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.
The London Bullion Market Association (LBMA) has just released a first update on the quantity of physical gold and silver holdings stored in the ‘LBMA’ London vaulting network. The LBMA press release explaining the move, dated 31 July, can be read here.
This vaulting network, administered by the LBMA, comprises a set of precious metals vaults situated in London that are operated by the Bank of England and 7 commercial vault operators. For simplicity, this set of vaults can be called the LBMA London vaults. The 7 commercial vault operators are HSBC, Brinks, ICBC Standard Bank, Malca Amit, JP Morgan, Loomis and G4S. ICBC Standard outsources its vault management to Brinks. It’s possible that to some extent HSBC also outsources some of its vault management to Brinks.
Strangely, the LBMA’s initial reporting strangely only runs up to 31 March 2017, which is 4-months prior to the first publication date of 31 July. This is despite the fact that new LBMA vault holdings data is supposed to be published on a 3-month lagged basis, which would imply a latest report coverage date of 30 April.
At the end of April 2017, the Bank of England separately began publication of gold vault holdings for the gold bars that the Bank stores in custody within its own vaults. The Bank of England reporting is also on a 3-month lagged basis (and the Bank actually adheres to this reporting lag). See BullionStar article “Bank of England releases new data on its gold vault holdings”, dated 28 April 2017, for details of the Bank of England vault reporting initiative.
Currently, the Bank of England is therefore 1 month ahead of the LBMA vault data, i.e. on 31 July 2017, the Bank of England’s gold page was updated with Bank of England gold custody vault holdings as of 30 April 2017.
Ignoring the LBMA 3-month lagged vs 4-month lagged anomaly, the LBMA’s first vault reporting update, for vault data as of 31 March 2017, states that the 8 sets of vaults in question (which includes the Bank of England gold vaults) held a combined 7449 tonnes of gold and a combined 32078 tonnes of silver.
Also included in the first batch of LBMA data are comparable London vault holdings figures for gold and silver for each month-end date from July 2016 to February 2016 inclusive. Therefore, as of the 31 July 2017, there is now an LBMA dataset of 9 months of data, which will be augmented by one month each month going forward. Whether the LBMA will play catch-up and publish April 2017 month-end and May 2017 month-end figures simultaneously at the next reporting date of 31 August 2017 remains to be seen.
The New Vault Data – Gold and Silver
For 31 March 2017, the LBMA is reporting 7449 tonnes of gold stored across the 8 sets of vault locations. For the same date, the Bank of England reported 5081 tonnes of gold held in the Bank of England vaults. Therefore, as of 31 March 2017, there were 2368 tonnes of gold ‘not in the Bank of England vaults’ (or at least 2368 tonnes of gold not counted by the Bank of England data).
Of the gold not in the Bank of England vaults, about 1510 tonnes of this gold in London was held by gold-backed Exchange Traded Funds (ETFs), mainly with the custodians HSBC and JP Morgan. These ETFs include the SPDR Gold Trust and various ETFs from ETF Securities, Source, iShares, and Deutsche Bank etc. This 1510 tonnes figure is taken from an estimate calculated at the end of April 2017 using data from the GoldChartsRUs website. See BullionStar article “Summer of 17: LBMA Confirms Upcoming Publication of London Gold Vault Holdings” dated 9 May 2017 for details of this ETF calculation.
Subtracting this 1510 tonnes of ETF gold from the 2368 tonnes of gold stored outside the Bank of England vaults means that as of 31 March 2017, there were only about 858 tonnes of gold stored in the LBMA vaults outside of the Bank of England vaults that was not held by gold-backed ETF holdings. See Table 1 below.
The lowest gold holdings number reported by the LBMA within its 9 months of vault data is actually the first month, i.e. July 2016. At month-end July 2016, the LBMA report shows total vaulted gold of 7283 tonnes. There was therefore a net addition of 166 tonnes of gold to the LBMA vaults between August 2016 and the end of March 2017, with net additions over the August to October 2016 period, followed by net declines over the November 2016 to February 2017 period.
Turning to silver, as of 31 March 2017, the LBMA is reporting total vaulted silver of 32,078 tonnes held in London vaults. The vaulted silver data also shows a notable increase over the period from the end of July 2016 to the end of March 2017, with a net 2485 tonnes of silver added to the vaults.
Since the Bank of England vaults only store gold in custody on behalf of customers and do not store silver, there are no silver holdings at the Bank of England and therefore there is no specific Bank of England silver reporting. The LBMA silver data therefore refers purely to silver vaulted with operators such as Brinks, JP Morgan, Malca Amit, HSBC, and Loomis.
There are currently at least 12,000 tonnes of silver stored in London on behalf of silver-backed ETFs such as the iShares Silver Trust (SLV), various ETF Securities products, a SOURCE ETF and some Deutsche Bank ETFs. Subtracting these ETF holdings from the full 32,078 tonne figure being reported by the LBMA would suggest that there are an additional ~ 20,000 tonnes of non-ETF silver held in the London vaults.
Previous Vault Estimates for Gold and Silver
Prior to the new LBMA and Bank of England vault holdings data reports, the only way to work out how much gold and silver were in the London vaulting network was through estimation. Between 2015 and 2017, a number of these estimates were calculated for gold and published on the BullionStar website and the GoldChartsRUs website.
The “Tracking the gold held in London” article, published on 5 October 2016, took a LBMA statement of 6500 tonnes of gold being in London, the earliest reference to which was from 8 February 2016 Internet Archive page cache, and also took a Bank of England statement that the Bank held 4725 tonnes as of the end of February 2016 period, and then it factored in that the UK net imported more than 800 tonnes of non-monetary gold up to August 2016, and also that ETFs had added about 399 tonnes over the same period. It also calculated, using GoldChartsRUS ETF data, that the London-based gold-backed ETFs held about 1679 tonnes of gold as of the end of September 2016.
Therefore, as of the end of September 2016, there could have been at least 7300 tonnes of gold held across the LBMA and Bank of England vaults, i.e. 6500 tonnes + 800 tonnes = 7300 tonnes. As it turns out, this estimate was quite close to the actual quantity of gold held in the LBMA and Bank of England vaults at the end of September 2016, which the LBMA’s new reporting now confirms to have been 7590 tonnes. The estimate is a lower number because it was unclear as to which initial date the LBMA’s 6500 tonnes reference referred to (in early 2016 or before).
Previous Vault Estimates Silver
At the beginning of July 2017, an article on the BullionStar website titled “How many Silver Bars are in the LBMA Vaults in London?” estimated that there were about 12,000 tonnes of Good Delivery silver bars held across 4 LBMA vault operators in London on behalf of 11 silver-backed Exchange Traded Funds. These ETFs and the distribution of their silver bars across the 4 vault operators of Brinks, Malca Amit, JP Morgan and HSBC can be seen in the following table.
Table 3: ETF Silver held across LBMA commercial vaults in London, early July 2017
The above article about the number of silver bars in the London vaults also drew on some data from precious metals consultancy Thomson Reuters GFMS, which each year publishes a table of identifiable above ground global silver supply in its World Silver Survey. One category of silver within the GFMS identifiable above ground silver inventories is called ‘Custodian Vaults’. This is distinct from silver holdings in ETFs and silver holdings in exchange inventories such as in COMEX approved vaults in New York. A simple way to view ‘Custodian Vaults’ silver holdings is as an opaque ‘unreported holdings’ category as opposed to the more the transparent ETF holdings and COMEX holdings categories.
For 2016, according to GFMS, this ‘Custodian Vaults’ silver amounted to 1571.2 million ounces (48,871 tonnes), of which 488.7 million ounces (15,200 tonnes), or 31% was represented by what GFMS calls the ‘Europe’ region. Unfortunately, GFMS do not break out the ‘Custodian Vaults’ numbers by individual country because they say that they receive the data on a confidential basis and cannot divulge the granularity. The early July article on BullionStar had speculated that:
“With 488.7 million ozs (15,201 tonnes) of silver held in Europe in ‘Custodian vaults’ that is not reported anywhere, at least some of this silver must be held in London, which is one of the world’s largest financial centers and the world’s highest trading volume silver market.”
“Apart from London, there would presumably also be significant physical silver holdings vaulted in Switzerland and to a lessor extent in countries such as Germany, the Netherlands and maybe Austria etc. So whats’s a suitable percentage for London? Given London’s extensive vaulting network and prominence as a hedge fund and institutional investment centre, a 40-50% share of the European ‘custodian vault’ silver holdings would not be unrealistic, with the other big percentage probably vaulted in Switzerland.
This would therefore put previously ‘Unreported’ silver holdings in the London vaults at between 6080 tonnes and 7600 tonnes (or an additional 182,000 to 230,000 Good Delivery Silver bars).
Adding this range of 6080 – 7600 tonnes to the 12,040 tonne figure that the 11 ETFs above hold, gives a total figure of 18,120 – 19,640 tonnes of silver stored in the LBMA vaults in London (545,000 – 585,000 Good Delivery silver bars).
But here’s the catch. With the LBMA now saying that as of the end of March 2017 there were 1.031 billion ounces of silver, or 32078 tonnes, stored in the LBMA vaulting network in London (and 31238 tonnes of silver in London as of end of December 2016), of which at least 12,000 tonnes is in silver-backed ETFs, then that still leaves about 20,000 tonnes of silver in the London vaults, which is higher than the silver total attributed to the entire ‘custodian vault’ category’ in Europe (as per the GFMS 2016 report).
Even the lowest quantity in the 9 months that the LBMA reports on, which is month-end July 2016, states that the LBMA vaults held 951,433,000 ounces (29,593 tonnes), which after excluding silver ETFs in London, is still higher than the total ‘Custodian Vault’ category that GFMS attributes to the European region in 2016.
These new LBMA vault figures are basically implying that all of the GFMS custodian vault figure for Europe (and some more) is all held in London and not anywhere else in Europe. But that could not be the case as there is also a lot of silver vaulted in Switzerland and other European countries such as Germany, to think of but a few.
This begs the question, does the GFMS Custodian vault number for Europe need to be updated to reflect the gap between the non-ETF holdings that LBMA claims are in the London vaults and what GFMS is reporting in a European ‘Custodian vaults’ category? If the LBMA reporting actually broke down the silver vaulting quantity number into Good Delivery silver bars and other categories, it might help solve this puzzle as it would give an indication of how much of this 32,000 tonnes of silver is in the form of bars that are accepted for settlement in the London Silver Market i.e. Good Delivery silver bars.
Could some of this 32,000 tonnes of silver be in the form of silver jewellery, and private holdings of silver antiques and even silver artifacts? On the surface the LBMA reporting appears to say not since it states that:
“jewellery and other private holdings held by retailers, individuals and smaller vaults not included in the London Clearing system are not included in the numbers”
But because this statement reads rather ambiguously, by implication another interpretation of the LBMA statement could be that:
“jewellery and other private holdings held by retailers and individuals in vaults that are part of the London Clearing system are included in the numbers”
The London Clearing system here refers to the vaults of the 7 commercial vault operators.
Until GFMS comes back with a possible clarification of its ‘Custodian Vault’ figure for Europe, then this contradiction between the LBMA data for silver and GFMS data for silver will persist.
Large Bars but also Small Bars and Gold Coins
According to the LBMA’s press release, while “the LBMA vault holding data …represent the volume of Loco London gold and silver held in the London vaults offering custodian services“, surprisingly the new LBMA data includes “all physical forms of metal inclusive of large wholesale bars, coin, kilo bars and small bars.”
The inclusion of gold coins, smaller gold bars and gold kilobars in the LBMA vault data is bizarre because only large wholesale bars are accepted as Good Delivery in the London gold and silver markets, not gold coin, not smaller bars, and not gold kilobars. Even the LBMA website states that “the term Loco London refers to gold and silver bullion that is physically held in London. Only LBMA Good Delivery bars are acceptable for trading in the London market.”
Furthermore, the entire physical London Gold Market and physical London Silver Market revolve around the LBMA Good Delivery lists. Spot, forward and options trades on the London OTC gold and silver market are only referenced to a unit of delivery of a Good Delivery bar, both for gold and for silver.
This is the London Good Delivery gold bar. It must have a minimum fineness of 995.0 and a gold content of between 350 and 430 fine ounces….. Bars are generally close to 400 ounces or 12.5 kilograms”
For silver, the same guide states that:
“Unit for Delivery of Loco London Silver
This is the London Good Delivery silver bar. It must have a minimum fineness of 999 and a weight range between 750 and 1,100 ounces, although it is recommended that ideally bars should be produced within the range of 900 to 1,050 ounces. Bars generally weigh around 1,000 ounces.”
Additionally, all the new London-based gold futures contracts launched by the LME, ICE and CME also reference, if only virtually, the unit for Delivery of loco London gold, i.e. the London Good Delivery gold bar. They do not reference smaller gold bars or gold coins.
In contrast to the LBMA , the COMEX exchange where the famous COMEX 100 ounce gold futures contract is traded only reports vault inventories of gold and silver where the bars satisfy that contract for delivery, i.e. the contract for delivery is one hundred (100) troy ounces of minimum fineness 995 gold of an approved brand in the form of either “one 100 troy ounce bar, or three 1 kilo bars”. COMEX do not report 400 oz gold bars or gold coins specifically because the contract has nothing to do with these products. Then why is the LBMA reporting on forms of gold that have nothing to do with the settlement norms of its OTC products in London?
Additionally, the LBMA website also states that “only bars produced by refiners on the [Good Delivery] Lists can be traded in the London market.“ All of this begs the question, why does the LBMA bother including smaller bars, kilogram bars and gold coins? These bars cannot be used in settlement or delivery for any standard London Gold Market transactions.
Perhaps these smaller gold bars and gold coins have been included in the statistics so as to boost the total reported figures or to make reverse engineering of the numbers more difficult? While the combined volumes of smaller bars and kilobars probably don’t add up to much in terms of tonnage, the combined gold coin holdings of central banks stored at the Bank of England could be material.
For example, the United Kingdom, through HM Treasury’s Exchange Equalisation Account (EEA), claims to hold 310.3 tonnes of gold in its reserves, all of which is held in custody at the Bank of England. The latest EEA accounts for 2016/2017, published 18 July 2017 state that “The gold bars and gold coin in the reserves were stored physically at the Bank’s premises.” See Page 43, Exchange Equalisation Accounts for details. Many more central banks, for historical reasons, also hold gold coins in their reserves. See Bullionstar article “Central Banks and Governments and their gold coin holdings” for some examples.
As another example, the Banque de France in Paris holds 2435 tonnes of gold of which 100 tonnes is in the form of gold coins, and 2,335 tonnes of gold bars. Even though these gold coins are held in Paris, this shows that central bank gold coin holdings could materially affect LBMA gold reporting that includes ‘gold coins‘ within the rolled up number. But such gold coins cannot be traded within the LBMA / LPMCL gold trading / gold clearing system and if present would overstate the number of Good delivery gold bars within the system.
The Bank of England gold page on its website also only refers to Good Delivery ‘gold bars’ and says nothing about gold coins, which underlines the special status to which the Bank of England assigns Good Delivery gold bars in the London Gold Market. Specifically, the BoE gold page states that:
“..we provide gold storage on an allocated basis, meaning that the customer retains the title to specific gold bars in our vaults”
“Values are given in thousands of fine troy ounces. Fine troy ounces denote only the pure gold content of a bar.
“We only accept bars which comply with London Bullion Market Association (LBMA) London Good Delivery (LGD) standards. LGD bars must meet a certain minimum fineness and weight. A typical gold bar weighs around 400 oz“
The Bank of England has now confirmed to me, however, that the gold holdings number that it reports on its website “is the total of all gold held at the Bank” and that this “includes coins that belong to the Exchange Equalisation Account (EEA) which are held by the Bank on behalf of Her Majesty’s Treasury (HMT)”
This means that the total gold number being reported by both the Bank of England and the LBMA needs to be adjusted downward by some percentage so as to reflect the amount of real Good Delivery gold bars in the London vaults. What this downward adjustment should be is unclear, as neither the Bank of England nor the LBMA break out their figures by category of gold bars versus gold coins.
LBMA numbers – Obscured Rolled-up numbers
Another shortcoming in the LBMA’s vault reporting is that it does not break down the gold and silver holdings per individual vault. The LBMA will be only releasing 2 highly rolled-up numbers per month, one for gold and one for silver, for example, 7449 tones for gold and 32078 tonnes for silver in the latest month.
Contrast this to New York based COMEX and ICE gold futures daily reporting, which both do break down the gold holdings per New York vault. Realistically, the LBMA was never going to report gold or silver holdings per vault, as this would be a bridge too far towards real transparency, and would show how much or how little gold and silver is stored by each London vault operator / at each London vault location.
This does not, however, stop the LBMA from claiming transparency and in its 31 July press release it states that:
“According to the Fair and Effective Markets Review (see here for further details) ‘…in markets where OTC trading remains the preferred model, authorities and market participants should continue to explore the scope for improving transparency, in ways that also enhance effectiveness.’“
Real transparency, as opposed to lip-service transparency, would be supported by providing an individual breakdown of the number of Good Delivery gold and silver bars stored in each of the 8 sets of vaults at each month end. If they want to include gold coins, smaller gold bars, and gold kilo bars as extra categories, then this could also be itemised on a proper report. It would also only take any decent software developer about 1 day to write and create such a report.
There is also the issue of independently auditing these LBMA numbers. The issue is essentially that there is no independent auditing of these LBMA numbers nor will there be. So there is no second opinion as to whether the data is accurate or not.
The Bank of England gold vault reporting is also short of transparency as it does not provide a breakdown of how much of the reported gold is held by central banks, how much gold is held by bullion banks, how much of the central bank gold is out on loan with the bullion banks, and how much gold, if any, is held on behalf of ETFs at the Bank of England as sub-custodian. Real transparency in this area would provide all of this information including how much gold the LPMCL bullion clearing banks HSBC, JP Morgan, UBS, Scotia Mocatta and ICBC Standard hold at the Bank of England vaults.
On the issue of ETF gold held at the Bank of England, it has been proven that at times the Bank of England has acted as a gold custodian for an ETF, for example, during the first quarter 2016, the SPDR Gold Trust held up to 29 tonnes of gold at the Bank of England, with the Bank of England acting in the capacity of sub-custodian to the SPDR Gold Trust. See BullionStar article “SPDR Gold Trust gold bars at the Bank of England vaults” for details.
The London Float
The most important question with this new LBMA vault reporting is how much of the 7449 tonnes of gold stored in London as of the end of March 2017 is owned or controlled by bullion banks.
Or more specifically, what is the total level of LBMA bullion bank unallocated gold liabilities in the London market compared to the amount of real physical gold bars that they own or control.
This ‘gold owned or controlled by the bullion banks’ metric can be referred to as the ‘London Float’. LBMA bullion banks can maintain their own holdings of gold bars which they buy in the market or import directly, and they can also borrow other people’s gold thereby controlling this gold also. Some of this gold can be in the LBMA commercial vaults. Some can also be in the Bank of England vaults.
In its press release, the LBMA states that:
“The physical holdings of precious metals held in the London vaults underpin the gross daily trading and net clearing in London.”
This is not exactly true. Only gold which is owned or controlled by the bullion banks can underpin gold trading in London. Allocated gold sitting in a vault that is owned by central banks, ETFs or investors and which does not have any other claim attached to it, does not underpin anything. It just sits there in a vault.
As regards gold bars stored in the LBMA vaults in London, these bars can either be owned by central banks at the Bank of England, owned by central banks at commercial vaults in London, owned by ETFs at the commercial vaults in London, owned or controlled by bullion banks, and owned by investors (either institutional investors, hedge funds, private individuals etc). On occasion, some ETF gold has at various times been at the Bank of England.
If central bank gold is held in allocated form and not lent out, then it is ‘off the market’ and can’t be ‘used’ by any other party such as a LBMA bullion bank. If central bank gold is lent out or swapped out to bullion banks, then it can be used or even sold by those bullion banks. The LBMA uses the euphemism ‘liquidity’ to refer to this gold lending. For example, from the LBMA’s recent press release on the new vault reporting it says:
“In addition, the Bank of England also offers gold custodial services to central banks and certain commercial firms, that facilitate central bank access to the liquidity of the London gold market.”
ETF gold when it is held within an ETF cannot legally be used by other entities since it is owned by the ETF and allocated to the ETF. Institutionally owned gold or private owned gold when it is allocated is owned by the holder. It could in theory be lent to bullion banks also.
Some of the LBMA bullion banks have gold accounts at the Bank of England. How many of these banks maintain gold holdings within the Bank of England vaults nobody will say, not the Bank of England nor the LBMA nor the bullion banks, but it at least extends to the 5 members of London Precious Metals Clearing Limited (LPMCL) which are HSBC, JP Morgan, Scotia Mocatta, ICBC Standard and UBS. Gold accounts for bullion banks undoubtedly also extend to additional bullion banks beyond the LPMCL members because many bullion banks have been involved in gold lending at the Bank of England for a long time, for example Standard Chartered, Barclays, Natixis, BNP Paribas, Deutsche Bank, and Goldman Sachs, and these banks would at some point have to take delivery of borrowed gold at the Bank of England.
Note, the gold brokers of the London Gold Market have for a long time, as least since the 1970s, been able to store some of their gold bars at the Bank of England vaults. These brokers were historically Samuel Montagu, Mocatta, the old Sharps Pixley, NM Rothschild and Johnson Matthey.
Since LBMA bullion banks can maintain gold accounts at the LBMA commercial vaults in London, and because some of these banks have gold accounts at the Bank of England also, then this London “gold float” can comprise gold bars at the commercial vaults and gold bars at the Bank of England vaults. It is however, quite difficult to say exactly what size this London bullion bank gold float is at any given time.
Whatever the actual number, its not very big in size because if you subtract central bank gold and ETF gold from the overall LBMA gold figure (of 7449 tonnes as of the end of March 2017) then whatever is left is not a very big quantity of gold bars, and at least some of this residual gold stored in the LBMA commercial vaults is owned by institutions, hedge funds, private individuals and platforms such as BullionVault.
In September 2015, a study of central bank gold held at the Bank of England calculated that about 3779 tonnes of Bank of England custody gold can be accounted for by central bank and monetary authority gold holdings. See “Central bank gold at the Bank of England” for details and GoldChartsRUs page “LBMA/BOE VAULTED GOLD, 2016 Update – The London Float”. Compared to the 4725 tonnes of gold held at the Bank of England at the end of February 2016, this would then mean that there were about 946 tonnes of gold at the Bank of England that was “unaccounted for by central banks”. This was about 20% of the total amount of gold held at the Bank of England at that time.
However, some of this 946 tonnes was probably central bank gold where the central bank owner had not publicly divulged that it held gold at the Bank of England. Many central banks around the world that were contacted as part of the research into the “central bank gold at the Bank of England calculation” either didn’t reply or replied that they could not confirm where their gold was stored. See BullionStar article “Central Banks’ secrecy and silence on gold storage arrangements” for more details.
After factoring in these unknown central bank gold holders at the Bank of England, the remaining residual would be bullion bank gold. It could therefore be assumed that a percentage of gold stored at Bank of England, somewhere less than 20% and probably also less than 10%, is owned by bullion banks. Since central bank gold holdings, on paper at least are relatively static, the monthly changes in gold holdings at the Bank of England therefore probably mainly reflect bullion bank gold movements rather than central bank gold movements.
If we look back now at the LBMA vault data for gold as of 31 March 2017, how much of this gold could be bullion banks (London float) gold.
LBMA total gold vaulted: 7449 tonnes
Bank of England gold vaulted: 5081 tonnes
Gold in commercial LBMA vaults: 2368 tonnes
Gold in ETFs: 1510 tonnes
Gold in commercial vaults not in ETFs: 858 tonnes
Gold in commercial vaults not in ETFs that is allocated to institutions & hedge funds = x
i.e. 7449 – 5081 = 2368 – 1510 = 858
Assume 10% of the gold at the Bank of England is bullion bank gold. Also assume bullion banks gold hold some gold in LBMA commercial vaults.
Therefore total bullion bank gold could be (0.1 * 5081) + (858 – x) = 508 + 858 – x = 1366 – x.
Since x has to be > 0, then the bullion bank London float is definitely less than 1300 tonnes and probably less than 1000 tonnes. The bullion banks might argue that they can borrow more gold from central banks, take gold out of the ETFs, and even import gold from refineries. All of these options are possible, but still, the London bullion bank float is not that large. And it is this number in tonnes of gold which should be compared to the enormous volumes of ‘paper gold’ trading that occur in the London Gold Market each and every trading day.
For example in June 2017, the LBMA clearing statistics state that 21 million ounces of gold was cleared each trading day in the London Gold Market. That’s 653 tonnes of gold cleared each day in London. With a 10 to 1 ratio of gold trading to gold clearing, that’s the equivalent of 6530 tonnes of gold traded each day in the London gold market, or 143,660 tonnes over the 22 trading days of June. Annualised, this is 1.632 million tonnes of gold traded per year (using 250 trading days per year).
And sitting at the bottom of this trading pyramid is probably less than 1000 tonnes of bullion bank gold underpinning the gigantic trading volumes and huge unallocated gold liabilities of the bullion banks. So you can see that the London gold trading system is a fractional-reserve system with tiny physical gold underpinnings.
In May 2011, during a presentation at the LBMA Bullion Market Forum in Shanghai China, on the topic of London gold vaults, former LBMA CEO Stewart Murray included a slide which stated that:
Investment – more than ETFs
Gold Holdings have increased by ~1,800 tonnes in past 5 years, almost all held in London vaults
Many thousands of tonnes of ETF silver are held in London
Central banks hold large amounts of allocated gold at the Bank of England
Various investors hold very substantial amounts unallocated gold and silver in the London vaults
The last bullet point of the above slide is particularly interesting as it references “very substantial amounts’ of unallocated gold and silver. Discounting the fact for a moment that unallocated gold and silver is not necessarily held in vaults or held anywhere else, given that it’s just a claim against a bullion bank, the statement really means that investors have ‘very substantial amounts‘ of claims against the bullion banks offering the unallocated gold and silver accounts i.e. very substantial liabilities in the form of unallocated gold and silver obligations to the gold and silver unallocated account holders.
