On Sunday 10 June 2018, Switzerland’s electorate voted on a referendum calling for the country’s commercial banks to be banned from creating money. In a country world-famous for its banking industry, this was quite an interesting turn of events.
Known as the Sovereign Money Initiative or ‘Vollgeld’, the referendum was brought to the Swiss electorate in the form of a ‘Popular Initiative‘. The Sovereign Money referendum proposed that commercial banks in Switzerland should no longer be allowed to create money out of thin air as they currently do, and that in future only the Swiss central bank should have the power to create money. Sovereign money as a concept refers to money issued or created by a State or central bank.
The initiative was launched and advocated by Swiss group called Monetäre Modernisierung (MoMo) which was established with the goal of bringing monetary reform to Switzerland in the form of a sovereign money proposal. According to the proponents of the proposal, the initiative was launched as a reaction to the financial crisis of 2008 and 2009, and the increasing levels of commercial bank debt creation that has taken place since then.
Based on the official results of the Vollgeld referendum announced on Sunday afternoon, 24.3% of the turnout voted in favour of the initiative, with 75.7% of voters against. As opinion polls in advance of the referendum had suggested such an outcome, a majority endorsement of the Sovereign Money proposal had not been expected. However, with 1,821,835 valid votes cast in the referendum, 442,387 Swiss citizens did endorse the proposal, which is a sizeable number, and shows that at least in Switzerland, there is increasing unease about how money out of thin air is created in today’s fractional reserve banking systems.
With one of the most effective systems of direct democracy in the world, Switzerland is known for its frequent referenda on diverse aspects of Swiss law, and Swiss Popular Initiatives allow petitions to be activated by Swiss citizens to propose law changes. While there can be cantonal and communal popular initiatives in Switzerland, the Sovereign Money referendum was an initiative at the federal level, aiming to change wording in the Swiss Federal Constitution.
For a Federal popular initiative in Switzerland to get to the referendum stage, the initiative’s proponents must collect 100,000 valid supporting signatures from the Swiss electorate within an 18 month period. In the case of the sovereign money initiative, this signature collection exercise was completed in December 2015 when over 111,000 valid signatures were collected and submitted to the Federal Government enabling the proposal to move forward. Many Swiss popular initiatives never get beyond the signature collection stage as they do not attain sufficient support among the electorate. Therefore, the success of the sovereign money initiative in gaining strong initial support also shows that there was an appetite among the Swiss population to raise the commercial bank issue in the form of an official referendum.
As it was essentially proposing a ban on fractional-reserve banking by commercial banks and a return to a more sound money system, the sovereign money Initiative had garnered significant attention in the Swiss financial media in the run-up to the vote, and brings to mind a Swiss referendum which was held in 2014 on the subject of Switzerland’s gold reserves and its storage locations, which also gained similar widespread public attention at the time.
However, as the Swiss Federal Council (Government), the Swiss Parliament and Switzerland’s central bank, the Swiss National Bank (SNB), had come out against the sovereign money proposal, much like they did in the Swiss gold referendum in 2014, the positions of the establishment institutions of State undoubtedly helped sway Swiss public opinion away from voting in favour of the sovereign money proposal. Other vested interests such as the Swiss bankers Association, also, predictably, rejected the initiative.
Out of Thin Air
Although most people aren’t aware of it, the majority of money in today’s global financial system is created not by central banks, but by commercial banks. These commercial banks create money in essentially unlimited amounts when they lend money into existence, in other words, when they provide credit and create debt, which they then call an ‘asset’ on the asset side of their balance sheets.
When commercial banks create money via lending on the asset sides of their balance sheets, they also create deposits. As liabilities of a commercial bank, these deposits are only fractionally backed by the bank’s assets, hence the term fractional-reserve banking.
According to sovereign money advocates, electronic money or ‘book money’ created by commercial banks and recorded in commercial bank accounts comprises about 90% of Switzerland’s money supply, with only about 10% of the Swiss money supply made up of legal tender issued by the Swiss central bank. They also maintain that commercial bank creation of money is not constitutional, since Article 99 of the Swiss Constitution states that “The Confederation is responsible for money and currency“.
In summary, the Vollgeld Initiative called for the following:
Swiss commercial banks should no longer be able to create their own fiat currency out of thin air, i.e. be unable to create deposits through lending money created out of thin air.
Only the Swiss central bank should be able to issue electronic money to back deposits. This would mean that the SNB would have exclusive responsibility for all money creation in Switzerland, both cash in circulation and electronic money in commercial bank accounts.
Commercial banks should only be able to lend money that is already in existence, for example money long-term savings accounts, money market funds or funds sourced directly from the SNB.
The central bank should be allowed to issue new money debt-free into circulation by issuing it to the Swiss Confederation, cantons, local authorities and citizens.
According to the Sovereign money advocates, commercial bank money creation leads to a number of problems that affect the real economy, such as credit bubbles which accentuate credit boom and bust cycles, and also excessive inflation. Commercial banks also profit both from their ability to create loans out of thin air and from their ability to create money for their own financing needs. This gives the banking sector an unfair advantage (i.e. a privilege) vis-a-vis other sectors of the economy.
A return to a fully sovereign money creation process, would, according to the initiative’s adherents, lead to a more stable banking system, would prevent asset bubbles, would prevent commercial bank runs, bailouts, and bank collapses, and would prevent the need for deposit insurance protection, since all money would be central bank issued money and deposits would not be fractionally-backed. The Vollgeld backer’s also said that if the SNB had a monopoly on money creation, it would profit from seigniorage, i.e. the ability to create valuable money at a very low-cost. Currently by not creating most of the money in the Swiss economy, the SNB foregoes these profits of seigniorage.
The Swiss central bank responded to the Vollgeld initiative in typical central bank fashion, citing heightened risk, more uncertainty, tightened credit conditions, increased inefficiencies from a sovereign money system, and a reduction of monetary policy tools and flexability. Some of these concerns may have some validity, some may not.
If the Vollgeld motion had been passed, it would undoubtedly have led to short-term volatility in the Swiss banking system and in broader currency markets, and longer term unease in other country’s banking sectors, out of fear that there would be a growing call for similar changes elsewhere. But as no country has yet tried a return to a sovereign money system, its unclear how much of a risk such a change would entail.
It is probably true that if all money was created by a central bank, then that central bank would be less effective in using interest rates to regulate inflation (via the level of bank lending), and would have to concentrate on targeting the quantity of money in circulation (monetary targeting). That, says the SNB, would be a regressive step.
The Results of the Referendum
Swiss federal popular initiative referendas are based on the concept of a ‘double majority’, where for a referendum to pass, a majority of votes overall have to be in favour of the proposal, and the voting in a majority of Swiss Cantons has to also be in favour of the proposal. Although there are 26 cantons in Switzerland, due to historical splits, six of these cantons are considered half cantons in terms of electoral power, so there are 20 full cantons, and the equivalent of a further 3 full cantons, making 23 cantons in total.
According to the referendum results on the Swiss Confederation website, out of 1,821,835 valid votes cast in the referendum, a total of 442,387 votes (24.3%) were in favour of the sovereign money initiative, while 1,379, 448 votes (75.7%) were against. Overall, all 26 cantons (and 23 equivalent cantons) voted against the initiative, with nearly all cantons defeating the motion by a 3 to 1 majority, in other words between 70% to 80% of voters voted ‘No’ to the proposal. By the same token, approximately 20% – 30% of voters in nearly all cantons voted ‘yes’ to the proposal.
The turnout for the vote was quite low, at only 33.8% of the electorate across Switzerland. For these popular initiative votes, many in the Swiss electorate cast their votes in advance by postal vote, so the results are usually known rapidly soon after voting has closed.
In response to the referendum results, the Swiss National Bank (SNB), which had come against the referendum’s proposal, released a short statement saying that:
“The adoption of the sovereign money initiative would have made it considerably more difficult for the SNB to fulfill its mandate. With conditions now unchanged, the SNB will be able to maintain its monetary policy on ensuring price stability”.
It was not surprising also that the Swiss Bankers Association also welcomed the outcome of the referendum, calling the sovereign money plan a ‘radical alteration of the monetary system‘:
“The Swiss electorate has clearly rejected a radical alteration of the monetary system. The existing monetary and financial system functions well and is stable. The Swiss Bankers Association (SBA) welcomes the decision of the people and the cantons.
In reaction, the Sovereign Money Initiative’s backers remained resilient saying that:
“Despite the campaign of confusion and fear run by our opponents and the misinformation provided by the Federal Council and the Swiss National Bank…[the result] is a respectable outcome and shows that many Swiss people have realised that the creation of money by private commercial banks leads to numerous problems.”
“It is not acceptable that private commercial banks continue to jeopardise our prosperity by creating money out of nothing. In addition, technological developments such as crypto currencies will pose major challenges to the Swiss monetary system and the global economies.”
“Many of those voting ‘No’ did not vote on the Sovereign Money Initiative, but on the distorted picture of it that was conveyed to them by the authorities and the banking lobby. The result of the referendum cannot therefore be interpreted as approval of the privatisation of Switzerland’s money creation.”
Although the average person on the street knows little or nothing about how money is created in contemporary financial systems and mistakenly presumes that all money is central bank money, the Swiss sovereign money initiative is fascinating in that it has raised awareness, at least in Switzerland, as to how fractional reserve banking systems really operate, and how commercial banks create most money in the financial system out of thin air.
In 2016, ‘Monetäre Modernisierung (MoMo)’, the backers of the Vollgeld initiative, highlighted that a survey in Switzerland had found that 73% of the Swiss population mistakenly thought that the Swiss State or Swiss central bank was the creator of the majority of Swiss money and not, as is really the case, the Swiss commercial banking sector.
However, in a country with a total electorate of approximately 5.3 million, the ability to gain 110,000 signatures to advance the sovereign money proposal to referendum stage shows that the Swiss are presumably now becoming more informed about how the money creation system actually works. By the same token, a sizeable 440,000 Swiss voters backed the Sovereign Money proposal, which will no doubt cause concern in the upper echelons of the Swiss National Bank, and Swiss Bankers Association.
Since the sovereign money initiative would have fully centralised the money creation process with the SNB, it lies at the opposite end of the scale to fully decentralised forms of money such as cryptocurrencies. But what sovereign money and cryptocurrencies do have in common is that they both cut commercial banks out of the money creation process, and commercial banks could now in theory find themselves fighting on a number of fronts. With decentralised crytpocurrencies also aiming to cut central banks out of the equation, and with some central banks responding by alluding to the issue of their own cryptocurrencies, these central bank cryptos could be another form of sovereign money that the commercial banks may in future need to take account of.
Discussions of fractionally-backed banking systems also bring to mind the fractionally-backed system of trading which operates in the London Gold Market, where vast amounts of synthetic gold which do not exist are traded and cleared each day in unallocated accounts maintained by the bullion bank members of the London Bullion Market Association (LBMA). But unfortunately, the London Gold Market remains a protected enclave, protected from the disruptive scrutiny of direct democracy, and with little hope even that the financial media would dare to investigate why a gold market runs a leveraged fractionally-backed gold trading system.
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.
This article is now transcribed below, here on the BullionStar website.
Central bank gold price suppression is a well-documented fact. Central banks have a long and colorful history of manipulating the gold price. This manipulation has taken many shapes and forms over the years. It also shouldn’t be surprising that central banks intervene in the gold market given that they also intervene in all other financial markets. It would be naive to think that the gold market should be any different.
n fact, gold is a special case. Gold to central bankers is like the sun to vampires. They are terrified of it, yet in some ways they are in awe of it. Terrified since gold is an inflation barometer and an indicator of the relative strength of fiat currencies. The gold price influences interest rates and bond prices. But central bankers (who know their job) are also in awe of gold since they respect and understand gold’s value and power within the international monetary system and the importance of gold as a reserve asset.
So central banks are keenly aware of gold, they hold large quantities of it in their vaults as a store of value and as financial insurance, but they are also permanently on guard against allowing a fully free market for gold in which they would not have at least some form of influence over price direction and market sentiment.
The Central Bankers’ Central Bank
The Bank for International Settlements (BIS) crops up frequently in gold price manipulation as the central coordination venue and the guiding hand behind a lot of the gold price suppression plans. This is true in all decades from the 1960s right the way through to the 2000s. If you want to know about central bank gold price manipulation, the BIS is a good place to start. Unfortunately the BIS is a law onto itself and does not answer to anyone, except its central banks members.
In the 1960s, central bank manipulation of the gold price was conducted in the public domain, predominantly through the London Gold Pool. This was in the era of a fixed official gold price of $35 an ounce. Here the US Treasury and a consortium of central banks from Western Europe explicitly kept the gold price near $35 an ounce, coordinating their operation from the Bank for International Settlements (BIS) in Basel, Switzerland, while using the Bank of England in London as a transaction agent. This price manipulation broke down in March 1968 when the US Treasury ran out of good delivery gold, which triggered the move to a “free market” gold price.
Central banks continued to suppress gold prices in the 1970s both through efforts to demonetize gold and also dump physical gold into the market to dampen price action. These sales were unilateral e.g. US Treasury gold sales in 1975 and over 1978-1979, and also coordinated (and orchestrated by the US) e.g. IMF gold sales across 1976-1980.
Gold Pool 2.0 – Force it Down Quick and Hard
Collusion to manipulate the price also went underground, for example in late 1979 and early 1980 when the gold price was rocketing higher, the same central banks from the London Gold Pool again met at the opaque BIS in Switzerland at the behest of the US Treasury and Federal Reserve in an attempt to launch a new and secretive Gold Pool to reign in the gold price. This was essentially a revival of the old gold pool, or Gold Pool 2.0.
These meetings, which are not very well known about, were of the G10 central bank governors, i.e. at the highest levels of world finance. All of the discussions are documented in black and white in the Bank of England archives and can be read on the BullionStar website.
The wording in these discussions is very revealing and show the contempt which central bankers feel about a freely functioning gold market.
Phrases used in these meetings include:
“there is a need to break the psychology of the market” and “no question of any permanent stabilisation of the gold price, merely at a critical time holding it within a target area” and “to stabilise the price within a moving band” and “it would be easy and nice for central banks to force the price down hard and quickly“.
And these meetings of top central bankers were in early 1980, 11 years after the London Gold Pool and 8 years after the US Treasury reneged on its commitment in August 1971 to convert foreign holdings of US dollars into gold.
Whether this new BIS gold pool was rolled out in the 1980s is open to debate, but it was discussed across the board for months by the Governors at the BIS, and may have been introduced in a form which would provide physical gold to the oil producers (gold for oil trades) without putting a rocket under the gold price. Their main worry was to allow the Middle Eastern oil producers to acquire some gold for oil without pushing the gold price up.
The Bank of England was also involved in the 1980s in influencing prices in the London Gold Fix auctions, in what an ex Bank of England staffer described euphemistically as ‘helping the fixes’. And the Bank of England has even at times used terminology in the 1980s such as “smoothing operations” and “stabilisation operations” when referring to coordinated central bank efforts to control the gold price.
Paper Gold Ponzi
Probably two of the most influential changes on the gold market in the modern era are structural changes to the gold market which channel gold demand away from physical gold and into paper gold. These two changes were the introduction of unallocated accounts and fractionally backed gold holdings in the London Gold market from the 1980s onwards, and the introduction of gold futures trading in the US in January 1975.
In unallocated gold trading in the London OTC market, gold trades are cash-settled and there is rarely any physical delivery of gold. The trading positions are merely claims against bullion banks who don’t hold anywhere near the amount of gold to back up the claims. Unallocated bullion is therefore just a synthetic paper gold position that provides exposure to the gold price but doesn’t drive demand for physical gold.
When gold futures were launched in the US in January 1975, the primary reason for their introduction, according to a US State Department cable at the time, was to create an alternative to the physical market that would syphon off demand for gold, creating trading that would dwarf the physical market, and which would also ramp up volatility which in turn would deter investors from investing in physical gold. Gold futures are also fractionally backed and overwhelmingly cash-settled, and their trading volumes are astronomical multiples of actual delivery volumes.
Central banks as regulators of financial markets are therefore ultimately responsible for allowing the emergence of fractional reserve gold trading in London and New York. This trading undermines the demand for physical gold and allows the world gold price to be formed in these synthetic gold trading venues. Price discovery is not happening in physical gold markets. Its is happening in the London OTC (unallocated) and COMEX derivative markets. So this is also a form of gold price manipulation since the central banks know how these markets function, but they do nothing to crack down on what are essentially gold ponzi schemes.
Imagine, for example, that central banks were as tough on paper gold as they seem to be now on crypto currency markets. Now imagine if central banks outlawed fractional gold trading or scare-mongered about it in the same way that they do about crypto currencies? What would happen is that the gold market participants would panic and unwind their paper positions, precipitating a disconnect between paper gold and physical gold markets. So by being lenient on the fractional structure of trading in the gold markets, central banks and their regulators are implicitly encouraging activities that have a dampening effect on the gold price.
