017, subject to regulatory review, centrally cleared settlement will be available for transactions which originate from IBA’s gold auction underlying the LBMA Gold Price.
This will give firms the choice of settling their trades bilaterally against each counterparty (as they currently do), or submitting their trades to clearing and settling versus the clearing house. This mechanism removes the requirement for firms to have bilateral credit lines in place with all of the other Direct Participants in the auction.
Central clearing opens the auction to a broader cross-section of the market. It also facilitates greater volume in the auction.“
By the end of March 2017, the above statement had been altered from March 2017 to “Q2 2017” with ICE pushing back the launch date for the introduction of central clearing:
“From Q2 2017, subject to regulatory review, centrally cleared settlement will be available for transactions which originate from IBAs gold auction underlying the LBMA Gold Price….”
Reuters again covered these ICE clearing delays in a series of articles during March, highlighting the fact that 4 of the 13 banks that are direct participants in the LBMA Gold Price auction were not ready for the introduction of central clearing due to delays in making unspecified changes to their internal IT systems that would allow such central clearing processing. So anybody who had been reading these Reuters articles would have been aware that there were risks on the horizon in terms of some of the LBMA Gold Price auction participants being slow in being ready for the changes.
“U.S.-based exchange operator ICE has already pushed back the launch of its service by several weeks to allow the banks and brokers who participate in the auction to adapt their IT systems, four sources with direct knowledge of the matter told Reuters.”
“Sources at many participant banks said that they were unhappy with the speed at which ICE was seeking to introduce clearing, which require investment in IT processes and back office systems and raise complex compliance issues.”
“However, at least four of the 14 banks and brokers who participate in the LBMA Gold Price auction will still not be ready to use the new system.
Banks that are not ready would be suspended from the auction until they have the necessary IT infrastructure in place or would have to participate through other players who could clear deals, according to the sources.
ICE’s readiness to provoke such disruption illustrates how much it wants to avoid further delays that could torpedo its ambitions to become the dominant exchange in London’s vast bullion market, market sources said”
“two sources told Reuters that ICE had again delayed and there was now no set start date.”
“Sources earlier told Reuters that Societe Generale, Standard Chartered, ICBC Standard Bank and China Construction Bank would not be ready to clear the LBMA auction in time for April 3.”
Again interestingly, ICE’s desire to promote its own gold futures contracts was seen as a primary driver for trying to rush through the introduction of central clearing for the gold auction, as doing so would add volume to ICE’s daily gold futures contracts:
“market sources say ICE plans to use clearing of the LBMA Gold Price auction, which it administers, to funnel business to its contracts and give it a head start over rivals.”
As a reminder, ICE and CME have both recently launched gold futures contracts connected to the London market, and the London Metal Exchange (LME) plans to launch its own suite of London gold futures contracts in early June.
Central clearing uses exchange for physical (EFP) transactions in the daily futures contracts which are then cleared at ICE Clear US. The futures have daily settlement each day between 3:00 pm and 3:05 pm London time. But how the whole process ties together is still quite puzzling. An email to the IBA CEO asking for details of how the futures are linked to the auction went unanswered.
So what was this downward spiral that the LBMA Gold Price auction experienced on the afternoon of Tuesday 11 April when it became, in the words of Reuters, locked in a downward spiral?
Let’s look at the ICE Auction Transparency Reports for the few days before and during the 11 April afternoon fiasco. These reports show the number of auction rounds, the number of participants,and the bid and offer volumes for each round as well as the price at the end of each round.
Fourteen entities are now authorized to be direct participants in the LBMA Gold Price auction, 13 of which are banks, the other being new participant INTL FCStone since early April. INTL FCStone is a financial services company that has a slant towards commodities. The 13 banks are:
Bank of China
Bank of Communications
China Construction Bank
Industrial and Commercial Bank of China (ICBC)
HSBC Bank USA
JPMorgan Chase Bank (London Branch)
The Bank of Nova Scotia – ScotiaMocatta
Unlike the old London Gold Fixing which had 5 member banks that were obliged to always turn up (and since 2004 dial in) for every auction, this LBMA Gold Price auction does not require all the authorized participants to dial-in. Most of the time, far fewer than the full contingent turn up. For example on Friday 7 April, 8 banks turned up at the morning auction while only 7 banks turned up at the afternoon auction (i.e only a 50% turnout). However, Friday 7 April is also relevant since that was the last day before ICE introduced central clearing to the gold auction.