If a small percentage of these claim holders / investors decided to convert their claims into allocated gold and silver, especially allocated gold, then where are the bullion banks going to get the physical gold to give to these converting claim holders? Neither do the claim holders of unallocated positions have any way of knowing how accurate the LBMA vault reporting is, because there is no independent auditing of the positions or of the report.
UBS and LBMA
The last line of the LBMA press release about the new vault reporting states the following:
This line includes an embedded link to the Teves report within the press release. This opens a 7 page report written by Teves about the new vault reporting. By definition, given that this report is linked to in the press release, it means that Joni Teves of UBS had the LBMA vault reporting data before it was publicly released, otherwise how could UBS have written its summary.
In her report, Teves states that a UBS database estimates that there are “1,485 tonnes of gold worth about $60bn and about 13,759 tonnes of silver worth about $7.85bn are likely to be held in London to back ETF shares“.
These UBS numbers are fairly similar to the ETF estimates for gold (1510 tonnes) and silver (12040 tonnes) that we came up with here at BullionStar, and so to some extent corroborate our previous ETF estimates. Teves also implies that some of the gold in the Bank of England figure is not central bank gold but is commercial bank gold as she says:
“let’s say for illustration’s sake that about 80% to 90% of BoE gold holdings are accounted for by the official sector.“
The statement on face value implies that 10% – 20% of Bank of England gold is not central bank gold. But why the grey area phrase of “let’s say for illustration’s sake”. Shouldn’t the legendary Swiss Bank UBS be more scientific than this?
Teves also says assume “negligible amount (in commercial vaults) comprises official sector holdings“, and she concludes that “this suggests that over the past year, an average of about 2,945 to 3,450 tonnes ($119-$139 bn) of investment-related gold was held in London.”
What she is doing here is taking the average of 9 months of gold holdings held in the LBMA commercial vaults (which is 2439 tonnes) and then adding 10% and 20% respectively of the 9 month average of gold held at the Bank of England (which is 506 and 1011 tonnes) to get the resulting range of between 2945 and 3451 tonnes.
Then she takes the ETF tonnes estimate (1485) away from her range to get a range of between 1460 and 1965 tonnes, as she states:
… “Taking these ETF-related holdings into account would then leave roughly around 1,460 to 1,965 tonnes or about $59bn to $79bn worth of gold in unallocated and allocated accounts as available pool of liquidity for OTC trading activities“
But what this assumption fails to take into account is that some of this 1,460 to 1,965 tonnes that is in allocated accounts is not available as a pool of liquidity, because it is held in allocated form by investors precisely so that the bullion banks cannot get their hands on it and trade with it. In other words, it is ring fenced. Either way, a model will always output what has been input into it. Change the 10% and 20% range assumptions about the amount of commercial bank gold in the Bank of England vaults and this materially alters the numbers that can be attributed to be an ‘available pool of liquidity for OTC trading activities’.
Additionally, the portion of this residual gold that is in ‘unallocated accounts’ is not owned by any investors, it is owned by the banks. The ‘unallocated accounts’ holders merely have claims on the bullion banks for metal that is backed by a fractional-reserve trading system.
In her commentary about the silver held in the London vaults, Teves does not comment at all about the huge gap between her ETF silver in London (which UBS states as 13,759 tonnes), and the full 32000 tonnes reported by the LBMA,and does not mention how this huge gap is larger than all the ‘Custodian Vault’ silver which Thomson Reuters GFMS attributes to the entire ‘Europe’ region.
The amount of gold in the London LBMA gold vaults (incl. Bank of England) that is not central bank gold, that is not ETF gold, and that is not institutional allocated gold is quite a low number. What this actual number is difficult to say because a) the LBMA will not produce a proper vault report that shows ownership of gold by category of holder, and b) neither will the Bank of England in its gold vault reporting provide a breakdown between the gold owned by central banks and the gold owned by bullion banks. So there is still no real transparency in this area. Just a faint chink of light into a dark cavern.
On the topic of London vaulted silver, there appears to be a lot more silver in the LBMA vaults than even GFMS thought there was. It will be interesting to see how GFMS and the LBMA will resolve their apparent contradiction on the amount of silver stored in the London LBMA vaults.
Over the last number of years, one of the most interesting trends in the physical gold world is the ongoing conversion of large 400 ounce gold bars into smaller high purity 1 kilogram gold bars to meet the insatiable demand of Asian gold markets such as China and India.
This transformation of 400 ounce bars into 1 kilogram bars is an established fact and is irrefutable given the large amount of evidence which proves it is happening, as has been documented on the BullionStar website and elsewhere.
It is also something which causes plenty of excitement in the gold world as it underscores the huge movement of physical gold from West to East, and the continual depletion of gold inventories from locations such as the London Gold Market.
The general movement is one of 995 purity 400 ounce gold bars coming out of gold-backed ETFs, central bank gold holdings and other wholesale gold holdings, and these bars making their way to the Swiss refineries where they are transformed / smelted / recast into smaller 9999 high purity gold bars. The smaller gold bars are then exported from Switzerland to India, China, Hong Kong, and the Middle East.
At the same time as the wider gold market acknowledges and publicises this trend, the establishment gold world and bullion banks (as represented by the London Bullion Market Association) tend to downplay this conversion of 400 ounce gold bars into 1 kilogram bars, presumably because it directly highlights the continual drain of real physical gold out of the London vaults into China and India, gold which has little chance of ever coming back again.
For an example of significant downplaying of conversion of 400 ounce gold bars into kilogram gold bars, see BullionStar post from September 2015 titled “Moving the goalposts….The LBMA’s shifting stance on gold refinery production statistics” which documents how a mammoth 2000 tonnes of LBMA gold refinery output attributed to the year 2013, mysteriously disappeared from the LBMA’s publications in early August 2015, after the original figure of 6,601 tonnes had been highlighted on this website, with the original figure being replaced by a far lower 4600 tonnes.
While gold refineries in countries other than Switzerland may be involved in these 400 ounce to 1 kilogram gold bar transformations, the Swiss refineries are the big players in this area, as they say so themselves. The names in question are Valcambi, PAMP, Argor Heraeus and Metalor. For a full understanding of the extent to which these large Swiss gold refineries process 400 ounce gold bars into kilobars and the importance that they attribute to this specific category of refinery activity, please see BullionStar blog from November 2015 titled “From Good Delivery bars to Kilobars – The Swiss Refineries, the GFMS data, and the LBMA“.
But if you thought the massive conversion of large gold bars into kilogram bars that occurred in years such as 2013 and 2014 was an anomaly or a one-off, then think again. Because it also happened in 2015, and in a very big way.
LBMA Update – 2015 Gold Refinery Statistics
In early May 2017, the London Bullion Market Association published a revised version of its 4 page ‘LBMA Overview Brochure’, the most notable update of which was that it revealed refinery production statistics for 2015 for the gold and silver refineries around the globe that are on the LBMA’s Good Delivery List.
A table in the updated brochure states that in 2015, the “total refined gold production by the refiners on the List was estimated to be 5,034 tonnes”. The corresponding figure for gold in 2014 was 4921 tonnes.
At some point each year, the LBMA will invariable release such refinery statistics, however, the lag in publication is inexplicably long, for example, 2015 data only gets released in May 2017. Why 2016 data is not released in 2017 remains a mystery. This length of lag would not happen in any other industry. Leaving aside this mystery, the 2015 statistics are interesting and worth analysing for a whole lot of reasons, which are discussed below.
This year the LBMA update – of the 2015 data – was a very low-key affair indeed and did not even, in the LBMA’s eyes, merit a press release. This differs to May 2016, when the LBMA published 2014 gold and silver refinery statistics and at least accompanied the announcement with a press release which it titled “4,921 tonnes of gold production in 2014 – LBMA GD refiners”.
The LBMA’s May 2016 press release stated that 2014 refinery gold production by the refiners on the LBMA’s Gold Good Delivery List for gold totalled 4921 tonnes, and importantly, it attributed the excess over ‘world mine production of 4,394 tonnes‘ to be due to “recycling of material by LBMA GD refiners converting large 400 oz bars into kilobars“.
This reference to ‘world mine production of 4,394 tonnes‘, which was itself attributed to Thomson Reuters GFMS, is incorrect, and the LBMA should have said that “world mine production + scrap recycling + net hedging supply” was 4394 tonnes, as is clear in the Thomson Reuters GFMS table from which the figure of 4394 tonnes was taken. This table is as follows:
The ‘net hedging supply’ category can be ignored as it is not relevant for gold-laden material arriving into gold refineries for processing. What the LBMA should have said in its 2016 press release is that in 2014, the gold refineries on its list (which generate 85% – 95% of world gold refinery output) produced 4921 tonnes of gold, which was in excess of combined gold mining production and scrap recycling i.e. in excess of 3131 + 1158 = 4289 tonnes. This excess was due to “recycling of material by LBMA GD refiners converting large 400 oz bars into kilobars”.
Given that the LBMA gold refiners only represent 85% – 90% of world gold refinery output, and not 100%, the mine and scrap material that they process is only 85% – 90% of global mine production and scrap production. Therefore, the GFMS figures should be scaled back to represent this 85% to 90% range.
It is however not realistic to expect that bullion banks which supply large 400 ounce gold bars to gold refineries for conversion into smaller gold bars would use non-LBMA accredited gold refineries to do so, since a) bullion banks are all members of the LBMA, and b) the London bullion banks use Swiss gold refineries which are all on the LBMA good delivery list. They would therefore not use a more obscure non-LBMA gold refinery, such as one of the smaller Indian gold refineries, to convert large wholesale / central bank gold bars into smaller gold bars.
Therefore, what the LBMA press release in May 2016 should really have said is as follows:
“In 2014, the gold refineries on the LBMA Good Delivery List (which generate 85% – 95% of world gold refinery output) produced 4921 tonnes of gold. This was in excess of the 85% – 90% of combined gold mining production and scrap gold recycling that these refineries are known to process. The LBMA refineries’ 4921 tonnes of refinery output in 2014 in excess of their mine and scrap processing of 3646 – 3860 tonnes (85% and 90% of combined mine and scrap supply) was due to recycling of material by LBMA GD refiners converting large 400 oz bars into kilobars.”
Such a statement would then put conversion of large 400 ounce gold bars into kilogram gold bars by LBMA gold refineries in 2014 at between 1060 and 1275 tonnes of gold (4921 – 3860, and 4921 – 3646). It would also mean that large 400 ounce gold bars from existing above-ground stockpiles were topping up ‘normal’ physical gold supply (gold mining output and scrap recycling) by between 25% and 30% during 2014.
These 2014 refinery figures have previously been covered in a BullionStar posting in June 2016. See BullionStar blog “An update on LBMA Refinery Statistics and GFMS”. The important take-away point here is that in 2014 the gold refineries on the LBMA good delivery list generated refined gold output in a distinct category attributed to recycling of material by LBMA good delivery refiners converting large 400 oz bars into kilobars.
Fast forwarding now to the 2015 LBMA figures and the 2015 Thomson Reuters GFMS figures, and repeating the above calculations:
For 2015, the LBMA states that the gold refineries on its list had total refined gold output of 5034 tonnes. In 2015, according to Thomson Reuters GFMS, gold mining production was 3158 tonnes, while scrap gold supply was 1173 tonnes, i.e. a combined mine and scrap gold supply of 4331 tonnes.
Since the gold refineries on the LBMA Good Delivery List for gold represent 85% to 90% of ‘world production’, which by LBMA logic is GFMS gold mining production and GFMS scrap recycling, then, these refineries would have processed between 3681 tonnes and 3898 tonnes (85% – 95%) of mine production and scrap supply during 2015.
This then implies that during 2015, these LBMA gold refineries also processed between 1136 tonnes and 1353 tonnes of gold due to converting large 400 oz bars into kilobars.
If the LBMA had have written a press release in May 2017 to coincide with updating its table of the output of LBMA Good Delivery refineries, it should have read something like the following:
“In 2015, the gold refineries on the LBMA Good Delivery List (which generate 85% – 95% of world gold refinery output) produced 5034 tonnes of gold. This was in excess of the 85% – 90% of combined gold mining production and scrap gold recycling that these refineries are known to process. The LBMA refineries’ 5034 tonnes of refinery output in 2015 in excess of their mine and scrap processing of 3681 – 3898 tonnes (85% and 90% of combined mine and scrap supply) was due to recycling of material by LBMA GD refiners converting large 400 oz bars into kilobars, which was in the range of 1136 to 1353 tonnes.”
Where would these huge quantities of 400 ounce gold bars have come from that were melted down during 2015, predominantly or even exclusively by the Swiss gold refineries? Because 1136 to 1353 tonnes of large wholesale market gold bars is a lot of gold. The most likely source of this gold is from the London Gold Market. Beyond that, gold which was already stored in Switzerland is also a possible pool from which to draw from.
2015 UK to Switzerland Gold Exports
During 2015, Switzerland imported 1853 tonnes of non-monetary gold, and exported 1861 tonnes of non-monetary gold. By far the largest source of Swiss gold imports during 2015 was ‘the UK’, which in this case really means the London Gold Market. Non-monetary gold is just gold which is not monetary (central bank) gold. Non-monetary gold shows up on trade statistics. Monetary gold does not show up on trade statistics since central banks get an exemption from revealing physical movements of monetary gold across national borders.
During 2015, Switzerland imported 644.5 tonnes of non-monetary gold from the UK (London). You can see from the below graph that no other source country came anywhere close to supplying non-monetary gold to Switzerland in 2015, with the next largest source countries each only sending less than 70 tonnes of gold to Switzerland. And London does not have any gold mines nor any major scrap gold collection facilities.
Some of the other exporters of gold to Switzerland during 2015 were France, Germany, Italy and UAE/Dubai (none of which are gold mining countries), and South Africa, Russia, Peru (which have gold mining). Some of the gold sent from France, Germany, Italy and UAE was obviously scrap. Some of the gold sent from South Africa, Russia and Peru was most likely gold mining ore or gold doré. But somewhere within these numbers, there was also most likely good delivery gold bars. For example, why would Russia or South Africa send gold mining ore or gold doré or scrap to Switzerland when they have their own perfectly good gold refineries with huge capacity.
Surprising perhaps, the largest gold-backed ETF, the SPDR Gold Trust (GLD) did not lose that much gold during 2015, with only a net 65 tonne gold loss. This is more so because the damage to GLD’s gold holdings had really been done in mostly in 2013 and to a lesser extent in 2014 when holdings had fallen from the 1350 tonne range down to the 700 tonne range. See chart.
Based on recently released data from the Bank of England, it can be seen that during 2015 the Bank of England gold vaults lost 13.5 million ounces of gold, with Bank of England total gold holdings dropping from 167.2 million ounces at the end of 2014 to 153.6 million ounces at the end of 2015. This is equivalent to a 421 tonne loss of gold from the Bank of England vaults during 2015. All gold held in the Bank of England is in the form of Good Delivery gold bars (i.e. the large 400 ounce gold bars.
Whether gold lost from the Bank of England vaults during 2015 was central bank gold or bullion bank (commercial bank) gold is unclear since the Bank of England does not provide a breakdown of figures. It’s possible that some of this gold that left the Bank of England during 2015 was converted from monetary gold to non-monetary gold, and then sent to Switzerland to be transformed into kilogram gold bars. This would then show up in the Swiss trade statistics. If extracted from the Bank of England vaults and left as monetary gold and then exported to Switzerland, it would not show up in Swiss trade statistics.
If 644 tonnes of non-monetary gold, as per the Swiss trade statistics, were sent from London to Switzerland during 2015, and another 421 tonnes of monetary gold from the Bank of England were also sent to Switzerland during 2015, this in total would be 1065 tonnes of gold. This quantum would begin to account for the range of 1136 to 1353 tonnes being converted from 400 oz gold bars into 1 kilogram gold bars that the 2015 LBMA gold refinery statistics imply. Add in another 100 – 200 tonnes of Good Delivery bars from sources such as Russia, South Africa and Dubai and this huge scale of 400 ounce bar conversion begins to look achievable. There could also be Good Delivery bars flowing out of Swiss central bank vaults directly, i.e. the Swiss National Bank (SNB) gold vaults in Berne, which would not show up on any inbound gold trade customs statistics.
Within a 3 year period, we can see roughly that the following quantities of large gold bars were melted down into kilogram bars and sent to Asia:
2013: about 2000 tonnes of gold
2014: between 1060 and 1275 tonnes of gold
2015: between 1136 to 1353 tonnes of gold
Overall, within the 2013 – 2015 period that is about 4200 – 4600 tonnes of gold being converted into kilogram and other smaller denomination high purity gold bars and sent to markets in China, India, Hong Kong and elsewhere in Asia. This is gold above and beyond mine supply and scrap supply. Where has all of this gold come from? Some of it is proven to be from gold-backed ETFs. Some is most probably also from central bank vaults, in which case the central banks do not have the gold that they claim to have. Which everybody know anyway, as much central bank gold has been lent out and is merely a fiction on the central bank balance sheets. But there may also be other stockpiles of Good Delivery gold bars which are also feeding this huge trend. Until the LBMA begins to publish its vault statistics, any grey area unreported gold vault inventories in London are still being kept in the dark.
If the trend of raiding ETFs and borrowing central bank gold to send to Switzerland to convert into kilogram bars for the Asian markets continues, then this is not and cannot be sustainable. The question is how long it can remain sustainable, in other words when will it become unsustainable?
Sometime in the coming days, the London Bullion Market Association (LBMA) plans to begin publishing gold and silver vault holding totals covering the network of commercial precious vault operators in London that fall under its remit. This follows an announcement made by the LBMA on 8 May.
There are seven commercial vault operators (custodians) in the LBMA custodian vault network namely, HSBC, JP Morgan, Brinks, Malca Amit, ICBC Standard Bank, Loomis (formerly Viamat), and G4S. Note that ICBC Standard Bank has a vault which is operated by Brinks on behalf of ICBC Standard. It is also quite possible that some of the HSBC vaults, such as the famous GLD gold vault, are located within Brinks facilities.
Adding in the Bank of England gold vaults under the Bank of England’s head office in the City of London, the LBMA vaulting network comprises eight sets of vaults. However, the Bank of England vaults do not store silver, or at least there is no evidence that the Bank of England stores silver. However, the other 7 vault operators can and do store silver, or at least most of them do. It’s unclear whether the G4S vault stores anything on behalf of anyone, but that’s a different story.
The forthcoming LBMA vault data will represent actual physical gold and silver holdings, i.e. real tangible precious metals, as opposed to the intangible and gargantuan paper gold and paper silver trading volumes generated each day in the London precious metals markets.
The LBMA will report physical holdings data on an aggregated basis for each of gold and silver, i.e. one quantity number will be reported each month for vaulted gold, and one quantity number will be reported each month for vaulted silver. The LBMA data will be on a 3-month lagged basis. For example, if the LBMA begins reporting this data in early July (which it probably will), then the first set of data will refer to the end of March period.
The uncertainty as to when the LBMA will begin to publish its vault holdings data is purely because the LBMA has not provided a specific publication commencement date. At first, the LBMA announced that the reporting would begin “in the summer”. Subsequently, it announced that it’s vault reporting would begin in July.
As to whether the LBMA vault holdings numbers published each month will include or exclude the Bank of England gold vaults holdings is also unclear. At the end of April, the Bank of England went ahead and separately began to publish vault holdings numbers for its own gold vaults, also on a 3-month lagged basis. More information on this Bank of England initiative can be read in BullionStar blog “Bank of England releases new data on its gold vault holdings”
Incidentally, the Bank of England has now updated its website (updated 30 June) with the gold holdings figure for its vaults as of the end of March, and is reporting total physical gold holdings of 163.36 million troy ounces, which equates to 5081 tonnes of gold.
When the LBMA begins to publish its numbers, it will be clear as to whether the LBMA gold number includes the Bank of England gold holdings or not, and this will probably even be specified in a footnote of the report. Excluding the Bank of England vaults (or at least the non-loaned gold in the Bank of England vaults which is not under the title of bullion banks), the remaining lion’s share of the LBMA’s gold holdings number comprises gold held by Exchange Traded Funds (ETFs) in London.
“The HSBC vault in London holds gold on behalf of the SPDR Gold Trust (currently 853 tonnes) and ETF Securities (about 215 tonnes). The JP Morgan gold vault in London holds gold on behalf of ETFs run by iShares (about 210 tonnes in London), Deutsche Bank (95 tonnes), and Source (100 tonnes). An ABSA ETF holds about 36 tonnes of gold with Brinks in London. In total, these ETFs represent about 1510 tonnes of gold.”
The approach used to calculate the gold stored by these ETFs in the London vaults can be seen in the article “Tracking the gold held in London: An update on ETF and BoE holdings”. To this 1510 tonnes gold figure we can add gold held on behalf of customers of BullionVault and GoldMoney – which is roughly 12 tonnes of gold between them (4.75 tonnes for GoldMoney, and 7.2 tonnes of gold for BullionVault).
When the LBMA publishes its first gold total for gold held in its vault network, it will also be clear as to whether the LBMA vaults hold any significant amount of physical gold above and beyond the gold allocated within the gold-backed ETFs. There may be some gold tonnage held on an allocated basis by the LBMA bullion banks as a ‘float’, and also some gold held in allocated form by various institutional investors such as hedge funds, but my hunch is that this residual gold will be at most a respectable fraction of the amount of gold stored on behalf of ETFs in London.
However, the silver holdings in the LBMA vault network are a different kettle of fish entirely, and in addition to ETF holdings (which are reported), there could be significant silver holdings in the London vaults which have gone unreported up until now (unreported silver in the form of what consultancy GFMS calls ‘Custodian Vault’ holdings).
Although gold usually generates the most headlines, it’s important not to forget about silver, and the fact that this new LBMA reporting will also provide a monthly aggregated total for the amount of physical silver held in the LBMA vaulting network in London. The silver stored in these LBMA vaults is in the form of variable weight London Good Delivery silver bars.
Since silver has a lower value to weight ratio than gold and is bulkier to store, silver a) takes up more room and b) can be stored in secure warehouses rather than ultra-high secure vaults that are used to store gold. This is particularly true in expensive cities such as London where it is more economical to store silver in locations with lower commercial rental values.
In the LBMA vaulting network, London Good Delivery silver bars are stored 30 bars per pallet, i.e. a formation of 10 bars stacked 3 bars high. Since each bar weighs approximately 1000 oz, each pallet will weigh about 30,000 ozs, i.e. each pallet would weigh about 1 tonne.
At this stage, can we arrive at an estimate of the minimum amount of silver currently held in the LBMA London vaulting network? The answer is yes, for the simple reason that, in a similar manner to gold-backed ETFs, a substantial number of silver-backed ETFs also hold their silver in the vaults of London-based precious metals vaulting custodians, and these ETFs publicly report their silver bar holdings.
In addition, BullionVault and GoldMoney (which are not ETFs), both hold silver with one of the custodians in the LBMA vaulting network – Loomis. But I have included the BullionVault and GoldMoney silver totals below purely because even though they are non-ETF custodian vault holdings, both companies’ silver holdings are publicly reported on their websites.
However, there is probably also a lot more additional silver held in the London vaults above and beyond the silver bars allocated to ETFs and the known silver stored by GoldMoney and BullionVault. Some of this additional silver falls under what Thomson Reuters GFMS classify as ‘Custodian Vault‘ silver, which is silver that is basically in an ‘Unreported’ category but which Thomson Reuters GFMS seems to think it knows about through its own ‘proprietary surveys’ and ‘field research’. This ‘Custodian Vault’ silver probably accounts for a substantial amount of silver in the London vaults. However, it is difficult to know because GFMS does not provide granularity on its numbers beyond an overall ‘Europe’ number. But I have made some assumptions about this ‘Custodian Vault’ silver in London, which is discussed in a final section below.
For the silver-backed ETFs, the first step is to identify which silver ETFs hold silver bars in the LBMA vaults in London. Using the list of silver ETF providers specified on Nick Laird’s GoldChartsRUs website (subscription only), the platform providers and their ETFs which hold silver in the LBMA vaults in London are as follows:
iShares: 1 ETF
ETF Securities: 6 ETFs
SOURCE : 1 ETF
Deutsche Bank: 3 ETFs
Between them, these four providers offer 11 ETFs that hold some or all of their silver in LBMA London vaults. This silver is held with custodians JP Morgan and HSBC, and with sub-custodians, Brinks and Malca Amit. Note, that GoldMoney and BullionVault store silver in London with Loomis as custodian.
As publicly traded vehicles, most of these ETFs publish daily silver bar weight lists or holdings files and they also undergo twice yearly physical audits by independent auditors. These weight lists and audits documents are helpful in pinpointing who the custodians and sub-custodians are, which locations these silver ETF’s store their silver in, and how much silver (in silver bar form) is stored in each location.
iShares Silver Trust (SLV)
The iShares Silver Trust, ticker code SLV, is the world’s largest silver-backed ETF. It’s probably best to think of SLV as the silver equivalent of the mammoth SPDR Gold Trust (GLD).
The custodian for SLV is JP Morgan Chase Bank (London Branch), and Brinks also acts as a sub-custodian for SLV. SLV holds silver in vaults across both London and New York. According to the SLV daily silver bar weight list, SLV’s silver bars are held in two Brinks vaults in London, one JP Morgan vault in London, and one JP Morgan vault in New York.
As of 29 June 2017, SLV reported that it was holding 348,841 Good Delivery silver bars containing a total of 339.89 million troy ounces of silver, or a colossal 10,572 tonnes of silver. The actual SLV bar list, which is uploaded to a JP Morgan website in pdf format using the same filename each day, can be seen here, but be warned that the file is about 5370 pages long, so there’s no real need to open it unless you are curious. A screenshot of the top of the first page is provided below
The SLV weight list specifies that the SLV silver is held in a ‘Brinks London‘ vault, a ‘Brinks London C‘ vault, a ‘JPM London V‘ vault, and a ‘JPM New York‘ vault. Between them, 2 Brinks vaults in London hold 55% of SLV’s silver bars representing 5753 tonnes, or 54% of the silver held in SLV. Adding in the ‘JPM London V‘ vault means that 289,053 silver bars, weighing 8720 tonnes (or 82% of SLV’s entire silver holdings) are held in LBMA London vaults.
