One of the more interesting developments in the gold mining sector at the moment is the impending launch of an investor alliance called the Shareholders Gold Council (SGC) whose objectives focus on reversing the poor shareholder returns and underperformance that has been dogging the sector’s leading gold mining stocks for some time now.
This new ‘Council’, which will be activist in nature, has been spearheaded by well-known hedge fund Paulson & Co, and was first pitched to fellow institutional investors and hedge funds during a Paulson & Co presentation at the Denver Gold Forum in September 2017.
For those unfamiliar with Paulson & Co, this is a hedge fund firm established by John Paulson in 1994. Paulson’s hedge fund firm rose to prominence in the late 2000s when it shorted subprime mortgages, and correctly bet on the collapse of the US housing market. Paulson & Co pursues event-driven strategies including merger arbitrage and corporate restructurings and runs a number of funds across equities and credit. Paulson also launched a specific gold fund in 2010 called the PFR Gold Fund which according to HedgeTracker had a “long-term strategy focus investing in mining companies and bullion-based derivatives“. This fund does not invest in physical gold, as was highlighted in the BullionStar article “Are the World’s Billionaire Investors Actually Buying Gold?“.
For those unfamiliar with the Denver Gold Forum, this is an annual three-day gathering of gold and silver mining companies, major institutional and hedge fund investors which invest in the sector, and Wall Street analysts covering the sector. In fact, the Forum’s organizers claim that the event represents nearly 90% of the world’s publicly traded gold and silver companies.
Reuters has also reported that major league institutional players such as Vanguard, State Street, Blackrock and Van Eck have also expressed interest in the SGC alliance.
High Cost Base, Destruction of Value
While hedge funds regularly attempt to turn around individual companies, the mobilization of a broad-based shareholder grouping focused on revitalizing an entire sector is still quite unusual, even for Wall Street. It is therefore instructive to examine what motivated Paulson & Co to roll out this idea and pitch the alliance to an entire institutional investment community. Although media coverage has been quite sketchy and exact details of the coalition remain unclear, the Denver presentation given by Paulson & Co’s natural resource specialist, Marcelo Kim provides some clarity, and is therefore worth reviewing.
According to Kim’s presentation ‘Gold Equities: Myths, Dreams and Reality‘, given to the Denver Gold Forum on 26 September 2017, the bottom line is that major gold mining stocks have been severely under-performing both the gold price and the broader equity indices for some time now.
This stock underperformance, thinks Paulson & Co, is due to poor investment decisions by said gold mining companies, destruction of enterprise value / low return on capital, and massive writedowns on ill-judged acquisitions, all in an environment of gigantic pay and compensation packages to gold mining company CEOs, clubby and cronie appointments to the companies boards of directors, and low stock ownership (but high options ownership) by these same company executives and board members. According to Paulson’s Kim, “CEOs and Boards get rich while shareholders lose money“.
Even more worryingly, total shareholder returns from 13 large publicly listed gold companies over the January 2010 to September 2017 period was an average negative 65%. However between 2010 and 2016, CEO pay in these same 13 leading gold mining companies was a combined US$ 550 million.
These 13 companies were Eldorado, Newcrest, Newmont, Gold Fields, Barrick, GoldCorp, Yamana, Kinross, AlgloGold, Agnico, Polymetal, Randgold, and Iamgold. All of these companies are members of the World Gold Council except for South African miners Gold Fields and Randgold and the Russian miner Polymetal. Notably, Randgold and Polymetal bucked the trend with relatively healthy shareholder return since 2010 of 35% and 20%, respectively, as well as the highest return on capital (RoC).
Additionally, over the 2010 – 2017 period, the gold mining industry had, according to Paulson and Co “written off $85 billion due to overpaying for acquisitions and massive cost overruns on mine builds“. Gold mining shareholders, said Kim, have no one to blame but themselves, as they had little engagement with company boards, chose not to engage in shareholder activism, but all the while continued to rubber stamp CEO pay, board appointments and mergers and acquisitions. Gold mining shareholders were in short, “like sheep being led to slaughter”.
Paulson’s Call to Action
The solution, according to Paulson & Co, is shareholder representation on company boards, investor rights agreements with company boards, company accountability to shareholders, the sacking of poor performing CEOs and board members, and the alignment of CEO compensation with share price performance. As all of these tactics are typical activist hedge fund tactics, it’s not really surprising that Paulson, as an activist hedge fund firm, would make these suggestions.
However, it is in the modus operandus and implementation of the scheme that there is arguably a more radical departure, since this is where the Shareholders Gold Council (SGC) comes in, with Paulson calling for a Council comprising a broad base of major (institutional) gold mining equity holders to come together and make recommendations on board appointments, CEO pay, company takeovers, as well as to make recommendations on annual general meeting (AGM) and extraordinary general meeting (EGM) voting decisions.
But still, is this really a new departure? In one way it is not, because there are perfectly good proxy advisory firms, such as Institutional Shareholder Services(ISS) and Glass, Lewis and Co which between them provide the same type of corporate governance and proxy voting research that Paulson’s Shareholders Gold Council is envisioning, and that are specialists in doing so for every major listed company in the world including every major exchange listed gold mining company.
Paulson and Co’s presentation even mentioned ISS, saying that the new Council would be ‘similar to ISS‘. According to Reuters’ June article, the Paulson led Council “will begin by releasing research reports on the gold mining sector… betting that shining spotlight on the space will result in greater accountability“. But is this just more of the same?
From a coverage standpoint, there are already countless sell-side (Wall Street) research reports covering all of the world’s leading gold mining companies that are published by a host of investment banks, in addition to umpteen buy-side research reports on the gold mining sector published by countless investment institutions and hedge funds, as well as the aforementioned governance and proxy voting research reports published by ISS and Glass Lewis.
If this new Shareholders Gold Council succeeds in gaining board level representation and in influencing investment and acquisition policy, and CEO compensation and board appointments, then this may in some way make a difference to future shareholder returns in the sector. But at this stage its impossible to say what type of influence, if any, such a Shareholders Gold Council would generate.
The Elephant in the Room
There is one topic, however, that an investor led Shareholders Gold Council could research, analyse and investigate, but for some mysterious reason has chosen not to. This is an issue that goes to the heart of a gold mining company’s operations and the performance of its share price. We are talking here about the actual gold price, how that gold price is discovered and established in today’s gold markets, whether that gold price is manipulated by bullion bank traders, and whether that gold price is subject to central bank interventions that attempt to control and stabilize it.
Simply put, the price that gold mining companies receive for their gold mining output is the most important driver of gold mining share price performance, and not the company’s cost base. We are assuming here that gold mining companies do not hedge their sales. Just look at how gold mining company stocks perform in an environment of a strongly rising or strongly falling gold price. The stock prices move up or down strongly since they are highly leveraged to corresponding gold price changes.
Take for example a simple model of a gold mining company. Its total revenue will depend on how much gold it extracts, processes and sells, and at what price it sells this gold. That’s the top line. The bottom line will be the profits remaining after subtracting total costs incurred by the mining company, which to some extent are fixed. These costs include operating costs (mining costs, processing costs, and corporate, general and administrative costs) and capital expenditure etc. Beyond this, impairments and writedowns on investments will also create an extra hit, as well as merger and acquisition costs.