Fast forwarding to the morning gold auction on Monday 10 April when ICE first introduced central clearing, you can see from the below auction report that only 5 banks participated. This is the same small number that took part in the former London Gold Fixing which was run by the infamous and scandal ridden London Gold Market Fixing Limited and which consisted of Deutsche Bank, Barclays, HSBC, Scotiabank and Société Générale.
The reason the turnouts after the introduction of central clearing are so low is that 4 of the direct participant banks have been excluded from the auction due to not being ready to implement central clearing – a fact predicted by Reuters News in March. This means that the usual number of between 7-10 banks participating in the auction has now been reduced by 4, as four banks cannot take part. As Reuters said on 21 March “Banks that are not ready would be suspended from the auction until they have the necessary IT infrastructure in place”.
The irony of this debacle is that the participating banks all already have bilateral credit limits with each other and so don’t need to do central clearing in the auction. Only new /future direct participants which do not have bilateral credit lines technically need to utilize the clearing solution.
Central clearing is supposed to make it easier for a far wider range and number of participants to take part. But if this entails enhancements to IT systems that some of the most sophisticated investment banks on the planet are struggling with, what hope is there for other precious metals trading entities to participate.
But some reason – probably to try to kickstart the trading volume in its daily gold futures contracts – ICE has made it mandatory for all existing direct participants (the bullion banks) to open clearing accounts and get their IT systems in shape to use clearing.
“Central clearing for the auction is enabled by effecting Exchange for Physical (“EFP”) transactions into the new physically settled, loco London gold daily futures contract which is traded on ICE Futures U.S. The EFPs establish positions in the futures contract which are cleared and can be physically delivered at ICE Clear U.S“
and Direct participants (DPs) “must establish a clearing account with an ICE Clear U.S. Clearing member” so as to be able to use this account to clear auction trades.
However, “DPs may still maintain credit lines to settle bilaterally against other DPs” and “DPs can elect, for each counterparty, to clear or settle their auction transactions bilaterally.” If this is so, then why the need to force these banks to open a clearing account and push through complex IT changes?
The ICE LBMA Gold Price web page now includes a double asterisk next to the names of the culprit banks that are not ready for central clearing. These banks are China Construction Bank, Société Générale, Standard Chartered, and UBS. the double asterisk states that “** Date of participating in the cleared auction to be determined.”
So now, more than 2 years after the LBMA Gold Price has been introduced, we are back to a situation where only 5 large bullion banks are participating in a daily gold price auction, an auction which has huge ramifications for the reference pricing of gold across myriad gold markets around the world.
Both of the auctions on 10 April finished within the first round, with buy volume and sell volume in balance, so there was no need for subsequent auction rounds.
Turning to the morning auction of Tuesday 11 April, only a measly 4 banks took part in the first round of the auction, and 5 participants took part in rounds 2 and 3. The bid and ask volumes were not that much out of balance, and the auction finished after 3 rounds.
Turning to the afternoon auction of 11 April, the price action commentary provided by Reuters was as follows:
“from an initial $1,265.75, close to the spot price at the time, the auction price ratcheted steadily lower before fixing at $1,252.90 in the ninth round. From the fifth round to the eighth the bid and offer volumes remained frozen, unable to match.“
Below you can see visually see what happened round by round from the first round price of $1,265.75 where there was zero bid volume and 125,217 ozs (nearly 4 tonnes) of ask volume, through the fifth to (actually) the ninth rounds where bid volume was an unchanging 92,873 ozs and ask volume was an unchanging 107,090 ozs, but still the price fell from $1,260.50 to fix in round 9 at $1,252.90, i,e, the price fell $7.60 in 2 minutes while the volumes didn’t budge. And most critically, the fixing price was $1252.90 while the spot price was trading at $1267 at that time.
“the benchmark ended up being set almost $15 dollars below where spot prices were trading at the time. The PM Gold Price showed a benchmark at $1,252.90 an ounce; however at the time, spot gold prices were trading around $1,267 an ounce, with prices heading towards a new five-month high.”