The auditor for SLV is Inspectorate. Interestingly, the latest Inspectorate letter for SLV, for record date 10 February 2017, does not make a distinction between the 2 Brinks vaults in London and just reports that SLV’s silver is in:
“Three vaults located in and around London and New York:
- two vaults owned and operated by JP Morgan Chase Bank N.A. with 124,054 bars
- one vault owned and operated by Brinks, as a sub-custodian for JP Morgan Chase Bank N.A. with 220,066 bars
This would suggest that Inspectorate does not see the need to distinguish between the “Brinks London” vault and the “Brinks London C” vault, presumably because both Brinks vaults are in the same building in the Brinks facility (which is beside Heathrow Airport).
Even though the official custodian for SLV is JP Morgan Chase Bank N.A., London Branch (see original SLV Custodian Agreement filed April 2006 here), since it’s launch in 2006 SLV has at different times used quite a diverse group of sub-custodian vaults as well as at least 3 JP Morgan vaults. For example, over the 3 year period from early 2010 to early 2013, SLV stored silver in the following vaults:
Johnston Matthey, Royston
Brinks London A
Brinks London C
Viamat (now known as Loomis)
JP Morgan London A
JP Morgan London V
JP Morgan New York
Royston is about 50 miles north of central London. The above list is taken from the following chart which is from the ScrewTape Files website.
Given that there are Brinks vaults in London named ‘Brinks London‘, ‘Brinks London A‘, and ‘Brinks London C‘, this would most likely imply that there is or was also a ‘Brinks London B‘ vault, which, for whatever reason, doesn’t show up in any ETF custodian documentation.
The naming convention of the JP Morgan vaults in London as ‘JPM London A‘ and ‘JPM London V‘ is also interesting. SLV silver started being taken out of the ‘JPM London A’ vault in February 2012, and this vault was depleted of 100 million ounces of SLV silver (~ 3100 tonnes) by October 2012 (blue line in above chart). At the same time, the SLV silver inventory in the ‘Brinks London’ vault ramped up by 100 million ounces of SLV silver also between February 2012 and October 2012.
JPM London A could be JP Morgan’s original vault in the City of London. This would then make the JPM London V vault a separate location. My pet theory (pet rock theory) is that the V in the ‘JPM London V’ could refer to Viamat International, which is now known as Loomis. JP Morgan could have outsourced storage of silver to Viamat by ring-fencing some vault space. JP Morgan could then call this space a JP Morgan vault, even though it would be physically within a location managed by one of the security storage / transport providers.
I now think on balance that HSBC probably took the same approach with its gold vault and has it located in a Brinks facility, but that it calls it a HSBC vault. This could also mean that HSBC uses Brinks to store silver, while referring to it as HSBC storage. As to whether HSBC and JP Morgan store gold at the Bank of England while labelling it as a HSBC or JP Morgan storage area is another interesting question, but is beyond the scope of discussion here.
Note, there is also an iShares Silver Bullion Fund known as SVR which uses Scotia Mocatta as a custodian, which as of 29 June held 2,154 silver bars, however, SVR mostly holds its silver bars mostly in Toronto with Scotia, with a small number of silver bars stored with Scotia in New York. SVR therefore does not store any silver bars in London. See latest SVR weight list here.
ETF Securities – 6 ETFs
Keeping track of all the silver-backed ETFs offered by ETF Securities is challenging to say the least, but in the below discussion I’ve tried to devise a system which will make things at least a little clearer.
ETF Securities operates 6 ETFs which hold physical silver bars that are stored in the LBMA precious metals vaulting network in London. Of these 6 ETFS, 3 of them hold silver bars and nothing else. The other 3 ETFs are precious metals baskets which hold ‘physical’ gold, silver, platinum and palladium. Two of these ETFs are domiciled in the UK, 2 are domiciled in Australia, and the other 2 are domiciled in the US. In each of the UK, Australia and the US, ETF Securities offers 1 silver ETF and 1 precious metals basket ETF.
It’s most convenient to refer to the codes of these ETFs when discussing them. The 2 UK domiciled ETFs, with codes PHAG (silver) and PHPM (precious metals basket), are positioned under a company called ETFS Metal Securities Limited (MSL). The 2 ETFs domiciled in Australia, with codes PMAG (silver) and PMPM (precious metals basket), fall under a company called ETFS Metal Securities Australia Limited (MSAL). The final 2, which are US domiciled, are known as SILV (silver) and GLTR (precious metals basket).
ETFS Metal Securities Limited (MSL) – PHAG and PHPM
ETFS Physical Silver (PHAG) has a primary listing on the London Stock Exchange (LSE) and trades in USD. It’s NAV is also in USD. The custodian for PHAG is HSBC Bank Plc, with a listed vault location of London. Note: There is also another variant of PHAG called PHSP. It’s the same security as PHAG (same ISIN) but its trades in GBP (and its NAV is calculated in GBP). Its best to ignore PHSP as it’s literally the same fund.
ETFS Physical PM Basket (PHPM) is a precious metals Basket ETF that also holds gold, platinum, and palladium, in addition to silver. The custodian is HSBC Bank Plc with a vault location in London. There is also a GBP variant of PHPM called PHPP. Again, just ignore PHPP in this analysis.
ETFS Metal Securities Limited (MSL) officially reports all of its precious metals holdings in the same report (which it reports on each trading day). Since PHAG and PHPM are part of MSL, PHAG and PHPM silver bar holdings are reported together. According to the MSL weight list, as of 30 June 2017, MSL held 62,427 London Good delivery silver bars containing 60,280,155 troy ounces of silver(1875 tonnes). The individual ETFs within MSL also report their own holdings. However, there is a slight mismatch between dates on the individual fund pages and the date in the MSL spreadsheet with PHAG and PHPM reporting 29 June, while MSL has reported 30 June.
It’s not a big deal though. As of 29 June, PHAG held 58,777,148 troy ozs of silver (1828.2 tonnes) and PHPM held 1,480,037 troy ozs of silver (46 tonnes), which together is 60,257,185 troy ounces of silver (1874.25 tonnes), which is very close to the MSL reported number. Overall, PHAG holds 97.5% of the silver that is held in MSL, and PHPM only holds about 2.5% of the silver held in MSL.
Now, here’s the crux. While MSL uses HSBC Bank Plc in London as custodian for its silver, HSBC also uses Malca Amit London as sub-custodian, and the Malca Amit vault holds more than twice the amount of MSL silver (i.e. predominantly PHAG silver) than the HSBC vault. MSL’s reported silver holding are distributed as per the following table:
MSL holds 62,427 London Good Delivery silver bars in LBMA vaults in London, containing 60.28 million ounces of silver (1875 tonnes of silver). The Malca Amit vault stores 42,917 of these bars (1283 tonnes), and a HSBC vault stores another 19,510 silver bars (592 tonnes).
Inspectorate is also the independent auditor for the silver held by MSL. According to the latest Inspectorate audit letter, dated 3 March 2017 but referring to an end audit date of 31 December 2016, the silver in MSL was held in the vaults of HSBC Bank plc, London and at the vaults of Malca-AmitLondon.
ETFS Metal Secs. Australia Ltd (MSAL) – PMAG & PMPM
ETFS Physical Silver (PMAG), domiciled in Australia, is an ETF which only holds silver, and holds this silver in London with custodian HSBC Bank plc at a vault location in London. Note: ETF Securities officially refers to PMAG as ETPMAG.
ETFS Physical PM basket (PMPM) is a precious metals Basket ETF that also holds gold, platinum, and palladium, in addition to silver. The custodian of PMPM is HSBC Bank plc with a vault location in London. Note: ETF Securities officially refers to PMPM as ETPMPM.
In a similar way to UK domiciled MSL, MSAL (the ETFS Australian company) reports on all of its precious metals holdings in one daily spreadsheet including the silver in PMAG and PMPM. As of 30 June 2017, MSAL held 2754 silver bars in a HSBC vault in London, containing 2,664,690 troy ounces of silver (82.88 tonnes of silver).
Of the 2,664,690 ounces of silver held by MSAL, over 98%, or 2617,229 ounces, is held by PMAG, with less than 2% held in PMPM (47,362 ounces). The actual figures are 98.22% vs 1.78%. This means that PMAG roughly holds 2705 silver bars, and PMPM holds 49 silver bars.
Inspectorate is, not surprisingly, also the independent auditor for MSAL’s metal holdings, and as per the latest audit letter for record date 31 December 2016, the silver bars audit location is stated as having been “HSBC Bank plc, London“.
The latest silver bar weight list spreadsheet for the ETFS Silver Trust (SIVR), dated 29 June, which is titled “HSBC US Silver Bar List”, states that the SIVR Trust holds 21,437 silver bars containing 20,363,315 troy ozs of silver (633.4 tonnes of silver). There is no mention of SIVR holding any of its silver with a sub-custodian. The latest independent audit report for SIRV, by Inspectorate, for an audit reference date of 31 December 2016, states that the audit took place “at the vault of HSBC Bank plc, London (the “Custodian”)“, where Inspectorate found “20,108 London Good Delivery Silver Bars with a weight of 19,171,492.300 troy ounces.”
The latest silver bar weight list for the ETFS Precious Metals Basket Trust (GLTR), also dated 29 June, and which is titled “JPM Precious Metals Basket Bar List“, states that the GLTR Trust holds 5,670 silver bars containing 5,496,035 ozs of silver (~ 171 tonnes of silver).
However, while 85% of these bars (144.5 tones of silver) are stored in the ‘JP Morgan V‘ vault, 15% of the silver bars (26.5 tonnes of silver) are stored in a ‘Brinks 2‘ vault. So according to GLTR naming convention, as there is a ‘Brinks 2′ vault, presumably when it was first named, there was also a ‘Brinks 1′. ‘Brinks 2′ could possibly be referring to the same location as the ‘Brinks London A’ vault.
Inspectorate is also the independent auditor for the precious metals held by GLTR. In the latest Inspectorate audit letter for GLTR, with an audit reference date of 31 December 2016, Inspectorate states that its audit was only conducted “at the vault of J.P. Morgan Chase N.A, London (the “Custodian”)” where it counted “4,873 London Good Delivery Silver Bars“. This probably means that GLTR’s holdings of silver bars in the ‘Brinks 2′ vault are quite recent, i.e. they have been acquired since 31 December 2016.
SOURCE – Physical Silver P-ETC
A silver-backed ETF offered by the ETF provider ‘SOURCE’, which is named the Physical Silver P-ETC, holds its silver bars in a London vault of custodian JP Morgan. The SOURCE ETF platform was originally established in 2008 as a joint venture between Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, and Merrill Lynch.
The latest silver bar weight list for the Physical Silver P-ETC (dated 23 June) states that it holds 3,129,326 troy ounces of silver (97.34 tonnes of silver). The list does not state an exact bar count, but looking at the weight list, there are about 3,237 silver bars listed.
Inspectorate is also the independent auditor for the Physical silver P-ETC. The latest Inspectorate audit letter, conducted on 4 January 2017, states that at that time, this ETF held 2,048 silver bars containing 1,982,343 troy ounces of silver. This is interesting because about a week ago, this SOURCE Physical silver P-ETC held about 4 million ozs of silver. Now it holds 3.1 million ounces of silver, and at the start of the year it held under 2 million ounces of silver. So the quantity of silver held in this SOURCE silver ETF fluctuates quite dramatically.
Deutsche Bank ETFs
There are 3 ETCs listed on the Exchange Traded Commodity (ETC) section of the Deutsche Asset Management website which hold physical silver in London. These 3 ETCs are as follows:
db Physical Silver ETC
db Physical Silver ETC (EUR)
db Physical Silver Euro hedged ETC
The Factsheets for these 3 Deutsche ETCs all list the custodian as “Deutsche Bank”, but list the sub-custodian as “JP Morgan Chase Bank”. For example, the Factsheet for the db Physical Silver ETCstates
“Custodian/Sub-custodian: Deutsche Bank AG/JP Morgan Chase Bank N.A.”
Shockingly, there do not seem to be any recent independent audit documents for any of these Deutsche ETCs anywhere on the Deutsche Asset Management website. The latest ‘Inventory Audit’ document in the ‘Download Center’ of the website is dated November 2012. That audit document can be viewed here. The old audit document stated that on 25 September 2012, ‘DB ETC Plc’ held 13,314 silver bars containing 13,040,194.3 troy ounces of silver (405.6 tonnes of silver), and that the audit was conducted at ‘Custodian and Location‘ of ‘JP Morgan Chase Bank, N.A. London‘. I have scanned the entire website and there is no sign of any other audit documents or any silver bar weight list.
The initial metal entitlement for units issued in each of these 3 ETCs was 10 troy ounces per unit. The latest units issued figures from Deutsche (dated 22 June 2017) for these ETCs is as follows:
db Physical Silver ETC: 277, 500 units issued
db Physical Silver ETC (EUR): 533,000 units issued
db Physical Silver Euro hedged ETC: 878,000 units issued
Total units issued for silver-backed db ETCs = 1,688,500 units
This would mean that in total, these 3 ETCs would have had an initial metal entitlement of 16,885,000 troy ounces of silver. However, due to what looks like operational fees being offset against the metal in these ETCs (i.e. selling silver to pay fund expenses), the effective metal entitlement for each of the 3 ETCs is now stated on the Deutsche website as being less than 10 troy ounces.
For db Physical Silver ETC, the entitlement is 9.6841 ounces. For db Physical Silver ETC, the entitlement is 9.6930 ounces and for db Physical Silver Euro hedged ETC the metal entitlement is a very low 7.9893 ounces.
Therefore, the amount of silver backing these ETCs looks to be (277500 * 9.6841) + (533000 * 9.693) + (878000 * 7.9893) = 14,868,312 troy ounces = 462.5 tonnes. Since there is no bar count, an approximate bar count assuming each bar weighs 1000 oz would be 14,870 Good Delivery silver bars.
Since there are no audit reports and no silver bar weight list for these ETCs, it’s difficult to know if real allocated silver in the form of London Good Delivery silver bars is backing these Deutsche Bank db ETCs, let alone trying to figure how many silver bars are in a JP Morgan vault in London backing these Deutsche products. We can therefore use 462.5 tonne for Deutche but with a caveat that there is no current silver bar weight lists or independent audit documents.
Total ETF Silver held in London LBMA Vaults
Adding up the silver held in the 11 ETFs profiled above yields the following table. In total, the 11 ETFs hold approximately 12,041 tonnes of silver (387.2 million troy ounces) across 4 vault operators. Brinks vaults hold 48% of the total, and JP Morgan vaults hold another 30%. HSBC and Malca Amit hold about 11% each of the remainder.
ETF Silver Holdings – Tonnes, for Silver stored in London LBMA Vaults
In terms of London Good Delivery silver bars, these 11 ETFs hold approximately 400,000 of these silver bars. Since the 3 Deutsche ETFs (ETCs) don’t have an available bar list, I converted the assumed troy ounce holdings to bar totals by assuming each bar held weighs 1000 ozs. Brinks stores over 191,000 of these Good delivery silver bars. That equates to nearly 6,400 pallets with 30 silver bars per pallet. If the pallets were stacked 6 high, and arranged in a square, that would be an area 32 pallets long by about 33 pallets wide. In addition, Brinks may also store silver on behalf of HSBC, or even on behalf of JP Morgan. Who knows?
According to the latest numbers on the BullionVault website (Daily Audit), BullionVault has 349,939.57 kgs of silver stored in London. That equates to 11,250,557 troy ozs of silver, or 350 tonnes of silver. This silver is stored in the form of London Good Delivery Silver Bars. According to the BullionVault website, BullionVault use Loomis as a custodian for storing silver bars in London:
Those with a BullionVault login can go in and view BullionVault’s latest silver bar weight list which has been generated by Loomis, but BullionVault don’t allow this list to be published externally. Suffice to say, the latest list, dated 11 May, lists 11,544 silver bars which are stored across nearly 400 pallets.
The GoldMoney website has a real-time audit page which currently states that GoldMoney has 202,057.614 kgs of silver. That equates to 6,496,153 troy ozs of silver, or 202 tonnes of silver stored in London. This silver is also stored with Loomis. At least some of this silver and probably a lot of it is in the form of London Good Delivery silver bars. Without being able to log in to the site properly, it’s not possible to see a bar list.
So between them, BullionVault and GoldMoney have 550 tonnes of silver stored in Loomis vaults in London. My guess is that Loomis (formerly Viamat) store precious metals in a warehouse in Shepperton Business Park, Govett Avenue, Shepperton, a warehouse which is in the corner of the business park, beside the railway track.
Adding this 550 tonnes of silver to the 12040 tonnes of silver held by the 11 ETFs above gives a figure of 12,590 tonnes. Let’s call it 12,600 tonnes. This is then the lower bound on the amount of physical silver in the LBMA vaults in London.
Thomson Reuters GFMS – “Custodian Vault” silver
On its ‘Silver Supply’ web page, the Silver Institute website has an interesting data table titled “Identifiable Above-Ground Silver Bullion Stocks” which lists 5 categories of above-ground silver stocks, namely ‘Custodian vaults’, ‘ETPs’, ‘Exchanges’, ‘Government’, and ‘Industry’.
What’s notable and striking about this table is that the ‘Custodian Vaults‘ category for 2016 amounts to a very large 1571.2 million troy ounces of silver (50,440 tonnes), and also the fact that this ‘Custodian vaults’ category is distinct from silver held in ‘Exchanges’ (such as COMEX and TOCOM) and ETPs / ETFs (such as the ETF products discussed above). The ‘Custodian Vaults’ category also does not include ‘Government’ stockpiles or ‘Industry’ inventories. The actual table and the data in the table are sourced from the Thomson Reuters GFMS “World Silver Survey” 2017 edition. As you will see below, this ‘Custodian Category’ refers to holdings of silver which are not reported, but which are stored in custodian vaults, including in the London vaults. This category therefore needs to be examined in the context of the LBMA’s imminent reporting of silver holdings in the LBMA London vaulting system.
You can also see from the above table that this 2016 Custodian Vaults figure of 1571.2 million ozs (50,440 tonnes) grew from a 2008 total of 615.6 million ozs (19,148 tonnes), so in eight years has risen more than 250%.
On pages 37-38 of this GFMS World Silver Survey 2017 (pdf – large file), GFMS makes some very interesting assertions. GFMS starts by defining what it calls Identifiable silver bullion stocks. It states:
‘Identifiable bullion stocks can be split into two categories: unreported GFMS stock estimates that are based on confidential surveys and field research; [and secondly] stocks that are reported.
“Unreported stocks include the lion’s share of our government category and our custodian vault category.”
“Reported inventories are predominantly held in ETPs..but also include some of the government and industry stockpiles.”
However, in the accompanying commentary to the above table, GFMS classifies all ETP, Exchange and Industry holdings as “Reported“, and all Custodian Vaults and Government holdings as “Unreported“. Therefore, it is useful to regroup the 2016 figures from the above table into a Reported category and an Unreported category, as the GFMS commentary then makes more sense. A regrouped table of the 2016 data is as follows, and illustrates that ‘Custodian Vault’ holdings of silver (none of which are reported) account for a whopping 61% of all above ground silver:
A GFMS bar chart in the 2017 World Silver Survey also underscores the dominant position of these (unreported) ‘Custodian Vault’ holdings:
GFMS goes on to say that in 2016 “Reported stocks were 36% of identifiable stocks“. Conversely, we can see that ‘Unreported’ silver stocks (Custodian Vaults and Government) were 64% of identifiable stocks.
GFMS says that for 2016 “71% of reported stocks were ETPs“, the rest being Exchange and Industry classifications. Exchanges refers to silver held in warehouses of COMEX (NY), TOCOM (Japan) and the SGE and SHFE (China). COMEX is currently reporting 209 million ouzs of silver in its approved warehouses in New York, of which 172 million ozs in Eligible and 37 million ozs is in the Registered category.
Interesting, but on a side note, GFMS also states in its 2017 silver report that as regards COMEX silver inventories:
“Eligible stocks reported by COMEX contain a portion that is allocated to ETPs”.
“At the end of 2016, the portion of COMEX Eligible stocks that was allocated to ETPs was around 16% of total COMEX eligible stocks.”
This will probably be an eye opener for those interested in COMEX silver warehouse stocks.
Addressing ‘Custodian Vault‘ stocks of silver, GFMS says that Europe’s share of Custodian Vault stocks was 488.7 million ozs (15,201 tonnes) in 2016 and accounted for 31% of total Custodian Vault stocks. Asian ‘Custodian Vault’ stocks of silver were just over 50% of the total with the remainder in North America (Canada and US).
Silver holdings in Custodian Vaults by Region, 2007 -2016. Source – GFMS World Silver Survey 2017
But what do these ‘Custodian Vault’ stocks of silver refer to?
GFMS does not provide a detailed answer, but merely mentions a number of examples, which themselves vary by region. For Asia GFMS says “the bulk of these stocks are located in China, and reflects stocks held in vaults at banks“, and also ” other parts of Asia, such as Singapore, have been increasing in popularity for storage of bars and coins in recent years“, while in India “global bullion banks increasingly seeking this location as a strategic point for silver vaulting in case the need arises.” There are also silver “stocks in Japan”. From a BullionStar perspective, we certainly are aware that there is a lot of silver bullion in vault storage in Singapore, so the GFMS statement is accurate here.
In North America, GFMS attributes the “growth in silver custodian vaulted stocks not allocated to ETPs” to a “drop in coin sales in North America last year“. In the 2016 edition of the World Silver Survey, GFMS said that the growth in custodian vault holdings was partially due to “the reallocation by some North American investors from their ETP holdings” [into custodian holdings].
Turning to Europe, GFMS says that the growth in Custodian vault silver holdings “can be attributed to increased institutional investor interest“. Therefore, according to GFMS, institutional investors in Europe are buying silver and holding real physical silver in Custodian vaults.
With 488.7 million ozs (15,201 tonnes) of silver held in Europe in ‘Custodian vaults’ that is not reported anywhere, at least some of this silver must be held in London, which is one of the world’s largest financial centers and the world’s highest trading volume silver market.
“Custodian vault stock data excludes ETP Holdings, but it is important to note that most custodians of ETP silver stocks also store silver in vaults that are not allocated to ETPs. the same is true of futures exchange warehouses.”
So how much of this 15,201 tonnes of ‘Custodian Vaults’ silver that is said to be in Europe is actually in London vaults? Apart from London, there would presumably also be significant physical silver holdings vaulted in Switzerland and to a lessor extent in countries such as Germany, the Netherlands and maybe Austria etc. So whats’s a suitable percentage for London? Given London’s extensive vaulting network and prominence as a hedge fund and institutional investment centre, a 40-50% share of the European ‘custodian vault’ silver holdings would not be unrealistic, with the other big percentage probably vaulted in Switzerland. This would therefore put previously ‘Unreported’ silver holdings in the London vaults at between 6080 tonnes and 7600 tonnes (or an additional 182,000 to 230,000 Good Delivery Silver bars).
Adding this range of 6080 – 7600 tonnes to the 12,040 tonne figure that the 11 ETFs above hold, gives a total figure of 18,120 – 19,640 tonnes of silver stored in the LBMA vaults in London (545,000 – 585,000 Good Delivery silver bars).
Note, BullionVault and GoldMoney silver is technically part of the ‘Custodian Vault’ figure, so can’t be counted twice.
ps: In its 2017 World Silver Survey, GFMS also stated that in 2016, ETPs (ETFs) held 664.8 million ounces of silver “with 75% of the total custodian vaulted stocks [that were] allocated to ETPs held in Europe and 24% in North America. Asia makes up the balance of less than 1%.“. This would mean that as of the date of the GFMS calculation for 2016, 498.6 million ounces of ETF silver was vaulted in Europe.
Above, I have accounted for 387.1 million ounces of silver that is currently stored in London on behalf of 11 ETFs. There are also 3 Swiss Silver ETFs which store their silver in Switzerland. These are ZKB (currently with 74.9 million ozs), Julius Baer (currently with 13.7 million ozs) and UBS (currently with 5.89 million ozs), giving a total of 94.49 million ozs of silver for these 3 Swiss based platforms. Therefore, between London vaults and vaults in Switzerland, there are currently 14 ETFs that together hold 481.6 million ounces of vaulted silver (14,980 tonnes of vaulted silver).
When the LBMA finally manages to publish its first report on the silver and gold stored in the LBMA vaults in London in the coming days, we will have a clearer picture of how much physical silver is actually in these mysterious and opaque vaults.
A lower bound based on ETF holdings and BullionVault and GoldMoney holdings would be about 12600 tonnes of silver. A higher bound that also reflects ‘Custodian Vault’ holdings could be in the region of 18120 – 19640 tonnes of silver. There would probably also be some LBMA bullion bank float, which may or may not be included in ‘Custodian Vault’ figures, that could push the silver total to over 20,000 tonnes or more.
The LBMA perennially claims that it wants to bring transparency to the London precious metals market. This has been a very hollow mantra for a long time now. However, while some of the LBMA members may want this transparency, others, possibly some of the powerful bullion banks or their clients, certainly don’t want transparency. Take a case in point. At the Asia Pacific Precious Metals Conference (APPMC) in Singapore in early June, the LBMA CEO in a speech to the conference talked about the difficulty of even getting a press release out about the upcoming publication of gold and silver vault holdings data. She said (fast forward to 8:37 in the below video):
“It was actually a huge achievement just to get the press release out.”
For what is supposed to be a mature and efficient financial marketplace, this is a truly bizarre occurrence, and it must be pretty obvious that some of the vested interests in the London gold and silver markets needed to be dragged kicking and screaming over the finish line as regards being in any way open about how much gold and silver is actually in these LBMA London vaults.
But now, according to the LBMA CEO in the same part of her speech, even so-called “credible investors” (as opposed to uncredible investors?) also “find it a little odd that as a marketplace, there’s no data“, which may explain the vampires within the LBMA being dragged into the daylight.