Gold Lending – A Riddle wrapped in a Mystery inside an Enigma
The gold lending market, mostly centred in London, is another area in which central banks have the ability to cap the gold price. Here central banks transfer their physical gold holdings to bullion banks and this physical gold then enters the market. These transactions can either be in the form of gold loans or gold swaps. This extra supply of gold through the loans and swaps disturbs the existing supply demand balance, and so has a depressing effect on the gold price.
The gold lending market is totally opaque and secretive with no obligatory or voluntary reporting by either central bank lenders or bullion bank borrowers. The Bank of England has a major role in the gold lending market as the gold used in lending is almost all sourced from the central bank custody holding in the Bank of England’s vaults.
There is therefore zero informational efficiency in gold lending, and that’s the way the central banks like it. furthermore, freedom of information requests about gold lending are almost always shot down by central banks, even sometimes on ‘national security’ grounds.
Many central banks have lent out their gold long ago, and just hold a ‘gold receivable’ on their balance sheet, which is a claim against a bullion bank or bullion banks. These bullion banks roll over the liability to the central bank for years on end and the original gold is long gone. Since central bank gold is never independently audited, there is no independent confirmation of any of the gold that any central banks claim they have.
Gold receivables are another fiction that allows central banks to fly under the radar in the gold lending market, and central banks go to great lengths to make sure the market does not know the size and existence of outstanding gold lending and swapped gold positions.
In Febuary 1999, the BIS was again the nexus for secretive discussions about the gold market when a number of the large powerful central banks basically ordered the IMF to drop an accounting change that would have split out gold and gold receivables into two separate line items on central bank balance sheets and accounting statements. These discussions are documented in the IMF document which is available to see here.
This accounting change would have shone a light on to the scale of central bank gold lending around the world, information which would have moved gold prices far higher.
Gold Loans and Gold Swaps – Highly Market Sensitive
However, a group of the large central banks in Europe comprising the Bank of England, the Bundesbank, the Bank de France and the European Central Bank (ECB) applied pressure to torpedo this plan as they said that “information on gold loans and swaps was highly market sensitive” and that the IMF should “not require the separate disclosure of such information but should instead treat all monetary gold assets including gold on loan or subject to swap agreements, as a single data item.”
Central banks also at times sell large quantities of gold, such as the Swiss gold sales in the early the 2000s, and the Bank of England gold sales in the late 1990s.While the details of such gold sales are always shrouded in secrecy, and the motivations may be varied, such as bullion bank bailouts or redistribution of holdings to other central banks, the impact of these gold sales announcements usually has a negative impact on the gold price. So gold sales announcements are another tactic that central banks use to at times keep the pressure on the price.
There are many examples of central bankers discussing interventions in the gold market. In July 1998, former Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan testified before the US Congress saying that “central banks stand ready to lease gold in increasing quantities should the price rise.”
In June 2005, William R. White of the BIS in Switzerland, said that one of the aims of central bank cooperation was to “joint efforts to influence asset prices (especially gold and foreign exchange) in circumstances where this might be thought useful.”
In 2008, the BIS at its headquarters in Switzerland even stated in a presentation to central bankers that one of the services it offers is interventions in the gold market.
In 2011, one of the gold traders from the BIS even stated on his LinkedIn profile that one of his responsibilities was managing the liquidity for interventions. After this was published, he quickly changed his LinkedIn profile.
In August 2014, the long-standing and tainted London Silver Fixing daily auction was replaced by a newly launched London Bullion Market Association (LBMA) Silver Price daily auction. Similarly, in March 2015, the infamous London Gold Fixing daily auctions were replaced by revised twice daily LBMA Gold Price auctions.
In both cases, the new auctions, which the LBMA were quick to maintain control over, were trumpeted by the bullion bank controlled LBMA as ushering in an era of improved transparency in gold and silver price discovery within the London Gold and Silver Markets, a marketplace which dominates in setting the international gold and silver prices.
The LBMA Gold Price and LBMA Silver Price auctions are both critical to the world of precious metals, because they derive benchmark reference prices for gold and silver which are used extensively in the valuation of everything from Exchange Traded Funds (ETFs) to OTC precious metals contracts.
The benchmarks are also used as reference prices in all sorts of transactions from sophisticated wholesale market transactions of central banks, refiners and miners, to small quantity gold and silver coin purchases in bullion dealer shops all over the world.
Both benchmarks are also ‘Regulated Benchmarks’ under UK financial market regulations as “policed” by the UK’s Financial Conduct Authority (FCA).
It was therefore surprising that last week on 1 March, ICE Benchmark Administration (IBA), the administrators of the LBMA Gold Price and LBMA Silver Price auctions, issued a ‘Notification’ announcing that from 1 April 2018:
“the LBMA Gold and Silver Prices will not be available on the LBMA website until midnight London time on the date that the prices are set.“
More extensive quotes from the IBA Notification are as follows:
“Please note that effective 1 April 2018, the arrangements for delayed redistribution of the LBMA Gold Price and the LBMA Silver Price will change so that the delay period increases from 30 and 15 minutes to midnight London time.”
“delayed prices are available with no monthly fee, currently with a delay of 30 minutes from publication for the LBMA Gold Price and 15 minutes from publication for the LBMA Silver Price.”
“Any public websites that display the LBMA Gold Price and the LBMA Silver Price (currently with a 30 minute and 15 minute delay respectively) will be required to delay prices to midnight London time.”
So instead of a 30 minute delay, starting on 1 April (April Fool’s Day) the price for the morning LBMA Gold Price auction will not be available until about 14 and a half hours after the auction completes.
For the afternoon LBMA Gold Price auction, the price will only be available to the public about 9 hours after the auction finishes. For the LBMA Silver Price auction, the lag time on the public being able to see the daily reference price will now be 12 hours instead of 15 minutes. That’s a whopping 40 times longer. If only this was an April Fools joke. Alas, it’s not.
Any rational person would therefore conclude that the changes to the auctions being forced in by ICE Benchmark Administration (IBA) can only be described as torpedoing the concepts of price transparency and price discovery.
It should also be remembered that although IBA is the auction administrator, IBA would never make these publication time changes without the blessing of the LBMA, since the LBMA is the intellectual property owner of the benchmarks and the ultimate authority on these benchmarks as well as the gatekeeper on who can take part in these auctions.
“The revised arrangements for delayed redistribution of the LBMA Gold Price and LBMA Silver Price… recently announced by ICE Benchmark Administration (IBA)… are consistent with the timing of the publication of the LBMA Platinum and Palladium prices.”
As a reminder, the LBMA also controls the worldwide pricing for platinum and palladium through the LBMA Platinum Price auction and the LBMA Palladium Price auctions, both of which were awarded to the London Metal Exchange by the LBMA in 2014 during a secretive and non-competitive tender process.
The publication time (to the public) of the platinum and palladium prices is indeed midnight on the day the auctions occur. As the LBMA website states:
“Since 13 July 2015, the prices on the LBMA’s website are displayed with a delay until midnight following the setting of the prices each day.”
Why the worldwide platinum and palladium user base is not up in arms about these platinum and palladium price delays, only they can answer. But it is certainly a spin too far to think that anyone will accept the warped alchemy of the LBMA that because the LBMA Platinum and Palladium prices are ‘freely’ published only at midnight, that somehow this validates the decision of the IBA / LBMA to also roll back transparency in the LBMA Gold and Silver auctions to midnight.
Overall, this price publication time rollback is farcical, but not surprising in the world of the LBMA where black is white and where a step backwards is spun as a step forwards. This development might also be humorous if it wasn’t so important. Especially as the changes are being implemented on 1 April, April Fool’s Day! But the auction prices are important and also very influential in the global gold and silver markets. Hence, it is no laughing matter.
London Gold and Silver Trade Reporting: Not in Your Lifetime
Apart from the regressive step on LBMA auction price timing which will make the London gold and silver markets more opaque, the lack of Trade Reporting for London gold and silver trades is another area that continues to shroud the London Gold and Silver Markets in a virtual blanket of secrecy. That’s right, there are no trades reported in the London gold and silver markets. Zero. And there never have been any trades reported in the London gold and silver markets.
With no trade data, there is no market efficiency. How could there be any market efficiency when the market cannot analyse the trades that have taken place? Insider bullion banks are therefore free to trade gold and silver in the knowledge that the global markets don’t know what the insiders are doing. This also applies to the central banks in the London Gold Market in their buying and selling and lending and swaps transactions. So the London Gold and Silver Markets are not ‘Fair’.
At the end of January, I wrote an article titled “What’s Happening (or Not) at the LBMA: Some Updates” which in part discussed the broken promises on trade reporting made by the LBMA over the last 2-3 years, and the complete lack of progress that the LBMA has made on actually publishing any trade data to the Market. As early as January 2015 (over 3 year ago), the LBMA stated to the UK Regulator’s “Fair and Effective Markets Review” (FEMR) at that time that it would:
“welcome further transparency through post trade reporting, providing the industry with data that at the moment does not exist for the bullion market.”
During the course the next 3 years, the LBMA made many promises about publishing this trade reporting data, none of which came to pass.
For example, in February 2016 for trade reporting, the LBMA claimed that there was a “target delivery date in the second half of 2016”. This never happened.
The next broken promise, made at the LBMA annual conference in October 2016 claimed that”Phase 1 will focus on reporting and will launch in Q1 2017. This reporting covers all Loco London Spot, forward & option trading.” This never materialised.
This was followed by a litany of further promises during 2017 from the LBMA CEO, the LBMA Chairman and the LBMA Legal Counsel that all promised a publication date for trade reporting of early 2018. In May 2017, the LBMA CEO said that “Reporting will begin later this year in a phased approach and, following a period of quality checking the data, it is expected that it will be published in early 2018.“
In August 2017, the LBMA Chainman said that “it is expected that the first data will be published in early 2018“. At the LBMA’s annual conference in October 2017 in Barcelona, the LBMA’s Legal Counsel said that “the data will then be aggregated and published but not until Q1 2018.“
Now that the first quarter 2018 has come and nearly gone, you can probably guess what has happened. The correct answer is …nothing has happened, with the LBMA again totally disregarding its own promises and now unbelievably shifting the trade reporting publication date out an entire year more to “early 2019“. You couldn’t make this up.
And as per usual, there was no LBMA press release about this further delay, only a small reference buried in the back of the latest issue of its in-house magazine, The Alchemist. As per the reference:
“Many members have already begun to report their trades to the LBMA-i platform and many members are being on-boarded. The reporting process will continue during 2018 with a view to establishing a robust data set which will be published in early 2019“.
Nothing more can be said about this trade reporting fiasco other than it must be obvious to everyone that the LBMA and its bullion bank members do not want the transparency that gold and silver trade reporting would provide. Otherwise they would not have spent 4 years on a project which any individual investment bank could start and complete within less than 3 months.
As I said in the conclusion of my January commentary on this topic:
“In this extremely long drawn out exercise by the LBMA, it must be clear by now that the LBMA and its trading members are engaging in this trade reporting project on their own terms, and with little regard for the spirit and recommendations of the Fair and Efficient Markets Review. There is also a trend of missed deadlines, broken promises, and a lack of explanation for the delays.“
To this you can now add another year (to early 2019). Will we be saying the same thing in early 2019, of more missed deadlines? Based on the LBMA’s track record, any bookie worth their salt would probably say ‘Yes’.
This article is in 3 parts and covers a) upcoming trade reporting in the London gold market which is being led by the London Bullion Market Association (LBMA), b) the recent publication by the LBMA of a Guide to the London OTC precious metals markets, and c) an update on monthly vault reporting which the LBMA and the Bank of England launched in 2017.
LBMA Trade Reporting
The lack of trade reporting in the London gold market is possibly one of the biggest ommissions in global financial markets, since the lack of gold trade data totally obscures knowledge of gold price discovery in a market that is predominantly a synthetic paper trading market, but which also plays hosts to the secretive world of central bank gold trading and central bank gold lending.
Trade reporting in the London gold market is also an initiative which the London Bullion Market Association (LBMA) has been promising to establish for more than 3 years, but which as yet has not produced one scrap of gold trade data, as the launch date and publication dates for this trade reporting have been continually pushed out.
In June 2014, in the wake of widespread trading misconduct, the UK Financial authorities launched the “Fair and Effective Markets Review” (FEMR) to improve confidence in the UK’s Fixed Income, Currency and Commodities (FICC) as well as to improve the fairness and efficiency of those markets.
The Review was conducted by the Treasury, the Bank of England and the UK Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) with the help of an independent Market Practitioner Panel drawn from the financial sector.
According to the FEMR, fair markets are those that have features such as market transparency and open access, while efficient markets are markets where trading and post-trade infrastructures provide sufficient liquidity and allow participants to discover and trade at competitive prices.
The FEMR recommendations were published in June 2015, which is now over two and a half years ago. One of the key recommendations of the FEMR report was to promote fairer market structures in FICC markets including improved transparency in over-the-counter markets. The Market Practitioner Panel also recommended that standardized physical markets such as the gold bullion trading market should have post-trade reporting so as to:
“provide an understanding of liquidity, help to dispel some concerns over information abuse” and “work towards levelling the playing field.”
During the review process, the FEMR authorities allowed interested parties to submit their views on the review, and in January 2015, the LBMA submitted a letter to FEMR (c/o the Bank of England) in which it stated that:
“The LBMA would also welcome further transparency through post trade reporting, providing the industry with data that at the moment does not exist for the bullion market.”
While this statement sounds innocuous enough, in a case of trying to steer the FEMR agenda while making it appear to be fully in agreement, the LBMA submission letter also made it clear that its members wanted the “precious metals market” to “report anonymised unique transactional data”.
In its submission, the LBMA further showed its true colours, i.e. that it primarily represents the powerful bullion banks and their central bank clients, as well as representing the interests of the Bank of England, when in a case of managing the expectations of the FEMR, the LBMA stated that “the role of the central banks in the bullion market may preclude ‘total’ transparency, at least at public level.” It also said that “transparency could be increased via post-trade anonymised statistical analysis of nominal volumes, provided by the clearing banks.”
The LBMA also cleverly retained control of the FEMR related agenda as it applied to the gold market when in April 2015 the LBMA launched its own “Strategic Review” of the London bullion market by commissioning the “independent” consultancy EY to undertake the actual strategic review and write a report.
Although the LBMA at the time gave lip-service to transparency and said that it would engage with the global bullion market in shaping this strategic review, the reality was otherwise and, for example, this author’s request for engagement were ignored by the LBMA. Furthermore, the actual EY report and its recommendations were never published and even the well-connected Financial Times in October 2015 said that it had only “seen” a “copy of the recommendations”.
One of the initiatives that supposedly grew out of this EY review was a Request for Information (RFI) by the LBMA to potential financial technology service providers in October 2015. This RFI was to “to assist the LBMA in delivering the EY recommendations from the Strategic Review.”
What exactly the EY recommendations were is unclear, since the EY report was never published, but based on LBMA press releases, the goal of the review in terms of strategic objectives was said to be to enhance transparency, improve efficiency, and expand the use of technology in the gold and other precious metals markets.
The following month in November 2015, the LBMA announced that it had received 17 responses from 20 providers to its RFI queries, and that it had reappointed EY to help evaluate these responses.
Then on 4 February 2016 (i.e. exactly 2 years ago), the LBMA launched a Request for Proposals (RfP) process and asked a short-listed of 5 of the above 20 service providers to submit proposals to deliver a number of services to the London gold market including trade reporting, portfolio reconciliation and valuation curves, and also to build or provide infrastructure to support these services such as a submission interface, trade repository and data warehouse etc.
These services, including trade reporting, would, according to the LBMA press release, “be launched later in 2016”, and more specifically had a “target delivery date in the second half of 2016”.
Then a FEMR Implementation Report from July 2016 made note of the fact that the “LBMA had launched a specific ‘Request for Proposal’ focusing on trade reporting as a priority in response to the market commitment by LBMA members to enhance transparency.”
But strangely, even though the LBMA said in February 2016 that it would launch trade reporting ‘later in 2016’, and even though the July 2016 FEMR noted that ‘trade reporting was a priority’, it was only on 12 October 2016 that the LBMA actually announced the winning entry in the RfP process.
This winning entry was awarded to a joint bid by financial technology service providers Autilla and Cinnober’s Boat Services Ltd. On the same day, the LBMA pushed out the launch date of trade reporting even further into the future and said that “in the first quarter of 2017, the LBMA together with Boat…will launch a trade reporting service”.
At the LBMA annual conference in Singapore on 17 October 2016, the LBMA CEO Ruth Crowell also said in her speech that:
“Now, what are these New Services? First and foremost, Phase One will focus on reporting and will launch in Q1 2017. This reporting covers all Loco London Spot, forward & option trading.”
“Reporting will not only make us more transparent and professional as a market….it will also demonstrate of the size and liquidity of the market for clients, investors and regulators.”