How could this happen? How could the auction price diverge so much from the spot price at that time and how could the auction go through round after round lowering the price while the bid and ask volumes did not change and while the spot price was actually far higher than any of the prices in the auction?
Kitco’s explanation, which is mostly based on the view of one person, Jeff Christian of the CPM Group, put the problem down to “poorly conceived regulations and a faulty price discovery mechanism“, i.e. a lack of liquidity due to banks being scared off by tightening regulations, and that this “sharp reduction in liquidity during the auction process” is causing “a large discrepancy in prices“. Christian also said that “because of regulations, banks and other financial institutions are backing away from becoming market makers.”
But this reasoning of backing away due to regulations is not backed up by the facts for the simple reason that banks have continued to join the LBMA Gold Price auction at a rapid rate over the last 2 years, i.e. there is a trend of ever more banks applying to be authorized to participate in the auction. For example, since the auction was launched on 20 March 2015 with 6 banks, 9 more banks have signed up JP Morgan, Morgan Stanley, Standard Chartered, Bank of China, ICBC, China Construction Bank, Bank of Communications, Toronto Dominion Bank, and INTL FCStone. Note that Barclays was one of the original six banks in the auction but dropped out after it downscaled its the precious metals business in London. There are also the same number of LBMA Market Makers now as there were two years ago, in both cases 13 LBMA Market Makers.
Kitco’s article also fails to mention the central clearing implementation fiasco brought about by ICE’s rush to channel activity into its gold futures contracts and Kitco even fails to realize that 4 banks were suspended from the auction due to this central clearing issue.
Another factor relevant to the screwed up afternoon auction on 11 April that should be considered is the fact that in mid-March 2017, ICE Benchmark Administration introduced a price algorithm into the LBMA Gold Price auction. This fact has been totally ignored by the financial media.
From a human Chairperson to an automated Algorithm
Up until mid March 2017, the LBMA Gold Price auction used a human ‘independent chairperson’ to choose the opening price in the auction and also the auction price in each subsequent round. The identities of these independent chairpersons have never been divulged by ICE nor the LBMA.
Critically, sometime during the 3rd week of March 2017, ICE Benchmark Administration (IBA) introduced a pricing algorithm into the LBMA Gold Price auction. This change in procedure (moving from an auction chairperson to an auction pricing algorithm) was not actively highlighted by either ICE or the LBMA but is clear from looking at Internet Archive imprints of the ICE LBMA Gold Price webpage.
“The auction process has an independent chairperson, appointed by IBA to determine the price for each round and ensure that the price responds appropriately to market conditions.”
See screenshot below for the same statement – taken from the same webpage:
Bullet point 1 of the Auction Process for the 9 March version of the webpage also refers to the chairperson as being responsible for setting the starting price and the price of each subsequent round “in line with current market conditions and the activity in the auction.”
But by 16 March, when the next imprint of the LBMA Gold Price page was made by the Internet Archive, the reference in the methodology section to an independent chairperson had been fully deleted, and bullet point 1 had been changed from mentioning a chairperson to discussing an algorithm, specifically changed to “IBA sets the starting price and the price for each round using an algorithm that takes into account current market conditions and the activity in the auction.”
See screenshot below for the same statement – taken from the same webpage:
So if there is an algorithm that is taking into account current market conditions in addition to activity in the auction, why did this algorithm not take the current spot prices into account over rounds 4 – 9 of the LBMA Gold Price auction on the afternoon of Tuesday 11 April?
Furthermore, for such a major change to the methodology and auction process in an auction whose benchmark price is widely used in the gold world, it’s very surprising that neither ICE, nor the LBMA, nor the London financial media mentioned this substantial algorithmic change.
In early December 2016, ICE published an LBMA GOLD PRICE Methodology Consultation in which one of the consultation’s proposed changes was “the introduction of an algorithm to determine the price for each auction round“.
The December 2016 document noted that:
“IBA’s auction process is currently that the auction chair sets the price for each Round in line with current market conditions and the activity in the auction”
“IBA currently has a panel of auction chairs who are independent of any firm associated with the auction, including Direct Participants. The chairs are externally sourced but work with IBA to deliver a robust process for determination of the LBMA Gold Price.
The chairs use their extensive market experience to set the round prices based on a pricing framework agreed with IBA. IBA chose to operate the auction using human chairs to make sure that the price could respond appropriately to market conditions from the outset.
