On 29 January 2018, the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) Division of Enforcement together with the Criminal Division of the US Department of Justice and the FBI announced criminal and civil enforcement actions against 3 global investment banks and 5 traders for involvement in trade spoofing in precious metals futures contracts on the US-based Commodity Exchange (COMEX). COMEX is by far the largest and most active futures exchange in the world for trading precious metals futures including gold futures contracts and silver futures contracts.
The CFTC is bringing the charges under what it calls “commodities fraud and spoofing schemes“. Spoofing of orders is illegal under the US Commodity Exchange Act. The 3 banks in question are Deutsche Bank, UBS, and HSBC. As part of the CFTC’s prosecution, Deutsche Bank is being fined US$ 30 million, UBS US$ 15 million, and HSBC US$ 1.6 million.
The CFTC’s Order against the banks maintains that from at least February 2008 to at least September 2014, Deutsche Bank traders were involved in a scheme to manipulate precious metals futures prices by spoofing orders for those futures contracts, and also by extension that this spoofing triggered customer stop-loss orders.
Similarly, the CFTC Order says that UBS traders on the UBS precious metals spot trading desk were involved in spoofing orders in gold futures and silver futures contracts from January 2008 to at least December 2013, and likewise triggering customer stop-loss orders.
In the case of HSBC, the CFTC says that HSBC, through its New York office, spoofed orders in gold futures and other precious metals. However, the CFTC Order does not specify the period under which HSBC is accused of engaging in such spoofing. This may be because, according to the CFTC, HSBC cooperated during the CFTC’s investigation and offered to settle. But overall, the spoofing by one or more of the named banks was said to have run from January 2008 to at least September 2014.
As part of the process, the CFTC also announced civil enforcement actions against precious metals traders Andre Flotron formerly of UBS, and James Vorley and Cedric Chanu formerly of Deutsche Bank for what the CFTC describes as “spoofing and engaging in a manipulative and deceptive scheme in the precious metals futures market“.
According to the Department of Justice (DoJ) press release on the matter, Vorley (a UK citizen) and Chanu (a French citizen) are being charged in a criminal complaint in the Northern District of Illinois court with “conspiracy, wire fraud, commodities fraud, and spoofing offenses in connection with executing a scheme to defraud involving both solo and coordinated spoofing on the COMEX“. During that time, Vorley was based in London with Deutsche bank and Chanu was based in London and Singapore with Deutsche Bank.
Flotron is charged in an indictment in the District of Connecticut for “conspiracy to commit spoofing, wire fraud, and commodities fraud” during the time when he worked at UBS as a precious metals trader on the UBS trading desks in Zürich, Switzerland, and Stamford, Connecticut USA.
The DoJ statement also names Edward Bases and John Pacilio, and says that Bases and Pacilio are charged in a criminal complaint with “commodities fraud in connection with an alleged scheme to engage in both solo and coordinated spoofing on the COMEX“. Bases was at Deutsche Bank until June 2010 at which point he moved to a unit of Merrill Lynch. Pacilio worked for a unit of Merrill Lynch during 2010 and 2011 when some of his trade spoofing is alleged to have taken place.
Note that according to the DoJ “a complaint, information, or indictment is merely an allegation, and all defendants are presumed innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt in a court of law“.
For an excellent explanation of some of the spoofing activities that these traders are accused of have engaged in, please see the recent article ‘US Gold & Silver Futures Markets: “Easy” Targets‘ by specialist researcher Allan Flynn posted on the BullionStar website and on his own ‘COMEX We have a Problem’ website here.
Spot, Fixes and Futures in the Gold and Silver Markets
While gold and silver futures trading is one side of the wholesale precious metals markets, it is not the full picture, because as well as COMEX, the over-the-counter (OTC) London Gold and Silver Markets are key gold and silver trading venues for these same investment banks, as well as key components of gold and silver price determination. And central to the London Gold Market and London Silver Market are the daily fixing auctions for gold and silver.
The investment bank precious metals traders who trade gold and silver in the wholesale market do so not just through exchange traded futures contracts or OTC contracts, but both. And they constantly trade across the London and COMEX ‘venues’ at the same time. In both gold and silver, predominant price discovery for the international gold price and for the international silver price occurs in the London OTC Market and on COMEX.
Price movements in one location, for example on COMEX futures, get instantly reflected in the London OTC spot quotes, and vice versa. Therefore price quotes in the London market, including opening prices and round prices for the London daily Fixings can be influenced by moving the futures prices. For example, if there is collusion among traders to push the futures prices lower so as to benefit other traders who have positions based on Fixing levels, this can be done by the trader from one bank pushing the futures price lower, while a trader at a second bank benefits from this movement in terms of his exposure to the Fixing price which has also moved lower. Such price movements are documented in the ‘Final Notice’ that the UK Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) levied against Barclays Bank and one of its precious metals traders in May 2014 (See below for details).
As highlighted below, the majority of the banks mentioned in the CFTC fines were also central to these gold and silver fixings, and astoundingly one of the traders mentioned above and subject to the CFTC and DoJ actions, James Vorley, was even a director of both of the private companies that oversaw the London Gold and Silver Fixings.
With the CFTC / DoJ fines, complaints and indictments against the banks and their traders for manipulating gold and silver futures prices now in the public arena, the question of manipulation of the London Gold and Silver fixing auctions now comes back in focus, and the question now needs to be asked – where are the regulators in investigating (and perhaps prosecuting) banks and traders for gold and silver fixings manipulation?
Because even a superficial look at the banks and traders, the trading desks and their operations, the trader chat room transcripts, and the connections between the futures and fixings at the time of the fixings should give even the most dullard regulators and prosecutors pause for thought.
Deutsche Bank and HSBC – New York Futures and London Fixings
As a reminder, the London Silver Fixings were a daily auction of (paper) silver at midday in London that operated up until August 2014 when they were replaced by the LBMA Silver Price auction. The London Gold Fixings were a twice daily auction of (paper) gold at 10:30 am and 3:00 pm in London that operated up until March 2015 when they were replaced by the LBMA Gold Price auction.
The London Silver Fixings were administered by a private company called London Silver Market Fixing Ltd (LSMFL) whose three members were Deutsche Bank, HSBC and the Bank of Nova Scotia. Deutsche Bank, HSBC and Bank of Nova Scotia were also the only 3 entities allowed to take directly participate in the silver fixings, and each had become a member of the silver fixings by acquiring one of the 3 traditional companies that had run the fixings – ScotiaBank acquired Mocatta in 1997, Deutsche acquired the old Sharps Pixley in 1993, and HSBC had acquired Samuel Montagu and rebranded as HSBC during its 1990s reorganisation.
The London Gold Fixings were administered by a private company called London Gold Market Fixing Ltd (LSMFL) which had 5 members, namely Deutsche Bank, HSBC, Bank of Nova Scotia, Barclays, and Societe Generale (SocGen). Only these 5 banks were allowed to directly participate in the gold fixings. These 5 banks were also the only banks in the gold fixings from 2004 all the way to 2014.
So from “January 2008 to at least September 2014“, the period stipulated by the CFTC that covers manipulation of gold and silver futures, the same banks, i.e. Deutsche Bank and HSBC, were at all times active members of the daily gold and silver fixings in London.
Even more amazingly, James Vorley, the Deutsche Bank trader who is the subject of the CFTC / DoJ accusation of “conspiracy, wire fraud, commodities fraud, and spoofing offenses” on COMEX was a Director of both London Silver Market Fixing Ltd and London Gold Market Fixing Ltd from September 2009 until May 2014, which is all the way through the period of ‘at least February 2008 to at least September 2014’, when Deutsche Bank precious metals traders were involved in a scheme to manipulate precious metals futures prices by spoofing orders for those futures contracts. You couldn’t make this up!
Vorley, along with Deutsche’s Kevin Rodgers resigned from the London Gold and Silver Market fixing companies in May 2014, when Deutsche Bank dropped out of the daily gold and silver fixing auctions. Matthew Keen of Deutsche Bank had previously resigned as a director of the gold and silver fixing companies in January 2014 when he left the bank and was replaced by Rodgers who was Global Head of Foreign Exchange at Deutsche Bank at that time. But curiously, Rodgers also left Deutsche at the end of April 2014.
There is plenty written elsewhere on how the LBMA maintained its stranglehold over the London gold and Silver reference price benchmarks when the old tarnished fixings were no longer viable and the bullion banks running those fixings had to quickly pretend to distance themselves from the fixing while at the same time maintaining total control over the new versions of the auctions. But in summary, in August 2014, when the new LBMA Silver Price auction was launched by the LBMA with just 3 bank members, HSBC and Bank of Nova Scotia continued as 2 of these members. When the LBMA Gold Price auction was launched in March 2015, the existing incumbents of the old Gold Fixings namely Barclays, HSBC, Bank of Nova Scotia and SocGen, rejoined the new auction along with its new members, UBS and Goldman Sachs.
Barclays Mini-Puke: Gaming the Gold Fixing
In May 2014, the UK Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) fined Barclays Bank £26 million for systems and controls failings and conflicts of interests in relation to the London Gold Fixing auctions of which it was one of the 5 bullion bank participants. According to the FCA, these failings persisted from 2004 (when Barclays joined the fixings) until 2013. The year 2004 was also when the gold and silver fixings stopped being conducted in a room in Rothschilds offices and began to be conducted remotely.
As part of the May 2014 fines of Barclays, the FCA also fined Daniel Plunkett, one of the Barclays London-based precious metals traders, £95,000. While the fine for Plunkett was specifically to penalise his placement and cancellation of orders which were intended to manipulate prices within the rounds of the fixing, the commentary supplied by the FCA on the case is interesting in that it shows how gold futures price movements external to the fixings also very much influenced the fixing round prices during the auction that the FCA penalised Plunkett for.
At the start of the 28 June 2012 Gold Fixing at 3:00 p.m., the Chairman proposed an opening price of USD1,562.00. However, the proposed price quickly dropped to USD1,556.00, following a drop in the price of August COMEX Gold Futures (which was caused by significant selling in the August COMEX Gold Futures market, independent of Barclays and Mr Plunkett).
You can see here the interactions and influences that the COMEX gold futures prices movements had on the opening price that the Gold Fixing Chairman proposed to the begin the auction with. And now that we know there was collusion between the various precious metals traders across the bullion banks, it is not difficult to accept that the traders from one bank could be moving the futures lower to not only help themselves but as a favour to precious metals traders at other cartel banks that were also involved in the collusion schemes.
Banging the Fixes – Chat Room Transcripts from Class Action Suits
But there is also direct evidence of trader collusion to manipulate prices in the London gold and silver fixings in the form of trader chat room transcripts. This is not speculation, it is fact. Facts that have been documented in class action proceedings in the New York courts brought by plaintiffs against the bank member of the London Gold and Silver Market Fixing companies.
Again we turn to Allan Flynn, who was probably first to call attention to the manipulation of the silver market by these same banks with his extensive and succinct coverage of the evidence from the New York class action suits in his 8 December 2016 article ‘How to Trigger a Silver Avalanche by a Pebble: “Smash(ed) it Good”‘ posted on the BullionStar website and on Allan’s website here, and in his follow-up article from 14 December 2016 titled “When Gold Pops 1430 We Whack It“, posted on his website and on the ZeroHedge website here.
In the silver class action suit against Deutsche Bank, HSBC, the Bank of Nova Scotia, and UBS, Deutsche agreed in April 2016 to settle with the plaintiffs and to produce“instant messages, and other electronic communications” as part of the settlement. See BullionStar article ‘Deutsche Bank agrees to settle with Plaintiffs in London Silver Fixing litigation‘for full details of the April 2016 announcement.
Attorneys for the plaintiffs subsequently, as Allan Flynn documented “submitted samples of dozens of chat room messages between UBS and Deutsche Bank“, indicating “many efforts to artificially suppress gold prices, and to manipulate gold prices at the time of the Fixing.”
“One chat see’s a Deutsche Bank trader confirming with a UBS trader his trading had indeed influenced the Gold Fix: ‘u just said u sold on fix.‘ The UBS traded replied ‘yeah,’ ‘we smashed it good.‘
Another transcript example contained the following exchange:
“During a trading day which had been less successful the Deutsche Bank trader assured his opposite trader from Bank of Nova Scotia that ‘at least the fix will be fun . . . make it all back there!!!!!!‘”
So here we have precious metals traders actually colluding to artificially move the price levels on the fixings.
Technology Facilitated the Manipulation of the Fixes since 2004
In June 2015, I wrote an article on the BullionStar website titled “The pre-2015 London Gold Fixings – More technologically advanced than reported” in which I set out substantial evidence that the former Gold Fixings up until March 2015 were not some archaic dial-in telephone based auction using paper and pencils to set the price as the mainstream financial media choose to believe, but that the auctions since 2004 in both gold and silver employed sophisticated web-based technology apps, trading software, messaging apps and chat apps, all of which could also facilitate collusion and price manipulation across multiple trading desks in ‘rival’ banks.
When Rothschild pulled out of the Gold Fixings in 2004, Barclays took Rothschild’s place and the fixings moved to a remote model where traders from each of the 5 members banks of the Gold Fixing coordinated remotely instead of meeting twice a day face to face. At the same time, the fixing members introduced this new communication technology to assist their twice daily fixes.
In November 2014, the Swiss financial regulator FINMA announced that an investigation of UBS had found manipulation and attempted manipulation of by UBS Zurich employees of forex and precious metals benchmarks. At the time, Mark Branson, FINMA’s CEO said that “we have [also] seen clear attempts to manipulate fixes in the precious metals markets.”