Also, at the same conference In October 2016, Jamie Khurshid, CEO of Boat Services Ltd provided a timeline for the roll-out of the LBMA’s trade reporting, which included the following:
November 30 2016: Completion of design phase & engagement with member firm technology organisations
Q1 2017: Implement customization and configuration of solution
End Q1 2017: Complete on-boarding, certification & training
April 2017: Soft Launch to manage member flow exposure risk
“LBMA-i will be ready to start collecting data in the second quarter” (2017)
“The data will then be vetted before being published later in the year” (2017)
However, in the May 2017 issue of the LBMA’s magazine, The Alchemist, the LBMA had already shifted the trade reporting dates even further out, with the LBMA CEO saying that:
“Reporting will begin later this year in a phased approach and, following a period of quality checking the data, it is expected that it will be published in early 2018.“
Then in the August 2017 issue of the LBMA’s Alchemist, LBMA Chainrman Paul Fisher stated that:
“Market Makers are expected to start reporting in the coming months, followed by other members later in 2017. After a period of quality checking, it is expected that the first data will published in early 2018.“
At the LBMA’s next annual conference in October 2017 in Barcelona, there were a few additional references to trade reporting with the LBMA’s legal counsel saying that:
“From September this year (2017), Market Makers and some full trading Members have started to report trade data into the LBMA-i. The LBMA-i is the reporting hub that is provided by Boat and Autilla.“
“the data is sufficiently anonymous without giving away the underlying client. The data will then be aggregated and published but not until Q1 2018. This is to provide the time to analyse the data and again work with the market to understand what we need to be publishing.“
In this extremely long drawn out exercise by the LBMA, it must be clear by now that the LBMA and its trading members are engaging in this trade reporting project on their own terms, and with little regard for the spirit and recommendations of the Fair and Efficient Markets Review. There is also a trend of missed deadlines, broken promises, and a lack of explanation for the delays. Trade reporting data is being sent internally, analysed heavily, and filtered and scrubbed and sanitized. Nothing as yet has been published, and promised publication dates have been continually pushed out.
The LBMA doesn’t even try to hide this, saying in one of its conference presentations that the “decision to publicise anonymous, aggregate data sits with LBMA and Member firms” and that it requires “a minimum of 3 months to analyse data and agree parameters for public deferral”.
In all of this, gold investors of the world are getting the usual run around. The LBMA’s agenda for implementing trade reporting has far less to do with providing gold trade data to the investing public and the global gold market, and a lot more to do with influencing lobbying efforts with regulators and placating the woolly recommendations of soft touch regulators.
There isn’t even any clarity on what level of trade date will be made available to the public when and if it is finally released. The LBMA claims that the reporting by its trading members is mandatory and covers “all four metals” (gold, silver, platinum and palladium) in “spot, forward, options, deposits, loans and swaps, whether Loco London, Loco Zurich or other locations.”
If so, they should release all of this data, in granular format by category, showing for each metal, trade volumes by transaction type across spot, forward, options, deposits, loans and swaps. Transparency also calls for data that is useful for analysis, like the full suite of trade data that is reported by the world’s securities exchanges, where all trades would be reported, showing price, quantity, trade type (spot, option etc), transaction type (ETF, consignment etc), client counterparty types (central bank, broker, commercial bank, hedge fund, refinery, miner etc).
The LBMA’s reporting when published should also reveal the size of the physical gold market relative to the non-physical (paper) gold market. As the LBMA’s submission letter to FEMR in 2015 said:
“Reporting in the physical market, which currently does not happen, will need to consider market pricing factors such as premiums, shipping/storage, taxes and duties.“
So, yes, its possible that this information on the physical market can be reported. Technically there is nothing preventing this. But will it be reported? Likewise, will the trade data that is published reveal the magnitude of fractionally-backed unallocated gold trading that accounts for over 95% of daily London gold market turnover?
Another area critical for trade reporting report is central bank gold trades and central bank gold lending and gold swap related trades. Will central bank trades be reported as a grouping? Highly unlikely, as the LBMA already said that “the role of the central banks in the bullion market may preclude ‘total’ transparency, at least at public level.
But as I see it, almost none of the above will be reported by the LBMA, and the most we can expect per metal is a gross trade turnover figure rolled up by month, which is a figure that is practically useless in revealing anything about the real workings of trading in the London precious metals markets.
The LBMA Guide to the OTC Precious Metals Market
In early November 2017, the LBMA published an updated “Guide to the Global OTC Precious Metals Market”. The guide in pdf format can be opened here. The relevant LBMA press release is here. The guide is edited by Jonathan Spall, consultant to the LBMA, with input also from Aelred Connelly PR Officer to the LBMA.
On first reading, although well presented, it becomes apparent that this new Guide does not contain very much new information at all, with most of the information in the guide either already on the LBMA website, or taken from other LBMA publications and tweaked slightly. More recent developments such as London vault reporting or the LBMA Gold Price are included, but only the type of content that was already in the associated LBMA press releases.
If you didn’t know anything about the London gold market, this guide might provide some introductory detail, but other than that, it’s like a standard reference text which would be found in a reference library.
Unbelievably, this updated LBMA guide claims that it seeks to “make the moving parts of the market transparent”. However, in reality, it provides very little detail on transparency, so this claim rings hollow.
There is nothing revealed in the guide as to how the market really works, who the influential players are, and no data that would reveal the real state of the market, i.e. the fractional backing of unallocated accounts, the level of outstanding gold lending, the working of the gold vaults, how gold ETFs are allocated to and from what sources they are allocated from, how the Bank of England interacts with the commercial bullion banks and its client central banks, the trading volumes in the market and what transaction types they refer to etc.
This is a pity and a missed opportunity, since if it wanted to, the LBMA could have revealed how the moving parts of the market really work. But it is not surprising, since in its public and media interactions, the LBMA essentially acts as gatekeeper, regulating and filtering the information that it allows to be disclosed about the London gold market.
Structure of the Guide
Excluding the introduction and appendices, there are 22 sections in the guide. As well as gold and silver, the guide also covers the London Platinum and Palladium Market (LPPM), and the good delivery system for platinum and palladium.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
London Bullion Market Association
London Platinum and Palladium Market
London Good Delivery – Gold and Silver
Good Delivery – Platinum and Palladium
London Precious Metals Clearing Limited
Precious Metal Accounts
Lending and Borrowing Metal
Precious Metal Benchmarks
Bank of England
Futures Markets and Exchange
Key Facts about Precious Metals
Market Trade Statistics
Central Bank and Governmental
Ownership of Gold
Properties of Precious Metals
Frequently Asked Questions
Looking at the table of contents, the sections which would appear to be of particular interest and worth scrutinizing to see if they provide any new information are as follows:
Section 4: The Price
This section has short discussions of things like characteristics of the price (troy ounce, fineness etc), that are mostly taken from a page on the LBMA web site. Most importantly, this section does nothing to illuminate important questions about ‘price discovery’ or ‘where does the internationally quoted gold price come from?’.
There is nothing in this section about price discovery or that the prices on COMEX and the London OTC market create the international gold price. COMEX is mentioned elsewhere in the guide not in relation to price discovery.
You have to read between the lines to see how the guide addresses the issue of trading and price. It first says that it’s a wholesale market price [true]. It then mentions delivery location of London – i.e., ‘loco London’. All it says is as follows:
“The standard delivery location of gold and silver is London – Loco London. This is ultimately an account held with a clearing bank for precious metals and backed by metal held in a vault in London that forms part of the clearing system.”
However, this paragraph fails to mention that these are fractionally-backed unallocated positions, and that the position in the account with a clearing bank is a synthetic cash-settled gold derivative and really not backed by gold. The ‘backed by metal held in a vault in London’ is therefore misleading and disingenuous, since there is not necessarily any gold backing an ‘account held with a clearing bank’.
Section 4 then ends with a baffling and confusing paragraph which looks deliberately designed to mislead with a title of “The Metal’ Not the Account”, which says:
“Clearly, gold, silver, platinum and palladium are all traded metals. It is an important distinction that it is not unallocated or allocated metal that is traded, but the metal itself.
The terms ‘allocated’ and ‘unallocated’ simply reflect the type of account over which the metal clears post trading of the underlying metal.”
This line, that “it is not unallocated or allocated metal that is traded, but the metal itself” looks like an attempt by the author to try to justify that all trading in the London market is trading of underlying metal. However, when an unallocated position is traded, it is just a claim on a bullion bank that is being traded. There is no specific metal. Its is just a liability to a bullion bank that is traded. And since these positions are fractionally-backed, it is not metal which is being traded. So, its mischievous to say that “the metal itself” is being traded. Perhaps the LBMA should be asked “Show me which underlying metal is being traded?”
Section 7: London Precious Metals Clearing Ltd (LPMCL)
The LPMCL is one of the most important components of the London gold and silver markets since all trades that flow through these markets are cleared through LPMCL. But strangely, this section say very little about LPMCL and there is no discussion of the London precious metals clearing statistics or what they represent. This section merely says that LPMCL is a:
“daily clearing system of paper transfers whereby LBMA members offering clearing services utilise the unallocated precious metals accounts they maintain between each other” and that LPMCL lies at the heart of the Loco London (OTC) system”
This section could have actually provided real detail in LPMCL. But it didn’t. It just takes some text from the LPMCL website. The LPMCL subsection also has no explanation of the AURUM system and the fact that it its unallocated metal that is being cleared.
In fact, this entire LPMCL section is misleading because the section is titled “London Precious Metals Clearing Limited” and apart from a few introductory paragraphs about LMPCL, the rest of the section is devoted to physical gold vaulting, with sub-section headings such as” Vault Managers”, “Vault Operators Accreditation Scheme”, “Weighing Gold”, “Weighing Silver”, “Traditional Weighing”, “Weighing Platinum and Palladium”, “Scales”.
But clearing of paper transfers (which LPMCL’s AURUM processes) is not related to vaulting of physical metal. Allocating metal is distinct from the clearing of trades in AURUM. It’s a separate step. Notably, this section also doesn’t mention who the member banks of LPMCL are. They are HSBC, JP Morgan, Scotia, ICBC Standard, and UBS. Could it be trying to draw attention away from the names (the bullion banks) that actually run the LBMA?
Notably also, in the LPMCL website under Definitions, there is a definition for Paper Gold:
“A term used to describe gold contracts such as loco London deals and future contracts which do not necessarily involve the delivery of physical gold.”
Section 8: Precious Metal Accounts
This section begins with the strange, and misleading comment that “it’s the metal that’s being traded”:
“The Metal not the Account
Clearly, gold, silver, platinum and palladium are all traded metals. It is an important distinction that it is not unallocated or allocated metal that is traded, but the metal itself.”
Given that the LPMCL website definition of unallocated metal is an “amount of that Precious Metal which we have a contractual obligation to transfer to you”, the “metal not the account” statement above makes little sense and is illogical.
Section 9: Lending and Borrowing
The first subsection of section 9 is titled “Deposits and Leases”, but there is no mention that bullion banks predominantly do the borrowing or that the central banks predominantly do the lending, nor of the level of outstanding loans from central banks to bullion banks.
In a subsection called “Lending Allocated Metal”, it mentions official central bank holdings of 33,399.2 tonnes in July 2017, but makes no attempt to comment on how much of this metal is lent out:
As of July 2017, it has been calculated by the World Gold Council (using data from the International Monetary Fund’s International Financial Statistics) that the world’s central banks hold 33,399.2 tonnes of gold. A listing appears in section 22.
But the question must be asked, why does the LBMA need to resort to quoting figures from the WGC which are in turn just figures reported to the IMF when the LBMA can get lending info from its member firms about gold lending activity, and from the Bank of England.
This subsection also states that central banks lends to commercial banks. But there is no mention of which central banks and commercial banks are involved, or the level of gold lending by central, or the length of deposits, or whether they roll over the loans and for how long.
Interestingly, the same subsection confirms that if a central bank lends out its allocated gold bars, it doesn’t get back the same bars. As the text says:
“Therefore, allocated metal becomes unallocated when it is lent but can be returned as allocated. Albeit, it will be returned with different bars and will likely be of a (slightly) different weight.
‘’…it’s not possible to lend allocated metal. Allocated metal is associated with specific bars in an account and, clearly, it is not possible to lend specific bars and expect to get the same ones back while receiving a return”
Section 12: Bank of England
There is nothing new in this section, and only vague references of how central banks in the London gold market lend and swap gold with bullion banks.
“The Bank provides safe custody for the United Kingdom’s gold reserves (owned by Her Majesty’s Treasury) and for other central banks. This supports financial stability by providing central banks with access to the liquidity of the London gold market. It also provides gold accounts to certain commercial firms (including members of the LBMA) that facilitate access for central banks to the global OTC gold market.”
Section 14: Physical Market
This section is short and only addresses consignment stocks and inventory financing. Its quite telling that a Guide to the London OTC gold market only has one section (out of 22) about a ‘Physical gold market”. In a real, specialized physical gold market (not London), this would takes many pages to cover. The intro to this section even tacitly admits that loco London trading has nothing to do with the physical gold market:
” However, unlike Loco London trading, the physical market can require knowledge of a myriad of specific country requirements, the logistics and costs of moving precious metal around the world in various forms prior to fabrication, the manufacturing costs at the various refineries and sourcing refining/manufacturing capacity.”
Section 21: Market Trade Statistics
This section is as good as blank given that there are no gold market trade statistics. This page just gives some sketchy information about the delayed gold trade reporting project (see above).
Section 22: Central Bank and Government Ownership of Gold
For such a promising sounding section, based on the title, this section is a real letdown and has nothing in it except a short introduction followed by a replicated table of World Official Gold Holdings sourced from the World Gold Council.
This new updated LBMA Guide is in some ways similar to a ‘Limited Hangout’ as the term is used in the intelligence community, i.e. revealing partial truth while keeping the main body of information hidden, and acting as gatekeeper to drip feed some information.
In other words, some information is ‘hung out’ while the main body of information is kept hidden. The public see the information that is offered and thinks “this is useful, this source is credible” but then the public inquires no further. The LBMA can point to the fact it is ‘transparent’ about the gold market, while actually not revealing anything at all important about the real workings of said market. The LBMA has drip fed some information to the public while actually acting as gatekeeper and preventing any critical information from reaching the market.
One of the characteristics of a limited hangout is that nothing new is really revealed about the subject matter being discussed. This is exactly what the LBMA guide is. All of the information contained in the guide is already on the LBMA website or else within LBMA press releases.
There is also a failure to discuss the most important areas of the London Gold Market including the fractional reserve nature of unallocated gold accounts, what the daily gigantic trade volumes in gold and silver are based on, how the London OTC gold market that trades huge quantities of synthetic gold positions continues to set the international gold price, the extent of gold lending in the London market and who are the lending central banks and who are the borrowing bullion banks, the real role of the Bank of England in the London market and the lending market, how the LMPCL clearers maintain gold accounts at the Bank of England.
This goes back to the theme of transparency and secrecy that I discussed in a presentation in Singapore October 2016 titled “The Gold Market – Where Transparency means Secrecy”, a transcript of which can be read here.
This also relates to the topic of market efficiency and availability of market data and information. Because, a market which is secretive and which is not transparent, such as the London Gold Market, cannot be efficient, because some market participants, namely bullion banks and central banks, have an informational advantage over other participants.
And remember that the London Gold Market creates the international gold price, so the transparency of this market is not just a theoretical issue, it has real world implications for everyone who owns and transacts in physical gold around the world.
Vault Holdings Reporting
Last year in 2017, both the Bank of England and the London Bullion Market Association (LBMA) for the first time began publishing monthly data showing the quantities of physical gold and silver held in the wholesale precious metals vaults in London.
The Bank of England data covers monthly gold holdings held by its central bank and commercial customers in the Bank of England’s gold vaults. Note that the bank of England does not store any silver. The LBMA publishes monthly data on both the gold and silver held in the vaults of the 8 commercial vault operators which comprise its vaulting network.
Both sets of data are published on a 3-month lagged basis. The Bank of England began to independently publish its monthly gold vault data at the end of the first quarter 2017, and the first month’s figures for the end of December 2016 revealed that the Bank’s gold vaults held 5102 tonnes of gold. See “Bank of England releases new data on its gold vault holdings” for more details. Prior to 2017, the Bank only published gold vault holdings data once a year in its annual report.
The LBMA began publishing its vault data at the end of July 2017. Prior to that the LBMA had never published any data addressing precious metals holdings in its London vaulting network.
When the LBMA published its first set of data at the end of July, it stated that as of 31 March 2017 there were 7449 tonnes of gold and 32078 tonnes of silver in the vaults of the 8 commercial vault operators that comprise its vaulting network. See “LBMA Gold Vault Data – How low is the London Gold Float?” from 2 august 2017 for more details.
For some reason, the first set of LBMA was on a 4-month lagged basis, however, since then they have since caught up to reporting on a 3-month lagged basis.
Since it’s now 6 months since the LBMA first released its vault data, it’s timely to do a short update on the more recently published vault data from both the LBMA and the bank of England, starting from the end of March 2017.
At the end of March 2017, the Bank of England was storing 5081 tonnes of gold in the vaults under its headquarters building in London. As of September 2017 (the latest month published), the Bank of England was storing 5220 tonnes of gold. Therefore in that 6 month period, net gold holdings in the Bank of England’s vaults increased by 139 tonnes, or 2.73%. There were net additions of gold to the Bank’s vaults in 5 of those 6 months, but nothing really significant stands out. A net 43 tonnes were added in April, 33 tonnes in June, there was a net decline of 8 tonnes in July, and a net addition of 56 tonnes in September.