As the gold price is most often quoted and understood in a price per ounce, the gold mining sector and the investment analysts which cover this sector like to calculate corresponding cost per ounce metrics, including operating costs per ounce of gold produced, total cash costs per ounce, and more recently an All-In Sustaining Cost (AISC) per ounce.
Total cash cost is a historic metric that was devised by the now defunct Gold Institute. It can be viewed as a standard metric for production cost in the gold mining sector. Cash costs would include all costs associated with producing the gold, such as direct production costs, smelting, refining, transport, and administration costs of a mine.
All-In Sustaining Cost (AISC) is a metric introduced by the World Gold Council in June 2013 which aims to try to reflect costs beyond cash costs. AISC includes cash costs but then adds other costs such as general administrative expenses (head office costs) and costs associated with maintaining and replenishing a mining company’s operations, i.e. for sustaining production. It thus includes capital expenditure and exploration costs.
So what Paulson & Co’s Shareholders Gold Council is planning, in addition to publishing research reports, is to try to have an impact on cost reduction, such as reducing CEO and board compensation, as well as to prevent gold miners making costly mistakes on acquiring overvalued mines which they will then have to take writedowns on in the future. This may all be very logical and make a difference in some way, but what the Shareholders Gold Council is not planning to do is to analyse and research anything about the gold price, which is, as was just stated above, the most important determinant of shareholder return and price performance in the gold sector.
Resources & Firepower, but Don’t mention the Gold Price
The Shareholders Gold Council, which on paper will have immense research resources and firepower and influence, will not it seems devote any time or resources to questioning anything to do with the gold price and will just take it a a given. This to me is a completely lost opportunity given that there is ample material for analysis in this area, some of which would surprise institutional and hedge fund investors in the gold space if they bothered to look. Much of this material has been documented on this website and elsewhere, such as by GATA.
The entire structure of the world’s largest and most influential contemporary gold markets has little to do with physical gold. The gold price is predominantly established and discovered in two markets, the London Gold Market and the COMEX gold futures market which between them trade very little physical gold but do trade vast quantities of synthetic gold and gold derivatives. See ‘What sets the Gold Price – Is it the Paper Market or Physical Market?‘.
The vast majority of ‘gold’ trading in the London Gold Market is of unallocated gold which is merely a claim against a bullion bank, and is a form of synthetic or paper gold in as much of a way as the gold futures derivatives that trade on COMEX are. See ‘Bullion Banking Mechanics‘ and an accompanying infographic for details. All gold demand that flows into unallocated paper gold by definition does not flow into physical gold demand, a gold miner’s bread and butter. So unallocated gold syphons off real physical gold demand into a paper substitute and suppresses real demand for physical gold.
There is no trade reporting in the London Gold Market, and the London Bullion Market Association (LBMA) whose remit it is to release it has continually stalled on publishing any trade reporting. This reinforces the opacity of the one of the main gold markets which is responsible for gold price discovery. Nor is there any transparency about where major gold-backed ETFs such as GLD, that store their gold in the London gold vaults, actually source this gold from, some of which is borrowed from central banks.
Nor it there any reporting of any activity in the London gold lending market or of outstanding central bank gold loans or gold deposits. Central bank gold loans are therefore another suppressing influence on the gold price.
This is also ample evidence that the Bank for International Settlements has continually taken a keen interest in the ‘free market’ price of gold and has at times discussed at the highest levels (i.e. the governors of major central bank) how to control the gold price. See ‘New Gold Pool at the BIS Basle, Switzerland’ Part 1 and Part 2.
The COMEX gold futures market is in effect a casino which has a huge influence on gold price discovery but where little physical gold ever changes hands. Some major bullion banks have also been fined recently for manipulating the gold price. These are the same bullion banks which ran the London Gold Fixings and which now run the LBMA Gold Price auctions, auctions whose prices the gold mining companies take to sell their gold output at.
Generally speaking, gold mining executives don’t want to touch any subject related to the gold price, nor does its representative body the World Gold Council. Now it seems, the institutionally backed Shareholders Gold Council likewise does not want to broach the ‘gold price’ subject.
Which is a shame, for by not examining the issue, and by not using some of their research resources to analyse and investigate and to ‘write reports‘ on the ample evidence of structural inefficiencies and interventionalist forces that hold back the gold price, Paulson’s Shareholders Gold Council, in the same way as the gold mining shareholders which they criticize, will remain “like sheep being led to slaughter”.
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’.
One of the most notable events in Russia’s precious metals market calendar is the annual “Russian Bullion Market” conference. Formerly known as the Russian Bullion Awards, this conference, now in its 10th year, took place this year on Friday 24 November in Moscow. Among the speakers lined up, the most notable inclusion was probably Sergey Shvetsov, First Deputy Chairman of Russia’s central bank, the Bank of Russia.
In his speech, Shvetsov provided an update on an important development involving the Russian central bank in the worldwide gold market, and gave further insight into the continued importance of physical gold to the long term economic and strategic interests of the Russian Federation.
Firstly, in his speech Shvetsov confirmed that the BRICS group of countries are now in discussions to establish their own gold trading system. As a reminder, the 5 BRICS countries comprise the Russian Federation, China, India, South Africa and Brazil.
Four of these nations are among the world’s major gold producers, namely, China, Russia, South Africa and Brazil. Furthermore, two of these nations are the world’s two largest importers and consumers of physical gold, namely, China and Russia. So what these economies have in common is that they all major players in the global physical gold market.
Shvetsov envisages the new gold trading system evolving via bilateral connections between the BRICS member countries, and as a first step Shvetsov reaffirmed that the Bank of Russia has now signed a Memorandum of Understanding with China (see below) on developing a joint trading system for gold, and that the first implementation steps in this project will begin in 2018.
Interestingly, the Bank of Russia first deputy chairman also discounted the traditional dominance of London and Switzerland in the gold market, saying that London and the Swiss trading operations are becoming less relevant in today’s world. He also alluded to new gold pricing benchmarks arising out of this BRICS gold trading cooperation.
BRICS cooperation in the gold market, especially between Russia and China, is not exactly a surprise, because it was first announced in April 2016 by Shvetsov himself when he was on a visit to China.
“We (the Central Bank of the Russian Federation and the People’s Bank of China) discussed gold trading. The BRICS countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) are major economies with large reserves of gold and an impressive volume of production and consumption of the precious metal. In China, gold is traded in Shanghai, and in Russia in Moscow. Our idea is to create a link between these cities so as to intensify gold trading between our markets.”
Also as a reminder, earlier this year in March, the Bank of Russia opened its first foreign representative office, choosing the location as Beijing in China. At the time, the Bank of Russia portrayed the move as a step towards greater cooperation between Russia and China on all manner of financial issues, as well as being a strategic partnership between the Bank of Russia and the People’s bank of China.