IBA’s feedback from the market was that, at least in the early stages, the professional judgement of a human chairman was needed.“
“After operating the auction for more than a year, IBA started to develop an algorithm to set the auction’s starting price and subsequent round prices. IBA has now been testing and refining the algorithm over a number of months“
As per the proposal, the algorithm would replace the human chair, after which:
“Each auction will continue to be supervised by IBA’s analysts, and, if for any reason an auction did not progress as expected, IBA’s existing safeguards would be deployed to protect the integrity of the auction and the LBMA Gold Price benchmark“
These safeguards were stated as being three, namely:
– Pause the auction and restart, to give Participants an opportunity to contact clients or re-evaluate their positions
– Increase the imbalance threshold, if it appears that the auction will otherwise not finish
– Cancel an order, if it is compromising the integrity of the process and the relevant participant cannot be reached.
The proposals were pencilled in for implementation in Quarter 1, 2017.
Following the consultation, a “Methodology Consultation Feedback” document was published on the ICE Benchmark Administration website. One feedback respondent was concerned about who would be overseeing the daily auctions in the absence of a human chairperson, to which ICE answered:
“IBA can confirm that the auction will always be supervised by at least two IBA analysts. This approach is consistent with how we operate our other benchmarks.
Our aim is to put the auction on auto-pilot, not to make it driverless.
Unfortunately, from the wider gold market’s perspective, the LBMA Gold Price auction on the afternoon of Tuesday 11 April does indeed appear to have been ‘driverless‘ as it “did not progress as expected“, so it is now up to the LBMA and ICE to establish what the ‘IBA analysts’ were up to behind the driving wheel that day.
On its website, ICE states that the LBMA Gold Price methodology is “reviewed by the LBMA Gold Price Oversight Committee as documented in its Terms of Reference.” This Oversight Committee should also explain to the gold world what actually happened on the afternoon of 11 April.
Additionally, I find no explanation on ICE’s LBMA Gold Price webpage as to how exactly the automated algorithm works, what its logic rules are, how it was programmed etc.
The trading glitch with the LBMA Silver Price on Monday 10 April seems to have been completely missed by London’s financial media except for the brief reference by Reuters. The fact that there is no information on the CME, Thomson Reuters and LBMA websites about the issue should raise concern for users of this benchmark and for the UK’s regulator, the FCA. In an ideal world, there should be a full ‘outage’ report published on each of the 3 websites explaining what happened, but this will not happen in the shadowy and secretive London Silver Market.
Perhaps the auction price divergence in the LBMA Silver Price stems from a lack of liquidity brought on by the limited presence of auction participants, or due to the inability or unwillingness of participants to hedge or arbitrage their auction trades against the London OTC spot or other trading venues? The simple thing to do would be for CME, Thomson Reuters and the LBMA to explain themselves since this would minimize guesswork and to provide global silver market entities with clarity. Anything short of a full explanation by the parties concerned is irresponsible.
For the LBMA Gold Price auction, ICE Benchmark Administration needs to release a full ‘outage’ report and explanation on what exactly happened in the afternoon auction on 11 April and explain to the global gold market whether the introduction of central clearing was in any way responsible for the price divergence, and whether there are any conflicts of interest in trying to get banks to use its daily gold futures contracts. While they are at it, ICE should fully explain how the recent introduction of a pricing algorithm impacts the gold auction and whether this too had an impact on the auction price entering a downward spiral.
As the LBMA Silver Price and LBMA Gold Price are both Regulated Benchmarks, the FCA regulator needs to step up to the plate and for once show that it is on the side of the users of these benchmarks and not the powerful London banks.
Both of these auctions require full transparency and ease of direct participation by the full spectrum of the world’s gold and silver trading entities. Currently, they fall far short of these goals.
It’s now been 6 months since the LBMA Gold Price auction, the much touted replacement to the London Gold Fixings, was launched on an ICE Benchmark Administration (IBA) platform on Friday 20 March 2015.
For anyone not au fait with the gold price auction, the LBMA Gold Price is a twice daily auction that produces the world’s most widely used gold price benchmark, which is then used as a daily pricing source in gold markets and gold products across the globe.
The 6 month anniversary of the LBMA Gold Price’s launch thus provides an opportune time to revisit a few unresolved and little-noticed aspects of this recently launched auction a.k.a. global benchmark.