According to FINMA, it found that chat groups between traders at multiple banks were central to how the manipulation was coordinated:
“In the improper business conduct in foreign exchange and precious metals trading, electronic communication platforms played a key role. The abusive practices were evidenced in the information exchanged between traders in chat groups. FINMA examined thousands of suspicious chat group conversations between traders at multiple banks.“
The introduction of new technology and chat apps from 2004 is also highly correlated with academic research findings showing “a decade of manipulation” of the gold fixing from 2004 until 2013. As highlighted in the Bloomberg article “Gold Fix Study Shows Signs of Decade of Bank Manipulation“
“Abrantes-Metz and Metz screened intraday trading in the spot gold market from 2001 to 2013 for sudden, unexplained moves that may indicate illegal behavior. From 2004, they observed frequent spikes in spot gold prices during the afternoon call. The moves weren’t replicated during the morning call and hadn’t happened before 2004, they found.
Large price moves during the afternoon call were also overwhelmingly in the same direction: down.
On days when the authors identified large price moves during the fix, they were downwards at least two-thirds of the time in six different years between 2004and 2013. In 2010, large moves during the fix were negative 92 percent of the time, the authors found.
There’s no obvious explanation as to why the patterns began in 2004, why they were more prevalent in the afternoon fixing, and why price moves tended to be downwards, Abrantes-Metz said in a telephone interview this week.”
Well, there is an obvious explanation. The downward price movements identified by Abrantes-Metz and Metz started in 2004 because that’s when the London gold fixings went to a remote model and technology including chat apps was introduced. The suspicious price movements were more prevalent in the London afternoon because that was also the New York morning where COMEX gold futures were more active and where New York based traders could force the futures down causing a corresponding drop in the opening prices and round prices in the fixing auctions.
Prosecuting banks and traders for price manipulation on COMEX futures while ignoring the far larger London market and its gold and silver fixings looks like a job half done. Trading desks and their traders are agnostic to trading venues and with interlinked markets, the COMEX and the London Fixings are two sides of the same coin.
With blatant evidence that the same banks and traders were involved in both markets, and with actual chat room transcripts now confirming that precious metals traders across multiple banks were colluding in fixing price manipulation, then why are their no active regulatory investigations of trader manipulation of the London Gold and Silver Fixings?
Is it because of lack of jurisdictional authority or are the regulators and criminal enforcement agencies such as the FCA, DoJ, FINMA and the German BAFIN too terrified of opening a can of worms into the huge liabilities that would arise from proving a decade long criminal manipulation of the London Gold and Silver price benchmarks and that were used throughout the world the value of everything from ISDA contracts to institutional precious metals products, to ETFs.
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.
Written by Allan Flynn, specialist researcher in aspects of gold and silver.
Five months have lapsed without decision, since London gold and silver benchmark-rigging class action lawsuits received a cool response in a Manhattan court. Transcripts from April hearings show, in the absence of direct evidence, the claims dissected by a “very skeptical” judge, and criticized by defendants for lack of facts suggesting collusion, among other things.
Judge Valerie E. Caproni, former white-collar defense attorney, SEC Regional Director and controversial FBI General Counsel, presided over oral arguments for motions-to-dismiss totaling 9 hours on April 18 and 20.
Its “based entirely on statistics with no other,” the judge said, pouring cold water on plaintiff’s claims of bank collusion in gold benchmark rigging. Defense attorney scoffed as much at the silver hearing. “There is not a single fact… that shows an agreement between my client and the other alleged conspirators to fix the fix.”
Seven banks are being sued in separate gold and silver class action lawsuits currently before the US. District Court, Southern District of New York. The plaintiffs: gold and silver bullion traders, and traders of various associated financial instruments, allege banks conspired in secret closed meetings, to rig the London PM Gold Fix, and Silver Fix benchmarks during the period from 2001 to 2013.
If the motions to dismiss are allowed, the complaints will be thrown out. Plaintiffs on the other hand, are hoping to crack open the door to “discovery,” where they get to access confidential bank communications and records. Turning the tables earlier in April Deutsche Bank surprised by promising to provide such evidence ratting out its former fellow defendants. “No. I cannot consider it at all,” the judge said, stonewalling plaintiffs’ arguments mentioning the move. The German mega-bank settled claims a week prior to the hearing but is yet to hand over records.
Alleged proof of downward price manipulation is revealed by averaged charts showing “Anomalous” price drops from 2001 to 2013 in the London Silver Fix and PM Gold Fix. In sympathy, even as the gold price quadrupled from around $300 to $1200 through the period, something counter-intuitive happened. Plaintiffs’ claim during London hours between the AM and PM fixes, the average price declined for each of the 13 years, bar one being flat in 2013. More pronounced effects were seen in silver.
“Those were compelling charts,” the judge responded to a presentation of evidence during the silver hearing. “I mean, seriously, they truly show that something happened.”
Defendants argue rather than collusion, the price drops show normal “parallel conduct.” Loads of precious metals producers all needing to sell, and a bunch of savvy bankers hoping to buy low. Plaintiffs say the banks have a near-perfect record betting on the fix outcome. Well of course, they trade on “the best information in the world about supply and demand,” the banks’ attorneys retorted.
Inclusion of a non-fixing bank UBS, in the lawsuit, is described by defendants as “unfair,” and just to “suck in” a Swiss regulator’s findings. If the Court is to be believed, the FINMA report may be all the cases have going for them. Of its 19 pages, the dominating subject is foreign exchange misconduct, with only a few lines about precious metals. Tip-toeing around the topic of collusion, the report describes a process of “cooperation” between UBS and others in precious metals trading. It says the bank shared sensitive client trade information such as “client names”, “stop loss orders,” and “flow information on large or imminent orders” with “third parties.”
Sharing of client trade information by banks, including UBS, in currency trading, the UK Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) reported in 2014, was for the purpose of collusion. Such communication enabled different banks to plan trading strategies, and “attempt to manipulate fix rates and trigger client “stop loss” orders (which are designed to limit the losses a client could face if exposed to adverse currency rate movements).”
Strong similarities exist between the methods and tools used by currency traders to rig benchmarks, and those used by precious metals traders. Referring to the detailed description of UBS offences including collusion in currency benchmarks, the FINMA report said, “the conduct and techniques inadmissible from a regulatory perspective, were also applied at least in part to PM spot trading.”
Hanging by a Thread
One “misconduct” the report emphasized in precious metals trading was UBS’ manipulation of the silver benchmark in the banks proprietary trading. “A substantial element of the conspicuous conduct in PM trading was the repeated front running (especially in the back book) of silver fix orders of one client.” According to the FCA, front running is a kind of insider trading.
“transaction for a “person’s own benefit, on the basis of and ahead of an order (including an order relating to a bid) which he is to carry out with or for another (in respect of which information concerning the order is inside information), which takes advantage of the anticipated impact of the order on the market or auction clearing price.”
Commenting on the brevity of plaintiffs’ evidence in silver, and the FINMA findings, Judge Caproni pointed out, “your hanging your hat pretty heavily on one line in that report.”
Attorney for defendants found the report favorably vague:
“Your Honor, I apologize. I must say he has made a misstatement three times. The FINMA settlement, Section 3.2.3 talks about UBS conduct with respect to silver. There’s not a not a word or hint about coordination with any other bank. It is between UBS and one of its customers or maybe more than one but no collusion.”
The judge responded, “We have the FINMA report. I knew that wasn’t exactly what it said.”
Confusion about the Swiss findings wasn’t helped by the events of the day. The conference call in German, reported FINMA boss Mark Branson alluding to perhaps more than the report dare, in, “clear attempts to manipulate precious metals benchmarks.” FINMA declined a request to supply a transcript or recording of the conference call, with a spokesperson responding, “We do not publish a transcript, and besides we have nothing to add to the report.”
A couple of things may help explain the regulators haziness, and thus the challenges for sensitive cases as these. Switzerland is a country long associated with gold and banking. In 1970 Zurich was home to the worlds largest gold market. Most of the worlds’ gold is imported to Switzerland for refining. Consider then this impressive feat: An official inquiry is conducted of Switzerland’s largest bank caught up in a scandal involving “precious metals.” Offenses were identified in its Zurich office. The agency reports “serious misconduct” in precious metals trading including sharing of secret client trade orders with “third parties.” The agency head rallies against manipulation of “precious metals benchmarks.” Action against 11 bank personnel, including industry bans of between one and five years, were brought against two managers and four traders for, “serious breaches of regulation in foreign exchange and precious metals trading.” But yet, the word “gold” is absent from the entire report and announcements.
Secondly, FINMA’s 2015 Annual Report describes the sanctions against four now-former UBS traders. It may concern some, that justice is left to financial market regulators when:
“Four further enhancement actions against UBS foreign exchange traders were discontinued in August 2015. Since there were indications that their behavior had contributed to serious breaches of regulatory provisions, FINMA issued reprimands without taking further action against these individuals.”
If the cases proceed, US commodity futures markets may also come under scrutiny. The Court spotted a not-so-obvious paradox concerning allegations the banks suppress gold prices. “Why would they drive the price down when they are sitting on I don’t know how much bullion? They are driving down the price of their own asset,” Judge Caproni posed.
Plaintiffs claim the banks hold a majority of short gold and silver futures on the US-based Chicago Mercantile Futures Exchange, paper instruments tied to the value of London silver and gold, which increase in value as the bullion prices fall. The banks argue that it’s impossible to tell from mandatory government filings, which banks prosper during the declines, and to what extent. The judge agrees, and defendants are pleased. “I’m very skeptical they have a well-pleaded factual allegation of what the banks’…COMEX position is,” the judge said.
“Mr Feldberg: Then your Honor has said that much better than I ever could.”
Where direct evidence of collusion isn’t available, antitrust law allows the pleading of additional circumstantial evidence that lends plausibility to allegations. Other circumstantial evidence, or “plus-factors,“ listed by gold plaintiffs, namely problematic antitrust facts arising out of the very clubby arrangement of the fix meetings themselves, failed to impress particularly.
“The Court: But weren’t all of your plus factors just the natural – they are just a function of the fix?..I thought every plus factor you pointed to was just that’s the nature of the fix.”
The unconvinced magistrate was likely close to a decision, before four weeks back when the banks had one last throw at dismissal. The court in the silver case was asked to apply a recent ruling where warehouse aluminum price manipulation was deemed not to have impacted end users of aluminum. Any decision on this in silver will likely impact the gold case also.
The question of standing, or which plaintiff’s are close enough to the alleged activity to have suffered injury, was well discussed back in April. For example the Court put to defense: “I’m not saying the two guys at a swap meet from Ohio would be a particularly compelling class representative, but why wouldn’t they have standing?” Plaintiffs seemed to have convinced that the issue could be decided later, if it gets to that. Judge Caproni just wasn’t sure firstly if all the statistics, and facts complained were plausible enough to infer collusion, reminding frustrated gold plaintiffs where the balance lies.
“Unfortunately for you I’m the one who has to make the decision here.
Mr Brocket: Again, with the greatest respect, I am trying to resurrect this here but, look. Every fact alone doesn’t prove collusion.
The Court: I agree.”
Decisions regarding motions to dismiss in the London gold and silver benchmark-rigging class actions against banks, initially expected around the end of August, could come any day sooner or later according to someone familiar with the cases.
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.
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.
“ICBC Standard Bank is buying the lease on Deutsche Bank’s London gold and silver vault, enlarging its footprint in the city’s bullion market..”
“ICBC.. has also applied to become a clearing member of the London gold and silver over-the-counter business.“
“The vault became operational in June 2014 and has a capacity of 1,500 tonnes. It was built and is managed by British security services company G4S.“
These moves by ICBC Standard Bank have now put both the G4S vault and LPMCL, (a private company), back in the spotlight.
The Background to the G4S Vault
On 20 March 2012, Deutsche Bank issued a press release announcing that it had contracted security company G4S to construct and manage a precious metals vault on Deutsche’s behalf in London. Critically, this was a substantial long-term partnership between Deutsche Bank and G4S, with G4S doing the actual work of building and then operating the precious metals vault. Deutsche stated at the time in March 2012 that the new vault would be for the exclusive use of Deutsche Bank clients, and that it would available for use by these clients during 2013:
“Deutsche Bank and G4S are pleased to announce that they are to join forcesin establishing a new vault for the storage of precious metals in the UK.”
“The new vault will be built and managed by G4S, the world’s leading international security solutions group, for the exclusive use of Deutsche Bank and its clients and will be an enhancement to Deutsche Bank’s already extensive metal trading and clearing capabilities.”
“‘It will position us well to quickly become a leading metals clearing and custody house,’commented Raymond Key, Global Head of Metals Trading at Deutsche Bank.The vault, which will be constructed and run to industry-leading standards of security, will be available for clients in 2013.“
Likewise, on 20 March 2012,G4S released its own press release in which it revealed that the contract with Deutsche Bank was a 10 year commercial deal and that discussions about building the vault had commenced in 2009:
“Working in partnership with Deutsche Bank, the business has secured a ten year commercial arrangement to establish a state of the art precious metals vault that will be built and managed by G4S, and will enable Deutsche Bank to extend and enhance their metal trading and clearing capabilities.
Discussions started with Deutsche Bank back in 2009 when increased economic volatility started to cause a rise in interest levels among investors for precious metals.”
“James Dinsdale, Managing Director, G4S Cash Solutions, said: ‘We’re delighted to have secured this partnership with Deutsche Bank….. This agreement represents a strategic move in the UK market place for G4S.”
“Clyde & Co has advised global security and logistics company G4S in relation to a project for Deutsche Bank.
G4S will build and manage a gold bullion secure storage vault in the UK for Deutsche Bank.”