The Memorandum of Understanding on gold trading between the Bank of Russia and the People’s Bank of China that Shvetsov referred to was actually signed in September of this year when deputy governors of the two central banks jointly chaired an inter-country meeting on financial cooperation in the Russian city of Sochi, location of the 2014 Winter Olympics.
National Security and Financial Terrorism
At the Moscow bullion market conference last week, Shvetsov also explained that the Russian State’s continued accumulation of official gold reserves fulfills the goal of boosting the Russian Federation’s national security. Given this statement, there should really be no doubt that the Russian State views gold as both as an important monetary asset and as a strategic geopolitical asset which provides a source of wealth and monetary power to the Russian Federation independent of external financial markets and systems.
And in what could either be a complete coincidence, or a coordinated update from another branch of the Russian monetary authorities, Russian Finance Minister Anton Siluanov also appeared in public last weekend, this time on Sunday night on a discussion program on Russian TV channel “Russia 1”.
Siluanov’s discussion covered the Russian government budget and sanctions against the Russian Federation, but he also pronounced on what would happen in a situation where a foreign power attempted to seize Russian gold and foreign exchange reserves. According to Interfax, and translated here into English, Siluanov said that:
“If our gold and foreign currency reserves were ever seized, even if it was just an intention to do so, that would amount to financial terrorism. It would amount to a declaration of financial war between Russia and the party attempting to seize the assets.”
As to whether the Bank of Russia holds any of its gold abroad is debatable, because officially two-thirds of Russia’s gold is stored in a vault in Moscow, with the remaining one third stored in St Petersburg. But Silanov’s comment underlines the importance of the official gold reserves to the Russian State, and underscores why the Russian central bank is in the midst of one of the world’s largest gold accumulation exercises.
1800 Tonnes and Counting
From 2000 until the middle of 2007, the Bank of Russia held around 400 tonnes of gold in its official reserves and these holdings were relatively constant. But beginning in the third quarter 2007, the bank’s gold policy shifted to one of aggressive accumulation. By early 2011, Russian gold reserves had reached over 800 tonnes, by the end of 2014 the central bank held over 1200 tonnes, and by the end of 2016 the Russians claimed to have more than 1600 tonnes of gold.
Although the Russian Federation’s gold reserves are managed by the Bank of Russia, the central bank is under federal ownership, so the gold reserves can be viewed as belonging to the Russian Federation. It can therefore be viewed as strategic policy of the Russian Federation to have embarked on this gold accumulation strategy from late 2007, a period that coincides with the advent of the global financial market crisis.
According to latest figures, during October 2017 the Bank of Russia added 21.8 tonnes to its official gold reserves, bringing its current total gold holdings to 1801 tonnes. For the year to date, the Russian Federation, through the Bank of Russia, has now announced additions of 186 tonnes of gold to its official reserves, which is close to its target of adding 200 tonnes of gold to the reserves this year.
With the Chinese central bank still officially claiming to hold 1842 tonnes of gold in its national gold reserves, its looks like the Bank of Russia, as soon as the first quarter 2018, will have the distinction of holding more gold than the Chinese. That is of course if the Chinese sit back and don’t announce any additions to their gold reserves themselves.
A threat to the London Gold Market
The new gold pricing benchmarks that the Bank of Russia’s Shvetsov signalled may evolve as part of a BRICS gold trading system are particularly interesting. Given that the BRICS members are all either large producers or consumers of gold, or both, it would seem likely that the gold trading system itself will be one of trading physical gold. Therefore the gold pricing benchmarks from such a system would be based on physical gold transactions, which is a departure from how the international gold price is currently discovered.
However, ‘gold’ trading in London and on COMEX is really trading of very large quantities of synthetic derivatives on gold, which are completely detached from the physical gold market. In London, the derivative is fractionally-backed unallocated gold positions which are predominantly cash-settled, in New York the derivative is exchange-traded gold future contracts which are predominantly cash-settled and again are backed by very little real gold.
While the London and New York gold markets together trade virtually 24 hours, they interplay with the current status quo gold reference rate in the form of the LBMA Gold Price benchmark. This benchmark is derived twice daily during auctions held in London at 10:30 am and 3:00 pm between a handful of London-based bullion banks. These auctions are also for unallocated gold positions which are only fractionally-backed by real physical gold. Therefore, the de facto world-wide gold price benchmark generated by the LBMA Gold Price auctions has very little to do with physical gold trading.
It seems that slowly and surely, the major gold producing nations of Russia, China and other BRICS nations are becoming tired of the dominance of an international gold price which is determined in a synthetic trading environment which has very little to do with the physical gold market.
The Shanghai Gold Exchange’s Shanghai Gold Price Benchmark which was launched in April 2016 is already a move towards physical gold price discovery, and while it does not yet influence prices in the international market, it has the infrastructure in place to do so.
When the First Deputy Chairman of the Bank of Russia points to London and Switzerland as having less relevance, while spearheading a new BRICS cross-border gold trading system involving China and Russia and other “major economies with large reserves of gold and an impressive volume of production and consumption of the precious metal”, it becomes clear that moves are afoot by Russia, China and other nations to bring gold price discovery back to the realm of the physical gold markets. The icing on the cake in all this may be gold price benchmarks based on international physical gold trading.
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.
On 5 February, the Financial Times of London (FT) featured a story revealing that the London Bullion Market Association (LBMA) plans to begin publishing data on the amount of real physical gold actually stored in the London precious metals vaulting network. The article titled “London gold traders to open vaults in transparency push” can be read here (accessible via FT subscription or via free monthly FT read limit).
This new LBMA ‘monthly vault data’ will, according to the FT’s sources, be published on a three-month lagged basis, and will:
“show gold bars held by the BoE, the gold clearing banks, and those [vaults] operated by the security companies such as Brink’s, which are also members of the LBMA.”
The shadowy source quoted in the FT article is attributed to “a person involved in setting up the programme”, but at the same time, although “the move [to publish the data] is being led by the LBMA“, the same LBMA ”declined to comment” for the FT story. This then has all the hallmarks of a typical authorised leak to the media so as to prepare the wider market for the data release.
On 16 February, the World Gold Council in its “Gold Investor, February 2017” publication featured a focus box on the same gold vault topic in its “In the News” section on page 4, where it states:
“Enhanced transparency from the Bank of England
The Bank of England is, for the first time, publishing monthly data revealing the amount of gold it holds on behalf of other central banks.
As a leading custodian of gold, with one of the largest vaults in the world, the Bank of England’s decision is highly significant. Not only will it enhance the transparency of the Bank’s own gold operations; it will also support the drive towards greater transparency across the gold market.
The data reveals the total weight of gold held within the Bank of England’s vaults and includes five years of historical data.”
The Proposed Data
Based on these two announcements, it therefore looks like the gold vault data release will be a combined effort between the LBMA and the Bank of England, the blood brothers of the London Gold Market, with the Bank of England data being a subset of the overall LBMA data. While neither of the above pieces mention a release date for the first set of data, I understand that it will be this quarter, i.e. sometime before the end of March. On a 3 month lagged basis, the first lot of data would therefore probably cover month-end December 2016, because that would be a logical place to start the current dataset, rather than, for example, November 2016.
