Tag Archives: LBMA Gold Price

Venezuela says adiós to her gold reserves

Five months ago in my article “Venezuela’s Gold Reserves – Part 2: From Repatriation to Reactivation“, I concluded that:

“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.

From Reuters:

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

 From Bloomberg:

“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.]

bcv Merentes

Valuation of monetary gold by the BCV

The BCV’s valuation methodology for monetary gold holdings, taken from 2014 year-end accounts, is as follows:

“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”

 (Note 3.3. to the 2014 BCV financial accounts)

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

(Note 7 to the 2014 BCV financial accounts)

The Venezuelan accounting convention of USD 14.620.691 miles just means USD 14.6 billion.

check mate

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.

BCV gold jan - may 2015

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.

On its website, the World Gold Council (WGC) publishes a “Quarterly times series on World Official Gold Reserves since 2000″ spreadsheet, which is based on data from the “International Monetary Fund’s International Financial Statistics (IFS) and other sources where applicable.

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.

maria

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.

Nicolas Maduro

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 involve removing 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?

aerporto maduro

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:

BCV SENIAT airport July letter

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.

lpmcl

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.

Six months on ICE – The LBMA Gold Price

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.

Benchmark administrators and contributors must comply with the FCA’s ‘key requirements’ for a regulated benchmark which “include identifying potentially manipulative behaviour, controlling conflicts of interest, and implementing robust governance and oversight arrangements.

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

and also:

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.

It is therefore expected that the ICE Benchmark Administration Gold Price Oversight Committee have been liaising with the FCA about the following developments in the LBMA Gold Price auction that occurred within the period between 20 March 2015 and end of May 2015, which were documented as agenda item 4, on page 2 of the ‘redacted’ minutes of the ICE Benchmark Administration Gold Price Oversight Committee held on 1 June 2015 in London:

“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.

Recall that on 23 May 2014 when the  FCA “fined Barclays £26 million for failings surrounding the London Gold Fixing“, in its ‘Final Notice’ explanation it included the following comments on futures prices influencing the fixing price during the protracted and manipulated afternoon fixing of 28 June 2012 :

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.

HSBC Gold Vault pallet and gate in background

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.

Next we come to the Chairpersons.

 

Chairpersons Я‘Us

According to a Reuters article on 19 March about the new auction:

“‘Four ex-bankers have been appointed as chairs and will rotate in their duty in the initial six months‘, one source said.”

And who are these four ex-bankers? Well, that is the billion dollar question, because, as Bulliondesk reported on 19 March in its article titled “ICE will not disclose names of chairs in new gold benchmark process“, after attending a press briefing with ICE:

“‘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.

Bulliondesk continued:

“’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?

J119 and J120

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.

A number of policy documents were drawn up and introduced for the previous London gold price auction, the London Gold Fixing, in approximately mid 2014. One of these documents was a “Terms of Reference for a Supervisory Committee of the Board of the London Gold Market Fixing Limited (LPMCL)“. That document describes the composition of a supervisory committee and deems that the  Board of directors of LPMCL may:

“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 Membertest.

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

19 March

 

 Chairperson description 2

26 March

 

Chairperson description version 3 

chairperson v3

 The Algorithm

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 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….

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.”

 

Conclusion

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?

ICE ICE

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.