What none of the press releases mentioned was that the precious metal vault was being integrated into the basement of a new G4S operating centre in Park Royal, London.
As it turns out, Deutsche did not deliver on its self-publicised deadline for the new vault becoming available to its clients in 2013. However, on 9 June 2014, over 2 years after announcing the London vault project, a much reduced Deutsche Bank London precious metals business that had substantially stepped back from the London Gold Market, confirmed to Reuters that it had finally opened its new London precious metals vault. Note that Reuters is usually the first distribution channel that the London Gold Market PR machine contacts to get its stories out on to the newswires.
“Deutsche’s new vault has been built in partnership with logistics company G4Sand is open to institutional investors, and commercial and central banks.”
“The vault has a capacity of 1,500 tonnes, making it significantly bigger than a 200-tonne storage facility that the bank owns at the Singapore Freeport.“
The period from late 2013 to early 2014 turned out to be a turbulent period for Deutsche Bank’s precious metals operations in London, during which time:
– German financial regulator BaFin began an investigation into the London Gold and Silver Fixings, of which Deutsche Bank was a fixing member (November 2013)
– Deutsche Bank announced that it would withdraw its participation in the London Gold and Silver Fixings and sell the Fixing seats (January 2014)
– Deutsche Bank ceased contributing to the GOFO benchmark and ceased being a LBMA market maker for precious metals forwards (February 2014)
– Deutsche Bank ‘failed to sell’ its gold and silver fixing seats (despite ICBC Standard Bank being interested), and Deutsche then merely resorted to withdrawing from the fixings (April/May 2014)
– Deutsche Bank’s Matthew Keen, who was a director of London Gold Market Fixing Limited (LGMFL), London Silver Market Fixing Limited (LSMFL), and London Precious Metals Clearing Limited (LPMCL) resigned from Deutsche Bank, prompting the appointment of other Deutsche representatives to those company directorships (January 2014)
– Deutsche Bank’s representative on the London Bullion Market Association’s (LBMA) management committee, Ronan Donohoe, resigned from the LBMA management committee on 5 March 2014, only 7 months into a 2 year appointment (March 2014)
Given all the above retrenchments affecting its precious metals activities in London, it is slightly odd that Deutsche Bank still went ahead in June 2014 and announced the opening, at least in name, of its London precious metals vault collaboration with G4S. Perhaps it had a contractual obligation with G4S to do so.
But odder still is that less that 5 months after announcing the opening of the new vault, Deutsche Bank then stepped back even further by closing its physical precious metals trading operation in London in November 2014, and then announced in December 2014 that it would actually be interested in selling its London gold vault. This decision is beyond bizarre given the huge level of commitment that Deutsche Bank had made to the development of the vault for at least 4-5 years beginning in 2009.
“Deutsche Bank is open to offers for its London-based gold vault following the closure of its physical precious metals business, three sources familiar with the matter said on Wednesday. ‘If the right offer came along, then the bank would sell the London vault,’ one source close to the situation said.
The German bank shut its physical precious metals trading arm last month as it further reduced its exposure to commodity markets.”
“Deutsche declined to comment on the status of its vaulting operation.“
“…it could be difficult for Deutsche Bank to find buyers among its nearest peers. But sources familiar with the matter said a Chinese entity could come forward. ICBC is trying to build a presence in London and the sources said it was a likely candidate. ICBC declined to comment.”
The key question is did this Deutsche Bank vault in London, operated by G4S, ever do any precious metals business in the time between June 2014 and November 2014? If it did, then this activity could not have been substantial.
Deutsche Bank clients holding allocated gold and other precious metals with Deutsche in London would not have been impressed if they were told their holdings were being moved to the new vault in the summer of 2014, only to find out a few months later that Deutsche was looking to exit its involvement with the vault.
While the G4S / Deutsche vault sales process seemed to remain on hold for the entire year of 2015 with no announced activity from either Deutsche bank or ICBC, and no media scrutiny, Deutsche continued to exit the physical gold business in London amid a number of other significant developments. In August 2015, Deutsche departed from the London Precious Metals Clearing Limited (LPMCL) company, leaving HSBC, JP Morgan, Bank of Nova Scotia, Barclays, and UBS as the remaining 5 members of the London gold and silver clearing consortium.
“Deutsche Bank is to sever its last link with commodity trading by resigning as a clearing member of the London gold and silver over-the-counter business..” [LPMCL]
It’s a little known fact that London Precious Metals Clearing Limited (LPMCL) (company number 04195299) is a UK private limited company with the same registered address as the London Gold Market Fixing Limited and the London Silver Market Fixing Company Limited. This registered address is C/O Hackwood Secretaries Limited, One Silk Street, London EC2Y 8HQ. Indeed, Hackwood Secretaries Limited is the Company Secretary for LPMCL. Hackwood Secretaries Limited is one of the companies Linklaters uses to offer its company sectretariat services. And Linklaters is one of the better known ‘magic circle’ global law firms that is headquartered in London.
While LPMCL has so far managed to steer clear of US class actions suits concerning precious metals manipulation accusations, its fellow Linklater registered gold and silver fixing companies, London Gold Market Fixing Limited and the London Silver Market Fixing Company Limited, both of which have had a lot of the same directors as LPMCL, have not been so lucky on the class action front, and both companies are now facing live consolidated class action suits in New York courts.
Each member bank of LPMCL usually appoints two directors who are senior staff members of that investment bank. So with 6 investment banks within LPMCL, there are usually 11-12 LPMCL directors, give or take a few people who would invariably be moving bank at any given time.
Deutsche Bank’s two last-serving directors of LPMCL, Raj Kumar and David Mitchell-Innes, actually resigned from LPMCL on 9th February and 1st September 2015, respectively. The February 2015 LPMCL resignation by Kumar seems to have been precipitated by his internal move within Deutsche Bank for a short while to the role of Global COO for Commodities, but then significantly, Kumar left Deutsche Bank in July 2015 to take up a role in ICBC Standard Bank in September 2015 as a managing director in ICBC Standard’s precious metals business, as Reuters reported on 17 September:
“London-based ICBC Standard Bank Plc named Raj Kumar head of its precious metals business development, effective immediately.
Kumar, who will be based in London, joins from Deutsche Bank AG, where he was managing director of precious metals business.”
This Deutsche Bank – ICBC Standard Bank – LPMCL link in the form of Raj Kumar was undoubtedly useful to ICBC Standard in its move to take on Park Royal vault lease from Deutsche Bank, and could help facilitate ICBC Standard’s stance in an application to become a member of LPMCL.
However, the 20 August Reuters report also interestingly stated that Standard Chartered might be interested in becoming a LPMCL member:
“…there is one other bank, Standard Chartered, that could become a gold and silver clearing member in the next few months.”
Could this be a typo by Reuters when it meant to say Standard Bank? Possibly, but most likely not. Standard Chartered is an important bank in the London Gold Market in its role as a LBMA market maker in spot and options for gold and silver which it secured in February 2015. But Standard Bank is not to be confused with Standard Chartered bank. They are two entirely separate banking institutions, albeit with historical connections.
Standard Chartered is headquartered in London, and is well-known for its emerging markets focus, particularly in Asia and Africa. The ‘Standard’ in Standard Chartered in some ways does refer to the South African ‘Standard Bank’, since Standard Chartered was created in 1969 through the merger of Standard Bank of British South Africa and Chartered Bank of India, Australia and China. However in 1987, Standard Chartered sold its shareholding in Standard Bank.
In April 2015, Reuters said of Whitehead’s pending departure from Barclays:
“Barclays’ global head of metals and mining sales Martyn Whitehead will leave the bank as part of its restructuring and exit from some parts of its commodities business, a source familiar with the situation told Reuters on Monday.
Whitehead was Barclays’ only representative listed with London Precious Metals Clearing Ltd. Barclays is one of the six banks that organise and co-ordinate bullion clearing and vaulting in London.”
Therefore, could two former directors of LPMCL, namely Raj Kumar and Martyn Whitehead, now be spearheading applications on the part of their respective new employers, ICBC Standard Bank and Standard Chartered, to both join the private club that is London Precious Metals Clearing Limited, and have access to the exorbitant privilege of being part of the London Gold Market’s private gold clearing consortium, and preferential treatment form the Bank of England gold and foreign exchange desk?
China’s largest bank, Industrial and Commercial Bank of China (ICBC), has been eager to become a premier player in the London Gold Market for some time now. Although it became an Ordinary Member of the LBMA in 2012, ICBC had stated in 2012 its desire to become a LBMA Market Making Member. ICBC was also interested in buying Deutsche Bank’s seat in the old Gold Fixing in 2014, but strangely this sale never happened. See my BullionStar blog “Chinese Banks as direct participants in the new LBMA Gold and Silver Price auctions? Not so fast!” from March 2015 under section “ICBC and Standard Bank” for more details on this.
ICBC also stated in June 2015 that it wanted to become a direct participant in the LBMA Gold Price auction, but again strangely this has not yet happened despite 2 other Chinese banks, namely Bank of China and China Construction Bank (CCB), eventually being authorised by the LBMA to join up to the LBMA Gold Price auction on 22 June 2015 and 30 October 2015, respectively.
Prior to the controlling interest purchase by ICBC, Standard Bank was no stranger to London Gold Market gold vaulting, and a 2009 report from Abu Dahbi’s “The National” on United Arab Emirates related bullion stated that gold had:
“moved to the vaults of Standard Bank of South Africa, located in the London offices of JPMorgan Chase at 60 Victoria Embankment, Blackfriars, London.”
The ‘vaults of Standard Bank‘ reference just refers to allocated or sub-leased space in the JP Morgan vault in London in the name of Standard Bank of South Africa.
Finally, ICBC also has a strategic interest in the London platinum group metals market through Standard Bank Plc’s existing participation in the London Platinum and Palladium Market especially through the daily platinum and palladium fix auctions, which are now administered by the LME on behalf of the LBMA.
The Park Royal VAULT
As first revealed by Zerohedge in December 2014, the London precious metal vault that was built by G4S on behalf of Deutsche Bank is located at in the Park Royal area of London at 291 Abbey Road, London NW10 7SA.
This Park Royal location was actually telegraphed by G4S itself as early as July 2013 when ‘G4S Cash Solutions’ advertised for “Precious Metals Vault Officers” for the new vault in a job advert on the careers section of its own website, which listed the job location as ‘Park Royal, West London‘. Not really a very security conscious approach for whats purports to be one of the world’s foremost security companies. The job adverts included the following:
“Precious Metals Vault Officers
Location: Park Royal, West London
Number of Positions:16
Closing Date: November 2, 2013
G4S Cash Solutions, in partnership with one of the world’s leading financial institutions, is launching a Precious Metal Vault in West London. The vault which has been created with innovative, state of the art design and technology is at the leading edge of the global bullion storage industry.
We are now recruiting an exceptional team of Precious Metal Vault Officers who will operate and secure our vault in this exciting, new venture.”
“responsible for processing all inbound, outbound and stock management transactions and movements of Precious Metals”
“The operation and use of a Vault Management System together with specialist Precious Metals equipment”
“The conduct of receipting, weighing and stowing of Precious Metals including their physical movement in and around the Vault “
“G4S is the largest secure solutions company in the world…Our Cash Management Solutions business has expertise in cash and valuables transportation, cash processing, ATM and cash centre outsourcing, secure storage and retrieval.”
“Responsible for the management, security and operations of the precious metals vault including security and traceability of all assets entering and leaving the vault.”
“To work closely with internal management on the strategic global growth of our bullion projects; offering product, operational knowledge and LBMA expertise.”
“To train vault officers to ensure they are working within the LBMA / LPPM / LPMCL guidelines…”
A strong working knowledge of LBMA, LPPM and LPMCL codes of practice and proven experience of implementation of these codes
** Proven experience of working within a Precious Metal vault **
Proven experience of working within LBMA, LPPM and LPMCL codes of practice (including weighing of bullion)”
Planning and implementing the conduct of receipting, weighing and stowing of precious metals including their physical movement in and around the vault
Planning for and implementing the conduct of picking, packing and shipping of precious metals including their physical movement in and around the vault
There were also similar job adverts on the G4S website for other positions at Park Royal including “Precious Metals Shift Manager” (Positions: 4, closing date 31 October 2013), and “Secure Driver” (Positions:15, closing date 23 June 2014, “Deliver cash and valuables to various customers in a physically active role“).
Note that the closing date for the Secure Driver applicants was a few weeks after Deutsche Bank had announced on 6 June 2014 that it had opened the gold vault. So if the drivers hadn’t even been hired in June 2014 and probably not in July 2014 either, then there was nothing being moved in or out of the vault at that time, and there was most likely never any Deutsche Bank precious metals moved in or out of the G4S vault, which would also explain why, in December 2014, “Deutsche declined to comment on the status of its vaulting operation”, and would therefore make the vault an extremely bad and money losing investment decision for Deutsche Bank, as well as a bizarre business decision to commit substantially investment to the vault and then walk away from it 2 years later.
From July to August 2013, G4S even tweeted about these Park Royal roles on its Twitter account and stated the locations of the jobs roles and locations, for example, for “Vault Manager – Precious Metals in Park Royal“.
Not only that, but G4S even advertised these precious metals vault positions to the world on Facebook, complete with the specification of the Park Royal location.
Where is Park Royal? Most people in London, if they know Park Royal at all, would recognise the name as a tube station (train station) and as an area of North West London. Park Royal is just off the North Circular Road, in an industrial area, frequently congested with traffic, just down the road from Hanger Lane roundabout, another often traffic gridlocked area. But as the crow flies, Park Royal is not too far from Heathrow Airport, or the M25 ring-road, or Central London.