Hopefully with the above analysis and the upcoming aggregated LBMA silver vaulting numbers, these “credible investors” (and the hundreds of millions of other silver investors around the world) will now be less in the dark about the amount of silver in the London LBMA vaulting network, and will now have better information with which to make investment decisions when buying silver and selling silver.
An article in February on BullionStar’s website titled “A Chink of Light into London’s Gold Vaults?” discussed an upcoming development in the London Gold Market, namely that both the Bank of England (BoE) and the commercial gold vault providers in London planned to begin publishing regular data on the quantity of physical gold actually stored in their gold vaults.
Critically, this physical gold stored at both the Bank of England vaults and the commercial London vaults underpins the gargantuan trading volumes of the London Gold Market and the same market’s ‘liquidity’. Therefore, a new vault holdings dataset would be a very useful reference point for relating to London’s ‘gold’ trading volumes as well as relating to data such as the level and direction of the gold price, the volume of gold held in gold-backed Exchange Traded Funds (ETFs), UK gold import and export statistics, and Swiss and Hong Kong gold imports and exports.
The impending publication of this new gold vault data was initially signalled by two sources. Firstly, in early February, the Financial Times (FT) wrote a story claiming that the London Bullion Market Association (LBMA) planned to begin publishing 3 month lagged physical gold storage data for the entire London gold vaulting network, that would, according to the FT:
“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 “gold clearing banks” are the bullion bank members of London Precious Metals Clearing Limited (LPMCL), namely, HSBC, JP Morgan, ICBC Standard Bank, Bank of Nova Scotia – Scotia Mocatta, and UBS. HSBC and JP Morgan operate precious metals vaults in London. See profile of JP Morgan’s London vault and a discussion of the HSBC vault . ICBC Standard Bank also maintains a vault in London which is operated on its behalf by Brinks.
The second publication to address the new gold vault data was the World Gold Council. On 16 February, addressing just the Bank of England vaults, the World Gold Council wrote in its Gold Investor publication that:
“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.”
“The data reveals the total weight of gold held within the Bank of England’s vaults and includes five years of historical data.”
While I had been told by a media source that the London vault data would be released in the first quarter of 2017, at the time of writing, there is still no sign of any LBMA vault holdings data covering the commercial vault operators in London. However, the Bank of England has now gone ahead and independently released its own numbers covering gold held in the Bank of England gold vaults. These gold vaults, of which there are between 8 – 10 (the number fluctuates), are located on the 2 basement levels of the Bank of England headquarters in the City of London.
In an updated web page on the Bank of England’s website simply titled ‘Gold’, the Bank of England has now added a section titled ‘Bank of England Gold Holdings’ and has uploaded an Excel spreadsheet which contains end-of-month gold holdings data covering every month for a 6-year period up to the end of December 2016, i.e. every month from January 2011 to December 2016 i.e. 72 months.
According to the Bank of England, the data in the spreadsheet shows:
“the weight of gold held in custody on the last business day of each month. We publish the data with a minimum three-month lag.
Values are given in thousands of fine troy ounces. Fine troy ounces denote only the pure gold content of a bar.
We only accept bars which comply with London Bullion Market Association (LBMA) London Good Delivery (LGD) standards. LGD bars must meet a certain minimum fineness and weight. A typical gold bar weighs around 400 oz.
Historic data on our gold custody holdings can be found in our Annual Report.”
Prior to this spreadsheet becoming available, the Bank of England only ever divulged gold vault quantity data once a year within its Annual Report, for year-end reporting date end of February.
You will appreciate that the new spreadsheet, having data for every month of the year, and for 72 months of data retrospectively, conveys a lot more information than having just one snapshot number per year in an annual report. Therefore, the Bank of England has gone some way towards improving transparency in this area.
Before looking at the new data and what it reveals, it’s important to know what this data relates to. The Bank of England provides gold custody (storage) services to both central banks and a number of large commercial banks. Large commercial banks which trade gold are commonly known as bullion banks, and are mostly the high-profile and well-known investment banks.
On its gold web page, the Bank highlights this fact – that it provides gold custody service to both central banks and commercial banks:
“We provide safe custody for the United Kingdom’s gold reserves, and for other central banks. This supports financial stability by providing central banks with access to the liquidity of the London gold market.
We also provide gold accounts to certain commercial firms that facilitate access for central banks to the London gold market.”
In the London Gold Market, the word “liquidity” is a euphemism for gold loans, gold swaps, and gold trading including gold sales. This reference to central banks accessing the London Gold Market as being in some way supportive of ‘financial stability’ is also an eye-opener, since reading between the lines, the Bank of England is conceding that by accessing the London Gold Market’s “liquidity” via bullion banks, these central bank clients are either contributing to direct stabilisation of the gold price in some shape or form, or else are using their gold operations to raise foreign currencies for exchange rate intervention and/or system liquidity. But both routes are aiming at the same outcome. i.e. stability of the financial system.
At the end of the day, the gold price has always been a barometer that central banks strive to keep a lid on and which they aim to stabilise or smoothen the gyrations of, given that the alternative – a freely formed and unmanipulated gold price – would thwart their coordination of fiat currency exchange rates, interest rates and inflation targets.
Interestingly, in addition to the new spreadsheet of gold holdings data, the Bank of England gold web page now includes a link to a new 1 page ‘Gold Policy’ pdf document, which, looking at the pdf document’s properties, was only created on 30 January 2017. This document therefore also looks like it was written in conjunction with the new gold vault data rollout.
The notion of central banks accessing the liquidity of the London Gold Market via bullion banks is further developed in this Gold Policy document also. The document is quite short and merely states the following:
“GOLD ACCOUNTS AT THE BANK OF ENGLAND
1. The Bank primarily offers gold accounts to central bank customers. This is to support financial stability by providing central banks with secure custody for their gold reserves and access to the liquidity of the London gold market (particularly given the Bank’s location).
2. To facilitate, either directly or indirectly, access for central banks to the liquidity of the London gold market, the Bank will also consider providing gold accounts to certain commercial firms. In deciding whether to provide an account, the Bank will be guided by the following criteria.
a. The firm’s day to day activities must support the liquidity of the London gold market. b. Specifically, the Bank may have regard to a number of factors including but not limited to: evidence of active or prospective trading with a central bank customer; or whether the firm has committed to honour buy and sell prices.
3. Access to a gold account remains at the sole discretion of the Bank.
4. The Bank will review this policy periodically.”
The Vault Data
Nick Laird has now produced a series of impressive charts of this new Bank of England data on his website GoldChartsRUS. Plotting the series of 72 months of gold holdings data over January 2011 to December 2016 yields the below chart.
On average, the Bank’s vaults held 5457 tonnes of gold over this 6 year period. The minimum amount of gold held was 4693 tonnes at the end of March 2016, while the maximum quantity of gold held was 6250 tonnes at the end of February 2013.
The overall trend in the chart is downward with a huge outflow of gold bars from the bank’s vaults from the end of February 2013 to the end of March 2016.
As of January 2011, the BoE held just over 5500 tonnes of gold bars in its vaults. Gold holdings rose until the end of August 2011 and peaked at nearly 5900 tonnes before falling to 5600 tonnes at year-end 2011. Overall in 2011, the holdings fluctuated in a 400 tonne range, trending up during the first 8 months, and down during the latter 4 months.
This downtrend only lasted until January 2012, at which point BoE gold holdings totalled about 5450 tonnes. For the remainder of 2012, BoE gold under custody rose sharply, reaching 6200 tonnes by the end of 2012, a level near the ultimate peak in this 6 year chart. The year 2012 was therefore a year of accumulation of gold bars at the Bank during which 750 tonnes were added.
The overall maximum peak was actually 6250 tonnes at the end of February 2013, after which a sustained downtrend evolved through the remainder of 2013. By December 2013, gold under custody at the Bank of England had fallen to 5670 tonnes, creating an overall outflow of 580 tonnes of gold bars during 2013.
The outflow of gold continued during 2014 with another 470 tonnes flowing out of the Bank, leading to end of year 2014 gold holdings of just 5200 tonnes. The outflow also continued all through 2015 with only 4780 tonnes of gold in custody at the end of December 2015. The Bank therefore lost another 440 tonnes of gold bars in 2015.
Overall, that makes an outflow of 1490 tonnes of gold from the Bank’s vaults over the 3 years from 2013 to 2015 inclusive. This downtrend lingered for 3 more months, with another 80 tonnes lost, which brought the end of March 2016 and end of April 2016 figures to a level of about 4700 tonnes, which is the overall trough on the chart. It also means that there was a net outflow of 1570 tonnes of gold bars from the Bank’s vaults from the end of February 2013 to the end of March / April 2016.
A new uptrend / inflow trend began at the end of April 2016 and continued to the end of November 2016, where gold custody holdings peaked again at about 5123 tonnes before levelling off at the end of December 2016 at 5102 tonnes. Therefore, from the end of April 2016 to the end of December 2016, the Bank of England vaults added 400 tonnes of gold bars.
The gold holdings of the vast majority of central banks have remained stagnant over the 2011 – 2016 period, the exceptions being the central banks of China and Russia. But Russia buys domestically mined gold and stores it in vaults in Moscow and St Petersburg, so this would not affect gold holdings at the Bank of England. China’s central bank, the People’s Bank of China (PBoC), is known to buy its gold on the international market, including the London Gold Market. It then monetizes this gold (classifies it as monetary gold), and airlifts it back to China. But these Chinese purchases don’t show up in UK gold exports because monetary gold is exempt from trade statistics reporting. However, if China was surreptitiously buying gold from other central banks with gold accounts at the Bank of England or buying gold from bullion banks with gold accounts at the BoE, then some of the gold outflows from the BoE could be PBoC gold purchases. But without central bank specific data, its difficult to know.
But what is probably true is that the fluctuations in the quantity of gold stored in the Bank of England vaults are more do to with the gold holdings of bullion banks and less to do with the gold holdings of central banks, for the simple reason that central bank gold holdings are relatively static, or the least the central banks claim that their gold holdings are static. This does not take into account the gold lending market which the central banks and bullion banks go to great lengths to keep secret.
There is also a noticeable positive correlation between the movement of the US Dollar gold price and the inflows/outflows of gold to and from the Bank of England vaults, as the above chart demonstrates.
Bullion Bank gold accounts at the BoE
One basic piece of information that the Bank of England’s new vault storage data lacks is an indication of how many central banks and how many commercial banks are represented in the data.
In its first quarterly report from Q1 2014,the Bank of England states that 72 central banks operate gold accounts at the bank of England, a figure which includes a few official sector organisations such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF), European Central Bank (ECB), and Bank for International Settlements (BIS). This number would not have changed much in the meantime, so we can assume that the gold holdings of about 72 central banks are represented in the new data. But the number of commercial banks holding gold accounts at the Bank of England is less clear-cut.
The 5 gold clearing banks of the LPMCL all hold gold accounts at the Bank of England. Why? Because it says so on the LPMCL website:
“Each member of LPMCL has vaulting facilities under its control for the storage of gold and/or silver, plus in the case of gold bullion, account facilities at the Bank of England, which have contributed to the development of bullion clearing in London.”
The LPMCL also states that its clearing statistics include:
“Transfers over LPMCL Clearing Members’ accounts at the Bank of England.”
Additionally, the LPMCL website states that their
“clearing and vaulting services help facilitate physical precious metal movement logistics, location swaps, quality swaps and liquidity management.”
The Bank of England’s reference in its new ‘Gold Policy’ document to commercial banks needing to be “committed to honour buy and sell prices” is a reference to market makersand would cover all 13 LBMA market makers in gold, which are the 5 LPMCL members and also BNP Paribas, Citibank, Goldman Sachs, Merrill Lynch, Morgan Stanley, Société Générale, Standard Chartered Bank, Toronto-Dominion Bank. But there are also gold trading banks that make a market in gold which are not officially LBMA market makers, such as Commerzbank in Luxembourg which claims to be one of the biggest bullion banks in the world.
So I would say that lots of other bullion banks (of which there about 40 in total) have gold accounts at the Bank of England in addition to the 13 official LBMA market makers.
More fundamentally, any bullion bank that is engaged in gold lending with central banks (the central banks being the lenders and the bullion banks being the borrowers) would need a gold account at the Bank of England. I counted 28 bullion banks that have been involved with borrowing the gold of just one central bank, the central bank of Bolivia (Banco Central de Bolivia – BCB) between 1998 and 2016. Some of these banks have since merged or exited precious metals trading, but still, it gives an estimate of the number of bullion banks that have been involved in the gold lending market. The Banco Central de Bolivia’s gold lending activities will be covered in some forthcoming blog posts.
Bullion banks that are Authorised Participants (APs) for gold-backed ETFs such as the SPDR Gold Trust (GLD) or iShares Gold Trust (IAU) may also have gold accounts at the Bank of England. I say may have, because in practice the APs leave it up to the custodians such as HSBC and JP Morgan to allocate or deallocate the actual physical gold flowing in and out of the ETFs, but HSBC on occasion uses the Bank of England as a sub-custodian for GLD gold (see “SPDR Gold Trust gold bars at the Bank of England vaults” for details), so if some of the APs want to keep their own stash of allocated physical gold in relation to ETF trading, it would make sense for them to have a gold account at the Bank of England.
As to how much gold the GLD stores at the Bank of England and how regularly this occurs is still opaque because the SEC does not require the GLD filings to be very granular, however there is a very close correlation between inflows and outflows from GLD and the inflows and outflows from the Bank of England vaults, as the following chart clearly illustrates.
As gold was extracted from the GLD beginning in late 2012, a few months later the Bank of England gold holdings began to shrink also. This trend continues all the way through 2013, 2014 and 2015. Then as the amount of gold began to increase in the GLD at the end of 2015, the gold holdings at the Bank of England began to increase also. Could this be bullion banks extracting gold from the GLD, then holding this gold at the Bank of England and then subsequently exporting it out of the UK?
Some of it could, but UK gold net exports figures suggest that gold was withdrawn from both the Bank of England vaults and from the ETF gold stored at commercial gold vaults (run by HSBC and JP Morgan), after which it was exported.
Looking at the above chart which plots Bank of England gold holdings and UK gold imports and exports (and net exports) is revealing. As Nick Laird points out in this chart, over the 2013 to 2015 period during which the Bank of England gold holdings fell by 1500 tonnes, there were UK net gold export flows of 2500 tonnes, i.e. 2500 tonnes of gold flowed out of London gold vaults, so an additional 1000 tonnes had to come from somewhere apart from the Bank of England vaults.
The new monthly vault holdings data from the Bank of England can now also be compared to the amount of gold reported by the Bank of England in its annual reports. The figures the Bank reports in the annual report are as of the end of February. These figures are only reported in Pounds Sterling, not quantities, so they need to be either converted to USD and divided by the USD LBMA Gold Price on the last day of February, or else just divided by the GBP LBMA Gold Price on that day.
For end of February 2015, the calculated total for gold held at the Bank of England (based on the annual report) came out at 5,134 tonnes. Now the Bank of England data says 5126 tonnes which is very close to the calculation. For February 2016, the calculation came out at 4725 tonnes. The new Bank of England data now says 4730 tonnes, so that’s pretty close also.
This new Bank of England data is welcome and the Bank of England has taken a step towards greater transparency. However, it would be more useful if the Bank published a breakdown of how much of this gold is held by central banks and how much is held by bullion banks, along with the number of central banks and number of bullion banks that the data represents. Two distinct sets of data would be ideal, one for central bank custody holdings and the other for bullion bank custody holdings. The Bank most likely would never publish two sets of data as it would show bullion bank gold storage activity for the whole world to see.
While the Bank of England has now followed through with its promise to publish its gold vault holdings, the LBMA has still not published gold vault data for the commercial gold vault providers, i.e. its members HSBC, JP Morgan, ICBC Standard Bank, Brinks, Malca Amit, Loomis and G4S. Where is this data, why is there a delay, and why has it not yet been published?
As a reminder, the Financial Times article in early February said that the LBMA would publish gold vault holdings data that would:
“show gold bars held by the BoE, the gold clearing banks, and those [vaults] operated by the security companies such as Brink’s”
The Financial Times article also said that:
“HSBC and JPMorgan, London’s biggest bullion banks, are backing the initiatives by the LBMA to improve transparency.”
With the gold holdings data on the other London vaults still not published, it begs the question, has there been a change of mind by HSBC and JP Morgan, two of the LBMA’s largest and most powerful members?
“Reputedly [the Bank of England vaults are] the second largest vault in the world with approximately 500,000 gold bars held in safe custody on behalf of its customers, including LBMA members, central banks, international financial institutions and Her Majesty’s Treasury.”
A holding of 500,000 Good Delivery gold bars is equal to 6250 tonnes. However, according to the Bank of England’s own figure for month end December 2016, the Bank of England only holds 5100 tonnes of gold in custody (408,000 Good delivery gold bars). Therefore, the LBMA is overstating the Bank of England’s holdings by 1150 tonnes, unless, and it’s unlikely, that the BoE vaults have seen huge gold bar inflows in the last 4 months.
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 Friday 3 March 2017, in a surprise announcement with implications for the global silver market, the London Bullion Market Association (LBMA) informed its members that the current administrator and calculation agent of its recently launched LBMA Silver Price auction, Thomson Reuters and the CME Group respectively, will be pulling out of providing their services to the problematic London-based silver price benchmark within the near future. Thomson Reuters and the CME Group issued identical statements.
This is surprising because Thomson Reuters and the CME Group only began administering / calculating the LBMA Silver Price auction two and a half years ago in August 2014, when, amid much hubris, the duo were awarded the contract after a long-drawn-out and high-profile tender process. Notably, the Thomson Reuters / CME contract with the LBMA was for a 5-year term running up to and into 2019. So the duo are now pulling out mid-way through a contract cycle.
More surprisingly, in their statements of 3 March, the LBMA / Thomson Reuters and CME allude to the European Benchmark Regulation being in some way responsible for the hasty departure. However, given that the units of CME and Thomson Reuters that are parties to the LBMA contract are their specialist benchmark units “CME Benchmark Europe Limited” and “Thomson Reuters Benchmark Services Limited”, which specialise in administering and calculating benchmarks, this excuse makes no sense.
In essence, this development is an embarrassment for all concerned and could lead to further reputational damage for the parties involved. It also now re-focuses market scrutiny on an area which the LBMA and its associates could well wish to forget, i.e. the former London silver fixing run by the infamous London Silver Market Fixing Limited, a company which itself is still one of the defendants, along with HSBC, Bank of Nova Scotia and Deutsche Bank, in a live New York class action suit that is scrutinizing the manipulation of the London silver price.
LBMA Silver Price: A Regulated Benchmark
Note that the LBMA Silver Price benchmark is now a “Regulated Benchmark” under United Kingdom HM Treasury Legislation, and is one of 8 financial market benchmarks regulated by the UK’s Financial Conduct Authority (FCA). So this is not some backwater obscure benchmark that we are talking about here. This is a benchmark with far-reaching effects on the global precious metals markets and a sister of the LBMA Gold Price benchmark. The reference prices from these benchmarks are used from everything from valuing Exchange Traded Funds (ETFs) to being the price reference points in ISDA swaps and bullion bank structured products such as barrier options.
According to the LBMA’s usual public relations mouthpiece Reuters, which relayed the news to the broader market on 3 March, the LBMA will be:
“looking to identify a new provider in the summer, and have the new platform up and running in the autumn”
This dramatic “exit stage right” by Thomson Reuters and the CME Group is a far cry from their initial and continued corporate spin of being committed to the silver price auction, which they claimed both at auction launch in August 2014, and also as recently as 2016 when they grovelled with promises of process improvement and wider participation in the auction in the wake of the silver price manipulation fiasco in the LBMA Silver Price auction on 28 January 2016.
On 15 August 2014, the day the LBMA Silver Price auction was launched, William Knottenbelt, MD at CME Group stated:
“Through our existing relationships with market participants and the broader silver marketplace we are uniquely positioned to provide a seamless transition for the spot silver benchmark in London.”
“CME Group has a long and successful history of offering benchmark risk management and price discovery solutions for the global precious metals markets.”
Then, on 22 March 2016, when CME and Thomson Reuters introduced some changes to the auction in the wake of the 28 January 2016 auction price manipulation, both parties released more spin on their continued commitment to the auction. Thomson Reuters’ Head of Benchmark Services, Tobias Sproehnle, in a statement that now looks to be hollow, said:
“these changes together with a comprehensive consultation with the broader silver community – producers, intermediaries and consumers - are a further demonstration of Thomson Reuters and CME Group’s commitment to providing innovative, market leading benchmarks for the Silver market.“
While Gavin Lee, the head of CME Benchmark Services, led with an equally hubristic statement that:
“in consultation with Silver market participants, we are always looking for new ways to develop this benchmark further“
These statements from CME and Thomson Reuters, less than a year ago, run totally contrary to the fact that the duo are now going to abandon the LBMA Silver Price auction ship, which will necessitate the appointment of a replacement administrator and calculation agent. Where is the continued “commitment” to the silver benchmark and the silver market that they were we eager to espouse last March?
Why the Hasty Departure?
According to the Reuters news report last Friday 3 March:
“A spokesman for Thomson Reuters confirmed the company was stepping down from the process. CME could not immediately be reached for comment.”
Not very informative or cooperative from either party when one of the providers was not even available to explain its exit rationale, and the other merely confirms a fact to its in-house news arm, a fact which the LBMA had already announced earlier that day to its members.
“The forthcoming European Benchmark Regulation, due to be implemented in January 2018, prompted a review of the existing LBMA Silver Price administration arrangements and, in consultation with the LBMA, CME Group and Thomson Reuters have decided to step down from their respective roles in relation to the LBMA Silver Price auction.“
Before briefly looking at the relevance of this “European Benchmark Regulation”, which the Reuters news article even failed to mention, its notable that the CME / Thomson Reuters early withdrawal was also covered on 3 March by the MetalBulletin website.
According to MetalBulletin (subscription site), the above statement by CME is apparently part of an identical statement which the LBMA released to it members on Friday 3 March (the LBMA statement).
MetalBulletin adds in its commentary that:
“CME is looking to streamline its precious metals division, with contracts in this area being its fastest growing asset. The exchange wants to focus on its core products, Metal Bulletin understands.”
What MetalBulletin means by this I don’t know. The logic doesn’t make any sense. The sentence doesn’t even make sense. Benchmarks are a core product of CME group. CME even states that it offers:
“the widest range of global benchmark products across all major asset classes”
CME Benchmark Europe Limited was specifically set up in 2014 to provide the calculation platform for the LBMA Silver Price. Furthermore, CME has just launched a suite of silver and gold futures contracts for the London market (launched in late January 2017), the silver contract being the “London Spot Silver Futures (code SSP)“. Even though these CME contracts have had no trading interest so far, the CME claims that it is currently “working with major banks to synchronize their systems to start trading” these contracts (London Spot Silver Futures and London Spot Gold Futures).
So why would CME want to voluntarily ditch the provision of a high-profile London silver benchmark, when it could attain trading synergies between the LBMA Silver Price and its new London silver futures contracts, or at the very least improve brand recognition in the market? And not to forget CME and Thomson Reuters claim a”commitment to providing innovative, market leading benchmarks for the Silver market“.
European Benchmark Regulation
Turning to the new “European Benchmark Regulation”, what exactly is it, and why would it be relevant for the LBMA and CME and Thomson Reuters to mention the European benchmark Regulation in the context CME and Thomson Reuters pulling out of the LBMA Silver Price auction?
At its outset, the European Benchmark Regulation was proposed by the European Commission. The Commission’s proposal was also issued in coordination with a range of entities and initiatives such as MiFID, the Market Abuse Directive, the benchmark setting processes of the European Securities and Markets Authority (ESMA) and European Banking Authority (EBA), and also the IOSCO financial benchmark principles.
improve governance and controls over the benchmark process, in particular to ensure that administrators avoid conflicts of interest, or at least manage them adequately
improve the quality of input data and methodologies used by benchmark administrators
ensure that contributors to benchmarks and the data they provide are subject to adequate controls, in particular to avoid conflicts of interest
protect consumers and investors through greater transparency and adequate rights of redress.
The Regulation aims to address potential issues at each stage of the benchmark process and will apply in respect of:
the provision of benchmarks
the contribution of input data to a benchmark, and
the use of a benchmark within the EU.
All of these goals aspired to by the legislation of the European Benchmark Regulation seem reasonable and would benefit users of the LBMA Silver Price auction, so given the above, it seems very bizarre that CME and Thomson Reuters and the LBMA stated last Friday 3 March that:
“The forthcoming European Benchmark Regulation, due to be implemented in January 2018, prompted a review of the existing LBMA Silver Price administration arrangements…“
Remember that the CME and Thomson Reuters service providers to the LBMA Silver Price are their specialist benchmark units “CME Benchmark Europe Limited” and “Thomson Reuters Benchmark Services Limited”. That is what these units do, administer and calculate benchmarks. This European benchmark Regulation has been known about for a few years. Especially known about by the benchmark units of CME and Thomson Reuters. The Regulation didn’t suddenly appear out of nowhere last week, as the above statement is appearing to hint at.
And why such a brief and unclear statement from CME, Thomson Reuters and the LBMA? Is this European Benchmark Regulation just an excuse being thrown out to distract from other issues that might really be behind CME and Thomson Reuters stepping down.
Or perhaps CME and Thomson Reuters are aware of issues within the current administration of the LBMA Silver Price that would make it difficult to comply with the new legislation or that would make it too onerous to comply? But such rationale doesn’t make sense either because why are CME and Thomson Reuters not bailing out of the all the benchmarks that they are involved in? Furthermore, if the European Benchmark Regulation is a factor, why would any other benchmark service provider such as ICE Benchmark Administration (IBA) bother to pitch in the LBMA’s forthcoming tender process to find a replacement for Thomson Reuters and CME?
Perhaps CME and Thomson Reuters are worried about future reputation damage of being associated with the LBMA Silver Price due to some brewing scandal? Or perhaps the powerful bullion banks within the LBMA wanted to scupper any change that there will ever be wider participation or central clearing in any future version of the auction?
I will leave it to readers to do their own research on this and draw their own conclusions.
