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Mnuchin’s PR Visit to Fort Knox proves nothing about the US Gold Reserves

On the afternoon of Monday, August 21, US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Governor Matt Bevin, and Kentucky Congressman Brett Guthrie took a visit to the vault of the US Mint’s gold depository in Fort Knox, Kentucky, a vault which, according to the US Treasury, holds gold bars containing 147,341,858 fine troy ounces of gold (4583 tonnes of gold).

The trip was notable in that it is one of the rare occasions in history that a US political/congressional delegation has ever visited the Fort Knox depository, and Mnuchin is now only the 3rd treasury secretary ever to make this visit.

The trip was also notable in that unlike previous political excursions to the vault, the Mnuchin-led visit was very low-key, it was announced to the media and public at extremely short notice, and there is no evidence that any media representatives participated, or at least if they did, they have kept very quiet about it.

US Mint Fort Knox
US Mint Depository, Fort Knox, Kentucky

In contrast, the previous congressional visit to the Fort Knox depository in September 1974 was heavily publicised in advance, was accompanied by 100 news reporters and photographers, and it even documented the visit via photographs and film which were released to the public.

Mnuchin’s visit to the vault merely appears to have taken the form of a quick peek into one of the cramped vault compartments within the Fort Knox vault, and therefore can only be seen as an odd PR stunt whose real intent remains unclear, which does nothing to improve the transparency of the notoriously secretive gold depository, and which on balance has now re-opened scrutiny on how much gold is, or is not, actually stored in the compartments of the Fort Knox vault.

Short-Notice Whim?

The trip to the Fort Knox vault was only announced by Mnuchin on Monday morning, August 21 (the morning of the Fort Knox visit) during a speech to the Chamber of Commerce in Louisville, Kentucky, which Mnuchin and Mitch McConnell were attending.

As Grace Schneider, a business reporter for the Louisville, Kentucky based Courier-Journal tweeted that morning:

So Mnuchin announced the visit literally a few hours before it took place. Fort Knox is located about 40 miles south-west of Louisville. In his Monday morning speech at the Chamber of Commerce, the Washington Examiner reports that Mnuchin made the bizarre comment that “I assume the gold is still there”. McConnell, at the same time, quipped that “we’re going to find out”. Mnuchin’s comment is bizarre because as US Treasury Secretary, he is top official of the US Treasury.

The US Treasury owns the gold in Fort Knox. The US Mint is just the custodian. The Director of the US Mint and all other senior officials report to Mnuchin. At any time, Mnuchin can get a full and complete high-level briefing on the real status of the US gold reserves. He can also get a full de-briefing on the extent to which the US gold reserves have been audited over the years – or not audited as the case may be. To say that he assumes the gold is still there shows either a flippant view of the expected accountability of a US Treasury Secretary, or else a disregard for the responsibility to which the US public has entrusted him.

Media Presence

It’s not clear whether any journalists actually accompanied the politicians on last Monday’s visit to the Fort Knox depository. An article by an AP journalist from Kentucky named Adam Beam was published on August 22, the day after the visit to the Fort Knox depository.

Beam, based in Frankfort, Kentucky is listed as a Kentucky Statehouse reporter for AP, so would presumably, due to this role, be well-known in Kentucky political circles and would have privileged access to the Mnuchin & Co delegation. AP’s Beam wrote that:

Inside the famed vaults at Fort Knox, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell held a 27-pound gold bar in his hands Monday as part of the first civilian delegation to see most of the country’s bullion reserves in more than 40 years.

But AP’s Beam also wrote in the same article that:

“in an interview, McConnell said he could not say much about the visit for security reasons

suggesting that Beam may not have been on the actual visit to the vault, because if he was, he would have no need to interview McConnell and could have recorded the vault details himself. if the AP Kentucky Statehouse reporter wasn’t even on the visit, what hope was there for other reporters?

As far as I can see from related coverage, there are no photos of any of the delegation either inside the depository. This would suggest that there were no media photographers nor camera people present inside the vault. For such a historic trip, this is itself quite bizarre. Until that is, you realize that in 1978, the US Mint made the internal plans and structures of Fort Knox classified, which effectively bans any photography or filming from inside the depository.

Only One Compartment Viewed

The same AP article quoted Kentucky Governor Matt Bevin as saying that [Fort Knox] “officials had to cut a seal to open the vault for them“. What Bevin means is that the seal on the door of one of the compartments in the vault was cut so that they could open the door to the compartment. According to the US Mint, Fort Knox stores US Treasury gold bars in 13 compartments within the Fort Knox vault. See BullionStar article “Second Thoughts On US Official Gold Reserves Audits” for details.

By opening just one of the 13 compartments for Mnuchin & Co to peer into, that leaves 12 of the supposed gold storage compartments that were not opened. Still, this didn’t stop Mnuchin stating on Twitter that “Glad gold is safe“. This is a ridiculous statement from a US Treasury Secretary when you consider what the actual visit consisted of, and it would be remiss of the US public to put any trust in it.

Kentucky Governor Matt Bevin also said something similar in a radio interview following the vault visit, i.e. that the delegation only saw a subset of the supposed gold. Interviewed by Newradio 840 WHAS, and quoted by televison channel WHAS 11, Governor Bevin said:

“I didn’t see every bit of it [the gold], but the amount that I saw was impressive”

 See WHAS 11 video segment here.

The US Treasury Secretary takes a quick look into one of 13 compartments in the vault and says “Yep, the gold is safe, it’s there“. Imagine a commercial gold vault operating on the basis of how Fort Knox operates. It couldn’t. I have been in BullionStar’s precious metals vault in Singapore. I have looked around. There are a lot of gold bars, silver bars, gold coins and silver coins. But I couldn’t say based on a quick casual observation that ‘yep, all the gold and silver is there’.

That’s why there is a rigorous inventory system at BullionStar, and that’s why BullionStar employs a transparent multi-layered auditing system comprising 5 different audit schemes that are all accessible to customers. To ensure that at any given time, both BullionStar staff and customers know exactly what is inside the BullionStar vault.

But the US Treasury seems to think its sufficient that a quick unrecorded trip by 4 US political insiders can somehow instill confidence that all the gold that is claimed to be in Fort Knox is actually there. In case readers may think BullionStar is being unfair to the US Treasury, its worth noting that there have been many articles published on the BullionStar website by Koos Jansen that highlight the myriad of inconsistencies about the supposed gold reserves stored at Fort Knox and US government auditing of said gold reserves. See for example:

A First Glance At US Official Gold Reserves Audits”, March 2014

Second Thoughts On US Official Gold Reserves Audits”, February 2015

US Government Lost 7 Fort Knox Gold Audit Reports”, June 2015

Dear US Mint, We Gave You The FOIA Funds, Now Give Us The Fort Knox Audit Documents!”, November 2016

US Mint Releases New Fort Knox “Audit Documentation”. The First Critical Observations”, February 2017

 Conclusion

As a freebie trip for 4 select political insiders, last Monday’s trip to Fort Knox was undoubtedly a memorable one for them. In the same radio interview Bevin said that:

“This is like the mother of all field trips. This is pretty cool”

But as a validation and verification of over 56% of the supposed US Official Gold Reserves, the visit was a complete farce. Announced the morning it took place. No evidence that any media were allowed to participate. Only peeked into one of the 13 storage compartments. And then to round it off, Mnuchin (an ex Goldmanite) tweets that ‘Glad gold is safe“. You couldn’t make this up. And finally, no mention of the fact that most of the gold bars even supposedly stored in Fort Knox are low purity ‘coin bars’ made from melted down gold coins. In fact, of all the gold bars reported to be held within the US Gold Reserves, only 16% of these bars are of LBMA Good Delivery size and purity range.

An update on SGE Vault Withdrawals and SGE Price Premiums

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

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

2017 SGE Gold Withdrawals

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

SGEDeliveries01y

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

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

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

January + February = 184+179 = 363 tonnes

March + April = 192+171 = 363 tonnes

Discrepancy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SGE Premiums

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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