Manipulative Behaviour and the FCA
From 1 April 2015, the LBMA Gold Price also became a ‘Regulated Benchmark’ of the UK’s Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) along with 6 other systemically important pricing benchmarks, namely, the LBMA Silver Price, ISDAFix, ICE Brent, WM/Reuters fx, Sonia, and Ronia. These 7 benchmarks join the infamously manipulated LIBOR in now being ‘Regulated Benchmarks’.
Manipulating or attempting to manipulate prices in a Regulated Benchmark is now a criminal offence under the Financial Services Act 2012.
The specifics are set out in Chapter 8 of the FCA’s Market Conduct sourcebook (“MAR”), with the details on ‘identifying potentially manipulative behaviour’ covered in MAR 8.3.6 which says that a benchmark administrator must:
“identify breaches of its practice standards and conduct that may involve manipulation, or attempted manipulation, of the specified benchmark it administers and provide to the oversight committee of the specified benchmark timely updates of suspected breaches of practice standards and attempted manipulation“
“notify the FCA and provide all relevant information where it suspects that, in relation to the specified benchmark it administers, there has been:
(a) a material breach of the benchmark administrator’s practice standards
(b) conduct that may involve manipulation or attempted manipulation of the specified benchmark it administers; or
(c) collusion to manipulate or to attempt to manipulate the specified benchmark it administers.”
and furthermore that the arrangements and procedures referred to above:
“should include (but not be limited to):
(1) carrying out statistical analysis of benchmark submissions, using other relevant market data in order to identify irregularities in benchmark submissions; and
(2) an effective whistle-blowing procedure which allows any person on an anonymous basis to alert the benchmark administrator of conduct that may involve manipulation, or attempted manipulation, of the specified benchmark it administers.”
Section 91 of the UK Financial Services Act 2012 deems it a criminal offence to intentionally engage “in any course of conduct which creates a false or misleading impression as to the price or value of any investment” which creates “an impression may affect the setting of a relevant benchmark”.
Recent Manipulation of Auction Starting Price
All of these FCA rules and the criminalisation of price manipulation offences sound very good in principle.
“4. Findings since go-live: IBA shared with the Committee that:
• IBA, and some direct participants, had observed the price of futures spiking during the minutes immediately before the afternoon gold auction starts.
IBA are now de-emphasising use of the futures as a related market to consider when determining the starting price .”
The fact that IBA has deemed it necessary to follow this course of action (i.e. de-emphasise the use of futures as a starting price determinant), and the fact that some entity or entities have been pushing around futures prices as a means of influencing the LBMA Gold Price starting price suggests that nothing has changed in the gold market since the introduction of the new auction, and that the same players who were actively manipulating the gold price back in 2012 are still doing so, despite this becoming a criminal offence under UK law.
4.12. At the start of the 28 June 2012 Gold Fixing at 3:00 p.m., the Chairman proposed an opening price of USD1,562.00. However, the proposed price quickly dropped to USD1,556.00, following a drop in the price of August COMEX Gold Futures (which was caused by significant selling in the August COMEX Gold Futures market, independent of Barclays and Mr Plunkett).
“4.18. …before the price was fixed, there were a number of further changes in the levels of buying and selling in the 28 June 2012 Gold Fixing, which coincided with an increase in the price of August COMEX Gold Futures.
4.19. As a result of these changes, the level of buying at USD1,558.50 exceeded the level of selling (155 buying/45 selling), and the proposed price was likely to move higher. Given that the price of August COMEX Gold Futures was trading around USD1,560.00 at this time, if the Chairman did move the proposed price in the 28 June 2012 Gold Fixing higher, it was likely to be to a similar price level (which was higher than the Barrier).”
You can read the entire FCA account of the saga of the 28 June 2012 afternoon fixing here, and think about the consequences and meaning of the IBA move to de-emphasis futures prices and what it signals.
Publicly Available Procedures – Not!
Which brings us to the procedures for establishing the auction starting price and subsequent prices for each round of the auction. On 28 April 2015, the IBA LBMA Gold Price web page, under ‘Auction Process’, stated that:
“The chairperson sets the starting price and the price for each round based on publicly available procedures.“
I was interested in reading these publicly available procedures, and learning about the price sources and price hierarchies used within the set of price determinants, so on 28 April 2015, I emailed the IBA communication group and asked:
“I have a question on the LBMA Gold Price methodology.