As well as telegraphing the general Park Royal area where the new vault was to be built, G4S also went further and specified the exact address of the new operating centre in a planning application document available on the web, conveniently pinpointing the vault building location in this large industrial sprawl, chock full of industrial parks and warehouses:
OFFICE OF THE TRAFFIC COMMISSIONER (LONDON AND THE SOUTH EAST OF ENGLAND) APPLICATIONS AND DECISIONS PUBLICATION DATE: 06 March 2014
Page 13 of document: Reference Number OK0229598 SI
G4S CASH SOLUTIONS (UK) LIMITED
Director(s): KEVIN O’CONNOR, Margaret Ann Ryan, Declan Hunt.
SUTTON PARK HOUSE, 15 CARSHALTON ROAD , SUTTON SM1 4LD
New operating centre: PARK ROYAL, 291 ABBEY ROAD LONDON NW10 7SA
New authorisation at this operating centre will be: 45 vehicle(s), 0 trailer(s)
In this case, the planning reference was referencing an increase in the number of vehicles allowed on the site. However, the more interesting planning applications are to be found not in the Office of the Traffic Commissioner, but in the website of Brent Council. These plans give a good overview of some of the details of the basement and vault that ICBC Standard Bank has just taken on the long-term lease for.
Planning applications for 291 Abbey Road NW10 7SA
The Park Royal area, including 291 Abbey RoadNW10 7SA, is under the remit of Brent Council Borough of London. Brent Council planning applications are available on the Brent Council Planning web site. On the Brent Council web site, there are 5 planning application ‘Case Numbers’ for 219 Abbey Road NW10 7SA submitted since 2012. The sequential nature of there being 5 case numbers just means that after the initial application was made, various details of the application were amended, which necessitated the applicant making subsequent submissions to the Council requesting the changes. This allows the amended plans of the G4S development to be compared to the initial plans. Each of the 5 applications have multiple scanned documents uploaded and attached to the applications.
Case Number 12/2112: This is the original planning application
“Erection of new 2-storey storage facility (Use Class B8)”. Use Class B8 means Distribution or Storage. B8 building use is for storage or as a distribution centre. This application was submitted on 9 August 2012, and the application was granted on 9 November 2012.
Pick Everard architectural practice describes itself on its website as “a leading independent, multi-professional consultancy practice working within the property, infrastructure and construction industry.”
Notice that on the diagram, there is a square-shaped basement specified on the floor plans, listed as ‘Basement Storage’, and this basement is specified as 1178 square metres. This 1178 sq mt space is approximately 34 metres * 34 metres. Furthermore, the ground floor level is listed as “Industrial Warehouse”, 1132 sq metres, with “Vehicle Loading Bays” at the rear, and the 2nd Floor level is listed as “Offices”.
“If you wish to store the higher value precious metals then you may find that insurers insist that your vaults are subterranean.”
It appears that these guidelines were specifically written for Deutsche Bank and G4S to follow since they were the only parties submitting a planning application for a new precious metals vault in London at that time, and the dates fit exactly. Case Number 12/2112 also includes an initial site location plan Project Park Royal – Document 120437 A 001 J Site Location Plan showing an overview of the site, with car park at front, building in the middle with truck loading bays at the back of the buildings, and truck parking at the rear of the site.
Case number 12/3371: Some small extra details
Case 12/3371 is just an application containing extra details about construction materials etc and security gates, barriers etc. This application was submitted on 18 December 2012, and granted on 12 February 2013.
Case Number 12/3344: Some small extra details
Case 12/3344 just covers some extra details such as car park spaces at the front of the site, for 32 cars, 30 staff/visitor spaces, and 2 disabled spaces. That application was submitted on December 2012, and granted on 13 February 2013.
Case Number 13/0722: Some important revisions to the Project, including a reduction in the size of the Basement
Case Number 13/0722 is interesting in that it included a reduction in the size of the basement from 1178 sq metres in the original application, to 750 sq metres. This application was submitted on 25 March 2013, and granted on 22 April 2013.
The accompanying Delegated Report specified a “Non-material amendment application to: (a) reduce basement area, and other changes such as (e) alterations to fencing, (f) reduction in number of vehicle loading bay shutters from 6 to 5.
“It is proposed to reduce the size of the basement from 1178sqm (as approved) to 750sqm. This is below ground level and will not have a material impact.”
In the revised floor plan Project Park Royal – Document 120437 A 105 C Typical floor plans and sections, the basement, still listed as ‘Basement Storage’, has been remodelled as a rectangular space and reduced in size to 750 square metres from 1178 sq metres, i.e. a reduction of 428 square metres compared to the original submission. This new 750 sq metre size, as a rectangular area, is roughly 19 metres * 38 metres. See revised floor plans. While a smaller basement does not necessarily mean a smaller vault, the basement size was more than likely reduced specifically because the vault size had been reduced.
If this was the case, then its possible that Deutsche Bank communicated to G4S that the vault size was to be reduced due to gold bullion exiting London for Asia (via Switzerland) in 2012 and especially during early 2013, and a fear that the previous planned size for the vault would be too big for the intended London bullion activity requirements.
The floor plan diagram specifying the reduced basement was actually created on 26 April 2013, which is coincidentally the week following the historic two-day gold price smash that occurred over Friday 13th and Monday 16th April 2013. Said another way, the amended planning application which specified the basement size reduction was submitted 2 weeks before the historic gold price smash of 13-16 April 2013, and the application amendment to the floor plans was granted the week after the historic gold price smash of 13-16 April 2013.
When the Deutsche/G4S vault opened in June 2014, Reuters reported that the vault’s capacity was 1,500 tonnes of gold. It’s not clear if this capacity statistic was the capacity from a larger vault that would have been in the larger basement area, i.e. 1178 sq mtrs, which a source may have supplied to Reuters at an earlier time, or whether it referred to a smaller vault within the smaller and revised 750 sq mtr basement area. For if the vault can now hold 1,500 tonnes of gold within a smaller basement, the original basement, being 57% larger, may have been designed to hold in excess of 2,300 tonnes of gold.
It’s either a fortunate or unfortunate set of timings that Deutsche/G4S applied to reduce the size of one of the largest ever precious metals vaults in London within a few weeks of the gold price being critically injured by huge gold futures contract short trading over the 13-16 April 2013 period. It would be interesting to know who made the decision to reduce the area of the basement, and on what rationale this decision was based.
Again, as to how much precious metal, if any, Deutsche Bank ever processed or held in the Park Royal vault is debatable, since a) the vault was not operational until June 2014 and b) Deutsche Bank was rapidly exiting the London Gold Market at that time. It therefore makes this LinkedIn profile of the person who actually performed the job of Precious Metals Manager at the vault all the more interesting, a role which is stated to have lasted from December 2013 to May 2015, but a profile in which the references to physically related precious metal activities just refer to the job spec bullet points, and the achievements listed predominantly concern the vault and not the contents of the vault.
Likewise, the ‘Bullion Operations Manager‘ at the G4S vault, a vault which was exclusively for Deutsche’s clients, must have seen fallow periods in which no metal passed over the vault’s threshold with the LinkedIn profile predominantly listing job spec bullet points. However, interestingly, the profile refers to ‘Leasing with [a] major financial corporation to ensure compliance to contractual agreements‘, so there were, as would be the case, contractual agreements between Deutsche and G4S. On the Deutsche side, these contractual agreements would raise the question of what penalties, if any, Deutsche Bank incurred in exiting contractual obligations with G4S, and whether Deutsche would have received a get-out exemption by delivering ICBC Standard Bank as the willing recipient of the vault lease.
The planning applications submitted to Brent Council also include a “Method Statement & Logistics Plan” report written by the construction contractor Galliford Try for the project. On its website, Gallilford Try describes its Construction division as “a leading construction company, carrying out building and infrastructure works across the UK.”
Galliford Try’s Method Statement & Logistics Plan report, which is useful as a comparison benchmark to the actual construction that was completed, reckoned that the construction would take 50 weeks to complete, which probably explains why the vault and building was only complete in mid-2014, given that the amended planning application was only granted by Brent Council on 22 April 2013. It still however does not help in explaining why Deutsche Bank initially thought in 2012 that the vault would be ready for its clients to use in 2013.
Crucially, page 4 of the Galliford Try report, in a section titled “Internal Finishes (weeks 27-50)“, sub-section “Basement (weeks 26 -40)“, confirms that “Once the ceiling grid works have been completed the steel / vault doors will be installed“, which proves beyond doubt that the vault is located in the basement of the G4S operating centre. There are also kitchen and toilet areas in the basement as per other London subterranean precious metals vaults.
On page 3, when discussing the basement excavation and basement concrete slab floor, it also states that “Pockets will be formed in the floor for the fitting of the security doors etc“, and that “the lift pits…will be installed.”
From page 2:
From page 3:
From page 4:
The Park Royal site on which G4S built the operating centre and vault was first put on the market in November 2011 by Clay Street Property Consultants. The site occupies 1.89 acres and was sold (presumably to a G4S related company) in April 2012 for £4.5 million:
291 Abbey Road & 2-4 Penny Road, Park Royal , London
Marketed in November 2011 the 1.89 acre site attracted a broad range of interest including institutional investors, property companies, developers and owner occupiers.
Securing 15 bids all at in excess of the asking price the site was sold in April 2012 to an owner occupier for £4,500,000 reflecting a price of £2.38m per acre.
A Google Earth image from July 2013 shows the site with the new development in full flight, and the construction of the basement in progress, and so allows a determination of whether the construction was following the last set of plans approved by Brent Council:
Zooming in on the construction of the basement area from July 2013, the image shows the rectangular darker area where the vault was being positioned, and the lift-pits to the right of the image, one lift shaft at the front, and two towards the rear, which would be adjacent to the truck loading bays. This shape is very much in keeping with the basement size reduction to 750 square metres in the ultimate set of plans approved by Brent Council.
Finally, a Google Earth image from June 2015 shows an aerial view of the completed G4S development.
The hasty exit of Deutsche Bank from the London Gold Market has never been adequately explained by the media. It remains an elephant in the room that the mainstream media does not seem to want to touch. The composition and operating mechanisms of the private LPMCL club is also another elephant in the room that mainstream media journalists have never adequately analysed and are unlikely to do so.
Now that ICBC Standard Bank has taken on the remaining term of the 10 year G4S lease that was vacated by Deutsche Bank, the key questions for ICBC are to what use will the state-controlled Chinese bank put this precious metals vault to, and whether the 5 incumbent LPMCL members will formally (along with the Bank of England informally) give the go-ahead to allow ICBC become a member of the private syndicate that is London Precious Metals Clearing Limited. The other outstanding question is whether Standard Chartered will also be involved in any extension of membership of LPMCL.
Another little appreciated fact is that during the pitches for the replacements to the Gold Fixing and Silver Fixing auctions, most of the exchanges and companies making the pitches, such as, CME, LME, ICE, all offered working solutions that included centralised on-exchange clearing of precious metals for the London Gold and Silver Markets. These solutions were even included in the various presentation materials of CME, ICE and LME, and made it into market presentations and press releases etc, however, the LBMA and its various associated accomplishes such as the LPMCL, pushed back completely on any part of solution that would have encroached on the existing LMPCL clearing mechanism.
The question of why LMPCL was so ‘precious’ that it needed protection from a transparent on-exchange clearing platform is also a question that mainstream financial journalists seem to have entirely missed. I will write a future blog post on LPMCL so as to shed some light on this thoroughly protected private syndicate of bullion bank clearers.
It’s now been 6 months since the LBMA Gold Price auction, the much touted replacement to the London Gold Fixings, was launched on an ICE Benchmark Administration (IBA) platform on Friday 20 March 2015.
For anyone not au fait with the gold price auction, the LBMA Gold Price is a twice daily auction that produces the world’s most widely used gold price benchmark, which is then used as a daily pricing source in gold markets and gold products across the globe.
The 6 month anniversary of the LBMA Gold Price’s launch thus provides an opportune time to revisit a few unresolved and little-noticed aspects of this recently launched auction a.k.a. global benchmark.
Manipulative Behaviour and the FCA
From 1 April 2015, the LBMA Gold Price also became a ‘Regulated Benchmark’ of the UK’s Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) along with 6 other systemically important pricing benchmarks, namely, the LBMA Silver Price, ISDAFix, ICE Brent, WM/Reuters fx, Sonia, and Ronia. These 7 benchmarks join the infamously manipulated LIBOR in now being ‘Regulated Benchmarks’.
Manipulating or attempting to manipulate prices in a Regulated Benchmark is now a criminal offence under the Financial Services Act 2012.
The specifics are set out in Chapter 8 of the FCA’s Market Conduct sourcebook (“MAR”), with the details on ‘identifying potentially manipulative behaviour’ covered in MAR 8.3.6 which says that a benchmark administrator must:
“identify breaches of its practice standards and conduct that may involve manipulation, or attempted manipulation, of the specified benchmark it administers and provide to the oversight committee of the specified benchmark timely updates of suspected breaches of practice standards and attempted manipulation“
“notify the FCA and provide all relevant information where it suspects that, in relation to the specified benchmark it administers, there has been:
(a) a material breach of the benchmark administrator’s practice standards
(b) conduct that may involve manipulation or attempted manipulation of the specified benchmark it administers; or
(c) collusion to manipulate or to attempt to manipulate the specified benchmark it administers.”
and furthermore that the arrangements and procedures referred to above:
“should include (but not be limited to):
(1) carrying out statistical analysis of benchmark submissions, using other relevant market data in order to identify irregularities in benchmark submissions; and
(2) an effective whistle-blowing procedure which allows any person on an anonymous basis to alert the benchmark administrator of conduct that may involve manipulation, or attempted manipulation, of the specified benchmark it administers.”
Section 91 of the UK Financial Services Act 2012 deems it a criminal offence to intentionally engage “in any course of conduct which creates a false or misleading impression as to the price or value of any investment” which creates “an impression may affect the setting of a relevant benchmark”.
Recent Manipulation of Auction Starting Price
All of these FCA rules and the criminalisation of price manipulation offences sound very good in principle.
“4. Findings since go-live: IBA shared with the Committee that:
• IBA, and some direct participants, had observed the price of futures spiking during the minutes immediately before the afternoon gold auction starts.
IBA are now de-emphasising use of the futures as a related market to consider when determining the starting price .”
The fact that IBA has deemed it necessary to follow this course of action (i.e. de-emphasise the use of futures as a starting price determinant), and the fact that some entity or entities have been pushing around futures prices as a means of influencing the LBMA Gold Price starting price suggests that nothing has changed in the gold market since the introduction of the new auction, and that the same players who were actively manipulating the gold price back in 2012 are still doing so, despite this becoming a criminal offence under UK law.
4.12. At the start of the 28 June 2012 Gold Fixing at 3:00 p.m., the Chairman proposed an opening price of USD1,562.00. However, the proposed price quickly dropped to USD1,556.00, following a drop in the price of August COMEX Gold Futures (which was caused by significant selling in the August COMEX Gold Futures market, independent of Barclays and Mr Plunkett).
“4.18. …before the price was fixed, there were a number of further changes in the levels of buying and selling in the 28 June 2012 Gold Fixing, which coincided with an increase in the price of August COMEX Gold Futures.
4.19. As a result of these changes, the level of buying at USD1,558.50 exceeded the level of selling (155 buying/45 selling), and the proposed price was likely to move higher. Given that the price of August COMEX Gold Futures was trading around USD1,560.00 at this time, if the Chairman did move the proposed price in the 28 June 2012 Gold Fixing higher, it was likely to be to a similar price level (which was higher than the Barrier).”
You can read the entire FCA account of the saga of the 28 June 2012 afternoon fixing here, and think about the consequences and meaning of the IBA move to de-emphasis futures prices and what it signals.
Publicly Available Procedures – Not!
Which brings us to the procedures for establishing the auction starting price and subsequent prices for each round of the auction. On 28 April 2015, the IBA LBMA Gold Price web page, under ‘Auction Process’, stated that:
“The chairperson sets the starting price and the price for each round based on publicly available procedures.“
I was interested in reading these publicly available procedures, and learning about the price sources and price hierarchies used within the set of price determinants, so on 28 April 2015, I emailed the IBA communication group and asked:
“I have a question on the LBMA Gold Price methodology.
On the IBA LBMA Gold Price web page (https://www.theice.com/iba/lbma-gold-price) under ‘Auction Process’, point 1 states that “The chairperson sets the starting price and the price for each round based on publicly available procedures“.
Can you direct me to where these ‘publicly available procedures’ are view-able?
Incredibly, IBA received my email that day, and then changed point 1 under ‘Auction Process’ by deleting the original reference to ‘publicly available procedures’ and by copying and pasting in the FAQ answer that I had referred to about ‘in line with current conditions and activity in the auction.”
IBA then responded to my email on the same day, 28 April, without answering the question. The IBA response was:
“Please note the updated text: ‘The chairperson sets the starting price and the price for each round in line with current market conditions and the activity in the auction’. Thank you for pointing this out.“
So, not only did IBA avoid explaining the ‘publicly available procedures‘, they also covered it up and had the cheek to thank me for pointing it out to them. You can see for yourself the reactionary and firefighting tactics used by IBA in perpetuating non-transparency.
Furthermore, the fact that the original web page said that the procedures were publicly available and then they pulled it suggests that at least someone with responsibility in IBA, maybe naively, originally had been of the view that the pricing procedures were to be publicly available.
I emailed IBA again and said:
“This FAQ answer (to the question “How are the prices set for each round of the auction?) doesn’t really explain anything at all.
My question though is, apart from this one line FAQ answer, are there no more in depth ‘publicly available procedures’ available that explain how the opening price is set, what the price sources used are, what pricing hierarchy is used to select an opening price etc..?”
I’ve looked on your web site and in the FAQs and can’t find them. The only brief reference to price determination in the FAQs is that the chairperson”sets the price in line with current market conditions and activity in the auction.”
To which IBA replied:
“This information is not available on our website. However, as you seem to have a few questions, would you be interested in me setting up an off the record briefing with IBA in the next few weeks?”
I did not take IBA up on that offer since I do not think that an off the record briefing is appropriate for something that should be in the public domain. It also highlights the extent to which the vast majority of the financial media are happy to use unidentified sources, off the record briefings, and quotes, and willingly act as the mouthpieces for entities that they are too scared of offending lest they will not get ‘access’ to write their next regurgitated press release for, nor get invited to that entity’s Christmas party.
“‘The names of those selected to oversee ICE’s new gold price benchmarking process will not be disclosed, Finbarr Hutcheson, president of ICE Benchmark Administration (IBA), said.
“We are keeping that anonymous – we don’t think that it’s meaningful to the marketplace to know who’s running that auction and, frankly, the more we kind of feed the story, there’s just going to be more speculation around that,” he said at a briefing at its offices here.
“There’s a legitimate desire to know but actually we don’t want this process to focus on any individual or names of people,” he added.
Not “meaningful to the marketplace to know who’s running the auction“? What sort of statement is that in a free market? If there is a legitimate desire to know, as Hutcheson concedes there is, then why hide the identities?
If anyone needs reminding, the predecessor to the LBMA Gold Price auction was a trading process which, on 23 May 2014, the UK Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) saw fit to fine Barclays £26 million “for failings surrounding the London Gold Fixing.” This was also the first and only precious metals trading process in the UK ever to receive a fine from the FCA.
I would suggest that given the history of a ‘proven to have been manipulated daily gold price auction’, whose successor on launch day primarily consisted of the 4 incumbent participants that comprised the previous Gold Fixings auction (including Barclays), then it certainly is meaningful to the marketplace to know who’s running the new auction.
“’We have a panel of chairpeople that we are going to use and we have internal expertise as well on that, but we are not disclosing the names of those chairmen,’ Hutcheson said. “It will rotate through the panel but we have a significant bench of available external expertise with back-up if you like.”
Hutcheson declined to name how many chairpeople are on the panel.
But if the oversight committee were to feel that it was appropriate for the names to be disclosed, this stance may change, he suggested.”
And why would the oversight committee feel it to be appropriate or not to divulge the names of the chairpersons of the most important gold pricing benchmark in the world?
The Changing of the Guard
Its interesting to see how ICE Benchmark Administration’s description of the chairpersons evolved over a short period after the LBMA Gold Price auction was launched on 20 March.
This was the initial version of the ICE IBA web site description of the Chairperson on 20 March (see screenshot 1 below also):
“The chairperson has extensive experience in the gold market, and is appointed by IBA, and therefore independent of the auction process.”
A week later, a revised, more lengthy version of the Chairperson description had appeared on the ICE IBA web site (see screenshot 2 below also):
“The Chair is appointed by IBA and is independent of any firm associated with the auction, including direct participants. The chair is externally sourced, but works with the IBA team to deliver a robust process for determination of the LBMA Gold Price.”
The Chair facilitates the determination of the LBMA Gold Price by providing his extensive market experience to assist in setting the price in each round of an IBA gold auction.”
By July, the second paragraph of the second version above had been changed to read:
“Both the initial and subsequent round prices are selected by the Chair using their extensive market experience and applied based on an agreed pricing framework.”
So, there is a panel of chairpeople, as Hutcheson told Bulliondesk, who are 4 ‘ex-bankers’ according to Reuters, and who have ‘extensive experience in the gold market’ according to the IBA web site. So these people were previously bankers (which means investment bank staff) who gained their experience of the gold market in investment banks, and who have extensive knowledge of how a gold auction works, and since they are working with London-based IBA on a London-based daily auction, the chairpersons are either London-based or live proximate to London. And finally, according to one of the web site versions above, it’s a ‘He’ or set of ‘Hes’ so we know they are male.
And yet these same people are said to be “independent of any firm associated with the auction, including direct participants.”
Given that there are now 11 direct participants in the LBMA Gold Price auction, namely, Barclays, Bank of China, Goldman Sachs, HSBC Bank USA, JPMorgan Chase Bank, Morgan Stanley, Societe Generale, Bank of Nova Scotia – ScotiaMocatta, Toronto-Dominion Bank, Standard Chartered and UBS, how could ex-bankers based in London with extensive experience of the gold market collectively be independent of all of these banks?
And that’s just the direct participants. What about all the firms associated with the auction, for example, indirect participants who route their auction orders via direct participants?
It would be interesting to hear what IBA and the LBMA define as ‘independent’. Is there any precedent on a definition of ‘independent’ for persons connected to a daily gold auction? Luckily, there is.
“appoint up to two independent qualified individuals to serve on the Committee. A person will be considered to be independent for the purposes of these Terms of Reference if he/she is not, and has not been at any time in the preceding year, an employee or consultant of any Member and does not otherwise have a personal interest in the fixing price or the Fixing Process.”
While this document was referring to a committee whose Members were the directors of the banks running the former auction, at least there is some semblance of a definition of the concept of ‘independent‘ when applied to a gold auction.
So using that yardstick, it would be interesting to measure up the ex-banker chairpersons in the current auction as to how long exactly have they and their handler have been ‘ex’ bankers. Less than a calendar year before 20 March 2015 (i.e. 01 January 2014) would not cut it under a “has not been at any time in the preceding year, an employee or consultant of any Member” test.
And it also begs the question, why is the automated algorithm alluded to by ICE not being used in this LBMA Gold Price auction instead of a human chairperson?
Chairperson description 1
Chairperson description 2
Chairperson description version 3
You will notice from the first description screenshot of the chairperson (above) that on 20 March 2015, ICE IBA stated that:
“Feedback from the market is that the price in the first round of the auction, as well as the prices for the following rounds, is of paramount importance.
As a result, BA has appointed a chairperson from Day 1. In due course, IBA will evaluate developing an algorithm in consultation with the market.“
Then notice that in the second version screenshot about the chairperson, there is no mention of any algorithm. It just vanished.
A slightly different version of the algorithm text appeared in the IBA gold price FAQ document published at launch time:
“Why are you using a Chairperson and not an algorithm for day one?
Feedback from the market is that the setting of the initial price of the first round of the auction, as well as prices for the following rounds, are important. As a result, it is appropriate to have a Chairperson on day one. In due course, IBA will consult on automating the auction process using an automated algorithm.”
A point of information at this juncture. When IBA and LBMA refer to ‘the Market’ they are referring exclusively to LBMA members of the wholesale gold market and not to any of the other hundreds of thousands of global gold market participants who rely on the LBMA Gold Price benchmark as a pricing source. In fact it seems that ‘the Market’ means whatever the LBMA Management Committee decide it means.
It is also worth pointing out that many of the LBMA’s claims on consulting ‘the Market’ are just empty rhetoric, and the consultations are purely for window dressing for decisions that they have already decided on, a case in point being the EY bullion market review commissioned by the LBMA earlier this year that was announced on 27 April and wrapped up by June 2015. This is not too dissimilar to the way FIFA operates, as one correspondent pointed out.
In the case of the above ‘feedback from the market’ about wanting a chairperson, this could very well mean the 4 members of London Gold Market Fixing Limited (LGMFL) who all transitioned from the old auction to the new auction as if nothing had changed. It appears that they did not want anything to change. The old London Gold Fixing with 4 members had a chairperson (most recently Simon Weeks from Scotia) who rotated annually through the directors of (LGMFL), i.e. from Barclays, Scotia Mocatta, HSBC and SocGen.
Finbarr Hutcheson had also referred to this price calculation ‘Algorithm’ on 19 March, the day before the LBMA Gold Price launch. To quote Bulliondesk again:
“The panel of the independent chairs will be responsible for overseeing the process although ICE has indicated that it will be looking to make the process electronic in future.“
The LBMA Silver Price Algorithm
The LBMA Silver Price auction has a separate administrator, Thomson Reuters and a separate platform provider, CME Group. Thomson Reuters has this to say about the opening price on page 8 of its LBMA Silver Price methodology guide:
3.7 Starting Price
The auction platform operator (CME Benchmark Europe Ltd) is responsible for operating the LBMA Silver Price auction, including entering the initial auction price.
The initial auction price value is determined by the auction platform operatorby comparing multiple Market Data sources prior to the auction opening to form a consensus price based on the individual sources of Market Data. The auction platform operator enters the initial auction price before the first round of the auction begins….
For intra-auction prices for each round, the methodology guide says that:
3.8 Manual Price Override
In exceptional circumstances, CME Benchmark Europe Ltd can overrule the automated new price of the next auction round in cases when more significant or finer changes are required. When doing so, the auction platform operator will refer to a composition of live Market Data sources while the auction is in progress.
In the LBMA Silver Price methodology, only the first round is manually input. Subsequent rounds are calculated automatically by the ‘platform’. See page 7 of the guide:
“3.4 End of Round Comparison
[bullet point 2] If the difference between the total buy and sell quantity is greater than the tolerance value, the auction platform determines that the auction is not balanced, automatically cancels orders entered in the auction round by all participants, calculates a new price, and starts a new round with the new price.”
So this is different to the LBMA Gold Price where:
“The chairperson sets the starting price and the price for each round in line with current market conditions and the activity in the auction.”
Six months after the fanfare launch on 20 March 2015, unanswered questions remain:
How robust is the LBMA Gold Price auction mechanism, when within 3 months of launch date, IBA have to tinker with the price sources used to determine the starting price, and de-emphasise one price source due to volatile and seemingly delibrately manipulative futures price movements?
Why does the LBMA Gold Price auction needs a human chairperson throughout the auction and the LBMA Silver Price does not?
What happened to the plans for introducing an algorithm into the auction?
Why have ICE gone to great lengths to prevent the public knowing the identities of the chairpersons?
Why did ICE backtrack on a reference to ‘publicly available procedures‘ that would have explained how the starting price and round prices are determined?
What’s going to happen when the initial six months of the chairpersons’ rotating duties run out on Monday 21 September, as Reuters alluded to back in March?
To that list some further questions could be added:
Where are the Chinese banks ICBC and China Construction, Bank which both expressed interest in becoming direct participants in the LBMA Gold Price auction, going to join?
Where are all the gold mining and gold refining entities that have expressed interest in being direct participants going to join, participants that the ICE auction platform can accommodate right now?
When will the LBMA Gold Price auction move to central clearing on an exchange distinct from LMPCL’s monopoly on clearing predominantly unallocated metal?
When will the prohibitive credit lines enforced by the LBMA be removed as as to allow other non-bank participants to directly participate in the auction without maintaining credit arrangements with the incumbent bullion banks?
These are just some of the questions which financial journalists cannot bring themselves to write about when covering this topic.
The financial media has recently pitched the transition of the London daily gold fixings to an ICE Benchmark Administration (IBA) platform as a quantum leap from an antiquated Victorian-era process to a futuristic 21st century electronic auction.
“Four of the banks…had participated in the conference call used to determine the daily fixes, a system largely unchanged for nearly a century” and that“Gold is the last of the precious metals to make the switch to an electronic platform.”
The evidence suggests however, that in the last decade, the technology utilised in the daily gold fixings was far more advanced than the media commentaries imply, and that since 2004, the old gold fixing was not as technologically backward as is generally accepted.
Rothschild Departs, Barclays Joins – 2004
In April 2004, NM Rothschild announced that it was pulling out of commodity and gold trading, and also stepping down from chairing and participating in the twice daily London Gold Fixings. This left four banks as members of the fixing process, namely HSBC, Deutsche Bank, Scotia Mocatta, and SocGen.
According to Risk.net at the time, “the withdrawal of NM Rothschild from the market forced the London Gold Market Fixing company to introduce new fixing arrangements.”
From a practical standpoint, with NM Rothschild no longer part of the fixings after May 2004, the meetings could no longer use Rothschild’s offices in St Swithins Lane near the Bank of England. Another practical point was related to the location of the remaining participants’ offices.
Since Barclays Capital, who took over the fixing seat from Rothschild, was based in Canary Wharf (15-20 minutes train ride east of Bank), the five fixing members were not all located in walking distance of a central physical meeting place in the City of London. Scotia’s and Deutsche’s offices were in the City, but another gold fixing member, HSBC, had also fully moved to Canary Wharf circa 2003. Round trip travel from Canary Wharf to Bank twice a day, or vice versa, would have been prohibitive on all but a temporary basis.
Rothschild’s departure precipitated discussion of three changes to the Fixings process, specifically, 1) an annually rotating chairperson, 2) a conference call, and 3) a far less well-known, ‘web-based commentary’.
On 29th April 2004, Tim Wood of Mineweb.com wrote an article titled “London Gold Fixing Ritual to End”. The article explained the three changes and referred to the web-based commentary:
“As expected, the London Gold Fixing has announced that it will in future rotate the chairmanship of the arrangement and end a tradition of meeting in person to set bellwether gold prices twice a day.
Starting in May, each member bank will assume the chairmanship of the fixing for a one year period starting with ScotiaBank division ScotiaMocatta.
As of the same date, the Fixing will take place by telephone and the five member firms will no longer meet face-to-face as has previously been the case. As part of this change, it is intended that a web-based commentary of the Fixing will be introduced later this year“, the Fixing said in a statement.
The decision by N.M. Rothschild & Sons to quit the gold business leaves a vacancy at the Fixing. Ongoing members are Deutsche Bank, HSBC, and Société Generale.
Simon Weeks is the chairman-elect of the London Gold Fixing.”
[Coincidentally, Tim Wood, currently executive director of Denver Gold Group, has now ended up sitting on the new 2015 LBMA Gold Price Oversight Committee with Simon Weeks, nearly 11 years after the above article was written.]
On 5th May 2004, the twice daily Gold Fixings transitioned from physically attended meetings at Rothschild’s offices to remote conference calls with Scotia as the new chair.
“The London Bullion Market Association, which controls the price-setting process, plans to introduce a live Web-based commentary on the daily price-setting this year.”
‘Nothing was that much different apart from the fact that we didn’t walk down to St. Swithins Lane,’ said Simon Weeks, director of precious metals and foreign exchange at ScotiaMocatta, a unit of the Bank of Nova Scotia.”
(Note: The NY Times meant LGMFL, not LBMA, but they may have got confused because Simon Weeks was chairman of the LBMA at that time, as well as being chairman of the Gold Fixing company LGMFL).
“LGMF (London Gold Market Fixing) said it intends to introduce web-based commentary of the fixing later this year.”
Barclays then joined the fixings on 7th June 2004.
Bank of England refers to a Web-based application
The most authoritative confirmation of this “web-based feature commentary” comes from the May 2004 edition of the Bank of England Quarterly Bulletin which was kept in the gold fixings loop as per usual, and saw fit to review and report on the changes taking place in the Gold Fixing. See page 14 of pdf where it states:
“Since 5 May, a telephone conference call has replaced the twice-daily physical meetings. A web-based application to allow viewing of the fixing process is to be introduced later in 2004.“
Bank of England Quarterly Bulletin screenshot, May 2004:
Fast forward to 2014, and a publication titled “Financial Markets and the ACI Dealing Certificate 310-102“, by Philip J L Parker (ISBN 978-1-291-50352-4) also mentions this web-based commentary for the Fixing, stating:
“With effect from May 2004, the traditional face-to-face meetings (previously at the offices of NM Rothschild and Son), were replaced by a telephone fixing procedure. As part of this change, a web-based commentary of the Fixing has been introduced.“
So it appears that a liveweb-based commentary / web-based application has been used by the five members of the London Gold Fixing since 2004 that allowed the viewing of the fixing process, which would presumably mean viewing the orders entered by each participant and the intra-auction prices. However the existence of such as web-based application is never mentioned by the financial media, who persist in only ever mentioning a conference call, often in conjunction with the words ‘tradition’, ‘antiquated’ or ‘unchanging since 1919’ etc.
Pens and Paper?
It stands to reason that a live web-based application would be introduced and used during a conference call of the daily Gold Fixings. Given that the trader participants were located remotely from each other, it would be essential for the traders at each of the five firms to be able to see prices and current orders on their desktop screens during the fixings, and also essential for final order data to be captured in a trade capture system, then matched, and then sent downstream within trade, clearing and settlement processing systems.
As well as using phones, everything an investment bank trader or an inter-dealer broker does involves using one of their, often, six or more screens as input and output devices. They do not just use ‘bits of paper’ to record orders and trades and then pass these bits of paper to some junior person to run around the precious metals trading desk with. Trading screens are always used in conjunction with phones. Every order has to be captured and displayed, as well as calculated and processed in trade and settlement processing systems and downstream P&L and reporting systems.
We are talking here about order entry, trade execution, trade capture, trade processing, and trade clearing and settlement. We are also talking here about the most sophisticated investment banks on the planet, with the largest and most cutting edge technological and financial resources in any industry. We are talking about HSBC, ScotiaBank, Deutsche Bank, Barclays and Société Générale, not about two-bit bucket shops.
Until August 2014, the daily Silver Fixings comprised three of the same members as the daily Gold Fixings, namely HSBC, ScotiaMocatta and Deutsche. Given that both gold and silver trading would be run from the same precious metals trading desks in these banks, it seems reasonable to suggest that any technological order capture and display systems that were being used in the gold fixings, would also be used in the silver fixings.
It therefore makes the following claim from Harriet Hunnable of the CME Group hard to fathom when she commented last October on how the CME had taken the Silver Fixings out of the dark ages (CME ‘proud’ of silver fix system):
“In a very short time, we’ve taken a market that was doing this on pen and paper on the telephone to an electronic platform.”
I find this ‘pen and paper’ reference extremely hard to believe given the discussion of a web-based application in the Gold Fixings since 2004. Financial media commentaries at the time, in August 2014, also stuck to the dark ages script with CNBC headlining its coverage as “Victorian-era silver fix joins electronic age“.
Note that even ‘voice-brokered trades’ done by the large inter-dealer brokers such as ICAP and Tullet Prebon make use of screens as well as phones. Screens are intrinsic to all modern voice trading, as are messaging apps, and chat apps (although messaging and chat apps will probably be more highly regulated and subject to stricter compliance controls going forward).
It would be naive of anyone to think that daily Gold Fixings involving five distinct dealing rooms of five huge investment banks were not using various forms of order entry, trade capture, and various types of networked technology, to keep track of gold and silver fixing prices and orders and to visually display this updated data on traders’ screens and desktops during the daily fixing auctions.
Furthermore, the resulting net order data would have to be passed to other trade processing systems for downstream processing into London Precious Metals Clearing Ltd’s (LPMCL) metal clearing AURUM system, for netting and clearing and settlement, while the price and time-stamp data would need to be passed to price data vendors for distribution as well as to the LGMFL goldfixing.com web site.
Without a functional specification document, its hard to know what the original specification of a 2004 web-based commentary/web-based application used on the five trading floors would have entailed, and whether it would be originally designed and built in-house by one or a number of the technology departments of the five fixing member banks, or whether this type of project would have been outsourced. But trading floor technology is always changing and evolving and indeed, trading technology did change rapidly from 2004 to 2014.
Applications designed and used within investment banks do not stay static and they also have to be supported and maintained. Applications either evolve with the evolution of an investment bank’s technology environment or they are decommissioned and replaced. So it’s doubtful if a web-based app created in 2004-05 would still exist in its original version 1.0 form in 2014-15.
Examining the observable technology connected to the London Gold Market Fixing Company also brings up some interesting information. One window into the London Gold Market Fixing Ltd was its website www.goldfixing.com. The domain lookup for the www.goldfixing.com provides both registrant and technical support information.
The site was registered on 22nd December 1999 by Emilie Rivoire of NM Rothschild (firstname.lastname@example.org). This would make sense since NM Rothschild was the permanent chair of the daily gold fixings until 2004. The first version of the goldfixing.com website was created by a South African company called Catics Ltd in 2000.
“Rothschild, with approval from the other 4 members, approached us to design an elegant new web site. The site was created as a quick up-to-date historic guide about the London Goldfix. All interested parties can see how the price of gold gets fixed twice a day.”
The key requirements for the website included:
Provide a graphical view that would indicate the five members buying, holding or selling gold.
Build an interactive charting facility so that users can chart historic gold fixes.
Integrate site with Rothschild CMS (Content Management System).
When NM Rothschild departed from the Gold Fixings in 2004 and sold its fixing seat to Barclays, it appears that Rothschild also handed over the responsibility for the website to Barclays, who at some point employed Sapient in a technical capacity for the website. The domain lookup for the site most recently lists a technical support contact for the website of Sapient, with an address of Eden House, 8 Spital Square, London E1 6DU, and an email contact of email@example.com.
Eden House is the London office HQ of Sapient Global Markets. Sapient Global Markets is part of the Publicis.Sapient group, and provides various financial market consultancy and technological services to “capital and commodity market participants” including numerous financial exchanges and clearing houses. Publicis Groupe acquired Sapient in November 2014.
The ‘MSO Support’ in firstname.lastname@example.org refers to Managed Service Operations (MSO), which is an area within Sapient Nitro’s systems integration practice, which operates from various places including Gurgaon in India. This MSO support team was responsible for the www.goldfixing.com web site that was permanently switched off on the morning of 23rd March 2015.
That Sapient was responsible for the www.goldfixing.com web site is a fact because their indian team in Gurgaon confirmed to me early on the morning of 23rd March that the website had been shut down, as follows:
Furthermore, on their email to me, Sapient (Gurgaon) used the following two Sapient email addresses connected to the Gold Fixing and the goldfixing.com website:
A managed service operations team would generally be responsible for content management and delivery, as well as underlying web applications and servers etc.
Before the plug was pulled on the www.goldfixing.com website, fixing prices and associated trading data and gold bar quantities always appeared rapidly on the GoldFixing website straight after the 10.30am and 3.00pm fixings were completed, along with accompanying timestamps down to the exact second.
For example, on 23 October 2014, the morning gold fixing completed at 10:31:16. This information was rapidly updated on to the goldfixing website, as well as being sent out to all the major data vendors such as Bloomberg and Thomson Reuters:
Distribution of near real-time price data could not have been done without an electronic system that captured the fixing data, stored it in a database table, and fed it to a front-end website query.
Likewise, the historical price, bid-offer, bar total and date data which were viewable on the goldfixing website would also have needed to be stored in a database table and accessible via a website query. For example, see the last historical data of gold fixings from 18th and 19th March 2015 to be displayed on the old goldfixing website before it was switched off:
This fixing data that appeared on the goldfixing website has to have been supplied by other connected systems such as a fixings order capture and processing system. There cannot be website outputs within inputs, which by definition implies that there are also calculations performed as well as storage and retrieval. i.e. information systems and not ‘pencils’ and ‘bits of paper’ as some of the financial media seem to think the modern daily fixings made use of.
Managed Service Operations (MSO) offerings from companies such as Sapient, often include software/services that facilitate collaboration, and there are also lots of ready-made collaboration applications available on the market. For example, Microsoft Online Services is a server hosted enterprise software suite that can include Office Communications Online, Microsoft Office Live Meeting, and Sharepoint Online. Suffice to say, these products/services (which can be locally or cloud hosted) provide on-line real-time instant messaging and communications (Microsoft Communications Online), live conferencing with video and audio and messaging (Microsoft Live Meeting), or a collaboration platform (Microsoft Sharepoint Online). Citrix also offers a lot of products/solutions in this space such as GoToMeeting.
So some of the above types of software/services would fit the bill for providing precious metals traders’ workstations with web-based commentary, and messaging and communication apps that could be used in the daily fixings alongside phones. Outputs from some of the above could also be integrated into web site price data feeds through messaging middleware.
But there is another more important connection between the London Gold Market Fixing Company and Sapient Global Markets which points to another Sapient app being more than a web-based ‘commentary’.
The replacement Gold Fix – Request for Proposals
When the London Gold Market Fixing Limited (LGMFL) and the London Bullion Market Association (LBMA) launched a Request for Proposals (RfP) to administer the new LBMA Gold Price auction on 4th September 2014, Sapient Global Markets was one of the applicants to submit a proposal. This proposal was submitted in conjunction with Autilla Ltd. Previously, for the silver fixing replacement in mid 2014, Autilla initially submitted a standalone proposal, and then in the final week in early July, teamed up with the London Metal Exchange (LME) on a joint bid. Interestingly though, for the gold fixing proposal, Autilla joined up with Sapient in a joint bid on Day 1, so Autilla must have deemed a joint bid with Sapient as being advantageous.
Out of eight proposals received, the Autilla/Sapient proposal was among five proposals to get short-listed by the LBMA, and although they didn’t win the new contract, Autilla/Sapient did make a presentation of their proposal at the LBMA closed-door ‘market’ seminar on 24th October which saw presentations by the five short-listed parties. Note also that there was a third member of this Sapient/Autilla partnership called ‘Global Rate Set Service’, which was also referred to in the proposal as ‘Global Rate Set System’ and ‘GRSS’. This appears to be Global Rate Set Systems, a New Zealand based company.
In the Sapient/Autilla proposal summary, which takes the form of a 2-3 page letter to the LBMA dated 27th October, Page 2 describes a ‘current process‘ and also modifications for the new proposed process.
Reading Page 2 of the proposal, its clear that Sapient are intimately familiar with the ‘current process‘ and they only suggest ‘making changes’ to the current process where needed. Sapient state:
“Our solution is one that has a look and feel which is easily recognisable and known to those already familiar with the current process.”
Sapient’s reference to an ‘easily recognisable and known‘ ‘look and feel‘ of its proposed system suggests that ‘those already familiar with the current process‘ were familiar with a similar system.
‘Look and feel’ is a term that’s most commonly used in software development and nowadays rarely means anything outside the software industry. Just google ‘look and feel’ with or without the quotes to see what I mean. In software solutions, ‘look and feel’ will almost always mean “the appearance and function of a program’s user interface”, or “the design and formatting of a graphical user interface (GUI).”
Sapient is saying that those who were using the current process at that time in October 2014 (i.e. the traders of the remaining four fixing members ) would recognise and know an existing graphical user interface that they were familiar with when looking at Sapient’s proposed new graphical user interface.
Sapient states that it has ‘kept’ seven ‘main functions’ of the current process, and then goes on to list the functions that it has kept; these functions include participants logging in, participants entering indicative bar Buy, Sell and No Interest orders in bar amounts, a virtual Flag, matching within tolerance (50 bars), sharing out bars within tolerance, and fx rate pricing:
Sapient then lists the “new or modernised‘ ‘changes’ it is proposing ‘to achieve additional objectives of modernisation, transparency and regulatory cover‘. These new or modernised changes include house and client trades, intra-round price determination, real-time pricing commentary for full distribution, and a GUI messaging portal. Connecting in to the fixing via the messaging portal suggests that any previous messaging would have been done through standalone messaging/chat apps (like those used by interest rate and fx traders).
Interestingly, the Sapient proposal refers to automating some of the tasks that were done by the chairman of the Fixings which sounds like this entailed releasing the final fixing orders for matching, and then processing trade confirms etc.
In its proposal to the LBMA, Sapient therefore appears to be describing an existing electronic networked order capture and processing system that the gold fixing process was already using (up until Thursday 19th March 2015). It makes perfect sense then that Sapient had the contract to run the www.goldfixing.com website if it was also responsible for building, maintaining and supporting other parts of the recent gold fixing technical architecture.
Gold Fixing Document Retention Policy
That networked technology was used within the daily gold fixings prior to the transition to ICE’s WebICE is also supported by the requirements of the “Document Retention Policy” of the London Gold Market Fixing Company, dated 29 October 2014.
This Document Retention Policy, in section 2.3, states that the chairperson of the fixing process is responsible for keeping a record of the following data: member firms participating on each call, names of the individuals from each firm, opening price and sources of opening price, prices tried during the fixing, “bid and offer figures of each member firm at each price tried”, final fix price in dollars, euros and pounds, the time the price was fixed, euro and sterling exchange rates used to determine the fix price, and volume of transactions executed between participating member firms. That is a lot of data to have to record manually twice, each and every day, so again, this suggests that the chairman was not recording this information manually.
Note: As part of the application process to run the new gold fixing, all parties who submitted bids to the LBMA, including Autilla/Sapient, had to sign a non-disclosure agreement (NDA) with the LBMA, so it would be difficult to verify the technical details behind the Sapient/Autilla proposal, as they are most likely covered under the NDA and could not be revealed without the permission of the LBMA.
“The London gold fix, the benchmark used by miners, jewelers and central banks to value the metal, may have been manipulated for a decade by the banks setting it, researchers say.
Abrantes-Metz and Metz screened intraday trading in the spot gold market from 2001 to 2013 for sudden, unexplained moves that may indicate illegal behavior. From 2004, they observed frequent spikes in spot gold prices during the afternoon call. The moves weren’t replicated during the morning call and hadn’t happened before 2004, they found.
Large price moves during the afternoon call were also overwhelmingly in the same direction: down. On days when the authors identified large price moves during the fix, they were downwards at least two-thirds of the time in six different years between 2004and 2013. In 2010, large moves during the fix were negative 92 percent of the time, the authors found.
There’s no obvious explanation as to why the patterns began in 2004, why they were more prevalent in the afternoon fixing, and why price moves tended to be downwards, Abrantes-Metz said in a telephone interview this week.“
Could the introduction of a trading desk web-based application into the fixings in 2004, which would have provided gold trading desks with extra eyes into the auction proceedings, have presented a means for facilitating a type of gold price manipulation which previously was not possible during the purely phone based meetings held at Rothschilds in St Swithins Lane?
The FCA, Barclays and Daniel Plunkett
On 23rd May 2014, the UK’s Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) announced that they were fining Daniel Plunkett, a former Barclays trader and director of its Precious Metals Desk, for manipulation of the gold price during the afternoon gold fix on 28 June 2012, and also fining Barclays for breaches of two Principles of the Authority’s Principles for Businesses between 7 June 2004 and 21 March 2013.
The FCA’s ‘Final Notice’ explaining the fining and prohibition of Daniel Plunkett, provided details of Plunkett’s trading into the gold fix on the afternoon of 28 June 2012. The ease and speed with which Plunkett, on two occasions, rapidly placed and then cancelled proprietary trades into the gold fixing during the fixing that afternoon, suggests that he was using an automated order entry system to place and cancels those trades, and also to unwind the second trade after the fixing completed.
Indeed, at that time in 2012, Barclays’ systems did not differentiate between a Gold Fixing trade executed by a Barclays trader and a gold spot market trade executed by that same trader. And since proprietary gold spot trades would be entered electronically, so too would Gold Fixing trades.
According to section 4.14 of the Final Notice document on Plunkett:
“At 3:06 p.m., shortly after the Chairman had increased the proposed price to USD1,558.50, Mr Plunkett, who had not placed any previous orders during the Gold Fixing, placed a large sell order of between 40,000 oz. (100 bars) and 60,000 oz. (150 bars), with Barclays’ representative on the Gold Fixing. This order was incorporated by Barclays’ representative into Barclays’ net position, which led to Barclays declaring itself to be a seller of 52,000 oz. (130 bars).”
“At 3:07 p.m.Mr Plunkett withdrew his entire sell order, which resulted in Barclays’ representative withdrawing Barclays’ position (selling 130 bars). This reduced the imbalance in the 28 June 2012 Gold Fixing from 190 bars to 60 bars (155 bars buying/215 bars selling)” Section 4.17
“At 3:09 p.m., Mr Plunkett again placed a large sell order, 60,000 oz. (150 bars), with Barclays’ representative, who, also taking into account changes in customers’ orders, declared Barclays’ net position in the 28 June 2012 Gold Fixing to be selling 40,000 oz. (100 bars).” Section 4.21
“Shortly after the conclusion of the 28 June 2012 Gold Fixing, Mr Plunkett repurchased 60,000 oz. (150 bars) of gold by executing an internal trade with Barclays’ Gold Spot Book. The purpose of executing this order was to unwind the 60,000 oz. (150 bars) position he had taken during the 28 June 2012 Gold Fixing.” Section 4.24
If an internal trade that Plunkett executed with the gold Spot Book could unwind an outstanding trade that he placed into the Gold Fixing, then the two trades, and the manner in which they were input would need to be similar, which, we will see below that they were.
Barclays – Gold Fixing trades were identical to Gold Spot trades
The FCA also issued a ‘Final Notice’ detailing the background to the financial penalty imposed on Barclays, for Barclays’ failure to , amongst other things, create systems on its precious metals desk “that allowed for adequate monitoring of traders’ activity in connection with the Gold Fixing”. The Barclays “Precious Metals Desk” was Barclays trading desk responsible for gold, silver, platinum, palladium and rhodium.
“The systems and reports did not formally record orders placed by traders in the Gold Fixing until 5 February 2013 and did not identify Gold Fixing transactions separately from general gold spot trades until 21 March 2013. As a result, Barclays was unable to adequately monitor what trades its traders were executing in the Gold Fixing or whether those traders may have been placing orders to affect inappropriately the price of gold in the Gold Fixing.” Section 2.3
“Barclays relied upon systems and reports that did not differentiate between Gold Fixing and gold spot market trades executed by its traders. (Barclays addressed this on 21 March 2013, when it updated its systems to specifically record Gold Fixing trades as such.) This meant that during the Relevant Period, Barclays could not adequately monitor its traders’ orders and trades executed in the Gold Fixing.” Section 4.36
So, section 2.3 and section 4.36 of this FCA Final Notice tells us that in 2012, gold fix trades executed by Barclays traders were seen as identical to gold spot trades executed by those same traders, and that both sets of trades used the same systems. Plunkett was not being monitored and was independently executing trades that were identical to gold spot trades, and these trades were flowing into Barclay’s net gold fixing position. This would have required an electronic trading platform. If Barclay’s house and customer gold fixing trades were on a technological platform in 2012, then the whole notion of the gold fixing orders with the other fixing participants also not being integrated into an electronic platform prior to 2015 is implausible.
The rapidity with which Plunkett engaged actively in the afternoon gold fixing on 28 June 2012 was also reiterated in the FCA’s Final Notice for Barclays:
“On 28 June 2012, a Barclays trader, Mr Daniel Plunkett, participated actively in the Gold Fixing” Section 2.6
“In particular, he placed a large sell order of between 40,000 oz. (100 bars) and 60,000 oz. (150 bars) with Barclays’ representative on the Gold Fixing, then withdrew it completely one minute later and subsequently placed another large sell order of between 40,000 oz. (100 bars) and 60,000 oz. (150 bars) two minutes after that.” Section 2.9
The move by Barclays on 21 March 2013 to finally differentiate between prop trader executed gold spot trades and prop trader executed gold fixing trades, also suggests that whatever the change was, it took an existing transaction type of gold spot trade and reflagged it as a gold fixing trade. These changes would have all been conducted on a pre-existing electronic platform (since the gold spot book was on an electronic platform), again undermining the notion of a purely pens and paper supported approach to the gold fixing using a system largely unchanged for nearly a century.
Interestingly, neither of the FCA Final Notices issued in connection with Barclays, Plunkett and the gold price, nor any other FCA comments on its investigation into precious metals manipulation in London, make any reference whatsoever to whether the FCA examined precious metals traders’ messaging app logs or other trader online communication dialogues. This is odd given that messaging apps were seen to have been widely used by all other traders in the recent LIBOR and FX price manipulation scandals. See here for some LIBOR examples and here for some FX examples of trader transcript manipulation chats.
Given that there appears to have been a web-based commentary in the gold fixings since 2004, as well as very sophisticated gold fixing order and price data capture in Barclays systems and in the most recent iteration of the Sapient supported goldfixing website, perhaps the financial media can take a look into this before claiming with certainly that the gold fixings only went on to an electronic platform during the 20th March 2015 transition to the ICE/IBA/LBMA Gold Price architecture.
(Update 23/03/2015: The www.goldfixing.com website was permanently switched off in the early morning of Monday 23rd March 2015)
The last ever ‘Gold Fixing’ will take place on the afternoon of Thursday 19th March 2015 at 3.00pm.
Following the last fixing, the www.goldfixing.com website of the London Gold Market Fixing Limited will be immediately and permanently taken off-line as of close of business 19th March (i.e. the web server will be made inaccessible to web browsers).
London Gold Market Fixing Limited (LGMFL) recently confirmed to me that:
“The Gold Fixing website will be taken down completely as of the close of business on Thursday 19-3-15 and from 20-3-15 the new LBMA Gold Price will appear on their website www.lbma.org.uk. All the historical gold Fixing price data on the www.goldfixing.com website is already available on the LBMA website.“
This power-down and switching off of the web server follows a similar manoeuvre on the evening of 14th August 2014, when the web site of the London Silver Market Fixing Limited, www.silverfixing.com, was immediately and permanently switched off (without warning), leaving no trace of the live website.
This is very unusual behavior by the administrators of the fixing web sites and the bullion banks that run the Gold Fixing and Silver Fixing Companies to immediately make the web sites inaccessible. It’s as if the two Fixing Companies want to vanish without a trace from the internet.
The Gold Fixing website domain was first registered on 22 Dec 1999 by email@example.com, and is listed with a tech support contact of firstname.lastname@example.org. See Domain lookup. So there is still a direct reference to Barclays in the web site and in the Sapient app, which is interesting given that Barclays was the firm that was fined by the FCA for manipulating the gold fixing in 2012 and whose trader Daniel Plunkett was also fined for the same offence.
Interestingly, the London Silver Market Fixing Limited has not been wound up, and still exists as a company, and its directors, until recently, represented HSBC, Scotia and Deutsche Bank. The only Deutsche director, New York based Eric Parker, resigned from the company last December. The HSBC and Scotia directors are still in situ.
The London Gold Market Fixing Limited also still exists as a company (obviously), and its directors are representatives of HSBC, Scotia, Barclays and SocGen, and all of these directors are still in situ. The two most recent Deutsche directors, Kevin Rodgers and James Vorley, resigned from the company on 14th May 2014, which was the same day that Deutsche Bank dropped out of the daily Gold Fixing process.
Both the Gold and Silver Fixing Companies have a registered address of c/o Hackwood Secretaries Limited, One Silk Street, London EC2Y 8HQ. Hackwood Secretaries Limited is a company belonging to Linklaters law firm. See the Linklaters ownership of Hackwood Secretaries here. Hackwood Secretaries is also the registered address of London Precious Metal Clearing Limited (LPMCL), the precious metals clearing company of Barclays, HSBC, Scotia, UBS, JP Morgan and Deutsche Bank.
Gold Price Data
From Friday 20th March 2015, the LBMA Gold Price data will appear on the London Bullion Market Association’s (LBMA) web site at http://www.lbma.org.uk/pricing-and-statistics. From 20th March, the daily fixings are being administered by ICE Benchmark Administration (IBA). There is some historical gold fixing price data already on the LBMA site, however it is less detailed than the historical gold price data which had appeared on the www.goldfixing.com web site.
On the Gold Fixing web site, the daily and historical data both included the net volume of gold bars bought and sold at the fixing price, as well as the number of participants who had non-zero interest at the fixing price. This extra detail was added to the gold fixing website in the second half of last year. See screen shots below, both daily and historical. Historical data could also be toggled between dollars, euro and pounds.
In contrast, the gold price data currently displayed on the LBMA web site does not include net volume of bars bought and sold at the fixing price, nor the number of participants declaring a buy or sell interest at the fixing price. See screenshot below.
London Gold Market Fixing Limited’s representative confirmed to me recently that all the historical Gold Fixing price data from www.goldfixing.com is already on the LBMA site. But without the volume and participant data, this claim is not entirely accurate. Adding in the volume (in bars) and the participant totals would make the data more complete.
ICE Benchmark Administration do mention a transparency report which will be published after each auction. This report will contain volume and participant numbers. It remains to be seen if this report will be published on the LBMA website. From the LBMA FAQ:
“At the end of the auction process, IBA will publish the benchmark price. IBA will also publish a Transparency Report showing for each round: the price in USD; the aggregated bid and offer volume; the number of participants; and the timings for each round.”
The current gold price data disclaimer on the LBMA web site (for data up to 19th March) states that “Fixing data reproduced by kind permission of the London Gold Market Fixing Ltd” . Please refer to its website to see licensing requirements for the commercial use of the data as well as the time stamps.”
Incidentally, this existing LBMA disclaimer continues with some very out of date text referring to BBA LIBOR. Now there’s a blast from the past…. “Neither the BBA LIBOR Limited, nor the BBA LIBOR Contributor Banks, nor Reuters, nor the LBMA can be held responsible for any irregularity or inaccuracy of BBA LIBOR (for more details, see “Prices Explained”).”
The new LBMA Gold Price has its own disclaimer which is to be found on the new LBMA Gold Price page, and it reads “LBMA Gold Price (“Benchmark”) is owned by The London Bullion Market Association (“LBMA”), calculated and administered by IBA.”
No Way Back
The reason for highlighting that the Gold Fixing web site is being taken offline is that now there will be no way to access it. This is so because it has not been archived in any meaningful way. This is so because the Gold Fixing website www.goldfixing.com has a ‘Terms’ page that appeared at the entry page which prevented the Internet Archive / Wayback Machine (www.archive.org) from archiving the site’s pages. This means that all of the non-price data on the site disappears when the web site is switched off.
On the Gold Fixing web site, under a section called ‘Policy Documentation’ there were seven documents, including the Code of Conduct of the Gold Fixing company, the Terms of Reference of the gold fixing Supervisory Committee, the names of the people on the Supervisory Committee, and a document retention policy. For those interested, these documents can be found here:
The website also contained an essay about the history of the gold fixing, which I noticed also is on another website here. On the Gold Fixing web site, there had been one small recent addition to this essay to reflect the fact that Deutsche Bank had resigned from the auction. This small addition stated “In May, 2014 Deutsche Bank resigned as a member and the line-up became: Barclays, HSBC, Bank of Nova Scotia Mocatta and Societe Generale.”
The Gold Fixing web site had also prominently displayed the four Members and the most recent chairman, and the logos of the Member banks:
Finally, there was an interesting section explaining “How is the Price Fixed?” which was not really explained very well elsewhere. This will be of relevance to anyone who wants to compare the old price determination process to the new one, and to gauge how much, or how little, the process has changed.
This is especially relevant because ICE Benchmark Administration will be employing a human chairperson in the new LBMA Gold Price auction to determine the opening price and the starting price of each round, as opposed to an algorithm. There will be a panel of chairpersons operating on a rotational basis.
Note that ICE and the LBMA are refusing to divulge the identity of these chairpersons.
ICE claim that this is to ‘preserve the anonymity of the auction. This is a totally bogus and unacceptable reason because without ICE confirming the identity of the chairperson, their claim that the chairperson is fully independent of the participants in the auction cannot be verified and will cause suspicion.
It is also shocking, especially since the identity of the chairperson in the Gold Fixing auctions has always been known, in every fixing from 1919 all the way through to 19th March 2015 (i.e. see the screen shots above).
The financial media should really be asking ‘Who is this Chairperson?’, and reporting on this issue.
According to Reuters, ICE has now said that there will be four chairpersons rotating over a six month period and that these will be ‘four ex-bankers‘. The identities of these four ex-bankers have not been revealed. If anything, this appears to cement the control of the incumbent bullion banks over the entire London Gold Fixing process. Reuters also says that none of the Chinese banks will be participants in the auctions.
How the Price was Fixed
The “How is the Price Fixed?” process from the Gold Fixing site can be read below:
The fixing process is governed by a set of Rules for the Administration and Conduct of The London Gold Market Fixings (the “Fixing Rules”). The current version of the Fixing Rules, made under Article 15.01 of the London Gold Market Fixing Limited’s Articles of Association, became effective on 14 July 2014.
The Company has a Supervisory Committee which is responsible for the oversight of the fixing process. The Company has various policies and procedures to ensure the integrity and quality of the gold fixing price which are available on the Company’s website.
Pursuant to the Fixing Rules, representatives of the four members of the London Gold Market Fixing Limited (the “Company”) dial-in to a secure conference facility to determine the single trading price for gold at 10:30 am and 3:00 pm London time on each London business day.
The fixing process commences with the chairman of the fixing (the “Chair”) determining and announcing the opening price of gold.
(The opening price): The Chair shall identify the opening price. The opening price should be the prevailing US dollar mid-market price for London gold and is identified by the Chair after appropriate consideration of the prevailing spot price and the prevailing bid/offer price in the gold futures market.
(Declaration of interests): Assuming this price, the fixing members aggregate all orders received from clients (both prior to the fix and those received in real-time during the fix) with their own proprietary trading position. Members then declare whether or not they have a net buying or selling interest or if they have no buying or selling interest at the opening price.
(No buying or selling interest): If there is no buying or selling interest, the Chair will announce the trading price as fixed at the opening price. Similarly, if at any point during the fixing process there is no buying or selling interest at a given price, the Chair will announce the price as fixed.
(Only buying or selling interest): If there is only buying or selling interest at the opening price and those buying or selling interests represent more than two of the fixing members (e.g. there are three sellers and one no interest), the Chair will move the opening price higher or lower.
Alternatively, if those buying or selling interests represent two or fewer of the fixing members (e.g. two buyers and two no interests), the Chair will ask the fixing members to indicate the net quantity of gold that they are willing to buy or sell at that price.
Fixing members must declare their net interest in increments of five gold bars and must not declare any interest of less than five bars. If the total quantity offered or wanted is 50 bars or less, the Chair will declare the price as fixed at the opening price. If the total quantity offered or wanted is more than 50 bars, the Chair will move the opening price higher or lower.
Similarly, if at any point during the fixing process there is only buying or selling interest at a given price, the Chair will act as described in paragraphs 8 to 10 above.
(Two way interest:) If there is two-way interest at a given price, the Chair will ask members to indicate the net quantity of gold that they are willing to buy or sell at that price.
If supply meets demand, or the difference between supply and demand is 50 bars or less, the Chair may declare the trading price as fixed. Otherwise, the Chair will progressively move the price up or down in an attempt to meet supply and demand.
An upwards price adjustment will cause (i) the potential fixing price to exceed some purchase order limits, which will have the effect of reducing demand as those orders drop out of the members’ net buying interests; and (ii) the potential fixing price to exceed some sale order limits, which will have the effect of increasing supply as those orders are included in the members’ net selling interests.
A downwards price adjustment will cause (i) the potential fixing price to fall below some purchase order limits, which will have the effect of increasing demand as those orders are included in the members’ net buying interests; and (ii) the potential fixing price to fall below some sale order limits, which will have the effect of decreasing supply as those orders drop out of the members’ net selling interests.
The Chair will repeat this adjustment procedure until supply and demand meet or the imbalance is 50 bars or less and the Chair is able to declare the price as fixed.
(Price increments:) The fixing price must be moved in increments of at least 5 cents and in multiples of five cents during the fixing process, in all case taking account of prevailing market conditions.
The Chair identifies price increments based on an assessment of the current price of gold in the spot and futures markets and the level of buying and selling interests declared in the fixing process.
(The discretion): Where the Chair has been unable to exactly match supply and demand, the fixing members will pro rata the difference between supply and demand amongst themselves.
For example, if there is more buying than selling interest (with two buyers and two sellers) and the difference is 20 bars, each buyer will reduce their buying interest by five bars and each seller will increase their selling interest by five bars. This pro rata arrangement is purely between the fixing members and only affects the amount of gold traded as between those members; it does not affect underlying customer orders.
Where the Chair is unable, through moving the price in increments of 5 cents, to achieve an imbalance of 50 bars or less and three attempts have been made to fix the price at a particular level, the Chair may ask the other fixing members to accept an imbalance of up to 100 bars. All members must agree to this increase.
(Flags): Throughout the fixing process members communicate with their clients who are able to cancel, increase or decrease their interest depending on price changes and the level of buying and selling interest.
If, at any time, a member or one of its clients choose to increase, decrease or withdraw a previously declared buying or selling order, that member may require a short pause to recalculate its net interest. In these circumstances the member may call a “flag” which brings the fixing process to a temporary halt. The gold price cannot be declared by the Chair during such a pause.
The term flag is a reference to when the fixing members would meet in a single place to determine the gold trading price. When a member required a pause they would raise a small flag. The flag would be lowered again when they were ready to proceed with the fixing process.
(Execution): Following the determination of the fixing price, the members will execute trades for gold amongst themselves at 15 cents above the fixing price and in the amounts offered during the fixing process.
The Chair will specify the trades that should be executed between the members. The Fixing Rules specify that the largest seller’s order is filled first by matching that order with the largest buyer’s order, with members’ orders then being matched in descending order size.
Settlement takes place two London/New York business days after the fix. Execution of trades between the members does not affect any arrangements agreed between the members and their clients.
(Determination of the fixing price in euros and pounds sterling): The trading price is published by the Company in three currencies: pounds sterling, euros and US dollars. The fixing process takes place in US dollars. Once the trading price is fixed, the Chair will provide the equivalent trading prices in pounds sterling and euros. The Chair uses the then prevailing exchange rates published on Bloomberg or Reuters for this purpose.
(Publication of the fixing prices): Immediately following a fixing, the Chair posts the fixing price, the time at which the price was fixed, the final buy/sell volume figures on an anonymised basis and the basis on which the price was fixed if the discretion was increased from 50 bars, on the Company’s website. The Chair also sends an email confirmation of the fixing price and the time that the price was fixed to the other members.
The published price is the price for one troy ounce (just over 30 grams) of gold delivered in London in the form of LBMA Good Delivery Bars (approximately 400 troy ounces each).
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