See chart below for a graphical representation of these Bank of England vault holdings changes.
Over the 6 month period from month-end March 2017 to month-end September 2017, the LBMA precious metals vaults saw a net inflow of 294 tonnes of gold, or a 3.95% increase. There were net additions over the same 5 months as the Bank of England witnessed. On an aggregate basis, total gold holdings rose from 7449 tonnes to 7743 tonnes with large net inflows of gold bars appearing in the LBMA vaults in April with 47 tonnes added, 45 tonnes added in June, 86 tonnes added in August, and September saw the highest inflow with 157 tonnes of gold added. Only July 2017 saw net outflows of 59 tonnes of gold bars.
See chart below for changes to these LBMA vault holdings totals.
Adding the gold inflows of 294 tonnes in the LBMA vaults to the gold inflows of 139 tonnes in the Bank of England vaults, this means that over the 6 month period being discussed, the total amount of gold stored in all the London wholesale gold vaults increased by 433 tonnes, which is the equivalent of just under 35,000 Good Delivery gold bars, each weighing approximately 400 ounces. Gold-backed ETFs which store their gold in London only added about a net 40 tonnes of gold over the same period, so could only explain a small part of the total increase.
The LBMA vaults on an aggregated basis added 1794 tonnes of silver over the same 6 month period to the end of September 2017. Total silver holdings rose from 32078 tonnes to 33873 tonnes. This was a net increase of 5.6% in the total silver quantity held in the vaults. The largest net inflows were in April with 749 tonnes added, and June with 658 tonnes of silver added. Silver-backed ETFs which hold their silver in London actually saw net outflows over the 6 month period in question, so these movements do not explain the large 1794 tonnes of silver added to the London vaults over this time.
One of the most notable events in Russia’s precious metals market calendar is the annual “Russian Bullion Market” conference. Formerly known as the Russian Bullion Awards, this conference, now in its 10th year, took place this year on Friday 24 November in Moscow. Among the speakers lined up, the most notable inclusion was probably Sergey Shvetsov, First Deputy Chairman of Russia’s central bank, the Bank of Russia.
In his speech, Shvetsov provided an update on an important development involving the Russian central bank in the worldwide gold market, and gave further insight into the continued importance of physical gold to the long term economic and strategic interests of the Russian Federation.
Firstly, in his speech Shvetsov confirmed that the BRICS group of countries are now in discussions to establish their own gold trading system. As a reminder, the 5 BRICS countries comprise the Russian Federation, China, India, South Africa and Brazil.
Four of these nations are among the world’s major gold producers, namely, China, Russia, South Africa and Brazil. Furthermore, two of these nations are the world’s two largest importers and consumers of physical gold, namely, China and Russia. So what these economies have in common is that they all major players in the global physical gold market.
Shvetsov envisages the new gold trading system evolving via bilateral connections between the BRICS member countries, and as a first step Shvetsov reaffirmed that the Bank of Russia has now signed a Memorandum of Understanding with China (see below) on developing a joint trading system for gold, and that the first implementation steps in this project will begin in 2018.
Interestingly, the Bank of Russia first deputy chairman also discounted the traditional dominance of London and Switzerland in the gold market, saying that London and the Swiss trading operations are becoming less relevant in today’s world. He also alluded to new gold pricing benchmarks arising out of this BRICS gold trading cooperation.
BRICS cooperation in the gold market, especially between Russia and China, is not exactly a surprise, because it was first announced in April 2016 by Shvetsov himself when he was on a visit to China.
“We (the Central Bank of the Russian Federation and the People’s Bank of China) discussed gold trading. The BRICS countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) are major economies with large reserves of gold and an impressive volume of production and consumption of the precious metal. In China, gold is traded in Shanghai, and in Russia in Moscow. Our idea is to create a link between these cities so as to intensify gold trading between our markets.”
Also as a reminder, earlier this year in March, the Bank of Russia opened its first foreign representative office, choosing the location as Beijing in China. At the time, the Bank of Russia portrayed the move as a step towards greater cooperation between Russia and China on all manner of financial issues, as well as being a strategic partnership between the Bank of Russia and the People’s bank of China.
The Memorandum of Understanding on gold trading between the Bank of Russia and the People’s Bank of China that Shvetsov referred to was actually signed in September of this year when deputy governors of the two central banks jointly chaired an inter-country meeting on financial cooperation in the Russian city of Sochi, location of the 2014 Winter Olympics.
National Security and Financial Terrorism
At the Moscow bullion market conference last week, Shvetsov also explained that the Russian State’s continued accumulation of official gold reserves fulfills the goal of boosting the Russian Federation’s national security. Given this statement, there should really be no doubt that the Russian State views gold as both as an important monetary asset and as a strategic geopolitical asset which provides a source of wealth and monetary power to the Russian Federation independent of external financial markets and systems.
And in what could either be a complete coincidence, or a coordinated update from another branch of the Russian monetary authorities, Russian Finance Minister Anton Siluanov also appeared in public last weekend, this time on Sunday night on a discussion program on Russian TV channel “Russia 1”.
Siluanov’s discussion covered the Russian government budget and sanctions against the Russian Federation, but he also pronounced on what would happen in a situation where a foreign power attempted to seize Russian gold and foreign exchange reserves. According to Interfax, and translated here into English, Siluanov said that:
“If our gold and foreign currency reserves were ever seized, even if it was just an intention to do so, that would amount to financial terrorism. It would amount to a declaration of financial war between Russia and the party attempting to seize the assets.”
As to whether the Bank of Russia holds any of its gold abroad is debatable, because officially two-thirds of Russia’s gold is stored in a vault in Moscow, with the remaining one third stored in St Petersburg. But Silanov’s comment underlines the importance of the official gold reserves to the Russian State, and underscores why the Russian central bank is in the midst of one of the world’s largest gold accumulation exercises.
1800 Tonnes and Counting
From 2000 until the middle of 2007, the Bank of Russia held around 400 tonnes of gold in its official reserves and these holdings were relatively constant. But beginning in the third quarter 2007, the bank’s gold policy shifted to one of aggressive accumulation. By early 2011, Russian gold reserves had reached over 800 tonnes, by the end of 2014 the central bank held over 1200 tonnes, and by the end of 2016 the Russians claimed to have more than 1600 tonnes of gold.
Although the Russian Federation’s gold reserves are managed by the Bank of Russia, the central bank is under federal ownership, so the gold reserves can be viewed as belonging to the Russian Federation. It can therefore be viewed as strategic policy of the Russian Federation to have embarked on this gold accumulation strategy from late 2007, a period that coincides with the advent of the global financial market crisis.
According to latest figures, during October 2017 the Bank of Russia added 21.8 tonnes to its official gold reserves, bringing its current total gold holdings to 1801 tonnes. For the year to date, the Russian Federation, through the Bank of Russia, has now announced additions of 186 tonnes of gold to its official reserves, which is close to its target of adding 200 tonnes of gold to the reserves this year.
With the Chinese central bank still officially claiming to hold 1842 tonnes of gold in its national gold reserves, its looks like the Bank of Russia, as soon as the first quarter 2018, will have the distinction of holding more gold than the Chinese. That is of course if the Chinese sit back and don’t announce any additions to their gold reserves themselves.
A threat to the London Gold Market
The new gold pricing benchmarks that the Bank of Russia’s Shvetsov signalled may evolve as part of a BRICS gold trading system are particularly interesting. Given that the BRICS members are all either large producers or consumers of gold, or both, it would seem likely that the gold trading system itself will be one of trading physical gold. Therefore the gold pricing benchmarks from such a system would be based on physical gold transactions, which is a departure from how the international gold price is currently discovered.
However, ‘gold’ trading in London and on COMEX is really trading of very large quantities of synthetic derivatives on gold, which are completely detached from the physical gold market. In London, the derivative is fractionally-backed unallocated gold positions which are predominantly cash-settled, in New York the derivative is exchange-traded gold future contracts which are predominantly cash-settled and again are backed by very little real gold.
While the London and New York gold markets together trade virtually 24 hours, they interplay with the current status quo gold reference rate in the form of the LBMA Gold Price benchmark. This benchmark is derived twice daily during auctions held in London at 10:30 am and 3:00 pm between a handful of London-based bullion banks. These auctions are also for unallocated gold positions which are only fractionally-backed by real physical gold. Therefore, the de facto world-wide gold price benchmark generated by the LBMA Gold Price auctions has very little to do with physical gold trading.
It seems that slowly and surely, the major gold producing nations of Russia, China and other BRICS nations are becoming tired of the dominance of an international gold price which is determined in a synthetic trading environment which has very little to do with the physical gold market.
The Shanghai Gold Exchange’s Shanghai Gold Price Benchmark which was launched in April 2016 is already a move towards physical gold price discovery, and while it does not yet influence prices in the international market, it has the infrastructure in place to do so.
When the First Deputy Chairman of the Bank of Russia points to London and Switzerland as having less relevance, while spearheading a new BRICS cross-border gold trading system involving China and Russia and other “major economies with large reserves of gold and an impressive volume of production and consumption of the precious metal”, it becomes clear that moves are afoot by Russia, China and other nations to bring gold price discovery back to the realm of the physical gold markets. The icing on the cake in all this may be gold price benchmarks based on international physical gold trading.
On 29 August, the London Metal Exchange (LME) began publication of a set of daily reference prices for gold and silver. These reference prices aim to capture and reflect paper gold and silver market prices as at 10:30 am, 12:00 midday, and 3:00 pm London time.
Anyone familiar with the former London gold and silver fix auctions, or the successor LBMA Gold Price and LBMA Silver Price auctions, will know that the LBMA gold auction is conducted twice daily at 10:30 am and 3.00 pm London time, while the silver auction is held once daily at midday. These auctions are also for unallocated book entry gold and silver (paper gold and silver) in the London market. ICE Benchmark Administration (IBA) is the auction administrator for both of these LBMA auctions.
As these new reference prices published by the London Metal Exchange are timed to report ‘market’ prices for gold and silver at exactly the same times as the LBMA Gold and LBMA Silver auctions, they add an element of future competition between the LME and ICE in the benchmark price provision business. However, the LME’s prices for both gold and silver are calculated at each of the 3 times of the ICE / LBMA auctions, i.e. at 10:30am (LBMA morning gold auction), 12:00 (LBMA silver auction) and 3:00pm (LBMA afternoon gold auction), periods which the LME describes as having ‘peak liquidity’.
In July 2017, the LME launched a suite of gold and silver futures contracts (LME Gold and LME Silver) for the London market, 2 of which are Spot daily contracts in gold and silver, respectively. Under the hood, these new gold and silver daily reference prices published by the LME are just volume weighted average prices (VWAP) of these LME Gold and LME Silver spot contracts calculated over a 2 minute window at the relevant times each day (i.e. 10:30 am, midday, and 3:00 pm) based on trades on the LMEselect trading platform. These contracts also represent claims on unallocated book entry paper gold and silver in the London market.
Therefore, the LME reference prices are not based on any auction trades, and merely use prices ‘discovered’ (generated) on the LME’s own trading platform at the time of the LBMA / ICE auctions. Given that these new LME reference prices only began to be published on 29 August, there are only about 50 daily data points so far for each of gold and silver. All prices since 29 August can be seen on the LME website for gold and silver.
Different But Similar
But are these LME prices the same as those generated by the ICE / LBMA daily auctions? No, they are not the same, but they are similar. The reason both sets of prices are not the same is that they are derived differently. The LBMA price resulting from an auction is the price derived in the final round of an auction when the imbalance between the auction’s buy and sell volumes is in tolerance (less than 10,000 ounces). The LME reference prices are average prices calculated (and volume weighted) using trades executed on the LME’s trading platform over a 2 minute interval from the start of an auction until 2 minutes after the start of an auction.
The LBMA auction prices and the LME reference prices are similar in that they are both based on market activity over similar time periods within the wholesale gold and silver markets, and in practice (or at least in theory), arbitrage trading should act to keep prices in the OTC market, and in the LBMA auctions, and in COMEX precious metals futures trading, and in LME gold and silver futures trading in line with each other.
Like their predecessors the London Gold fix and London Silver fix, the LBMA Gold Price and LBMA Silver Price are used every day to value everything from ISDA contracts to gold-backed ETFs, and the daily auction prices are also referenced widely in the global precious metals industry to execute trades involving miners, refineries, bullion banks, central banks, jewellers and coin shops. In short, these LBMA gold and silver reference prices are the dominant incumbent reference prices, and they also qualify as Regulated Benchmarks regulated by the UK Financial Conduct Authority. But will anyone end up using these new LME precious metals reference prices? Possibly, but it could it a while.
In 2018, the LME intends to offer trading based on its new gold and reference price reference levels. According to a Reuters article from 10 October:
“As of mid-2018 participants will be able to trade at those prices, Chamberlain [LME CEO] said, with technology being developed to match buy and sell orders for execution at the settlement price.
‘Benchmarks take a long time to evolve,’ he said. ‘What we can do is put in place the infrastructure, show that we have day after day of robust prices, but ultimately it is for end-users to decide what they want to use.'”
Being able to trade at the LME reference prices will add more relevance to the published numbers and could add legitimacy in terms of market data and financial media interest.
Right now the LME gold and silver reference prices are published daily and are “available for market participants to use free of charge.” But real world usage in the sense of being used to value precious metals funds, contracts or transactions looks to be a case of “down the road” rather than today.
Ideally the London gold and silver markets do not need an additional benchmark reflecting fractionally-backed unallocated gold and silver trading, but a benchmark and reference price reflecting the trading of real physical gold and silver. However, as the LME has chosen not to upset the status quo of the London unallocated trading system, a system which remains one of the key determinants of the international gold price, then real physical gold and silver reference prices in the London market will unfortunately remain a pipe dream.
BullionStar recently teamed up with Real Vision TV, the unique video-on-demand finance and investment channel, to film a presentation for the Real Vision audience on some topical areas of the gold market.
The video presentation, which was filmed in London in June 2017, covers the fractional-reserve world of bullion bank trading in the London Gold Market, and also some concerns and risks of gold-backed Exchange Traded Funds. It then wraps up by discussing the benefits and attractions of physical gold ownership in light of the dangers and risks of today’s synthetic gold trading market.
Real Vision TV has kindly made this presentation available for viewing by BullionStar customers and readers, and the video presentation, which is 20 minutes long, can be viewed at the following link:
BullionStar would like to thank Real Vision TV for making this presentation possible and for facilitating the broadcasting of the presentation to the BullionStar audience.
Real Vision TV, founded by Raoul Pal and Grant Williams, is a subscription-based video on-demand channel featuring discussions, interviews, presentations and insights from many of the world’s top financial market minds and investment gurus.
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.
Guillermo Barba, the Mexican financial and economic journalist, has recently published an article on his website confirming that through an information request that he had made to Mexico’s central bank, Banco de México (Banxico), the central bank has now released what amounts to a relatively comprehensive list of Mexico’s gold bars held in storage at the Bank of England gold vaults in London.
Mexico’s list is an inventory of wholesale market gold bars that Banixco owns and stores in custody at the Bank of England vaults in London. In the contemporary parlance of the gold market, most people would call this type of holding an allocated gold holding, but more historically in the Bank of England world, it has been known as an “earmarked gold” holding or a “set-aside gold” holding because the specific bars are set-aside for a specific central bank, in other words the central bank has its name attached to those particular bars (earmarked).
Wholesale gold bars are also known as London Good Delivery gold bars or variable weight gold bars, and each weighs in the region of 400 troy ounces ( ~ 12.5 kilos). On the Banixco list, there are 7,265 wholesale gold bars listed. This new list is one of the very few detailed central bank gold bars lists (weight lists) which exists in the public domain, and it could be useful for a number of purposes (see below).
Barba has done persistent and diligent work over the last 6 years, by patiently obtaining more and more information from the Mexican central bank about its gold reserves via various Freedom of Information Requests (FOIA), and shedding some light on this usually opaque area of gold and central banking.
2011: Gold Reserves Skyrocket, Central Bank Secrecy
Before we examine this newly published list from the Banco de México, a little background is useful. As of February 2017, Mexico held about 120.7 tonnes of gold in its official gold reserves, which puts the country at the tail-end of the world’s Top 30 official/country gold holders.
All through the 2000s, Banixco only held a few tonnes of gold in its official reserves, ranging from about 4 tonnes and 9 tonnes. This situation changed in early 2011 when the Mexican central bank purchased just over 93 tonnes of gold in March 2011 (first reported by the FT in early May 2011). This brought Mexico’s gold holdings up from 7.1 tonnes to about 100.2 tonnes by the end of Q1 2011. The country’s official gold holdings were boosted further to about 125.2 tonnes by Q2 2012 when Banixco bought more than 16 tonnes in March 2012. See World Gold Council quarterly changes of central bank gold holdings for the underlying data.