On the IBA LBMA Gold Price web page (https://www.theice.com/iba/lbma-gold-price) under ‘Auction Process’, point 1 states that “The chairperson sets the starting price and the price for each round based on publicly available procedures“.
Can you direct me to where these ‘publicly available procedures’ are view-able?
Incredibly, IBA received my email that day, and then changed point 1 under ‘Auction Process’ by deleting the original reference to ‘publicly available procedures’ and by copying and pasting in the FAQ answer that I had referred to about ‘in line with current conditions and activity in the auction.”
IBA then responded to my email on the same day, 28 April, without answering the question. The IBA response was:
“Please note the updated text: ‘The chairperson sets the starting price and the price for each round in line with current market conditions and the activity in the auction’. Thank you for pointing this out.“
So, not only did IBA avoid explaining the ‘publicly available procedures‘, they also covered it up and had the cheek to thank me for pointing it out to them. You can see for yourself the reactionary and firefighting tactics used by IBA in perpetuating non-transparency.
Furthermore, the fact that the original web page said that the procedures were publicly available and then they pulled it suggests that at least someone with responsibility in IBA, maybe naively, originally had been of the view that the pricing procedures were to be publicly available.
I emailed IBA again and said:
“This FAQ answer (to the question “How are the prices set for each round of the auction?) doesn’t really explain anything at all.
My question though is, apart from this one line FAQ answer, are there no more in depth ‘publicly available procedures’ available that explain how the opening price is set, what the price sources used are, what pricing hierarchy is used to select an opening price etc..?”
I’ve looked on your web site and in the FAQs and can’t find them. The only brief reference to price determination in the FAQs is that the chairperson”sets the price in line with current market conditions and activity in the auction.”
To which IBA replied:
“This information is not available on our website. However, as you seem to have a few questions, would you be interested in me setting up an off the record briefing with IBA in the next few weeks?”
I did not take IBA up on that offer since I do not think that an off the record briefing is appropriate for something that should be in the public domain. It also highlights the extent to which the vast majority of the financial media are happy to use unidentified sources, off the record briefings, and quotes, and willingly act as the mouthpieces for entities that they are too scared of offending lest they will not get ‘access’ to write their next regurgitated press release for, nor get invited to that entity’s Christmas party.
“‘The names of those selected to oversee ICE’s new gold price benchmarking process will not be disclosed, Finbarr Hutcheson, president of ICE Benchmark Administration (IBA), said.
“We are keeping that anonymous – we don’t think that it’s meaningful to the marketplace to know who’s running that auction and, frankly, the more we kind of feed the story, there’s just going to be more speculation around that,” he said at a briefing at its offices here.
“There’s a legitimate desire to know but actually we don’t want this process to focus on any individual or names of people,” he added.
Not “meaningful to the marketplace to know who’s running the auction“? What sort of statement is that in a free market? If there is a legitimate desire to know, as Hutcheson concedes there is, then why hide the identities?
If anyone needs reminding, the predecessor to the LBMA Gold Price auction was a trading process which, on 23 May 2014, the UK Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) saw fit to fine Barclays £26 million “for failings surrounding the London Gold Fixing.” This was also the first and only precious metals trading process in the UK ever to receive a fine from the FCA.
I would suggest that given the history of a ‘proven to have been manipulated daily gold price auction’, whose successor on launch day primarily consisted of the 4 incumbent participants that comprised the previous Gold Fixings auction (including Barclays), then it certainly is meaningful to the marketplace to know who’s running the new auction.
“’We have a panel of chairpeople that we are going to use and we have internal expertise as well on that, but we are not disclosing the names of those chairmen,’ Hutcheson said. “It will rotate through the panel but we have a significant bench of available external expertise with back-up if you like.”
Hutcheson declined to name how many chairpeople are on the panel.
But if the oversight committee were to feel that it was appropriate for the names to be disclosed, this stance may change, he suggested.”
And why would the oversight committee feel it to be appropriate or not to divulge the names of the chairpersons of the most important gold pricing benchmark in the world?
