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.
This short-list consisted of the CME Group – Thomson Reuters, the LME, Bloomberg, ETF Securities, ICE Benchmark Administration, Platts, and Autilla (in conjunction with Cinnober Financial Technology). The LBMA even went as far as publishing some of the slide presentations and / or executive summaries of these 7 proposals.
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.
On 8 June, Reuters revealed that it had been told that the only 2 candidates were in serious contention to run the auction were ICE and the LME. Then on 14 July, the LBMA announced that ICE was being lined up as the chosen provider. See “ICE Benchmark Administration to Become Administrator for the LBMA Silver Price”.
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.
As per Reuters article from 24 May 2017 “London’s gold benchmark hit by volatility after banks exit”:
“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.
In a document released in August titled “Administration of the Silver Price“, ICE states that it will seek to:
“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.
According to Section 4.2 of the Thomson Reuters “Commodities Benchmark Methodologies LBMA Silver Price” document published in August 2014, there are an estimated 500-1000 active trading entities in the global silver market.
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.