A Banking Cartel vs. Wider Auction Participation
One issue which has dogged the LBMA Silver Price auction since launch is that it never gained any level of “wider participation” or market representative participation. There are only 7 bullion banks authorised by the LBMA to be direct participants in the auction, and there are zero direct participants from the silver mining, silver refineries, and silver sectors.
This is despite the LBMA, CME and Thomson Reuters all misleading the global silver market on this issue on many occasions, and claiming that there would be very wide participation in the auction after it was launched. See BullionStar blog “The LBMA Silver Price – Broken Promises on Wider Participation and Central Clearing” for a huge amount of factual evidence to back up this statement, including webcasts by CME, Thomson Reuters and the LBMA, and an interview by Reuters with LBMA consultant Jonathan Spall, formerly of Barclays. Here are a few examples:
The LBMA’s Ruth Crowell was claiming back in July and August 2014 that they were interested in having 111 direct participants:
“clear demand for increased direct participation, and we had 25% of those 444 coming back saying they would be interested, and we’re still interested in having all of those participants on board”
“The advantage with centralised clearing, particularly for the pricing mechanism, is that we can really exponentially grow the amount of direct participants“
Jonathan Spall, LBMA Consultant stated that:
“The hope of course is that we get many more participants in the new benchmark process….while it is likely that we will start by having banks involved it is ultimately hoped that the wider market will participate, be they refiners, miners etc.“
“Ultimately – and as I said before – the intention is that there is much wider participation. So yes, refiners, miners etc.“
Harriett Hunnable, then of the CME Group, stated:
“So this is really the new world, this is not the old fixing…..this is wider participation…and the London bullion market is really encouraging that…this is the new world, or the LBMA Silver Price!”.
According to the CME / LBMA / Thomson Reuters presentations, there was supposed to be a “phase 3 introduction of centralised clearing”
“Central counterparty clearing will enable greater direct participation in the London Silver Price“
In summary, central clearing would allow direct participants to participate directly in the auction without the need for bi-lateral credit lines. However, the plan for central clearing was quietly dropped. The CME and Thomson Reuters have now had 32 months in which to introduce central clearing into the silver auction and it hasn’t happened. Nor will it now. The fact of the matter is that the LBMA banks do not want wider participation and they don’t want central clearing of auction trades either. These banks, which at the end of the day are just costly intermediaries, essentially want to monopolise the silver auction and prevent wider participation, and prevent true silver price discovery. Could it be the banks through their LBMA front that have sabotaged the contract with CME and Thomson Reuters so as to reset the contract and re-start another tender process that will ensure that no wider participation can ever see the light of day?
It’s also important to note that there is no way for miners and refiners to be direct participants in the auction. This is because the LBMA has designed the auction participant rules to keep out refiners and miners (and anyone else that is not a bullion bank). The rules are specifically designed so that only bullion banks can satisfy the LBMA’s Benchmark Participant criteria. See section 3.13 of the LBMA Silver Price auction methodology document accessible here.
Currently only 7 bullion banks are direct participants in the auction, namely HSBC, JPMorgan Chase, Bank of Nova Scotia (ScotiaMocatta), Toronto Dominion, UBS, Morgan Stanley, and China Construction Bank. Most of these banks are very influential on the LBMA Management Committee. HSBC, Scotia and Mitsui were in the auction from Day 1 on 15 August 2014. UBS joined the auction on 26 September 2014, JP Morgan Chase Bank joined on 14 October 2014, Toronto Dominion Bank joined on 6 November 2014. Mitsui left in either late 2015 or January 2016 (the exact date is unclear). China Construction Bank only joined the auction on 6 May 2016.
Lastly, Morgan Stanley only joined the LBMA Silver Price auction on 25 October 2016 (which is just 4 months ago), at which point the LBMA / CME and Thomson Reuters had the audacity to spin that 7 LBMA bullion banks trading in a shadowy auction of unallocated silver accounts in London somehow represents the global silver market:
CME: “The addition of another member brings greater depth and diversity to the market and underlines the ongoing globalisation of the Silver Price as a leading, liquid precious metals benchmark.”
Thomson Reuters: “With the addition of Morgan Stanley to the panel, the LBMA Silver Price provides even deeper insight into the global silver market. We continue to welcome new participants to this essential mechanism for the markets.”
LBMA: “They [Morgan Stanley] add depth and liquidity to the auction and I look forward to other market participants joining in the future.”
LBMA Silver Price is NOT Representative of Silver Market
But, to reiterate (and as was stated previously in this blog), the LBMA Silver Price auction isnot representative of the global Silver Market whatsoever, and it does not meet some of the simplest IOSCO benchmark requirements:
“IOSCO benchmark principles state that a benchmark should be a reliable representation of interest, i.e. that it should be representative of the market it is trying to measure. Interest is measured on metrics such as market concentration. In the Thomson Reuters methodology document (linked above), on page 11 under benchmark design principles, the authors estimate that there are 500-1000 active trading entities in the global silver market.”
The Thomson Reuters methodology document from August 2014 also admitted that “volumes in the LBMA Silver Price are a fraction of the daily volume traded in the silver futures and OTC markets”.
Why then are 7 LBMA bullion banks allowed to monopolize the representation of 500 – 1000 active trading entities from the global silver market within the auction, an auction that its worth remembering generates a silver reference price which is used as a global silver price reference and pricing source?
Refiners and Miners
Based on the current rules, the vast majority of the world’s silver refiners cannot directly take part in the LBMA Silver Price auction.
Only 8 precious metals refiners are Full Members of the LBMA while 25 refiners are associates of the LBMA. Of the 8 full members, 5 of these refiners are on the LBMA refiner Referee panel, namely, Argor-heraeus, Metalor and PAMP from Switzerland, Rand Refinery from South Africa, and Tanaka Kikinzoki Kogyo from Japan. These refiners were added to the panel as LBMA Associates in 2003, and were only made Full Members in 2012. The only reason they happened to be fast-tracked as full members of the LBMA was due to their status as Referees for the LBMA good delivery list. Even the other major Swiss based refinery Valcambi is still not a full member of the LBMA.
Based on the current participant criteria of the Silver auction, where only full LBMA members could conceivably become direct participants, 25 of the refiners that are LBMA Associates cannot directly take part in the auction even if they wanted to. Candidates for Full LBMA Membership also have to jump through a number of hoops based on sponsorship by existing members, business relationships, due diligence, and involvement in the precious metals markets.
For a refiner to even become a LBMA associate, the refiner must have already attained Good Delivery Status for its silver or gold bars. There are about 80 refineries on the LBMA’s current Good Delivery List for silver. The chance of the vast majority of these refiners taking part in the LBMA silver auction is nil since not only are they not LBMA full members, they aren’t even LBMA associates.
Based on the current auction criteria, it’s without doubt literally impossible for nearly all silver producers / miners on the planet to directly participate in the LBMA Silver Price auction. Precious metal mining companies are not normally officially connected to the LBMA, and would more naturally be members of the Silver Institute or World Gold Council or another mining sector organization. So it’s confusing as to why the LBMA even mentions mining companies as possible auction participants since there are no mining companies that are Full Members of the LBMA, so they cannot be participants in the silver auction. The only mining companies that are even “Associates” of the LBMA are Anglogold Ashanti and Coeur Mining.
In 2014, Coeur Mining’s treasurer, referring to the LBMA Silver auction said:
“We hope to have the opportunity to become a direct participant down the road and look forward to working with the LBMA, CME and other silver producers to drive the evolution of this market.”
The unfortunate Coeur Mining now looks like it has been strung along by the LBMA with empty promises that it can somehow someday participate in the silver auction, but this is literally a fiction given the way the auction rules are currently set up.
In its announcement on 3 March, the LBMA said that it will shortly launch a tender process to appoint a replacement provider. The LBMA told Reuters News:
“We would be looking to identify a new provider in the summer, and have the new platform up and running in the autumn”
However, given the abysmal track record of the LBMA Silver Price, the question that should really be asked at this time is why is the bullion bank controlled LBMA even allowed to be in charge of such an important “Regulated Benchmark” as a global silver price benchmark, a benchmark that has far-reaching effects on global buyers and sellers of silver.
Take a brief look back at how the last tender process run by the LBMA for the London silver price was handled.
“Not just our members, but ISDA members, and any legitimate members of the market were invited to the seminar. We also had observers from the FCA and the Bank of England. We wanted to keep [attendance] as wide-ranging as possible but to avoid anyone who perhaps would be disruptive“
What is this supposed to mean? To prevent anyone attending the seminar who might have a different view on how the global silver price benchmark should be operated that doesn’t align with the view of the LBMA?
The actual process of selecting the winning bid from the shortlist of tender applicants was only open to LBMA Full members and Seminar attendees via a 2nd round voting survey. The independent consultant review that was part of the selection process, was conducted by someone, Jonathan Spall, who was not independent of the former fixings and so should not have been involved in the process.
Promises of wider participation involving refiners and miners were abandoned. Promises of central clearing of auction traded were thrown out the window. Prior to launch, the auction platform was hastily built by Thomson Reuters and CME without an adequate market-wide solution for clearing silver trades. Another of the bidders, Autilla/LME, had a working auction solution which would have allowed wider market participation at August 15 2014 go-live, but this solution was rejected by the LBMA Management Committee, LBMA Market Makers and the LBMA Data Working Group, the groups which had the ultimate say in which applicant won the tender.
There were only 3 participants in the LBMA Silver Price auction (all of them banks) when it was launched in August 2014, and two of which, HSBC and Scotia, were parties to the former London Silver Fixing. The LBMA Silver Price auction was therefore an example of same old wine in a new bottle. The same 2 banks, HSBC and Scotia are now defendants in a silver price manipulation class action suit in New York. There are now only 7 direct participants in the LBMA Silver Price. These are all bullion banks. This is 32 months after the auction has been launched. The LBMA accreditation process specifically prevents refiners and miners from joining the auction. As there are 500 – 1000 trading entities of silver globally, the LBMA Silver Price mechanism is totally unrepresentative of the silver market.
The defection of CME and Thomson Reuters now provides a one-off opportunity for the global silver market to insist that the current scandal ridden current auction be scrapped and taken out of the hands of the bullion bank controlled London Bullion Market Association (LBMA). It is also an opportunity to introduce a proper silver price auction in its place that is structured to allow direct participation by hundreds of silver trading entities such as the world’s silver refiners and miners, an auction that employs central clearing to allow this wider participation, and an auction that is based on trading real physical silver and not the paper credits representing unallocated claims that the participating London bullion banks shunt around between themselves. This could help lead to real silver price discovery in the global silver market. However, the chances of this happening with the LBMA still involved in the new tender process are nil.
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.
UBS and other precious metals traders on how to wreak havoc in silver markets
Written by Allan Flynn, specialist researcher in aspects of gold and silver.
“An avalanche can be triggered by a pebble if you get the timing right”
Earlier this year at April’s hearings for London Silver and Gold Fix lawsuits, the judge and defendant’s attorney quipped about trader chats named “the mafia” and “the bandits” published in prosecutors findings of Forex investigations but conspicuously absent from precious metals investigation findings, and the silver and gold antitrust lawsuits under consideration.
THE COURT: “Those were bad facts for the defendants.”
LACOVARA: “I think, your Honor, that if we had chat rooms that said “The Cartel”, we might be having a different focus to oral argument today.”
THE COURT: “I think that is correct.”
Given the judges skepticism of the allegations described in an earlier article, it came as a surprise early October when the banks listed were ordered by magistrate Valerie E. Caproni to face charges. More surprising perhaps was the exemption granted Swiss bank UBS, which despite having been found guilty and fined for “precious metals misconduct” by the Swiss Financial Market Supervisory Authority FINMA in November 2014, was granted motion to dismiss from both silver and gold lawsuits.
All that may be about to change according to documents filed in a New York district court December 7th, where plaintiffs claim that transcripts showing conspiracy to manipulate silver, provided by Deutsche Bank as part of an April settlement agreement, includes extensive smoking gun evidence involving UBS and other banks. Plaintiffs describe a “multi-year, well-coordinated and wide-ranging conspiracy to rig the prices of silver and silver financial instruments that far surpasses” that of the previous complaint, including potentially incriminating evidence of UBS precious metals traders allegedly conspiring with other banks.
Five additional banks to the remaining defendants HSBC and Bank of Nova Scotia are mentioned including Barclays Bank, BNP Paribas, Standard Chartered Bank, Bank of America and Merrill Lynch. The Memorandum of Law signed by Vincent Briganti on behalf of Lowey Dannenberg Cohen & Hart for plaintiffs on Wednesday 7th December seeks leave to amend the existing complaint filed with the United States District Court Southern District of New York.
Included in the memo are numerous astounding transcripts indicating coordination between UBS and other banks of “pushing,” ”smashing,” ”bending,” ”hammering,” ”blading,” ”muscling,” and “ramping” the prices of silver and silver financial instruments.
In support of claims of conspiracy to manipulate the price of silver downward the following gem is attributed to UBS Trader A: “so we both went short” “f*cking hell it just kept going higher” “63,65, then my guy falls asleep, it goes to 69 paid!” “then finally another reinforcement came in.”
Discussions supposedly of coordination between UBS and their competitors about fixing the price of physical silver by offering only wide spreads between the bid and ask (where a “lac” is reference to an Indian measure equaling 100,000 units) go like this:
UBS Trader B: “what did u quote let me check”
Deutsche Bank Silver Fix Trader-Submitter A: “44/49”
UBS Trader A: “just quote wider if they call me in 1 lac I will quote 7-8 cents”
Deutsche Bank Trader B: “how wide u making 1 lac today 5 cents?”
UBS Trader A: “silver actually steadier than gold i would make 5-6 cents wide in silver”
UBS Trader A: how wide would you quote 5 lacs silver?”
Deutsche Bank Trader B: “10cu>?”
Deutsche Bank Trader B:”how wide u quote for 3 lacs?”
UBS Trader A: 10 cents”).
Manipulation of the Silver Fix price to benefit their silver trading positions in derivatives by UBS is claimed in the following exchanges:
Deutsche Bank Trader B: “u guys short some funky options” “well you told me to no one u just said you sold on fix”
UBS Trader A: “we smashed it good.”
Deutsche Bank Silver Fix Trader-Submitter A: “UBS boring the market again”…”just like them to bid it up before the fix then go in as a seller…they sell to try and push it back.”
It’s further alleged by plaintiffs that UBS implemented an “11 oclock rule” where both UBS and Deutsche Bank would short silver at 11A.M.
As examples of the comparative ease by which UBS moved the silver market the memo reveals Deutsche Bank Trader B added UBS Trader A to a chat with HSBC Trader B, which UBS Trader A deemed “the mother of all chats,” and leading to the trader’s own analysis:
UBS Trader A to Deutsche Bank Trader B: “if we are correct and do it together, we screw other people harder”
UBS Trader A: “an avalanche can be triggered by a pebble if you get the timing right” and “silver still here, u can easily manipulate silver”, and in reference to UBS supposed manipulative influence by an unnamed party: “u guys WERE THE SILVER MKT.”
UBS intended to reap financial rewards by manipulation of the price of physical silver and associated financial instruments, the memo says as UBS Trader A suggested: “go make your millions now jedi master…” “pls write me a check when u aer a billionare,” and “i teach u a fun trick with silver” to which Deutsche Bank Trader B replied: “show me the money.”
Confident of their ability to manipulate UBS made bold predictions according to the following alleged extracts:
UBS Trader A: “gonna bend this silver lower”; “i will bend it lower told u”; ”hah cool its gonna get ugly”; “use the blade on silver rg tnow it’ll hold it up,”
Deutsche Bank Trader B: “yeah,”
UBS Trader A: “gona blade silver now.”
Of course all the secrecy in the world about the operations was required of the chat groups by UBS Trader A stating: “pls keep all these trick to yourself,” “btw keep it to yourself…,” and “ok rule of thumb EVERYTHING here stays here.”
Examples of other banks alleged transcripts are included in the following:
Deutsche Bank Trader B instructing Barclays trader A: “today u smash,”
Barclays Trader A: “yeah” and “10k silver” “im short.”
It’s alleged that Barclays and Deutsche Bank shared information so often that Barclays Trader A remarked “we are one team one dream.”
Materials in the memo even include the Deutsche Bank and Barclays precious metals traders agreeing at one stage to “stay away” from silver for a week.
The traders of course knew it was terribly wrong with Barclays Trader A responding to Deutsche Bank’s Trader B instruction to “push silver”: “HAHAHA lol i don’t think this is politically correct leh on chat.”
Allegedly fixing the bid-ask spread they offered clients on silver:
Merrill Lynch Trader A: “How wide r u on spot? Id assume 10 cents for a few lacs?”
Deutsche Bank Silver Fix Trade-Submitter A: “im getting ntg but stops”
…Merrill Lynch Trader A: “we had similar” “I sweep them…Fuk these guys.”
Showing disregard to global regulators even after noting their activities the two continued to “sweep” the silver market, allegedly observing at one stage: “Someone got stopped messily.”
BNP Paribas Fortis
Fortis Bank Trader B allegedly conspired with Deutsche Bank to manipulate silver prices, using what he termed a “bulldozer” on the silver market.
Conversations between Deutsche Bank Silver Fix Trade-Submitter A and Standard Chartered Trader A as follows:
“Yeh” “small long out of the fix…” “ok where to sell sivler then?”
“23.40 thru that use it as a stop profit and let it runnnnnnnnnnnnn”
“were on the same wavelength”
“im long silver”…”ilke both [silver and gold] to get the absolute sht squeezed out of them” “im longer silver than i am gold”
Assuming the transcripts submitted are accepted and plaintiffs are permitted to file their Third Amended Complaint, the possible pending “avalanche” of settlements in silver lawsuits will speak volumes for the investigative prowess of the CFTC and the DOJ, both of which were commissioned to investigate long running allegations of silver and precious metals market manipulation over recent years, and came up completely empty.
It appears Judge Caproni, former FBI General Counsel, was on the money when considering the potential of ineptitude in government investigations of precious metals markets at April’s gold hearing: “I don’t put a lot of stock in the fact that there are investigations because I was a government lawyer for a long time and I know what you need to open an investigation. By the same token, the fact that they closed it without charging anybody doesn’t mean that everybody is innocent. So I don’t put a lot of stock in it one way or the other.”
The CFTC proudly announced in September 2013 they had spent five years and seven thousand enforcement hours investigating complaints of manipulation in the silver market, including with assistance by the Commission’s Division of Market Oversight, the Commission’s Office of Chief Economist, and outside experts, but yet found nothing.
The Department of Justice Antitrust Division which were so confident of their investigation of collusion in precious metals they went to the extraordinary lengths in January of this year of providing a letter to silver and gold lawsuit defendants advising they had closed their investigation without findings of wrongdoing.
The Swiss Financial Services watchdog FINMA investigated, published and prosecuted UBS for forex and precious metals trading misconduct but yet said so little about precious metals findings in their November 2014 investigation report, it was impossible for the court to withstand UBS motion to dismiss in both metals.
And finally of the ability of authorities to reign in rogue banks in the precious metals or any other markets, the memorandum flags a fact that should draw the attention of those trying to figure out if they can indeed trust that their bullion bank has their best interests at heart simply by banning participation in trader chat rooms.
“The chats contained in the DB material are just the tip of the iceberg, as evidence suggests that Defendants intentionally communicated in undocumented ways to keep their manipulation hidden.”
For example the memo includes the salient reminder that banks willalways find a way “to evade detection,” in this case where two traders are described as also communicating “via email and personal cell phone.”
The above article was first published at Allan Flynn’s website here.
Allan Flynn is a specialist researcher in aspects of gold and silver. He is currently investigating for future publication on the same topic and works in property and commercial architecture when he needs to eat. He holds shares in precious metals producers and banks.
News has just emerged in the gold market that the giant Swiss precious metals refiner, Argor-Heraeus, has held discussions to be acquired, and that the likely outcome is an acquisition by a private equity group. This private equity group is believed to be London-based WRM CapInvest, part of Zurich headquartered WRM Capital. Other interested buyers are also believed to have examined a bid for Argor-Heraeus, including Japanese refining group Asahi and Swiss refining group MKS-PAMP, however, neither of these are thought to be in the running at this stage. Since this news is developing, details of the discussions and potential acquisition are still thin on the ground.
If Argor-Heraeus is acquired, it will mean that 3 of the 4 giant Swiss gold refineries will have been taken over within less than a year and a half of each other.
In July 2015, Indian headquartered Rajesh Exports, the world’s largest gold jewellery fabricator, announced the agreed acquisition of the giant Swiss gold refinery Valcambi. See BullionStar article “Swiss Gold Refineries and the sale of Valcambi” for full details. In July 2016, Japanese precious metals refiner Tanaka Kikinzoku Kogyo K.K , part of the Tanaka Precious Metals group, announced the agreed acquisition of Metalor Technologies, another of the large Swiss gold refineries. Retrospectively, the acquisition of Valcambi by Rajesh Exports now looks to have initiated a flurry of take-over activity in the normally low-key Swiss precious metals refining world.
While Metalor is based in Marin-Epagnier in the Canton of Neuchâtel in northwest Switzerland, the other 3 giant Swiss gold refineries, Argor-Heraeus, Valcambi and MKS-owned PAMP are all located literally within a few kilometres of each other in the Italian speaking Canton of Ticino, in southern Switzerland, near the Swiss-Italian border. Argor-Heraeus is in Mendrisio, Valcambi is in Balerna, and PAMP is in Castel San Pietro. Mendrisio is 4 kms from Balerna and 2kms from Castel San Pietro.
The Golden Triangle of Swiss gold refineries, Canton of Ticino
Commerzbank owns 32.7% of Argor-Heraeus’ share capital. The Austrian Mint holds another 30% of Argor-Heraeus shares. In its annual report, Heraeus doesn’t reveal its holding in Argor-Heraeus, but with the Austrian Mint and Commerzbank owning a combined 62.7%, this means 40.2% of the shares are held by Heraeus and Argor-Heraeus management. On the Argor-Heraeus website, Heraeus is listed first on the shareholder list, which could signify that it’s the largest shareholder. This would put Heraeus’ shareholding above Commerzbank’s 32.7% stake, and mean that Argor-Heraeus management probably hold a shareholding somewhere below 7%.
A Precedent for Private Equity Ownership
Interestingly, there is a precedent of private equity ownership in the Swiss precious metals refining sector. Until Tanaka’s take-over of Metalor technologies last July, Metalor was majority owned by French private equity company Astorg Partners and Belgian private equity company Sofina, which between them held approximately 60% of Metalor’s shares. The remainer of Metalor’s shares were held by Metalor management, as well as by Martin Bisang and Daniel Schlatter. Bisang and Schlatter are connected with Swiss boutique investment bank Bellevue Group, which has in the past also acted as a strategic adviser to Metalor. Bisang had bought into Metalor in 1998 along with Swiss executives Ernst Thomke, Rolf Soiron and Giorgio Behr, and an additional group of Swiss executives bought into Metalor in 2004. These additional buyers were a secretive bunch, only known as the ‘Partners Only’, a group which was said by Swiss media at the time to have been connected to the Swiss Roche group.
Likewise, when Valcambi was sold to Rajesh Exports in July 2015, the then owners of Valcambi were a combination of US gold mining company Newmont (with an approximate 60% shareholding) and a group of shy Swiss private investors (who held the remaining shares) the largest of which were Emilio Camponovo and the Camponovo family. Technically, you could call these Swiss private investors direct private equity investors, or equivalent.
Even the PAMP refinery, which is owned by the Geneva based MKS-PAMP group, could be described as private equity, or at least concentrated privately-owned equity, since the group is controlled by the founding Shakarchi family. Note that MKS-PAMP has a parent company MKS PAMP Group BV based in Amsterdam, but this appears to be purely for corporate structure reasons.
The Sellers – Heraeus, Commerzbank and Austrian Mint
Since Argor-Heraeus has multiple owners, any sale would in theory be more complex than if the refinery only had a single owner. Looking quickly at the current owners, Commerzbank in its bullion banking marketing literature usually draws attention to the fact that its partial owner of a gold refinery, and uses this as a selling point by trumpeting the fact that it has direct connections to the physical gold world. Selling Argor would probably be a negative for Commerzbank, however, it may need the cash given that german banking is in a crisis at the moment. The Austrian Mint is owned by the Austrian central bank (OeNB), which in turn is owned by the Austrian State. Any sale of the Austrian Mint’s shares in Argor would be a one-off profit boost to the OeNB. In 2015, the Austrian Mint sold a stake it held in Casinos Austria (yes, a casino company), so maybe the Mint has a new-found strategy to jettison its non-core investments. Although presumably the Mint gets preferential precious metal supply from Argor, or one would think that it does.
Heraeus also has close relationships with Argor-Heraeus, for example, in the production of various precious metals products, so a sale by Heraeus of its stake in Argor could in theory affect these synergistic relationships. All of these shareholders also receive a substantial annual cash dividend from Argor-Heraeus which is a nice to have to say the least. Selling their stakes would obviously be a loss of their cash dividends. I personally was surprised that Argor-Heraeus would be up for sale, since it definitely has what looks like a very stable, secure and content set of shareholders. As per BullionDesk coverage of this potential deal, Commerzbank and Heraeus have yet to respond or comment on the potential sale of Argor-Heraeus.
Interested Parties in an Argor Bid
Presuming that the private equity company WRM CapInvest, as well as Asahi Refining, and MKS-PAMP all looked at potentially acquiring Argor-Heraeus (and that’s the word in the gold market right now), let’s have a quick look at these players.
The current Asahi Refining group, headed by Asahi Holdings, owns precious metals refinery operations in 5 locations worldwide, namely Tokyo, Salt lake City, Utah (US), Brampton, Ontario (Canada), Mexico City, and Santiago (Chile). Some readers will be familiar with Asahi’s takeover of the US and Canadian gold and silver refining operations of Johnson Matthey, which was completed in March 2015. If Asahi had emerged as the favourite suitor to acquire Argor-Heraeus, it would mean that 2 Japanese headquartered precious metals refiners, Tanaka and Asahi, would both own a Swiss precious metals refinery, namely Metalor and Argor-Heraeus. Market sources indicate that Asahi’s bid value for Argor-Heraeus wasn’t as high as the bid tabled by the favoured private equity group bidder. Argor-Heraeus also operates a precious metals processing plant in Santiago in Chile, which could feasibly provide synergies to Asahi, since Asahi runs a refining operation in Santiago.