After Mexico made these sizeable gold purchases in early 2011, Guillermo Barba submitted various FOIAs to the Mexican central bank about the country’s newly acquired gold stash. Unfortunately, most of these information requests received weak responses from the Bank. For example, the question:
“How many bars of gold make up the recent acquisition of 93 tonnes of gold made by Banxico en the first quarter of 2011”
received a response from Banixco of:
“…we inform you that the information that you request is classified as reserved”
The Mexican central bank also added that:
“due to the variability of the content of gold in the bars, it is not possible to specify with certainty the exact number of bars purchased.”
We later learned that the Bank of England purchased this “gold” on behalf of Mexico. On the surface, Banixco saying that it could not “specify with certainty the exact number of bars purchased” seems to suggest that at least some of the Mexican gold at that time in 2011 was held on a unallocated basis and possibly out on loan to bullion banks in the London gold lending market.
If Mexico bought actual gold bars at the outset in Q1 2011, the gold bought for Mexico was probably already sitting in the Bank of England vaults. Some of it may then have been lent out to bullion banks immediately. Alternatively, at the outset in Q1 2011, the Bank of England could have ‘sold’ to Mexico a fine ounce claim on a number of gold ounces, that could then be allocated to actual gold bars on a future date. Without seeing the purchase invoices of the Mexican gold transactions, it’s hard to say what the initial purchase transactions referred to.
Another question Barba put to Banixco in 2011 was:
“In what country or countries is the gold that forms part of the International Reserves of Mexico physically located?”
“access to the requested information will not be granted, since it is classified as reserved”
Barba’s article addressing his questions in 2011 and Banixco’s responses, which was published in September 2011, can be read here.
“At month’s end, April 2012, Banco de Mexico maintained a position in fine gold of 4,034,802 ounces, of which only 194,539 ounces are located in the territory of the United Mexican States.
“countries where these reserves are located are ‘United States of America, England and Mexico.‘
‘the acquisitions of gold during March and April 2012 are under custody in England’.”
[the gold is stored in] “the city of London, England, where more than 99% of the gold which the Bank of Mexico maintains outside the country is presently under custody…”
With 4,034,802 ounces (125.5 tonnes) held in total, and 194,539 ounces (6.05 tonnes) held in Mexico, there were 3,840,263 ounces (119.44 tonnes) held outside Mexico, which was 95.2% of Mexico’s total gold holdings. With 99% of the foreign gold in London, this equated to about 3.8 million ounces (118 tonnes) held in London, and about 38,000 ounces (1.2 tonnes) held in the US with the Federal Reserve Bank (FRB).
Mexican Federal Auditors not happy with Banixco
In February 2013, Guillermo Barba also highlighted that the Mexican Federal Audit Office (Auditoría Superior de la Federación or ‘ASF’) Report for the Year 2011 was highly critical of Banixco’s relaxed approach to its gold purchases at the Bank of England.
The ASF reprimanded Banixco, saying that it:
“has not conducted physical inspections to gold to verify compliance with the terms of acquisition and the conditions regarding its storage, in order to be certain of the physical custody of this asset”
According to the ASF, Banixco only held documents about the “Terms and Conditions” of the gold holdings contract with the Bank of England, with records of “the dates of the transactions” and also some “payment vouchers”.
ASF also recommended that the Mexican central bank:
“make a physical inspection with the counterparty [Bank of England] that has the gold under its custody, in order to be able to verify and validate its physical wholeness.”
February 2017: Partial Glimpse of Bar List
Fast forward to 17 February 2017, and Barba published another article confirming that following some further information requests to the Mexican central bank, Banixco had clarified the following facts about its gold holdings:
“Of the 3.881 million ounces of gold that the Bank of Mexico has at the close of October 2016, 98.95% are held in the United Kingdom, 0.0004% in the Federal Reserve Bank of the United States and the remaining 1.05 % In Mexico.”
“The Bank of Mexico has the serial number of each ingot protected in accounts assigned abroad. From these accounts, the number of ingots rises to 7,265. It should be noted that for unallocated accounts there is no specific serial number and therefore the number of ingots cannot be determined.”
“Assigned accounts are those that are owned on specific ingots with serial numbers, and segregated from the rest.“
Therefore, for each gold ingot held in a foreign domiciled allocated gold account, Bank of Mexico is in possession of the bar serial numbers. This was the first information from Banixco that specifically addressed the number of gold bars held by the Mexican central bank at the Bank of England.
As of October 2016, with 3,881,000 ounces of gold held by Mexico in total, 98.95% of which was held at the Bank of England in London, that would infer that 3,840,250 ounces of gold (119.4 tonnes) were held in London, with only about 1,550 ounces (0.0004%) held at the FRB in New York.
Assuming each gold bar contains 400 oz troy ounces of gold, then 7,265 bars would contain 2.906 million troy ounces. It would also mean that about 934,000 troy ounces (29 tonnes) of Mexico’s gold are held unallocated accounts (where the gold is not unassigned as specific gold bars). The existence of unallocated gold accounts is revealing since it proves that the Bank of England doesn’t just offer its central bank customers the traditional custody facility of earmarked / set-aside / allocated gold bars. It also offers what either amounts to gold accounts that are denominated on a fine ounces basis but are fully backed by a pool of gold, or alternatively these unallocated accounts may not be fully backed (i.e. fractionally-backed).
To facilitate gold lending in the London Gold Market between central banks (the lenders) and commercial bullion banks (the borrowers), the Bank of England would have to operate account facilities for its customers that were in a sense dematerialised because when a central bank lends gold bars to a bullion bank, it does not necessarily (and probably doesn’t) receive back the same gold bars, because those bars have either been sold in the market or onward lent in the market. Therefore an account convention with specific bars earmarked to a customer would not facilitate this process. Only an account where the unit is a balance of fine troy ounces of gold would allow these transfers to occur. In this scenario, the central bank still insists it has a fine troy ounce gold holding, even though its gold has been lent out to a bullion bank.
The other alternative is that the Bank of England is selling its central bank customers a gold account service where, for example, Central Bank A pays dollar cash upfront for 100 tonnes of gold, and the Bank of England signs a piece of paper saying “We the Bank of England have a liability to Central Bank A for 100 tonnes of gold“, but that gold is not necessarily in the Bank of England vaults or anywhere else. The Bank of England just has to be able to allocated the claim to real physical gold bars if Central Bank A ever decides that its 100 tonne gold asset be converted to allocated gold bars.
Without seeing the “Terms and Conditions” of these “unassigned gold” contracts with the Bank of England, its hard to say how exactly the “unassigned gold” is backed up, and to what extent it’s backed up.
Historically, the Bank of England only ever offered earmarked gold accounts to its central bank customers, and on a few occasions in the 1950s and 1970s it actually pushed back on plans to offer customers fine gold ounce balance accounts (and got legal advice on this), because the Bank did not want to go down the road of ending up with one pool of gold backing multiple central bank customer accounts, as this went against the concept of custody of assets and title to specific gold, and furthermore the Bank was afraid of the legal implications of central banks depositing specific bars but getting back different bars which might not be of the same quality etc.
March 2017: Banixco Releases Detailed Bar List
Initially, as per his 17 February article, Banixco only provided Barba with a list of the 7,265 gold bars showing two columns of data, the first column listing internal Bar-IDs from the Bank of England’s gold bar database, and the second column listing the refiner brand names of the bars. This first list can be seen here, but it’s not really that important, because a few weeks later, Banixco agreed to provide Barba with a second, much more comprehensive list. This second list is featured in Barba’s article dated 7 March 2017.
The latter Banixco gold bar list file can be downloaded here. For each of the 7,265 gold bars listed (in 7265 Rows), the list contains 7 columns or variables of data, namely:
Sequence Number from 1 to 7265
“Serial Number” (which is an internal Bank of England sequence number)
Brand Code (an 8-digit code)
Gross Weight (troy ounces to 2 decimal places)
Assay (gold Fineness)
Fine Weight (troy ounces to 3 decimal places)
Although the Banixco list does not include the real serial numbers that each gold refiner stamps on its own gold bars, the combination of columns “refiner brand – gross weight – assay – fine weight” in the list should be adequate to uniquely identify each bar, because don’t forget, these are variable weight bars and each bar for a given refiner will have a different fine weight when expressed to 3 decimal places. The start of the list looks as per the below screenshot:
Overall, the 7265 gold bars weigh 2,919,911.55 troy ounces and contain a total of 2,912,000 fine troy ounces of gold.The list provided by Banixco is sorted by ‘Brand Code’ which is an 8-digit Bank of England database table field that consists of refiner code (digits 1-4), refiner location (digits 5-6) and sequence number (digits 7-8). For example, Valcambi is VALCCH01 i.e. VALC, CH = Switzerland, and 01.
The 2nd column in the list is a Bank of England internal ID bar number which is either 6 or 7 digits. On Mexico’s list, the highest number is 1047712 and the lowest number is 704989, but the numbers present on the list run in short and broken sequential ranges of, for example, 1039142-1039221 or 880338-880446. If this is a sequential internal series of numbers that started at 000001, it would suggest that more than 1 million individual Good Delivery Bars have passed through the Bank of England’s 10 gold vaults since the numbering series was initiated. The series may not be fully sequential at all, and could possibly also include some part of the number signifying vault location, although this is doubtful.
The Refiner Bar Names on Mexico’s Gold Bar List
There are 24 ‘Brand Codes’ listed on the Mexico’s gold bar list, including such refiners as South Africa’s Rand Refinery, Australia’s Perth Mint, Switzerland’s Valcambi, Argor-Heraeus and Metalor, the Royal Canadian Mint, Germany’s Heraeus, Johnson Matthey, the US Assay Office, the State Refinery (Moscow), the Central Bank of the Philippines Gold Refinery, and N.M. Rothschild. Many of these brands held at the Bank of England are the same refiner brands which are trusted and popular in the retail investment gold bar market, and carried by BullionStar, such as Perth Mint, Argor-Heraeus, Heraeus, Royal Canadian Mint, and Johnson Matthey.
Some refiners have, or have had over time, refinery operations in multiple geographic locations, so some refiners have multiple Brand Codes listed in the Bank of England gold bar database. One example is Johnson Matthey, which on the Banixco list is listed as 4 separate entities, namely Johnson Matthey Salt Lake City USA, Johnson Matthey and Co Ltd [GB], Johnson Matthey & Mallory Ltd. Toronto, and Johnson Matthey Hong Kong Ltd. Another example is Metalor, which is present on the Banixco list in 3 guises, namely Metalor Hong Kong, Metalor USA, and Metalor Technologies SA (Switzerland).
Other long-standing refiners have gone through various mergers over time and their historic parts are now all part of a larger refining group. This applies to “Perth Mint” bars, which on the Banixco list are represented by Western Australia Mint (Trading as AGR) , AGR Joint Venture Melbourne and the Royal Mint (Perth).
On an individual Brand Code basis, the below table shows these refinery brand names, and the number of gold bars of each brand name that show up on Mexico’s gold bar weight list.
First up is the Rand Refinery, with Banixco holding 1735 rand Refinery gold bars. Nearly a quarter of Banixco’s earmarked bars are Rand Refinery bars. It’s not surprising that on a refiner name basis, Banixco holds more Rand Refinery gold bars than any other bar brand. After all, Rand Refinery of South Africa is said to have refined over 50,000 tonnes of gold since it was established in 1921, which is about 30% of all the gold that has ever been mined. A lot of Rand Refinery bars were also historically sold in the London Gold Market and held within the bank of England vaults. This is probably still the case.
For example, according to the Bank of England archives, most of the gold held by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) at the Bank of England was (as of the late 1970s) in the form of Rand Refinery gold bars. Whether this is still the case is unclear, as the IMF is ultra secretive about its remaining gold reserves and never reports facts such as gold bar weight lists.
Second up is AGR Joint Venture, which is now technically part of the Perth Mint, with the Bank of Mexico holding 1519 of these bars. Together with the Rand refinery bars, these two brands makeup 45% of Banixco’s total holdings. Adding in the bars of Johnson Matthey Toronto and Valcambi Switzerland, nearly 70% of Mexico’s bars are from just 4 bar brands.
Grouping refiner names where appropriate such as all Johnson Matthey names and all Perth Mint related names, results in a slightly different ranking, with Perth Mint taking pole position with 1892 bars held by Banixco, and with Rand Refinery and Johnson matthey in exact joint second place with 1736 bars a piece in the Mexican holdings.
Under this grouping approach, 74% of Mexico’s gold bars have been manufactured by just 3 refinery groups, rising to nearly 85% if Valcambi bars are included.
One of the reasons for highlighting this, is that it could be useful for extrapolating the frequency of gold bar brands that might be held across gold accounts generally at the Bank of England. While this extrapolation might be flawed, it does suggest that there are certain refinery bars brands that are more common than others within the Bank of England vault network.
The Bank of England did not just go and transfer newly refined gold bars into the Banixco account. It populated the Banixco allocated gold holding (in 2011 or after) with a selection of bars from lots of different eras. Hence the presence of NM Rothschild bars, US Assay Office bars, old Royal Mint (Perth) bars, as well as AGR Joint venture bars. Its also possible that a bullion bank or bullion banks executed the order on behalf of Mexico with gold that these banks store at the Bank of England (bullion banks also store gold at the bank of England for those who were not aware of this fact).
AGR Joint Venture bars were only produced until 2003. See here for details of AGR’s history. NM Rothschild bars have not been produced since 1967. Royal Mint (Perth) bars are extremely old and have not been produced under this name for a very long time. LBMA Good Delivery records don’t even specify when Royal Mint (Perth) bars ceased to be produced. The last Johnson Matthey bars produced in England were in 2005. US Assay Office bars (from the New York Assay Office) haven’t been produced since 1997 at the latest, and mostly well before that. Therefore, even though the Banixco gold bar list doesn’t list year of manufacture for each bar, some inferences can be made to show that a lot of the bars allocated to the Mexican gold account at the Bank of England are old bars that are no longer in production. But that’s not surprising because gold is a store of wealth and has been for 1000s of years, so an old bar is as good as a newer bar.
The bar list is also interesting in that it shows that when the Bank of England (or a bullion bank with a gold holding at the Bank of England) either buys physical gold bars on behalf of a central bank customer, or allocates specific bars to a central bank gold account for a gold balance that was previously in a unallocated account, it is either transferring gold from a Bank of England inventory holding, or by buying gold from another central bank that’s already in its vaults, or else buying gold from a bullion bank that probably also has gold stored at the Bank of England, part of which may be gold that has flowed out of gold-backed Exchange Traded Funds that store their gold in the London vaults.
Which brings us to some critical points. Using the “refiner brand – gross weight – assay – fine weight” combination for bars on the Banixco list, it should be possible to cross reference these bars against records of gold bars that have been held over time in gold-backed ETFs such as GLD and IAU. Various gold researchers such as Warren James maintain databases with records of all gold bars that are in and that have ever been in gold-backed ETFs. If a bar on the Banixco list has a match in those database tables, then it proves that the Bank of England sources gold for its central bank customers that was at one time held in one of the ETFs. And this probably happens, since the bullion banks such as HSBC and JP Morgan are active in allocating and deallocating gold in and out of ETFs, and they hold gold accounts at the Bank of England and are active in the gold lending market.
More importantly, if in the future, a gold-backed ETF flags up one or more gold bars that were among the 7265 gold bars on the Banixco list, and Banixco hasn’t reported selling any gold, then it will prove that Banixco either lent or swapped some of ts gold while still accounting for it under ‘gold and gold receivables’ in its balance sheet, and it will prove that central bank gold is being double counted while on loan, i.e. claimed to be held by a central bank, while really being held in a gold-backed ETF.
Two months after the LME announcement, during the annual conference of the London Bullion Market Association (LBMA), Intercontinental Exchange (ICE) announced on 17 October that it too planned the launch of a gold futures contract in the London market. See Bullion Desk’s “ICE to launch gold futures in 2017, competition in gold market grows” as well as the ICE press release. The ICE contract is named “Gold Daily Futures” and resides on the ICE Futures US platform. It too is a daily futures contract.
Not to be outdone, the CME Group then followed suit on 1 November 2016 and it too announced plans for a “London Spot Gold Futures contract” as well as a “London Spot Silver futures contract”. See CME press release “CME Group Announces New Precious Metals Spot Spread” from 1 November 2016, and “CME to launch London spot gold, silver futures for spot spread” from the Bullion Desk, 1 November 2016. The CME contract was to trade on COMEX (Globex and Clearport) as a daily futures contract, and was devised so as to offer traders a spot spread between COMEX and London OTC Spot gold.
As of August 2016, the LME’s target launch date was said to be “the first half of 2017”. ICE was more specific with a target launch of February 2017 (subject to regulatory review). In it’s announcement, CME went for an even earlier planned launch date of 9 January 2017 (subject to regulatory approval).
Two Launches – No Volume
Why the update? Over the 2 weeks, there have been a number of developments surrounding these 3 contracts. The CME and ICE gold futures contracts have both been launched, and additionally, LME has provided more clarity around the launch date of its offering.
Surprisingly, while there was plenty of financial media coverage of these 3 gold futures contracts when their plans were initially publicised from August – November 2016, there has been little to no financial media coverage of the contracts now that 2 of the 3 have been launched.