While the Bank of England data looks set to cover a 5 year historical period, there is no indication (from the FT article) that the wider LBMA vault data will do likewise. From the sparse information in the FT article, the LBMA data will “show gold bars held“. Does it mean number of gold bars, or combined weight of gold bars? What exactly it means, we will have to wait and see.
The Bank of England data will capture “total weight of gold held“. Notice that in the above World Gold Council piece it also states that the data will cover the amount of gold that the Bank of England “holds on behalf of other central banks.” There is no mention of the amount of gold that the Bank of England holds on behalf of commercial bullion banks.
Overall, this doesn’t exactly sound like it is “enhancing the transparency of the Bank’s own gold operations” as the World Gold Council puts it. Far from it. Enhancing the transparency of the Bank of England’s gold operations would require something along the lines of the following:
Identities of all central banks and official sector institutions (ECB / IMF / BIS / World Bank) holding active gold accounts at the Bank of England. Active gold accounts meaning non-zero balances
Identities of all commercial / bullion banks holding active gold accounts at the Bank of England
A percentage breakdown between the central bank gold held in the Bank of England vaults and the bullion bank gold held in the Bank of England vaults
An indicator for each gold account as to whether it is a set-aside earmarked custody account or whether it is a fine troy ounce balance account
Information for each central bank and official sector institution as to whether any of “its” gold is lent, swapped or repo’d
Information for the bullion bank gold accounts as to whether the gold recorded in those accounts is borrowed, sourced from swaps, sourced from repos, or otherwise held as collateral for loans
Information on the gold accounts of the 5 LPMCL clearing banks showing how much gold each of these institutions holds each month and whether the Bank of England supplies physical gold clearing balances to these banks
Information on when and how often the London-based gold-backed ETFs store gold at the Bank of England, not just using the Bank of England as sub-custodian, but also storage in their own names, i.e. does HSBC store gold in its own name at the Bank of England which is used to supply gold to the SPDR Gold Trust
Information on whether and how often the Bank of England intervenes into the London Gold Market and the LBMA Gold Price auctions so as to supply gold in price smoothing and price stabilisation operations in the way that the Bank of England’s Terry Smeeton seems to have been intervening into the London Gold Market in the 1980s
Information on the BIS gold holding and gold transactions settlements accounts at the Bank of England and the client sub-account details and central bank identities for these accounts
Information on gold location swaps between gold account holders at the Bank of England and gold accounts at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, the Banque de France, and the Swiss National Bank, and BIS accounts in those locations
Gold for oil swaps and oil for gold swaps
Anything less is just not cricket and does not constitute transparency.
And its important to remember that any publication of gold vault data by the LBMA and Bank of England is not being done because the LBMA suddenly felt guilty, or suddenly had an epiphany on the road to Damascus, but, as the FT correctly points out:
“the LBMA, whose members include HSBC and JPMorgan, hopes to head off the challenge and persuade regulators that banks trading bullion should not have to face more onerous funding requirements.”
The Current Data
As a reminder, there is currently no official direct data published on the quantity of real physical gold bars held within the London gold vaulting system. This vaulting system comprises the vaults of eight vault operators (see below for list).
Once a year in its annual report, the Bank of England provides a Sterling (GBP) value of gold held by its gold custody customers, while the LBMA website states a relatively static total figure of “approximately 6,500 tonnes of gold held in London vaults” that it claims are in the vaults in its network. But beyond these figures, there is currently no official visibility into the quantity of London Good Delivery gold bars held in the London vaults. There are, various ways of estimating London gold vault data using the Bank of England annual figure and the LBMA figure together with Exchange Traded Fund gold holdings and central bank divulged gold holdings at the Bank of England.
The September 2015 estimates calculated that there were 6,256 tonnes of gold in total in the London vaults, with 5,134 tonnes at the Bank of England (as of end February 2015), and 1,122 tonnes in London “not at the Bank of England“, all of which was accounted for by gold-backed ETFs which store their gold in London. These calculations implied that there was nearly zero gold stored in London outside the Bank of England that was not accounted for by ETF holdings.
The “Tracking the gold held in London” estimates from September 2016 used a figure of 6,500 tonnes of gold in total in the London vaults, and showed that there were 4,725 tonnes inside the Bank of England vaults, of which about 3,800 tonnes was known to be held by central banks (and probably a lot of the remainder was held by central banks also) and that there were 1,775 tonnes of gold outside the Bank of England. The article also calculated that there were 1,679 tonnes of gold in the gold backed ETFs that store their gold in London, so again, there was very little gold in the London vault network that was not accounted for by ETFs and central bank gold.
The Vaults of London
Overall, there are 8 vault operators for gold within the LBMA vaulting network. These 8 vault operators are as follows:
The Bank of England
HSBC Bank plc
JP Morgan Chase
ICBC Standard Bank Plc
Malca-Amit Commodities Ltd
G4S Cash Solutions (UK) Limited
Loomis International (UK) Ltd
HSBC, JP Morgan and ICBC Standard are 3 of the London Gold Market’s clearing banks that form the private company London Precious Metals Clearing Limited (LPMCL). The other two member of LPMCL are Scotia Mocatta and UBS. Brink’s, Malca-Amit, G4S and Loomis are the aforementioned security companies. The LBMA website lists these operators, alongside their headquarters addresses.
Bizarrely, the FT article still parrots the LBMA’s spoon-fed line that the vaults are “in secret locations within the M25 orbital motorway”. But this is far from the truth. Many of the London vault locations are in the public domain as has been covered, for example, on this website, and the FT knows this:
It’s slightly disappointing that we spend time and effort informing the London financial media where some of the London gold vaults are, and then they continue to parrot the LBMA’s misleading “secret locations” line. I put this fake news down to a decision by the FT editors, who presumably have a stake in playing along with this charade so as not to rock the boat with the powerful investment banks that they are beholden to.
The FT also reminds us in its article that “last year a gold vault owned by Barclays, which can house $80bn of bullion, was bought by China’s ICBC Standard Bank.“
This Barclays vault in London was built by and is operated by Brink’s, and presumably after being taken over by ICBC Standard, it is still operated by Brink’s. Logistically then, this ICBC Standard vault is most likely within the Brink’s complex, a location which is also in the public domain, and which even hosts an assay office as was previously mentioned here over a year ago. The Barclays vault (operated by Brink’s) is even mentioned in a Brink’s letter to the SEC in February 2014, which can also be seen here -> Brinks letter to SEC February 2014.
Given the fact that there are eight sets of vaults in the London vault system (as overseen by various groups affiliated to the LBMA such as the LBMA Physical Committee, the LBMA Vault Managers Working Party, the gold clearers (London Precious Metals Clearing Limited), and even the LBMA Good Delivery List referees and staff, then one would expect that whatever monthly vault data that the LBMA or its affiliates publishes in the near future, will break out the gold bar holdings and have a distinct line item in the list for each vault operator such as:
HSBC – w tonnes
JP Morgan – x tonnes
ICBC Standard – y tonnes
Brink’s – z tonnes
At the LBMA conference in Singapore last October, there was talk that there were moves afoot for the Bank of England to begin publishing data on the custody gold it holds on a more regular basis. It was also mentioned that this data could be extended to include the commercial bank and security carrier vaults but that some of the interested parties were not in favour of the idea (perhaps the representative contingents of the powerful HSBC and JP Morgan). Whatever has happened in the meantime, it looks like some data will now be released in the near future covering all of the participating vaults. What this data will cover only time will tell, but more data than less is always welcome, and these data releases might also help show how near or how far we were with earlier estimates in trying to ascertain how much gold is in the London vaulting system that is not accounted for by ETF holding or central bank holdings.
Revealing the extent of the gold lending market in London is critical though, but this is sure to remain a well-kept secret, since the LBMA bullion banks and the Bank of England will surely not want the general market to have any clue as to which central banks don’t really have any gold while still claiming to have gold (the old gold and gold receivables trick), in other words, that there is serious double counting going on, and that some of the central bank gold has long gone out the door.
Two months after the LME announcement, during the annual conference of the London Bullion Market Association (LBMA), Intercontinental Exchange (ICE) announced on 17 October that it too planned the launch of a gold futures contract in the London market. See Bullion Desk’s “ICE to launch gold futures in 2017, competition in gold market grows” as well as the ICE press release. The ICE contract is named “Gold Daily Futures” and resides on the ICE Futures US platform. It too is a daily futures contract.
Not to be outdone, the CME Group then followed suit on 1 November 2016 and it too announced plans for a “London Spot Gold Futures contract” as well as a “London Spot Silver futures contract”. See CME press release “CME Group Announces New Precious Metals Spot Spread” from 1 November 2016, and “CME to launch London spot gold, silver futures for spot spread” from the Bullion Desk, 1 November 2016. The CME contract was to trade on COMEX (Globex and Clearport) as a daily futures contract, and was devised so as to offer traders a spot spread between COMEX and London OTC Spot gold.
As of August 2016, the LME’s target launch date was said to be “the first half of 2017”. ICE was more specific with a target launch of February 2017 (subject to regulatory review). In it’s announcement, CME went for an even earlier planned launch date of 9 January 2017 (subject to regulatory approval).
Two Launches – No Volume
Why the update? Over the 2 weeks, there have been a number of developments surrounding these 3 contracts. The CME and ICE gold futures contracts have both been launched, and additionally, LME has provided more clarity around the launch date of its offering.
Surprisingly, while there was plenty of financial media coverage of these 3 gold futures contracts when their plans were initially publicised from August – November 2016, there has been little to no financial media coverage of the contracts now that 2 of the 3 have been launched.
On 25 January, I took a look at the CME website to see what the status of the CME gold futures contract might be. Strangely, the contract itself was defined on the CME website (with a code of GSP) but it had no trading volume. From the website, it was not clear when the contract actually launched, but it looked to be sometime during the last week of January.
On 25 January, I also sent a short email to CME asking:
“Has the London Spot Gold contract started trading yet?
Next up the ICE gold futures contract (AUD). Upon checking the ICE website under section “Products”, the new ICE Gold Daily Futures contract has been defined, and the description states “The Daily Gold Futures contract will begin trading on trade date Monday, January 30, 2017“.
Turning to the ICE reporting section of the website for futures products, and selecting the end of day ICE Futures US report page, and then selecting the reports for AUD, there are 6 daily reports available for download, namely, from 30 and 31 January, and 1, 2, 3 and 6 February. Again, looking at each of these reports, there are varying prices specified in the reports but there are no trading volumes. All of the volumes are zero.
Therefore, as far as the CME and ICE websites show, both of these new gold futures contracts have been launched and are available to trade, but there hasn’t been a single trade in either of the contracts. Not a very good start to what was trumpeted and cheer-led as a new dawn for the London Gold Market by outlets such as Bloomberg with the article “Finance Titans Face Off Over $5 Trillion London Gold Market“.
LMEprecious – To Launch Monday 5 June 2017
Finally, possibly so as not to be forgotten while its rivals were launching their London gold futures offerings, the LME on Friday 3 February announced in a general LME and LME Clear update memo that the planned launch date of its LMEprecious platform is now going to be Monday 5 June, i.e. 4 months from now.
As a reminder, the LMEprecious contracts will be supported by a group of market maker investment banks, namely Goldman Sachs,Morgan Stanley, Société Générale, Natixis and ICBC Standard Bank.
It’s also important to remember that all 3 of these gold futures contract product sets are for the trading of unallocated gold, (i.e. claims on a bullion bank for gold, aka synthetic / fictional gold). All 3 contracts claim to be physically-settled but this is essentially a play on words, because in the world of the London Gold Market, physically-settled does not mean physically-settled in the way any normal person would define it. LBMA physically-settled just means passing unallocated balances around, a.k.a. pass the parcel. To wit:
ICE London gold futures settle via unallocated accounts:
“The contract will be settled through unallocated loco London gold vault accounts using LBMA Good Delivery Rules.”
CME London gold futures settle via unallocated accounts:
“London Spot Gold futures contract will represent 100 troy ounces of unallocated gold“
And for LMEprecious, settlement will be:
“Physical settlement one day following termination of trading. Seller transfers unallocated gold to [LME Clearing] LMEC account at any LPMCL member bank, and buyers receive unallocated gold from LMEC account at any LPMCL member bank.”
With neither the CME nor the ICE gold futures contracts registering any trades as of yet (according to their websites), it will be interesting to see how this drama pans out. Will they be dud contracts, like so many gold futures contracts before them that have gone to the gold futures contracts graveyard, or will they see a pick up in activity? All eyes will also be on the LME contract from 5 June onwards.
The lack of coverage of the new CME and ICE London gold futures contracts is also quite unusual. Have the London financial media already forgotten about them? According to Reuters it would seem so. On 22 January, Reuters published an article titled “LME’s pitch for share of gold market faces bumpy ride” which exclusively questioned whether the LME gold contract would be a success, while not even mentioning the CME and ICE contracts. Given that 22 January was right before the CME and ICE contracts were about to be launched, this is quite bizarre. Presumably Bloomberg will come to the rescue of its ‘financial titans’ heros, and will write glowing tributes about the new contracts, but this will be tricky given the zero trade volumes. We await with bated breath.
“given the deteriorating state of Venezuela’s international finances and international reserves at the present time, it may be sooner rather than later before Venezuelan gold could be on the move again out of the country.
One thing is for sure. Gold leaving Venezuela on a flight back to London, New York, or elsewhere, will not get the fanfare and celebration that was accompanied by the same gold’s arrival into Caracas a few short years ago.“
Those predictions now seem to have come to pass because there is now evidence that the Banco Central Venezuela (BCV) shipped gold out of Maiquetía Airport (Caracas international Airport) in early July 2015, and there is also separate evidence that Venezuela’s official gold reserve holdings, which are managed by the BCV, dropped by 60 tonnes between March and April 2015. These are two distinct events.
The 60 tonne drop in gold reserves in March-April
On 28 and 29 October respectively, Bloomberg and Reuters filed reports highlighting a decline in Venezuela’s gold reserves through the end of May 2015. The Bloomberg report is here, the Reuters report is here. Both reports merely focused on the currency value of Venezuela’s gold reserves, and neither report addressed the critical metric that is needed in any discussion of central bank physical gold dealings, i.e. quantity or weight of gold. Furthermore, neither Bloomberg nor Reuters seems to grasp how the BCV values its gold reserves.
“Venezuelan central bank gold holdings declined in value by 19 percent between January and May, according to its financial statements, likely reflecting gold swap operations and lower bullion prices…
..Central bank financial statements posted this week on its website show monetary gold totaled 91.41 billion bolivars in January and 74.14 billion bolivars in May“
“The value of the central bank’s bullion holdings fell 28 percent at the end of May from a year earlier, while the spot price for the metal declined just 12 percent.”
The problem with the above is that comparing the change in value of Venezuelan gold reserves over two points in time relative to the spot price change of gold over those same two points in time is not the correct approach because the BCV does not use the latest market price to value its gold holdings. The BCV uses a nine month rolling average valuation price methodology.
Without knowing the correct valuation price used at each month-end valuation point, the quantity of gold being valued cannot be calculated accurately. Conversely, doing some simple research (looking up the footnotes to the BCV accounts) and a few quick spreadsheet calculations gives a very accurate estimate of quantity of gold held at each month-end valuation point. Perhaps next time the major financial news wires can go the extra mile.
[Note: The Spanish translations in this article use a combination of Google Translate and Yandex Translate, and some instinctive re-sequencing.]
“Oro monetario…se valora mensualmente utilizando el promedio móvil de los nueve (9) últimos meses del fixing a.m. fijado en el mercado de Londres,
“Monetary gold…is valued monthly using the moving(rolling) average of the last nine (9) months of a.m. fixings set in the London market“
Because the BCV holds a small percentage of its monetary gold in the form of gold coins, the valuation methodology also addresses how to value the coins, which, although not material to this discussion, is as follows:
“..más un porcentaje del valor promedio de la prima por el valor numismático que registren las monedas que conforman este activo.”
“..plus a percentage of the average value of the premium for the numismatic value of the coins which comprise this asset”
To check this moving average calculation and how it works, you can apply it to the 2014 year-end monetary gold valuation figure and make use of note 7 in the same set of accounts. Note 7 states:
“Nota 7 – Oro monetario
Al 31 de Diciembre de 2014, las existencias de oro monetario se encuentran contabilizadas a un precio promedio de USD 1.257,80 por onza troy y totalizan Bs. 91.879.349 miles, equivalentes a USD 14.620.691 miles y su composición y valoración se corresponde con los criterios descritos en la nota 3.3”
“At December 31, 2014, the stock of monetary gold is recorded at an average price of USD 1257.80 per troy ounce and total Bs. 91,879,349 thousands, equivalent to USD 14,620,691 thousands, and its composition and valuation corresponds to the criteria described in Note 3.3”
The Venezuelan accounting convention of USD 14.620.691 miles just means USD 14.6 billion.
361 tonnes of gold at year-end 2014
As at 31 December 2014, in its balance sheet, the BCV valued its monetary gold at Bs 91,879,349,000 (bolívares fuertes). Technically, since 2007, the Venezuelan currency is called the bolívar fuerte (strong bolivar) since at that time the Venezuelan government re-based the previous inflation ravaged bolivar and re-set 1000 old bolivars = 1 ‘strong’ bolivar. The updated name is in retrospect ironic given that the Venezuelan currency is now one of the weakest fiat currencies in the world as the Venezuelan economy begins to experience out-of-control price inflation.
This brings us to the next part of the BCV gold valuation equation. The BCV uses an ‘official’ Venezuelan exchange rate in its financial accounts. This official rate is a static 6.3 bolivars to the US dollar and is based on a February 2013 government edict called “Convenio Cambiario N° 14“.
Again, this exchange rate is another fantasy when compared to the unofficial market exchange rate for the Venezuelan bolivar in terms of the US dollar. This unofficial exchange rate, for example, is currently ~786 according to the Dolartoday website. The bolivar’s unofficial rate versus major currencies will no doubt go even higher in the near future as the currency continues to crumble and potentially goes into hyperinflationary territory.
The final part of the gold valuation equation is the London gold fixing (a.m.~morning) price (more recently LBMA Gold Price), whose daily price dataset can be downloaded here. Note that prior to 20th March 2015, the London gold auction ‘fixed’ price was known as the London gold fixing. Even though the London gold price is now still ‘fixed’ (in more ways than one) during the re-gigged auctions, the LBMA has opted for the less loaded name of the ‘LBMA Gold Price’ auction.
I calculate that the 9 month rolling average of the London morning gold price from 1 April 2014 to 31 December 2014 was USD 1257.49. This is pretty close to the BCV specified value of USD 1257.80 above. The BCV’s extra 31 basis points may reflect the numismatic premium on its gold coin holdings or some other calculation difference.
However, the important point to all of this is that the manual calculation method of arriving at the BCV’s gold valuation price (by calculating the 9 month moving average directly) looks accurate and is in line with the BCV’s number. Based on the BCV’s 31 December 2014 monetary gold value of Bs 91,879,349,000, and the BCV’s USD 1257.80 valuation price, Venezuela held 360.64 tonnes of gold at year-end 2014. This 360.64 tonnes figure is pretty close to the figure reported by the World Gold Council of 361.02 tonnes as at end of fourth quarter 2014 (which itself is not set in stone).
The Sale of 61 tonnes?
The BCV publishes monthly balance sheets (including the monetary gold valuation figure), but currently there is a 4 month lag on date publication, so the latest balance sheet is from May 2015 (the same month-end date that Bloomberg and Reuters referred to above). The monthly balance sheets for January to May 2015 can be downloaded here, here, here, here and here:
Using the valuation methodology described above, and some simple reverse engineering, shows that over the two month period between the end of February 2015 and the end of April 2015, the BCV’s gold holdings dropped by over 60 tonnes, with a 33 tonne drop in gold reserves during March, followed by a 27.7 tonne drop in April. The data below is taken from the 6 monthly balance sheets from Dec 2014 to May 2015, and the LBMA daily price dataset.
My calculations for month-end January 2015 show Venezuela’s gold holdings to be 360.39 tonnes, nearly identical to the BCV’s month-end version for December 2014. I haven’t included any numismatic premium for gold coin holdings since its immaterial. My calculations show a 2.4 tonne increase in gold holdings at February month-end. I’m not sure what this increase refers to but it could be the monetization of some domestic gold mining production by the BCV (purchasing some Venezuelan mining output and classifying it as monetary gold), or conversion of some small residual BCV non-monetary gold holdings into monetary gold.
Adding domestically produced gold to monetary gold holdings in Venezuela has a precedent. So does conversion of already held non-monetary gold. For example in 2011 the BCV purchased 1.6 tonnes of domestic gold. The same year the BCV also converted 3.6 tonnes of ‘non-currency gold’ that it was already holding into monetary gold. For details, see section “Changes to Venezuela’s gold reserves since early August 2011” in my article “Venezuela’s Gold Reserves – Part 1: El Oro, El BCV, y Los Bancos de Lingotes“.
For March 2015, my calculations indicate that the BCV’s gold holdings witnessed a 33.17 tonne reduction, and ended the month at 329.64 tonnes. Similarly, in April 2015, my calculations find that the BCV gold reserves saw another outflow of 27.74 tonnes, bringing total holdings down to 301.90 tonnes. Between March and April, the combined gold reduction amounts to 60.91 tonnes. There was no material change in gold holdings between April and May, save a tiny 0.27 tonne increase, which could be calculation noise. The main damage to the gold holdings happened in the narrower time period of March and April, a fact that was not highlighted in the Reuters 4 month period reference, and the Bloomberg 1 year period reference.
Interestingly, this WGC spreadsheet states that as of the end of Q4 2014, Q1 2015, and Q2 2015, Venezuela’s gold reserves remained unchanged at 361.02 tonnes, and the WGC does not reflect any of the above monthly reductions in Venezuela’s gold holdings. The WGC spreadsheet also states in a disclaimer that “While the accuracy of any information communicated herewith has been checked, neither the World Gold Council nor any of its affiliates can guarantee such accuracy.”
This just goes to show the many problems that can arise by relying solely on IMF and WGC data sources for official sovereign gold holdings, in addition to the more problematic ‘gold receivables’ accounting fictions employed by central banks.
BCV operations: First and Second?
To see what was happening with Venezuela’s gold holdings in March and April 2015, it is worth reading the last few sections of my “Venezuela’s Gold Reserves – Part 2: From Repatriation to Reactivation” article, especially the last section about the 5 questions Maria Corina Machado, parliamentarian and opposition party leader in Venezuela, posed to Nelson Merentes, president of the BCV on 12 March 2015.
Also important to know from that article are:
a) the details of the Venezuelan gold swap with Citibank which emerged in late April and was for only 1.4 million ounces (43.5 tonnes post haircut), and the gold to be used in the swap was the 50 tonnes of gold that had been left by the BCV in the Bank of England vaults in January 2012
b) the BCV was in discussions with a number of investment banks about harnessing its gold reserves, and that the BCV revealed on 5 March that six investment banks were making a pitch to the BCV, namely Credit Suisse, Goldman, BTGP Brazilian, Deutsche, Bank of America and Citibank. The favourites were said to be from a short-list of Deutsche Bank, Bank of America and Citibank, but another Caracas media source thought that Credit Suisse and Bank of America were involved
c) Goldman Sachs had previously been discussing a gold swap with the BCV, this news becoming public in November 2013
The 61 tonne reduction in Venezuela’s gold reserves over March-April 2015 cannot be accounted by the Citi gold swap since a) the Citi gold swap was for less than 45 tonnes, b) gold swaps usually stay on central bank balance sheets as an asset of the central bank, and c) if there was a gold swap transaction that did get taken out of the balance sheet, it would not be a reduction over 2 months, it would be one transaction.
Therefore, I think that this 61 tonne reduction over March-April 2015 represents something else entirely. It could be another transaction with one or more of the other investment banks above, or it could be an entirely separate gold sale to another entity such as the Chinese government.
Since Banco Central Venezuela is entirely non-cooperative in answering questions about gold posed by the media, some speculation is, in my opinion, acceptable. For example, for the articles referenced above, Bloomberg states that “The central bank’s press department declined to comment on the decline in gold holdings.” Reuters states that “The central bank declined to comment“. Another example of arrogant central bankers who consider themselves above normal standards of accountability and transparency.
A few clues about the gold holdings reduction are in the letter Maria Corina Machado sent to Nelson Merentes on 12 March. In the letter Machado asked these 5 questions of Merentes:
Are all of Venezuela’s gold reserves in the vaults of the Central Bank of Venezuela as stated by the former president Hugo Chavéz on 17 agusto 2011, when he ordered “repatriation of our gold”?
Is the BCV in negotiations with foreign banks for the sale or pawning of monetary gold?
Is it true that in the operation to pawn gold currently under discussion, it is intended to dispose of gold with a market value of US$ 2.6 billion?Does this represent / involve almost 20% of the total gold reserves of the Republic, in this first operation?
Is it true that they would be negotiating a second operation similar to the previous one for an even greater amount?
Do these operations involveremoving the gold from the vaults of the BCV and returning it abroad?
Machado’s questions are very specific, i.e. US$2.6 billion, almost 20% of gold reserves, first operation, second operation, physical removal of gold, return of gold to abroad etc, and suggest that her questioning was based on sources that appear to have thought that this specific information was indeed factual.
In early March 2015, 20% of Venezuela’s gold reserves of 360 tonnes would be 72 tonnes, (while 61 tonnes would be 17% of gold reserves). Based on an average gold price of $1,200 in the first week of March, US$2.6 billion would be 67.4 tonnes. These figures are far closer to the actual reduction of gold holdings in March and April of 61 tonnes and suggest that there was a ‘first operation’ that was distinct from the gold swap with Citibank, and that necessitated the actual removal of 61 tonnes from the BCV balance sheet.
Then what about a ‘second operation‘ that could be ‘for an even greater amount‘ in the words of Machado?
Gold Flights from Caracas in July 2015
Caracas international Airport, where the flights laden with Venezuela’s repatriated gold arrived at during the period November 2011 to January 2012, is officially known as Simón Bolívar International Airport, but colloquially known as Maiquetía Airport since it’s in an area of Caracas called Maiquetía (the airport is beside the ocean).
On 01 July 2015, Venezuelan news site La Patilla published an article titled “El BCV reexporta para empeñarlo el oro que Chávez repatrió” (BCV re-exported for pledging, the gold that Chavez had repatriated), in which it featured two snippets from a letter written by the Banco Central Venezuela (BCV) to Maiquetia International Airport Air Customs (SENIAT) sometime just before July, probably written in June. SENIAT is the Venezuelan customs and tax authority, officially called Servicio Nacional Integrado de Administración Aduanera y Tributaria, or National Integrated Service for the Administration of Customs Duties and Taxes.
The first snippet of the BCV letter to SENIAT, and highlighted by La Patilla, stated:
“Tengo el agrado de dirigirme a usted en ocasión de manifestarle que el Banco Central de Venezuela realizará exportación de valores, cuyas especificaciones y demás características se detallarán en actas a suscribirse con con funcionarios del Ministerio del Poder Popular de Economía, Finanzas y Banca Pública -Seniat y este instituro, las cuales serán presentadas a las autoridades competentes el día de salida en la Aduana Principal Aérea de Maiquetía“
“I have the pleasure of addressing you on the occasion to inform you that the Central Bank of Venezuela will export values, whose specifications and other characteristics will be detailed in Minutes to be signed with officials from the Ministry of Popular Power for Economy, Finance and Public Bank -Seniat and this Institute, which will be presented to the competent authorities on the day of departure in Maiquetía’s Main Air Customs”
The La Patilla article commented that:
“Los “valores” a los que se refiere la comunicación sería oro monetario según nos respondieron dos economistas con experiencia en las operaciones del BCV.”