Its interesting that MKS-PAMP has been mentioned as a possible acquirer of Argor-Heraeus. As mentioned, the PAMP precious metals refinery is literally ‘down the road’ from the Argor-Heraeus refinery, i.e. 2 kms down the road. PAMP is a prestigious global brand in precious metals refining and bar production, and so is Argor-Heraeus. But would the resulting consolidation in the Swiss precious metals refining industry make sense, and how would this affect the PAMP and Argor-Heraeus brands. That’s a difficult question to answer, and only PAMP could accurately answer that at this time. Market sources say that MKS PAMP was shy in revealing its full financials, data that would presumably be necessary if it put in a bid for Argor-Heraeus.
Argor-Heraeus opened a new refining headquarters in Mendrisio in 2013 which doubled its former refining capacity. According to its 2014 corporate responsibility report, the new Argor-Heraeus refinery has an annual refining capacity for gold of between 350 and 400 tonnes. The PAMP refinery has an annual refining capacity of 450 tonnes of gold, and an annual silver refining capacity of over 600 tonnes. A merged PAMP and Argor-Heraeus would have an annual refining capacity for gold of about 900 tonnes. Their neighbour Valcambi has an annual refining capacity for gold of 1600 tonnes. A combined PAMP and Argor-Heraeus would therefore start to approach the production capacity of Valcambi. Each of Valcambi and a combined PAMP ~ Argor would also have a refining presence in India also, since PAMP has an Indian refining joint-venture with MMTC, and Valcambi, owned by Rajesh Exports, has refining operations in India. Argor-Heraeus is also one of only five refinery members of the London Bullion Market Associations (LBMA) good delivery referee panel. PAMP is also on this panel, as is Metalor and Tanaka. This panel assists the LBMA is maintaining quality standards of refinery members worldwide. Argor-Heraeus is also a full member of the LBMA, one of the few refineries to be a full LBMA member.
Finally, turning to the private equity company WRM CapInvest, which is said by sources in the gold market to be the preferred bidder for Argor-Heraeus, what is known about this company? According to its website, WRM CapInvest is a division of the WRM Capital group of companies. The WRM Group was founded by Raffaele Mincione, who is Italian, but who resides in Switzerland. WRM Group seems to have started as a private wealth management / family office type company but has expanded into private equity.
WRM CapInvest is based in Berkeley Square in Mayfair in London, Mayfair being a very popular location for hedge funds and private equity funds to locate in. WRM CapInvest was incorporated in the UK in March 2012 as Capital Investment Advisors Ltd, but changed name to WRM CapInvest on 11 May 2016. The original single director of WRM CapInvest was Massimo Cattizone, also an Italian. Massimo Cattizone and Raffaele Minicone were listed as shareholders, with Minicone holdings 80% of the WRM CapInvest shares and Cattizone holding 20% of the shares. In July 2013, Leonidas Klemos (Italian), and Michele Cerqua (Italian) were appointed as directors of WRM CapInvest, and Massimo Cattizone ceased to be a director. Between May 2014 and March 2015, Roberto Agostini (Italian) was also a director. In July 2015, Raffaele Minicone was appointed as a director. In February 2016, Leonidas Klemos ceased to be a director. By April 2016, Raffaele Minicone was listed as owning the entire share capital of WRM CapInvest. The current directors are therefore Raffaele Minicone and Michele Cerqua. The reason for listing the above is to highlight that all the directors of WRM CapInvest since it was incorporated have been Italian, and there is a Swiss connection since Raffaele Minicone is based in Switzerland, and the WRM Group is headquartered in Zurich, Switzerland.
Therefore, the fact that Argor-Heraeus is based in the Italian speaking Swiss Canton of Ticino, right beside the Italian border, and that CapInvest is operated by an Italian team, owned by an Italian, and part of a Swiss based group is probably of relevance to a potential acquisition of Argor by CapInvest. Additionally, Knight Frank, a large commercial real estate agent, mentioned on its website in a 2013 article that “CapInvest, which is also backed by private Italian investors, purchased 60 Sloane Avenue for US$206m.”
So the question is, assuming CapInvest acquires Argor-Heraeus, is it acquiring the company on behalf of CapInvest, or on behalf of some other Italian or Swiss investors, or Italian Swiss, or Swiss Italians? And if an acquisition is on behalf of other investors, who are these investors? Could the private investors who were involved in Metalor (such as Martin Bisang and his circle of business acquaintances), or the private investors that were involved in Valcambi (such as Emilio Camponovo and friends) be re-entering the Swiss refining industry with an acquisition of Argor-Heraeus. They would definitely be some of the best placed people around that understand how the precious metals refining industry works, given their experience. Or possibly the Argor-Heraeus management and other local business people in Ticino are moving to take ownership of Argor through a private equity route?
Another potential connection is UBS. Swiss investment bank UBS previously owned the Argor-Heraeus refinery, and only exited its shareholding in 1999, so it’s also possible that a UBS connection could pop up in a Argor-Heraeus acquisition deal. This has a precedent since when Valcambi was acquired by Rajesh Exports in 2015, Credit Suisse, which itself used to own Valcambi (and which Valcambi executives had close ties to), provided strategic corporate finance advice on the Valcambi acquisition and also actually partially funded the Rajesh acquisition.
Whatever the outcome of these developments with Argor-Heraeus, further details should emerge sooner rather than later. So, as they say, watch this space.
Given that it’s now just over a year since that last set of calculations, it made sense at this point to update the data so as to grasp how many Good Delivery golds bars held in London is spoken for in terms of ownership, versus how much may be unaccounted for. Estimating gold held in London vaults is by definition a tricky exercise, since it must rely on whatever data and statements are made available in what is a notoriously secret market, and there will usually be timing mismatches between the various data points. However, using a combination of published sources from the Bank of England, the London Bullion Market Association (LBMA), the Exchange Traded Fund websites, and UK gold import/export data, it is possible to produce some factual numbers.
In the Bank of England vaults
Exactly once per year, the Bank of England publishes a snapshot of how much gold it is holding in custody for its central bank and commercial bank customers. This snapshot is featured in the Bank’s annual report which is usually published around July each year, and reports on its financial year-end, as of end of February. In its 2016 Annual Report, the Bank of England states (on page 31) that:
“At end-February 2016, total assets held by the Bank as custodian were £567 billion (2015: £514 billion), of which £135 billion (2015: £130 billion) were holdings of gold”
With an afternoon LBMA Gold Price fix of £888.588 on Monday 29 February 2016, this equates to 151,926,427 fine troy ounces of gold, or 4725 tonnes held in custody at the Bank of England. This equates to approximately 380,000 London Good Delivery gold bars, each weighing 400 fine troy ounces.
The corresponding figure for end of February 2015 was £130 billion, which, valued at the afternoon fix on that day of £787.545 per ounce, equalled 5,134 tonnes. Therefore between the end of February 2015 end of February 2016, the amount of gold held in custody by the Bank of England fell by 409 tonnes. Since, according to World Gold Council data, there were no central bank sellers of gold over that period apart from Venezuela whose gold was predominantly held in Venezuela at that time, then most of this 409 tonne decline must be either due to unreported central bank sales, central bank gold repatriation movements, London bullion bank sales, or some combination of all three.
The year-on-year drop of 409 tonnes came after a previous decline of 350 tonnes to end of February 2015, and before that a drop of 755 tonnes between February 2013 and February 2014. So overall between February 2013 and February 2016, the amount of gold held in custody in the Bank of England’s vaults fell by 1,514 tonnes.
LBMA Ballpark: 6,500 tonnes in London
Up until at least October 2015, the vaulting page on the LBMA website stated that:
“In total it is estimated that there are approximately 7,500 tonnes of gold held in London vaults, of which about three-quarters is stored in the Bank of England.”
This is based on a Wayback Machine Internet Archive page cache from 9 October 2015.
The current version of that page on the LBMA website now states:
“In total it is estimated that there are approximately 6,500 tonnes of gold held in London vaults, of which about three-quarters is stored in the Bank of England.”
The earliest Internet Archive page cache mentioning 6,500 tonnes is from 8 February 2016. So sometime between October 2015 and February 2016, the LBMA changed its ballpark figure, revising it down by 1000 tonnes. Wayback Machine Archive web crawlers usually update a web page following a change to that page, so its likely that the revision to 6,500 tonnes was done nearer February than October. Using a figure from a LBMA website page is admittedly quite general, but at least it’s an anchor, and someone at the LBMA saw fit to make that actual change from 7,500 tonnes to 6,500 tonnes. In June 2015 (as some readers might recall), the LBMA had said that there were 500,000 Good Delivery gold bars in all the London vaults, which is approximately 6256 tonnes, so perhaps the 6500 tonne estimate was partially based on this statistic from mid-year 2015 that the LBMA was playing catch-up with.
With 6,500 tonnes in London vaults, ~ 75% of which is at the Bank of England, this would mean 4,875 tonnes at the Bank of England, and another 1,625 tonnes at other (commercial) gold vaults in London, mostly at HSBC’s and JP Morgan’s vaults. As per the Bank of England’s annual report as of 29 February 2016, we know now that there were 4,725 tonnes in custody at the Bank, so the LBMA ballpark of 4875 is actually very close to the actual 4725 tonnes reported by the Bank, and the difference is only 150 tonnes. Lets’s move on to the vaulted gold held in London but held outside the Bank of England vaults.
ETF Gold held in London
In the September 2015 calculation exercise, we estimated that there were 1,116 tonnes of gold held in the London vaults within a series of gold-backed Exchange Traded Funds.
The known ETFs and other companies that hold their Good Delivery bar gold in London are as follows:
SPDR Gold Trust: GLD. Custodian HSBC London, all GLD gold held at HSBC vault
The 1,116 tonnes of gold ETF holdings in London, calculated in September 2015, were as follows, with the SPDR Gold Trust accounting for the largest share:
The total figure for all gold held in London that we used in September 2015 was the 6,256 tonne figure implied by the LBMA’s 500,000 gold bars statement from June 2015. With 6,256 tonnes in total, and 5,134 tonnes at the Bank of England (as of end February 2015), this left 1,122 tonnes in London but “not at the Bank of England“, which implied that there was nearly no gold in London outside the Bank of England that was not accounted for by ETF holdings. in other words the ‘London Gold Float’ looks to have been near zero as of September 2015.
Assuming 6,500 tonnes of gold held in London in February 2016, and with 4,725 tonnes at the Bank of England in February 2016, we can repeat this exercise and say that the would leave 1,775 tonnes of gold in London but “not at the Bank of England“, as the following chart shows:
Its well-known by now that the tide of significant gold ETF outflows that occurred in 2015 suddenly turned to very strong inflows into gold ETFs beginning in early 2016. Although our gold ETF holdings data was updated using holdings information as of 30 September 2016, it’s still worth seeing how well the latest London holdings of the gold ETFs help to explain this 1775 tonnes “not in the Bank of England” figure. As it turns out, as of the end of September 2016, the above ETFs collectively held 1,679 tonnes of gold, so right now, if there were 1775 tonnes of gold in London outside of the Bank of England, the ETF holdings would explain all but 96 tonnes of this total.
Taking a quick look at some of the individual ETF holdings, the massive SPDR Gold Trust is currently holding around 950 tonnes of gold in London. The iShares figure reported in the charts of 214.89 tonnes comprises 2 components a) the London held gold within IAU (which can be seen in this daily JP Morgan weight list), and b) the gold bars held in iShares trust SGLN. The bulk of the ETF Securities figure of 276.68 tonnes represents gold held in PHAU (over 150 tonnes), and GBS (over 100 tonnes). The Deutsche Bank total is quite hard to calculate and comprises gold held in 5 Deutsche bank ETFs. Nick Laird receives daily holdings files for these ETFs from Deutsche Bank and performs a number of calculations such as fractional ounces per ETF unit to arrive at a total figure of 88 tonnes. The SOURCE and ABSA ETFs make up the vast majority of the remainder, with the other entities listed, such as BetaShares and Standard Bank ETF, being immaterial to the calculation.
Central Bank gold at the Bank of England
For the purposes of this exercise, data on central bank gold holdings at the Bank of England does not need to be updated since there hasn’t been any reported gold buying or selling activity by any of the relevant central banks since September 2015 (except for Venezuela), so the ‘known figure’ of 3779 tonnes attributed to identified banks in September 2015 remains unchanged. If anything, since the Bank of England revealed last February that its gold under custody fell to 4,725 tonnes, it means that there are now approximately 946 tonnes of gold at the Bank of England that are not explained by known central bank holders.
Given that many central banks around the world will not cooperate in confirming where they store their foreign stored gold, then there are definitely additional central banks storing gold in the Bank of England vaults which would reduce this 946 tonnes of gold with unknown ownership. Therefore some of this total is unknown central bank gold holdings. Some is presumably also gold and borrowed gold held by bullion banks that have gold accounts at the Bank of England. Given that the Bank of England and the LBMA bullion banks maintain a total information blackout about the real extent of the gold lending market out of London, it is difficult to know how much borrowed gold is being held at the Bank of England by bullion bank account holders.
Some of the growth in the SPDR Gold Trust gold holdings this year looks to have been sourced from gold originating from the Bank of England, as was detailed in a July BullionStar article “SPDR Gold Trust gold bars at the Bank of England vaults“, which highlighted that the Bank of England was a subcustodian of the SPDR Golf Trust during Q1 2016. As a SPDR Gold Trust filing stated:
“During the quarter ended March 31, 2016, the greatest amount of gold held by subcustodians was approximately 29 tonnes or approximately 3.8% of the Trust’s gold at such date. The Bank of England held that gold as subcustodian.“
Year to Date ETF changes and UK Gold Imports
It’s important to highlight that the 6,500 tonnes figure reported by the LBMA and the 4,725 tonne figure reported by the Bank of England relate to the February 2016 period, while the ETF gold holdings totals calculated above are from the end of September 2016. So there is a date mismatch. Nick Laird has calculated that during the February to September 2016 period, the London gold ETFs added 399 tonnes of gold, and during the same period the UK net imported (imports – exports) more than 800 tonnes of non-monetary gold. Given the apparent low float of gold in London late last year, its realistic to assume that gold inflows into the London-based ETFs this year were mostly sourced from non-monetary gold imports into the UK because there was apparently no other gold at hand from which to source the ETF gold inflows. ETF demand would also help explain the drivers of UK gold imports year-to-date. Note that monetary gold imports (central bank gold trade flows) are not reported by the respective trade bodies since the opaque basket of deplorables (i.e. central bankers) get an unfair exemption, therefore the 800 tonnes of net gold imports into the UK refers to non-monetary gold imports.
According to the latest comprehensive trade statistics, from January to July 2016 inclusive the UK net imported 735 tonnes of gold from the Rest of the World. To this figure we can add another 84.6 tonnes of gold that the UK net imported from Switzerland in August 2016. This gives total UK gold imports up to August 2016 inclusive of 819.6 tonnes, hence the statement, the UK net imported over 800 tonnes of gold year-to-date.
If 399 tonnes of the 800 tonnes of non-monetary gold imported into the UK during 2016 was channeled into the holdings of gold-backed ETFs, this would still mean that the ‘London Float’ of gold could have been augmented by approximately 400 tonnes year-to-date. However, since most non-monetary gold imports into the UK are for bullion bank customers such as Scotia and Barclays, some of these extra imports could have been for repaying borrowed gold liabilities to central bank customers, and the quantity of gold now held at the Bank of England may be higher than reported by the Bank last February.
In summary, given the large UK gold imports year-to-date, there may now be over 7,000 tonnes of Good Delivery gold bars held in London vaults. But the fact that very large quantities of gold bars had to be imported into the London market during 2016 does suggest that our calculations from September 2015 were valid and that there was a very low float of gold in the London market. This float may now be a few hundred tonnes higher given the imports, but there is still an unquantifiably large number of claims in the form of ‘unallocated gold’ holdings in the London market which are liabilities against the LBMA bullion banks.
Remember that the London Gold Market trades nearly 6000 tonnes of predominantly paper gold each and every day. The latest LBMA ‘gold’ clearing statistics show that on average, 18.8 million ounces (585 tonnes) of ‘gold’ was cleared per trading day in September 2016 which on a 10:1 trading to clearing ratio equates to 5,850 tonnes traded per day, and 128,000 tonnes traded during September. So the LBMA administered market nearly trades as much ‘gold’ connected transaction per day as is held in the entire London vaulting network.
If gold demand from the Rest of the World ticks up, such as from India, then the London market will not have the luxury of being able to import large quantities of gold in the absence of that excess demand putting upward pressure on the gold price. Until then, the London Gold Market looks likely to continue its physical re-stock with one hand, while trading leveraged paper gold with the other hand, all the while rolling over outstanding borrowed central bank gold obligations, such as the short-term gold deposits held by Banco Central de Bolivia, which will be the subject of an upcoming case study into the hidden London gold lending market consortium.
China is now in pole position as regards annual global gold mining output. Much if not all of Chinese domestic gold mining output is refined into standard gold by Shanghai Gold Exchange (SGE) approved refiners and then sold through the SGE. A lot of recycled gold in China also flows through the same refineries. As of 2013, there were at least 35 refiners across China accredited by the SGE to deliver gold ‘Ingots’ (bars of weights 12.5 kg, 3 kg and 1 kg) on the Exchange. The list is probably longer now, and although the sheer scale of the Chinese gold refining sector is hard to keep track of, you get the picture as to its size.
It was therefore surprising that recently, while working on a particular task that required images of gold bars produced by Chinese refiners, I found that the selection of Chinese branded gold bar images on ‘the web’ (i.e. Google.com) seemed extremely limited. As it turns out, there are many many images of Chinese brand gold bars, you just need to know how and where to look. Nearly all of these images have never been seen before in “Western search engines”.
Who makes the most bars – The Top Refiners
Some of the large Chinese gold refineries are owned by, or affiliated with, large Chinese gold mining companies. My first approach was to determine the largest gold mining companies in China. These gold mining companies are:
China National Gold Group Corporation, also known as China Gold or CNG. CNG’s major gold mining asset is Zhongjin Gold. CNG also has a 39% stake in “China Gold International Resources Corporation” which is basically its international arm (it also mines gold in China).
The 3 next biggest Chinese gold mining companies are as follows. I’m not sure about how they rank in terms of positions 2-4, but probably in this order:
Using the names of these gold mining companies, we can see which of them refine their own bars. Taking a look at some of the main Chinese gold refineries reveals the following refining companies are owned by the miners, so its looks like they all refine their own gold bars, as would be expected:
Zhongyuan Gold Smelter of Zhongjin GoldCorporation,SanmenxiaCity [owned by China Gold Corp]
Zijin Mining Group Company, Shanghang
Shandong Gold Mining Company, Laizhou City
Shandong Zhaojin Gold and Silver Refinery Company, Zhaoyuan City
There are 9 Chinese gold refineries accredited to the London Bullion Market Association’s (LBMA) Good Delivery List for gold. This list, which is analogous to an A-List, includes gold refiners around the world which produce large gold bars (400 oz), and whose production meets the very high quality standards laid down by the LBMA. Only Japan, with 11 gold refineries on the LBMA list, has a higher number than China. Russia has 8 of its gold refineries on the LBMA gold list. The above refineries of Zhongyuan, Zijin, Shandong Gold, and Shandong Zhaojin are on this LBMA Good Delivery list.
Cross-referencing these names with a list such as the top refinery suppliers of gold bars to the Shanghai Gold Exchange (see table below) also validates that the refineries of (Henan) Zhongyuan, Zijin Mining, Shandong Gold, and Shandong Zhaojin are amongst China’s largest gold refiners.
With 4 accredited refineries on the LBMA list, one might think that photos / images of the gold bars output by these refineries are easy to find. Next step is to see if any images of these refiners’ gold bars are available “on the web”. The short answer is that a few images are available (see below), but they seem to be very rare and not saved very widely ‘on the web’ (Google.com).
1. Zhongyuan Gold Smelter
LBMA bar mark description – “Current Bar Mark:Circular logo round Chinese character with CHN GOLD below.“
‘China Gold’ brand bars (i.e. Zhongyuan Gold Smelter bars) are not widely found by Google image search. The above image that Google does find is sourced from page 10 of a Gold Bars Worldwide brochure, which is titled “Shanghai Good Delivery Gold Ingots and Bars“, published by Grendon International Research Pty Ltd in November 2014.
(Notice the bar mark in the image says CHNGOLD and the SGE marking).
2. Zijin Mining Group Company
LBMA bar mark description – “Current Bar Mark:Double crescent logo with ZIJIN MINING in Roman and Chinese characters. Circular assay mark with ZIJIN MINING in Roman and Chinese characters.“
This image is a ZIJIN ‘double cresent’ bar. Notice the SGE marking. Again, Google finds this image by sourcing it from page 10 of the same GoldBars Worldwide brochure here, as it only seemed to be found by Google.com at that source. The photographs in this brochure were actually supplied to Grendon by the refineries, so without this brochure, Google would even have one less source to use.
Note: if you look in the pdf in the above link, the Gold Bars Worldwide brochure actually labels this bar image as a Henan Zhongyuan bar which looks wrong. The double crescent insignia shows that it’s actually a ZIJIN bar, as per another Zijin bar on page 9 of the same brochure.
3. Shandong Gold Mining Company
LBMA bar mark description – “Current Bar Mark:Circle surrounded by TAISHAN in Roman and Chinese characters within a square comprising four stylised S’s.”
During the test, Google didn’t find any images of Shandong Gold Mining gold bars, However, conveniently, a Shandong Gold bar is on the BullionStar site here, which Koos Jansen used to illustrate SGE bar markings.
Notice the circle, the SGE marking, and the ‘Taishan’ marking in the above image.
4. Shandong Zhaojin Gold
LBMA bar mark description - “Current Bar Mark:Triangle with two interlocking half circles and ZHAOJIN in Chinese characters within the triangle.”
The only images I could find of Shandong Zhaojin gold bars using Google.com were these ones, which are on the actual Shandong Zhaojin Import and Export Co Ltd website
Notice the SGE markings. Notice also the Shandong Zhaojin bar logo is the same as the Shandong Zhaojin company logo.
As an aside, on its website, Shandong Zhaojin Import and Export Co Ltd claims to export gold. I find this surprising due to China’s strict gold export rules. Perhaps they mean gold exports as part of the processing trade gold exports.
In conclusion, the above Google.com search exercise of 4 refineries led to the conclusion that Chinese gold bar photos are very hard to find…at least on English-speaking internet sites.
Note that since the publication of this article that you are reading, Google has started to find the images that you see here and the images listed below. That’s the beauty of the web, in that the more links to pages and images that exist, the easier it is for web bots to find and index said pages and images. Therefore, if you test Google.com now for these gold bar brands, Google finds more gold bar images of the refineries described here, precisely because thats the way Google works.
The ‘Motherlode results’ Search – Baidu.com
The very limited search results above suggested a different approach was needed. Like a lot of people, I’d heard about the Google Chinese site http://www.google.cn, and its re-consolidation to operate from http://www.google.com.hk a few years ago, as Google scaled back its CHinese presence. I had also vaguely heard of Baidu.com, the Chinese search engine, but I had never had the need to use it before.
The first port of call was to consult with Koos Jansen, resident China gold expert here at BullionStar. Koos advised the following approach: “Get the Chinese names of the refineries, and search Baidu“. Seems pretty obvious in hindsight…:)
For non-Chinese speakers, like myself, there are 2 ways to establish the Chinese names of the refineries. The first is to use a refinery’s website. This works most conveniently with dual-language websites (since you can toggle between the Chinese and English names of the company to establish what the Chinese characters are), and it goes without saying that it only works if the Chinese refinery (or mining company) actually has a website, which isn’t always the case. The second approach is to use a Shanghai Gold Exchange list of SGE members names which includes their English names alongside the Chinese names (in Chinese characters). Such a list can be seen here.
Not to put too fine a point on it, but the results of using this approach in Baidu are astounding compared to using Google.com. There are huge amounts of gold bar image results for the Chinese refiners. Here’s a flavor:
LBMA description – Circular logo round Chinese character with CHN GOLD below
Zijin Mining = “紫金矿业”
gold bar = 金條
Search in Baidu for “紫金矿业” 金條
LBMA description – Double crescent logo with ZIJIN MINING in Roman and Chinese characters.
These Zijin Mining gold bar images were sourced from here.
Shandong Gold “山东黄金”
gold bar = 金條
Search for “山东黄金” 金條
Baidu image search for Shandong Gold Group mostly retrieves gold bars for a brand called SD Gold, which is a ‘Shandong Gold’ bar brand:
To retrieve images for the Shandong Gold Mining Company bars with the “Taishan” design, you need to search for:
Shangdong Gold Mining Company “山东黄金矿业股份有限”
Gold Bar 金條
Search Baidu for “山东黄金矿业股份有限” 金條 新寧
This image is sourced from Chinese gold site http://ccne.mofcom.gov.cn, which is a Ministry of Commerce site called ‘China Commodities’ which looks like a reseller site, which contains various listings of different gold bars such as this list.
Shandong Zhaojin “山东招金”
gold bar = 金條
Search for “山东招金” 金條
LBMA bar mark description -“Triangle with two interlocking half circles and ZHAOJIN in Chinese characters within the triangle.”
How does Google Hong Kong perform in comparison?
Searches for Zhongyuan Gold (China National Gold), Zijin Mining, Shandong Gold and Shandong Zhaojin using Google Hong Kong (English version) bring back very limited bar image results, which are mostly images from the ‘Gold Bars Worldwide’ brochures.
The Chinese equivalent name searches in Google Hong Kong (Chinese language) bring back reasonable gold bar image results for each of the 4 refiners above, but not nearly as many image results as retrieved from Baidu. For example, Google Hong Kong (Chinese version) finds the below Zhaojin image in a directory called http://www.zhaojin.cn/imageRepository. But Google.com draws a blank on this directory.