On 25 January, I took a look at the CME website to see what the status of the CME gold futures contract might be. Strangely, the contract itself was defined on the CME website (with a code of GSP) but it had no trading volume. From the website, it was not clear when the contract actually launched, but it looked to be sometime during the last week of January.
On 25 January, I also sent a short email to CME asking:
“Has the London Spot Gold contract started trading yet?
Next up the ICE gold futures contract (AUD). Upon checking the ICE website under section “Products”, the new ICE Gold Daily Futures contract has been defined, and the description states “The Daily Gold Futures contract will begin trading on trade date Monday, January 30, 2017“.
Turning to the ICE reporting section of the website for futures products, and selecting the end of day ICE Futures US report page, and then selecting the reports for AUD, there are 6 daily reports available for download, namely, from 30 and 31 January, and 1, 2, 3 and 6 February. Again, looking at each of these reports, there are varying prices specified in the reports but there are no trading volumes. All of the volumes are zero.
Therefore, as far as the CME and ICE websites show, both of these new gold futures contracts have been launched and are available to trade, but there hasn’t been a single trade in either of the contracts. Not a very good start to what was trumpeted and cheer-led as a new dawn for the London Gold Market by outlets such as Bloomberg with the article “Finance Titans Face Off Over $5 Trillion London Gold Market“.
LMEprecious – To Launch Monday 5 June 2017
Finally, possibly so as not to be forgotten while its rivals were launching their London gold futures offerings, the LME on Friday 3 February announced in a general LME and LME Clear update memo that the planned launch date of its LMEprecious platform is now going to be Monday 5 June, i.e. 4 months from now.
As a reminder, the LMEprecious contracts will be supported by a group of market maker investment banks, namely Goldman Sachs,Morgan Stanley, Société Générale, Natixis and ICBC Standard Bank.
It’s also important to remember that all 3 of these gold futures contract product sets are for the trading of unallocated gold, (i.e. claims on a bullion bank for gold, aka synthetic / fictional gold). All 3 contracts claim to be physically-settled but this is essentially a play on words, because in the world of the London Gold Market, physically-settled does not mean physically-settled in the way any normal person would define it. LBMA physically-settled just means passing unallocated balances around, a.k.a. pass the parcel. To wit:
ICE London gold futures settle via unallocated accounts:
“The contract will be settled through unallocated loco London gold vault accounts using LBMA Good Delivery Rules.”
CME London gold futures settle via unallocated accounts:
“London Spot Gold futures contract will represent 100 troy ounces of unallocated gold“
And for LMEprecious, settlement will be:
“Physical settlement one day following termination of trading. Seller transfers unallocated gold to [LME Clearing] LMEC account at any LPMCL member bank, and buyers receive unallocated gold from LMEC account at any LPMCL member bank.”
With neither the CME nor the ICE gold futures contracts registering any trades as of yet (according to their websites), it will be interesting to see how this drama pans out. Will they be dud contracts, like so many gold futures contracts before them that have gone to the gold futures contracts graveyard, or will they see a pick up in activity? All eyes will also be on the LME contract from 5 June onwards.
The lack of coverage of the new CME and ICE London gold futures contracts is also quite unusual. Have the London financial media already forgotten about them? According to Reuters it would seem so. On 22 January, Reuters published an article titled “LME’s pitch for share of gold market faces bumpy ride” which exclusively questioned whether the LME gold contract would be a success, while not even mentioning the CME and ICE contracts. Given that 22 January was right before the CME and ICE contracts were about to be launched, this is quite bizarre. Presumably Bloomberg will come to the rescue of its ‘financial titans’ heros, and will write glowing tributes about the new contracts, but this will be tricky given the zero trade volumes. We await with bated breath.
Given that it’s now just over a year since that last set of calculations, it made sense at this point to update the data so as to grasp how many Good Delivery golds bars held in London is spoken for in terms of ownership, versus how much may be unaccounted for. Estimating gold held in London vaults is by definition a tricky exercise, since it must rely on whatever data and statements are made available in what is a notoriously secret market, and there will usually be timing mismatches between the various data points. However, using a combination of published sources from the Bank of England, the London Bullion Market Association (LBMA), the Exchange Traded Fund websites, and UK gold import/export data, it is possible to produce some factual numbers.
In the Bank of England vaults
Exactly once per year, the Bank of England publishes a snapshot of how much gold it is holding in custody for its central bank and commercial bank customers. This snapshot is featured in the Bank’s annual report which is usually published around July each year, and reports on its financial year-end, as of end of February. In its 2016 Annual Report, the Bank of England states (on page 31) that:
“At end-February 2016, total assets held by the Bank as custodian were £567 billion (2015: £514 billion), of which £135 billion (2015: £130 billion) were holdings of gold”
With an afternoon LBMA Gold Price fix of £888.588 on Monday 29 February 2016, this equates to 151,926,427 fine troy ounces of gold, or 4725 tonnes held in custody at the Bank of England. This equates to approximately 380,000 London Good Delivery gold bars, each weighing 400 fine troy ounces.
The corresponding figure for end of February 2015 was £130 billion, which, valued at the afternoon fix on that day of £787.545 per ounce, equalled 5,134 tonnes. Therefore between the end of February 2015 end of February 2016, the amount of gold held in custody by the Bank of England fell by 409 tonnes. Since, according to World Gold Council data, there were no central bank sellers of gold over that period apart from Venezuela whose gold was predominantly held in Venezuela at that time, then most of this 409 tonne decline must be either due to unreported central bank sales, central bank gold repatriation movements, London bullion bank sales, or some combination of all three.
The year-on-year drop of 409 tonnes came after a previous decline of 350 tonnes to end of February 2015, and before that a drop of 755 tonnes between February 2013 and February 2014. So overall between February 2013 and February 2016, the amount of gold held in custody in the Bank of England’s vaults fell by 1,514 tonnes.
LBMA Ballpark: 6,500 tonnes in London
Up until at least October 2015, the vaulting page on the LBMA website stated that:
“In total it is estimated that there are approximately 7,500 tonnes of gold held in London vaults, of which about three-quarters is stored in the Bank of England.”
This is based on a Wayback Machine Internet Archive page cache from 9 October 2015.
The current version of that page on the LBMA website now states:
“In total it is estimated that there are approximately 6,500 tonnes of gold held in London vaults, of which about three-quarters is stored in the Bank of England.”
The earliest Internet Archive page cache mentioning 6,500 tonnes is from 8 February 2016. So sometime between October 2015 and February 2016, the LBMA changed its ballpark figure, revising it down by 1000 tonnes. Wayback Machine Archive web crawlers usually update a web page following a change to that page, so its likely that the revision to 6,500 tonnes was done nearer February than October. Using a figure from a LBMA website page is admittedly quite general, but at least it’s an anchor, and someone at the LBMA saw fit to make that actual change from 7,500 tonnes to 6,500 tonnes. In June 2015 (as some readers might recall), the LBMA had said that there were 500,000 Good Delivery gold bars in all the London vaults, which is approximately 6256 tonnes, so perhaps the 6500 tonne estimate was partially based on this statistic from mid-year 2015 that the LBMA was playing catch-up with.
With 6,500 tonnes in London vaults, ~ 75% of which is at the Bank of England, this would mean 4,875 tonnes at the Bank of England, and another 1,625 tonnes at other (commercial) gold vaults in London, mostly at HSBC’s and JP Morgan’s vaults. As per the Bank of England’s annual report as of 29 February 2016, we know now that there were 4,725 tonnes in custody at the Bank, so the LBMA ballpark of 4875 is actually very close to the actual 4725 tonnes reported by the Bank, and the difference is only 150 tonnes. Lets’s move on to the vaulted gold held in London but held outside the Bank of England vaults.
ETF Gold held in London
In the September 2015 calculation exercise, we estimated that there were 1,116 tonnes of gold held in the London vaults within a series of gold-backed Exchange Traded Funds.
The known ETFs and other companies that hold their Good Delivery bar gold in London are as follows:
SPDR Gold Trust: GLD. Custodian HSBC London, all GLD gold held at HSBC vault
The 1,116 tonnes of gold ETF holdings in London, calculated in September 2015, were as follows, with the SPDR Gold Trust accounting for the largest share:
The total figure for all gold held in London that we used in September 2015 was the 6,256 tonne figure implied by the LBMA’s 500,000 gold bars statement from June 2015. With 6,256 tonnes in total, and 5,134 tonnes at the Bank of England (as of end February 2015), this left 1,122 tonnes in London but “not at the Bank of England“, which implied that there was nearly no gold in London outside the Bank of England that was not accounted for by ETF holdings. in other words the ‘London Gold Float’ looks to have been near zero as of September 2015.
Assuming 6,500 tonnes of gold held in London in February 2016, and with 4,725 tonnes at the Bank of England in February 2016, we can repeat this exercise and say that the would leave 1,775 tonnes of gold in London but “not at the Bank of England“, as the following chart shows:
Its well-known by now that the tide of significant gold ETF outflows that occurred in 2015 suddenly turned to very strong inflows into gold ETFs beginning in early 2016. Although our gold ETF holdings data was updated using holdings information as of 30 September 2016, it’s still worth seeing how well the latest London holdings of the gold ETFs help to explain this 1775 tonnes “not in the Bank of England” figure. As it turns out, as of the end of September 2016, the above ETFs collectively held 1,679 tonnes of gold, so right now, if there were 1775 tonnes of gold in London outside of the Bank of England, the ETF holdings would explain all but 96 tonnes of this total.
Taking a quick look at some of the individual ETF holdings, the massive SPDR Gold Trust is currently holding around 950 tonnes of gold in London. The iShares figure reported in the charts of 214.89 tonnes comprises 2 components a) the London held gold within IAU (which can be seen in this daily JP Morgan weight list), and b) the gold bars held in iShares trust SGLN. The bulk of the ETF Securities figure of 276.68 tonnes represents gold held in PHAU (over 150 tonnes), and GBS (over 100 tonnes). The Deutsche Bank total is quite hard to calculate and comprises gold held in 5 Deutsche bank ETFs. Nick Laird receives daily holdings files for these ETFs from Deutsche Bank and performs a number of calculations such as fractional ounces per ETF unit to arrive at a total figure of 88 tonnes. The SOURCE and ABSA ETFs make up the vast majority of the remainder, with the other entities listed, such as BetaShares and Standard Bank ETF, being immaterial to the calculation.
Central Bank gold at the Bank of England
For the purposes of this exercise, data on central bank gold holdings at the Bank of England does not need to be updated since there hasn’t been any reported gold buying or selling activity by any of the relevant central banks since September 2015 (except for Venezuela), so the ‘known figure’ of 3779 tonnes attributed to identified banks in September 2015 remains unchanged. If anything, since the Bank of England revealed last February that its gold under custody fell to 4,725 tonnes, it means that there are now approximately 946 tonnes of gold at the Bank of England that are not explained by known central bank holders.
Given that many central banks around the world will not cooperate in confirming where they store their foreign stored gold, then there are definitely additional central banks storing gold in the Bank of England vaults which would reduce this 946 tonnes of gold with unknown ownership. Therefore some of this total is unknown central bank gold holdings. Some is presumably also gold and borrowed gold held by bullion banks that have gold accounts at the Bank of England. Given that the Bank of England and the LBMA bullion banks maintain a total information blackout about the real extent of the gold lending market out of London, it is difficult to know how much borrowed gold is being held at the Bank of England by bullion bank account holders.
Some of the growth in the SPDR Gold Trust gold holdings this year looks to have been sourced from gold originating from the Bank of England, as was detailed in a July BullionStar article “SPDR Gold Trust gold bars at the Bank of England vaults“, which highlighted that the Bank of England was a subcustodian of the SPDR Golf Trust during Q1 2016. As a SPDR Gold Trust filing stated:
“During the quarter ended March 31, 2016, the greatest amount of gold held by subcustodians was approximately 29 tonnes or approximately 3.8% of the Trust’s gold at such date. The Bank of England held that gold as subcustodian.“
Year to Date ETF changes and UK Gold Imports
It’s important to highlight that the 6,500 tonnes figure reported by the LBMA and the 4,725 tonne figure reported by the Bank of England relate to the February 2016 period, while the ETF gold holdings totals calculated above are from the end of September 2016. So there is a date mismatch. Nick Laird has calculated that during the February to September 2016 period, the London gold ETFs added 399 tonnes of gold, and during the same period the UK net imported (imports – exports) more than 800 tonnes of non-monetary gold. Given the apparent low float of gold in London late last year, its realistic to assume that gold inflows into the London-based ETFs this year were mostly sourced from non-monetary gold imports into the UK because there was apparently no other gold at hand from which to source the ETF gold inflows. ETF demand would also help explain the drivers of UK gold imports year-to-date. Note that monetary gold imports (central bank gold trade flows) are not reported by the respective trade bodies since the opaque basket of deplorables (i.e. central bankers) get an unfair exemption, therefore the 800 tonnes of net gold imports into the UK refers to non-monetary gold imports.
According to the latest comprehensive trade statistics, from January to July 2016 inclusive the UK net imported 735 tonnes of gold from the Rest of the World. To this figure we can add another 84.6 tonnes of gold that the UK net imported from Switzerland in August 2016. This gives total UK gold imports up to August 2016 inclusive of 819.6 tonnes, hence the statement, the UK net imported over 800 tonnes of gold year-to-date.
If 399 tonnes of the 800 tonnes of non-monetary gold imported into the UK during 2016 was channeled into the holdings of gold-backed ETFs, this would still mean that the ‘London Float’ of gold could have been augmented by approximately 400 tonnes year-to-date. However, since most non-monetary gold imports into the UK are for bullion bank customers such as Scotia and Barclays, some of these extra imports could have been for repaying borrowed gold liabilities to central bank customers, and the quantity of gold now held at the Bank of England may be higher than reported by the Bank last February.
In summary, given the large UK gold imports year-to-date, there may now be over 7,000 tonnes of Good Delivery gold bars held in London vaults. But the fact that very large quantities of gold bars had to be imported into the London market during 2016 does suggest that our calculations from September 2015 were valid and that there was a very low float of gold in the London market. This float may now be a few hundred tonnes higher given the imports, but there is still an unquantifiably large number of claims in the form of ‘unallocated gold’ holdings in the London market which are liabilities against the LBMA bullion banks.
Remember that the London Gold Market trades nearly 6000 tonnes of predominantly paper gold each and every day. The latest LBMA ‘gold’ clearing statistics show that on average, 18.8 million ounces (585 tonnes) of ‘gold’ was cleared per trading day in September 2016 which on a 10:1 trading to clearing ratio equates to 5,850 tonnes traded per day, and 128,000 tonnes traded during September. So the LBMA administered market nearly trades as much ‘gold’ connected transaction per day as is held in the entire London vaulting network.
If gold demand from the Rest of the World ticks up, such as from India, then the London market will not have the luxury of being able to import large quantities of gold in the absence of that excess demand putting upward pressure on the gold price. Until then, the London Gold Market looks likely to continue its physical re-stock with one hand, while trading leveraged paper gold with the other hand, all the while rolling over outstanding borrowed central bank gold obligations, such as the short-term gold deposits held by Banco Central de Bolivia, which will be the subject of an upcoming case study into the hidden London gold lending market consortium.
the LBMA was established in 1987 by the Bank of England
the original bullion bank founding members and steering committee members of the LBMA represented 6 commercial banks active in the London Gold Market, namely, N.M. Rothschild, Mocatta & Goldsmid, Morgan Guaranty Trust, J. Aron, Sharps Pixley (former Sharps Pixley), and Rudolf Wolff & Co.
the Bank of England has been involved in the affairs of the LBMA from Day 1 in 1987, and continues to this day to have observer status on the LBMA Management Committee
the Bank of England has observer status on not just the LBMA Management Committee, but also on the LBMA Physical Committee and in the LBMA Vault Managers group
the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) also has observer status on the LBMA Management Committee
although there are 2 other London financial market committees closely aligned with the Bank of England, and populated by bank representatives, that publish the minutes of their regular meetings, namely the Foreign Exchange Joint Standing Committee, the Sterling Money Markets Liaison Committee, the LBMA Management Committee does not publish the minutes of its meetings, so the public is in the dark as to what’s discussed in those meetings
Note that “observer status” does not mean to sit and observe on a committee, it just means that the observer has no voting rights at committee meetings. Note also that the structure of the LBMA Management Committee has recently changed to that of a Board, so the Committee is now called the LBMA Board.
One of the most interesting points in the previous article referred to the very recent appointment of a very recently departed Bank of England senior staff member, and former head of the Bank of England Foreign exchange Division, Paul Fisher, as the new ‘independent‘ chairman of the LBMA Management Committee / ‘Board’. Paul Fisher has also in the past, been the Bank of England’s representative, with observer status, on this very same LBMA Management Committee (now LBMA Board) that he is now becoming independent chairman of. Fisher is replacing outgoing LBMA Board chairman Grant Angwin, who if from Asahi Refining (formerly representing Johnson Matthey).