The Changing of the Guard
Its interesting to see how ICE Benchmark Administration’s description of the chairpersons evolved over a short period after the LBMA Gold Price auction was launched on 20 March.
This was the initial version of the ICE IBA web site description of the Chairperson on 20 March (see screenshot 1 below also):
“The chairperson has extensive experience in the gold market, and is appointed by IBA, and therefore independent of the auction process.”
A week later, a revised, more lengthy version of the Chairperson description had appeared on the ICE IBA web site (see screenshot 2 below also):
“The Chair is appointed by IBA and is independent of any firm associated with the auction, including direct participants. The chair is externally sourced, but works with the IBA team to deliver a robust process for determination of the LBMA Gold Price.”
The Chair facilitates the determination of the LBMA Gold Price by providing his extensive market experience to assist in setting the price in each round of an IBA gold auction.”
By July, the second paragraph of the second version above had been changed to read:
“Both the initial and subsequent round prices are selected by the Chair using their extensive market experience and applied based on an agreed pricing framework.”
So, there is a panel of chairpeople, as Hutcheson told Bulliondesk, who are 4 ‘ex-bankers’ according to Reuters, and who have ‘extensive experience in the gold market’ according to the IBA web site. So these people were previously bankers (which means investment bank staff) who gained their experience of the gold market in investment banks, and who have extensive knowledge of how a gold auction works, and since they are working with London-based IBA on a London-based daily auction, the chairpersons are either London-based or live proximate to London. And finally, according to one of the web site versions above, it’s a ‘He’ or set of ‘Hes’ so we know they are male.
And yet these same people are said to be “independent of any firm associated with the auction, including direct participants.”
Given that there are now 11 direct participants in the LBMA Gold Price auction, namely, Barclays, Bank of China, Goldman Sachs, HSBC Bank USA, JPMorgan Chase Bank, Morgan Stanley, Societe Generale, Bank of Nova Scotia – ScotiaMocatta, Toronto-Dominion Bank, Standard Chartered and UBS, how could ex-bankers based in London with extensive experience of the gold market collectively be independent of all of these banks?
And that’s just the direct participants. What about all the firms associated with the auction, for example, indirect participants who route their auction orders via direct participants?
It would be interesting to hear what IBA and the LBMA define as ‘independent’. Is there any precedent on a definition of ‘independent’ for persons connected to a daily gold auction? Luckily, there is.
“appoint up to two independent qualified individuals to serve on the Committee. A person will be considered to be independent for the purposes of these Terms of Reference if he/she is not, and has not been at any time in the preceding year, an employee or consultant of any Member and does not otherwise have a personal interest in the fixing price or the Fixing Process.”
While this document was referring to a committee whose Members were the directors of the banks running the former auction, at least there is some semblance of a definition of the concept of ‘independent‘ when applied to a gold auction.
So using that yardstick, it would be interesting to measure up the ex-banker chairpersons in the current auction as to how long exactly have they and their handler have been ‘ex’ bankers. Less than a calendar year before 20 March 2015 (i.e. 01 January 2014) would not cut it under a “has not been at any time in the preceding year, an employee or consultant of any Member” test.
And it also begs the question, why is the automated algorithm alluded to by ICE not being used in this LBMA Gold Price auction instead of a human chairperson?
Chairperson description 1
Chairperson description 2
Chairperson description version 3
You will notice from the first description screenshot of the chairperson (above) that on 20 March 2015, ICE IBA stated that:
“Feedback from the market is that the price in the first round of the auction, as well as the prices for the following rounds, is of paramount importance.
As a result, BA has appointed a chairperson from Day 1. In due course, IBA will evaluate developing an algorithm in consultation with the market.“
Then notice that in the second version screenshot about the chairperson, there is no mention of any algorithm. It just vanished.
A slightly different version of the algorithm text appeared in the IBA gold price FAQ document published at launch time:
“Why are you using a Chairperson and not an algorithm for day one?
Feedback from the market is that the setting of the initial price of the first round of the auction, as well as prices for the following rounds, are important. As a result, it is appropriate to have a Chairperson on day one. In due course, IBA will consult on automating the auction process using an automated algorithm.”
A point of information at this juncture. When IBA and LBMA refer to ‘the Market’ they are referring exclusively to LBMA members of the wholesale gold market and not to any of the other hundreds of thousands of global gold market participants who rely on the LBMA Gold Price benchmark as a pricing source. In fact it seems that ‘the Market’ means whatever the LBMA Management Committee decide it means.
It is also worth pointing out that many of the LBMA’s claims on consulting ‘the Market’ are just empty rhetoric, and the consultations are purely for window dressing for decisions that they have already decided on, a case in point being the EY bullion market review commissioned by the LBMA earlier this year that was announced on 27 April and wrapped up by June 2015. This is not too dissimilar to the way FIFA operates, as one correspondent pointed out.
In the case of the above ‘feedback from the market’ about wanting a chairperson, this could very well mean the 4 members of London Gold Market Fixing Limited (LGMFL) who all transitioned from the old auction to the new auction as if nothing had changed. It appears that they did not want anything to change. The old London Gold Fixing with 4 members had a chairperson (most recently Simon Weeks from Scotia) who rotated annually through the directors of (LGMFL), i.e. from Barclays, Scotia Mocatta, HSBC and SocGen.
Finbarr Hutcheson had also referred to this price calculation ‘Algorithm’ on 19 March, the day before the LBMA Gold Price launch. To quote Bulliondesk again:
“The panel of the independent chairs will be responsible for overseeing the process although ICE has indicated that it will be looking to make the process electronic in future.“
The LBMA Silver Price Algorithm
The LBMA Silver Price auction has a separate administrator, Thomson Reuters and a separate platform provider, CME Group. Thomson Reuters has this to say about the opening price on page 8 of its LBMA Silver Price methodology guide:
3.7 Starting Price
The auction platform operator (CME Benchmark Europe Ltd) is responsible for operating the LBMA Silver Price auction, including entering the initial auction price.
The initial auction price value is determined by the auction platform operatorby comparing multiple Market Data sources prior to the auction opening to form a consensus price based on the individual sources of Market Data. The auction platform operator enters the initial auction price before the first round of the auction begins….
For intra-auction prices for each round, the methodology guide says that:
3.8 Manual Price Override
In exceptional circumstances, CME Benchmark Europe Ltd can overrule the automated new price of the next auction round in cases when more significant or finer changes are required. When doing so, the auction platform operator will refer to a composition of live Market Data sources while the auction is in progress.
In the LBMA Silver Price methodology, only the first round is manually input. Subsequent rounds are calculated automatically by the ‘platform’. See page 7 of the guide:
“3.4 End of Round Comparison
[bullet point 2] If the difference between the total buy and sell quantity is greater than the tolerance value, the auction platform determines that the auction is not balanced, automatically cancels orders entered in the auction round by all participants, calculates a new price, and starts a new round with the new price.”
So this is different to the LBMA Gold Price where:
“The chairperson sets the starting price and the price for each round in line with current market conditions and the activity in the auction.”
Six months after the fanfare launch on 20 March 2015, unanswered questions remain:
How robust is the LBMA Gold Price auction mechanism, when within 3 months of launch date, IBA have to tinker with the price sources used to determine the starting price, and de-emphasise one price source due to volatile and seemingly delibrately manipulative futures price movements?
Why does the LBMA Gold Price auction needs a human chairperson throughout the auction and the LBMA Silver Price does not?
What happened to the plans for introducing an algorithm into the auction?
Why have ICE gone to great lengths to prevent the public knowing the identities of the chairpersons?
Why did ICE backtrack on a reference to ‘publicly available procedures‘ that would have explained how the starting price and round prices are determined?
What’s going to happen when the initial six months of the chairpersons’ rotating duties run out on Monday 21 September, as Reuters alluded to back in March?
To that list some further questions could be added:
Where are the Chinese banks ICBC and China Construction, Bank which both expressed interest in becoming direct participants in the LBMA Gold Price auction, going to join?
Where are all the gold mining and gold refining entities that have expressed interest in being direct participants going to join, participants that the ICE auction platform can accommodate right now?
When will the LBMA Gold Price auction move to central clearing on an exchange distinct from LMPCL’s monopoly on clearing predominantly unallocated metal?
When will the prohibitive credit lines enforced by the LBMA be removed as as to allow other non-bank participants to directly participate in the auction without maintaining credit arrangements with the incumbent bullion banks?
These are just some of the questions which financial journalists cannot bring themselves to write about when covering this topic.
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