Based on this relatively brief overview, it would appear that Baidu provides the most comprehensive results for gold bar images of Chinese gold refiners.
With China an increasingly critical part of the world gold market, its gold bar brands (and photos of said bars) still do not appear to have registered more than a ripple outside the world of the Chinese internet. This can be explained by the fact that a) China doesn’t generally allow gold bars to be exported therefore few people outside of China have ever seen a Chinese gold bar, and b) Google has retreated from the Chinese web search market, but the dominant player, Baidu is not widely used outside of China.
More importantly, non-Chinese readers and publishers with the frequent or infrequent need to use an image of a Chinese gold bar in blog posts, articles or tweets etc, now no longer have to keep recycling the same old Chinese bar images that get picked up in Google.com search results. With Baidu image search, the world of Chinese gold bar photos opens up considerably.
Welcome to the twilight zone of IMF gold sales, where transparency really means secrecy, where on-market is off-market, and where IMF gold sales documents remain indefinitely “classified” and out of public view due to the “sensitivity of the subject matter”.
Off and On Market
Between October 2009 and December 2010, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) claims to have sold a total of 403.3 tonnes of gold at market prices using a combination of ‘off-market’ sales and ‘on-market’ sales. ‘Off-market’ gold sales are gold sales to either central banks or other official sector gold holders that are executed directly between the parties, facilitated by an intermediary. For now, we will park the definition of ‘on-market’ gold sales, since as you will see below, IMF ‘on-market’ gold sales in reality are nothing like the wording used to describe them. In total, this 403.3 tonnes of gold was purportedly sold so as to boost IMF financing arrangements as well as to facilitate IMF concessional lending to the world’s poorest countries. As per its Articles of Agreement, IMF gold sales have to be executed at market prices.
Critically, the IMF claimed on numerous occasions before, during and after this 15-month sales period that its gold sales process would be ‘Transparent’. In fact, the concept of transparency was wheeled out by the IMF so often in reference to these gold sales, that it became something of a mantra. As we will see below, there was and is nothing transparent about the IMF’s gold sales process, but most importantly, the IMF blocked and continues to block access to crucial IMF board documents and papers that would provide some level of transparency about these gold sales.
Strauss-Kahn – Yes, that guy
On 18 September 2009, the IMF announced that its Executive Board had approved the sale of 403.3 metric tonnes of gold. Prior to these sales, the IMF officially claimed to hold 3217.3 tonnes of gold. Commenting on the gold sales announcement, notable party attendee and then IMF Managing Director Dominique Strauss-Kahn stated:
“These sales will be conducted in a responsible and transparent manner that avoids disruption of the gold market.”
The same IMF announcement on 18 September 2009 also stated that:
“As one of the elements of transparency, the Fund will inform markets before any on-market sales commence. In addition, the Fund will report regularly to the public on the progress with the gold sales.”
On 2 November 2009, the IMF announced the first transaction in its gold sales process, claiming that it had sold 200 tonnes of gold to the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) in what it called an ‘off-market’ transaction. This transaction was said to have been executed over 10 trading days between Monday 19 November to Friday 30 November with sales transactions priced each day at market prices prevailing on that day. On average, the 200 tonne sales transaction would amount to 20 tonnes per day over a 10 day trading period.
Note that the Reserve Bank of India revealed in 2013 that this 200 tonne gold purchase had merely been a book entry transfer, and that the purchased gold was accessible for use in a US Dollar – Gold swap, thereby suggesting that the IMF-RBI transaction was executed for gold held at the Bank of England in London, which is the only major trading center for gold-USD swaps. As a Hindu Business Line article stated in August 2013:
“According to RBI sources, the gold that India bought never came into the country as the transaction was only a book entry. The gold was purchased for $6.7 billion, in cash.”
“The Reserve Bank of India bought 200 tonnes of gold for $1,045 an ounce from the IMF four years ago. The Government can swap it for US dollars,” said [LBMA Chairman David] Gornall.”
Two weeks after the Indian purchase announcement in November 2009, another but far smaller off-market sale was announced by the IMF on 16 November 2009, this time a sale of 2 tonnes of gold to the Bank of Mauritius (the Mauritian central bank), said to have been executed on 11 November 2009. Another two weeks after this, on 25 November 2009, the IMF announced a third official sector sales transaction, this time a sale of 10 tonnes of gold to the Central Bank of Sri Lanka.
Overall, these 3 sales transactions, to the Reserve Bank of India, Bank of Mauritius and the Central Bank of Sri Lanka, totalled 212 tonnes of gold, and brought the IMF’s remaining official gold holdings down to 3005.3 tonnes at the end of 2009, leaving 191.3 tonnes of the 403.3 tonnes remaining to sell. All 3 of the above announcements by the IMF were accompanied by the following statement:
“The Fund will inform markets before any on-market sales commence, and will report regularly to the public on progress with the gold sales.”
For nearly 3 months from late November 2009, there were no other developments with the IMF’s gold sales until 17 February 2010, at which point the IMF announced that it was to begin the ‘on-market’ portion of its gold sales program. At this stage you might be wondering what the IMF’s on-market gold sales consisted of, which ‘market’ it referred to, how were the sales marketed, who the buyers were, and who executed the sales transactions. You would not be alone in wondering about these and many other related questions.
The IMF’s press releases of 17 February 2010, titled ‘IMF to Begin On-Market Sales of Gold’ was bereft of information and merely stated that the IMF would “shortly initiate the on-market phase of its gold sales program” following “the approach adopted successfully by the central banks participating in the Central Bank Gold Agreement“, and that the sales would be “conducted in a phased manner over time”. The third Central Bank Gold Agreement (CBGA) ran from September 2009 to September 2014. These CBGA’s, which have been running since September 1999, ostensibly claim to support and not disrupt the gold market but in reality have, in their entirety, been highly secretive operations where vast amounts of central bank and official sector gold is channeled via the BIS to unspecified buyers in the bullion banks or central bank space, with the operations having all the hallmarks of gold price stabilization operations, and/or official sector gold redistribution between the world’s developed and emerging market central banks.
The February 2010 announcement also made the misleading claim that “the IMF will continue to provide regular updates on progress with the gold sales through its normal reporting channels”. These regular updates have never happened.
The IMF publicly announced each official sale shortly after the transaction was concluded. A high degree of transparency will continue during the sales of gold on the market, in order to assure markets that the sales are being conducted in a responsible manner.”
However, following this February 2010 lip service to transparency, there were no direct updates from the IMF exclusively about the on-market gold sales, even after the entire gold sales program had completed in December 2010.
One further IMF ‘off-market’ gold sale transaction was announced on 9 September 2010. This was a sale of 10 tonnes of gold to Bangladesh Bank (the Bangladeshi central bank) with the transaction said to have been executed on 7 September 2010. Adding this 10 tonnes to the previous 212 tonnes of off-market sales meant that 222 tonnes of the 403.3 tonne total was sold to central banks, with the remaining 181.3 tonnes sold via ‘on-market’ transactions. The Bangladesh announcement was notable in that it also revealed that “as of end July 2010, a further 88.3 metric tons had been sold under the on-market sales announced in February 2010″. The addition of Bangladesh to the off-market buyer list that already consisted of India, Sri Lanka and Mauritius also resulted in the quite bizarre situation where the only off-market buyers of IMF comprised 4 countries that have extremely close historical, political, cultural and economic connections with each other. Three of these countries, India, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, are represented at the IMF by the same Executive Director, who from November 2009 was Arvind Virmani, so their buying decisions were most likely coordinated through Virmani and probably through the Reserve Bank of India as well.
“The International Monetary Fund (IMF) announced today the conclusion of the limited sales program covering 403.3 metric tons of gold that was approved by the Executive Board in September 2009.”
“The gold sales were conducted under modalities to safeguard against disruption of the gold market. All gold sales were at market prices, including direct sales to official holders.”
‘Modalities’ in this context just means the attributes of the sales including the approach to the gold sales, i.e. the sales strategy. This brief announcement on 21 December 2010 was again bereft of any factual information such as which market was used for the ‘on-market’ gold sales, the identity of executing brokers, the identity of counterparties, transaction dates, settlement dates / deferred settlement dates, method of sale, information on whether bullion was actually transferred between parties, publication of weight lists, and other standard sales transaction details. Contrast this secrecy to the 1976 -1980 IMF gold sales which were conducted by a very public series auction, and which were covered in minute details by the financial publications of the time.
As usual with its treatment of official sector gold transactions, the World Gold Council’s Gold Demand Trends report, in this case its Q4 2010 report, was absolutely useless as a source of information about the IMF gold sales beyond regurgitating the press release details, and there was no discussion on how the gold was sold, who the agent was, who the buyers were etc etc.
Lip Service to Transparency
When the IMF’s ‘on-market’ sales of 191.3 tonnes of gold commenced in February – March 2010, there were attempts from various quarters to try to ascertain actual details of the sales process. Canadian investment head Eric Sprott even expressed interest in purchasing the entire 191.3 tonnes on behalf of the then newly IPO’d Sprott Physical Gold ETF. However, Sprott’s attempts to purchase the gold were refused by the IMF, and related media queries attempting to clarify the actual sales process following the IMF’s blockade of Sprott were rebuffed by the IMF.
A Business Insider article from 6 April 2010, written by Vince Veneziani and titled “Sorry Eric Sprott, There’s No Way You’re Buying Gold From The IMF”, lays out the background to this bizarre stone-walling and lack of cooperation by the IMF. Business Insider spoke to Alistair Thomson, the then external relations officer at the IMF (now Deputy Chief of Internal Communications, IMF), and asked Thomson why Sprott could not purchase the gold that was supposedly available in the ‘on-market’ sales. Thomson’s reply is summarised below:
“The IMF is only selling gold though a qualified agent. There is only one of these agents at the moment and due to the nature of the gold market, they won’t reveal who or what that agent is.”
“Sprott can’t buy the gold directly because they do not deal with institutional clients like hedge funds, pension funds, etc. The only buyers can be central bankers and sovereign nations, that sort of thing.”
The IMF board agreed months ago how they wanted to approach the sale of the gold. Sprott is welcome to buy from central banks who have bought from the IMF, but not from the IMF directly.”
While this initial response from the IMF’s Alistair Thomson contradicted the entire expectation of the global gold market which had been earlier led to believe that the ‘on-market’ gold sales were just that, sales of gold to the market, on the market, Thomson’s reply did reveal that the IMF’s ‘on-market’ gold sales appeared to be merely an exercise in using an agent, most likely the Bank for International Settlements (BIS) gold trading desk, to transfer IMF gold to a central bank or central banks that wished to remain anonymous, and not go through the publicity of the ‘off-market’ transfer process.
Although, as per usual, the servile and useless mainstream media failed to pick up on this story, the IMF’s unsatisfactory and contradictory response was deftly dissected by Chris Powell of GATA in a dispatch, also dated 6 April 2010. After discussing the IMF’s initial reply with Eric Sprott and GATA, Business Insider’s Vince Veneziani then went back to IMF spokesman Alistair Thomson with a series of reasonable and totally legitimate questions about the ‘on-market’ gold sales process.
What are the incentives for the IMF not to sell gold on the open market or to investors, be it institutional or retail?
Did gold physically change hands with the banks you have sold to so far or was the transaction basically bookkeeping stuff (the IMF still holds the physical gold in this case)?
Are there available records on the actual serial numbers of bullion? How is the gold at the IMF tracked and accounted for?
Does IMF support a need for total transparency in the sale of gold despite the effects it could have on various markets?
Shockingly, Alistair Thomson, supposedly the IMF press officer responsible for answering the public’s queries about IMF finances (including gold sales), arrogantly and ignorantly refused to answer any of the questions, replying:
“I looked through your message; we don’t have anything more for you on this.”
Another example of the world of IMF transparency, where black is white and white is black, and where press officers who have formerly worked in presstitute financial media organisations such as Thomson Reuters fit in nicely to the IMF’s culture of aloofness, status quo protection, and lack of accountability to the public.
Monthly Report on Sales of Gold on the Market
Fast forward to July 2015. While searching for documents in the IMF online archives related to these gold sales, I found 3 documents dated 2010, titled “Monthly Report on Sales of Gold on the Market“. Specifically, the 3 documents are as follows (click on links to open):
Each of these 3 documents is defined by the IMF as a Staff Memorandum (SM), which are classified as ‘Executive Board Documents’ under its disclosure policy. The IMF Executive Board consists of 24 directors in addition to the IMF Managing Director, who was in 2009 the aforementioned Dominique Strauss-Kahn. According to the IMF’s Executive Board synopsis web page, the board “carries out its work largely on the basis of papers prepared by IMF management and staff.”
The most interesting observation about these 3 documents, apart from their contents which we’ll see below, is the fact that only 3 of these documents are accessible in the IMF archives, i.e. the documents only run up to May 2010, and do not include similar documents covering the remainder of the ‘on-market’ sales period (i.e. May – December 2010). Therefore there are 7 additional monthly reports missing from the archives. That there are additional documents that have not been published was confirmed to me by IMF Archives staff – see below.
Each of the 3 reports is only 3 pages long, and each report follows a similar format. The first report spans February – March 2010, specifically from 18 February 2010 to 17 March 2010, and covers the following:
“summarizes developments in the first month of the on-market sales, covering market developments, quantities sold and average prices realized, and a comparison with widely used benchmarks, i.e., the average of London gold market fixings“
‘Market developments’ refers to a brief summary in graphical chart of the London fixing prices in US Dollars over the period in question. Quantities sold and the currency composition of sales are notable:
Sales Volume and Proceeds: A total of 515,976.638 troy ounces (16.05 metric tons) of gold was sold during the period February 18 to March 17. These sales generated proceeds of SDR 376.13 million (US$576.04 million), based on the Fund’s representative exchange rates prevailing on the day of each sale transaction.
Currency Composition of Proceeds: Sales were conducted in the four currencies included in the SDR valuation basket …., with the intention of broadly reflecting the relative quota shares of these currencies over the course of the sales program.
The 4 currencies in which the sales were conducted during the first month were USD, EUR, GBP and JPY. See table 1 in the document for more information. Perhaps the most revealing point in each document is the confirmation of the use of an agent and specifically an arrangement that the sales prices included a premium paid by the agent:
Sales Prices compared with Benchmarks: The sales were implemented as specified in the agreement with the agent. Sales were conducted at prices incorporating a premium paid by the agent over the London gold fixing, and for sales settled in currencies other than the U.S. dollar, the sales price also reflects market exchange rates at the time of the London gold fixings (10:30 am and 3:00 pm GMT), net of a cost margin.
The use of a premium over the London fixing price is very revealing because this selling strategy, where the agent paid a premium over the average London gold fixing price, is identical to the sales arrangement which the Swiss National Bank (SNB) agreed with the Bank for International Settlements (BIS) when the BIS acted as sales agent for SNB gold sales over the period May 2000 to March 2001.
As Philipp Hildebrand, ex-governor of the SNB, revealed in 2005 when discussing the SNB gold sales strategy that had been used in 2000-2001:
“At the outset, the SNB decided to use the BIS as its selling agent. Between May 2000 and March 2001, the BIS sold 220 tonnes on behalf of the SNB. For the first 120 tonnes, the SNB paid the BIS a fixed commission while the performance risk resided with the SNB. For the next 100 tonnes, the BIS agreed to pay the average price of the AM and PM London gold fixing plus a small fixed premium.“
My conclusion is therefore that the IMF also used the Bank for International Settlements in Basel, Switzerland as selling agent for its ‘on-market’ gold sales over the period February to December 2010, with the sales benchmarked to average London fixing prices in the London Gold Market.
The pertinent details for the IMF’s March – April sales document are as follows:
“A total of 516,010.977 troy ounces (16.05 metric tons) of gold was sold during the period March 18 to April 16.”
“Sales were conducted in three of the four currencies included in the SDR valuation basket” i.e. USD, EUR and JPY”
The relevant details from the April – May sales document are as follows:
“A total of 490,194.747 troy ounces (15.25 metric tons) of gold was sold during the period April 19 to May 18, 2010; no sales were conducted during the last two business days in April, owing to end of financial year audit considerations.”
“Sales were conducted in three of the four currencies included in the SDR valuation basket” i.e. USD, GBP and JPY
Purely a Pricing Exercise?
The entire ‘on-market’ gold sales program of 181.3 tonnes may well have been just a pricing exercise by the Bank for International Settlements gold trading desk to determine the market prices at which to execute the transfers, with the gold transferring ownership after the event as book entry transfers at the Bank of England in the same manner as was applied to the Indian ‘off-market’ purchase of 200 tonnes.
Taking the sales quantities in the 3 published monthly reports, and incorporating quarterly IMF gold holdings time series data from the World Gold Council, it’s possible to calculate how much gold was ‘sold’ each single day over the entire ‘on-market’ gold sales program. As it turns out, for much of the program’s duration, identical quantities of gold were sold each and every day. The ‘on-market’ program commenced on 18 February 2010. Between 18 February and 17 March, which was a period of 20 trading days in the London gold market, the agent sold 515,976.638 troy ounces (16.05 metric tons) of gold. Between 18 March and 16 April, which was also a trading period of 20 trading days (even after factoring in 2 Easter bank holidays), the agent sold a practically identical quantity of 516,010.977 troy ounces (also 16.05 metric tons). This is a daily sales rate of 25,800 ozs or 0.8025 tonnes per trading day over these 40 trading days.
During the period from 19 April to 18 May 2010, which was 19 trading days excluding the 3rd May UK bank holiday and excluding the last 2 trading days of April on which the IMF program didn’t trade, the agent sold 490,194.747 troy ounces (15.25 metric tons) of gold, which again is…wait for it… 0.8025 tonnes and 25,800 ozs per day (0.8025 * 19 = 15.2475 tonnes & 25,800 * 19 = 490,200 ozs).
Following the combined Indian, Mauritian, and Sri Lankan ‘off-market’ purchases of 212 tonnes during Q4 2009, the IMF’s gold holdings stood at 3,005.32 tonnes at the end of 2009. Based on World Gold Council (WGC) quarterly data of world official gold reserves, the IMF’s gold holdings then decreased as follows during 2010:
…resulting in total remaining gold holdings of 2,814.04 tonnes at the end of 2010, an IMF gold holdings figure which remains unchanged to this day.
These WGC figures tally with the IMF monthly report figures. For example, the IMF says that 16.05 tonnes was sold up to and including 17 March, and with another 10 trading days in March 2010, a further 8.205 tonnes (0.8025 daily sales * 10) was sold by the end of March, giving total Q1 sales of 16.05 + 8.025 = 24.075 tonnes, which is identical to the WGC quarterly change figure. The IMF was active on 59 trading days in Q2 during which it sold 47.34 tonnes, which…wait for it…was an average of 0.8024 tonnes per day (47.34 / 59 = 0.8024).
Therefore, over Q1 and Q2 2010 (i.e. between February and the end of June 2010), the ‘on-market’ sales program sold 71.42 tonnes at a consistent ~ 0.8025 tonnes daily rate. This would suggest an algorithmic program trade which offered identical quantities each and every day, or more likely just priced these quantities so as to arrive at a sales consideration amount so that the IMF would receive ‘market prices’ for its gold. Recall that IMF gold has to be sold at market prices according to the Fund’s Articles of Agreement.
Given that 88.3 tonnes had been sold ‘on-market’ by the end of July 2010 as the IMF revealed in its Bangladesh announcement, we can infer that 16.88 tonnes was sold ‘on-market’ during July 2010. This 16.88 tonne sale in July was actually at a slightly lower pace than previous months since there were 22 trading days in July 2010, however the figure was chosen due to the following: With 191.3 tonnes on sale at the outset of the ‘on-market’ program, and 71.42 tonnes sold by the end of June, this left 119.88 tonnes to sell at the end of June. Whoever was choosing the monthly sales quantities wanted to finish July with a round figure of 103 tonnes, and so chose 16.88 tonnes to sell in July (i.e. 119.88 – 16.88 = 103 tonnes). Subtracting the 10 tonnes that Bangladesh bought in September 2010 (which would have been also factored in at that time) left a round 93 tonnes (2.999 million ozs) to sell as of the beginning of August.
The Q3 2010 sales of 67.66tonnes comprised the 10 tonne ‘off-market’ sale to Bangladesh on 7 September and 57.66 tonnes of on-market sales. Given 16.88 tonnes sold in on-market sales in July, there was therefore 40.78 tonnes sold over August – September, or an average of 20.39 tonnes in each of August and September (which represented a combined 43 trading days). Overall, there were 65 trading days in Q3 and 58 trading days in Q4 (assuming that the sales wrapped up on 21 December as per the IMF announcement). From the beginning of August to the 21 December, a period of 101 trading days, the IMF sold the remaining 93 tonnes, which would be a daily sales pace of 0.93 tonnes per day.
So overall, the IMF’s 403.3 tonnes of gold sales between November 2009 and December 2010 consisted of 222 tonnes sold ‘off-market’ to India, Bangladesh, Sri lanka, and Mauritius, 88.3 tonnes sold ‘on-market’ between February and July 2010, and 93 tonnes sold ‘on-market’ between August and December 2010′.
Given that the IMF’s 4 gold depositories are the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, the Bank of England in London, the Banque de France in Paris and the Reserve Bank of India in Nagpur India, and given that the IMF gold in New York is mostly in the form of US Assay Office melts, and the gold in Nagpur is a hodgepodge of mostly low quality old gold (read non-good delivery gold), then it would be logical for the IMF to sell some of its good delivery gold which is stored in London (which, until at least the late 1970s, was predominantly held in the form of Rand Refinery 400 oz gold bars), or even in Paris, since the Banque de France has been engaged in an ongoing program of upgrading the old US Assay office gold bars in its custody to good delivery bars.
“Our bars are not all LGD [London Good Delivery quality], but we have an ongoing improvement programme.”
This Banque de France gold bar upgrading program was also confirmed in February 2011 in a National Geographic Magazine article which stated:
“Buyers don’t want the beat-up American gold. In a nearby room pallets of it are being packed up and shipped to an undisclosed location, where the bars will be melted down and recast in prettier forms.”
Top Secret Foot Notes
There are 2 interesting footnotes on page 1 or each of the 3 above documents. The first footnote states that ‘The Executive Board was briefed on the plans for on-market sales prior to the announcement’, the announcement in question being the IMF’s 17 February 2010 announcement IMF to Begin On-Market Sales of Gold.
The second footnote, which is a footnote to a sales process and sales performance summary, refers to 2 further IMF papers as follows: “Modalities for Limited Sales of Gold by the Fund (SM/09/243, 9/4/09) and DEC/14425-(09/97), 9/18/09“.
As mentioned above, SM are Staff Memorandums which are classed under Executive Board Documents. DEC series document are ‘Text of Board Decisions’ (hence the DEC) and these documents are also deemed to be Executive Board Documents. After searching for both of these documents (SM/09/243 and DEC/14425-(09/97)) in the IMF archives, it became apparent that they were not there, i.e. they were not returned and not retrievable under IMF archive search results.
This was surprisingly since the IMF claims to have what it calls its “IMF Open Archives Policy”, part of which is Article IX, Section 5, which is the “Review of the Fund’s Transparency Policy—Archives Policy“. This policy, prepared by the IMF Legal Department includes the following:
Access will be given as follows:
2. (i) Executive Board documents that are over 3 years old
(ii) Minutes of Executive Board meetings that are over 5 years old;
(iv) Other documentary materials maintained in Fund archives over 20 years old.
3. Access to Fund documents specified in paragraph 2 above that are classified as “Secret” or “Strictly Confidential” as of the date of this Decision will be granted only upon the Managing Director’s consent to their declassification. It is understood that this consent will be granted in all instances but those for which, despite the passage of time, it is determined that the material remains highly confidential or sensitive.
Given that the 2 above gold sales documents, as well as 7 other monthly reports about ‘on-market’ gold sales were missing from the archives, but all the while the IMF claimed its on-market gold sales to be “Transparent”, the next logical step was to contact the IMF Archives people and seek explanations. What follows below is the correspondence I had with the IMF Archives staff. The IMF Archives staff were very helpful and their responses were merely communicating what they had found in their systems or had been told ‘from above’. My questions and emails are in blue text. The IMF replies are in red text. My first set of queries were about the SM/09/243 and DEC/14425 documents:
02 August 2015: My first question
I’m looking for IMF document SM/09/243 “Modalities for Limited Sales of Gold by the Fund” (Sept 4th 2009) in the IMF Archives catalog (http://archivescatalog.imf.org/search.aspx). However, SM/09/243 does not appear to be in the online Archives.
But, for example SM/09/242 and SM/09/244 are both retrievable in the searchable archives, but not SM/09/243.
Can you clarify where SM/09/243 is?
02 August 2015: My second question
Could you clarify how to search for and retrieve a document in the IMF online Archives that has reference “DEC/14425-(09/97)”
This document is dated 9/18/09. I cannot find it using any of the search parameters.
3 August: IMF Archives reply
Thank you for contacting the IMF Archives. Both documents you are referring to in your recent communication, SM/09/243 and DEC/14425, are not available to the public. Please visit our website to consult on IMF Policy on Access to the Archives.
3 August: me
Can you clarify why these documents are not available to the public? i.e. have they received a certain classification?
4 August: IMF Archives
You are absolutely right, despite the time rule, these two documents are still closed because of the information security classification. We hope it answers your question.
4 August: me
Thanks for answer. Would you happen to know when (and if) these files will be available…..assuming it’s not a 20 year rule or anything like that.
5 August: IMF Archives
Could you please provide some background information about your affiliation and the need to obtain these documents. Classified documents undergo declassification process when such a request is submitted. It can be a lengthy process up to one year.
5 August: me
I was interested in these specific documents because I am researching IMF gold sales for various articles and reports that I’m planning to write.
6 Aug: IMF
Thank you for providing additional information regarding your inquiry. Please send us a formal request for the declassification of these two documents specifying your need to have access to them. We will follow through on your behalf and get back to you with a response.