‘Independent’ Non-Executive Chairman
This article continues where the above analysis left off, and looks at the appointment of Fisher as the new ‘independent’ Non-Executive Chairman of the LBMA Board, considers the ‘independence’ of the appointment given the aforementioned very close relationship between the Bank of England and the LBMA, and examines the chairman’s appointment in the context of the UK Corporate Governance Code, which now governs the Constitution and operation of the LBMA Board.
As I commented previously:
Arguably, the pièce de résistance of these Bank of England / FCA relationships with the LBMA Management Committee, is the fact that Paul Fisher, the newly appointed ‘independent‘ Chairman of the LBMA Board, a.k.a. LBMA Management Committee, has already previously been the Bank of England’s “observer” on the LBMA Management Committee.”
This was confirmed in Fisher’s speech to the 2004 LBMA Annual Conference in Shanghai, Fisher, when then Head of Foreign Exchange at the Bank of England, he stated:
“I am glad to be invited to the LBMA’s Management Committee meetings as an observer.”
Fisher was Head of Foreign Exchange Division at the Bank of England from 2000 to 2009, so could in theory have been a Bank of England observer on the LBMA Management Committee throughout this period. The Foreign Exchange Division of the Bank of England is responsible for managing the Sterling exchange rate, and for managing HM Treasury’s official reserves held in the Exchange Equalisation Account (EEA), including HM Treasury’s official gold reserves. One would think that when the LBMA announced in a press release in July of this year that Fisher was being appointed as the new LBMA chairman, that the fact that he had previously attended the LBMA Management Committee meetings would be a fact of relevance to the appointment. However, surprisingly, or maybe not so surprisingly, this fact was omitted from the press release.
“The LBMA is delighted to announce the appointment of Dr Paul Fisher as the new Chairman of the Association, effective from 5 September, 2016. Paul is due to retire from the Bank of England at the end of July.”
The press release goes on to say:
“Paul brings with him a wealth of financial market experience following his 26 years at the Bank of England. Prior to joining the LBMA, his last role was as Deputy Head of the Prudential Regulation Authority. Paul was selected by the LBMA Board following an independent Executive search procedure.”
“Previously, from 2002, he [Paul Fisher] ran the Bank’s Foreign Exchange Division where he had a constructive relationship with the LBMA and developed a working knowledge of the bullion market.”
Notwithstanding the capability of the appointment, there is absolutely zero mention in this press release of the fact that Paul Fisher used to be the Bank of England observer on the LBMA Management Committee, a committee that he is now being made chair of. Why so? Was it to make the relationship appear more distant that it actually was, thereby reinforcing the perception of ‘independence’?
In addition, the recently added bio of Paul Fisher on the LBMA Board listings features text identical to the press release, with no indication that Fisher previously attended the LBMA Management Committee meetings.
Notice also the reference to an “Executive search procedure” being used to support the new chairman’s appointment.
At this point, it’s instructive to examine what drove the re-definition of the LBMA Management Committee to become the LBMA “Board”, and the appointment process to that board of an ‘independent‘ Non-Executive Chairperson. It can be seen from the LBMA website archive that until July of this year, the entity providing oversight and strategic direction to the LBMA was the ‘LBMA Management Committee’:
Only in July following a LBMA General Meeting on 29 June did the website description change to LBMA Board:
The new Board structure of the LBMA allows it to have 3 representatives from LBMA Market Making firms, 3 representatives from LBMA Full Member entities, 3 ‘independent’ non -executive directors (inclusive of the ‘independent’ chairman), and up to 3 representatives from the LBMA Executive staff, including the LBMA CEO.
One of the first references to a future change in governance structure at the LBMA came in October 2015 at the LBMA annual conference, held in Rome. At this conference, Ruth Crowell, CEO projected that in the future:
“To enhance its governance, the new Board will include for the first time Non-Executive Directors whilst giving more power to the Executive so as to ensure any conflicts of interest are eliminated.”
On 29 April 2016, a LBMA “Future Events” summary document confirmed that a General Meeting (akin to an EGM) of LBMA members would be convened on Wednesday 29 June 2016 in London so as to “update the LBMA’s legal structure and governance“. The same “Future Events” summary also highlighted a change in schedule to the LBMA’s Annual General Meeting (AGM), which due to the 29 June General Meeting, would now be held on 27 September 2016 with an agenda item to “incorporate, into the constitution of the LBMA, the governance and legal structure changes agreed at the General Meeting in June“.
It would be quite presumptuous for any normal organisation of members, in the month of April, to not only assume that resolutions that were only being put to its membership in the month of June would be passed, but to also actually hard-code these assumptions into the agenda of a scheduled September meeting. However, this was what was written in the “Future Events” document and appears to be the pre-ordained roadmap that the LBMA Management Committee had already set in stone.
On Thursday 30 June, the day after its General Meeting in London, the LBMA issued a press release in which it confirmed (as it had predicted) that “Members of the LBMA approved by an overwhelming majority a number of important changes to its Memorandum & Articles of Association“.
As well as endorsing the LBMA’s expansion to acquire the responsibilities of the London Platinum and Palladium Market (LPPM), which was the first motion for consideration at the meeting, the press release confirmed that the membership had endorsed the appointment of an independent Non-Executive Chairman:
“The second change was to further enhance the governance of the Association. TheUK Corporate Governance Code was incorporated and will govern both the Constitution as well as the operation of the Board. While it is vital for the Board to have a strong voice for its Members, it is important that any actual and perceived conflicts between these parties are balanced by having independence on that Board. This independence protects the interests of the wider membership as well as the individuals themselves serving on the Board. To address this, the LBMA has added an independent Non-Executive Chairman as well as two additional Non-Executive Directors (NEDs).”
Notice the reference to 2 other independent non-executive directors. Nine business days later, on 13 July 2016, the LBMA issued a further press release revealing that ex Bank of England Head of Foreign Exchange and former observer on the LBMA Management Committee, Paul Fisher had been appointed as the “independent Non-Executive Chairman“.
Executive Search Procedure
Recall also that the 13 July press release stated “Paul was selected by the LBMA Board following an independent Executive search procedure.””
Nine days is an extremely short period of time to commence, execute, and complete an ‘independent Executive search procedure‘. It immediately throws up questions such as which search firm was retained to run the independent Executive search procedure?, which candidates did the search firm identify?, was there a short-list of candidates?, who was on such a short-list?, what were the criteria that led to the selection of the winning candidate above other candidates?, and how could such a process have been run and completed in such a limited period of time when similar search and selection processes for chairpersons of corporate boards usually take months to complete?
How independent is it also to have a former divisional head of the Bank of England as chairman of the London Gold Market when the Bank of England is the largest custodian of gold in the London Gold Market, and operates in the London Gold Market with absolute secrecy on behalf of its central bank and bullion bank customers.
Since the LBMA voluntarily incorporated the UK Corporate Governance Code into the operations of its Board following the General Meeting on 29 June, its instructive to examine what this UK Corporate Governance Code has to say about the appointment of an independent chairman to a board, and to what extent the Corporate Governance Code principles were adhered to in the LBMA’s ‘independent‘ chairman selection process.
UK Corporate Governance Code
The LBMA is a private company (company number 02205480) limited by guarantee without share capital, with an incorporation filing at UK Companies House on 14 December 1987. Stock exchange-listed companies in the UK are required to implement the principles of the UK Corporate Governance Code and comply with these principles or else explain (to their shareholders) why they have not complied (called the “comply or explain” doctrine). In the world of listed equities, monitoring and interacting with companies about their corporate governance is a very important area of institutional and hedge fund management. It has to be so as the share owners are able to monitor and grasp if any governance issues arise at any of companies held within their institutional / hedge fund equity portfolios.
Non-listed companies in the UK are also encouraged to apply the principles of the Code, but are not obliged to. When a private company chooses to incorporate the UK Corporate Governance Code to govern its Constitution and operation of its Board, one would expect that it would also then ‘comply’ to the principles of the Code or else ‘explain’ in the spirit of the Code, why it is not in compliance.
The UK Corporate Governance Code is administered by the Financial Reporting Council (FRC). The April 2016 version of the Code can be read here. The main principles of the Code are divided into 5 sections, namely, Leadership (section A), Effectiveness (section B), Accountability (section C), Remuneration (section D), and Relations with Shareholders (Section E).
One of the main principles of Section B is as follows:
“There should be a formal, rigorous and transparent procedure for the appointment of new directors to the board. “
Section A also addresses the independence of the chairman, and Section A.3.1. states that:
“The chairman should on appointment meet the independence criteria set out in B.1.1”
Section B.1.1, in part, states that:
“The board should determine whether the director is independent in character and judgement and whether there are relationships or circumstances which are likely to affect, or could appear to affect, the director’s judgement. The board should state its reasons if it determines that a director is independent notwithstanding the existence of relationships or circumstances which may appear relevant to its determination, including if the director:
has, or has had within the last three years, a material business relationship with the company either directly, or as a partner, shareholder, director or senior employee of a body that has such a relationship with the company;
represents a significant shareholder;”
It goes without saying that the Bank of England has a material business relationship with the commercial banks which are represented on the LBMA Board, and I would argue that although the LBMA has no share capital, because the Bank of England has a material business relationship with the LBMA, and because since Paul Fisher was a senior employee of the Bank of England until July of this year, then the LBMA should “state its reasons as to why it determines that this director is independent“.
Furthermore, although the Bank of England is not a ‘significant shareholder’ of the LBMA, it is the next best thing, i.e. it has a significant and vested interest in the workings of the LBMA and interacts with LBMA banks through the London vaulting system, the gold lending market, and in its regulatory capacity of the LBMA member banks. The Bank of England also established the LBMA in 1987 don’t forget, so the extremely close relationship between the two is of material concern when a senior employee of the former suddenly becomes chairman of the latter.
Section B.2 addresses ‘Appointments to the Board’:
There should be a formal, rigorous and transparent procedure for the appointment of new directors to the board“
“There should be a nomination committee which should lead the process for board appointments and make recommendations to the board. A majority of members of the nomination committee should be independent non-executive directors.
The nomination committee should make available its terms of reference, explaining its role and the authority delegated to it by the board. 
[Footnote 7]: The requirement to make the information available would be met by including the information on a website that is maintained by or on behalf of the company.“
Was there a nomination committee? As of the time of appointing the new chairman to the LBMA Board, there were zero independent non-executive directors on the Board. And, excluding the newly appointed chairman, there are still zero other independent non-executive directors on the LBMA Board.
If there was a nomination committee, notwithstanding that it couldn’t by definition have a majority of independent non-executive directors when overseeing a search process for an independent chairman, then did it “make available its terms of reference” “on a website that is maintained by or on behalf of the company.” Not that I can see on any part of the LBMA website.
Section B.2.4. of the UK Corporate Governance Code includes the text:
“Where an external search consultancy has been used, it should be identified in the annual report and a statement made as to whether it has any other connection with the company.“
The company here being the LBMA (which is a private company). There has been no public identification as to the identity of the external search consultancy that the LBMA state was used in the appointment of Paul Fisher as ‘independent’ non-executive chairman.
Section B.3.2. states:
“The terms and conditions of appointment of non-executive directors should be made available for inspection.
[Footnote 9]: The terms and conditions of appointment of non-executive directors should be made available for inspection by any person at the company’s registered office during normal business hours and at the AGM (for 15 minutes prior to the meeting and during the meeting).
There is no reference on the LBMA website as to the terms and conditions of appointment of non-executive directors being made available for inspection by any person at the company’s registered office, nor was this communicated in the LBMA’s press release wherein it announced the appointment of the ‘independent’ non-executive chairman. It is one thing to claim to incorporate the UK Corporate Governance Code into a Board’s operations, but an entirely different matter to actually implement the principles into the operations of the Board. Given the above, I can’t see how the LBMA has done much of the latter.
Further ‘Independent’ Non-Executive Director Appointments
Given the opacity in the appointment of the Bank of England’s Paul Fisher as the new ‘independent’ non-executive chairman, it is therefore not unreasonable to suggest that the entire appointment process was a pre-ordained shoo-in. Without substantially more transparency from the LBMA, this view is understandable. Nor have there been any announcements about the appointment of “two additional Non-Executive Directors (NEDs)” that was claimed in the LBMA’s 30 June press release.
The LBMA held its Annual General Meeting this past week, on Tuesday 27 September. During the AGM, the outgoing chairman, Grant Angwin commented in his speech that:
” I’m delighted to have by my side Dr. Paul Fisher who will be replacing me as the first Independent Non-Executive Chairman of your Association – Paul will introduce himself to you in a moment.Paul and I will Co-Chair the Board until the end of this year. This is the first major step to making the Board more independent, Paul will be joined by up to 2 other Independent Directors in the near future.“
“The Board will now comprise of 6 representatives from the market – three each in the categories of Market Markers and Full Members, up to 3 Independent Non-Executive Directors (of which one will be the Chairman) and up to 3 LBMA Executive Directors. We expect to make further announcements on these roles very shortly.”
Given that the new chairman has been appointed, it is odd, in my view, that the 2 other independent directors have yet to be appointed and their identities announced. Likewise, for the 2 new directors from the LBMA Executive, who, if and when they join the Board, will give the LBMA Executive 3 seats on the Board. Surely the AGM would have been the ideal venue in which to make these announcements, since other board changes were being voted on at this meeting.
The New Board Profile
For completeness, the changes to the LBMA Board’s composition that did take place at the AGM, based on Board member resolutions that were put to a vote, are explained below:
Grant Anwin – Asahi Refining (co-chairman of Board)
Paul Fisher (new chairman of Board)
Ruth Crowell – Chief Executive of LBMA
Steven Lowe – Bank of Nova Scotia-ScotiaMocatta (and vice-chairman of Board)
Peter Drabwell – HSBC Bank
Sid Tipples – JP Morgan Chase
Jeremy East – Standard Chartered
Robert Davis, Toronto Dominion Bank
Philip Aubertin – UBS (‘Observer’ status)
Alan Finn, Malca-Amit
Mehdi Barkhordar, PAMP
Notice that there were 5 LBMA Marking Making reps on the Board, namely from HSBC, JP Morgan, Scotia, Standard Chartered and Toronto Dominion Bank. There was also an ‘observer’ from full LBMA Market Maker UBS. There were 3 Full Member representatives, namely from PAMP, Malca-Amit (the security carrier), and Asahi Refining.
At the AGM on 27 September, there was a vote on the Full Member reps to the Board, of which there are 3 positions in the new Board. The existing Full Member reps had to stand down and they, and other Full Member candidates, could re-stand for election:
Grant Angwin, Asahi Refining (and co-chairman of the Board)
Mehdi Barkhordar, PAMP
Hitoshi Kosai, Tanaka Kikinzoku Kogyo
Because there were 5 Market Maker reps already on the Board, and the new Board structure only allowed 3, there was also an election on which 3 of the 5 would remain: The results were:
Steven Lowe, Bank of Nova Scotia-ScotiaMocatta
Peter Drabwell, HSBC Bank
Sid Tipples, JP Morgan Chase
Noticeably, these 3 remaining reps represent what are probably the 3 most powerful bullion banks in the LBMA / LPMCL system, HSBC, JP Morgan and Scotia, two of which, HSBC and JP Morgan, operate large commercial gold vaults in London, and all 3 of which operate large commercial COMEX approved gold vaults in New York City. The reps from HSBC and Scotia have also been very long serving members of the LBMA Management Committee / Board, having been re-elected in 2015.
The AGM voting results press release also added that:
“The other two Non-Executive Directors of the LBMA Board will be announced in the near future.”
Given the aforementioned profile of the new ‘independent’ LBMA Board Chairman and ex Bank of England senior staffer Paul Fisher, it will be intriguing to examine the new independence credentials of these 2 new Non-Executive Directors who will be announced in the near future. Will they be truly independent, or will they be former bullion bankers previously affiliated with the LBMA and the London Gold Market, or ex FCA people previously affiliated with the LBMA, or maybe a combination of the two.
As per the UK Corporate Governance Code:
“There should be a formal, rigorous and transparent procedure for the appointment of new directors to the board”. The board should also “state its reasons if it determines that a director is independent“. If an external search consultancy is used in finding either of the 2 new non-executive directors, there should be a “statement made as to whether it [the search consultancy] has any other connection with the company [the LBMA]“.
If 2 extra executive directors are also added to the Board from the LBMA’s staffers, to bring the number of Board directors up to 12, who will these 2 people be? My money in the first instance would be on the LBMA’s senior legal counsel (for regulatory reasons) and the LBMA’s communications officer. Whether the minutes of future or past LBMA Board meetings will ever be made public is another matter, but given the persistent secrecy that surrounds all important matters in the London Gold Market, it would probably be very naive to think that real LBMA communication via, for example LBMA Board meeting minutes, will ever see the light of day.
The London Bullion Market Association (LBMA) is a London-based, globally active, trade association for “the promotion and regulation of commerce relating to the London Bullion Market”. The “London Bullion Market” here collectively refers to the London Gold Market and the London Silver Market. The remit of the LBMA has very recently also been extended to cover the London Platinum and Palladium Market (LPPM).
While it is generally known to many, vaguely or otherwise, that the Bank of England has a vested ‘interest’ in the London gold market, the consistently close relationship between the Bank of England and the LBMA tends not to be fully appreciated. This close and familial relationship even extends to the very recent appointment of a very recently departed Bank of England senior staff member, and former head of the Bank of England Foreign exchange Division, Paul Fisher, as the new ‘independent‘ chairman of the LBMA Management Committee (a committee which has recently been rechristened as a ‘Board’). Note that at the Bank of England, the Bank’s gold trading activities fall under the remit of the ‘Foreign Exchange’ area, so should be more correctly called Bank of England Foreign Exchange and Gold Division. For example, a former holder of this position in the 1980s, Terry Smeeton, had a title of Head of Foreign Exchange and Gold at the Bank of England.
What is also unappreciated is that the same Paul Fisher has in the past, been the Bank of England’s representative, with observer status, on this very same LBMA Management Committee that he is now becoming independent chairman of. This is an ‘elephant in the room’ if ever there was one, which the mainstream financial media in London conveniently chooses to ignore.
As you will see below, the UK’s Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) also has a close, and again, very low-key but embedded relationship with this LBMA Management Committee.
At the ‘Behest’ of the Bank of England
The LBMA states in one of its Alchemist magazine articles, that its Association “was established at the behest of the Bank of England” in 1987, with Robert Guy of N.M. Rothschild, the then chairman of the London Gold Fixing, spearheading the coordination of the Association’s formation. Elsewhere, in a recent summary brochure of its activities, the LBMA states that it was “set up in 1987 by the Bank of England, which was at the time the bullion market’s regulator”, while a recently added historical timeline on the LBMA website, under the year 1987, states “LBMA established by the Bank of England as an umbrella association for the London Bullion Market.”
‘Established at the behest of“, “set up by” or “established by“, take your pick, but they all clearly mean the same thing; that the Bank of England was the guiding hand behind the LBMA’s formation.
Prior to the formation of the LBMA, and before a change of regulatory focus in 1986, the London Gold Market and London Silver Market had primarily followed a model of self-regulation, but the Bank of England had always been heavily involved in the market’s supervision and operations, especially in the Gold Market. Even reading a random sample of the Bank of England’s archive catalogue material will make it patently clear how close the Bank of England has always been to the commercial London Gold Market. For scores of years, the London Gold Market to a large extent merely constituted the Bank of England and the five member firms of the London gold fixing, namely NM Rothschild, Mocatta & Goldsmid, Sharps Pixley, Samuel Montagu, and Johnson Matthey.
According to the 1993 book, “The International Gold Trade” by Tony Warwick-Ching, a combination of the advent of the Financial Services Act of 1986 which introduced supervisory changes to the UK’s markets, and the growing power of other bullion banks and brokers in the London precious metals market in the 1980s, acted as a combined impetus for the LBMA’s formation in 1987.
As Warwick-Ching stated:
“The LBMA was partly a response to a growing demand of concerns who were not members of the [gold] fixing for a greater involvement at the heart of the bullion market.”
Morgan and J.Aron join the Party
Specifically, according to its Memorandum of Association, the LBMA was formed into a Company on 24 November 1987 by N.M. Rothschild & Sons Limited, J.Aron & Company (UK) Limited, Mocatta & Goldsmid Limited, Morgan Guaranty Trust Company of New York, Sharps Pixley Limited, and Rudolf Wolff & Company Limited. This company is “a company limited by guarantee and not having a share capital”. Given their participation from the outset, presumably J Aron (now part of Goldman Sachs) and Morgan Guaranty (now part of JP Morgan Chase) were members of the ‘growing demand of concern‘ contingent alluded to by Warwick-Ching, who wanted a bigger say in the gold market’s inner sanctum.
The authorising subscribers of the original Memorandum, on behalf of their respective companies were, Robert Guy (Rothschild), Neil Newitt (J. Aron), Keith Smith (Mocatta & Goldsmid), Guy Field (Morgan Guaranty Trust), Les Edgar (Sharps Pixley), and John Wolff (Rudolf Wolff & Company), and they requested that “We, the subscribers to the Memorandum of Association, wish to be formed into a company pursuant to this Memorandum.” The original steering committee of the LBMA comprised five of the above, Robert Guy (Chairman), Guy Field (Vice Chairman), Keith Smith, John Wolff, Neil Newitt, as well as Jack Spall of Sharps Pixley, the father of Jonathan Spall (current consultant to the LBMA). Note that the incorporation filing at UK Companies House for the LBMA is dated 14 December 1987, about 3 weeks after the date listed on the original Memorandum of Association.
As early as April 1988, there were 13 “Market Maker” members and 48 ‘Ordinary’ members in the LBMA. The market maker members had to be ‘listed money market institutions’, which meant that they were institutions listed under section 43 of the Financial Services Act 1986 (on a list actually maintained by the Bank of England) who conducted various transactions, including bullion market transactions, which were exempt from authorisation.
“The Bank of England has been intrinsically linked with the London bullion market since its foundation in 1694.”
“Although the Bank isn’t a member of the LBMA, members of the LBMA hold gold custody accounts with the Bank”
“The Bank’s vaults hold approximately two-thirds of all the gold held in London vaults and as such plays a significant role in the liquidity within the London gold market. Customers are able to buy or sell gold to other customers, by making or receiving book entry transfers, with ownership transferred in the Bank’s back office system… The service provides a very important element of the gold market infrastructure in London, helping LBMA members and central banks to trade in a secure and efficient way.”
A Bank of England presentation to the 2013 LBMA conference in Rome, titled the-bank-of-englands-gold-vault-operations, gives a good overview of the Bank’s provision of book entry transfers to its central bank and bullion bank clients for the smooth running of the London Gold Lending Market, a market which is totally opaque and completely undocumented. In fact the Bank of England sits at the heart of this gold lending market.
As a historical account of the LBMA’s 1987 formation states:
“From the Steering Committee’s inception, The Bank of England, which held responsibility for the supervision of the wholesale bullion market, was involved in the Association’s affairs and assisted in the drafting of the relevant Code of Conduct. Observers continue to attend Management Committee Meetings to the present day.”
This steering committee ultimately became the LBMA Management Committee, and, in the last few months, has become the LBMA ‘Board’. So the Bank of England is, for all intents and purposes, a highly active partner within the LBMA’s governance structure. As a confirmation of this point, at the LBMA annual general meeting in July 2014, the then chairman of the LBMA Management Committee chairman, David Gornall, of Natixis stated in his speech that:
“The LBMA is also privileged in having an observer from the Bank of England on the Management Committee. The Bank’s presence is of inestimable benefit to us.”
As to what inestimable benefit David Gornall was referring to, or in what way a Bank of England observer participates on the LBMA Management Committee, was not elaborated on. Nor can it be gleaned from any meeting minutes from LBMA Management Committee meetings, because such minutes are not made publicly available (See below).
For anyone not familiar with the concept of an observer on a corporate committee or board, it does not refer to someone who just sits there and observes, as the name may suggest. An observer refers to an attendee at the committee / board meetings who actively participates in discussions but who has no voting rights on committee / board resolutions. Observers can and do fully participate in meeting apart from voting. When voting occurs, they may (or may not) be asked to leave the room.
At the LBMA annual general meeting in June 2013, David Gornall, also chairman of the LBMA Management Committee at that time, revealed that not only was there a Bank of England observer on the Management committee, but there was also an observer from the UK financial regulator, the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA), on the same committee:
“The LBMA is also privileged in having observers from both the Bank of England and the FCA on the Management Committee. Their presence is of inestimable benefit to us.”
In fact, there are many such references within various LBMA related speeches. At the LBMA Precious Metals Conference in September 2013, Matthew Hunt of the Bank of England stated:
“More specifically on gold, even though we are not active traders in the market but we are a large custodian, some of the people in our team responsible for gold observationsit on the LBMA Management Committee and the LBMA Physical Committee as observers. Thus we retain a significant engagement with the gold market via that route.”
Notably the Bank of England has a team of people responsible for gold observation, but not for the observation of other commodities such as zinc, lean hogs, live cattle, heating oil, soybeans, sugar, beaver pelts etc etc.
In March 2013, Luke Thorn of the Bank of England, while addressing a LBMA Assaying and Refining Seminar, stated:
“We are not a member of the LBMA, but we continue to play a key role in the London market. We have observer status on the Management, Physical and Vault Committees.”
There are therefore Bank of England observers on 3 LBMA Committees. So, who are these Bank of England and FCA observer representatives? That is not an easy question to answer. There is no mention on the LBMA website’s committee page, and has never been any mention, of any Bank of England observers or FCA observers on the LBMA Management Committee (now Board). Nor are there any published minutes on the LBMA website of any LBMA Management Committee meetings, or the meetings of any of the other five LBMA sub-committees, such meeting minutes as would generally list the attendees of such meetings. More about the lack of minutes below.
Turning briefly to the physical and vault committees, the LBMA website has a listing for its physical committee and does mention that a Bank of England observer called Jennifer Ashton currently is on this committee.
“The Physical Committee is made up of industry experts from the physical bullion market. It is responsible for monitoring, developing and protecting the Good Delivery List and works closely with sub-Groups such as the LBMA Referees and the LBMA’s Vault Managers Working Party”
There is however, no formal listing of the Vault Manager ‘s group as a LBMA committee within the LBMA’s committee listings section. The only informative reference to such a committee on the LBMA web site is in the good delivery rules explained section, which states:
“The Vault Managers Working Group, comprising the Bank of England and representatives from those LBMA members with their own vaulting facilities in London, meet regularly to consider issues relating to bar quality and vault procedures. Vault Managers are required to document every case of bar rejection and provide the associated information to the LBMA Executive”
Who is on this committee from the Bank of England, let alone from any of the other committee member companies is not disclosed.
Turning again to the identities of LBMA Management Committee observers, and going back slightly further to the LBMA Annual General Meeting on 20 June 2012, the Chairman, the omnipresent David Gornall of Natixis London Branch, stated:
“Talking of the Management Committee, let me remind you that we are very fortunate to have observers from both the Bank of England and the FSA on the committee. I would like to thank Trevor Stone and Don Groves for their participation in our affairs”.
From a speech at the 2009 LBMA annual conference by Michael Cross, the then Head of Foreign Exchange at the Bank of England, we learn that the Bank of England’s Banking Services area:
“is where Trevor Stone and his colleagues, who will also be known to many of you, work. The Banking Services area provides wholesale banking and custody services to a wide range of bank customers”
On 30 September 2013, the ever-present David Gornall in another speech, this time to the LBMA annual conference in Rome, had this to say:
“We are grateful for the communication and feedback on our work from regulators, particularly that of own regulator the FCA. We are delighted to be joined by Don Groves of the FCA during tomorrow’s financial market regulation session. Don is a long-time observer on the LBMA Management Committee and we thank him for his participation and continued dialogue on our regulatory questions facing the London Market.”
The next day, on 1 October 2013, at the same conference, Ruth Crowell, the then Deputy CEO of the LBMA (and current LBMA CEO) introduced Don Groves as follows:
“With that, I am going to turn it over to Don Groves from the Financial Conduct Authority. Don is a technical specialist in the market contact area of the FCA’s Market Monitoring Department, where he is responsible for reviewing allegations of market misconduct, including market abuse and insider dealing.
Don specialises in the UK commodity markets and has been in market conduct for a number of years. We are also very privileged to have Don as an observer on the LBMA’s Management Committee.“
Groves joined the FCA in 1999, and left the FCA in March 2015. While his LinkedIn profile has very detailed listings of his duties while at the FCA, there is no reference to the fact that he ever sat on the LBMA Management Committee, which strikes me as odd, unless that is a deliberate omission. A previous version of Groves’ LinkedIn profile states:
“I am considered to be an expert in Market Conduct matters and market abuse in the UK. I conduct project work pertaining to market conduct issues, contribute to the drafting of European legislation pertaining to market abuse and am an experienced public speaker. My main area of interest is the UK’s commodities markets.
Is it not odd that a FCA regulator was a long-time observer sitting on the LBMA Management Committee, but that the FCA has never had anything to say about the London Gold Market. Perhaps it’s because of the following, which gives the impression of a compliant and embedded regulator. As the FT wrote in October 2013 in an article titled “Gold and oil benchmarks face tighter regulation“:
“I don‘t want to give the impression that the UK is picking on the bullion market or anything else,” Mr Groves told the London Bullion Market Association precious metals conference in Rome. “But a consumer focus is what politicians are looking at…so there’s going to be more focus from us as regulators, on consumer issues.”
“However, [Groves]admitted the regulator did not know enough about physical markets and had launched a project to increase its knowledge. “We are going out as the FCA and learning about those markets,” he said.
What exactly the FCA was doing sitting on the LBMA Management Committee remains unclear, because, to reiterate, there are no publicly available minutes of the Committee’s meetings. At a guess, perhaps Groves was “learning about physical markets“, specifically the physical gold market.
Its also relevant to note that the Bank of England and FCA both crop up as observers when the LBMA holds various seminars, such as the seminar it held in the City of London on 24 October 2014 to showcase various solution providers that were competing to provide the infrastructure for the LBMA Gold Price fixing auction competition that was running at that time:
According to the LBMA press release, “Both the Bank of England and the Financial Conduct Authority attended the seminar as observers.”
Where are the LBMA Mgt Committee Meeting Minutes?
Through the Non-Investment Products Code (NIPs), the Bank of England interfaces closely with the UK’s foreign exchange, money and bullion markets. The Bank of England explains NIPs as follows:
“The Non-Investment Products Code
This Code has been drawn up by market practitioners in the United Kingdom representing principals and brokers in the foreign exchange, money and bullion markets to underpin the professionalism and high standards of these markets.
It applies to trading in the wholesale markets in Non-Investment Products (NIPs), specifically the sterling, foreign exchange and bullion wholesale deposit markets, and the spot and forward foreign exchange and bullion markets.”
“Footnote : Co-ordinated by the Foreign Exchange Joint Standing Committee, the Sterling Money Markets Liaison Group and the Management Committee of the London Bullion Market Association”
Of the three, the Foreign Exchange Joint Standing Committee is chaired and administered by the Bank of England. The Sterling Money Markets Liaison Group (now known as the Sterling Money Markets Liaison Committee) is also chaired and administered by the Bank of England.
However, the only tiny piece of information offered about the LBMA on the Bank of England website is as follows:
“The Bullion element of the NIPs Code is being replaced by a new code which will be established by the London Bullion Markets Association (LBMA). Further information on the bullion code can be found on the LMBA website.”
Conveniently, the Bank of England passes the buck back to a web site (LBMA’s website) which is notoriously bereft of any information about the meetings of the LBMA Management Committee, the agendas of such meetings, the minutes of such meetings, and the attendees at these meetings. Why is this opacity allowed by the FCA and Bank of England when the foreign exchange and money market brethren have to submit to published minutes of their meetings, which in many cases involve the same banks and institutions? Could it be that discussion of the London Gold Market is highly secretive and a no-go area, and that the institutions involved have a free pass from the Bank of England and FCA to continue their discussions in private, away from the public eye?
Pièce de Résistance
Arguably, the pièce de résistance of these Bank of England / FCA relationships with the LBMA Management Committee, is the fact that Paul Fisher, the newly appointed ‘independent‘ Chairman of the LBMA Board, formerly known as the LBMA Management Committee, has already previously been the Bank of England’s “observer” on the LBMA Management Committee.
In his speech to the 2004 LBMA Annual Conference in Shanghai, Fisher, the then Head of Foreign Exchange at the Bank of England, while discussing the “Non-Investment Products Code”, a code which regulates the bullion market, the foreign exchange market, and the wholesale money market, stated that:
“In the bullion section, the work is led by the LBMA and the whole is coordinated by the Bank of England. Partly on that basis, I am glad to be invited to the LBMA’s Management Committee meetings as an observer. I’d just like to pay tribute to the professionalism and integrity with which I see the Management Committee operating for the best interests of the global marketplace for bullion.”
One of the more bizarre parts of Fisher’s appointment, in my view, is that when the LBMA announced in a press release last July (2016) that Fisher was being appointed as the new LBMA chairman, there was no mention of the fact that he had previously attended the LBMA Management Committee meetings. One would think that this would be a very relevant when considering the ‘independence’ of the appointment?
On hearing the news on 13 July about the appointment of the Bank of England’s Paul Fisher as ‘independent’ non-executive chairman of the LBMA Board, James G Rickards, the well-known gold author and commentator, tweeted the below, which succinctly sums up the elephant in the room, which the mainstream media chooses to ignore.
This appointment reinforces the link, or bridge, between the two entities, which is now even more set in stone than previously. It’s as if the Bank of England, at this time, has felt the need to put it’s man directly at the head of the LBMA. The timing may be relevant, but in what way is not yet clear.
A forthcoming article looks at this appointment of a former Bank of England Head of Foreign Exchange as the new ‘independent’ Non-Executive Chairman of the LBMA Board, considers what, if anything, is independent about the appointment given the extremely close relationship between the Bank of England and the LBMA, and examines the appointment in the context of the UK Corporate Governance Code, which now governs the Constitution and operation of the LBMA Board.
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.
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