“According to two economists with experience of BCV operations who responded to us, the ‘values’ to which the communication refers to is monetary gold.“
The 2nd snippet of the letter, with the BCV stamp, is even more interesting, and I have included it below:
Although not fully legible on the very left hand side of the photo, the text, as far as I can make out, says:
“…el reconocimiento, pesaje y embalaja de la materia en referencia, en el Departamento de administracion del Efectivo, ubicado en el sótano 2 del elemento Sede de esta instituto. La…[ ]… actividad, se tiene previsto realizarla en los dias 02, 03 y 06/07/2015, a partir de las 8:00…[ ]. En caso de que la referida actividad se extienda más del tiempo prevista, le será notificado…[ ]
“acknowledgement, weighing and packing of the material in question, in the Cash Management Department, located in Basement 2 of the Headquarters of this Institute. The .. [ ].. activity is planned for the days 02, 03 and 07.06.2015, from 8:00…[ ]. In the event that the referred to activity extends beyond the planned time, you will be notified…[ ]”
It’s not unusual for letters about specific gold shipments from central banks to security carriers or other agencies to avoid to mention the actual cargo. I have seen the same approach used in historical Bank of England letters to companies like MAT Transport and the Metropolitan Police, phrases such as “we would like to go ahead with the matter we discussed’, and ‘we have now completed the aforementioned assignment bla bal bla, I trust everything was in order”. It’s merely phrased this way for security reasons.
Venezuela is short of hard currency bank notes such as USD and EUR. Venezuela would hardly be flying out hard currency cash. Nor would it be flying out worthless bolivar bank notes. The BCV letter refers to weighing and packing, which can only mean gold bullion.
The letter snippets in this ‘La Patilla’ news article look to be what they purport to be, and they do indeed appear genuine, so there is a high probability that the BCV was flying out cargos of monetary gold from Caracas International Airport on 2nd July (Thursday), 3rd July (Friday) and 7th July 2015 (Tuesday), and maybe after 7th July if the operation needed extended time as the contingency in the letter planned for.
When the last flight of repatriated gold flew into Caracas from Eorope on 30 January 2012, it was carrying 14 tonnes of gold in 28 crates. Based on this metric, 3 flights going out from Caracas in early July 2015 could carry 42 tonnes of gold, if not more. Therefore there is a realistic upper bound of at least 42 tonnes to the amount of gold that the BCV could have been flying out of Maiquetía airport on 2nd, 3rd and 7th July 2015.
This article has focused on two sets of events, 1) the drop in Venezuela’s monetary gold reserve holdings in March and April 2015 which looks to be distinct from the Bank of England vaulted gold used in the BCV-Citibank gold swap, and 2) a series of cargo flights of what looks like BCV monetary gold being flown out of Caracas International Airport in early July 2015.
Venezuela’s international reserves, managed by the BCV, are now down to USD 15.120 billion as at 29th October 2015, from USD 16.4 billion at the end of September 2015. Investment bank reports and the financial media are abuzz with speculation that (to paraphrase) “Venezuela will need to use its gold reserves to raise international funds for imports etc etc“. Which is no doubt true, but what the analyst reports and media reports are missing, in my opinion, is that a good chunk of Venezuela’s gold reserves are already in play and that any new repos, swaps or sales will have to line up and utilise whatever Venezuelan gold reserves are not already under lien, claim, encumbrance or collateralisation.
In the second half of October, Barclays’ two New York based Latin American economists, the two Alejandros (Arreaza and Grisanti) said that:
“Our quarterly cash flow model suggests that Venezuela will have a deficit of approximately USD10bn just during this quarter and will have to finance almost all of it with its own assets. Currently, liquid international reserves are likely less than USD0.5bn. The rest of the reserves are gold, SDRs and the position at the IMF. Therefore, assets besides reserves will need to be used.
We estimate that disposable assets (in and out of reserves) are about USD15.1bn. Assuming a gold repo of USD3.0bn before year-end, the disposable assets could end the year at about USD8.0bn. With these assets and a possible additional use of gold reserves, we expect Venezuela to meet its debt obligations at least until Q1 16″
Which is all very fine, except the fact that if the BCV gold reserves are 61 tonnes lighter due to outflows in March and April, and if there were additional gold outflows via international cargo flights in July, which looks likely, then a further USD 3 billion repo (circa 80 tonnes without deep haircut) will have to use additional BCV vaulted gold, a lot of which is in US Assay Office melt bars, which are not necessarily up to the expected quality of modern-day Good Delivery bars.
From my Part 1 article, I had calculated that “there were 12,357 bars held in the BCV vaults in Caracas before the gold repatriation started, and 25,176 bars in the BCV vaults when the repatriation completed“, since “12,819 good delivery bars” (160 tonnes) were repatriated. About 4,089 bars were left in London in 2012. The bars that were originally in Caracas are mainly if not exclusively US Assay office bars.
If the Caracas vaulted gold is being sold by Venezuela in the international market, it most likely would be of current Good Delivery standard (not US Assay office bars). With 160 tonnes of repatriated Good Delivery bars in 2011-2012, then if 61 tonnes was sold in March-April, and various flights happened in July 2015, there may not be enough modern Good Delivery bars remaining in Caracas to satisfy an additional USD 3 billion transaction.
In my Part 2 article in May, I had said:
“Venezuela (via the BCV) will put up 1.4 million ozs of gold as collateral in exchange for a $1 billion loan of foreign currency from Citibank. Since 1.4 million ozs of gold, valued at the late April 2015 price of $1,200, is roughly $1.68 billion, then Venezuela is having to accept a near 40% discount on the specified gold collateral.“
Note that 1.4 million ounces is about 43.5 tonnes.
Interestingly, Barclays analysts Feifei Li and Dane Davis in their ‘Metals Markets Outlook’ piece from 26 October 2015 (last week) titled ‘Mixed Messages’ reiterated the above view and said:
“Earlier this year Venezuela executed a gold swap to raise $1bn. About 45 tonnes of gold was committed, indicating a haircut of around 40% for gold prices at the time. If we apply a similar haircut to the current gold price, it would imply that close to 140 tonnes of gold would be needed for $3bn. Thus if $3bn extra gold swaps were executed, half of Venezuela’s 361 tonne gold reserve would have been utilised.”
But 140 tonnes of gold will bring into play a lot of Venezuela’s US Assay Office bars, given that some other counterparties have already raided the Caracas vaults to get the best bars. While a lot of Venezuela’s US Assay office bars probably contain the fine gold count that they claim to hold, some probably don’t, as was illustrated in the sardonic yet jovial Zerohedge article “No Indication Should, Of Course, Be Given To The Bundesbank…” published back in September 2012.
So its buyer beware time for the counterparties that are now queued up to get their hands on Venezuela’s last remaining ingots of gold, before the entire Caracas stash may well get looted.
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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