Before I had replied with a formal request, the IMF archives people contacted me again on 12 August 2015 as follows:
12 Aug: IMF
While waiting for your official request we made preliminary inquiries regarding the requested documents. The decision communicated back to us is not to declassify these documents because of the sensitivity of the subject matter.
Thank you for the clarification. That’s surprising about the classification given that the IMF on-market gold sales were supposed to be transparent.
Was there any information fed back to Archives on why the ‘subject matter’ is deemed sensitive?
14 Aug: IMF Archives
“Thank you for your follow-up email. Unfortunately, these particular documents are still deemed classified and no further explanation has been communicated to the Archives.”
My next set of questions to IMF Archives in August 2015 addressed the 7 missing monthly gold sales reports that should have covered May – December 2010. Since there is a 3 year rule or maybe at max a 5 year rule under the IMF’s Transparency Policy (Archive Policy), I thought that maybe the May/June, June/July, and July/August 2010 files might be due for automatic release under the 5 year rule by the end of August 2015.
22 August 2015: Me:
“I have a question about documents which appear in the online Archive after the 5 year schedule.
Is there a scheduled update or similar which puts newly available documents in the Archive when the 5 years has elapsed?
For example, I see some documents in the Archive from June 2010, but not July/August 2010. Is there an automated process that runs, but that hasn’t yet run for July/August 2010, that puts the latest documents into the publicly available Archive?”
24 August: IMF
“Thank you for your inquiry. The review and declassification of eligible documents that meet the time rule is done by batches. Therefore, publication does not happen in real time. It is a process that takes time and might cause a delay. We will let you know when July and August documents are posted.”
2 October 2015: me
“Do you know when documents from June 2010 onwards will be added to the IMF online archive? I still don’t see any yet.
Is there a batch of declassifications for June 2010 / July 2010 / August 2010 happening soon?”
2 October: IMF
“Thank you for contacting the IMF Archives. Unfortunately, we are unable to speculate about the documents website availability and provide a more specific timeframe than the one already communicated in the attached correspondence. As already promised, we will let you know when July and August documents are posted.”
Then about 30 minutes later (on 2 October 2015) the IMF sent me another email:
2 October: IMF
“Dear Mr. Manly,
I ran a sample search of Executive Board minutes available via IMF Archives catalog and was able to find minutes issued in June and July 2010. Is there a specific document you are looking for which you are unable to find?
2 October: Me
“I was searching for the next months’ reports in the below series, report name “Monthly Report on Sales of Gold on the Market” – see screenshot attached.
The current search retrieval brings back 3 reports spanning February- May 2010, but nothing after May 2010. Report names in the retrieved search results are:
SM/10/69 SM/10/102 SM/10/139”
I was wondering if a couple of months in this series after May 2010 are available now?”
5 October: IMF
“The reports after May 2010 haven’t been declassified for public access because of the sensitivity of the subject matter, and therefore they are not available for retrieval.
We apologize for any inconvenience this may cause.”
5 October: Me
“Thanks for the reply. Out of interest, why were the reports from February to May 2010 declassified, since surely the June-December 2010 monthly reports are identical to the first three months in that they are also just providing monthly updates on the same batch of gold ~180 tonnes of gold which was being sold over the 10 month period?”
7 October: IMF
“Dear Mr. Manly,
This series of reports is under review at the moment, and according to security classification they are currently closed.
And there you have it folks. This is IMF transparency. As per the IMF Archive disclosure policy, only Christine Lagarde, current IMF Managing Director, has the authority to consent to the declassification of classified Executive Board documents.
Sensitivity of Subject Matter – China and Bullion Banks
The above IMF responses speak for themselves, but in summary, here we have an organization which claims to be transparent and which claims to have run a transparent ‘on-market’ gold sales program in 2010, but still after more than 6 years it is keeping a large number of documents about the very same gold sales classified and inaccessible to the public due to the ‘sensitivity of the subject matter’. What could be so sensitive in the contents of these documents that the IMF has to keep them classified? Matters of national security? Matters of international security? And why such extremely high level security for an asset that was recently described by the august Wall Street Journal as a ‘Pet Rock’?
The secrecy of keeping these documents classified could hardly be because of sensitivity over the way in which the sales were executed by the agent, since this was already revealed in the February – May reports that are published, and which looks like a normal enough gold sales program by the Bank for International Settlements on behalf of the IMF? Could it be to do with the identities of the counterparties, i.e. the buyer(s) of the gold? I think that is the most likely reason.
Two counterparties that spring to mind that might request anonymity in the ridiculously named ‘on-market’ sales process would be a) the Chinese State / Peoples Bank of China, and b) a group of bullion banks that were involved in gold swaps with the BIS in 2009/2010.
Chinese discretion – Market Speculation and Volatility
Bearing in mind another one of the IMF’s mantras during the 2009-2010 gold sales processes that it wanted to “avoid disruption of the gold market”, and the Chinese State’s natural surreptitiousness, the following information reported by China Daily on 24 February 2010 (which was the first week of ‘on-market’ sales) is worth considering. The article, titled ‘China unlikely to buy gold from the IMF‘, stated the following:
“Contrary to much speculation China may not buy the International Monetary Fund’s (IMF) remaining 191.3 tons of gold which is up for sale as it does not want to upset the market, a top industry official told China Daily yesterday.
“It is not feasible for China to buy the IMF bullion, as any purchase or even intent to do so would trigger market speculation and volatility,” said the official from the China Gold Association, on condition of anonymity.”
To me, these comments from the ‘anonymous’ China Gold Association official are a clear indication that if China was the buyer of the remaining 181.3 tonnes (ie. 191.3 tonnes – 10 tonnes for Bangladesh), then China certainly would have conducted the purchase in secrecy, as ‘it does not want to upset the market’, and “any purchase or even intent to do so would trigger market speculation and volatility”
In the same China Daily article, there was also a comment reported from Asian Development Bank economist Zhuang Jian, who was in favor of China buying the IMF gold, as he thought that “buying IMF gold would not only help China diversify its foreign exchange reserves but also strengthen the yuan as an international currency”, and that China would “have a bigger say in the IMF through the gold purchasing deal”.
Zhuang Jian also stated that “China can start with small purchases on the international market like the 191.3 tons of IMF gold. In the short-term, the market will see volatility, but in the long-term the prices will return to normal”.
BIS Swaps and Bullion Bank Bailouts
In late June 2010, the Bank for International Settlements (BIS) published its annual report to year-end March 2009. This report revealed that the BIS had, during its financial year, taken on gold swaps for 349 tonnes. The Wall Street Journal (WSJ) initially reported in early July 2010 that these swaps were with central banks, however the BIS clarified to the WSJ that the gold swaps were in fact with commercial banks. The Financial Times then reported in late July 2010 that “Three big banks – HSBC, Société Générale and BNP Paribas – were among more than 10 based in Europe that swapped gold with the Bank for International Settlements.” Notice that two of the named banks are French banks.
Since the BIS refuses to explain anything material about these swaps, which was most likely a gold market fire-fighting exercise, the details remain murky. But the theory that best explains what actually happened was advanced by the late Adrian Douglas of GATA in early July 2010. Douglas proposed that bullion bank gold bailout tripartite transactions actually created the BIS gold swaps. Since IMF gold is stored at both the Bank of England vaults in London and at the Banque de France vaults in Paris, IMF ‘on-market’ gold held in Paris or London would be very easy to transfer to a group of bullion banks who all hold gold accounts at the Bank of England and, it now appears, also hold gold accounts at the Banque de France.
In May 2012, George Milling-Stanley, formerly of the World Gold Council, provided some insight to the publication Central Banking about the role of the Banque de France in being able to mobilize gold. Milling-Stanley said:
“Gold stored at the Bank of England vaults … can easily be mobilised into the market via trading strategies, or posted as collateral for a currency loan”
‘Of the Banque de France, Milling-Stanley says it has ‘recently become more active in this space [mobilising gold into the market], acting primarily as an interface between the Bank for International Settlements in Basel [BIS] and commercial banks requiring dollar liquidity. These commercial banks are primarily located in Europe, especially in France’.”
It’s interesting that two of the three banks named by the Financial Times as being involved in the BIS gold swaps are French, and that Milling-Stanley mentioned that most of the commercial banks that interfaced with the BIS are French banks. Given that the then Managing Director of the IMF, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, is French, as is his successor Christine Lagarde, could some of the ‘on market’ IMF gold sales been a case of the French controlled IMF bailing out French bullion banks such as SocGen and BNP Paribas?
Applied to the IMF gold sales, and under a tripartite transaction, as I interpret it, the following transactions would occur:
IMF gold is transferred by book entry to a set of bullion banks who then transfer the title of this gold to the BIS. The BIS transfers US dollars to the bullion banks who then either transfer this currency to the IMF, or owe a cash obligation to the IMF. The sold gold is recorded in the name of the BIS but actually remains where it is custodied at the London or Paris IMF Gold Depositories, i.e. at the Bank of England or Banque de France vaults.
In this scenario, the IMF gold could have been transferred to bullion banks and further transferred to the BIS during 2009, with the ‘on-market’ pricing exercise carried out during 2010. With the BIS as gold sales agent, the entire set of transactions would be even more convenient since the BIS gold trading desk would be able to oversee the gold swaps and the gold sales.
So, in my opinion, the IMF ‘on-market’ gold on offer was either a) bought by the Chinese State, or b) was used in a gold market fire-fighting exercise to bail out a group of bullion banks, or c) a combination of the two.
Modalities of Gold Sales
As to why the IMF paper “Modalities for Limited Sales of Gold by the Fund” (Sept 4th 2009) SM/09/243″ is under lock and key and can only be declassified by the IMF Managing Director Christine Lagarde, the conclusion is that it too must contain references to something that the IMF are extremely worried about allowing into the public domain. For the simple reason is that a similarly named IMF paper from 25 June 1999, titled “Modalities for Gold Sales by the Fund” (EBS/99/110)” is accessible in the IMF Archives, and while revealing in a number of respects, it hardly contains ‘sensitive material’. This paper was prepared when the IMF had been thinking about conducting gold sales back in 1999 which never materialized, except in the form of an accounting trick to sell to and simultaneously buy back a quantity of gold to and from Mexico and Brazil. This 1999 paper “Modalities for Gold Sales by the Fund” is very interesting though for a lot of reasons as it sketches out the limitations on IMF gold sales, the approaches to the sales that were considered by the IMF at that time, and it’s also is full of pious claims that the gold sales process should be ‘transparent’, such as the following:
“it will be critical to ensure transparency and accountability of the Fund’s gold operations through clear procedures for selecting potential buyers and determining prices, and through public disclosure of the results of the sales after they have taken place. The need for transparency and evenhandedness, which is essential for an international financial institution, argues for providing as much information as possible to the public.”
On the actual approaches to gold sales, the 1999 Modalities paper introduces the topic as follows:
“This paper considers four main modalities for the sale of gold by the Fund: (i) direct sales to another official holder of gold; (ii) placements into the market through a private intermediary or a group of intermediaries, such as bullion banks; (iii) placements into the market through the intermediation of a central bank with experience in gold sales or the BIS; and (iv) direct sales to the market through public auctions, as was the case with the gold sales by the Fund between 1976 and 1980″
On the topic of publication of sales results, the 1999 paper states:
“Publication of results: In all cases, the Fund would make public at regular, say monthly, intervals the quantity sold and the prices obtained, as well as, depending on the modality decided by the Board, the names of the buyers. In the case of a forward sales strategy involving an intermediary, the Fund would make public the quantities and delivery dates of the forward sales. It would be for consideration whether the Fund would announce the names of the intermediaries selected by the Fund to sell the gold, if that modality would be chosen”
On the topic of limitations to IMF gold sales, the 1999 paper says:
“Under the Articles, the Fund is only authorized to sell gold; that is, to transfer ownership over gold on the basis of prices in the market, taking into account reasonable transactions costs. The Articles prescribe the objective of avoiding the management of the price, or the establishment of a fixed price, in the gold market (Article V, Section 12 (a)). This implies that the Fund “must seek to follow and not set a direction for prices in the gold market.“
Under the Articles, the Fund cannot engage in gold leasing or gold lending operations, enter into gold swaps, or participate in the market for gold options or other transactions that do not involve the transfer of ownership over gold.”
“Directors generally expressed the view that private placements of gold, either through a group of private institutions or through the intermediation of central banks or the BIS, had many advantages in terms of flexibility, both in terms of timing as well as in the discretion that the Fund’s agents could employ in the techniques that they could use tochannel gold into the market.“
And from the discussion, using the services of the BIS (or another central bank) appeared to be most favorable option:
“Directors further noted that there would be considerable practical difficulties in the choice of the institution or group of institutions through which the sales of gold could be conducted, even though these would be limited-but not entirely eliminated-by choosing a central bankor the BIS.“
“Greater openness and clarity by the IMF about its own policies and the advice it provides to its member countries contributes to a better understanding of the IMF’s own role and operations, building traction for the Fund’s policy advice and making it easier to hold the institution accountable. Outside scrutiny should also support the quality of surveillance and IMF-supported programs.”
“The IMF’s efforts to improve the understanding of its operations and engage more broadly with the public has been pursued along four broad lines: (i) transparency of surveillance and IMF-supported programs, (ii) transparency of its financial operations; (iii) external and internal review and evaluation; and (iv) external communications.”
“The IMF’s approach to transparency is based on the overarching principle that it will strive to disclose documents and information on a timely basis unless strong and specific reasons argue against such disclosure.”
Again, what could these “strong and specific reasons” arguing “against such disclosure” be for the 2010 IMF gold sales?
By now you will begin to see that the IMF’s interpretation of transparency on gold sales diverges massively from any generally accepted interpretation of transparency. The IMF appears to think that merely confirming that a gold sale took place or will take place is the epitome of transparency, when it would more accurately be described as obfuscation and a disdain for actual communication with the public. IMF transparency is anything but transparent.
Perhaps the usually useless mainstream financial media may finally sit up and next time they bump into the IMF’s Ms Lagarde at a press conference, ask her why the IMF continues to block access to its 2010 gold sales documents, which remain classified due to, in the IMF’s own words, “the sensitivity of the subject matter”. Here’s hoping.
Today the London Metal Exchange (LME) and the World Gold Council (WGC) jointly announced (here and here) the launch next year of standardised gold and silver spot and futures contracts which will trade on the LME’s electronic platform LMESelect, will clear on the LME central clearing platform LME Clear, and that will be settled ‘loco London’. Together these new products will be known as ‘LMEprecious’ and will launch in the first half of 2017.
However, although these contracts are described by the LME as delivery type ‘Physical’, settlement of trades on these contracts merely consists of unallocated gold or silver being transferred between LME Clear (LMEC) clearing accounts held at London Precious Metals Clearing Limited (LPMCL) member banks (i.e. paper trading via LPMCL’s AURUM clearing system).
London Metal Exchange: LMEprecious Gold contracts – “unallocated gold” delivery through LPMCL members https://t.co/F9BOUCjh3K
For example, the contract specs for the LME’s planned spot gold trading state that the LME’s proposed settlement procedure is one of:
“Physical settlement two days following termination of trading. Seller transfers unallocated gold to LMEC account at any LPMCL member bank, and buyers receive unallocated gold from LMEC account at any LPMCL member bank”
The range of LME contracts for both gold and silver will consist of a trade date + 1 contract (T+1), aptly named TOM, as well as daily futures from T + 2 (equivalent to Spot settlement) out to and including all trade dates to T + 25. Beyond the daily futures, the suite of contracts also includes approximately 36 monthly futures contracts covering each month out to 2 calendar years, and then each March, June, September and December out to 60 calendar months. The LME / WGC press release also mentions plans for options and calendar spread products based on these futures.
As well as trading electronically on LMESelect, these precious metals futures will also be tradeable via telephone market (inter-office market). Trading hours for the daily contract (TOM) will be 1am – 4pm London hours, while trading hours for all other contracts will be 1am – 8pm London hours, thereby also covering both Asian and US trading hours. Detailed contract specs for these gold and silver contracts are viewable on the LME website. The trading lot size for the LME gold contracts will be 100 ozs, which is significantly smaller than the conventional lot size of 5000 -10,000 ozs for gold trading in the London OTC market (and conventional OTC minimum of 1000 ozs of gold). The planned lot size for the LME’s silver contracts is 5000 ozs, again below the conventional lot size of 100,000 – 200,000 ozs for silver trading in the London OTC market (and conventional OTC minimum of 50,000 ozs of silver).
These LME contracts are being pitched as a real alternative to the incumbent over the counter system of gold and silver trading in London which is overseen by the London Bullion Market Association, an association whose most powerful members are the clearing and vaulting banks in London, namely HSBC, JP Morgan, Scotia, and to a lessor extent UBS and Barclays, but increasing ICBC Standard bank as well. But given that the LME’s clearing will sit on top of the LPMCL clearing system and use unallocated transfers, the chance of any real change to the incumbent London gold and silver market is non-existent. Nor will the trading of these LME products give any visibility into the amount of physical gold and silver that is held within the London Market, nor the coverage ratio between ‘unallocated account’ positions and real underlying physical metals.
Five Supporting Banks
This new LME / WGC initiative is being supported by 5 other investment banks and a trading entity called OSTC. These bank backers comprise US banks Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley, French banks Natixis and Société Générale, and Chinese controlled bank ICBC Standard Bank. According to a Reuters report about the launch, the World Gold Council had approached 30 firms about backing the launch, so with only 5 banks on board that’s a 16.6% take-up ratio of parties that were approached, and 83.4% who were not interested.
Earlier this year in January, Bloomberg said in a report said that the five interested banks were “ICBC Standard Bank Plc, Citigroup Inc., Morgan Stanley, Goldman Sachs Group Inc. and Societe Generale SA“, so somewhere along the line Citigroup looks to have taken itself off the list of interested parties, while Natixis came on board. The World Gold Council’s discussions about a proposed gold exchange and its discussions with ‘5 banks’ appear to have begun as early as the 4th quarter of 2014 and were flagged up by the Financial Times on 02 April 2015, when the FT stated that:
“The WGC has hired a number of consultants and spent the past six months pitching a business case for banks to consider the alternative trading infrastructure”
“The World Gold Council…and at least five banks are participating in initial discussions”
Notably, this was around the time that LME found out it had not secured the contracts to run either the LBMA Gold Price or LBMA Silver Price auctions. Note, that all 5 of the LME supporting banks, i.e. Goldman, ICBC Standard, Morgan Stanley, SocGen and Natixis, are members of the London Bullion Market Association (LBMA), with Goldman, Morgan Stanley, ICBC Standard and SocGen being LBMA market members, and Natixis being a full member of the LBMA. Goldman, Morgan Stanley, ICBC Standard and SocGen are also direct participants in the LBMA Gold Price auction operated by ICE Benchmark Administration. None of these 5 banks are direct participants in the LBMA Silver Price auction. Notably, none of these banks except for ICBC Standard is a member of the precious metals clearing group LPMCL. ICBC Standard Bank also recently acquired a precious metals vault in London from Barclays and also joined the LBMA’s Physical Committee (see BullionStar recent blog ‘Spotlight on LPMCL: London precious MEtals Clearing Limited‘ for details). Therefore, ICBC Standard seems to have a foot in both camps.
Unallocated Balances, Unsecured Creditors
Given the long build-up to this LME / World Gold Council announcement, and the fact that these LME spot and futures products were supposed to be a genuine alternative to the LBMA bank controlled OTC trading system, the continued use of unallocated settlement and the use of LPMCL accounts by these planned LME contracts underscores that the LME contract do not represent any real change in the London Gold and Silver Markets.
As a reminder, the resulting positions following transfers of unallocated gold and silver through the LME Clear accounts of LPMCL members essentially means the following, in the words of none other than the LBMA:
“Unallocated account basis. This is an account where the customer does not own specific bars, but has a general entitlement to an amount of metal. This is similar to the way that a bank account operates”
“settled by credits or debits to the account while the balance represents the indebtedness between the two parties.”
“Credit balances on the account do not entitle the creditor to specific bars of gold or silver or plates or ingots of platinum or palladium but are backed by the general stock of the precious metal dealer with whom the account is held:the client in this scenario is an unsecured creditor.
Alternatively, a negative balance will represent the precious metal indebtedness of the client to the dealer in the case where the client has a precious metal overdraft facility.
Should the client wish to receive actual metal, this is done by “allocating” specific bars, plates or ingots or equivalent precious metal product, the metal content of which is then debited from the unallocated account”.
LME bows to LPMCL
However, it should come as no surprise that these LME spot and futures contracts haven’t taken a new departure away from the entrenched monopoly of the London gold and silver clearing and vaulting systems, for the LME specifically stated in quite a recent submission to the LBMA that it will never rock the boat on LPMCL’s AURUM platform. When the LME presented to the LBMA in October 2014 in a pitch to win the contract for the LBMA Gold Price auction (which it didn’t secure), the pitch said that a centrally cleared solution “would only be introduced with market support and respecting LPMCL settlement“. [See right-hand box in below slide]:
In the same pitch, the LME also stated that:
“LME Clear fully respects existing loco London delivery mechanism and participants“
[See bottom line in below slide]:
Interestingly, following the announcement from the LME and the World Gold Council, the LBMA provided a very short statement that was quoted in the Financial Times, that said:
“The LBMA saw the announcement with interest and reconfirms it has no direct or indirect involvement in this project”.
While that may be true, what the LBMA statement didn’t concede is that 5 of its member banks, 4 of which are LBMA market makers, do have a direct involvement in the LME / World Gold Council project. Nor did the LBMA statement acknowledge that settlement of the planned LME gold and silver contracts will use the LPMCL infrastructure, nor that the LPMCL is now in specific scope of the LBMA’s remit.
“the London Precious Metals Clearing company took part not only [in the LBMA] review, but we have now agreed to formalise our working relationship, with the LBMA providing Executive services going forward. I’m grateful to the LPMCL directors for their leadership and their support for removing fragmentation from the market.”
With the LME contracts planning to use LPMCL, this ‘new dawn’ view of the LME / World Gold Council initiative is in my view mis-guided.
Even COMEX has more Transparency
Anyone familiar with the rudimentary vaulting and delivery procedures for gold and silver deliverable under the COMEX 100 oz gold and 5000 oz silver futures contracts will know that at least that system generates vault facility reports that specify how much eligible gold or silver is being stored in each of the designated New York vaults, the locations of the vaults, and also how much of the eligible gold or silver in storage has warehouse warrants against it (registered positions). The COMEX ‘system’ also generates data on gold and silver deliveries against contracts traded.
However, nothing in the above planned LME contract specs published so far gives any confidence that anyone will be the wiser as to how much gold or silver is in the London vaults backing up the trading of these spot and future contracts, how much gold or silver has been converted post-settlement to allocated positions in the vaults, nor how much gold or silver has been delivered as a consequence of trading in these spot and futures contract, nor importantly, where the actual participating vaults are.
This is because the LMPCL system is totally opaque and there is absolutely zero trade reporting by the LBMA or its member banks as to the volumes of gold and silver trading in the London market, and the volumes of physical metals held versus the volumes of ‘metal’ represented by unallocated account positions. Furthermore, the LBMA’s stated goal of introducing trade reporting looks as dead as a dodo, or at least as frozen as as a dodo on ice.
LBMA stall on Trade Reporting, LPMCL clear as Mud
On 9 October 2015, the LBMA announced that it had launched a Request for Information (RFI) asking financial and technology providers to submit help with formulating solutions to deficiencies which regulators thought the London bullion market such as the need for transparency, and issues such as liquidity that had supposedly been recommended as strategic objectives by consultant EY in its report to the LBMA, a report that incidentally has never been made publicly available. On 25 November 2015, the LBMA then announced that it had received 17 submissions to its RFI from 20 entities spanning “exchange groups, technology firms, brokers and data vendors”.
On 4 February 2016, the LBMA then issued a statement saying that it was launching a Request for Proposals (rRfP) and inviting 5 of these service providers (a short-list) to submit technical solutions that would address requirements such as an LBMA data warehouse and that would support the introduction of services such as trade reporting in the London bullion market. The RfP statement said that the winning service provider would be chosen in Q2 2016, with a planned implementation in H2 2016.
However, no progress was announced by the LBMA about the above RfP during Q2 2016, nor since then. The only coverage of this lack of newsflow came from the Bullion Desk in a 27 May article titled “Frustration Grows over London Gold Market Reform” in which it stated that the 5 solution providers on the short-list were “the LME, CME Group, the Intercontinental Exchange (ICE), Autilla/Cinnobar and Markit/ABS“, and that:
“the pace at which the LMBA is moving forward are causes for consternation in some quarters of the sector”
A quote within the Bullion Desk article seems to sum up the sentiment about the LBMA’s lack of progress in its project:
“It’s not going to happen any time soon. Look at how long it’s been going on already,” another market participant said. “Don’t hold your breath. It seems like we still have a long way to go.”
What could the hold up be? Surely 17 submissions from 20 entities that were whittled down to a short-list of 5 very sophisticated groups should have given the LBMA plenty of choice for nominating a winning entry. Whatever else this lack of progress suggests, it demonstrates that increased transparency in London gold and silver market trading data is not going to happen anytime soon, if ever.
Furthermore, the opacity of the London clearing statistics that are generated out of the LPMCL clearing system need no introduction to most, but can be read about here.
According to the LBMA, ‘Loco London’ “refers to gold and silver bullion that is physically held in London“, however, given the secrecy which surrounding trading data in the London gold and silver markets, and the lack of publication by any bank about the proportion of unallocated client balances in gold or silver that it maintains versus the physical gold or silver holdings that it maintains, this ‘loco London‘ term appears to have been abused beyond any reasonable definition, and now predominantly refers to debit and credit entries in the virtual accounting systems of London based bullion banks. Nor, in my opinion, will the LME contracts change any of this. One would therefore be forgiven in thinking that the real underlying inventories of gold and silver in the London market and their associated inverted pyramid unallocated account positions are too ‘precious’ to divulge to the market. The Bank of England is undoubtedly licking its chops to the continued opacity of the market.
And its not just my opinion. This latest LME / World Gold Council / investment bank announcement has generated other skeptical reactions. The last word goes to Jim Rickards, who tweeted this in reaction to the latest LME / World Gold Council news: